Archive for July, 2008

How should state employees react?

July 31, 2008

The governor signed his order to temporarily reduce state employee pay to the federal minimum wage. Fortunately, we in the CSU are insulated from his antics (“We are working to ensure that CSU employees will receive their regular paychecks and can expect their normal compensation until a new budget is signed,” Chancellor Reed said in a recent press release.), but we are state employees and the governor has asked the CSU to comply voluntarily with the order, so his intent was that it would affect us too. What to do? There is no question we should stand in solidarity, not only with our sister union in CSEA, SEIU Local 1000 — who would be affected, but with all state employees, whether unionized or not (his order affects non-unionized managers as well). There are two arguments that I’ve heard so far on what action, or not, to take.

On one side there is the “we need to be professional” argument, sometimes stated as taking the higher ground and not stooping to his level. This side is not happy with the turn of events but argues we should not take the bait and get involved. There is something to be said for this argument, having to do with integrity and seeing yourself as the consummate public servant. Of course, it would be hard not be involved if you are one of the 22,000 “temporary” or seasonal workers losing your job. Republican state employees are more inclined to take this tack as they are embarrassed for their governor but don’t want to abandon all hope that he will come to his senses. For some reason they saw Arnold as more than just a CEO for the state, so this corporate behavior can be a little disconcerting. States, nor businesses for that matter, don’t have to be run this way, but it does seem to be the current fad. 

On the other side there is the argument that the governor apparently needs to hear from us again, like he did with his special election attack on state employee unions a few years back. There are two approaches on this side. One says if employees are to be paid minimum wage then they should deliver work that is only worth $6.55 an hour. There are two major flaws with this particular argument.

One is that state employees are to be paid eventually (I’m assuming without interest because I haven’t heard that mentioned, which can hurt those who have to borrow money to get by) so this argument to “work to rule” doesn’t quite make sense. (BTW — The state employee credit union, Golden One, has said that for existing members with direct deposit they will provide interest-free loans equal to full wages until the budget passes. This is one of the many advantages to having your money in a credit union owned by the members, as opposed to a for-profit bank, owned by private shareholders.)

The second flaw in producing like you are being paid minimum wage has to do with the underlying assumption of low-paid work. This fallacious assumption feeds into the economic myth of meritocracy, which says that the harder you work, the more you are rewarded. While this may be true in a few lucky exceptions, the reality of our economic system is often just the opposite: the harder you work the less you are paid. So if we follow this through, state employees should be working harder than ever under minimum wage. We are, of course, speaking of working for wages and not for yourself. (I’m also not confusing physical and mental work together, comparing apples to oranges, so to speak. The mental/manual split is another myth of the working world. This idea pretends that physical labor is “unskilled” and mentally easy, again often the opposite of reality. Lots of very physical work also takes great mental discipline, skill and agility, and concentration — especially if you want to avoid injury. And on the other side, I know you’ve heard that stress kills. How is that not physical?)

The second approach to letting the governor know what we think about what he thinks about our everyday efforts on behalf of the state, assuming you agree that there is a need for us to react, is to put pressure on the process somehow. The trick is to do it not in the way the governor intended — which was to demand the Democrats give up the idea of new revenue and make deeper cuts than already proposed — but to help get a budget that doesn’t hurt working people in the state and continues to ensure that we are investing in our collective future. 

With all the press coverage provided on the budget impasse what is often missed is the bottom line, which is that the Republicans, a minority party in California, are holding the budget process hostage. Calls to reach budget compromise, often spoken against the entire legislature as “not doing their job,” miss the mark. There is not equal weight on both sides in their unwillingness to compromise. The fact of the matter is: the Democratic budget proposal is a compromise because it contains both cuts and suggestions for new revenue. If the Democrats were to present a parallel proposal to the Republican “no new taxes” mantra, it would not include any cuts to social programs. Holding an absolute “no new taxes” agenda avoids any public debate over whether everyone is paying his or her fair share. The Republicans represent a minority, unfortunately, a powerful minority. For them, holding the budget hostage is a wedge to loosen labor laws and environmental restraints, etc. — things having little to do with the budget directly.

So the message should be, loud and clear, hold the line Democrats; don’t cave. You’ve compromised enough. How long can they hold out? It may be up to state employees. We may be able to last through the November election. It’s a long shot but possible that the Democrats can pick up enough seats (the question is: how big are Obama’s coattails?) to have a 2/3 majority outright. Just two seats in the State Senate and six in the State Assembly are all that’s needed. The governor at any point after a budget is passed can still exercise his line-item veto before he signs it and make any cuts he thinks he can politically get away with.

Other than that, I don’t have a short-term fix to the budget process because we are too deep in the dodo. I do have long-term ideas, with the strong bias that any eventual fixes to our budget process be democracy-enhancing (e.g. a simple return to majority rule would be a good start).

I’ve said it before, the budget process is about values. What kind of state do we want to be? One where quality of life for everyone (especially working people) is a focus or one where a powerful minority who are bent on playing Monopoly in real time get their way with the majority. We call this a democracy, but sometimes you have to wonder.