Higher taxes or layoffs of
teachers? A fake trade-off
Union officials deal blow to solidarity
BY STEVE CLARK
Last week members of the Socialist Workers Party branch in Los Angeles submitted an article to the Militant reporting on a May 13 rally there of some 2,000 teachers and their supporters. The demonstrators were protesting threatened teacher layoffs and cuts in funding for public schools.
Sacramento’s plans to “balance the budget” on the backs of government employees come on top of $11.2 billion in earlier cuts, including measures to kick workers off welfare for life after four years (it’s currently five years!); to close California’s senior day-care centers; and to substantially reduce spending on Medi-Cal, a health-care program depended on by working people across the state.
Union officials from the California Teachers Association (CTA) called the May 13 protest to rally support for their demand that the state legislature back Democratic governor Edmund Brown’s proposal to extend a hike in state income tax for four years and an increase in sales tax and driver’s license fees for five years—measures initiated by previous Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The article on the protest, drafted by Norton Sandler, quoted extensively from a statement handed out by members and supporters of the Socialist Workers Party in Los Angeles, as they talked to teachers and other rally participants and sold subscriptions to the Militant.
The statement opposed the tax hikes and sought to explain why such measures, far from aiding public employees in California, are a blow to the working class. This initiative by socialist workers in Los Angeles to respond to the CTA officialdom’s reactionary support of higher taxes and fees—measures that cut deeply into the living standards of workers, farmers, fishermen, and hard-pressed middle layers—was welcome and timely.
As editor of the Militant, I rejected the article, however. The arguments in the statement issued by the SWP in Los Angeles lead working-class fighters off politically. I consulted with other national leaders of the SWP in New York, who agreed the article should not be run. Since the political questions at stake are important for workers across the United States and the world, it’s useful to explain the reasons for the rejection.
The consequences for working people in California of the unrelenting blows of three years of deepening capitalist crisis—with the official jobless rate there at nearly 12 percent—are a mirror of attacks on workers and farmers across the country, whether by Democratic or Republican administrations.
Government employees are among those in the gun sights of the employing class and their governments at the local, state, and federal levels. This week the Tennessee legislature voted to end collective bargaining with teachers. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has announced plans to lay off 4,100 teachers. The Militant this year has reported assaults on government workers in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Florida, Texas, and elsewhere.
The flyer handed out by socialists at the May 13 rally in Los Angeles, however, didn’t come close to the central questions class-conscious workers can and must discuss with other working people about the source of these attacks and what we must do to fight them.
Taxes and layoffs
The problem started with the headline: “Higher taxes or layoffs and cuts—pick your poison.”
But for workers it’s not a matter of “pick your poison.” So long as the ruling capitalist families hold power—so long as working people live under the increasingly crisis-ridden dictatorship of capital—we will continue to face higher taxes and layoffs and cuts.
Both. Not one or the other. Communists need to explain that workers won’t be doing any “picking.” We reject the capitalists’ fake trade-off between workers’ jobs and higher taxes.
The statement correctly exposed phony talk about “shared sacrifice” by Democratic and Republican politicians. This is echoed by union officials who ingratiatingly try to show that workers are ready to carry “our share”—just make it a bit less intolerable.
But the flyer added the misleading statement, “From Washington to Sacramento, the capitalist government can find the funds for their priorities—from expanding wars to guaranteed payments to the wealthy bondholders or bailing out the banks. It is only when it comes to working people that money cannot be found.”
But this assertion—like the well-worn slogan of middle-class radicals, “Money for jobs, not for war!”—implies another false trade-off peddled by the propertied rulers. It simply isn’t true that reductions in war spending or interest payments to bondholders will stem assaults on the living and job conditions of working people. In the imperialist United States, it’s a bourgeois fable that there is one big pie that can only be cut into so many slices.
A dubious achievement
The CTA officials function within the working-class movement as part of one of the two main political instruments of the employing class, the Democratic Party. The officialdom’s political course is a dagger in the heart of working-class solidarity. It is an obstacle to forging a fighting alliance with others among the oppressed and exploited targets of the bosses.
In recent decades, teachers union bureaucrats have to their credit the dubious achievement of bringing about something almost unheard of in U.S. history: their petty-bourgeois small-mindedness has made teachers unpopular among many working people! The respect, admiration, and gratitude toward dedicated teachers, long held by workers and farmers, is more and more a thing of the past.
In 1866 the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), the first labor organization encompassing workers from across Europe and North America (often known as the First International), adopted a resolution on “Trade Unions: Their Past, Present, and Future.” The International in those years championed the war in the United States to defeat the slaveholders of the Confederacy, rallied support for Irish independence from British colonial oppression, and organized meetings and demonstrations in solidarity with Poland’s struggle for national unification and independence.
“Apart from their original purposes, [the trade unions] must now learn to act deliberately as organizing centers of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation,” said the IWMA resolution, drafted by Karl Marx. “They must convince the world at large that their efforts, far from being narrow and selfish, aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions.”
The labor officialdom as a whole has for decades made a mockery of any such militant internationalist course for the unions. Teachers union officials have made themselves cartoon stick figures in this regard.
Need a road forward
As the Los Angeles statement correctly says, working people need to “chart a road to taking political power out of the hands of the capitalist ruling class and reorganizing society and all economic relations from top to bottom in the interests of the working class, the vast majority.”
