The Internationalist  
May 2011  
Break from the Democrats and All Capitalist Parties!
Unchain Labor’s Power – Build a Revolutionary Workers Party!

What It Will Take to Defeat the
War on Public Workers Unions

Some of 150,000 demonstrators outside Wisconsin state capitol in Madison, February 26, protesting
law that canceled collective bargaining rights for public sector workers.
(Photo: Yuri Keegstra)

Against Mass Layoffs: Labor and Students, Shut NYC Down!

Across the United States and around the world, labor is under frontal attack by capital. In the worst economic crisis since the last depression, the bankers and capitalists who set it off are trying to make their victims pay. Public sector workers in particular are facing the most serious assault in decades, in many places threatening the very existence of their unions. In Greece, government employees including teachers and railway workers have seen their wages cut by 30 percent, accompanied by mass firings. In France, the age for eligibility for retirement has been sharply raised. In Britain, drastic budget cuts threaten huge layoffs and gutting public services like the national health service. At the same time, workers have fought back with more than a dozen general strikes in Greece over the last year and a half, millions of French workers taking to the streets every week last fall, and most recently a quarter million marching against cuts in London on March 26. But that hasn’t stopped, or even slowed the bosses’ war on the workers.

In the United States, the attack on public employees in Wisconsin is the most notorious: teachers and most government workers have had their right to collective bargaining canceled. Other provisions of the anti-labor law that Governor Scott Walker rammed through the state legislature in March threaten to decimate public sector unions altogether. This marks a decisive moment for unions across the country, equivalent to Ronald Reagan’s destruction of the PATCO air controllers union in 1981. Walker’s attack set off a wave of massive labor protests lasting for weeks, including an unprecedented occupation of the state capitol by workers and students. Nothing like this had been seen in the U.S. in many years. Suddenly, this Upper Midwest state became the unlikely epicenter of  world class struggle. Everywhere in the U.S. workers intensely followed the struggle in Wisconsin, caravans drove to Madison to join the protests. Declarations of support came from unions from as far away as Egypt and Iraq.

Meanwhile, anti-labor bills have been steaming through numerous state legislatures. On March 30, the Republican governor of Ohio signed a law even more draconian than Wisconsin’s canceling collective bargaining rights for public employees and allowing employers to impose contracts. But it’s not just Republicans. Late last month, the Democrat-controlled Massachusetts House approved a bill eliminating collective bargaining on health and welfare issues. In New York, the legislature enacted a budget from Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo that includes $271 million in cuts for New York City schools and $107 million for the City University of New York. Last week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled his budget for New York City including $300 million in cuts from the schools budget and the elimination of more than 6,000 teachers’ jobs, 4,500 of them through layoffs. It would also take another $51 million from childcare for low-income workers. Naturally, neither state nor city budgets cut a dime from the  police.

On May 12 a demonstration has been called by a “Strong Economy for All Coalition” sponsored by NYC and state unions (including UFT, PSC, SEIU, 1199, 32BJ, CWA, Municipal Labor Committee, Central Labor Council, NYSUT, NY state AFL-CIO) as well as several “community” groups including Make the Road and Communities for Change (formerly ACORN). Billed as “the day Wall Street stood still,” there will be a march from City Hall to the financial district (after the markets close) and a multi-form “teach-in” by various unions in the world center of high finance. But while the protest is fueled by anger over the mayor’s announced layoffs and city and state budgets that take from the poor and give to the rich,  the political message from the organizers is to support the Democratic Party – the same Democrats, from President Barack Obama and Governor Cuomo on down, who are spearheading the bipartisan capitalist attack on public workers’ unions!

Bureaucrats and Democrats, ticket for defeat. UFT/AFT presidents Michael Mulgrew (in blue shirt) and
Randi Weingarten march with Democrats Robert Jackson (left, with sign), John Liu, Al Sharpton and
Charles Barron.
(Photo: nycppl.com)

A recent column in the Daily News, reproduced on the Coalition web site, states that the May 12 rallies aren’t only about building opposition to Bloomberg’s budget, “but also about setting the stage for the next mayoral election.” It quotes David Birdsell of Baruch College saying, “There hasnt been a really kind of strong, Democratic unionist argument for the way the city should run.” But what is the “Democratic unionist argument”? In the 2009 mayoral election, some unions supported the Democratic candidate, NYC comptroller Bill Thompson, while others (such as the United Federation of Teachers under Mike Mulgrew) sat it out. This pro-Bloomberg neutrality didn’t get teachers a contract. But Democrat Thompson was hardly a “friend of labor,” coming out against a 4 percent raise for teachers. In the 2010 election for governor, the UFT didn’t back Democrat Cuomo because of his attacks on teachers unions. Instead, it shoveled COPE dollars to the Working Families Party … which endorsed Andrew Cuomo for governor.

