Workers Vanguard No. 972

21 January 2011


New York City

Bloomberg’s Snow Job on Working People

Beat Back Attack on Public Workers Unions!

The administration of multibillionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg enraged working people throughout New York City with its criminally negligent response to the Christmas weekend blizzard. Having already reduced the municipal workforce, the city basically did nothing to prepare for a major storm that everyone knew was going to hit. While most Manhattan streets serving tourists and the wealthy were cleared within a day, many in the outer boroughs did not see a snow plow for days after the storm. Unplowed streets were littered with abandoned cars, along with 100 snow plows and over 200 ambulances. Some 1,000 buses were stuck, their drivers told to stay inside the vehicles for hours on end by Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) management. Untold numbers of the elderly and sick were trapped in the subways. At least two people died in the conditions created by city officials. Meanwhile, Bloomberg blithely encouraged tourists to take in a Broadway show!

As anger over the disaster mounted, the capitalist politicians of the Republican and Democratic parties cynically tried to pin responsibility on municipal workers. Along with the rabidly anti-union New York Post, Republican city councilman Dan Halloran, citing anonymous sources, accused sanitation workers of having staged a slowdown in solidarity with supervisors who were facing demotion, prompting one worker to tell the Daily News (5 January), “We don’t care about management on a good day, never mind during a blizzard.”

With outgoing Democratic governor David Paterson calling for a criminal investigation, four separate probes were launched—by the NYC Department of Investigation (DOI), by the Queens and Brooklyn district attorneys and by the Brooklyn U.S. Attorney’s office. In addition to the “slowdown,” workers are reportedly being investigated for allegedly “padding overtime.” On January 3, the DOI issued a fink memo warning transportation workers that “they are obligated to come forward and report information about misconduct.”

Part of a nationwide drive against public sector unions, the obscene witchhunting of NYC public workers should be fought by every union in the city. It was the municipal workers who responded heroically under enormously difficult circumstances to help people get through the storm. Emergency medical service (EMS) workers, unable to drive their ambulances down snowbound streets, often carried stricken residents on stretchers for blocks. As for “padding overtime,” sanitation workers have toiled 21 straight days following the storm, often working at least 12-hour shifts, to dig the city out and remove trash.

As one sanitation worker told the Daily News, the city’s response to the blizzard was “a perfect storm of fewer men, inferior equipment, 70-mph winds and a political failure to declare a snow emergency,” adding, “this was all about money.” Snow plows were fitted with cheap, inferior chains that snapped, sometimes ripping tires off the rims. Sanitation workers were given shovels that were unassembled—and missing the bolts! Another sanitation worker, speaking to WV, summed up the problem in one word: “manpower.” The Sanitation Department has at least 400 fewer workers than two years ago, and Bloomberg plans to further reduce the workforce through attrition. Already last fall, Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association president Harry Nespoli warned that the city was “rolling the dice” by cutting the workforce (Daily News, 14 October 2010).

As the storm hit, EMS union officials urged the fire department to declare a snow emergency but were told that City Hall had turned thumbs down. Ambulances were not equipped with traction snaps for tires, and many ambulance battalions ran out of gas. As for the MTA, efforts by transit workers to confront the crisis—and the sheer ineptitude of the bosses—are described in the accompanying letter.

Many of the New Yorkers cursing Bloomberg recalled how then-mayor John Lindsay bungled snow removal after a 1969 storm, helping to bury his presidential hopes. One thing U.S. mayors are supposed to do with some competence is snow removal. But in order to do it, you need the personnel. That’s not how Bloomberg and his capitalist cronies see it. To cut costs, the mayor, whose personal wealth is greater than the state’s budget deficit, is pushing a scheme to further reduce the workforce via privatization of city services.

Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for operations, Stephen Goldsmith, made a name for himself as mayor of Indianapolis in the 1990s when he slashed the city workforce by some 40 percent through privatization and layoffs, while attacking health and safety regulations (and bungling a 1994 snow storm). In New York, Goldsmith is overseeing a “Workforce Reform Task Force,” which issued a January 7 report proposing wholesale attacks on workers’ rights and city unions. It called for rewriting union contracts and civil service laws to make it easier to fire and discipline workers, to gut seniority in order to lay off teachers and to extend probation for city workers.

