On the picket line
January 2, 2004 | Page 11
Wisconsin state workers
MADISON, Wis.--After more than a decade of stagnating wages under former Gov. Tommy Thompson, many Wisconsin state employees thought that the election of a Democratic governor would mark a change. Reality has been a bitter pill.
Thompson moved on to become the Bush administration's Secretary of Health and Human Services, but Gov. Jim Doyle has kept up the attack on the wages and benefits of 38,000 unionized state workers. Doyle's die-hard defenders in the labor movement say that he's got no choice--given the state's $3.2 billion budget deficit and Republican control of the state's Senate and Assembly.
But Doyle campaigned on the promise to eliminate 10,000 state jobs and outdid Republican demands for $20 health care co-pays by calling for $25 co-pays for individuals and $62.50 co-pays for families. In response to the politicians' frontal assault on wages and benefits, the many union leaders representing state workers pledged to coordinate bargaining.
But the "coordinated" demand of union leaders accepted the need for health care concessions and a pathetic wage increase. For example, Marty Beil, the executive director of AFSCME Council 24, made a counter-proposal that amounted to a 1 percent raise for each year of the two-year contract after taking into consideration the health care concessions.
When the Doyle administration threatened to use anti-union tactics like letting the Republicans take away our right to bargain health care and ending the extension of our old contract, unity between the unions began to break down. From mid-November to mid-December, seven unions decided to settle for whatever improvements AFSCME Council 24 could negotiate in their contract.
The first move to fight for something more came from activists in AFSCME locals at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) and the Teaching Assistants Association, which represents UW graduate students. In early December, 200 people rallied at the State Capitol on a frigid night, calling for "health care reform and affordable education, not more tax cuts for the rich."
While the Doyle administration pleads poverty, it has done nothing to reverse years of tax cuts and loopholes established by previous Republican administrations. These loopholes made it possible for nine corporations in Wisconsin to deduct $6.8 billion in royalties paid to subsidiaries in other states from their Wisconsin taxes and for 11 of Wisconsin's 15 biggest banks to pay no corporate taxes in 2000.
At the same time, corporate welfare runs wild in the state. A multimillion-dollar jobs creation program, for example, was recently expanded even though it had a minimal impact in actually creating jobs.
Shoveling millions to corporations may not benefit the state's workers, but it does help Democratic and Republican politicians repay their corporate backers. The only way that is going to change is for state workers to get organized and take action to make our situation a "priority" that the politicians can't ignore. That is not going to happen by skillful bargaining and lobbying, but through rank-and-file action.
Metropolitan Transit Authority
NEW YORK--Despite a months-long grassroots campaign, New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) approved a budget with millions in cutbacks on December 18. Dozens of unions members, community activists and local elected officials packed the public hearing at the MTA's headquarters in midtown Manhattan for a contentious fight over jobs and services.
The MTA will eliminate 486 jobs through attrition and redeployment, including dozens of bus cleaners, graffiti removal teams, platform conductors, bus dispatchers and travel information agents. Another major issue in the budget battle is the MTA's plans to cut 22 elevator operator jobs, raising big concerns about safety and accessibility in areas with subway tracks over 10 stories from street level.
After a massive fare hike in May 2003, the MTA pledged no service cuts. The union contract, however, lost its no-layoff clause--a major setback for workers fighting to hold onto jobs on the heels of a recession.
"It's obvious we were shortchanged in contract negotiations [last summer]," Richard McKnight, a chairperson in Transport Workers Union Local 100, told Socialist Worker. "We were lied to. There were two sets of financial books and a $523 million surplus. All this contributed to my decision, and others too, to put my foot to the MTA where the sun doesn't shine. There's no doubt there'll be a contract confrontation in 2005. With an $845 million deficit, they've set the stage in a way they haven't done in my 19 years of service."