On April 7, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he was abandoning, for the time being, his effort to privatize public employees’ pensions. His announcement came after growing protests organized by the California Nurses Association (CNA) and other public sector unions, including teachers and firefighters.
Schwarzenegger’s dramatic backing down from an issue that was the centerpiece (along with cutting $2 billion from public education and eroding teachers’ tenure) of his attack on California’s public sector workers came as his approval ratings fell dramatically from the 75% after his election to under 50% for the first time.
Supported by millions of dollars from his corporate sponsors, and encouraged by his victory over the unpopular Democrat Governor Davis in the 2003 recall election, Schwarzenegger had promised to use his popularity to fight against “special interests” in Sacramento in order to deal with a big budget deficit in California.
In November 2004, Schwarzenegger tried to halt a state-mandated reduction of the nurse-to-patient ratio. When the CNA staged protests and tried to interrupt Schwarzenegger’s speech at the Governor’s Conference on Women, the “Governator” announced the nurses were a “special interest” angry because he was “kicking their butt.” Soon after, the teachers’ union joined the nurses when Schwarzenegger tried to cut $2 billion from the state school budget.
“The more moderate and Republican members of our union are angrier than some of our more liberal members because they got their hopes up and then [Schwarzenegger] broke his promise,” said Barbara Barr, president of the California Teachers Association (CTA).
The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) joined the protests when Schwarzenegger next attacked state subsidies for in-home healthcare assistance. Finally, Schwarzenegger announced his plan to privatize public sector pensions by converting them to 401(k)-style plans. This triggered a reaction even from the more conservative police, correctional, and firefighters unions, who started participating in the Alliance for a Better California, a coalition of public sector unions.
For months, thousands of protesters staged dozens of demonstrations at Schwarzenneger’s public appearances and fund-raisers for his 2006 reelection campaign, even hiring an airplane with the banner “ARNOLD: CALIFORNIA IS NOT FOR SALE” to fly overhead as the Governor spoke.
This political backlash came as unions organized rallies in San Francisco against Bush’s proposed privatization of Social Security, and as thousands of hotel workers (members of the UNITE-HERE union) became involved in protests, strikes, and lockouts in San Francisco and Los Angeles in anticipation of a major national contract dispute in 2006.
Schwarzenegger has threatened that if the Democrat-controlled state legislature does not agree to his proposals and meet his demands, he will go directly to the voters through a special election to approve merit pay for teachers (bypassing union contracts), the private pension proposal, a political redistricting measure, and a budget spending cap.
The Democrats in the California legislature have been collaborating with Schwarzenegger to cut the budget, “reform” workers’ compensation laws, and other austerity policies. Schwarzenegger’s “bi-partisan” administration was sprinkled with liberal Democrats who covered up the real reactionary character of Schwarzenegger’s administration. Schwarzenegger’s policies are now being discredited, and will prove unpopular with the people of California just like the policies of the right-wing Governor Davis were before.
As part of the mobilization against Schwarzenegger, the key unions (the CNA with 60,000 members, the CTA with 335,000 members, and SEIU Local 1000 with 90,000 home care workers) should escalate the struggle, mobilizing tens and hundreds of thousands of workers in mass rallies to expose the real program of Schwarzenegger and his backers.
It is necessary to explain that workers should place no trust on the discredited Democratic Party hacks who have no alternative but to continue attacking working people and immigrants, and build a mass workers’ party independent of big business.
To the anti-worker agenda of Schwarzenegger, the unions should counterpose an agenda that serves the interests of workers and their families, including the need to tax the rich and big business, papers for all, a massive plan of public works to create jobs at union wages and benefits, a universal healthcare plan, massive environmental cleanup, and to end the occupation of Iraq and bring the troops home now.