MHI Editorial: Public Employees Under Attack: Support Workers Fighting Austerity but Get Real About Capitalism

The recent economic crisis and continuing recession-like economy have rendered many U.S. states and cities broke. Their budget crises are fueling the growing drumbeat for a reduction in government workers’ pay and benefits, which the bourgeoisie terms “excessive.” The front page of the Jan. 2 New York Times, for example, features a story headlined “Public Workers Facing Outrage in Budget Crisis” which states, “Across the nation, a rising irritation with public employee unions is palpable, as  a wounded economy has blown gaping holes in state, city and town budgets….” The Times ran two more front-page stories about calls for busting public employee unions on the next two days. (For a fuller discussion of the assault on public sector workers see Barry Finger’s presentation, “Public Sector Workers and the Crisis,” at our conference on “The Economic Crisis and Left Responses.”)

Blaming the states’ economic problems on unions is ridiculous, since public employees are hardly highly paid. But the war against the working class is ideological as well as financial. Labeling their remuneration “excessive” makes ordinary workers sound like the millionaire Wall Street financial marketeers whom everybody loved to hate last year. The idea that government employees are too well-off seems especially perverse to people old enough to remember when those jobs paid less than private ones, and African-Americans, women, foreign-born, and disabled workers took them for lack of any choice due to discrimination in the private sector. Now these are suddenly “elite” jobs: clerk, teacher, letter-carrier? We don’t think so.

But the states and cities really are broke–slow economic growth and high unemployment have left them with insufficient tax revenue to maintain services. They have little choice within the current economic system except to cut public services, including the number and pay of public employees. We have already seen sharp austerity measures imposed in California and throughout Europe, where workers and students responded with protests and limited strikes. Unless private and public workers together carry out massive and prolonged strikes, they are unlikely to succeed in resisting the austerity necessitated by capitalism’s stagnation and crises.

The capitalist system has shown itself over and over since the Great Depression of 1929 to be prone to crisis and unable to change the way it operates in order to benefit working people. We believe it must be uprooted and replaced with a different system. Yet much of the U.S. Left continues to advocate and plan its reformation. It is time for the Left to face economic reality. It needs to give up unworkable, populist calls to solve administratively–within capitalism–problems that are inherent in capitalism.

Consider these non-solutions to the austerity required by this moment of capitalism. “Tax the rich” won’t do it as long as the rich can move themselves and their businesses out of states with high taxes. The slogan “Money for _____, not for war” is also popular (fill in the blank with jobs, schools, housing, etc.; we hear one of them at every demonstration against budget cuts). Even were there some prospect of stopping war within the capitalist system, the resulting “peace dividend” would not be nearly enough money to finance all the programs that the Left demands be funded. There is simply not enough money available to government for it to supply all of people’s needs. And of course, no amount of spending could transform capitalism into a humane system. Look at the European social-democratic countries which have greater social services than the U.S. but still retain alienated labor in the workplace, and keep in mind that capitalism can only function by extracting the maximum labor from workers while paying them the minimum that it can get away with.

To the extent that unionized government workers have decent pay and benefits, they only constitute an “elite” when compared to low-paid private sector workers such as those in industries whose unions have been broken over the past 30 years. But even unionized work places today frequently go along with owners’ demands for give-backs and pay freezes under the threat of businesses closing down.

What shocked us recently, however, was seeing some employers admit to making demands for pay cuts, not because their businesses were in economic trouble, but just because they can get away with it; high unemployment allows them to replace their current workers with others who are desperate. Again, only effective strikes can stop this process.

In one such recent situation, 300 workers at a Motts apple juice factory in Williamson, N.Y. were on strike for 16 weeks before they “won” a pay freeze instead of the pay-cut demanded by the owner. The owner is Dr Pepper Snapple, which earned $555 million in 2009. It did not claim this plant was unprofitable, but only that it had the right to “bring our costs in Williamson in line” with prevailing wages in that high-unemployment area. (New York Times, Sept. 14, 2010, p. B6, and earlier stories)­­­­­­­­

Even if a strike is won, the workers will always have to repeat the fight over and over in the future. We of course support workers’ resistance to employer, education, and government service cuts, but we do so without pretending that workers’ lives will substantially and permanently improve within the current economic system. The failure to say this loud and clear is to mislead working people.

As recent empirical studies have shown, workers’ pay and benefits have stagnated because the economy has stagnated. Neither workers’ share of corporate profits nor their real wage and benefits packages have decreased, in spite of the tale told by much of the U.S. Left. That tale goes that greedy capitalists are squeezing larger and larger shares of profits out of workers. The facts, instead, are that workers’ wages and benefits reflect a long-term low rate of profit. By refusing to face and discuss these facts, much of the Left is fostering the illusion that workers’ resistance alone can substantially and permanently better their lives, i.e., that capitalism can be reformed. Meanwhile, the “new normal” of lower pay, high unemployment, and fewer government services is being established on the ground.

To those who think that replacing capitalism is unrealistic, we ask: what is the point of devoting your life to lesser goals, when reforming capitalism has definitely proved to be unrealistic? We urge you instead to join in the theoretical working out of a real alternative, so that significant help is ready when workers’ resistance turns into revolt.


  1. Cameron, this quote might be over one hundred years old, but I think it’s still apt for us trying to change the world and uproot capitalism today:

    “I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.” -Eugene Debs


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