By Charles Rachlis and Organian
The authors are California state employees currently experiencing mandatory furloughs, as well as members of Humanists for Revolutionary Socialism.
In his quixotic quest for ways to balance the deficit-ridden California budget without imposing any part of the burden on powerful corporations or the state’s wealthy coterie of campaign donors, Governator Schwarzenegger has targeted the state’s public employees for an unprecedented, massive attack. Between the elimination of paid holidays and the imposition of mandatory furloughs, state employee wages have effectively been cut by almost 15%. Massive cuts in the future state budget for education promise to result in college enrollment cuts, massive layoffs of teachers, larger class sizes, shorter school years, and even school closures. Yet until recently – now that it may well be too late – the unions that represent those employees have largely abandoned their members to suffer, without raising a finger in their defense.
The July 1 Rally – A Case Study in Futility
The largest public workers’ union in the state is SEIU 1000, which has approximately 30,000 members in Sacramento,the state capital, as well as over 120,000 others around the state. On July 1, 2009, SEIU 1000 held a march and rally in Sacramento against the current spate of attacks on California state workers. Even though tens of thousands of SEIU members work within walking distance of the site, and even though it bused in from outside the state capital), SEIU 1000 was barely able to motivate 3,000 members and supporters to participate.
Concurrently with the demonstration, the governor, speaking at a press conference, lambasted state workers and their unions as “special interests,” and then signed an order for a third unpaid furlough day per month. Beyond holding the relatively small demonstration, the unions representing the state workers barely raised a peep at this outrage. Of course, the 3,000 of us on the capitol lawn were hooting and hollering at the top of our lungs, but after a few hours we all went back to the office or got on our buses and left, with less in our benefit package than when we had arrived.
The other state worker unions – CAPS, PEGS, AFSCME, IUOE Local 39 – did nothing to mobilize workers to attend the rally. CAPS released a letter in which they “vigorously opposed” the third furlough day, but when CAPS member Charles Rachlis approached a CAPS executive board member and asked the union to help build the rally, the CAPS official rejected the idea, expressing disdain toward SEIU. He argued that if SEIU couldn’t turn out its own members, why should we (CAPS) mobilize to fill out “their” rally.
None of Rachlis’s emails to the CAPS office or to the other executive board members, suggesting that CAPS mobilize for the demonstration, were answered. About 150 Communications Workers of America (CWA) workers appeared early in the afternoon on the capitol steps, just around the corner from the SEIU rally point. It seemed obvious that the two contingents should merge in a show of class solidarity, but what was obvious to some was ignored by both the CWA and SEIU leaderships, who while on site did nothing to initiate a joint action.
The Legacy of Business Unionism
Why aren’t the public employee unions in California (and other states in similar situations) activating their membership to take militant action to combat these attacks? Are they incapable? Just plain against the concept? Or working for the other side?
In the days leading up to and just after the announcement of the third furlough day, the scuttlebutt around the water cooler was that what we need is a strike. Workers are pissed off, and jawboning about how we need to strike is how folk vent. However, there is no confidence among the workers that our unions have either the strength or intestinal fortitude to build for a strike. Instinctively, workers know what is needed, but we also see that we have no organizational structure capable of fighting. Nor is there any semblance of solidarity developing, which is essential if we are to build for, initiate, and sustain a winning strike. Union activists and staffers quickly cover their inaction with “blame the worker” statements, such as “Of course we need a strike, but if we can’t even get our people out for a picket line or on the bus to Sacramento, how do you expect them to strike?”
It’s time that we look at our organizations to see why they are incapable of building a fighting leadership. The hand wringing we are seeing on the part of the staffers, executive boards and activists who have stood by, watched, and allowed our unions to disintegrate over the years is the conscious expression of the destruction wrought upon organized labor by 50 years of business unionism. Few and far between are members who remember or have learned the story of what it took to win the unions in the first place. For decades, labor has been told by its leaders to build support for Democratic politicians who, despite posing as “friends of labor,” invariably legislate, execute, and administer policies written by and for their true friends in the financial and corporate sectors. Rather than building a fighting workers’ party, preparing rank and file action committees, organizing the unorganized, and building solidarity among different locals and unions, our union “leaders” have told us that their Democratic “friends” would look out for us. So we kept sending them our contributions, worked their phone banks, and supported their candidacies.
