A day of protest against budget cuts in NYC

March 30, 2011

A new coalition of workers, students and community members in New York state is taking inspiration from Wisconsin and Egypt, reports Doug Singsen.

A MULTIRACIAL crowd of several thousand people rallied March 24 outside New York's City Hall before marching to Wall Street to protest New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposed cuts to public education, health care, senior services and other vital programs.

Cuomo's budget, which Senate and Assembly leaders announced on March 27 they were ready to pass this week, cuts a total of $10 billion from the state budget, including $1.5 billion from education aid and $3 billion from health care.

"As a CUNY [City University of New York] Hunter student and woman of color who is affected by the tuition hikes and the budget cuts, I know that these policies of austerity are disproportionately affecting communities of color," said Delicia Jones. "So I'm here to fight against further cuts to working-class people and their communities."

The protest, which its organizers called the Day of Rage Against the Cuts, was organized around several demands, including no cuts to social services, job creation rather than layoffs, improved access to affordable housing, protecting workers' rights, ending school closings and mayoral control and firing Cathleen Black, the unqualified chancellor of New York City public schools.

Several thousand people gathered in New York City to protest Gov. Andrew Cuomo's austerity budget
Several thousand people gathered in New York City to protest Gov. Andrew Cuomo's austerity budget (Shameel Arafin)

To close the budget deficit, the protest's demands called for extending the millionaires' tax, reinstating the stock transfer tax and closing corporate tax loopholes. Extending the millionaires' tax would raise between $1 billion and $5 billion, according to various estimates, while reinstating the stock transfer tax--which is already on the books but is returned every year to the banks it is collected from--would raise $15 billion per year, enough on its own to eliminate the entire budget deficit and create a surplus instead.

Cuomo refuses to even consider these taxes despite the fact that the rich currently pay a lower portion of their income in state taxes than those in lower-income brackets. With the millionaires' tax in place, the richest 1 percent of New Yorkers pay 8.4 percent of their income in state taxes, while middle-income workers (such as CUNY adjuncts and faculty) pay 11.6 percent. Once the millionaires' tax expires, as it is set to do in Cuomo's proposed budget, the state tax rate of the richest 1 percent will drop to just 7.2 percent.

The projected impact of the budget cuts on New York City varies widely. At the low end, Cuomo claims the city would lose $659.4 million, including $579.7 million in education aid. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, on the other hand, claims the city will lose closer to $2 billion, telling reporters the budget "does not treat New York City equitably" because it cuts a higher portion of aid to the city than other localities, which are facing a mere 2 percent reduction.

While Bloomberg is correct to point out the typically unequal treatment faced by the city and its large working-class communities of color, his criticism of Cuomo is more than a little hypocritical, considering that Bloomberg is currently threatening to lay off 6,000 teachers and is waging a war against teachers' job security and union rights.

The protest was organized by a new coalition calling itself New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts: Students-Labor-Communities United. The protest was initiated by Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents New York City transit workers; AFSCME District Council (DC) 37, which is New York City's largest municipal worker union; and the CUNY Mobilization Network. Professional Staff Congress-CUNY (CUNY's faculty union), the United Auto Workers regional office, and Teamsters Local 808 also endorsed. Other key supporters were the Freedom Party, formed by City Councilmember Charles Barron after he left the Democratic Party, and the recently formed South Bronx Community Congress.

THE MOOD at the protest was energized and ready for a fight. "I'm a day care worker, and we work hard and deserve the benefits we have," said Theresa Payne, a member of DC 37. "They've put a cap on our budget, and they're turning away the parents who need day care most. We've got to take it up to Albany, we've got to let Cuomo know that we won't go without a fight."

CUNY students also made up a large segment of the protesters. Cuomo's budget cuts $70 million from CUNY, with a 10 percent cut in state aid to community colleges on top of that. The largest CUNY contingent was of students from the Hunter College School of Social Work (HCSSW), where tuition this semester went up an additional $500 on top of the university's 5 percent across-the-board tuition hike.

The extra increase prompted a group of HCSSW students to form Social Workers for a Free CUNY to organize an ongoing campaign against budget cuts and tuition hikes. One hundred social work students participated in the Day of Rage, one of whom held a sign that captured the mood of much of the crowd: "This is what angry social workers look like."

The Day of Rage was the largest protest against budget cuts since a massive 2009 protest called by labor unions, which drew 50,000 protesters. Although last week's protest was much smaller, it included a march and more crowd participation than the 2009 protest and was organized on a stronger program of demands. Whereas the 2009 protest called for "shared sacrifice" and a modest tax on the rich, last week's protest demanded that the rich pay the full cost of the crisis.

Resistance to budget cuts has taken a sharper form this year than in previous years. In addition to the Day of Rage, two civil disobedience actions have already taken place in Albany, the capital of New York State, as well as many smaller protests both in New York City and Albany. On March 2, members of VOCAL-NY, a community activist organization, blocked an entrance to the Capitol building, resulting in 17 arrests. On March 23, 40 members of PSC-CUNY were arrested while blocking the door to Cuomo's office in the Capitol.

More protests are planned for the coming weeks. On March 30, New York Communities for Change (formerly ACORN), Right to the City and student groups from the State University of New York plan to hold a rally inside the Capitol and stay overnight there as the legislature finalizes the state's budget bill.

CUOMO CAME into office promising to balance the budget on the backs of public-sector workers and the poor, and he is making good on his promises. Passing the budget on time--an unheard-of feat in New York state politics--would show that Cuomo is taking on the "special interests" (read: public sector unions) that he has vowed to fight. (As an SEIU 1199 sign at the rally said, "Patients are our special interest.") In reality, though, the real special interests are the banks and the rich, whom Cuomo refuses to tax and who are getting exactly what they want out of this budget.

It's no coincidence that Cuomo's rhetoric and cuts are directed against public-sector unions, the same sector targeted by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. The assault on the working class is a bipartisan project of the Democrats and Republicans, with the two playing their usual "good cop, bad cop" routine.

The organizers of the protest drew on the inspiring example of workers' resistance in Wisconsin to mobilize for the event. In fact, the design of the poster to publicize the rally showed pictures of the Egyptian revolution and the Wisconsin capitol occupation above that of New York City.

Cuomo's budget is one part of an austerity program that is being imposed--not just statewide but nationally and globally. After having bailed out banks in the U.S. and around the globe to the tune of $14 trillion, global rulers are forcing the working class to pay the costs of the crisis and subsequent bailout by cutting social spending and laying off workers.

In effect, New York's budget crisis is part of a giant wealth transfer from workers to the super-rich. As one sign at the rally asked, "We didn't cause the 'economic crisis,' so why are we paying for it?"

Despite Cuomo's intransigence, the organizers of the March 24 protest say they are not discouraged. Ramón Jimenez of the Freedom Party and South Bronx Community Congress said that this protest is just the beginning and that New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts is also going to mobilize people to oppose cuts to the city's budget, which is due June 30. Appropriately, the final words in his speech at City Hall were, "We'll be back."

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