Wisconsin public workers: “Fight like an Egyptian”

 Wisconsin public employees, whose rally cry has become “fight like an Egyptian” continued their second day of protest against Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to impose $300 million worth of benefit cuts on public workers and break their unions. Today, 40 percent of public school teachers in Madison called in sick so they could attend today’s demonstrations causing the district’s superintendent to close schools for the day.

Yesterday, more than 10,000 public workers and their supporters rallied at the state Capitol. After the rally, thousands of public workers swarmed into the state Capitol to talk face-to-face with their lawmakers. Workers packed a hearing room where legislators were hearing testimony about Gov Walker’s bill. Public workers, one after another, testified about its impact on their lives until 3:00 am when Republicans called a halt to the testimony.

Democrats on the committee hearing the testimony, however, remained in the room to listen to speakers who continued to speak until 8:00 am Wednesday morning. The Democratic lawmakers adjourned briefly but said that they would resume hearing testimony at 9:00 am.

Wednesday morning, workers gathered outside of Walker’s office chanting calls for his impeachment. Buses also began arriving early in the morning with public employees who live outside of Madison, the state’s capital, for another round of rallies and direct talk to lawmakers.

While spirits remain high, the workers are fighting an uphill battle. Several sources have told reporters that Walker has enough votes to pass his benefit cuts and union busting bill. But the Associated Press reports that after the demonstrations on Tuesday, several Republican lawmakers were meeting to discuss the bill. When asked by an AP reporter where Republicans stood on the measure, Sen Dan Kapanke, a Republican from LaCrosse said, “I don’t know.”

The two days of rallies, sick outs, and protests have been the largest and most sustained public action in Madison in decades. 

If the bill does pass, it’s not likely that the fight will be over.  Last night a group union activists in the Madison area met and made plans to continue the fight. The Pierce County Herald reported that at the meeting Madison attorney Lester Pines told the labor activists that true bargaining power results from people “coming together and organizing,” and it does not come from any laws. Baptist pastor Scott Erlenborn said activists must build on the union solidarity being shown by the thousands protesting Walker’s plans. He called it quote, “political theater” and said it should keep going as long as possible.

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Texas budget cut pain is far reaching

Last week, people  had a chance to tell the Texas Senate Finance Committee how budget cuts proposed by the Texas Legislature and Gov Perry will affect them and their loved ones, and it wasn’t pretty. Senators heard that nursing home cuts will mean death for some seniors; that more mentally ill Texans will end up on the streets or in jail; that youngsters with developmental disabilities won’t receive the help they need; and countless other stories that showed the depth and breadth of the impact that these cuts will have.

“Last week’s huge turn out and emotional testimony made it clear that the budget cuts will affect most of us,” said Derrick Osabase, political director for the Texas State Employees Union, CWA Local 6186. “Whether it’s the middle- class mother of two denied coverage for her children’s treatment or the elderly woman who was afraid of being kicked out of her nursing home, one thing for sure is that the poor are not the only people on state services. Lots of middle-class families filled the committee room last week asking legislators to take a balanced approach to balancing the budget.”

And state workers and retirees will also feel the impact. The proposed  budget presents two options for cutting state employees health care benefit. One option would raise the amount of money that employees and retirees pay for health care coverage. Employee and retiree premiums would increase by nearly $1200 a year; if dependents are covered, the yearly increase would be as much as $2,760. The cuts would amount to a substantial cut in monthly take home pay and would force many workers and retirees to drop health care coverage for dependents.

The second option would restructure the health care benefit as a high deductible health care plan that would require employees and retirees to pay $4,400 a year before the plan would cover 100 percent of costs. If dependents are covered, employees and retirees would have to pay as much as $11,900 a year before the plan would cover 100 percent of costs. Employees and retirees under 65 years old would be able to open a health savings account to help pay for their deductible and co-insurance cost.

“Either of these options would be disastrous for state employees,” Osobase said. “A cut to benefits without an increase in pay is a cut in pay.”

As the legislative session goes on, state leaders will no doubt try to drive a wedge between those who need state services and those who provide them by saying that the state can’t afford to provide all the services that Texans need without cutting benefits and pay for state workers.

