The Internationalist  
  July 2012  

Portland “Community Assembly to Create a People’s Budget”

Why Negotiating the Bosses’ Budget
Doesn’t Work for Workers


Lesson in class struggle: Reynolds teachers struck for five days in May and won.
(Photo: The Oregonian)

By the Portland Trotskyist Study Group

PORTLAND, Oregon – Working people here are under heavy attack, just as they are across the country. Just think Wisconsin. As the capitalist economic crisis drags on, public workers and city services are on the chopping block. Cities and states dish out austerity as a “solution” for shrinking revenue. In fact, as the experience of Greece shows, it only makes it worse. In Portland the cuts being demanded include closures of post offices, cuts to libraries and schools, and cuts to wages and benefits for most public sector workers. In the private sector, millions are out of work and nobody’s hiring. In many protests you hear the chant, “Workers are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back.” But the question is how, and here there are big differences.

Nationally, postal workers have their backs to the wall. Democrat Obama’s postmaster general wants to get rid of 200,000 workers through “attrition” and another 120,000 by layoffs, while closing a third of the nation’s post offices. In Portland, this has meant an uphill battle to prevent massive cuts to postal routes and closures of several facilities. On May 24, a dozen protesters were arrested as they occupied the University Station post office. Now postal union leaders have launched a campaign of hunger strikes to draw public attention. But postal workers have lots of public sympathy. What’s needed is for the workers to mobilize their power to stop the cuts. But you won’t hear the dreaded “s word” (strike) from the present misleaders of labor.

In May, teachers in the Parkrose, Reynolds, and Gresham-Barlow districts of East Multnomah County faced a full-scale assault. School boards demanded furloughs, pay freezes, eliminating prep time and union-busting measures pushed by the Obama administration including getting rid of seniority in layoffs and basing teacher evaluations on student test scores. Teachers rejected the claim that the county was too hard-pressed to maintain teachers’ pay and union rights, and with support from parents and students they were able to stave off the worst attacks. But instead of the Oregon Education Association striking all three east county districts together, teachers in Parkrose (which didn’t go out) ended up making huge concessions, and in Gresham-Barlow the union called off a strike after three hours, telling members to vote for a concessionary contract. In Reynolds, in contrast, the union struck for five days, and won. 

City employees have faced hard bargaining at the table with Portland city hall. After across-the-board 5% funding cuts in each city bureau (except the police) that went into effect in 2009, and a hiring freeze in all bureaus (except the police) since 2010, in the spring liberal Democratic mayor Sam Adams came back to the table with public employees demanding more concessions. The City Council piously announced it “wants your input” and scheduled “community budget forums” to let people blow off steam. But on May 5, a number of labor unions (including SEIU, AFSCME, Laborers and IATSE), community groups, trade unionists, leftists and what’s left of Occupy Portland (after Adams had his police disperse their camp) organized their version in a “Community Assembly to Create a People’s Budget.”

The notion of a “participatory” budget process has been around for awhile. It’s based on the false concept that “the people” can all get together, that the solution is more democracy, when in fact there are fundamental class issues at stake. Most basically, it’s not “our” government but theirs. Suggesting to the bosses’ government how to raise money or what its priorities should be is a dead end. By accepting the framework of budget “constraints,” various sectors try to defend their mouthful of bread. This sets one group of workers against another and makes them complicit in cutbacks. Instead, as the attack on our living standards and cuts to the threadbare “safety net” continue, what’s needed is a “transitional program” of demands going beyond empty reforms in order to turn defensive struggles into a workers counteroffensive against the collapsing capitalist system.

But rather than such a program of united working-class struggle for power, the organizers of the May 5 Community Assembly focused on advising the city government how to better handle the budget. It called for “a city budget and spending proposal that addresses he primary concerns we all share, such as jobs, no cuts to services, housing, transportation, health care, education, etc.” and “putting forth a budget for the 99%.” But it was soon evident that “we all” don’t necessarily share the same concerns. The budget proposal laid out from the front of the room called for “repurposing” funds from the Urban Renewal Fund and Portland Development Commission and “reprioritizing” funding for maintenance vs. new construction, in effect counterposing jobs for public workers and private sector workers.

