State Budget Provides Relief But Doesn’t Meet the Moment: The Socialist Movement Needs a Class Struggle Approach

The FY 2022 New York State Budget was adopted on April 7, a week past its deadline, totaling $212 billion. This “biggest budget ever” contains over $12.6 billion in new federal stimulus and some notable victories, such as the state’s first attempt to support workers excluded from previous rounds of COVID-19 relief and higher education funding. The budget comes amidst a split in the Democratic Party regarding whether Governor Andrew Cuomo should be removed from office over a series of sexual harassment allegations and a cover-up of nursing home deaths during the pandemic. 

While there is much to analyze in the budget, one thing is clear: despite genuine organizing efforts by activists, it fails to meet the current moment of crisis resulting from COVID-19 and a decade of austerity before that. Socialist Alternative offers our perspectives in a spirit of comradely debate about the program, strategy and tactics required to win transformational and urgently needed change — socialist change that puts power in the hands of the multi-racial working class.

The budget adds $3.5 billion in new taxes on millionaires and corporations, rising to $4.3 billion in FY 2023, which finishes closing the budget gap from the impact of COVID-19. The new taxes on the rich represent a limited victory. The Tax the Rich campaign coalesced around the Invest In Our New York Act, which demanded $50 billion per year in order to Cancel Rent, make public college free again, fund a just COVID-19 recovery, and create green jobs and affordable housing. The campaign was driven by the NYC Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), backed up by a range of progressive non-profits and quiet support from some major unions, such as the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and Professional Staff Congress (PSC). 

Compared to the budget advocacy that has come before, the Tax the Rich campaign was inspiring. DSA was able to bring together a powerful coalition including important unions with serious weight in society. To win $50 billion in new new taxes on the rich, however, the movement needed to use this weight to counteract the stranglehold Wall Street and big landlords have over Albany. It also needed to clarify that the Democratic Party establishment, which is funded by finance and real estate donors, would be a major obstacle to new taxes on the super rich. To win victories on this scale, we have to mobilize to the fullest extent of our power: this means a mass movement in the streets, schools, and workplaces. 

Working people win major reforms when the capitalist class is scared of what might happen if they don’t concede. Sometimes this means they pass small demands without much pressure. To win major reforms, such as Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, or Cancel Rent requires a “class struggle” approach. Our socialist movement must be clear-eyed about the need for working people to organize, rally, march, strike and take serious action to the doorstep of capitalist institutions in business and politics. Instead, DSA largely took a “lobbying” approach — calling representatives and asking constituents to do the same — paired with small and scripted direct actions. It barely tried to activate the real power of working people.

DSA’s six “Socialists in Office” could have done much more. Using their massive platform as elected officials, they could have shed light on the budget process and the Democratic establishment’s opposition to Tax the Rich. As Socialist Alternative recommended in December, people’s assemblies in each elected’s district could have helped engage and educate thousands of ordinary people. DSA’s elected officials could have called for and led protests, put pressure on union leaderships and exposed the Democratic Party establishment’s attempts to water down demands. Finally, they could have openly organized to vote as a block to reject a bad budget. These elements are hallmarks of Socialist Alternative’s class struggle approach to using elected office, and what Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant has consistently done through the People’s Budget process since she was first elected in 2013.

Moving forward, particularly as COVID-19 lockdowns ebb and vaccination rates improve, a class struggle approach must come to the fore. Unions played very little role in the Tax the Rich campaign, and it showed. Imagine if the unions had mobilized for mass marches and strikes for tuition-free public colleges and reduced class sizes for millions of New York youth left behind by remote schooling. Mass marches and demonstrations would have combined with the heroic three-week hunger strike in support of the excluded workers fund to have an even bigger impact. 

Another major demand that fell short in the budget, for similar reasons to the Tax the Rich demand, is Cancel Rent. Instead of a clear rent cancellation, which would ensure that no one gets evicted as a result of the pandemic, nearly all of the over $2 billion in rent relief in the budget will support a means-tested program that is only available to tenants who make 80% of the area median income and demonstrate pandemic-related financial hardship. This bureaucratic maze is what made the rent relief program passed last year a total failure. 

The rent relief plan bails out plenty of wealthy landlords and Cuomo donors, but it won’t ensure that working people don’t lose their homes. It is the Democratic Party’s entire approach in miniature: impressive sounding noises about relief, tailored to satisfy wealthy donors. Most importantly, it’s insufficient to address the root problem. Capitalism and the Democratic Party are incapable of guaranteeing housing because the current system is too profitable for the real estate industry they both rely on. 

Despite some positive elements in the state budget, which would stand out in any other year, this has not been any other year. The New York State Budget kicks the can down the road on evictions and fails to deliver a just recovery from the pandemic’s devastation. A lobbying approach can only win crumbs while developers and landlords take entire pies. 

We still need the political revolution against the billionaire class Bernie Sanders called for in 2016 and 2020. It won’t come from inside the Democratic Party. Socialist Alternative is committed to a fighting class struggle approach in labor and social movements, and a new political party of the working class, poor and oppressed that can democratically discuss and accountably fight for the socialist change we need.