Negotiating within the vise of capitalism
Once again our union is fighting for a contract that meets the needs of faculty and staff, and once again the other side – CUNY managers, City Hall and Albany – has a tremendous advantage in negotiations. This advantage derives not from management’s negotiating skills, but ultimately from the fact that NYC is dominated by a business elite (Wall Street financiers, real estate tycoons, and the CEOs of scores of Fortune 500 companies, whose headquarters dominate the skyline of lower Manhattan). This elite has successfully pushed its pro-business agenda for decades, which includes keeping business taxes and commercial real estate taxes at a minimum, spending hundreds of millions on tax exemptions and abatements for office and luxury buildings, reducing the cost of social programs (including CUNY), and lowering the real wages and benefits of municipal workers. The decline in the real salaries of CUNY professors and staff and the increased use of adjuncts (whose miserable salaries are shameful) are two manifestations of the business elite’s success in realizing its agenda.
The process of negotiations is rigged in the following manner for the purpose of keeping both labor costs and taxes on business as low as possible.
(1) Pattern bargaining: The Mayor and the Governor pick the weakest city and state union with which to sign a contracts that grants wage increases no higher than the rate of inflation. These contracts are then said to “determine the pattern” for every other union. In NYC, the union selected to “set the pattern” has been D.C. 37, a fragmented coalition of locals, whose top leadership is renowned for its corruption and willingness to make deals with City Hall that sacrifice the interests of its members.
(2) Paying for our own contract: This concept states that any salary improvements beyond the inflation rate must be paid with concessions. So the UFT was able to “win” higher salary increases but only by making terrible concessions, including a longer workday and year, extra workload and assignments for teachers, and the surrender of due process rights.
(3) Taylor Law: Although we’re repeatedly assured by politicians that we live in a “free society,” city and state workers are forbidden from exercising one of our basic rights, the ability to withdraw our labor in order to press our demands. Even advocating a strike is illegal under the Taylor Law, and any union that’s courageous enough to strike – as the TWU was in 2005 – faces penalties intended to bankrupt it. The only way that workers can bargain from a position of strength is by breaking down the artificial barriers between unions, ignoring the Taylor Law and waging a general strike.
Another feature of labor contracts under capitalism is across-the-board salary increases, which only widen the gap between the highest paid employees and the lowest paid. This divides our ranks, and we believe that solidarity demands that we support higher increases for the lowest paid, including adjuncts. It also demands that we fight for lower class size for our students and more full-time jobs.
Business groups like the Citizens Budget Commission, the City Club, the Real Estate Board of New York, the Rockefeller-led Downtown-Lower Manhattan Association, and the Partnership for New York (founded in 1979 by billionaire David Rockefeller) have aggressively lobbied for their pro-business agenda, which includes reducing the redistributive function of government. So has the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think-tank that was founded and funded in the late 1970’s by denizens of Wall Street, and which found an enthusiastic advocate for its policies in former Mayor and now presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani.
For years following the fiscal crisis of 1975, unelected committees like the Emergency Financial Control Board and the Municipal Assistance Corporation controlled NYC spending and borrowing, and were headed by bankers like Felix Rohatyn and corporate executives like David Margolis of Colt Industries, who forced through mass layoffs, wage freezes and reduced pension benefits. Moreover, every Mayor in recent decades (Koch, Dinkins, Giuliani) has won office by procuring millions in campaign contributions from the investment bankers, real estate developers and corporate executives who form NYC’s “permanent government,” and who expect their interests to be advanced by City Hall. Bloomberg, who claims to be independent of special interests, is actually a leading member of the business elite and fully committed to its agenda. The Mayor, whose Bloomberg LP is the largest financial news and data company in the world, is a billionaire who spent $74 million of his own money on his 2001 campaign. Finally, when necessary, big business can always use its ultimate weapon – the threat to leave NYC and throw thousands out of work.
strong>Capitalism Works – But Only for the Rich!
If we determine the success or failure of an economic system by the well being of the majority of the population, capitalism would have to be considered a colossal failure. From Nigeria to South Africa, from Mexico to Argentina, from Russia to China, all over the world, the majority of people have trouble making ends meet. Most work in low-wage, boring jobs that sap their health and their intelligence. Many have no work at all and no access to health care or decent schools. Tens of millions die each year of hunger or preventable diseases.
What about NYC, the wealthiest city in the world? Consider:
• Despite the ‘90’s being a period of economic growth, four-fifths of NYC families saw their real incomes (adjusted for inflation) drop from 1989 to 1999. The poorest fifth of these families saw their incomes drop by 13 %, while the next poorest fifth lost 16%, the middle fifth lost 12% of their income, and the fourth fifth lost 5%. The fact that the wealthiest fifth gained 18% in income, while the wealthiest 5% gained 31% over the decade, led the NY Times to observe, “the rich are getting richer and the poor are growing in number.” Increasing inequality is one of the essential features of capitalism. By 2005, the top 20% of Manhattan earners made fifty-two times what the bottom 20% earned.
• The wealthy financial and corporate sector of NYC’s economy depends upon a large low-wage service sector, staffed by mainly black, Latino and immigrant workers, a contrast of wealth that reveals the racist heart of capitalism. In 2001, 20% of the city’s workforce earned $8 an hour or less, and 80% of these low-wage workers were black or Latino.
• With the wealthy sending their children to private schools, NYC’s public education system – which feeds CUNY – is a disgraceful failure. Overwhelmingly segregated, overcrowded and under funded, with class size considerably larger than the state average, NYC schools provide a quality education to only a select few. Most students, by the city’s own statistics, either drop out before graduating or are unprepared for college level work. Black and Latino communities have the worst performing schools, often with the most inexperienced teachers, and most students in those schools score poorly on state reading and math tests. Only a shocking 1% of black students in NYC pass a single Advanced Placement exam.
This failure to educate is deliberate, and reproduces the social hierarchy of capitalism. Spending on education fell from 29% of city expenditures in the early 70’s to 24% in 2005. Since large numbers of students are destined for dead-end jobs in the low-wage service sector, there is little motivation on the part of political and business elites to improve the school system, despite much rhetoric to the contrary.
Capitalism Has Failed and Should be Left Behind
It should be obvious that capitalism is a failed social system. It provides immense wealth for a privileged few and heart-wrenching poverty and insecurity for billions. A sixth of humanity, over a billion people, live in slums, without many of the basic necessities of life. U.S. capitalism, a dominant power for most of the 20th century, now faces increased competition from rivals in the EU, Russia and China. As these regional rivals grow in economic and military power, U.S. imperialism has decided to use its superior military might to secure control over much of the world’s energy resources, a control that it hopes will give it an advantage in future conflicts. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have perished for this reason, and there is little doubt that more wars and more death and destruction are on the horizon. With more and more money diverted from social programs in order to pay for military expenditures, federal, state and city workers are being pressured to accept inferior “war contracts.”
Why continue to support a system that produces poverty, inequality, racism, environmental ruin, and endless imperialist war? We’re told that the failures of Soviet and Chinese socialism “prove” that there’s no alternative to capitalism, and many believe it. But people didn’t stop building bridges when the first ones they constructed fell down. People all over the world are looking for ways to get “beyond capital,” to build an egalitarian society worthy of humanity.
The capitalists have their organizations. The working class needs its own, one that fights for its class interests. The communist Progressive Labor Party is trying to be that organization. Professors can play an important role by letting their students know the truth about capitalism, by exposing the tracking and ideological functions of schools under bourgeois rule, and by recruiting a new generation of revolutionary communist fighters. Join us!