Labor - And A Whole Lot More

The Terminator Will Get You If You Don't Watch Out
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If you work for a living, watch out: Arnold Schwarzenegger is on the loose. You could be The Terminator's next target.

You'll be OK if you're one of the corporate fat cats who contributed more than $33 million to the governor over the past year. But if not, well - think of what he's already done - or tried to do - to teachers and nurses and those in many other occupations.

Think of how he's even refused to allow the minimum wage to be raised to a level that might lift thousands of Californians out of poverty. How he's even gone after retirees.

How he's branded as "special interests" the ordinary working people he's targeted on behalf of his wealthy backers.

California's schools desperately need much greater state funding. Many need repairing or replacing. Most need more teachers, with the ratio of students to teachers the country's second highest. Teacher pay is less than the national average and spending per pupil lower than in all but seven other states.

Yet Schwarzenegger has called for only a relatively token increase in funding, despite the promise he made last year to increase funding substantially if state revenue increased -- as it has. Instead of meeting the schools' basic needs, he's blaming the schools' problems on teachers who have become "ineffective" because teachers are paid and hold their jobs mainly on the basis of seniority rather than "performance." He wants pay and tenure based strictly on "merit," which would subject teachers to the whims of whoever might determine just what "merit" entails and whether they meet the standard.

Raising more money for the schools, perhaps even by raising the taxes of the governor's political allies, will have to wait while he fights teachers and others who oppose his merit-based plan, a heroic struggle he describes as "a battle of the special interests versus the children';s interests."

The need to help the millions of California workers and their families who can';t afford basic health care is as urgent as the need to put much more money into education. But Schwarzenegger has proposed nothing more than discount cards that would allow an estimated 5 million lower-income residents to buy cheaper prescription drugs --assuming, of course, that they could afford the drugs, even with the discounts.

Employer-financed health insurance would help greatly, but the governor, ever mindful of his corporate employer friends, thinks that's a terrible idea. He campaigned mightily last fall against the ballot proposition -- No. 72 -- that would have required many employers to provide the insurance. He had time enough, though, to also campaign for Prop. 64 that wiped out the right of workers to sue employers who cheat them out of pay and benefits.

Teachers aren't the only public employees in Schwarzenegger's sights. His proposals would seriously undermine the pension systems that cover everyone who holds any kind of state or local government job by privatizing them in much the same way as President Bush is trying to privatize the Social Security system.

Under the current system, employees are guaranteed retirement benefits of a fixed amount, but under the governor's plan, those hired after 2007 would get only what might be earned by investments they made from personal retirement accounts.

It's not clear how retirees might fare under such a system, but it is clear that the financial services firms that contributed millions to Schwarzenegger would do very well indeed by stepping in to manage the personal accounts. As a further bonus for the governor's friends, the two huge state funds that operate the current pension systems would lose the clout they have used to pressure some employers into being more worker-friendly.

The hospital corporations that also contributed many dollars to Schwarzenegger got their payoff when the governor blocked implementation of a law that was to have reduced the ratio of one nurse for every six hospital patients to one for every five patients. The governor acted under his emergency powers, the "emergency" being that the hospitals would have to hire more nurses.

The California Nurses Association, which is suing to overturn Schwarzenegger's action, says that's precisely the point - that hospitals need more nurses to increase what are now unsafe staffing levels. The ever- eloquent governor, you'll recall, responded to the nurses' complaints by labeling them as ";special interests who don't like me because I am always kicking their butt."

Another alleged but not clearly specified "emergency" has led Schwarzenegger to try to weaken the law that guarantees workers lunch breaks. He wants to allow employers to keep them working six hours without a meal break, with the option of getting them to agree "voluntarily" to have no lunch break at all.

There's more, much more, on Schwarzenegger's anti-worker record. For instance, he vetoed bills that would have raised California's pitifully inadequate minimum wage of $6.75 an hour by a mere $1 over the next two years, would have denied state contracts to employers who planned to have the job done by workers overseas and would have provided vineyard workers greater protection from pesticides. He even vetoed a bill that would have guaranteed rest periods to hotel maids.

It's a truly breath-taking record, easily putting Arnold Schwarzenegger right up there with such world-class worker-bashers as George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. And it's certain there's even more to come.

Copyright 2005 Dick Meister