How One City's Grassroots Activists Did the 'Impossible' and Pushed Back the Politicians' Austerity Agenda
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On June 20, Oregon's Portland City Council unanimously voted to approve a budget that had been one of the most grassroots-contested examples of austerity in recent memory.
Weeks earlier, in a vote to approve the framework of this budget on May 29, the City Council's long-maintained show of consensus was broken when Commissioner Amanda Fritz voted "No." (More on her vote later). However, by the final budget vote last Thursday she had been compelled to change her mind.
How has the 2013 budget developed? When the Portland Budget process began several months ago, newly elected Mayor Charlie Hales announced a $25 million deficit in the city's General Fund. Each bureau was told to submit budgets with 10 percent cuts, signaling Hales's determination to oversee mass lay-offs and the slashing or elimination of essential programs that many Portlanders have come to rely on.
This latest round of cuts promised to be the worst of several successive years of austerity measures. Each time city officials have told the public that "temporary" sacrifices need to be made now to enable the economy to turn around tomorrow. Each time there was no turn-around and more cuts were, predictably, peddled the next year despite this economic "tonic's" miserable record.
We say "predictably" because you cannot build up a city while slashing away at its community members’ jobs and social safety net. Each job lost and each service cut results in less money for people to put into the economy. Without a thriving consumer base no economy can lift itself out of the crisis we have been suffering since 2008. Consequently, each year cuts in Portland and elsewhere damage the prospects of a recovery and contribute to a downward spiral.
Corporate politicians continue to aggressively impose this approach, regardless of its results, because they have a death-grip on a "logic" that has been proven dead wrong in both economic theory and experience. If their insane notion -- that the road to recovery is paved with policies that enrich the wealthy and big business, while dismantling programs that serve public needs -- were true, then we ought to have seen a real recovery by now. These officials' budget "fixes" do the opposite, deepening the economy’s fundamental problems and inequality.
This is the fallacy of "austerity." And the evidence is overwhelming. Throughout Europe, depressed economies have resulted from a blind commitment to implementing austerity measures.
So what worked in Portland to move things towards a better outcome? For starters, Mayor Hales and the City Council's pursuit of austerity was met with a public outpouring of opposition at public budget hearings. The resistance culminated on April 11 when over 400 protesting participants surprised the City Council and overwhelmed their staff. Attending were members of the Metropolitan Youth Commission, Laborers International Local 483, Portland Community College, Friends of Trees, Portland Safety Net, SUN Schools, Eastside Action Plan, Elders in Action, AFSCME Local 189, and numerous others. They stunned the City Council with emotional and at times confrontational testimony. Many dressed in red to show solidarity and carried an array of signs in defense of threatened social programs.
Also attending were members of Jobs with Justice, the People's Budget Project, and Solidarity Against Austerity. These groups saw the hearing as an opportunity to begin building unity among the majority of Portland's working class communities to oppose all budget cuts and protest the City Council’s refusal to discuss alternatives to austerity. They posted a banner above the door of the meeting that read "COMMUNITIES UNITED TO STOP CUTS," and passed out hundreds of stickers and signs with this message as well as "RAISE REVENUE - NOT UNEMPLOYMENT." In their testimonials they frequently turned to address the audience, arguing why the cuts are destructive and unnecessary, pointing out that the money could be found in the hands of the 1%, and explaining how the City Council could use this money to serve Portland's communities.