State budget crises call for a united response by labor unions and communities

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Rickii Ainey, homebound in New Orleans with arthritis, is fighting desperately to keep her Medicaid-funded personal care assistant. Four years ago, she got in-home aid after she tried to commit suicide. Now, the state of Louisiana is planning to institutionalize Ainey, and 11,000 other poor, disabled people as a money saving “solution” to a $1.6 billion budget gap.

Ainey’s story is the tip of an iceberg. Millions of U.S. residents are confronting equally devastating scenarios as states close a collective $140 billion shortfall — by unraveling the nation’s social fabric.

The state budget gaps seem mammoth. In truth, they are chump change compared to what the federal government spends on tax breaks for the rich and bloody military occupations. Obama’s tax cut extensions for the rich cost $68 billion per year. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars another $170 billion. Those billions could save every state.

At the state level, politicians add insult to injury. New Jersey Governor Christie vetoed a tax on millionaires. Wisconsin Governor Walker offers tax breaks to businesses that move to his state, even though it’s broke.

In short, while Corporate America banks near record profits, (an annual rate of about $1.6 trillion) ordinary folks suffer tax/fee hikes, shrinking paychecks, and service cuts.

Organized labor has looked to Democrats to stop this massive theft of wealth from the working class. But both parties are equally guilty. Let’s make the bosses pay for their crisis.

Cuts that kill. A main target of budget cuts is the safety net that helps people of poor and modest means survive. Many programs, already slashed to the bone, now face elimination.

Texas, which already ranks 49th in the U.S. for mental health spending, plans to cut $134 million more. Oklahoma is making more reductions to its child abuse prevention programs. Georgia is downsizing staff who help people apply for food stamps and Medicaid.

Massachusetts dumped a health program for poor immigrants, and cut 6 percent from HIV/AIDS prevention. Kansas eliminated dental services to seniors and people with disabilities. Michigan, with the top unemployment rate, slashed “No Worker Left Behind” by 38 percent. The program enabled 75 percent of participants to find jobs.

Hiking higher-ed costs is another popular move. This, despite tuition costs rising 500 percent from 1983 to 2008! Florida is raising university tuition by 32 percent over two years. In Minnesota, 9,400 students lost financial aid grants.

Public schools are equally under siege. Arizona slashed funding for kinder-garten programs by half and Colorado is spending $400 less per student.

Open season on unions. To hear right-wing pundits tell it, states are bankrupt because of “overpaid public workers.”

Just two years ago, national furor was correctly directed at Wall Street, large banks and big business. But capitalist politicians and news outlets are working overtime to redirect outrage at public-sector unions. This campaign is captured in unionbusting attacks, such as by Ohio Governor Kasich, who wants to ban unionization for 14,000 childcare and homecare staff, and fire state workers who strike. Or Wisconsin Governor Walker who plans to eliminate the right of government workers to form unions.

Neoliberalism is the economics behind this assault. It’s a strategy for maximizing profits for corporations on a global scale, and privatization of public services is key. What better way to accomplish this than to bankrupt government in the process of bailing out big business?!

Democrats and Republicans are “redesigning” government while capitalist economists talk about the “new normal” of “post-recession” America. So far, there appears to be no bottom for how ugly that new reality will be for the U.S. working class. With the politicians and bosses aiming their nukes at the public sector, organized labor has two options: fight or die.

The good news is that labor can still fight and win if it reaches out and builds alliances with the community — now. As the organized expression of the working class, labor has the capacity to mobilize the masses. Likewise, the masses have self-interest in allying with labor.

The American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations spent over $200 million in the 2010 elections to reach 17 million union members. But this money was wasted on Democrats. Imagine redirecting all that energy into building a labor/community alliance to save public services.

Rank-and-file unionists can’t wait for top officials to set this into motion. Leadership must come from the bottom, through worker-radicals of all stripes.

An example of this is in Washington, where Sisters Organize for Survival, a campaign initiated by Radical Women, has petitioned the State Labor Council to “mobilize a mass labor/community rally against budget cuts.” For more info see

Make global revolt the “new normal.” On every continent, workers are using general strikes to combat austerity measures. U.S. labor also has a history of using general strikes to fight, and it’s time to employ this weapon again.

With unions only a fraction of the workforce, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win need to reach the entire working class. A demand to do this is “30 for 40.” Popularized by socialists in the Great Depression, this slogan addresses the lack of jobs. As today’s Great Recession winds on, the demand of 30 hours work for 40 hours pay makes total sense. After all, workers’ productivity has risen 400 percent since 1950.

Some might say that 30 for 40 is too pie-in-the sky. And it’s true that bosses often threaten to move jobs when workers get too uppity. But workers are uppity everywhere these days.

What can put Corporate America on the hook, and win 30 for 40, is a double punch of general strikes on the home front and international solidarity with striking workers in other countries to raise standards globally.

Thanks to work stoppages and mass protests from Greece to Tunisia, 2011 is looking promising. The U.S. has been slow to join this global revolt, but a spark from labor could quickly fire things up.

Nancy Reiko Kato, a University of California employee, can be reached at

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