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Screwed in Scranton: Firefighters Pay Slashed to Minimum Wage

While cutting back aid to local governments, Pennsylvania Governor Corbett has lavished long-term tax breaks for hugely profitable firms like Royal Dutch Shell Oil.

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The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive In These Times' weekly updates.

“Did he [President Obama] not get the message in Wisconsin [the June 5 recall vote]? [He wants] more firemen, more policemen, [and] more teachers. The American people did. It's time for us to cut back on government.”—Mitt Romney, Council Bluffs, Iowa, June 8, 2012

Mitt Romney’s vision of radically depleted, enfeebled public institutions for America is so extreme that even union-busting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker felt obligated to distance himself from it. But the Romney formula for reducing government is being enthusiastically applied in Pennsylvania, where Republican Gov. Tom Corbett is letting fiscally troubled cities like Scranton struggle for survival completely on their own, while lavishing huge tax breaks on corporations like Royal Dutch Shell.

In Scranton, the mayor of the long-struggling city recently slashed the pay of 398 public workers to the legal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. “Under the plan, the average firefighter in Scranton would see his yearly salary drop from $55,910 to $15,080 -- below the federal poverty line for a two-person household,” The Huffington Post reported.

Scranton’s problems are actually typical of the financial death spiral facing many mid-sized towns in Pennsylvania and across the United States (see here, here and here) after three decades of deindustrialization and a halting economic recovery with continuing wage cuts. "Cities like Scranton have been hit hard by the loss of manufacturing and a loss of population, so that they are left trying to maintain services with a smaller tax base," economist Stephen Herzenberg, director of the Keystone Research Center, a progressive think tank in Pennsvlvania, says. "But when the quality of services like education fall, better-off families will move out, and these cities won’t attract industry."

The draconian, suddenly imposed pay cuts have generated enormous national attention. But stunningly, comments by the local combatants and former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a pro-corporate Democrat, have almost entirely neglected the larger context of America’s glaring income inequality, its long-suffering industrial cities,  and Pennsylvania’s shamelessly pro-corporate budget priorities.

The immediate outcome of the unilateral pay cuts has largely been an intramural struggle confined to the local Democratic players in Scranton. Mayor Chris Doherty, a Democrat, argues that the pay cuts are a temporary necessity to improve the city’s credit rating and line up a bank loan. Doherty promises to pay the workers back once the crisis has been resolved, but has defied a court order reinstating the old wage structure contained in the unions’ contracts. Doherty's eagerness to do the bankers' bidding brings to mind a Third World nation being strong-armed by the International Monetary Fund.

Doherty has been opposed by the overwhelmingly Democratic City Council members, who opposed Doherty’s earlier call for substantial property tax increases of 78% over the next three years to fill the city’s revenue gap. Instead, they favor remedies like “alternative revenue sources, such as increased contributions from nonprofits and commuter, sales and payroll taxes.” While well-intentioned, this hardly sounds like a plan that will fill a fiscal gap estimated of over $16 million for a city of 76,000 people.

Meanwhile, three city unions—International Association of Firefighters Local 60, the Fraternal Order of Police E.B. Jermyn Lodge 2, and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local Lodge 2305—have filed suit against the wage cuts and the mayor's failure to abide by a court order to pay full wages. The Scranton Times-Tribune reports:

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