What to Do About California's Budget Crisis?

By Joe Navarro, a Trustee of the Hollister School District and a Green Party member

Lately, we have heard a lot of attacks in the media, from conservative politicians, political think tanks and the media itself, against the right of public employee unions to collective bargaining.  The attacks come in various forms, such as using the scare tactic of arguing that public employee unions have too much power and control elected officials, or that public sector workers should not be able to negotiate wages, benefits and conditions because they cause financial problems for economically troubled states.

Beginning with the show-down in Wisconsin, various states have begun to follow the lead of Governor Scott Walker to deprive unions of their power to collective bargaining.  This assault on unions has led to some surprising responses, including massive protests and confrontation between public sector workers and the states.   In one sense it had the effect of causing working people to question their position in society and has made it clear that workers are a "class" of people, regardless of whether they work in private industry or in the public sector in government jobs, including teachers.

I have heard some alarming comments from workers who argue that since they have been forced to accept pay cuts, or reduced work hours that public workers should also have to share in the pain.  This worries me in the sense that when unionized workers have made gains, the gains have benefited all working people.  Things like the eight hour day, ending child labor, over-time pay, health and welfare benefits and labor laws to protect workers' rights were a result of unions.  To argue that if I'm suffering therefore you should suffer too makes no sense.  The opposite should be true, we should argue that if unionized workers can improve their benefits or at least hold on to them, we should all be able to as well.

If we look at California, the state is facing an economic crisis.  Funding for public sector workers is being diminished.  There are options to help the state relieve this crisis.  One of them is to tax the rich.  The media has been reporting that in comparison to the rest of us, wealthy corporations pay a smaller portion of taxes, or do not pay taxes at all.  The rest of us, working people--the majority--pay the lion's share of taxes.  Yet there is not enough money to fully fund schools, fire departments and other public agencies.

Unions are often portrayed as special interest groups.  Yet corporations, who have been declared by the U.S. Supreme Court as individuals, are allowed to contribute millions of dollars to political action committees without having to disclose who they are.  

The effect on education in California is that conservative Republicans claim that there is not enough money for public education and that schools just need to quit wasting money.  Pushing aside all the ridiculous mandates, unrealistic standards and forcing schools to teach to the test, the state has undermined public education through underfunding schools.  The long term consequences are going to be much more costly if you factor in the correlation between the increased incarceration rate of adults who failed in school and the fact that undereducated people will not have the means to support themselves.  Instead of putting the burden of funding schools onto the backs of working people--by either forcing us to pay more taxes or underfunding schools--the wealthy people of this state should simply be forced to pay their fair share.

I cannot blame school employee unions for not wanting to accept pay and benefit cuts.  I would argue that if the unions were not representing the teachers and other school employees throughout the state, then cuts would be much more severe, job losses would be greater and services to children might be diminished on a much larger scale.

Yet, the state reduces funding of schools and forces local districts to operate schools on meager funds.  On the local level we are the ones burdened with the tough decisions about where to make cuts or find ways to raise money like Hollister's Measure A.  

The California Teachers Association has declared a State of Emergency in California with regards to the current funding crisis.  They have organized protests throughout the state and at the state capital.  Some teachers have been arrested.  All of us should be in Sacramento waving signs and making our voices heard.   I support their actions and believe that anyone involved in education, including school board members, parents, teachers and other school employees should unite and oppose funding cuts and demand that the legislature take the bold action of forcing the rich to pay their fair share of taxes to offset this budget crisis.