During the past couple of months, Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki have tried to close New York’s massive city and state budget deficits through an out-and-out assault on working people.
2,000 municipal workers have been laid off and 2,500 more are due to be laid off in the next weeks. Massive cuts have been or will be implemented in a whole range of services and social programs. Summer youth employment projects have been drastically scaled back. 12 health clinics and six firehouses are being closed. Education has been hit particularly hard, with hundreds of school aides losing their jobs and tuition for students in the city and state public college systems rising by 25%.
On top of that, the cost of a ride on the subway has gone up by 33%, sales tax has been re-imposed on many common items priced under $120, and property taxes have been raised significantly – all measures that disproportionately affect ordinary people. This comes at a time when Congress has approved Bush’s $350 billion tax cut package, which will overwhelmingly benefit those who are already rich. There are of course no proposals from politicians to raise local taxes on Wall Street to help close the budget gap.
What is really important, though, is that these attacks have not happened without a reaction. For example, when the closing of fire stations was imminent, there were protests in local communities with some people chaining themselves to firehouse doors and getting arrested. In the end, Bloomberg reversed two of the original eight closures.
There have also been some very large demonstrations by public sector unions. AFSCME District Council 37, which represents a large proportion of the workers being laid off, brought out 30,000 to protest at City Hall, and over 50,000 teachers rallied in Albany, the state capitol, against education cuts in early May.
The hatred directed at the city’s arrogant billionaire mayor is now palpable on the streets, and his popularity ratings have dropped sharply. At a recent Justice paper sale in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, one African American woman told us that Bush and Bloomberg should be “boiled in oil.”
But so far a really determined fight-back against the attacks on working people and the poor has not yet begun. Democratic (and some Republican) politicians were busy congratulating themselves after vetoing Pataki’s original budget and restoring $1.1 billion of the $1.5 billion in cuts to the education budget. Of course, that still left $400 million in cuts!
Trade union leaders have also used the demonstrations in New York and Albany as way of venting anger while sighing with relief that “things could have been much worse.” The cynical union leaders in fact are willing to allow thousands of layoffs to happen without a fight, as long as wages and working conditions do not deteriorate.
But the truth is that as soon as this budget is finalized at the end of June, a new $3.8 billion budget gap will open up for 2003-4. On the basis of current policies and the projected shortfall of tax revenue, there will be wave after wave of layoffs and budget cuts for years to come. The only way this will change is through a sharp social struggle led by the organized labor movement.
When members of Socialist Alternative raised the idea of a one-day general strike of all municipal workers, in discussions with trade unionists at the AFSCME rally, there was widespread agreement. Such an action would require a period of preparation and is certainly not on the cards at the moment. However, it is clear that important sections of the city’s working class would enthusiastically support a fight-back if a lead were given.
This is why we have also called for the convening of a conference in the city, involving trade union and community activists as well as anti-war organizations like United for Peace and Justice, to hammer out a strategy to fight back against the attacks of Bush, Bloomberg, and Pataki. Such a conference would have to take a firm stand against all cuts and layoffs and the capitalist logic that all of this is “inevitable.”
It could also issue a popular program to resolve the fiscal crisis, centering around the necessity of taxing the rich and Wall Street and giving tax relief to the working poor. For example, it is estimated that reintroducing the Stock Transfer Tax would generate $8 billion annually. (Up until 1981 stock sales were taxed at 5 cents per share.) And canceling the debts the city is still paying to the big banks for the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970’s would free up $4.5 billion a year.
The next twelve months in New York City will be crucial. Now is the time to begin organizing for the decisive battles to defend the living standards and social services of working people.