The idea that everyone except the filthy rich (the “1%” in the language of the Occupy movement) all have the same immediate interests is a populist illusion. Accepting the limits set by capital necessarily leads down the divide-and-conquer path of pitting one section of the exploited and oppressed against another squabbling over supposedly scarce resources. More money for day care or fixing the parks, for building new schools or paying teachers’ salaries? These are phony dilemmas, falling prey to the argument that there isn’t enough to go around. Ultimately it is the logic of the reformist calls for “money for jobs (schools, health care, etc.) not for war,” advising the imperialist rulers to spend money “at home” instead of mobilizing workers to defeat their war on working people everywhere.

What a “People's Budget,” however well intentioned, ultimately does is accept and attempt to rationalize the talk of “hard choices” and “belt tightening” that is being rammed down our throats, day in and day out, by the ruling class, from the bourgeois media to our boss at work. In avoiding terms such as “worker” or “capitalist” that are distasteful to establishment liberals, and calling for a coalition on a lowest common denominator platform, the “conversation” about what we demand is narrowed to what is acceptable to the most conservative liberal. Instead of organizing workers to struggle in their workplaces for control of the means of production in order to reorganize society with a workers government, a People's Budget ends up organizing a broad layer of the community in order beg city hall for a few more crumbs.

While some time was spent on May 5 discussing the giant slush fund that the city had been unwilling to touch, and pointing out that the city of Portland is nowhere near broke, most of the solutions presented were things like taxing “mega apartment complexes,” where landlords would undoubtedly pass the tax on to tenants. Ironically, when the city budget was finally approved on June 3, somehow the mayor miraculously “found” much of the necessary money. The press reported that it came from a “rainy day” fund, which must be pretty large given the amount of rainfall in Portland. They passed over the fact that Mayor Adams also “put off” cost-of-living adjustments for city employees. While assaulting workers’ livelihoods, it managed to avoid many of the supposedly necessary “trade-offs” being proposed at the Community Assembly.

Reformists Up the Columbia River Without a Paddle

In the presentations on May 5, supporters of the social-democratic Workers Action group made elaborate PowerPoint presentations about where the money is (“the 1% has it”) in order to promote their campaign to “tax the rich.” The fact that this is also the program of many liberal Democrats – as well as billionaire financial speculator George Soros – was not mentioned. This call was similar to the Measures 66 and 67 initiative pushed by public sector unions a couple of years ago, which raised a few hundred million dollars before expiring and falling into oblivion. Rather than confronting the system, the reformists fall back on “more democracy,” Band-Aid reforms and yearning for a Keynesian “new New Deal” – “solutions” which will solve nothing.

The issue isn’t that the government is short of cash, it’s that it is the bosses’ government and if it had more tax dollars it would still use them to wage imperialist wars, attack teachers and screw working people everywhere.

One argument used by Workers Action was to compare the Portland Community Assembly initiative to the “participatory budgeting” by the Brazilian Workers Party (PT – Partido dos Trabalhadores) in the city of Porto Alegre. Leave aside that the PT has been governing Brazil for the last decade, ripping up public workers’ pensions and subjecting poor black communities to police terror from Haiti to Rio de Janeiro, the Porto Alegre experience shows just how phony this charade is. As the Liga Quarta-Internacionalista do Brasil has pointed out, “the famous ‘participatory budget’ maintained the wage freeze for public workers and cut back outlays for social programs, but paid off the debt to the bankers” (“Brazil: Lula Against the Workers,” May 2006).