For starters, the Coalition accepts the fiction that there is a budget gap that has to be covered. This is simply a lie, and should be exposed as such (see “What Fiscal Crisis?” in Revolution No. 8, April 2011). New York City is actually running a surplus of over $3 billion and growing, far more than the threatened cuts. Why? Because while working people are still facing massive unemployment (over 17 percent when you count the jobless workers who are simply eliminated from the workforce in government statistics), the Wall Street bankers are making money hand over fist, and with the huge bonuses being paid out, even the low tax rate on the rich is bringing in hundreds of millions. To cover the fictitious budget gap, the Coalition is calling to “make the big banks and millionaires pay” by reinstituting the so-called “millionaire’s tax” that Cuomo and the Democrats in Albany just eliminated. This “tax the rich” ploy pushed by liberal Democrats, labor bureaucrats and reformist leftists won’t do a damn thing to stop the attacks on the unions.

Taxing the rich is fine by us, but even if Bloomberg had billions more in city coffers, he would still be pushing for thousands of teacher layoffs. The billionaire mayor is out to eliminate seniority and teacher tenure, which would spell the end of the union. He wants to build support for this union-busting plan by raising the spectre of mass firings of the younger teachers he has brought in who are touted in the big business press as better than experienced, union-conscious teachers. Besides, they’re cheaper: a principal can hire two first-year teachers for the price of one 20-year veteran. All three major NYC dailies are on the warpath, running articles bashing teacher seniority. But it is everywhere the case that teachers when they start out are far less effective educators than after they have a few years experience; most of the new hires are gone after five years; and without seniority job protection, administrators can ride roughshod over teachers’ rights. Which is exactly what Bloomberg and the other corporate “education reformers” want. Class-struggle militants must defend all teachers jobs, demanding the union use its power to ensure there are no layoffs.

The teacher layoffs are union-busting, pure and simple. It is an attack by capital on labor. But the labor bureaucrats refuse to fight it head-on. They accept the lie pushed by the bourgeois press that unions are unpopular with “the public.” Yet the experience of Wisconsin showed that when labor demonstrated day after day, “disrupting” business as usual for weeks on end to stand up to Governor Walker’s anti-labor plan – in short, the minute the unions started acting as unions instead of one more lobby group, their popularity shot up, with over two-thirds of respondents in opinion polls defending the unions. The labor chiefs avoid talking about the working class, because again they buy into the bourgeois lie that the “American people” are afraid of anything that smacks of class politics. They keep saying it’s about the middle class, but the large majority of working people aren’t middle class by any measure, they’re barely making ends meet and they want a leadership that defends them and their interests.

The bottom line is that the labor misleaders support the capitalist system, and today the entire capitalist class is waging war on workers. The union tops will give up anything to get a “seat at the table,” but even in the best of times the working people they supposedly represent only get a few of the crumbs. Today, as has been the case for the last several decades, workers are being told to give back what few gains they have made. Because these labor “statesmen” are beholden to the system of production for profit, they will even preside over the destruction of the organizations they sit atop, as occurred with many American unions in the 1980s and ’90s. In Europe, with its long tradition of class struggle and (reformist) workers parties, union leaders at least know how to fake it when forced by pressure from the bosses and resistance from the ranks, which is what they did last year. Most U.S. union bureaucrats, on the other hand, have never seen a serious class battle in their lives and wouldn’t have a clue about how to wage one even if they wanted to, which they don’t. The labor tops fear class struggle like the plague just as European social democrats in World War I feared revolution.

Lesson of Wisconsin: Break with the Democrats!

Class Struggle Education Workers, Internationalist Group and CUNY Internationalist Clubs in March 24 rally at NYC City Hall. (Internationalist photo)

The current war on the workers is part of a global counterrevolutionary offensive by capital that has been going on for the last three and a half decades. With profit rates falling sharply in the mid-1970s and labor militancy on the rise (1969 GE strike, 1970 postal strike, auto walkouts in the early ’70s, followed by coal wildcats in the middle of the decade), as soon as the U.S. rulers were able to get rid of the albatross of the Vietnam War, even at the cost of accepting defeat, they unleashed an offensive against the unions. Although many date this to 1981 with the victory of Ronald Reagan, thus making the Republicans the enemy, in fact it began with the bank-engineered 1974-76 “fiscal crisis” in New York, and it was Democratic NYC mayor Abe Beame and Democratic New York governor Hugh Carey who got sellout labor leaders like Victor Gotbaum to sacrifice union gains. Then, as now, the labor bureaucrats’ ties to the Democrats and loyalty to the capitalist system got them to sacrifice their members’ interests.

