Texas workers fight cuts in public services

AUSTIN – The right wing’s drive to slash government services in Texas ran into stiff resistance when about 2,000 workers converged here April 9. They gathered to tell state leaders that Texas can’t afford cuts to the vital services provided by public agencies and their employees.

The occasion for this mass fight back was the Texas State Employees Union (TSEU) Lobby Day, a biennial event that brings state employees to Austin to march, rally, and take their issues directly to state legislators.

This year TSEU, the state’s largest public employee union and a local of the Communication Workers of America (CWA), was joined by workers from a number of private sector unions, other public sector unions, including teachers, the state AFL-CIO and several advocacy groups. Together they presented a united front against these cuts, which will hit hardest working people, the elderly, children, and the state’s most vulnerable citizens. In the past, participation in TSEU’s Lobby Day was limited to its own members and a handful of supporters.

In addition to fighting the cuts, TSEU and its allies demanded affordable health care for all working people, but especially state employees, who face huge increases in their health care costs and an end to the privatization of public services.

The proposed cuts in state services are aimed at making up Texas’ $10 billion budget shortfall. Speakers at the rally pointed out that the state is in the fix it is in now because George W. Bush spent his six years as governor giving state tax breaks to his rich friends. While low-income Texans pay 11.4 percent of their income in state taxes, those with the very highest incomes pay only 3.2 percent.

Joe Gunn, president of the state AFL-CIO, said that working people in Texas are “trying to get back what George Bush gave away, and now he’s trying to do the same thing to the nation.”

Texas also has a tax system riddled with loopholes that make it easy for businesses to avoid paying taxes. In her welcoming address to Lobby Day participants, Judy Lugo, TSEU president, told the crowd that state services could be preserved and expanded if everyone, including the rich and the businesses that they own, paid their fair share of taxes.

Andy Milburn, CWA regional director, said, “powerful corporations have seized control of the nation’s and state government” and were using their power to avoid paying their fair share of the cost to provide public services.

Instead of making businesses and the wealthy pay their fair share, the right wing leaders of the state are demanding that those who can least afford it bear more and more of the cost. For instance, they want to close down one state school and one state hospital, institutions that care for the state’s most vulnerable citizens.

Arthur Valdez, a TSEU executive board member from San Antonio, who works at a state school, said that closing down these institutions was a terrible act of disdain for the people served by state schools and hospital and their families. “It’s time for state officials to stop being so conservative with their compassion for people who need these services,” he said.

After the rally, union members spoke directly to legislators about their demands.

In one meeting, “Tracy,” a TSEU member from Austin, told a legislative aide that the proposed increases in health care coverage would cost her about $150 in prescription medicines she had to take for diabetes and asthma.

“Noelita,” another Austin member, said that when our families face hard times, “we cut back on luxuries, not necessities, not our bread and butter, because that’s what we need to survive. But state leaders are proposing just the opposite. When they cut vital service, they’re cutting the bread and butter of society.”

“Barbara,” a Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) worker, said that plans to privatize workforce programs in Texas will result in higher cost and worse service. She said one program operated by state employees that helps recently released offenders find jobs and re-integrate into society has been recognized for its success, but the TWC commissioner wants to privatize it. She went on to say that there is no way that staff from a private company can have the experience and knowledge to provide the same level of service being provided now.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org