With ‘Fiscal Cliff’ Looming, Unions Keep Pressure on Lawmakers

With the so-called “fiscal cliff” looming on Jan. 1, unions kept pressure on lawmakers to preserve Social Security and Medicare, key government programs and to extend jobless benefits while raising taxes on the rich.

But whether lawmakers were listening was up for question.  The GOP-run House refused to budge from its pro-corporate stand, leaving the Democratic-run Senate – hamstrung by the usual GOP filibuster threats – to thrash out a compromise.

And Republicans on both sides of Capitol Hill are determined to preserve tax cuts for the top 2%, even at the expense of everyone else.

That led AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka to call the GOP’s stand “the last gasp of a plutocracy trying to nullify the results” of the November election won by Democratic President Barack Obama.  Obama, Trumka noted, explicitly advocated raising taxes on the last dollars the wealthy earn.

And Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry added: “House Republicans showed their true colors.  First, they voted to slash funding for Medicaid, child care, and other vital services.  Then they refused to ask even the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share.  House Republicans are willing to allow middle class taxes to increase in order to protect tax breaks for millionaires.”

But in bargaining with the GOP, Obama irked unionists and their allies by suggesting a cut – really a reduced increase – in future Social Security payments.  He wants to recalculate the consumer price index used to figure annual Social Security cost-of-living hikes.  The average Social Security recipient gets just over $14,000 yearly.

All this came as economists of all stripes warned that imposition of the payroll tax increases, the ending of jobless benefits and the billions being cut from federal spending starting Jan. 1 could throw the economy right back into recession again.

Just the payroll tax hike alone would cost the average middle class family $2,200 a year, curbing the spending power they now have and that is needed to keep the economy back on a long, long track to health.

The threat of the fiscal cliff kept unionists campaigning in the streets and over the airwaves.  AFSCME, the Service Employees and the National Education Association bought a second round of media ads, costing at least $500,000, demanding lawmakers protect Social Security and Medicare from the budget ax.

“SEIU and its partners are making it clear that it won’t be a wonderful life for the vast majority of Americans if” GOP House Speaker John Boehner’s “vision for America is realized in the coming weeks.  A new ad entitled ‘Boehnerville’ paints the bleak picture of what faces the U.S. if education is cut and Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are put at risk,” the three unions said.

“The ad calls on people to call their member of Congress to urge them to protect Medicare and Social Security, while also voting to make the rich pay their fair share.”
Other unions warned of specific harms if the budget cuts, called sequestration, began.

Air Traffic Controllers President Paul Rinaldi said the 8.2% cut in the Federal Aviation Administration’s budget – the cut proposed for all domestic agencies – would force the layoff of between 2,000 and 2,200 of the nation’s 16,000 air traffic controllers.

“As the front line safety professionals in the aviation community, it is our role to warn the rest of the country that these cuts will be detrimental to our National Airspace System and the economy,” said NATCA President Paul Rinaldi.

A report which the union commissioned “states that all users and operators of the National Airspace System (NAS) including travelers, general aviation pilots, airlines, businesses and the military, will feel the impact of the cuts in the form of a reduction in airport and air traffic control services, a diminishing of the NAS’s flight capacity, increased delays and costs to airlines and lags in air traffic modernization.”

American Federation of Government Employees Legislative Director Beth Moten urged her union’s hundreds of thousands of members to swamp the Capitol switchboard with calls.  She said federal workers were forced to go without raises for at least two years while faced with GOP legislation – which Obama signed – forcing $103 billion in rising  worker co-pays for their pensions.  Federal union members have sacrificed enough, AFGE said.  Now it’s time for the rich to chip in, too, the union advocated.

“If we are going to prevent more cuts WE MUST GET THE ATTENTION OF LAWMAKERS,” AFGE said, and the capital letters were theirs.  “A steady flood of calls is going to be necessary to overcome the general lack of knowledge on Capitol Hill about the enormous sacrifices our members have already made.”

Obama’s “agenda remains the basic tax fairness agenda he ran and won on in November,” Trumka explained on Dec. 29.  That agenda features “ending the Bush tax cuts for the 2% of Americans making over $250,000, and extending those same tax cuts for the 98%, while at the same time extending unemployment benefits for the millions of Americans still looking for work…Large majorities support an end to the Bush tax cuts for those making over $250,000, and no cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid benefits.  Large majorities do not want the destructive sequester.  Obama won re-election on that platform.”