Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Public sector workers/services are not the cause of the crisis; the market is.

One of the major differences myself and a few others had who participated in Labor management negotiations on behalf of our co-workers was with the approach almost all others took to the process. It was an approach that was strongly advocated by the various layers of the trade Union officialdom.  Their view of the process was that there is a fixed amount of money in the pot that the bosses' allotted for Labor costs.  The two sides meet at the table like gentlemen and haggle over this fixed amount of money.  Basically, the boss determines how much they will give and the workers' representatives figure out how to distribute it.

For a whole period in my own local Union there was a current in the leadership that rejected this view entirely.  Our position was that there was no such thing as a fixed amount of money.  We demand what we need and what we get is determined not through sharp tongued lawyers or "professional" negotiators, but by the balance of class forces.  An active, conscious membership with a strategy, tactics and demands that reached out beyond our immediate workplace in to the communities and to other workers that we as public sector workers served, is what would determine where we ended up.

In my former workplace, a public water utility here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we had four Unions.  Two of these Unions were affiliated to the same national organization, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) . Here in the US we call them Internationals as there are branches of some USA Unions in Puerto Rico and Canada---the rest of the world for some Americans.  The white collar workers were represented by an AFSCME Local and the blue collar local to which I belonged was also an AFSCME affiliate.  This was a perfect situation for the boss as we negotiated separately and our members, where our power lay, were isolated for each other. 

As an example of this false approach, I remember we were caucusing one time and a member of the other Union's team asked us, "Have you told the District (Our employer) your bottom line yet?".  What an absurd question.  "Why would we do that?", a member of our team asked.  Why would we tell the boss that we would accept less than we even had on the table as a proposal?  We explained that we don't know what the bottom line is.  It depends on what we do; how organized and conscious our members are and what tactics we are applying to force our boss to concede; it depends on the balance of forces.  Most importantly, we advocated joint membership meetings and ultimately one united local which would put us in a much stronger position.  The most important thing, more important than the folks at the negotiating table was the membership. Their mobilization and involvement is  the key to winning and you have to have something to say to them for that to happen.

Anyway, the history of those struggles is for another time.  But this disastrous approach, handed down from the strategists of Labor at the highest levels (normally people with academic and university backgrounds) is still applied today.  As public sector workers, our pay, benefits and work environment was undoubtedly better than our brothers and sisters in the private sector.  The general trend is not to broadcast this. Keep quiet.  If we push too hard the boss will inform the working public of our conditions and use it against us.  Of course they will.  They always set one section of the working class against the other; blacks against whites, women against men, blue collar against white and public sector against private. So keep your mouth shut and head down, take the concessions and hope things improve or maybe they'll leave us alone.  Well, as people are finding out, they won't leave us alone.

We saw this played out in the Wisconsin events when 100,000 workers were on the streets of Madison.  It was a great opportunity to go on the offensive, demand more jobs, better conditions, wages and a better pension and earlier retirement so people can enjoy their later years.  But the ideology of the trade Union leadership accepted by many genuine leaders at the lower levels is that society cannot afford this. There should have been a campaign aimed at the unorganized and all workers along these lines, showing clearly that the money is there in society.  We have numerous examples of it on this blog under the wealth or profits label. But ending the wars alone is one example. Instead, all the concessions were agreed to by the Labor leadership and their friends in the Democratic Party and the only issues were the right to negotiate the concession and dues check off where the boss collects Union dues through payroll.  The Democrats are concerned about these two issues as well as they receive billions of dollars from our organizations over the years.

In the mass media the heads of organized Labor are always trying to downplay the idea that public sector workers like myself generally have it better than the private sector. They compete with our enemies arguing about how we are cheaper, more efficient etc. They pit us against our private sector brothers and sisters in a competition for the bosses' favor; who can come the cheapest.  But I can speak from experience that we are better off in general.  That should be a rallying cry to all workers.  Everyone deserves what we have.  Every worker should be able to retire at 45 or 50 if they wish, society can afford it.  The productive power of Labor and the wealth we have created over decades can provide a better life for all.  Instead, it provides more wealth for those at the top and less for everyone else.

Two of the 1 percent's commentators writing in today's Wall Street Journal point to mounting evidence that public sector workers are "overpaid."  We are paid "More than what their skills would merit in the private economy", these pimps of the corporations point out that public sector pension are "More generous than typical private sector plans" .  The progressives and the Union officialdom will no doubt attempt to repudiate this claim.  But it's true.  It's true in my case and most workers know that it's true. The response is not to deny it but demand and fight for its expansion to all workers.  Not to bicker among ourselves as to how we distribute a dwindling economic pie.

Our authors claim that a recent BLS analysis claims that "salary and current benefits of state and local government employees nationwide are 10% and 21% higher, respectively, than private sector employees doing similar work" and that the Congressional Budget Office found that the "federal retirement package of pensions plus retiree health care was more generous..." than the private sector. Great, we want that for everyone and we can use our collective power to shut their profit making machine down in order to get it.

Our authors don't agree. "Basic fairness requires that public employees be paid for their skills at the same market rates as the taxpayers who fund their salaries and benefits", they write.  But the market is not fair.  The basic market rates in Bangladesh----are they "fair"?  And if in the course of the class struggle we raise market rates, we increase the wages of all workers, are they fair then?  If my wages are lower than the market rates will these writers campaign for them to be raised in the interests of fairness? If that were so as it is for many workers, market rates would have to come down, they are now unfair. Rates of pay are never fair for the capitalist class.  Every gain workers ever made was won in the face of the most violent and brutal resistance from the class that these two thugs represent.

The reason these ridiculous arguments can have any influence at all in mass consciousness is the leadership of the working class in this country refuses to challenge them, just the opposite; they accept them. Capitalism is not a fair system.  Unemployment insurance, sick leave, social security (not enough to stay alive on), the 40 hour week, already a thing of the past, all these things were unfair.  We start from what we need and not what they say is fair or acceptable.  We cannot build a powerful united movement that can turn this tide by accepting their view of the world.

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