But the fact is that even though Texas has a large state budget deficit now, it’s a wealthy state with plenty of resources to provide decent services and decent benefits for those who provide the services. Texas Comptroller Susan Combs reports that the Gross State Product (the total value of goods and services produced in the state) was more than $1.2 trillion in the third quarter of 2010.

And some of the state’s richest corporations are doing quite well. For example, Exxon Mobil reported earnings of $30.7 billion in 2010 and returned a total of $19 billion to shareholders. Halliburton reported consolidated income of $3 billion for 2010 up 57 percent over 2009.

The cuts proposed by the Legislature will most fall heavily on those least able to bear the burden, but the cuts will be felt by most of us, and their impact will be crippling. Local governments will either have to raise taxes or cut more services, classrooms will be too crowded, higher education will be out of reach for many working class students, and the economic impact caused by layoffs will devastate some communities.

The best way to avoid the pain these cuts will impose is to avoid the temptation to fight for a particular interest and instead make this a universal fight for quality state services. To do so will require a broad-based movement that advocates a balanced approach toward writing the budget, an approach that includes tapping a little private wealth to help the larger community avoid crippling cuts.

Sit-in urges environmental and worker justice in Kentucky

A group of pro-environment, pro-working class activists staged a sit-in at the Kentucky governor’s office to urge the governor to reconsider his support for mountain top removal coal mining, a process that contaminates ground and drinking water in eastern Kentucky and threatens the health and safety of working-class communities near where the mining takes place.

Stanley Sturgill, a retired miner who worked in the coal industry for 41 years, said that the group came to Frankfort, the state’s capital, to talk to Governor Steve Beshear about the problems that mountaintop removal was causing. “He gave us some of his time,” said Sturgill, but we didn’t have a chance to tell him all we wanted to say before he said he had to leave. “So we just told the governor that we would wait (in his office) and maybe talk to him when he got time.”

After the governor left,  the group of 14 calling themselves  Kentucky Rising, began the sit-in that lasted through the weekend. They emerged from the Capitol Monday afternoon to the cheers of about 1,000 people at a rally opposing mountaintop removal.

When the group talked with the governor, they urged him to come to eastern Kentucky where mining companies are blowing the tops off mountains to uncover coal below. They want him to see the polluted streams and dangerous conditions created by the explosions.

They also urged him to pull out of a suit filed by the  state and the coal operators association  against the US Environmental Protection Agency. The suit alleges that EPA has been too aggressive in enforcing strip mining regulations. 

Kentucky Rising asked the governor to begin a public dialogue about how to transition away from coal mining in a way that creates new economic opportunities for workers whose only choice now is to work in the dangerous and environmentally destroying coal industry.

The group also wants the underground mines operating in eastern Kentucky to be safe and unionized. “I have two concerns,” said Sturgill. “One is trying to stop mountain top removal. Second, I’m a strong miner’s advocate, (and) there’s a strong pattern of violations (in the underground mines), and they’re going to lead to more tragedies like Upper Big Branch.”

Upper Big Branch is a mine in West Virginia owned by Massey Energy where an explosion in 2010 killed 29 miners. In a related matter, the US  Mine Safety and Health Administration issued a fatality alert today profiling the causes of the 71 miner deaths last year.

On Sunday, about 150 people rallied on the grounds of the Kentucky Capitol to support the sit-in. Among those at the rally were members of the Kentucky Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights who brought a home-cooked Mexican meal for the protestors inside.

Today, another rally against mountaintop removal took place at the Capitol.  The “I Love the Mountains” rally was called by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth to protest the dumping of mining waste into streams, a direct result of mountaintop mining, and to demand a clean energy future for Kentucky.  The rally had been planned for over a year and was not directly related to the sit-in, but Kentuckians for the Commonwealth has been supporting the sit-in since it began.

Kentucky Rising issued the following statement explaining why it chose to sit in at the governor’s office. “We call on Gov Beshear to lead by ending mountaintop removal, by beginning a sincere dialogue about creating sustainable jobs for hard-working miners, by putting the vital interests of ordinary Kentuckians above the special interests of an abusive industry.”

