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Crisis in California:
What's the solution?

June 24, 2005 | Pages 8 and 9

THE GOVERNATOR came into office thinking he could escalate the attack on working people in California. But Arnold Schwarzenegger has run into a wall of resistance--rising anger and protests over his attacks on pensions, health care, education and more.

Once considered one of the most popular politicians in the U.S., Schwarzenegger's approval ratings now run below George Bush's. Still, the drive to make workers pay for California's multi-billion-dollar budget crisis will continue--led by both Republicans and Democrats.

PETER CAMEJO was Ralph Nader's running mate in his 2004 independent presidential campaign. Before that, he ran twice for governor of California as the Green Party candidate, winning the highest number of votes of any Green Party candidate in the country after Nader. In the 2003 recall election, Camejo was included in the televised debates between the major candidates--and was widely acknowledged to have beaten Schwarzenegger and the Democratic candidates with his anti-corporate, pro-labor, pro-environment proposals.

Peter is a featured speaker at Socialism 2005 on July 1-4 in Chicago, where he will speak on "How Do We Solve the Crisis in California?" For more about information about this event, go to www.socialismconference.org. Here, he talks to Socialist Worker's ALAN MAASS about California's crisis.

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CAN YOU talk about the scale of the crisis in California?

THE CRISIS that exists now in California was created by the Republicans and Democrats.

What they did was dramatically lower the taxes collected from corporations and the wealthy. The actual amount now taxed from the wealthiest people in California--the wealthiest 1 percent, who have incomes equal to 75 percent of the people of California--is at a rate which is substantially below what it's been for the poorest people.

The poor in California--that is the bottom 20 percent--pay a 57 percent higher tax rate than the richest 1 percent. The poor pay 11.3 percent of their income in state and local taxes, and the wealthiest 1 percent pay 7.2 percent. And even that figure is slightly exaggerated because the official figures don't calculate capital gains in a manner that's really appropriate.

Twenty or 25 years ago, the taxes of the corporations used to be close to 10 percent. Today, their taxes are below 6 percent. That's a 43 percent drop in the taxes they're obligated to pay. Fifty-two percent of the corporations in California that are profitable pay no taxes. They pay only an $800 annual fee.

This has created a deficit along with a shift of money from the poor to the rich, and the way that the Democrats and Republicans are trying to overcome this is by increasing taxation on the average person.

They've increased what you pay to cross bridges--from $2 to $3, a 50 percent increase. They increased community college fees by 100 percent. They've increased college tuition by about 30 to 40 percent and plan for the next two years to increase it by about 10 percent per year.

On the other hand, they're cutting back essential services. Education is the most extreme case. According to the tests done throughout the country, California came in 48th out of the 50 states.

Forty or fifty years ago, California was considered to have the best education system in the United States and was the envy of the world. It had free education at the University of California system. Now you have to pay substantial tuition at the University of California, and the schools are falling apart. California is now only ahead of Mississippi and Louisiana.

The right wingers claim that this is in part due to a large number of immigrants, who come across the border from Mexico primarily. But according to a study, if you factor out the immigrants, California comes in 50th in the nation--the immigrants are actually holding California up. That study was reported at the state annual conference of the in the California Budget Project--which said to the shock of the people listening that California had fallen to 48th.

Part of the reason for this is that wealthy people--people with higher incomes--are now sending their children to private schools. For instance, in the city of San Francisco, 30 percent of young people go to private schools. So people with money are no longer interested in public education, and they oppose funding it to the extent that's necessary.

In 1960, there were 15.7 million people in California. In 2003, there were 35.4 million. If you look at the rise in gross domestic product (GDP), it rose much faster than the growth in population. Today, there's more money per person in California than there was in 1960--yet our education system is collapsing.

This is a direct result of policies that are aimed at lowering taxes for the wealthiest people. The profits of American corporations in the last two years are the highest when measured as a percentage of GDP than at any time in the history of the United States. Part of that is due to the U.S. government deliberately permitting the value of the dollar to drop. Since most international corporations now do a lot of business abroad, this creates a jump in their profits. But it actually lowers the standard of living of the actual working person.

In the New York Times, the journalist David Cay Johnston pointed out that since 1980, the share of income of 90 percent of the people in the United States has declined--in one of the periods of the greatest rise in GDP in the history of the United States.

What this shows you is that this divergence between what's happening to the wealthiest people and what's happening to the mass of the people in the United States is not accidental. And this is happening across the whole nation--California is not the worst. California is in the upper end in terms of how regressive its taxes are, but many states are even worse.

AFTER WINNING the recall election, Arnold Schwarzenegger has seen his popularity plummet--particularly as a result of labor-led campaigns to protest his policies. How has this opposition developed?

