Mobilizing to Save New York State

— Tom Reifer

THE LARGEST RALLY in several years to hit the New York State capital, Albany, assembled on March 27 to demonstrate against massive budget cuts. Desite some mainstream press reports to the contrary, the demonstration drew upwards of 15,000 and -- equally important -- represented the most diverse New York State coalition in decades.

New York's new Republican Governor George Pataki has wasted no time in exploiting the theme of “middle-class tax resistance” to decimate public education, health and welfare.

Pataki -- whose budget director comes from the administration of Michigan Governor John Engler, another major hit man for the Contract on America and the pioneer of eliminating state General Assistance welfare -- also threatened mass layoffs of up to 100,000 state workers unless the budget was passed by April 1. Only “essential services” the prisons and police -- would stay open, affording us a glimpse of the ultimate Republican vision of government.

Meanwhile, the Democrats in the state legislature passed an even bigger “tax cut,” which gives about $2-3 a week to middle-income families in exchange for the destruction of public higher education and other services.

Yet New York's structural deficit results in large part from the 1987 massive tax cut for corporations and the wealthy, enacted by the Democrats. As in Christine Todd Whitman's New Jersey, the tax cut legislation is a scam: Property taxes and college tuition will explode, even as other taxes go down.

With the Democrats' position virtually indistinguishable from the Republicans', the only hope of fighting the cuts is to create a real movement, independent of both parties, and to show which interests are allying to wield the budget executioner's axe. Otherwise, the Democratic pseudo-opposition to the budget threatens only to contain mass activism while subordinating political work to lobbying and advertising efforts.

Tragically, with the balanced-budget conservatism seemingly dominating the political landscape, many unions are foolishly calling for cuts in other sectors of the workforce so as to protect their own jobs. Even as Pataki's budget brought a wave of opposition, many big unions have continued to narrow the focus of their efforts on spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising campaigns to protect their crumbs of a shrinking pie, rather than investing in nuts and bolts activism. Many of the bigger public employee and private unions are simply reluctant to unleash the anger of their own rank and file.

Within New York's deepening political and economic crisis, though, there is a growing desire among students, workers and community activists to pour not only into the legislature but onto the streets as well. With this being the worst budget since the Great Depression, the fires of the 1930s are finding some echoes in a very new style of `90s politics.

A concrete expression of this new political activism is The Citizens Mobilization to Save New York. Hatched out of the offices of the Graduate Student Employees Union/CWA Local 1188 (representing 4,000 teaching assistants and graduate assistants at SUNY, the largest such union in the country), and the Student Association of the State University of New York (SASU), the Mobilization patched together a diverse coalition including some of the largest public and private employees unions, students, church and community activists groups (ranging from ACT-UP to AFSCME New York), to engage in a mass protest in Albany on March 27.

SASU As An Engine

SASU, as a statewide independent student organization, has the political autonomy from university administration that is critical in allowing for an independent radical politics. The GSEU was also uniquely positioned to help weave together a broad coalition as it provided a bridge between two of the major constituencies -- public workers and students -- that stood to suffer most from the budget cuts. Seeking out allies to form a broad movement uniting all constituencies affected by the budget (rather than focusing on a single demand) was a natural outgrowth of its structural position, earning GSEU/Local 1188 the nickname of “the little union that could.”

Pooling resources and political connections was essential to these efforts. Much of the mass political organizing came from student groups and student employees with long experience in the labor and progressive movements, while resources were garnered from independent student groups, student governments, unions and community activist groups. Connections with the University Student Senate, representing City University of New York students, were another key political ingredient in uniting student and community groups in New York City and the rest of the state.

Despite tensions between student government groups like Student Assembly, independent student groups (including SAVE SUNY/CUNY and Opportunities Programs Movement and SASU), big labor unions and the GSEU, the slash-and-burn budget of Pataki provided the political context for putting aside historic rivalries so as to build solidarity among varying mass constituencies. Although it is rare for unions to ever follow the initiative of students (graduate student employee union or not), the GSEU turned a political vacuum into an opportunity to unite groups fighting the budget. By putting the movement above their own organizational identity, groups like SASU and the GSEU helped to forward the interests of the movement overall and thus enlist support from key allies.

These efforts were ironically aided by Pataki's threatened layoffs (which may have pushed the big unions to give in to the desire of their membership for mass protest) and rumors that eight SUNY campuses would have to close if the budget went through. In addition, rumors of layoffs of up to one out of seven people in SUNY along with skyrocketing tuition costs helped to increase opposition to the governor's budget. With the political situation getting more explosive at the state and federal level, mainstream groups seem more and more willing to ally with radical organizations.

The depth of the cuts have thus ironically generated potential space for more diverse coalitions than have heretofore existed. While serious political disagreements undoubtedly exist between members of the Citizens Mobe (as with any coalition), the united effort has real potential to transform people's politics in a more radical direction.

The Politics of Solidarity

The possibility exists, then, for a broadening of political consciousness, with students being educated about the struggles of workers, while unions are able to tap into, and be transformed by, the energy of student (and graduate student) activism. For some unions like CWA District 1, the example of graduate employees could have the positive effect of helping to politicize their own membership and thus paving the way for future organizing work. For student employee unions too, increased linkages with unions can aid in developing some of the political skills and organizational allies, necessary for future battles.

While the GSEU took the initiative in building momentum for a coalition and mass demonstration (including securing support from some of the state's biggest labor unions), it was aided by its parent union, CWA District 1, in solidifying downstate labor support for the March 27 rally, and in securing resources to aid students to come to Albany. The GSEU/CWA Local 1188 and CWA District 1 both saw the need to challenge the Democratic as well as Republican tax hoax. Rather than emphasizing issues of job security, however, the GSEU put forward a political analysis of the need to neutralize the right-wing mobilization of anti-tax, anti-worker sentiment by stressing the universal benefits of public spending for education, health and other public services.

While at first the idea of entering into a coalition planning a major demonstration was met with stiff resistance by many groups, one by one endorsers came on board. Fax modems, phones and solidarity raps at numerous progressive meetings paved the way for the success of the mobilization. When the leadership of unions were reluctant, coalition members concentrated on the rank and file.

The politics of solidarity in the fight against budget cuts was put ahead of organizational identities, personal egos or individual issues. The coalition now includes dozens of groups, including the Same Boat Coalition, which brings together 200 New York City organizations ranging from unions to radical groups, numerous locals in the Service Employees International Union, Civil Service Employees Association (representing over 250,000 public employees in New York), Citizen Action of New York and the War Resisters League.

The Citizens Mobe unites both a broad base and multilevel political organizing approach. Its example offers, in however small a way, some hope and political lessons as Day 100 of the Contract on America's future nears.

Two relatively tiny organizations that before didn't even register on the Richter scale of unions or student groups show that a political commitment to a solidaristic message has broad appeal in the face of slash-and-burn budgets, which spread pain far and wide. This approach isn't merely politically correct, it makes a lot of sense in the battle that's being waged right now. In the current political climate, movements and organizations have to develop increasing militancy just to survive. If they can meet this challenge with creative responses, perhaps a national challenge to the Contract on America's future can be mounted after all.

ATC 56, May-June 1995

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