Grappling with cuts when Democrats are in charge


We are perilously close to being sucked into a political and economic hellhole by the leadership of the Republican Party and the tea party movement, even in states where Democrats control the legislature and the governor's office.

That is, unless the spirit of unity that unfolded in Wisconsin spreads to all four corners of the nation.

California is one of the states where Democrats lead the government, which has just made large cuts to social programs, putting a big hole in the safety net as the economic crisis and unemployment worsen. To be sure, these cuts are not as draconian as they would be under Republican leadership, but large nevertheless.

No less important, public employees' collective bargaining rights are not being threatened in Democratic-controlled states as they are in Republican-controlled ones.

California's predicament has its own particulars, but the dilemma facing states with Democrats in control has similar characteristics and challenges.

In California, in the recently-concluded battle over how to close the state budget deficit, Republican legislators voted as a block against the Democrats' plan because it didn't cut deeply enough and excluded public employee pensions from the chopping block.

Remarks by California Republican leader, Tulare, Calif., Assemblywoman Connie Conway on the day Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown signed the budget typified the Republican attitude. Republican lawmakers wanted to offer a "safety net" to people in need, Conway said, "We just don't want it turning into a hammock with cute little drinks with umbrellas."

Meanwhile, the governor's plan to ease the pain of cuts went up in smoke.

In order to restore a good chunk of budget cuts, the governor tried to place a measure on the ballot to extend a now-expired set of mostly regressive taxes and fees falling most heavily on working-class families. Even if passed, it would still have left a gaping hole in the budget.

Gov. Brown had effectively painted himself and the state into a corner once Republican legislators, holding fast to their no-tax increases pledge, refused even to let voters decide the issue.

Given the set of choices, Democratic legislators were between a rock and a hard place.

Unlike the federal government but like other states, California mandates balanced yearly budgets. Complicating matters, in California budgets can be passed with a simple majority, but raising revenue requires a two-thirds legislative supermajority, which Democrats lack.

"Because of Republican obstructionists," California Federation of Teachers President Josh Pechthalt said, "this budget continues to hurt public education and millions of Californians who depend on state services" while continuing to "protect the wealthiest 1 percent of Californians and the corporations at the expense of the vast majority of Californians."

California labor, which was pivotal to Brown's victory and the statewide Democratic sweep last November, is now moving to lead the public debate over budget deficits and taxes.

Labor is exploring various options to raise new tax revenues before arriving at a unified position later in the year that won't "put more burden on working folks," California Labor Federation leader Art Pulaski told the Contra Costa Times.

One option being considered by a coalition of labor and other constituency groups involves placing a measure on the ballot in November 2012 to raise taxes on Californians with incomes in the top 1 percent. Initially, the CFT floated the idea of a 1 percent hike on the top 1 percent.

"We did polling, and it has huge support, so if we support an initiative for November, it would be more than 1 percent," Pechthalt explained. "One percent is too low. It's a misreading of where people are politically."

It is heartening to see labor and allies taking early initiative to reframe the debate over the tax and budget deficit dilemma to favor the people - in a unified way - as the nation and state prepare to enter the contentious 2012 election cycle. California labor's performance in 2010 was an outstanding example of unity in message and action, and the results proved it.

During the just-completed budget cycle, hardly a day went by that constituency groups did not take to Sacramento, the state's capital, to protest and advocate for their own particular program.

That too has been heartening. But, as the old adage says, "United we rise, divided we fall." A united fight against cuts to "safety-net" social programs and jobs is needed more than ever, as the anemic economic "recovery" falters.

So is a national, united, multi-organizational, grassroots-based campaign for massive job creation being promoted by the AFL-CIO.

Today's struggles will go a long way in setting the stage for an election victory against the Republicans next year, provided unity prevails - in the spirit of Wisconsin, last October's "One Nation, Working Together" rally in our nation's capital, and the formidable 2010 labor-led electoral campaign in California.

Photo: AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka addresses California labor in 2010. Randy Bayne // CC 2.0

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  • Thanks for the information. I don't buy the "rock and a hard place" statement here. The base of all the movements need to be expanded. Unity, as the piece pointed out, is a necessity.

    We have to aim our fire at the Republicans and be both fundamentally and constructively critical of Democrats who are not doing the grassroots work to expand the movements. When was the last time a Democratic Party (not Labor Movement) organizer was at your door?