The attacks against New York municipal workers are part of a broad assault by Republicans and Democrats alike on the wages, health benefits and (notoriously underfunded) pensions of public workers. With the continuing world economic crisis, governments in Europe as well as the U.S. are ramping up attacks on public workers, cutting wages and gutting pensions. The capitalist rulers are determined to further cut spending on social services, which they regard as “overhead” expenses that cut into the billions they make from exploiting labor.

In the U.S., the anti-union offensive takes its cue from Democratic president Barack Obama’s brass-knuckle attacks on the teachers unions, which are used as scapegoats for the sorry state of public education. The Obama administration, which recently imposed a two-year wage freeze on two million federal workers, got its start by showering billions on the banks and auto giants while wresting massive concessions from the United Auto Workers, meekly agreed to by the pro-capitalist union bureaucracy. After decades of attacks by the capitalists, abetted by the union tops’ concessions, the industrial unions, historically the powerful core of the labor movement, have largely been decimated. Now, for the first time, public employees account for the majority of union members in the U.S. But those numbers include cops and prison guards, who should have no place in the unions. Their job is to break strikes, terrorize blacks and other minorities and suppress opposition to capitalist rule.

In New York State, newly elected Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo promptly launched what the New York Post (24 November 2010) termed an “all-out war with the public-employee unions.” His first act upon taking office was to sign off on the layoffs of 900 state workers, followed by the announcement of a one-year wage freeze. In response, Stephen Madarasz, a spokesman for the largest affected union, the AFSCME-affiliated Civil Service Employees Association, declared: “We don’t have any problem doing our part.”

Here is a clear expression of the role of the union officialdom as capitalism’s labor statesmen. With the rulers gunning for the public sector unions, the response of the labor tops is to bargain over terms of surrender, or even to serve as willing tools for the bosses. Such is the case with Gary LaBarbera, a top union official of the NYC-area construction trade unions. With at least 20 percent unemployment among unionized construction workers in New York City, LaBarbera told the New York Times (9 December 2010) that “without a fiscally sound environment, we will not be able to attract new businesses to the city,” brazenly adding, “At times there will be competing interests between public- and private-sector unions.”

Next door in New Jersey, Steve Sweeney, an Ironworkers union organizer and the president of the state senate, is a staunch advocate of right-wing Republican governor Chris Christie’s drive to slash state workers’ pay and benefits. The treachery of these labor traitors prompted the Wall Street Journal (4 January) to gloat about “the first stirrings of a true American class war: between workers in government unions and their union counterparts in the private sector.”

Even to begin to turn around the anti-union offensive, there must be a struggle against the labor misleaders who aid the bosses’ divide-and-rule schemes. All labor—industry, transport, construction trades, services—must defend the public employees unions, and vice versa: An injury to one is an injury to all! The public sector unions must fight for their right to strike, currently barred under New York State’s Taylor Law. Down with the Taylor Law!

With their large black and Latino membership, the public employees unions provide a living link between the labor movement and the ghettos and barrios. A fight by public workers to defend their hard-won gains could mobilize broad support among working people and the unemployed, all of whom have a vital interest in fighting against attacks on social services. Like the fight for free, quality health care and education, for free mass transit and other vital services, this requires hard struggle against the capitalist class, a tiny fraction of society whose obscene wealth is gained from exploiting labor. No less than the Republicans, the Democratic Party is a party of and for the capitalist class. While the Republicans openly appear as enemies of trade unionists, blacks, immigrants and the poor, the Democrats pretend to be their friends, only to end up doing the same thing. Break with the Democrats! Build a workers party that fights for a workers government!

Basing itself on the political independence of the working class from the Democratic Party and all other agencies of capitalist rule, a class-struggle labor leadership would fight for a shorter workweek at no loss in pay to spread the available work. It would call for a massive program of public works to rebuild the schools, hospitals, roadways and other infrastructure. By fighting for such transitional demands, a revived labor movement would win the support of the unemployed, of the ghetto and barrio masses, in struggle against the common capitalist class enemy. As revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky wrote in the 1938 Transitional Program:

“If capitalism is incapable of satisfying the demands inevitably arising from the calamities generated by itself, then let it perish. ‘Realizability’ or ‘unrealizability’ is in the given instance a question of the relationship of forces, which can be decided only by the struggle. By means of this struggle, no matter what its immediate practical successes may be, the workers will best come to understand the necessity of liquidating capitalist slavery.”