THE TRUTH is that there's an enormous vacuum. The fact that working people in California have accepted lower pay in the midst of a massively rising economy is quite unusual in American history. If you go back to other periods, you will see a rise in the standard of living of working people pretty much running parallel to the rise in the GDP. And the unions were quite aggressive in fighting for it.

But now, it was only when the Republican became governor and when the California state government wasn't totally in the hands of the Democrats--which it was before Schwarzenegger--that the unions even began to do anything about this.

Yet since they have begun this--especially the California Nurses Association, which is led by more progressive leaders--there has been an enormous response and a very sharp drop in the governor's popularity.

Part of what happened, I think, is that the corporations and the lobbyists who run California overplayed their hand. They thought that they could move to end pensions in California. That's what Arnold actually proposed to do. People don't always realize this, but that's what his proposal was--to end a guaranteed pension benefit by law, according to a set formula.

The governor also attempted to change the rules for when teachers get tenure, and to treat their pay as if it was the private sector. So teachers wouldn't be guaranteed their pay, but it would depend on test results, which in many cases are completely beyond the control of teachers, because of socioeconomic reasons and so on.

This is all an attack on working people. And Schwarzenegger overplayed his hand. His popularity is dropping. But the Democrats have no real counterproposal. The only thing they've said so far is to talk about some very minimal increases in taxes on the rich.

But in other cases, they've joined in on the attack--even progressive Democrats, like [State Assemblyman] Mark Leno, who is generally doing good work, especially on the rights of gays and lesbians. Leno has proposed increasing taxes on the poor by re-establishing the car tax, which was abolished. This is a tax that effects primarily the poor.

It's similar to the national situation with George Bush's tax cuts. No one challenged those either. The Democrats went along with the Republicans because they fear the reaction from the corporate world and from the lobbyists who finance their campaigns.

ONE OTHER factor in the crisis has been a polarized atmosphere in which the right wing gets more of a hearing. Can you talk about the attack on immigrant rights in California?

THERE IS a very important campaign now against the rights of immigrants. It's popular among the public and among many working people, who accept these attacks against undocumented workers--as somehow responsible for the problems we see.

The politicians making these attacks on immigrants have absolutely no intention of stopping undocumented workers from living in California. From George Bush down to the lowest-level Democrat and Republican, not a single politician has come out publicly and said, "Let's round up 11 million people and deport them." So it is very odd that they continue to refer to people as being illegal and do negative things to them, like deny them drivers licenses, while they all insist that undocumented workers remain in the country.

This becomes a violation of the United Nations Human Rights charter. You cannot have people living in your country that you accept as being part of your community who do not have equal rights. This is creating a second-class grouping, and it's obviously being done to continue to super-exploit them and to make them the scapegoat for social problems.

Now in the case of Mexicans, the contradiction is rather extreme--because the people who are making statements against Mexicans are primarily people of European descent. And if there's one group of people who came to America illegally--without any visas or any rights or anything that justifies them coming into America and taking it--it's the Europeans.

Every state in the Southwest, including California, was once part of Mexico. The people living in this area never chose to become part of the United States. It was militarily occupied and conquered, and the people who lived here were denied their rights. They were often disenfranchised. And there was actually a program in California--organized by the Democratic Party, back in the 1860s--in which people were actually paid to kill indigenous people.

Today, these immigrants are descendents of the indigenous people of this continent. From their point of view, all they are is refugees from poverty. It's very important to deal with this for there to be any unity inside the working class to rebuild the unions. If the unions don't defend immigrant workers, this division will weaken all workers and will lead to the lowering of the standard of living.

Globalization is a massive economic fact which, unless the labor movement can politically defend itself, leads to a lower standard of living in all the advanced countries. Which is what happened in the United States, because the labor movement has no political arm.

This has to be fought politically. It can't be fought at the level of the factory or the industry, through strikes or demonstrations. Labor must fight for political power to be able to protect its standard of living--and have policies that help raise the standard of living in Third World countries, so that the divergence of income is not so immense.

COULD YOU talk about your campaigns for governor and why, though running a third-party campaign, you were still able to get your ideas out and build a groundswell of support?

I WAS the first person in American history to be in a nationally televised political debate from a political party to the left of the Democratic Party. It's an interesting statement of fact that this had never occurred before in American history.

The response was overwhelming. On very basic issues, people just never get to hear a pro-labor, pro-environment, pro-peace politics.

In a poll taken by the San Francisco Chronicle after the debate that was listened to by the most people--in fact, the debate that was listened to by more people than any in U.S. history--I came in first at 34 percent. Arnold Schwarzenegger came in second at 26 percent, and then it dropped off from there. Of course, this wasn't reflected in the vote, because of our electoral system, which is one of the most reactionary in the world.

