Hundreds of thousands of public employees are the scapegoats for California’s budget crisis; this writer is one of them. Politicians and media paint our highly unionized workforce as selfish because we protest the state’s attempts to slash our pay, raid our pensions, and eliminate or privatize our jobs.
But every worker should have employer-paid healthcare, a retirement plan, job security, a grievance procedure, and an integrated workplace. By pitting public employees against other workers, the government and their business buddies try to shift the blame for the budget fiasco they created.
If the state were in real danger of financial collapse, the business headlines would be screaming, “World’s eighth-largest economy is bankrupt!” followed by massive federal and World Bank bailouts. The real problem in California mirrors the problem for international capital generally: not enough money to fund pet projects at an expanding level of profit.
It’s a question of basic orientation. Growing unemployment and demands for services means less state revenue. However, instead of cutting their own perks and upping taxes on corporations and the rich, legislators want to end programs for the poor and workers. On the chopping block are teaching positions, wages, childcare funding, and benefits for new legal immigrants through Medi-Cal, the free state healthcare program for uninsured and low-income people.
This policy has already seen a $32 billion cut in state programs over the last two years, with almost half that amount eliminated from education.
Women, especially those who have children, are devastated by service cuts. Also over the past two years, demand for food stamps rose 43 percent; 97,000 more children enrolled in Healthy Families, a low-cost program for children who don’t qualify for Medi-Cal; and the number of people needing help from the state welfare system CalWORKS increased by 18.8 percent.
Meanwhile, raids, checkpoints, and car impoundments serve to blame immigrants, whether legal or undocumented, for the crisis.
This is neoliberalism at home. For Chevron, the result is a record $5.4 billion in quarterly profits. For children in Richmond, most of them Latino and Black, the results are health problems due to pollution from the Chevron refinery and deteriorating schools choked by lack of funds. Environmental racism is alive and profiting in California.
As it axes and privatizes public services, state government is trying to bust the public-employee unions to prevent organized resistance. If it succeeds, it will also gain easy access to the largest pension funds in the country, allowing it to divert billions to its corporate partners.
Management of the University of California Retirement System has already been contracted out, resulting in dismal returns from stocks controlled by business associates of the university regents.
Workers say “basta.” Public employees are rising up. City librarians in Los Angeles, many of them female and of color, are leading the way. They held “story times” on the mayor’s front lawn to demonstrate against his cuts and got parents and children involved in the action. Union workers at the University of California are gearing up for a fight to save their pensions. And the union for UC’s administrative professionals is starting a certification drive for 12,000 unrepresented staff.
With leaders of organized labor focused on Democrat Jerry Brown’s bid for governor, however, rank-and-filers have often had to push their unions to stand up.
When the Los Angeles Times in September labeled district teachers as good or bad based only upon students’ standardized test results, which the Times published teacher by teacher, members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) had to force their leaders to call a protest. In early summer, the Berkeley local of University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE-CWA) voted not to participate in their parent union’s attempt to raid the independent clerical union at UC. Members cited the need for labor solidarity and called for union resources to be spent on organizing the unorganized.
Unite the community and labor. The battle to save public jobs and programs must go beyond the fight for a specific service or issue. Competition for funding for poor and working people is a trap, and organized labor can help resist it.
Unions have an opportunity to build a powerful movement by defending their members and refusing take-backs and privatization. Public-employee unions should use their resources to call for labor/community coalitions to take on the government. The goal would be a movement representing the interests of working-class people in all their guises: students, immigrants, the poor, seniors, people with disabilities, women, people of color and Jews, queers, parents, and veterans.
The blossoming student movement would need to be a key component of this coalition. As schools throughout the state start the new year, students are organizing for an Oct. 7 Day of Action to defend public education. Significantly, the call connects the attacks on education with neoliberal government policies. For more information, contact the Bay Area Freedom Socialist Party at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, a statewide mobilizing conference to defend both education and public services will take place Oct. 30-31 at San Francisco State University. This will be a chance to help build a movement capable of winning affordable education and a quality standard of living for working people and their families. To get involved, visit
To provide this quality of life, more must be done in addition to shoring up public education and reinstating and extending social services for all, regardless of immigration status. Most urgent are a raise in the minimum wage and the creation of new living-wage jobs.
Can these advances be won in this recessionary, anti-worker climate? Yes, if unions and the community adopt the perspective of “by any means necessary”! But to keep these reforms once they are won will require a complete uprooting of the private profit system and its replacement with a society based on human needs: socialism. That’s a California worth dreaming — one in which every resident is educated, housed, and fed, and the nightmare of capitalism belongs to the distant past.
Contact Nancy Reiko Kato, a University of California employee at Boalt School of Law active in UPTE-CWA Local 1, at email@example.com.