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Local Fights Against Austerity Are Growing Across the U.S.

by Mark Vorpahl Thursday, May. 09, 2013 at 11:36 PM
portland@workerscompass.org

Between sequestration, with its damaging impact on workers and the entire economy, and the billions of dollars in cuts to Social Security, Medicare and other necessary social programs that President Obama is pushing, it is evident that the economic policies of both major parties are not intended to promote a recovery for working people. You cannot lift up a nation’s economy while slashing away at its consumers’ pocketbooks. In order to justify their defiance of this elementary law, both Republicans and Democrats start talking the language of “austerity,” that is the notion that economic policy must be guided by reducing budgetary deficits first and foremost, and that workers exclusively must be made to pay the cost.

Policies associated with austerity include the cutting of public programs, privatizing existing government assets, mass layoffs of public workers and wage freezes for those who remain, union busting in the public sector and the revising of labor laws to further enhance the power of employers at the expense of employees.

Enforcing these policies during a recession prevents a recovery. Economic theory predicts this and history demonstrates it. Why, then, would the politicians promote austerity? Because these policies do assure that the 1% will be left off the hook from paying their fair share of taxes that subsidize the social safety net and have vast pools of public capital opened up for their private investment.

Why worry about the overall economy when the real power brokers from the corporations and banks are making out just fine with austerity? And those ends are to expand, intensify, and thereby assure the economic and political domination of the 1% by impoverishing everyone else and eliminating programs that benefit the vast majority.

As long as Wall Street is enjoying the “recovery,” no one else gets to. Wall Street has used its vast wealth to lobby politicians for policies that are in its interests. In order for working people to climb out of the recession, they will have to organize in order to create their own power base.

Local Struggles

As already noted, austerity is being enforced on a national scale. Below the radar of news headlines, for the most part, the policies of austerity are also spreading on a local level as well with an even more devastating immediate impact. Along with this, there has been a growing grassroots opposition to austerity starting locally.

This is most visibly the case in Chicago where Mayor Rahm Emanuel plans to sacrifice 54 public schools on the alter of austerity and Obama’s “Race to the Top.” Thirty thousand students from primarily low-income Black and Latino neighborhoods will be affected. Rising to confront Mayor Emanuel’s threats has been a grassroots opposition that was built from previous battles linking the Chicago Teachers’ Union’s interests with those of the working class communities at large. This was most evident at a large rally against the school closures on March 27th.

In Detroit the movers behind austerity have taken their most politically extreme measures yet, putting the city ahead of the curve for what is likely to develop across the country. Michigan Governor Rick Synder has appointed Kevyn Orr, of Jones Day Law firm, as Detroit’s Emergency Financial Manager. Orr has the power to dismiss elected officials, tear up union contracts, privatize public assets and impose new taxes without a vote. He will use this power to enforce austerity.

Though Orr has yet to unveil his plans, there have already been numerous protests and rallies. When Orr gets around to revealing what he is developing, it is likely that the numbers will increase.

At the end of April hundreds came out to a rally outside the San Jose City Hall to protest proposed cuts to neighborhood services and Mayor Chuck Reed’s threat to declare a fiscal emergency.

On April 11th, a public budget hearing, meant for the Portland, Oregon City Council to sell the necessity of .5 million in cuts, attracted over 400 Portland residents, overwhelming city staff. Many spoke to the need to prevent these cuts and instead raise revenue from the corporations rather than handing out taxpayer paid subsidies to them. This received overwhelming support from the attendees.

At an Oakland City Council budget talk, a packed Chamber booed and jeered a presentation on Oakland’s fiscal future, chanting “enough is enough!” The City Council is projecting a deficit ranging from million to million. Considering that there has already been a 20 percent reduction in the city’s full-time work force and that the city’s three major non-public safety unions are negotiating new contracts, there was no mood to accept the City Council’s austerity story.

In Newark, Illinois, around one thousand high school students walked out of class to protest deep cuts to the district’s budget. Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson claims the district faces a million deficit. Newark’s high school students, correctly, refuse to accept that they must sacrifice their education in order to fill this hole.

Growing Potential

This list over protests in the last two months is not complete. It does display some patterns, however. It shows how education, public workers and the communities they serve are the primary targets of austerity. That means a lot of people are taking hits.

The list also demonstrates how people become empowered when these constituencies work together in solidarity. Austerity promoters prefer to pit communities and/or unions against each other in a scramble to grab what remains of a shrinking budget pie. The events reported above show that a different reaction is possible that will strengthen people’s ability to powerfully confront their local governments.

Finally, these developments show it is necessary to go beyond the budget claims of the city government. Budget deficits are the product of allowing big business tax loopholes, obscenely low tax rates, and subsidies paid for by taxpayers. Those expected to bear the burden of cuts are not responsible for this.

In a time of high unemployment it is necessary to stimulate the economy by creating jobs. This stimulus should be paid for by the 1%.

Those uniting against austerity cuts could also demand what they are for, that is, a budget that will put jobs, education and neighborhoods first rather than corporate profit. To effectively do so the unions and community groups fighting austerity can work together to build their own budget assembly to counter the city government’s “we are broke” excuses and popularize an alternative.

These local struggles and many more are a confirmation that austerity in the U.S. will be met with a fight. Though they are disconnected in terms of their organizing, they are a response to a national problem. This wave of local grass roots organizing shows that the potential exists to galvanize a national movement against austerity.

On August 24, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the King Center have called for an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. This rally has also been endorsed by the AFL-CIO. If built as a massive mobilization of unions and community allies, this could be an enormous opportunity to take a powerful stand against proposed government cuts to Social Security and Medicare as well as for demanding a federal jobs program, for expanding education and social services by demanding the 1% pay their fair share of taxes.

1. “March 27 Rally to Save Our Schools Recap” http://www.ctunet.com/blog/march-27-rally-to-save-our-schools-recap

2. ”Detroit Citizens Prepare to Fight Their Corporate Master” http://www.occupy.com/article/detroit-citizens-prepare-fight-their-corporate-master

3. “Rally Unites Residents and City Workers to Protest Layoffs and Cuts to Services” http://www.neighborwebsj.com/rally-unites-residents-and-city-workers-to-protest-layoffs-and-cuts-to-services/

4. “Opposition Grows Fierce to Austerity Cuts in Portland” http://www.occupy.com/article/opposition-grows-fierce-austerity-cuts-portland

5. “Union protest overwhelms early Oakland City Council budget talks” http://oaklandnorth.net/2013/04/03/union-protest-overwhelms-early-oakland-city-council-budget-talks/

6. “Newark students protest budget cuts with walkout, rally” http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2013/04/newark_students_protest_budget.html

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