However, that victory was during a peculiar election. We don't know if we can repeat being included in televised debates. I think that the Democrats will try to close the door on this, and that there will be an attempt to bar the Green Party from being in televised debates--as has always happened to Ralph Nader during his presidential campaigns.

But what we should learn from this is that what candidates like myself and others throughout the nation are saying to the American people is absolutely welcomed and accepted by tens of millions of people, if not an absolute majority at this point.

WHAT'S THE future of the Green Party?

WHAT ROLE the Green Party will play in American history is still not clear. It depends on the platform that the Green Party puts forward, and if it can develop a collective leadership team that is clear on its independence from the Democrats and the Republicans. America desperately needs a party that will defend the majority against corporate domination.

The Green Party's origins are more out of environmental issues. However, in the United States, because of the vacuum that exists--of no progressive and pro-labor party to defend the rights of the majority--the Green Party by its nature has attracted people beyond environmental issues.

In other countries--especially in Europe, where there are many political parties--the Green Party plays a specific role of promoting a very important platform around environmental issues. But it may not necessarily be completely progressive in its outlook on other social issues.

The Green Party in the U.S. is probably far to the left of many Green Parties throughout the world. In Mexico, the Green Party supported President Vicente Fox, who in Mexican politics is the equivalent of George Bush--and it's now supporting the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which is the equivalent of the Democratic Party.

Where the Green Party will go depends on a whole series of factors. But we have noticed in California that our vote is rising precisely among the poorest people in California, and among African Americans and Latinos. That is an indication of the beginning of a political current breaking with the two parties of the corporate world--toward support for a party that will side with the people against the corporate world.

ESPECIALLY SINCE the 2004 election, many progressives, including Greens, have argued that the Green Party should ally itself with the Democrats. What's your view on this?

I THINK it's very important to get this correct. First, the Green Party should look to the broad masses of people, not liberal Democrats, as the focus of who they're trying to reach out and win.

Secondly, we need to try to work with progressive Democrats where we have agreement on issues. We should look to individuals who oppose the USA PATRIOT Act, who are opposed to war, who favor environmental protection, gay rights and other issues of this kind, and we should try to work with them around specific actions and specific proposals.

Right now, there is a very important attempt to put on the ballot in San Francisco a resolution calling for money to be spent for education, not war--and in that alliance, progressive Democrats, Greens, socialists and all types of people are working together. That's a concept that's traditionally been called the united front, because the unity is around a specific point, on which everyone actually agrees.

What we must not do is try to form a political bloc with the Democrats. Because the progressive Democrats have chosen to be in a party that is pro-war, pro-PATRIOT Act, anti-labor, pro-corporate and corrupt. That's a contradiction for them, but that's their choice.

For us to have good working relations with them, we must make it clear that we are totally independent from the Democrats, and that we don't agree with their decision to have joined that party. If we instead form a political alliance, then we begin to destroy the power and educational value of trying to win people by explaining to them what's wrong with the Democrats.

There has appeared in California a current of Greens calling for fusion with the Democrats. I believe that would lead to the destruction of the Green Party--as it destroyed the Populists, the Greenback-Labor Party and the recent New Party. Fusion will lead to the destruction of a party that is not the stronger of the two. The one with the money and power will simply absorb and destroy the smaller ones.

We cannot build an alternative to the Democrats without being independent of them--so that people, as they begin to see through the Democrats over time, have a clear and unambiguous choice, which has stood up against the Democrats. If the Green Party makes the mistake of following those who call for fusion--or any of the concepts that make the Green Party, to the public's perception, an element within the big tent of the Democratic Party--that will be the destruction of the Green Party.

In Latin America right now, we see the signs of a beginning of a new radicalization that is sweeping the continent. Massive demonstrations in countries like Bolivia, and developments in Brazil and Argentina and Venezuela show masses of people trying to organize against the neoliberal, pro-corporate program, and questioning the whole concept that markets should rule over people.

The last wave of radicalization, in the 1960s, started in Japan and other countries, with mass demonstrations and then began to slowly sweep the world. In America, it started with the civil rights struggle, and then expanded into the antiwar movement--producing what became known as the '60s, with the revival of the women's movement and gay liberation.

These waves have come in America every 30 to 40 years. We had one at the turn of the century, which was known as the progressive movement. We had it in the 1930s in what was known as the labor movement. We had it in the 1960s.

I suspect that we may be very close to the beginning of another massive wave. And the Green Party could play a role in this--a very important role--if it is the first stepping stone toward the development of mass political independence and opposition to corporate domination, and in support of democracy and the rights of the people.

This is the question before us. Will the Green Party and the several hundred thousand who have joined it become an element that helps to bring together the people being alienated from the system into an independent political force? Or will it succumb to the temptation to try to form a bloc with the Democrats?

This is a crucial moment that we are living through in these years--in the preparation for the new wave that I believe is coming.

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