Brenda Stokely is president of AFSMCE District Council 1707 in New York, which represents 23,000 day-care and home-care workers. Her fierce pride in the rank and file of her union is embodied in the South African saying, “When you have struck a woman, you have struck a rock.”
“Our union represents the lowest-paid public-service workers in the service indus try, the day-care workers and home health aides,” she told Workers World. “The major source of funding for their work is the federal government. The majority of the workers in these jobs are women, women of color and immigrant women.”
Now these workers face a vicious campaign of privatization and union busting.
Democrats and Republicans attack services
Stokely began organizing in the 1960s when working women and the civil-rights movement demanded day care for children. Organized protests forced the federal government to respond with programs such as Head Start, while public agencies had to open public child-care facilities.
Until the Carter years, said Stokely, day care was expanding. Then, under Democratic President Jimmy Carter, cutbacks to Section 8 housing and food stamps began the attack on the poor and ended the expansion of social services.
Cutbacks under Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were serious, she said, but it was Demo cratic President Bill Clinton who in 1996 “ended welfare as we know it.”
Clinton signed the law that created Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, to replace Aid to Families with Dependent Children. TANF is a monthly cash assistance program for poor families with children under age 18. TANF demolished most of the welfare net” provisions won 60 years before through the struggles of the 1930s.
TANF includes a four-year lifetime limit on assistance. Many families reached that limit by 2000.(state.ga.us)
Now, President George W. Bush is mounting a full-court press to scale back or eliminate public programs such as day care, health care and even what’s left of welfare. The government works in tandem with capitalists devouring the public sector in the mad rush toward privatization and profit.
Brenda Stokely notes that the “move toward privatization of home health care began with the privatization of the agencies, making this a profit-making sector. The same thing has happened with prisons. And now Lockheed is bidding for the food stamp program.”
Labor unions under siege
To guarantee that they can make profits from previously public services, the capitalist privatizers are simultaneously attacking the unions that represent public-service workers.
37.5 percent of public-sector workers are union members. That’s compared to 9.5 percent of private-sector workers. (migrationint.com)
Unionized public-service workers get higher wages and better benefits. So big business has taken aim at public-employee unions and benefits.
Stokely pointed out that three states—Indiana, Kentucky and Missouri—have recently abolished collective bargaining for public-service employees. She added that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzen egger has called for a state constitutional amendment abolishing union dues collection and ending the pension system for California public workers.
Reactionaries claim that the benefits to these unionized workers are “too rich.” (www.acera.org)
Stokely sees these attacks on labor as an “assault on the right to organize, the right to collective bargaining, the right to pensions.” The state and the capitalist class are coordinating a violent campaign against workers that “allows for a rampage of layoffs. Collective bargaining narrows the arbitrary and capricious behavior of the bosses, and allows more equitable pay and workers’ right to due process. That is why the states are going after unions.”
In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has refused to negotiate with public-sector workers, ignoring collective-bargaining agreements.
In a contract yet to be formally ratified with District Council 1707, the mayor has frozen wages for day-care workers. These women make $10,000 to $30,000 less per year than other public employees. They live below the poverty line.
Stokely points out: “The average day-care worker makes $26,000 a year or less. They make about $6.48 an hour compared to the $12 million spent an hour for war. If this same day-care worker is asking for only a 4-percent raise on their $26,000 annual salary, they would get only 25 cents more added to their hourly wage.”
New York City has simultaneously set up a two-tiered wage system for day-care teachers, with new hires to receive 11 percent less than the current workers. The city made a 2-percent wage increase after April 1, contingent upon worker givebacks. The city is offering nothing to retirees except denial of health care.
Stokely said that New York City is closing 67 of 90 day-care centers. The city is not enforcing the teacher-child ratio because of cutbacks. And after-school programs for school-age children have been cut.
The city refuses to pay for the building leases of after-school programs. Bloom berg is putting all these programs out to bid to private companies.
Stokely warns that these policies will cost a lot. Understaffed facilities are dangerous to workers and deprive children of proper care. She noted that some of the women in her union work with children who have serious emotional problems. A troubled teenaged girl severely burned one worker, who was unable to get help in a crisis situation.
“When TANF was cut, mothers receiving public assistance were forced to go to work. Now, if they get wage increases of as little as $2 a month, they are denied day care. What are they to do?”
Stokely continued, “These cutbacks represent tremendous losses for the communities.”
A day-care teacher on Long Island told Workers World that 30 children have been cut from a school that services over 200 children. The teacher said that “the parents and children were in tears when they learned they were no longer eligible for day care.”An assistant teacher who makes $7 an hour added, “Many of our classrooms are understaffed since we can’t find qualified people to work for these wages.”
Child care can cost parents $4,000 to $12,000 a year—more than public college tuition. The co-payments poor families have to pay are over $400 a month in most states. (tompaine.com)
Stokely concluded: “1707 workers believe day care is a right, as do the parents of their students. The activists in the communities are forming groups. There is a groundswell calling for day care to be expanded, not destroyed.
“When the bosses try to separate us by race or nationality, workers see how the two-tier system hurts them, how they are divided so that the bosses can take away pension rights and health care. They understand that they have to be unified and make alliances with the communities they work in.”
Last June in New York it was the women of District Council 1707, the only public employees working without a contract at the time, who struck. Their three-day work stoppage demonstrated their militancy. And when 1707 walked, the children, parents and grandparents did too-walking the picket lines alongside their day-care teachers and staffers.
Stokely criticized union leaders who call for “class peace” when conditions facing pub lic workers call for militancy and struggle.
A leading organizer for the Million Worker March, which ties the U.S. war on Iraq to the cutbacks in social spending, Stokely says: “While this government doesn’t blink an eye as it spends $300 million a day in its quest to subjugate another people and their resources, it turns a deaf ear to the cries of the day-care workers and other working families in need of a livable wage.
“It is therefore necessary for working people to connect the attacks on their right to just wages and to organize with the cutbacks in government spending for education, health care, and safe and affordable housing.”