State and local politicians around the country are telling us we need to “tighten our belts,” as the fallout from the pandemic-triggered recession hits the public sector. Already, 1.5 million workers from state and local governments were furloughed or laid off in March and April. Budgets are still being negotiated, but it’s clear that the consequences of the economic crisis for public sector jobs and services will be grim. 

The initial wave of layoffs was due to pandemic-related closures and most layoffs were classified as temporary, but there is no guarantee of getting called back in the midst of the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression. The next wave of job cuts will likely be permanent as cities, counties, and states attempt to deal with massive budget shortfalls by slashing vital public services. By one estimate, collectively state and local budget deficits are in the neighborhood of $1 trillion. This is about $300 billion more than what state and local governments annually spend on k-12 education.

If the downturn in the economy and cuts to education and public services sounds familiar, well it should. This is a repeat of what corporate politicians — Democrat and Republican — push down our throats during the Great Recession a decade ago, cutting to the bone. Since then, they’ve refused to return funding to pre-2007 levels while waving billions at corporations like Amazon.

States Cutting Funding for Services in Downturn

In California, state workers are taking a 10% pay cut and legislators have passed a budget that relies on $14 billion in federal aid — money that is unlikely to arrive with the Republicans controlling the Senate. The governor of New Jersey warned that layoffs would soon hit firefighters and other emergency workers. Michigan educators have determined that $1 billion more is needed to open schools safely, at a time when the state is cutting school funding by $2.39 million over two years. 

For workers who were laid off when lockdowns hit, federal stimulus dollars and the $600-a-week top-up in unemployment cushioned the blow significantly for those who qualified. But the unprecedented number of layoffs meant that, without the stimulus, ordinary people’s inability to pay for goods and services would have led to an even deeper economic collapse. 

The Republicans in particular are now eager to push people back to work, regardless of the health risk. Public sector workers who are laid off in the coming months will be in a dire position if federal unemployment benefits, set to expire on July 31, aren’t extended. Black people and women are more likely to work in the public sector, meaning layoffs will hit those sections of the working class hardest. 

Cutting government jobs in the middle of the pandemic will not only hurt laid-off workers, it’s a serious threat to public health. With COVID-19 cases surging in California, Florida, Texas, and other regions, we need more spending on PPE, contact tracing, testing, facilities for sick people to quarantine, health care, and emergency services — not less. Anything less than an infusion of resources into shoring up public health measures, especially for the most vulnerable people in society, puts millions more at unnecessary risk.

Tax the Billionaires and Corporations

State and local politicians, even many Republicans, are lobbying for the federal government to deliver another stimulus package for state and local governments. However, the ruling class has fierce determination to put the bill for the crisis onto working people, and slashing public services to the bone is one way to do that. We shouldn’t have an ounce of sympathy for any politician who votes for cuts to jobs and public services, no matter the crocodile tears they shed. 

Besides lobbying the federal government, local and state leaders could take a page from Seattle socialist city Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s playbook, and use their elected position to build a grassroots movement to tax big business. The billionaire class has been amassing inconceivable fortunes for years now, reaping their profits from the labor of millions of low paid workers, while paying minimal taxes, if any at all. 

However, the political establishment, including the Democrats, will generally oppose any attempt to tax their major donors (really their bosses) in the billionaire class. It is only under the pressure of serious grassroots campaigns, such as the Tax Amazon initiative in Seattle, or the Our City Our Homes measure in San Francisco, that Democratic politicians will give support to a new tax on the corporations. Elected leaders who truly represent working-class people must abide by an ironclad promise to never pass cuts to the working class. 

To cancel the cuts to public services and jobs and force the political establishment to get the money from the billionaire class will require a mighty movement. The tremendous uprising against racist police killings provides a reference point. As a result of determined and sustained mass action, killer cops are being arrested and some initial gains are being won. Public sector workers and their unions need to launch fierce fightbacks against cuts, uniting workers with the communities. We need to escalate the level of action from phone calls and emails to demonstrations, occupations, and strikes. Public sector workers should take up the demand put forward in the Black Lives Matter movement for defunding the police and instead investing in public education and crucial social services.

For millions of U.S. workers, belts have been tightened for years now. We didn’t create this crisis, and we shouldn’t pay for it. The billionaire class and their capitalist system are responsible for the criminally negligent response to the virus, they’re hoarding the wealth, and we need to make them pay. J

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