To expose the futility and absurdity of this “people’s budget” exercise, supporters of the Trotskyist Study Group made “modest proposals” for a six-hour workday with no cut in pay, and defunding the entire judicial branch of the Portland city government. Although there was support for these demands from some participants, they were naturally deemed “unrealistic” by the organizers. The same objections were raised by Workers Action in the organizing for May Day. But in that case, the liberal/reformist “tax the rich” scheme was defeated and the call for a six-hour day was approved as an official demand of the May Day march over resistance by the WA which argued these demands were “too advanced” for most workers.

Their ire was directed at supporters of the Trotskyist Study Group, who argued for this demand (as well as for including as official march demands the calls for full citizenship rights for all immigrants and free daycare for all). But in fact, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 156 had passed a resolution to join May Day with the demand “For a six-hour day with no cut in pay.” This put the social democrats in the curious position of casting the carpenters union as “ultraleft.”

While calls for more transparency or democracy in city budgeting may seem unobjectionable, they quickly become skewed by the acceptance of the status quo. With the best of intentions, activists engaged in this process quickly begin bargaining against themselves rather than fighting against the system that produced the economic crisis that got us into this mess in the first place. So rather than being “reasonable,” let’s take a moment to examine what has been necessary in the past to win gains for labor and what it will inevitably take to win in the future.

The great movements that brought us the eight-hour day, the right to union representation, and unemployment compensation were not posed as attempts to advise the government how best to pay for these things. They did not talk about priorities or accept that there is just not enough to go around. These mass movements began when large groups of workers organized together to withhold their labor, and the bosses be damned. They gained momentum as workers recognized that in order to fight their employers, they had to fight capitalism as well, and they took that fight from the factories to the streets. And there they had to face the full force of the capitalist state whose job is to defend the interests of exploiters against those they exploit and oppress.

In his 1938 Transitional Program, Leon Trotsky wrote:

“It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution…. Insofar as the old, partial, ‘minimal’ demands of the masses clash with the destructive and degrading tendencies of decadent capitalism – and this occurs at each step – the Fourth International advances a system of transitional demands, the essence of which is contained in the fact that ever more openly and decisively they will be directed against the very bases of the bourgeois regime.”

As workers are threatened with being cast into pauperism, Trotsky raised the call for a sliding scale of working hours to fight mass unemployment and a sliding scale of wages, an escalator adjusting pay to our calculations of increased the cost of living – not the government’s phony figures – to protect the ravages of inflation. This is the origin of the call for a six-hour working day with no loss in pay. Whether it is “realizable” under capitalism or not depends on the balance of forces in struggle, and such demands point to the need for a socialist planned economy that can eliminate the boom-bust cycles of capitalism and actually provide jobs for all. This is why such demands are anathema to social democrats who only seek to reform this unreformable system.

Although portrayed in media as wild-eyed radicalism, the Occupy movement has been permeated by the bourgeoisie’s “death of communism” ideology. It was striking that the call for the Community Assembly was linked to a diatribe by Soros comparing the present crisis to the “collapse of Marxism” and “end of communism.” Yet what's needed to fight the worldwide austerity offensive, from Greece to Portland, is not penny-ante demands for minimal reforms and more democracy but to challenge the very social system of capitalism that denies poor and working people the rights to housing, education and healthcare, that forces them into wage slavery and ruin at the whim of bosses and their budgets, that produces endless wars and economic crises.

Making demands that simply tweak the existing oppression we face rather than challenging the system that produces it means losing the struggle before we’ve even begun.

 The present misleaders of labor, the union bureaucracy which serves to prop up the dying capitalist order, seek to make deals with the employers and bourgeois rulers (particularly in the Democratic Party) in order to maintain “labor peace” and keep their ranks in line. The wannabe bureaucrats of the social-democratic left try to push a program of reformism when lasting reforms are no longer possible as capitalism rips up one past reform and workers’ gain after another. To actually resist and defeat the attacks we need to oust the bureaucrats and break with the Democrats. The fight is not over priorities but about power, class power. And to wage that fight we need to begin building a class-struggle, revolutionary workers party. ■

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