The attack on labor escalated under Democrat Jimmy Carter, who drew up the plan to bust the PATCO air controllers that Reagan eventually implemented. It was an international offensive of capital: just as the government and bosses were destroying U.S. unions (Greyhound, Hormel and others), Margaret Thatcher smashed the strike by British coal miners in 1984-85. At the same time, the imperialists were stepping up the pressure on the Soviet Union, attacking it on its southern flank (Afghanistan), escalating the arms race (Star Wars) to force the USSR to spend more on the military, and tightening the economic screws on East European countries that had been borrowing from Western banks. In the end, the Stalinist misrulers of the Soviet Union and East European simply handed over the bureaucratically degenerated and deformed workers states to the capitalists, so committed were they to seeking an impossible “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism that they were incapable of waging class struggle.

In the course of the counterrevolution that brought down the Soviet bloc, President George Bush I proclaimed a “New World Order.” U.S. rulers attacked Iraq in 1991, Yugoslavia in 1995 and again in 1999. The French ruling class went after public workers pensions in 1995, but had to temporarily back off when they were met with mass labor resistance. Since the turn of the new century there has been almost continual imperialist war (Afghanistan, Iraq, now Libya) and since the economic crisis burst in 2008, a renewed assault on the unions. The capitalist politicians claim they have to lay off workers, force employees to pay for health care and rip up pension plans because they have to pay more than $3 trillion for the bank bailout, and almost $1 trillion a year for their wars. The lesson is that all attempts to combat this onslaught with “normal” business unionism (backroom deals, lobbying the Democrats, etc.) are doomed to fail. The global capitalist offensive can only be thrown back by undertaking revolutionary class struggle.

And that is something the present labor leadership cannot deliver. For proof, all you have to do is look at the example of Wisconsin. Repeated mass mobilizations of more than 100,000, occupying the state capital, sickouts by teachers that shut down schools in Madison, Milwaukee and elsewhere. Everything was building toward a frontal collision between an energized union movement and a widely despised right-wing governor. By February 21, the Madison-area South Central Federation of Labor voted a motion to “endorse a general strike, possibly for the day Walker signs his ‘budget repair bill’.” There hasn’t been a general strike in the United States, even on a local level, since 1946, so this was important. But what happened? D-Day came and went, but nobody walked out. The SCFL and Wisconsin AFL-CIO were so worried that things could “get out of hand” – that is, they so feared their own membership – that instead they diverted the protests into the electoral effort to recall Republican state senators (and elect Democrats in their place).

The Democrats, meanwhile, had promised to vote for all the givebacks that the Republican governor was demanding, amounting to a wage cut of 8-10 percent for most state workers. They wanted to keep the shell of the unions, so that labor could continue to fund the Democratic Party. And the union leadership was so desperate to keep their dues base, real estate and other perks of class collaboration that they were willing to give up everything as long as they had a seat at the bargaining table. So here we had this huge labor mobilization in Wisconsin, tens of thousands chanting “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” mass popular support, and what is the result? Litigation in the capitalist courts, which amounts to delaying tactics, and voting for capitalist politics. As long as labor is trapped in the shell game of bourgeois politics it will suffer defeat after defeat. That is why the pro-capitalist union bureaucrats who chain workers to the capitalist Democrats must be ousted and a new leadership forged on the program of hard class struggle.

That means fighting the capitalist offensive not on a narrow “labor” basis, but as part of a broader class fight. The workers movement must become the champion of all the oppressed. The demonstrations in Madison were noticeably white, even more so than the state’s population. And that is because there was no mass participation from Milwaukee, where there is a large African American, Latino and immigrant population, and where Scott Walker was county executive for eight years before becoming governor. Black parents were up in arms by the cuts to BadgerCare, a state-level health insurance program for children and low-income families that Walker’s budget would slash, but this was not highlighted in the protests. A class-struggle leadership would call for free medical care for all, which would also counterpose it to Democratic president Obama’s health care “reform” that is a bonanza for the insurance companies.

