US: Mass demonstration in New York against budget cuts

Over 50,000 gather to protest attacks on public sector.

United against cuts

On Thursday 5 March, over 10 blocks on Broadway, from City Hall to Canal Street, were filled with workers protesting against budget cuts, at what was called the “Rally for New York”. The demonstration of at least 50,000 (the organizers claimed 70,000) was called by a coalition of unions and community organisations, led by the big public-sector unions, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT, part of the national AFT), the health care workers union; SEIU 1199 and AFSCME District Council 37 (DC 37).

Facing a budget deficit of $14 billion for the coming fiscal year —the biggest in state history— Governor Paterson is proposing massive cuts to state spending on health care, education and other services. Despite billions coming into New York State from the federal stimulus package, there will still be cuts and pressure on workers to make concessions.

New York City also has a budget deficit of over $4 billion. Earlier this year, Mayor Bloomberg threatened to layoff 23,000 workers, 15,000 coming from the Department of Education. This was an exaggerated threat, used mainly as a scare tactic. The federal aid for education seems, at least for now, to have prevented this level of mass layoffs.

Had this threat still been on the table, the demonstration would likely have been much larger. Nonetheless, the tactic laid the groundwork for demanding concessions from the city workers’ unions. For example, Bloomberg is asking for that all city workers pay 10% of their health care premiums (they basically pay nothing now except ‘copayment contributions’) and wants to introduce a Tier 5 pension for new employees, with reduced benefits.

New York City is being hit especially hard with the fallout from Wall Street. Almost 50,000 jobs were lost in 2008 and the 2009 projection is for job losses three times as high. The deepening uncertainty developing as a result of the deteriorating economy in the US, combined with cuts and direct threats to workers, forced the public sector unions to take action, if only to blow off steam and dissipate some of the pressure developing from below.

The main leadership of the demonstration called the action primarily to support legislation called the “Fair Share Tax Reform”, that would increase taxes on the wealthy. There is no doubt that there should be a more progressive tax system. In 2008, in the midst of crisis, Wall Street still handed out $18 billion in bonuses. This year’s state and city deficits could be covered by these Wall Street bonuses alone. However, this particular tax reform, while helping somewhat, would only “reduce the magnitude of the painful cuts.”

Socialists argue that workers are not responsible for this crisis and should not have to pay for it. Instead of talking about “shared sacrifice” and other weak demands put forward by the union leaders, we say there should be no cuts and no layoffs and that the rich should pay for the crisis of their system.

While the rally was officially called for “fair solutions” and tax reform, some of the speakers took a more militant tone, threatening to not vote for those that supported cuts – meaning specific politicians, not the Democratic Party as a whole. Another speaker demanded there be no budget cuts, explaining that cuts were not inevitable. The mood of the workers was clearly hostile to the idea of any budget cuts or givebacks.

Student contingent joins the demo

“No tuition hike! No cuts! No layoffs!” was one of the chants at a student rally held at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), one of the many campuses in the City University of New York (CUNY) public higher education system. “They say, ’cutbacks’, we say, ’fight back!’” was another.

CUNY students are facing big increases in tuition fees, cuts to financial aid and other budget cuts. Socialist Alternative and other left groups played a central role in initiating and organising this high-energy rally, that marched to City Hall to join the bigger union rally. Although lacking an official permit, the 500-strong march spontaneously took the streets with no resistance from the police. This mini-victory contributed to the overall enthusiasm and energy on the student protest.

The student action took place after some smaller protests at other CUNY schools last semester. There have also been two student occupations at two private universities in New York City, in December and February, inspired partly by the recent Chicago factory occupation and Greek student ’sleepovers’. These events illustrate a certain radicalisation taking place amongst students and youth and a growing desire to take action.

The student occupations, however, did not achieve in any real way what the participants were demanding, illustrating the need to build broader support in particular from the organized working class. Even if the 5 March union demo may not have seemed as exciting to the students as their own rally and march, linking the students’ action with the workers’ was important in developing a sense of being part of something bigger and the need for common struggle.

Build the fight-back

This demonstration represented the first mass mobilisation in New York City against cuts in the context of the world economic crisis and was an important first step. It takes place in a period where the US labour movement is at an historic low. Over the last couple of years, activism and workers struggles in the city have been almost non-existent. The last major battle was the 2005 transit workers strike, which ended in defeat and demoralization, as the workers were fined for breaking the Taylor Law, the anti-union legislation which makes public-sector strikes in New York State illegal.

The fact that the media mostly blacked out 5 March could be seen by some as depressing, but it actually reflects the fear of the establishment at the mobilisation of union power on the streets at this time of crisis. The elite is especially concerned that this could herald a new assertiveness by trade unions, facing pressure from below. Unfortunately, the union leadership will mainly see this as an exercise in blowing off steam and will be in no hurry to mobilise their members in the near future.

We could not disagree more. March 5 should not be a one-time event but the beginning of ongoing mobilisations of workers to confront cuts and mass layoffs. Public sector workers will even have to be prepared to defy the Taylor Law at some stage, to clearly demonstrate their collective will to fight back.

Workers must seek to develop their own political voice. The unions backing a “no cuts” slate in the local elections, independent of the two major parties, would have a tremendous impact in rallying thousands of workers behind a campaign to stop the cuts.

The unions should also broaden the struggle and take a bolder stance first demanding that workers not pay for the crisis, but also condemning the bank bailouts and demanding a bailout for working people. We must build campaigns against the cuts, layoffs, and foreclosures, for single-payer health care, for living wage jobs and massive public works programs. These campaigns must be linked together in a general struggle to defend the interests of workers and youth.

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