A tall, muscular man stands behind a podium and thunders in a thick, Austrian accent: “Message received.”
Is this a line from the latest Terminator movie? No. It was California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger admitting defeat at the hands of that state’s nurses, teachers, firefighters, and other unionized workers during his “State of the State” address at the beginning of January.
Schwarzenegger continued, “I have absorbed my defeat, I have learned my lesson. And the people, who always have the last word, sent a clear message…”
Not only did the Governator back off from his budget cuts and attacks on workers, but he also proposed a sizeable public works program. This marked a major departure from his cocky rhetoric early last year, when he vowed to beat down nurses, teachers, firefighters, and other public-sector workers.
Schwarzenegger was elected in a special recall election in the fall of 2003. Early in his term, he had approval ratings hovering above 60%. So what went wrong for the Governator?
In early 2005, Schwarzenegger targeted the California Nurses Association (CNA). He tried to block a law that mandated reducing hospitals’ nurse-to-patient ratio to 5-to-1. He derided the nurses, saying “I am always kicking their butts.” Rather than running from Schwarzenegger’s attacks or relying on Democrats to defend them, the CNA – a small but rapidly-growing, left-wing union of 65,000 members – mounted a bold public campaign of defense.
As Schwarzenegger brought down the axe on wider sections of workers, public-sector unions and a broader coalition of community and progressive organizations organized rowdy demonstrations every time the Governator made a public appearance.
As these unions battled on, Schwarzenegger’s approval ratings began to sink. By April of last year, only 40% supported him. The following month, 10,000 people in Sacramento and 6,000 in Los Angeles protested his budget cuts and plans for a special election in November to implement them.
The centerpiece of the special election was the Governator’s four ballot initiatives, which prevented unions from spending dues on politics, extended the probation period for teachers, allowed the governor to go over the heads of the legislature in cutting the budget, and redistricted to benefit Republicans. Another referendum, introduced by right-wing Republicans and supported by Schwarzenegger, required parental notification for minors seeking an abortion. With CNA and public-sector unions in the lead, a major campaign was waged against these measures, all of which went down in flames.
This titanic defeat at the hands of workers forced Schwarzenegger to rethink his strategy. In a major reversal, his new 10-year, $222 billion budget calls for 600 miles of mass transit, 140,000 classrooms to be modernized, 40,000 new classrooms to be built, along with the building of 2,000 new schools.
The events in California show that when working people fight back, they can defeat the corporate-friendly programs of politicians. To further solidify their gains and continue building a powerful movement, California labor, community, and antiwar groups should run independent candidates against both parties of big business on an anti-budget cut, antiwar, working-class program. This would parallel previous political initiatives of the CNA, which supported Ralph Nader’s run for president in 2000 and affiliated with the Labor Party during the ’90s.
The California example points the way forward for a successful strategy to beat back Bush. The Democrats have done nothing effective to stop Bush. The leaders of the labor and antiwar movements should focus on conducting a mass campaign across the country aimed at a broad mobilization of workers and young people, including protests, pickets, public education, and mass direct action .
A key factor at work in California that has been lacking nationally was the existence of a “subjective factor,” or leadership, to galvanize the latent mood of anger into an active movement. The CNA played this vital role in initiating the wider struggle. The role of the CNA also demonstrated the decisive role a section of the organized working class can play in leading powerful social movements. This stands in contrast to the pathetic role the AFL-CIO’s leaders and many of the antiwar movement’s leaders have played.
The situation in California, along with the NY transit strike and the struggles in the auto industry, show that when under attack, workers are willing to fight back. Through a class appeal against cuts in social programs and attacks on workers, union leaders could mobilize workers by the millions to defeat Bush and his right-wing backers.