Wisconsin governor launches class war attack on state employees

Wisconsin has become the latest battleground in what Eric Alterman recently described as the conservative class war against public sector workers. After signing off on a $117 million tax cut for businesses in January, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker announced today that he will send a “budget repair” bill to the state legislature that allows him to close the state’s $137 million budget shortfall by imposing cuts to state worker benefits without negotiating with state worker unions. 

Walker ran on a anti-public worker platform, and his bill reflects this sentiment. If his bill is enacted, the  governor would unilaterally increase state employee health care and pension contributions without bargaining. State employees would also have to pay higher out-of-pocket costs for health care services. These cuts would reduce the average state worker’s take-home pay by about 8 percent. If the “budget repair” bill is passed, the cuts would become effective on March 13 when most of the state’s collective bargaining agreements expire.

State workers would no longer be allowed to bargain collectively for anything but wage increases, and any future wage increases would be limited to the rate of inflation unless voters approve higher raises. Right now, state law requires the state to bargain with workers over their health care and pension benefits, wages, disciplinary procedures, and outsourcing.  The bill would also no longer require non-union workers to pay the union a fair share payment for services they receive from the union.

If enacted, state workers would lose any voice they have in crucial job-related decisions. “Something as simple as the grievance procedure will be replaced with the civil service procedure, which establishes the agency head as the final decision maker on your grievances.  Everything will be in the hands of and controlled by the employer, without employee recourse,” read a statement from the Wisconsin State Employees Union AFSCME Council 24 to its members.

Union leaders said that it was unfair to balance the state’s budget on the back of state workers, who earn less than their counterparts in the private sector. “States across the country have budget challenges because of a national economic crisis, not because Wisconsin’s public employees earn modest wages,” said Rick Badger, executive director of AFSCME Council 40. ” Taking away rights from caregivers, correctional officers and snowplow drivers means undercutting our state’s fragile economic recovery – and it puts the health, safety and well-being of our communities at even greater risk.”

Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union AFSCME Council 24, said that Walker’s proposal was “a job killing attack on public workers.” Beil said that contrary to the myth that Walker and other conservatives have been spreading, “public employees in Wisconsin earn less than their counterparts in the private sector.”

AFSCME, which represents state and local government workers in Wisconsin, is planning an all out fight against the bill. It urged members to contact legislators, and it scheduled rallies February 15 and February 16. After the rally, union members will speak directly to lawmakers.

Walker’s bill is not done deal yet. Republicans control the state legislature, but some Republicans have a large number of state employees living in their districts, and their vote is not assured. “The concept (Walker’s bill) is pretty radical,” said State Senator Luther Olsen (R-Ripon). “It affects a lot of good working people.”

Egyptian strikes take aim at neoliberal economic policies

A wave of strikes involving tens of thousands of workers rolled across Egypt this week increasing pressure on President Hosni Mubarak to resign. Since coming to office in 1981, Mubarak has implemented neoliberal economic policies advocated by the US, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. His policies, according to Dr Joel Beinin, encouraged the use of temporary workers, weakened unions, made it easier to fire and layoff workers, reduced public expenditures on health and education, encouraged privatization, and kept wages low. This week’s strikes are a repudiation of these policies.

Some of the strikes are about wages and working conditions, but some are broader in scope like the strike of iron and steel workers in Cairo. They have demanded that President Mubarak and his political allies resign, that workers’ committees be established at all workplaces to oversee production, prices, distribution, and wages, that workers have the right to form independent unions, and that a general assembly of popularly elected delegates be convened to write a new constitution.

Workers for Cairo’s public transportation system are striking for a new constitution, the ouster of Mubarak and his cronies, and a higher minimum wage for all Egyptian workers.   

Many of the strikers’ demands include giving permanent status to temporary workers, who make up a large portion of the Egyptian workforce. Strikers making this demand include postal workers, service technicians who maintain the Suez Canal, workers at the agency that regulates prescription drugs, workers at the Al Hilal hospital, workers at a coke (a key ingredient for the production of steel, not the carbonate soft drink) plant in Helwan, workers at a cement factory in Helwan and many others. 