What follows in the leaflet, however, presents no road forward to advance along such a revolutionary working-class course.
The flyer, for example, calls for “the rehiring of all laid-off public workers with back pay” and “return of all furlough days that state and municipal workers have been subjected to.”
But when have communists or other class-conscious workers ever issued a call on General Motors or other bosses, large or small, to rehire all laid-off workers? Never. That utopian demand offers nothing to advance a working-class fight in face of mass layoffs and high and persistent unemployment.
Instead, we explain the need for federal legislation to cut the workweek with no cut in pay in order to spread the available work to all who need jobs—be they teachers and other government employees, or steelworkers, coal miners, and others laid off from privately owned companies. We call for a massive program of government-funded public works to provide jobs building quality housing, hospitals, public transportation, schools, child-care facilities, and to meet other needs of working people.
In the fight against government assaults on their jobs, wages, and health and retirement benefits, public employees and their unions need to turn to—and have a right to expect solidarity from—the industrial unions that organize workers employed by capitalist owners.
Teachers and other public employees confront the capitalists only indirectly. Their employers—be it a board of education, the state of Wisconsin, or some federal agency—are not capitalists, but government bodies that represent the class interests of the bosses.
Privately employed workers, on the other hand, directly confront a boss and can use their collective power on the shop floor and on the picket line to win protections against employer assaults, including going on strike and denying profits to the wealthy owners.
But the strength of industrial unions has been bled over many decades by the class-collaborationist course of the officialdom—subordinating labor to the bosses’ Democratic party; negotiating “fringe” benefits for a declining number of union workers instead of organizing a labor-led social and political movement to demand health care and pensions for all; rationalizing and helping the employers impose giveback after giveback, and much, much more. With less than 7 percent of workers for private bosses organized in unions, the labor movement today is weaker than at any time in the past century.
The stakes in reversing that are large not only for industrial workers and others directly employed by capitalist owners. They are also decisive for government workers, whose unions cannot mobilize the same kind of power in the face of capital.
No ‘communist tax program’
The statement handed out at the Los Angeles teachers protest called for “a steeply graduated income tax on the wealthy and corporations.” But that makes communist workers sound like we’re staking out a “socialist” position in the debate among Democratic Party liberals over whether income taxes should be raised on those making more than $250,000 a year or on those making more than a million.
This problem is not helped by tagging on the phrase, “with no taxes for workers or exploited farmers,” as the flyer does.
Yes, communists oppose all taxation of working people. Workers are weighed down by regressive payroll taxes, sales taxes, gasoline taxes, cigarette and liquor taxes, homeowners’ taxes, as well as fees for driver’s licenses, schools, marriages, birth and death certificates, and myriad things too dizzying to list.
That’s why it’s useful to point to the fact that workers in the United States paid no income tax until 1943. That’s when the Democratic administration of Franklin Roosevelt first imposed one on workers, because the U.S. rulers needed to pay for their drive to dominate the world capitalist order during the slaughter of World War II.
But we have no “communist tax program.” And we don’t tell workers that taxing the rich will solve our problems.
No ‘tax road’ to workers power
There is no way for workers to tax our way to the expropriation of the capitalist exploiters. That can only be done as the product of a victorious revolutionary struggle to end the dictatorship of capital and establish a workers and farmers government—a government that helps advance struggles by working people against exploitation, racism, the second-class status of women, imperialist war, devastation of the earth’s air, soil, and waters, and every form of oppression and brutality produced and reproduced by capitalist social relations.
The same holds true for the final demand in the Los Angeles flyer: “An immediate end to interest and principal payments to the wealthy bondholders.”
It’s good to explain that talking about the enormously wealthy bondholders is just another way of describing the capitalist ruling class. But a thinking worker will ask: “If the state halts all interest and principal payments, bonds will be worthless, won’t they? So no one will make loans to the government, and there will be even more massive layoffs and cuts.”
That’s a fact under capitalist rule. The only way to respond to such a question is to point to the need to build a revolutionary movement of working people to fight for workers power.
A workers and farmers government will neither float bonds nor levy taxes on working people. A government of the toilers will provide universal lifetime education, health care, and disability and pension benefits by drawing on society’s enormous surplus wealth—wealth that is produced in one and only one way, by the transformation of nature by social labor.
The flyer distributed at the Los Angeles rally says, “It is our labor, not the largesse of the capitalists, that creates the wealth that provides for education, health care, and other vital necessities.” That’s a true statement, but it misses the most important point from the standpoint of the vast toiling majority.
It is the labor of working people that creates the massive surplus value that capitalists appropriate and from which they derive their profits and power. Nothing workers get in terms of schooling, medical care, or pensions is charity—it’s all produced by us.
At the same time, everything we have—above and beyond what bosses must pay in wages to maintain and reproduce the labor power they need to keep production up and profits rolling in—is the product over decades of what working people have fought for, won, and defended in struggle. That, too, comes from nowhere else.
Today, as a result of the grinding impact of the capitalist crisis on tens of millions of working people, communists are finding growing receptivity among workers to discussing a revolutionary perspective along the road to power. An expanding Militant Army is going door to door in working-class neighborhoods with a newspaper “published in the interests of working people” that reports each week on imperialism’s crises and wars and how workers and farmers are organizing and fighting.The Militant is our most powerful political tool right now, supplemented by books and pamphlets by revolutionary leaders recording the lessons of working-class struggles worldwide for more than 150 years.