A Worker’s Views on the Budget

Tuesday June 01, 2004

For me, awaiting the new city budget is a lot like waiting to read the book based on the lousy movie. The really awful part is that I had the same feeling watching a spark ignite the worn gas line in my ’75 bug, and again after W’s Sept. 12 speech. Disastrous aftermaths often develop from similar avoidable beginnings; there are remarkable parallels between the war against terrorism and Berkeley’s war against the budget crisis.  

Both crusades are so well titled, so well framed, that to most of us, it seems unreasonable, even irresponsible for a person to say, no, I have another option, or, no, I am against it. No person that you or I am comfortable talking with actually wants more death or financial collapse, and this factor is exploited by the emergency mongers who constantly remind us that in times of fearful crisis, people must be prepared to do unusual things, things we might otherwise be ashamed of doing. Fearful crisis will allow a person justification for brutally eliminating the enemy. It will make one re-examine their well-reasoned position; it can destroy you if you stand in the way. It is a catalyst of such immediacy and influence that its authors cannot necessarily control the change. It is a sort of functional autonomy. 

The executives seem so earnest and so pressed, so without options, so having no solution except THE solution, that we empathize and come to refer to them personally as Dick and George and Condie, and Phil, and endorse their struggle as they valiantly set to slay demonic hordes allayed against the innocent; hordes unknown as enemy, maybe unknown unto themselves, unknown to taxpayers, but demonic the same: Muslims, Darkies, Unions. 

Never mind that the people charged with intelligently forecasting and planning do claim to have been caught by surprise, also there is blind acceptance that those that reaped great benefit from the very thing they now attack—oil suppliers, military alliance, salary and benefits—are so terribly needed and are not the least bit self-serving, and are not using the cover of the crisis to settle old scores and make advantage. You can take this to the bank: The executives responsible will be unscathed by the crisis and will soon enjoy the greatest retirement benefits taxpayers can provide.  

There are many people who not only see through the b.s., but also will tell the world of the news they’ve found. Unfortunately for progress, we find that messages from these enlightened ones are habitually downplayed as the ruminations of impractical dreamers, malcontents, and counter-culture types. The situation had even caused me to wonder if there was some mass hypnosis causing once thoughtful people to abandon complex reasoning and seek peace in expedient simplicity. Never mind if truth is apparent—increasingly if you are trying to sell a proposition, socioeconomic or cuteness status of the proponent is as often the determinant of what is acted on as any. White collar trumps blue collar; big salary people are more right than littler salary people; labels are product. Just as some viruses infest only healthy hosts, crass demonizations have been fixed on every progressive function Berkeley is known for: liberals are too vague, affordable housing is unaffordable, Nader is too divisive, Black Rep and curb cuts are too expensive, commissions are too bothersome, teachers are too pushy, university too big, social agencies too ineffective, and those greedy powerful unionized city workers … well, they’re fairly employed. 

For years I have pointed out to several city officials that they have wasted a lot of money by hiring contractors and incompetents (whose work we often have corrected) and violating our contract and classification system to perform telephone and electrical work when the city communication techs and electricians of IBEW Local 1245 do the same things better and at long-term savings. The response has been to obfuscate, stall, ignore our rights, and then layoff because of a false schemed lack of work and funding. Kind of what happened to the UN peacekeeping force. 

It would signal that a new day has come if the proposals by the workers are implemented. There is still opportunity that together--taxpayer and taxpayer funded—we will rescue our perhaps last chance to get it right. Getting it right requires acknowledging the truth, which is that workers have expended several hundreds of unpaid hours attempting to resolve the budget crisis situation. I am one of many city employees who feel special indebtedness to this city for its place in the civil and human rights struggles and, though I live in Oakland, consider Berkeley’s problems as my own. Giving back to the city is something I and many workers aim to do everyday, so don’t take a lack of agreement with the city manager’s/budget oversight committees’ ultimatums as an affront to Berkeley’s generosity. We have been helping and are trying to overcome the resistance from obstinate administrators so we can help more. They have told us it is all political and that appearances require workers seem to contribute in the way the executives and council have selected. The truth is political posturing makes us gag and workers contribute proportionally far more than the high-paid executives contribute and have far less left over. We have feelings too and have been pummeled by false characterizations, misrepresentations, blanket accusations, and the stunning silence of the city manager’s failure to defend scapegoated workers who got less benefit from their meager labor contracts than his executive team gets. The administration’s refrain, even when there was plenty of time, has been they don’t have sufficient time remaining to evaluate our proposals. If I paid property taxes in Berkeley I would demand the decision makers use a little more of the reserves for this next fiscal year so that layoffs and program cuts can be prevented while benefits of the workers’ proposals are realized, and seriously evaluate the workers’ proposals and implement them immediately. Trust the workers and they will soon show you what true cooperation among people who appreciate and like each other can produce. 

I’ve empirically proven to myself so many times that optimism is the attitude that rewards itself. But hey, I’m the kind of person who believes that a sincere apology, reparations, and new leadership can prevent the loss of American lives in Iraq and make us safer at home.  


Pat McCullough is an employee of the City of Berkeley and an Oakland resident. ›