What have we gotten in return? The real deal is being exposed now, when we are faced with a world wide collapse of capitalism, and all the Democrats and all the Republicans can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again. The very same politicians who were elected to office with the support of organized labor are telling us that there is no money and that we all have to “share the pain.” Big time liberals in the California Legislature like Mark Leno and Tom Aminano, both of who, climbed the Democratic ladder from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to the State Assembly, can be heard on the radio pushing the anti-worker, anti-union solutions that their caucus put together with uber-worker-hater Governor Schwarzenegger to be presented to the voters on the May 19th ballot, and soundly rejected.
No wonder the workers have lost faith in their unions. All that is left of the fighting spirit of state workers is to bluster boldly by the water cooler, as a mere fraction of the membership answers the leadership’s call to rally at the capitol. Union staff were heard to lament that they gave plenty of notice to workers to come to the rally. Indeed, we got at least three e-mails to mobilize us. What the union staffers apparently don’t realize is that it’s going to take a lot more than a few e-mails to mobilize the fighting spirit of workers who have lost all faith in their leadership’s ability or willingness to fight back.
The intention of this article is not to point to one union and blame it for the lack of leadership. But we cannot understand fully why workers don’t respond to their union’s calls for demonstrations unless we look at some of the concessions and practices some of the leaders of these unions have been party to. For example, they accepted a two-tier medical plan under which new workers have to wait longer to become fully vested. Like all such two-tier plans, this ruptures the solidarity between younger and older workers. Most workers who voted to accept this concession two years ago were not even aware that they were undercutting desperately needed solidarity between the young and the old. When the SEIU leadership cut a deal for one furlough day in the negotiations leading up to the failed May 19 ballot initiatives, they willingly voted to accept this concession despite the fact that other unions, facing the same furloughs, were still struggling (in court) to stop all furloughs. This lack of unity set the stage for the earlier mentioned animosity between CAPS and SEIU. And, of course, the reliance on the courts by CAPS and PEGS as their sole method of opposing the forced concessions did nothing to mobilize the workers to take any organized action greater than calling their legislator or sending a postcard to the governor.
In short, it is clear from the tactics and leadership provided by our unions that they simply are not capable of defending our interests, and are definitively not interested in fighting for workers’ power. Their intention has long been to support the status quo. To that end, they have limited their role, as they have seen it, to negotiating for wage increases that keep up with inflation; preventing givebacks; and supporting only the most gradual reforms, if any. But today they have shown that they are not even capable of those limited tasks.
The Need to Build Inter-Union Rank-and-File Solidarity
If we had a fighting trade union leadership, they would long ago have convened a series of district-wide inter-union rank and file conferences to mobilize workers and prepare our organizations to take united action to defend our quality of life and protect the multitude of vitally necessary social services – health care, education, workplace safety, transportation, parks, home care for seniors and the disabled, the poison hot line, and so forth – that state and local government employees provide to the public at large. But the union bureaucrats are so set in their ways that even the mention of such a concept sends them into apoplectic fits.
It was due to this vacuum of leadership, and the unions’ history of concessions and dependence on politicians and courts, that rank-and-file workers at the California Department of Public Heath (CDPH) Richmond campus came together on their own, in the spring of 2009, to form an inter-union organizing committee. This committee’s purpose is to investigate ways to build solidarity and fight back against the cuts in our benefits, threats of layoffs, and cuts in public services and education. If not for the efforts of this committee, there would not have been a busload of folks from Richmond joining the rally in Sacramento. To be fair, we found one SEIU staffer who took action to support our work. It is our hope that the SEIU leadership allows this honest staffer to continue to advance the work and help us build inter-union solidarity.
