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How To Defend the Public Sector


The attacks on the public domain, particularly public education, social services, and the public sector unions that are linked to these services, are coming in rapid-fire succession, sometimes in an overwhelming barrage where the victims have little time to comprehend what is happening and respond effectively.

This should come as little surprise. The attacks are part of a well orchestrated, decades-long campaign initiated by the corporate sector, which is intent on ensuring that government policy be crafted in their own narrow self interests, which they disingenuously equate with the public good. They are promoting raw, free-market capitalism, which includes the privatization of government services, including education, the elimination of government regulations on businesses whenever possible, the reduction of taxes on corporations and the rich, the evisceration of workers’ rights and their wages and benefits, and so on.

In contrast, the victims of these campaigns understandably often have little comprehension why these attacks have been launched and where they are headed.

To promote their agenda, corporations have donated generously to the election campaigns of politicians and have created their own research institutions in order to produce reports that can influence the media and turn public opinion in their favor.

As a result, government funding of public education has dropped precipitously across the country resulting in massive layoffs of teachers; the cost of public higher education has shifted to students and their families by raising tuition astronomically; public sector unions have lost bargaining rights; the wages and benefits of working people have declined; government services have been slashed; but corporate and wealthy individual taxes have plunged. All these trends have contributed to a historically high growth of income inequality.


How Working People Can Respond Effectively

One of the most powerful weapons working people have at their disposal is public opinion. The working class comprises by far the majority of the population, and in a democratic society purportedly the will of the majority prevails. Unfortunately, narrow special interests have been able to offset this principle by investing their money in politicians and media coverage. But working people and their unions can fight back.

For example, while small rallies are usually ignored by the media, huge rallies attract coverage and can provide free advertisement for the cause. The message at these rallies must be clear: Speakers must stay on topic; fliers should be distributed that provide an analysis of the attacks and cogent arguments defending the role of the public sector; the need for strong unions, for quality, accessible public education; and for vital and humane social services. And powerful arguments must be raised that underscore the beneficial impact of all these causes on the good of society as a whole. The struggle must not be cast as one more special interest prepared to fight for itself alone.

There is a tendency for those under attack to want prominent public figures to join their events and speak on their behalf. The inclusion of these people will always help, but it can never substitute for organizing the ranks of those under attack. If the victims stand together in a massive united force, this will have a positive impact on public opinion and the likelihood of attracting prominent personalities will be enhanced. If the victims are divided, some accepting the attacks as appropriate and some not, winning over public opinion becomes virtually impossible. Therefore, if differences among the victims exist, it is best to confront them directly through dialogue so that hopefully differences can be resolved or at least minimized.

A common fallacy among victims is the belief that “friendly” politicians will come to the rescue and save the day. Unfortunately, many of these “progressive” politicians have divided loyalties. Although Democratic Party politicians, for example, get considerable money from unions, they get much more from corporations and hence have done little to stem the downward decline of unions and working people during the past three decades.

Nevertheless politicians do need the votes of working people and their allies in order to win elections, and accordingly, they are sensitive to public opinion, which makes it all the more crucial that those in the struggle reach out to the public to win support.

Help from politicians, if no strings are attached, should be accepted, but politicians cannot be relied on. An independent movement of working people will have far more success in winning the support of politicians than pleas from victims who are powerless.

Huge rallies are an indispensable component in the struggle, although alone they are insufficient. A speakers’ bureau should be established where those under direct attack send out representatives to other unions, community groups and radio stations to present the facts, again, carefully explaining how society as a whole will be positively impacted by a victory. If enough money is available, one-page ads that lay out the arguments can be placed in local newspapers.

All these efforts should be aimed at creating a movement where working people can unite over the issues that rank highest for them: quality public education and full social services, full employment with living wages and full benefits, protection of the environment, health care for all, etc. By framing the struggle in the broader terms of defending the public good and the interests of the majority, a strong coalition can be created that has the power to influence social policy.

Taxing the rich to pay for these services should be a central demand. Not only would higher taxes on the rich help rein in the growing inequalities in wealth that undermine the social fabric of society, they unite working people — since all benefit at the expense of the rich — rather than divide them, as do regressive sales and property taxes which target everyone. When the public senses that those who are struggling are prepared to promote their cause at the expense of other working people, support dries up.

The unions must play a central role in such a coalition. First, they have an array of resources that can help the cause, including money, professional organizers who can be assigned to the struggle, and access to huge mailing lists. Second, because those who run the unions are elected, they generally have the broad support of their membership and can heavily influence whether and how their members participate in the struggle.

All this is to say that those who are under attack must come to the recognition that they are confronting well-organized opponents who understand exactly what they are doing. As Warren Buffet has pointed out, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” This means that working people must first decide whether they simply want to register a small protest in order to vent their frustrations and then gracefully accept defeat, or step onto the battlefield prepared to wage war by undertaking a massive organizing campaign in order to make history and win. The stakes are high.

Ann Robertson is a Lecturer at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association.

Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached at

Ann Robertson is a Lecturer in the Philosophy Department at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association. Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached at

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