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Public Workers Unite! — Coalition Emerges in Chicago

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On October 31, sixty-five activists met at a Chicago union hall to discuss the crisis facing public sector workers and the services we provide. We passed a resolution that we would meet again two weeks later to form a new group to link up workers involved in different struggles. Everyone agreed on the need to develop better ways of fighting against cuts than simply relying on the Democrats.

This grew out of a one-day “Troublemakers’ School” sponsored by Labor Notes newspaper ( earlier this year. At that event participants in a Public Sector workshop decided to keep in touch. A handful of activists later met to discuss how to take things forward and the Oct 31 conference was the result.

For 35 years, big business, led by its serious journals such as Business Week, The Wall Street Journal, and increasingly the British-based magazine The Economist, has carried out a sustained attack on the living standards of workers in the private sector. This period has seen a massive decline in the level of unionization, and with it job security, employment, pay, benefits, and pensions in private industry. The strategists of big business have now turned their attention to the public sector, noting that due to higher levels of unionization we still enjoy many of the benefits that most private sector workers have lost.

The leadership of the union movement has been unable to prevent the attack on living standards in the private sector and, despite all evidence to the contrary, continues to limit its strategy to a long-held alliance with – or subservience to – the Democratic Party.

Most union leaders show no interest in discussing new strategies with the rank and file, preferring to continue to preach the gospel of reliance on these politicians to the exclusion of anything else. That is why we need to build rank-and-file organizations in order to urgently discuss and carry out alternative strategies to defend our livelihoods.

The October Meeting
The meeting on October 31 – Halloween! – was lively and democratic, with short speeches from the platform – three panels with three ten-minute speeches each – and more than an hour in each panel for discussion from the floor. Almost everyone in the room got into this discussion. Teamsters, bus riders and drivers, teachers, and a large number of State employees working in various human service agencies predominated.

There was overwhelming agreement that the way to defend our jobs is to engage other sections of the working class by defending the services we provide, and also by demanding that the benefits we enjoy, such as health care and pensions, should be available to all.

When we met two weeks later to launch the new organization we succeeded, in a single afternoon, to debate and pass a structure, program outline, and name for the organization. By ten o’clock on the morning of the next business day, we already had a bank account for our small funds, a mailing address at a major union hall, plans for literature, a website, and a group email list.

By a close vote among many good and competing ideas, the name chosen for the new organization is “Public Workers Unite!”

The most important decision of the new group is to expand its size by reaching out to the mass of workers who feel isolated and left out of any organization, including those who might belong to a union but feel neglected and ignored by its structures and methods.

The outreach plans include imaginative and creative actions in the streets and actions at events such as the “Town Hall meetings” which are cynically called for by the politicians to make it appear that they are listening to us. In this way, it plans to start the outreach necessary to built a regional, statewide and national movement to fight the cuts in public spending and defend public services and our jobs.

Since the founding of Public Workers Unite! just a few short weeks ago, there has already been a successful day-long picket at a welfare office. The picket had dozens of trade unionists present, demanding better working conditions and welfare services. There has also been an action against cuts to public transit with more protests and meetings planned.

Ultimately, a successful campaign to defend public services and jobs will require building a workers’ party. Already in the past few years, some independent candidates have pointed the way – for example, Cindy Sheehan’s recent campaign for Pelosi’s seat in California, which, while focused against the war, also called for a program that included many of the reforms that workers seek. Campaigning on the streets of Chicago on the issues facing working people in Chicago combined with the public actions we are already doing will help build the basis for more of these independent, anti-corporate and pro-worker candidates in the future.

Resolution from Illinois AFSCME State Convention
The key idea of item one, “Tax the rich!”, had been adopted by the delegates at the State Convention of the public sector union AFSCME in mid-October, despite the very sharp and determined opposition of the union leadership. The “Resolves” from that resolution, which is now the policy of that union, include the following points:

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED That the rich begin to pay their fair share of taxes in Illinois!!!!

“BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that Council 31 and its allies draw up and campaign for the changes in State law and/or amendments to the Illinois Constitution necessary to:

  • Tax corporate profits at 50%, which was the approximate rate used in the 1950s and ’60s when the nation’s economy flourished;
  • Raise income taxes progressively, rising to 50% of the income of the richest 1% of Illinois residents;
  • Implement a Wealth Tax, a direct tax on household wealth not including the primary residence but including holdings such as corporate stock and personal trusts;
  • Implement a tax on financial transactions such as purchases of commodity futures at entities such as the Chicago Board of Trade;

AND BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED that Illinois solve its budget crisis not by harming the workers and the needy, but by taxing the rich who are currently walking across the backs of the people, getting off scot free and profiting from the suffering of the masses… TAX THE RICH.

Public Workers Unite! Program:

  • Tax the rich.
  • Single-payer health care.
  • Expand public services.
  • End the wars; fund public services with the money saved.
  • Stop privatization of public services.
  • Defend existing services and workers’ pay and benefits.
  • Pensions for ALL.
  • Improve labor laws.

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