Labor’s ranks crank up the heat for a fightback on state budget cuts

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In New York and Washington, Democratic Party state governors are aiming their budget axes at public-sector unions and the services those workers provide. To stop this wrecking operation will require that organized labor conduct a sustained, all-out battle to demand that capitalists, not workers, pay for the economic crisis. Whether that happens depends on the ability of rank-and-filers to push their unions to actually mobilize a fightback, and to replace leaders who won’t lead.

A Unity Rally shows the way.

In Washington, Governor Christine Gregoire wants workers and the poor to bear the brunt of the state’s $8 billion budget shortfall. The response of labor officials, so far, is to organize lobby days, where each union independently pleads its case at the state capitol. This is a recipe for failure.

However, a ray of hope was provided by Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) Local 304, which issued a call for a Unity Rally. The idea, initially put forth by Pres. Rodolfo Franco, was for labor, students, service recipients, and community groups to come together against the cuts. WFSE 304 held their rally on Feb. 16, Presidents Day, when workers could attend. Their flyer had clear demands such as “Repeal tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy,” and no layoffs or cuts to services.

Students from nearby Evergreen State College, in Olympia, joined the rally to protest drastic tuition hikes. More than 200 people attended, and the diverse crowd included public workers, community groups, students, and unionists. Speakers at the podium expressed outrage at the governor’s plans to cut vital services and let business keep tax breaks, and they called for more action. And many members of other public-sector unions talked about the rally’s importance in providing an example of what their own labor leaders need to do.

Most significant, however, was that WFSE 304 pulled off this rally in spite of attempts by parent affiliate AFSCME Council 28, to discourage WFSE 304 from doing the rally. WFSE 304 leaders were warned that the public and press would be hostile, but WFSE 304’s Executive Board stood firm. Steve Hoffman, a Freedom Socialist Party veteran and WFSE 304 activist, bolstered his leadership’s resolve by stepping up to take responsibility for mobilizing members and community for the rally.

The rally proved AFSCME 28 leaders wrong. WFSE 304 members did get support from the public in their call for unity, and the media picked up their message: Tax big business to pay for vital services. No cuts! No layoffs!

Indeed, the rally was such a success that AFSCME 28 officials did an about-face and decided to also hold a rally in March. This is a step forward, but it will take more than just rallies to stop the cuts. Critical now is more pressure on union leaders to reach out for public support and prepare for work actions to save vital services. WFSE 304 showed that pressure works.

Mass protest in Manhattan.

New York is in an equally dire predicament. With a $15 billion shortfall, Governor David Paterson is promising to gut services and lay off public-sector workers. So is NYC’s mayor, billionaire Mike Bloomberg.

This scenario created enough pressure on union officials to organize a rally on March 5; more than 40,000 people descended on Manhattan for the protest. Rallies were also held in other cities, including the capital, Albany. But the plan for what to do next remains unclear. One rally held by public-sector unions, even of this size, won’t stop cuts. For example, in California, United Teachers of Los Angeles stopped cuts to teacher benefits with an angry protest, but then settled early and rolled over on lay-offs of non-tenured teachers.

To stop layoffs and contract concessions will take a mass mobilization of public and private sector unions, the unemployed, unorganized, and millions of people who rely on public services. Strikes, including general strikes must be in the mix.

As the crisis deepens, sentiment for such action is growing. And The Advocate, a publication of CUNY graduate students spelled out the job ahead in an article entitled “Shut it Down”: “Since almost no city unions [leaders] are willing to risk breaking the Taylor law with a strike, this will require the organizational skills of the rank-and-file members of the city’s unions, from the PSC and the UFT, to the TWU and the NYSUT. Now is the time for the students and workers of New York City to recognize they share the same interests and fight these cuts together.”

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