Another key issue was the role of the police. Many union leaders, and even some leftists (notably Socialist Alternative), highlighted the “support” for the labor protests from some sectors of the police. But the police are not part of the workers movement, they are the armed fist of the ruling class and a key pillar (along with the courts and military) of the capitalist state. The cops are no friends of oppressed racial and ethnic groups, whose neighborhoods they patrol like occupied territories. Praising the police could only create distrust among black youth and others. This is also true of the Latino population, immigrants in particular. Dane County sheriff David Mahoney got a lot of praise for pulling his deputies off of duty at the Capitol declaring they would not be “palace guards” for the governor. But for the past several years, Mahoney has been notorious for handing over immigrants picked up for traffic violations to the ICE immigration police. So as one longtime left-wing activist from the Madison area put it, they wouldn’t be “palace guards,” instead they would act as border guards!

Some immigrant groups did participate in the protests, but to get a really massive turnout of thousands, there should have been demands that the police stop handing over residents to la migra. It should also have been highlighted that the Republican majority in the state legislature planned to introduce an Arizona-style anti-immigrant law that would empower police to stop anyone they suspected of being an “illegal immigrant,” i.e., anyone who “looks Mexican.” There is a long history of immigrant labor struggles in the Wisconsin area going back to the 1960s, and to defend immigrants would have received tremendous support. In fact, tens of thousands of Latinos, blacks and white workers did come out for the May Day march in Milwaukee which addressed immigrant rights. Immigrants in Wisconsin are particularly sensitive to the threats to their very presence because this is the home state of Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner who was the main sponsor of the notorious HR 4437 bill calling for deportations of millions of undocumented workers, and which sparked the massive immigrant worker protests and walkouts on May Day 2006.

A class-struggle leadership would demand that the government and corporations “open the books” to inspection by workers committees, so that the public can see for itself the fraud of the supposed deficits that are being used to justify attacks on the unions. In New York they would also see how the capitalist legislators of both parties have systematically failed to budget money for pension funds, leading to the looming crisis over workers’ retirement. Instead of lobbying Democrats over limiting cutbacks and givebacks, it would demand a massive program of public works, at full union wages and under union control. Against mass unemployment, a fighting union leadership would call for a shorter workweek, with no loss of pay. It would prepare to defend its picket lines with labor defense groups. It would call for expropriation of the banks by a workers government. And it would call for strike action by all public sector workers to prevent layoffs. Faced with Bloomberg’s present threats to fire thousands of teachers, we say: labor and students, shut NYC down with a citywide strike!

In New York state, that would mean smashing the Taylor Law, which makes strikes by government employees illegal, orders huge fines against unions and strikers, as well as jailing of union leaders. This vicious anti-labor law can be shredded, but it will take united action by the most powerful unions to do it. And that means breaking with the Democrats and ousting the pro-capitalist bureaucrats. The union tops actually support the Taylor Law, because they want the dues check-off and other arrangements of institutionalized class collaboration which the law affords in exchange for banning strikes, which they have no intention of waging in any case. To fight this requires serious preparation and mobilizing the most powerful unions. When Transport Workers Union Local 100 struck the NYC subways in 2005, it was 100 percent effective in shutting down the subways and buses. However, it didn’t shut down the suburban rail lines (LIRR, Metro-North and PATH): even though unions there said they would respect picket lines, no pickets were dispatched. Above all, the TWU was left to fight alone by the rest of NYC labor.

Finally, and centrally, it is necessary to build a revolutionary workers party, to fight for a workers government. Not a reformist, electoral party like the Labour Party in Britain, whose main role is to keep the militant union ranks in check, but a party that can actually lead the class struggle, in the plants and on the streets, and where engaging in campaigns in the bourgeois elections, uses those as a platform for revolutionary agitation. Such a party would fight for an internationalist program, including full citizenship rights for all immigrants, and for workers to take power internationally. This is not pie in the sky, bye and bye, but something that many of the most conscious working people readily understand. In Wisconsin, while the right-wing Republican governor imitated Reagan’s busting of PATCO, the labor demonstrators occupying Capitol Square in Madison saw themselves as following the example of the Egyptian protesters in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Cairo. If the Egyptians can topple the dictator Hosni Mubarak, they argued, we can bring down the dictator Scott Walker.

But while the Egyptian workers did oust the dictator Mubarak, the whole apparatus of the military-based dictatorship is intact. And while working people demonstrated in the hundreds of thousands in Wisconsin, Walker is still pushing through his union-busting program. “Resistance” is not enough, it is necessary to fight for workers revolution, from Egypt to Wisconsin. Certainly in New York City, the very heart of international finance capital, it should be evident that so long as real power remains in the hands of the Wall Street banks and stock markets, the working people who make the economy run will always be under attack. Understanding the need to mobilize our power against all wings of the ruling class is key to defeating the capitalist war on the workers and opening the way to a workers government that will expropriate the expropriators, and make possible a socialist society of abundance for all.

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com