At the rally in Sacramento, we distributed 400 leaflets approved by our steering committee calling on state workers to form inter-union organizing committees in every workplace throughout the state. Our bus to Sacramento carried public employees from a variety of state and local unions, including workers from EBMUD (the East Bay water and sewer utility) and the West Contra Costa County School District. The Richmond bus set an example of solidarity which must be repeated ten-thousand-fold if we are to defeat the anti-worker policies of the politicians in Sacramento and their corporate and banker friends who have destroyed the economy.
How to Respond to Teacher Layoffs and Furloughs
Another case study on the need for public employees to build solidarity among different unions, and with their surrounding communities, has been taking place in the West Contra Costa County School District, also centered in Richmond. The school district, not satisfied with merely closing schools and laying off teachers, is threatening to add mandatory unpaid teacher furloughs to its mix of budget-cutting measures.
Parents oppose furloughs 100 percent and do not want any days taken from the educational year. As the school board is forcing the United Teachers of Richmond (UTR) toward a strike, parents and teachers must work together to prepare the community. The governor and his stooges on the school board have thrown down the gauntlet, and we must respond in kind.
In the case of a strike, the kids do not have to get screwed. The way to prevent the kids from getting screwed is for the strikers and parents to occupy the schools. If that is not possible because of the police, then we must create two teams of strikers. Half the teachers, assisted by other trade unionists and parents, must stand guard at the school gates and prevent the entry of scabs. The other half of the teachers must set up assemblies of students and parents in local churches or other buildings that the community will make available to us. In those educational assemblies the teachers can teach the economics of the budget crisis, and the history of labor organizing, to the children. These lessons will allow children to learn math, civics, history, research methodology, and public discourse.
The older students can also take turns on the picket line, and stand with their teachers to demand education for all. They can also form a student council at each middle and upper school, and an inter-school representative council of student delegates. These bodies of student representatives should be involved in all aspects of running programs, giving input, and discussing tactics of the struggle. At the same time, each school should call on its existing parent teacher organization to contribute to the support of the teachers’ struggle, and if the existing organization does not do so, interested parents and teachers, together with older students, should build their own alternative organizations. Having the parent teacher organizations and student council bodies play an active role in support of the teachers’ strike is an essential mechanism for spreading the concept of direct, militant struggle beyond the public sector and into industrial sectors of the working class.
Now is the time to prepare for the strike, to build class unity, and to prepare coordinated actions between teachers, transportation workers, other public workers, and the community, particularly parents and students.
Don’t Share the Pain – Send It Back Where It Came From!
The ruling elite of California are rich beyond our wildest dreams. The governor and the politicians are all in Sacramento to protect the plutocrats’ wealth, not to serve working people. The same fatcat bankers and investors who ruined the economy now want working folk to pay the price for their recklessness and greed. We need to send them a loud and clear message that we refuse! The only way to force the corporations, the billionaires, and all their fat cat stooges to pay for education and social service is to take militant direct labor action – in other words, strikes.
As we have been advocating since the beginning of this crisis, there is a road to victory for working people, students, parents and the recipients of social services. That road is though massive coordinated state wide strike action. The only way for us to win is to defy the Taft-Hartley law that prevents sympathy strikes. We must stand together with one another to support all strikes against furloughs, layoffs, budget cuts, school closures, and other measures designed to force us to bear the brunt of the financial crisis.
On July 10, SEIU 1000 finally got serious, and announced that it is preparing to take a strike vote to oppose the third furlough day imposed by the governor. Let’s force them to stick to their word, and make other public worker unions follow suit. Only militant, unified action can lead us to victory. To prepare, we must immediately convene mass inter-union assemblies of the working class, including not only members of the trade unions but also parents, the unemployed, the poor, seniors, and other recipients of public services. When workers meet and talk, the ruling elite tremble, because their lies will not stand the scrutiny of public discovery.
Forward to mass inter-union assemblies of rank-and-file public workers!
Occupy the schools and state workplaces and keep out all scabs!
For mass strike action throughout the state to save education and social services!