    Posted by Len Yannielli, 07/25/2011 10:26am (4 years ago)

  • [ Thanks for the article. I think it's true that Democratic legislators were between a rock and a hard place as long as they invest their faith, beliefs, actions in the government ruled by the ruling class. There's no doubt we need to be in those struggles ourselves. But... as is suggested by "hellhole" in the first paragraph, I have been wondering if and when it will become necessary for us to physically replace the services that are being cut by the logic of the profit system. I would like to know more about the Black Panthers attempts to serve the people. Couldn't we try some of that? For example, when the City of LA closes all it's "free" and "public" libraries on Mondays, can't we open our own public libraries to fill in the gap and give people what they truly need? This could mean raising "tax" money to run the library using open books (full financial disclosure and democratic voting on policies). What could avoid a hellhole is the start of a provisiional revolutionary govt. ]

    Posted by Robert Cymbala, 07/23/2011 9:47am (4 years ago)

  • although it's a good piece, juan, it lacks teeth. wish you would have put in a source from a struggling college kid in CA or a farm worker and ask him or her their thoughts on the democrats and these measures.

    Posted by Luis Rivas, 07/22/2011 10:54pm (4 years ago)

  • I disagree with this type of thinking immensly.Can we ignore the fact that the reason the Democrats lost in 2010 is that they didn't reverse the direction of the economy even when they were in control of congress.Now they are in charge of Sacramento and they are making the same mistakes.What good is unity if if only appeases the corporations and wealthy by granting them even more tax breaks?Why make excuses for class collaboration when it isn't even necessary?

    Posted by Kelly McConnell, 07/22/2011 12:54am (4 years ago)

  • The attacks on the Safety Net and demands for austerity are bipartisan and not just coming from Republicans. We should hope for Republican obstructionism to prevent a biparitsan deal that would ravage Social Security and Medicare.

    Posted by Sean Mulligan, 07/21/2011 7:46pm (4 years ago)

  • Great article Juan Carlos. Even though the concept of unite and fight has been around for many moons, we must recognize the only way we can win, that is gain what we so rightfully deserve, is UNITED. What is exciting is that the people's movements are moving in that direction.

    Posted by mama cassie, 07/21/2011 7:41pm (4 years ago)

  • Waste in higher education in California is the same for Democrats and Republicans. Cal. Chancellor Birgeneau ($500,000 salary) has forgotten that he is a public servant, steward of the public money, not overseer of his own fiefdom. These are not isolated examples: recruits (uses California tax $) out of state $50,000 tuition students that displace qualified Californians from public university education; spends $7,000,000 + for consultants to do his & many vice chancellors jobs (prominent East Coast university accomplishing same 0 cost); pays ex Michigan governor $300,000 for lectures; in procuring a $3,000,000 consulting firm he failed to receive proposals from other firms; Latino enrollment drops while out of state jumps 2010; tuition to Return on Investment drops below top 10; QS academic ranking falls below top 10; only 50 attend Birgeneau all employees meeting; visits down 20%; NCAA places basketball program on probation, absence institutional control.

    It’s all shameful. There is no justification for such violations by a steward of the public trust. Absolutely none.

    Birgeneau’s violations continue. Governor Brown, UC Board of Regents Chair Lansing must do a better job of vigorously enforcing stringent oversight than has been done in the past over Chancellor Birgeneau who uses the campus as his fiefdom.

    Posted by Milan Moravec, 07/21/2011 6:52pm (4 years ago)

  • Juan can certainly speak for himself, but the unity building that One Nation, the miracle fight-back of Wisconsin, and state's struggles to beat back and roll over the right and extreme right is what he is saying we need to take 6 November 2012 and establish a new peoples' agenda thereafter.
    Many of these fight-backs merge with and are part of the Democratic Party's struggles and movements-even the Obama administrations-note the current struggle to extend aid to the unemployed homeowners and the struggle to organize caregivers.
    This is not going to be easy. We are going to have to encourage militancy and creativity- like the kind shown in many states-with new iniatives.
    Hand written letter writing campaigns like GRO's, with the unity of labor, faith, and community, in Missouri, or the electoral follow-ups in Wisconsin and Ohio, are the orders of the day-and these are real life examples of unity struggles Juan is writing about in this article.
    Peace and unity.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 07/21/2011 12:40pm (4 years ago)

  • I live in CA and know more than one person who have lost their jobs or not had their jobs renewed from the cuts to education. Our higher education at UC and Cal State has been slashed to hell by Brown.

    The horrible priorities of spending by our government (on war but not on people) and its inability to raise taxes (thanks to the domination of the political process by the moneyed class) both come from our capitalist system. Democrats do a milder version but as we have seen in CA, and in IL and MA where anti-union measures have been passed by Democrats, they still do it.

    I don't see what you're saying Juan about how to fight back. You say that Brown has implemented these, somewhat less bad than Republican, attacks. But then you seem to say that the fight-back should not be to Brown? Isn't this just giving a free pass to an austerity pusher?

    Posted by D. Bester, 07/20/2011 7:02pm (4 years ago)

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