Making the vulnerable suffer in California

October 7, 2010

Alex Schmaus reports on a budget deal in California that will result in billions more in spending cuts--and the voices of the resistance to this bipartisan onslaught.

CALIFORNIA IS in for another year of harsh cuts, tuition increases and furloughs for state workers if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders from both the Democratic and Republican Parties get their way on an agreement on the 2010-11 budget.

The effects will be felt across the state--by students facing increased fees and cancelled classes at the state's colleges and universities; by the poor, who will see the state programs they depend on cut back even further, if not eliminated altogether; by teachers caught in the vice of layoff threats on the one hand, and furloughs and swelling class sizes on the other; by state workers suffering unprecedented wage cuts because of forced furloughs.

But Schwarzenegger and the politicians won't go unopposed in wielding the budget ax. October 7 is a day of action at some campuses around the state, with plans for rallies, speak-outs and walkouts. The day of action won't be as big as last spring's March 4 protests that inspired action against the budget cuts around the U.S., but it's an important step to make it clear that there's an alternative to cutbacks and layoffs.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger

THE AGREEMENT on the budget and how to cover a $19 billion shortfall came after more than three months of political gridlock in Sacramento. A vote was expected today by the full legislature, but the details of the budget deal only began emerging last weekend, since it was negotiated behind closed doors by Schwarzenegger and the top leaders of the two parties in Sacramento.

According to press reports, this small elite decided to cut $7.5 billion from general fund spending, a 9 percent reduction from the 2009-2010 budget, which itself slashed spending. The budget relies on selling off as much as $1.2 billion in state properties, and then leasing them back--plus a series of questionable estimates of revenue increases from more money from the federal government and a significantly improved global economy.

One centerpiece of the cuts is an assault on the state pension system. According to, the budget deal "proposes a law that would roll back pension benefits for new state employees to 1999 levels by requiring workers to contribute more from their pay, retire when they are older and base benefits on the three years of highest wages instead of one."

These measures will only deepen inequality and accelerate the crisis in California, the nation's most populated state and one that sets trends for the rest of the country.

Despite an supposed economic recovery nationally, California's official unemployment rate grew from 12 percent to 12.4 percent over the last 12 months. The proposed spending cuts are sure to throw more public-sector workers into the ranks of the jobless. Already, the jobs crisis has made the housing crisis even worse in a state where more than 700,000 mortgages--one in eight--are currently in foreclosure.

The cuts will come on top of a decades-long process of strangling the state's public education, health care and welfare systems that were once the envy of other states.

It doesn't have to be this way--there are other ways out of the crisis. The latest budget deal is built around spending cuts because every proposal for tax increases were blocked by the minority of Republican lawmakers who can hold the state government to ransom because of the requirement that tax hike proposals get a super-majority of two-thirds to pass the legislature. Rather than step up the pressure, Democrats went along with the Republicans' blackmail.

California is the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in world history. We need to tax that wealth. Poor Californians currently pay a larger share of their income in taxes than rich Californians--that burden should be reversed.

Many of the largest accumulations of wealth in the state aren't even taxed at all. According the California Labor Federation, the state gives away more than $50 billion in tax breaks to corporations and wealthy individuals each year. Closing just some of these loopholes could solve the budget crisis with zero furloughs and service cuts.

Taxing the rich should be the first solution to the budget crisis, but none of the leading politicians in Sacramento will even broach the subject. "No new taxes" has been the mantra in Sacramento since Proposition 13 was passed by voters in 1978--the referendum put a cap on property taxes and established the rule about tax increases and the state budget needing a two-thirds vote in the legislature.

California voters will face more of the same profound anti-democracy when they head to the polls in November to decide the winner of the governor's race between a billionaire, ex-CEO Republican, Meg Whitman, and a millionaire, career-politician Democrat, Jerry Brown.

Whitman is a nightmare. She's attempting to buy the governor's office in front of our eyes--Whitman has already spent more than $100 million, making her campaign the most expensive in history. But Brown hasn't proposed anything approaching a real alternative--he hasn't, for example, promised to raise taxes on the wealthy or fight to repeal Prop 13. Even worse, both candidates are pandering to racism with rhetoric that scapegoats immigrant workers for the crisis.

THE CRISIS has had a devastating impact on millions of Californians, and the response of the politicians has been worse than useless. But California has also been the scene of the some inspirational examples of resistance to the turn toward austerity.

The first signs of a response came last year in the fall. On September 24, a hastily organized day of action at University of California (UC) campuses, coordinated with a one-day unfair labor practices strike by the University Professional and Technical Employees union, produced rallies and student walkouts. The largest protests were at UC Berkeley, where 4,000 students, faculty, staff, alumni and community supporters demonstrated on Sproul Plaza and the campus was basically shut down for the day.

September 24 kicked off a semester of action that showcased a new combativity among students, who held rallies, speak-outs, sit-ins and occupations--pitting them against riot police and tuition-hiking administrators.

The campaign of resistance culminated in early 2010 in a day of action on March 4--with seven regional rallies held across the state, and nearly 50 universities, colleges, high schools and school districts where events of all kinds--from rallies and speak-outs to strikes and occupations--took place during the day. March 4 became a lightning rod nationally, with activists and unions fighting their own budget battles in other states taking up the call.

The day of action was called against the attack on public education at every level, from pre-school and K-12, to community colleges, to the UC and California State University system. This broad scope--and the participation of students, teachers and professors alongside campus workers, parents and community members--was critical to its success.

Many people participated in smaller actions around the state, but there were more spectacular mobilizations, too--like the student strike that shut down the entire UC Santa Cruz campus, or the rally of 10,000 or more at the end of the day in downtown San Francisco.

The mobilization on March 4 showed that it wasn't just students in the UC system who were ready to speak out, but people at every level of state school system.

Unfortunately, the weeks and months that followed March 4 exposed a gap between the discontent and anger that fed the protests on the day of action and the level of organization needed to sustain a long-term movement with the power to stop the cuts. Many new and enthusiastic activists grew frustrated as they watched the grassroots committees they had helped to form to build for March 4 fall apart after the mobilization.

One problem was a divide that developed as the November election for governor and other offices began to loom on the horizon. The wing of the movement centered around public-sector unions and some liberal organizations was never very enthusiastic about grassroots mobilizations--after March 4, they turned their attentions completely to lobbying and getting out the vote for Democrats.

Other activists, largely on college campuses, continued efforts at grassroots mobilization--one product was the October 7 day of action. The demonstrations, teach-ins and walkouts won't be as widespread as last spring, but they can send a message that the California budget should not be balanced on the backs of workers, students and the community.

The politicians' attack on our schools and on state programs that working people depend on is still a source of anger and bitterness for millions of people. That's where the potential lies to build a movement against the new era of austerity in the "Golden State."

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