California teachers step up the action

David Russitano, a member of United Educators of San Francisco, looks at the issues driving one of the largest California teacher protests in years.

Teachers in Oakland Calif. take part in the May 4, 2010, day of action (Todd Chretien | SW)Teachers in Oakland Calif. take part in the May 4, 2010, day of action (Todd Chretien | SW)

SOME 300 teachers are planning to occupy the California state Capitol building in Sacramento during a five-day series of protests beginning May 9. The mobilization called by the California Teachers Association (CTA) aims to combine local actions with an occupation of 300 unionists in the Capitol.

This is an important step forward for the CTA, the statewide body of the National Education Association, as it is now taking direct action to stop budget cuts. By calling for a limited occupation of the Capitol, the CTA is implicitly invoking the labor struggles in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and elsewhere, which have been sparked by anti-union legislation.

The CTA is acting because the hammer is about to fall on working people in California as the state continues to stagger under a budget crisis. Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, has proposed cuts of $13 billion and a continuation of regressive taxes instituted by his Republican predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

But Brown promised to support the tax extensions only if voters approved them in a special election. That election has been blocked by the Republican minority in the state legislature. Now we face the even more draconian measure of an "all-cuts" budget being proposed by Republicans. Their proposed $28 billion in cuts represents approximately 34 percent of last year's budget.

This constitutes an all-out assault on the working and poor people of California. We have been forced to deal with reductions in public spending again and again over the last three years--and the truth is that there was never really any "fat" to trim.

Now, with its call to action, the CTA has opened the door to a different discussion around the budget.

Nevertheless, the union's demands don't go far enough. Their main goal is reviving Brown's plan by pressuring the Republicans to agree to extend the regressive taxes. These include a 1 percent addition to the sales tax, a reduction in the tax benefit for a single dependent, and an increase in the vehicle license fee. All of these measures are regressive, because they end up costing a larger percentage of income for the poor than for the rich.

Brown drew the CTA into backing the tax extensions by promising to "protect" K-12 in the first round of cuts--and threatening large K-12 cuts if the taxes weren't continued by a ballot measure.

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THESE DEMANDS don't do justice to the legitimate anger and serious concerns of Californians. Working people, especially the most vulnerable, have already borne the brunt of the crisis through cuts in education, health care, loss of public-sector jobs and unemployment benefits.

The rich haven't been sharing the sacrifice or the suffering. Since 2008, the paychecks of the top CEOs have "recovered" and zoomed ahead. According to the New York Times, average CEO compensation went up 27 percent last year. Companies like General Electric can make $14 billion in profits and pay no taxes, and even get a $3.2 billion tax benefit.

In California, there's plenty of money to cover the deficit and fund education and social services. The average gross income for the richest 1 percent of the population in California is $1.4 million. According to the California Budget Project, three-fifths of the population pays between 9.5 percent and 11.7 percent of their income as state taxes. The richest 1 percent of Californians pays 7.1 percent of their income in taxes. Ending that discrepancy would go a long way to overcoming the budget crisis. But instead, the politicians claim that the wages and pensions of public employees are the problem, and call for "shared sacrifice."

In the context of the Republicans' harsh attacks, Brown will pose as the hero of the public sector. He will make cuts himself, but blame the Republicans and the California State Legislature's rule requiring a two-thirds majority on any vote to raise taxes.

However, the real intention of Brown's original plan to push for tax extensions was to keep a lid on protests. The governor, by embracing Schwarzenegger's regressive taxes, has lowered our expectations about what's possible. That has had the effect of demobilizing the labor and progressive movements.

That's why it's crucial to organize a response to the budget crisis that challenges the idea that the public sector is to blame. We need to shift the debate from how to implement cuts to one that puts the blame back on the bankers, corporations and politicians who created the crisis. After all, the education system and the public sector didn't crash the economy. It was the greedy executives who choose to put their bottom line above all else.

Rank-and-file union activists, students and their allies must push for a policy of increasing taxes on the rich, with no concessions. The call to occupy the Capitol offers the chance to change the discussion.

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HOWEVER, FOR us to get across the "tax the rich" message, workers and students need to organize a large-scale occupation of the Capitol, which will allow the people of the state to raise their voices and be heard.

In the long run, it will take a revitalized labor movement willing to take strike action in order to mount effective resistance to the cuts. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 has shown the way by shutting down Bay Area ports on April 4 in solidarity with the workers and students of Wisconsin.

We need more actions like this. As Castro Valley High School teacher John Green noted, "Occupying the Capitol is a huge stride in the right direction, but it's not a replacement for workplace actions--work stoppages, sickouts and strikes. Until we make California ungovernable, the political class and the corporate class are going to continue to their method of governing on our backs."

The potential to build such a struggle is there. Over the last three years, there have been tens of thousands involved in mobilizations against the budget cuts in California. But while these demonstrations and strikes have been important and inspiring, they have oftentimes been sectional or regional. As one section of workers gets hit hard, the others duck.

This has had an impact on the effort to build a statewide movement against the cuts. The dynamic of the budget is that we have to keep mobilizing each year to protect what we used to have. It is a defensive movement that is easily split by the different interests and the way cuts come down. On top of that, it is somewhat demoralizing to keep losing at the same battle over and over again. Since we have been fighting a losing battle, many people have been putting their faith in Brown.

But the hope that Brown and the Democrats can stop the budget crisis is fading. That's why it's important that the CTA, in calling for the Capitol sit-in, has created a space for the further development of a movement to begin to fight the cuts.

However, the CTA's call has limitations. For the occupation to be as effective as possible, it must have a mass character--something on the scale of the labor-led protests in Wisconsin. It will take the initiative of working people from below to make the sit-in at the Capitol into a mass demonstration.

Nevertheless, even a limited occupation of the Capitol will show that working people can change the narrative. Activists should get in contact with their union, student or activist organization to plan on getting to Sacramento. We will see you there.