Shared? Sacrifice

Last week, I visited the office of  my state representative Paul Workman. I was part of a delegation of Texas State Employees Union members who are retired state employees. It was our mini-lobby day during which we urged lawmakers to preserve state services against budget cuts and support state workers who provide these services. We also talked about the problems that retired state workers are facing.

We spoke to a young man on Rep. Workman’s staff, who seemed a bit put out about having to talk to us. We asked if the representative would support a cost-of-living raise for retired state employees, who haven’t had a raise since 2001. One of my union brothers pointed out that nearly 60 percent of retired state employees in Texas receive $1500 or less a month for their pension, which makes some  eligible for food stamps.

The young aide said that given the state’s current budget crisis a pension raise wouldn’t be something that the representative could support and added that we all need to make “shared sacrifices” to close the budget gap.

“Shared sacrifice” has become a common and oft-repeated phrase in today’s political discourse. Right-wing politicians and pundits seem to be especially fond of it, but Democrats, including President Obama, also like the sound of the phrase.

But it seems like the only ones being asked to share the sacrifices are working people like my granddaughter’s excellent teacher, who is scheduled to be laid off at the end of the school year because the state is cutting back funding for local schools. She will be joined by 180,000 other education workers and state employees who will lose their jobs as part of the shared sacrifice that Gov. Rick Perry and other state leaders are expecting from Texas public workers.

Governors in other states are also seeking shared sacrifices from public employees and people who use public services. In Maine, Gov. Paul LePage wants state employees and teachers to pay an extra 2 percent contribution for their pension plan. The increase will raise employee pension contributions from 7.65 percent of salary to 9.65 percent. But the increase won’t be used to shore up employees’ pension fund; instead, some of the money will used to help finance a $203 million tax cut, about half of which will go to 10 percent of Maine’s richest residents.

You might think that since Gov. LePage works for the state he too would share in the sacrifice and raise his contribution to the pension fund. But you would be wrong. Gov. Le Page chose instead to exempt himself from pension contribution increases.

In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder also seeks to close the state’s budget deficit through shared sacrifice. Public employees have been asked to take $180 million worth of benefit cuts and other concessions as part of their shared sacrifice. Working people are being told that they will have to give up personal income tax credits as part of their shared sacrifice. Those living on pensions will have to pay state income taxes on their pensions as part of their shared sacrifices. Gov. Snyder, a millionaire business man and former head of Gateway, Inc., will reduce his salary to $1 a year as part of his shared sacrifice. As for businesses, their shared sacrifice will take the form of a $1.8 billion tax cut paid for by the Michigan working class.

Shared sacrifice is also a common theme in Washington. The argument is that workers need to accept cuts to Social Security and Medicare as part of our shared sacrifice to reduce the federal government’s deficit. But apparently Wall Street, which is primarily responsible for the financial crisis that caused the debt to balloon, is not expected to share in the sacrifice. A small tax on highly speculative trades could generate billions of dollars in revenue, but apparently this option, known as the Tobin tax, is off the table for now and for any future discussions about how to reduce the deficit.

Back in Texas, 41 clerical workers at the ExxonMobil oil refinery in Baytown have been told that they must make sacrifices, so that the giant oil corporation can keep its competitive edge.  The workers, all of whom are women who handle functions like payroll, auditing, and accounts receivable/payable, would like a raise.

Their union, United Steelworkers 13-2001, has been in negotiations with company for a new contract. A couple of weeks ago, ExxonMobil, which made $30.5 billion in profits in 2001, made its best and final offer–a zero wage increase for the first year of the contract and nothing but a promise to discuss the possibility of a raise in the second and third year of the contract.

According to ExxonMobil it couldn’t give the clerical workers a raise because doing so would put them at competitive disadvantage with other giant oil companies.

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