Strikers have also been targeting corrupt leaders who have benefited under Mubarak’s rule.   Members of the journalist union, while not on strike, are circulating a petition calling for the ouster of the union’s president Makram Mohamed Ahmed, who refused to support journalist arrested and beaten during the uprising and has publicly supported President Mubarak.

The mostly female staff at the Egyptian Animal Health Research Center are striking to demand that the center’s director Mona Mehnez resign. “She used the money allocated for studying and preventing avian flu to build personal villas,” one doctor told the Daily News Egypt.

The government recognized labor federation, the Egyptian Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), has also come under sharp attack. Egypt’s first independent union in more than 50 years, the Independent Real Estate Tax Authorities Union, held a demonstration in front of ETUC’s headquarters demanding that its president and board resign.

“(ETUC) has become a center for fighting the activities of labor unions,” said Kamal Abu Eita leader of the independent union. “Now we are demanding the investigation into its corruption and demanding the resignation of its board and the allowing of workers to form their independent unions freely.”

Many of the accounts about these strikes suggest that they are spontaneous with little or no organization. But, Egypt has a long history of labor struggles. Since 2004, there have been more than 1900 labor actions including strikes, demonstrations, and sit-ins, all of which were organized by rank-and-file workers and opposed by the old labor confederation.

During 2006 and 2007, strikers were especially active. At the center of these strikes was the industrial town of Mahalla where textile workers won significant concessions from their bosses, who then dragged their feet in implementing the concessions. In 2008, a group of young workers and students called a general strike in Mahalla to support the workers. The strike shut down the city for the day. Those who organized it, formed the April 6 Youth Movement, which has been one of the organizations mobilizing people for the protests at Tahir Square.

In a television address to the nation tonight, President Mubarak made further concessions but still refuses to resign. Whether he will be able to remain in office until September as he says he plans to do will depend largely on whether he is able to quell this new wave of strikes.

IMF Working Paper: Loss of bargaining power leads to recession

For decades now, economic orthodoxy has held that government policy that impedes the accumulation and expansion of private capital is bad policy. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have promoted and often enforced this orthodoxy.

The two institutions have encouraged countries to weaken laws protecting job security, eliminate or reduce corporate taxes that support social protections like unemployment insurance, and implement austerity measures that make life harder for workers. 

But the financial crisis of 2008 and the instability that ensued, including the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, are causing some within these two institutions to reconsider their position. It would be naive to think that this moment of new-found uncertainty and reflection represents a change of heart for the ruling classes of the world, but it does show that cracks are starting form in the foundation of economic conventional wisdom.

Last November, the IMF published a working paper by two of its economists entitled Inequality, Leverage, and Crisis that argues that income inequality was at the heart of the Great Recession and that if this inequality is not addressed, it will lead to new recessions and growing instability

The working paper, which reflects the position of its authors and not the IMF, says that in the US wealth has been redistributed upward with the rich getting much richer and the rest of us treading water or falling further behind. “The share of  total income commanded by the top 5 percent of income distribution increased. . . from 22 percent in 1983 to 34 percent in 2007.”

According to the paper, this upward wealth redistribution has been caused by  a decline in workers’ bargaining power over wages, which has led to stagnant wages for some and falling wages for others. The authors cite several reasons why workers’ bargaining power has declined: the increased use of performance-based compensation such as bonuses is the leading cause; the decline of unions is the second.

In the face of stagnant and falling wages, workers over the last 30 years have taken on more debt to maintain their standard of living.  This debt has been bundled and sold as securities to financial institutions, institutional investors, and wealthy individuals. The financial crisis happened when workers’ debt to income ratio became too high,  which made debt-based securities less secure and lowered their value. As the value of these securities continued to decline, it became harder to trade them and markets eventually crashed.

The paper suggests that unless government policy changes to give more bargaining power to workers, they will continue to over rely on debt to finance consumption and the downward spiral that led to the Great Recession will be repeated.

It’s not just policy wonks at the IMF raising alarms about the instability caused by income inequality. Dominique Strauss-Kahn head of the IMF said recently that the world’s economy is built on an unstable foundation. “Global unemployment remains at record highs, with widening income inequality adding to social strains,” Strauss-Khan said.

In January, Strauss-Kahn and Robert Zoellick, World Bank president, met with representatives of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) to discuss how the benefits of economic growth could be distributed more equitably and social protections could be enlarged.

Strauss-Kahn is also working with the International Labor Organization to establish a social protection floor that would provide workers around the world with essential services and income security.

At the same time, the IMF and World Bank have not done much besides talk about possible changes. The World Bank continues to support government austerity measures in spite of high unemployment around the world, opposes government standards that regulate labor, and still opposes taxing corporations to pay for social protection benefits. 

According to Sharan Burrow ITUC general secretary, “the World Bank has caused enormous damage to workers by advising borrowing countries that labour standards should be dispensed with. . . . It is simply irresponsible to promote the idea that companies should not have to pay one cent of tax or social contribution.”

Unions pursue alternatives to neoliberal globalization at World Social Forum

The 11th World Social Forum (WSF) opened Sunday in Dakar, the capital of the West African nation of Senegal. Trade unionist from around the world were among the 70,000 people from 120 countries attending the forum,  a gathering of community, environmental, and labor activists and intellectuals, looking for alternatives to a world economic order whose only concern is the private accumulation and expansion of capital. 

The forum, which will last a week, will consist of marches, conferences, debates, and workshops held at sites all over Dakar. The object of the forum is to create an open space for discussions and debates about alternatives to neoliberal globalization.  Specific discussions will be held on a wide range of subjects like the crisis of capitalism, the African Diaspora, privatization,  building a sustainable economy, protecting the environment, human rights, and the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. 

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), a worldwide organization of affiliated union groups representing 176 million workers, has sent a number of representatives including labor leaders from Africa like Kwasi Adu-Amanhwah, General Secretary of the African Regional Organization of ITUC.

In a media release, the ITUC said that the WSF will give thousands of people the chance to exchange views on globalization, human rights, and workers’ rights with a special focus on Africa and stressed the need to build a popular movement to supplant neoliberal globalization.

 “We are here to exchange ideas and promote effective concrete solutions to answer the (economic) crisis and get the global economy onto a sustainable path, which supports decent work for all,” Adu-Amanhwah said.”Competition within and between countries to attract multinationals and foreign investment is heavily based on keeping wages low and engaging in unsustainable and environmentally damaging production methods.” 

CNTS Senegal, the national union confederation of Senegal, also sent representatives. Its General Secretary Mody Guiro said neoliberalism, the economic philosophy of unrestrained capitalism, has been especially bad for Africa. “It is more urgent to change the current model of globalization and put an end to neoliberal orthodoxy that has left millions of Africans with underfunded education systems, poor health services, and virtually no decent work opportunities,” Guiro said.

ITUC will hold an event on Wednesday where speakers will examine the causes of the global economic crisis and offer solutions. Speakers will also make presentations on immigration, domestic work, access to social protection, and trade and investment.

On Tuesday, ITUC held a Dakar demonstration of solidarity with people of Egypt. The action coincided with an international day of solidarity in which union members around the world held demonstrations at Egyptian embassies to demand that a democratic transition take place in Egypt and that those responsible for violent repression of demonstrators be punished.

The WSF opened on Sunday with a march through downtown Dakar by thousands.  The rally after the march was addressed by a number of speakers including President Evo Morales of Bolivia. He warned that private companies in South America and Africa are trying to privatize natural resources. He said that some governments had privatized water distribution and said that he would ask the UN to declare water a basic resource “that must not be managed by private interests, but should be for all the people, including people of rural areas.”

On Monday former Brazilian President Luis Inacia “Lula” da Silva told an audience, “for too long rich countries saw us (developing countries) as peripheral, problematic, even dangerous. Today, we are an essential, undeniable part of the solution to the biggest crisis of the last decade–a crisis that was not created by us, but that emerged from the great centers of world capitalism.”

Da Silva urged people at the WSF to follow the example of the people in Egypt and Tunisia. “In South America, but especially in the streets of Tunis and Cairo and many other African cities hopes for a new world are being revived,” da Silva said. “Millions of people are protesting against poverty. . ., against tyranny, and against submission of their country to world powers.”

Echoing da Silva’s words, Moroccan trade unionist Mohamed Kabba told reporters, “pressure from the streets, that is what gets results.”