Unions and Democracy

Unions do far more than negotiate benefits for its own workers. Unions have fought to strengthen public policies that benefit all Americans, both unionized and non-unionized. And as corporate power and influence has skyrocketed in recent years, unions have provided a powerful mechanism for voter turnout that keeps our democracy strong. 

Historically, unions have fought to strengthen public policies that benefit all Americans, both unionized and non-unionized. Unions have fought to strengthen minimum wage laws, worker safety protections, and public safety nets. We have unions to thank for the two-day weekend and the 40-hour workweek. More recently, unions have fought to strengthen minimum wage laws, worker safety protections, and public safety nets.

Decline of Union Power
Since the 1980s, the presence and power of organized labor in the U.S. has sharply declined. Today, union members account for roughly 12 percent of the workforce, down from 20 percent in 1983. In the public sector, the unionization rate is significantly higher at 36 percent. Over half of all unionized workers today are public sector employees.

Unions Keep Democracy Strong
As the number of unionized workers in the U.S. decreased, the number of corporate lobbyists has skyrocketed. Beginning in the 1970s, well-heeled corporations began to organize and work to undo these earlier labor victories. In 1968, only 100 corporations had public affairs offices in Washington. By 1982, the number of registered lobbyists in D.C. reached 2,500. That’s a whopping 2,400 percent increase in just under 30 years.

This decline in union power over the past 30 years has hurt all Americans. Historically, unions have helped to provide a powerful mechanism for voter turnout that keeps our democracy strong. Unions represent one of the few organized forces that provide a counterbalance to the influence of corporate money and power in our democracy.

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Resources & Tools

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Class, Race & the Attacks on Public Employees

Originally posted on Classism Exposed, March 11, 2011

The Wisconsin uprising has become as loud a wake-up call as there has ever been that working America is under attack. Moves by Governor Scott Walker and the Republican majority to steal away the collective bargaining rights of public sector workers – as a false premise for the state’s budgetary hardships – has triggered a national uproar by labor rights supporters.

In spite of all the good organized labor has brought to all American workers – union and non-union alike – union membership in the U.S. has endured constant erosion by the corporate sledge over the past several decades.

SoD 2011 - Chart 2

The result has been an economic gulf, separating the rich from everyone else.

SoD 2011 - Chart 3

The top 10 percent of U.S. households own nearly three-fourths of the country’s total wealth; 34 percent is held by the top one percent alone. Some among this very wealthy elite have a profit-lust so insatiable that it’s causing the American middle class to fade from existence, as income stagnates and the unemployment crisis continues.

If Governor Walker succeeds in his anti-union crusade, we could face a system-wide shift that would further obscure the voices of average workers. Attacks on collective bargaining are, in essence, attacks on democracy. To dilute the power of unions is to actively support plutocracy, or rule by the wealthy.

Who Stands to Lose the Most?

What too many of us don’t know is who has the most to lose from attacks on organized labor. Unfortunately, the answer shouldn’t come as a surprise.

When it comes to organized labor, the public sector has served as a far more reliable foothold than the private sector. The more stringent equal opportunity and civil service protections of the public sector offer more agreeable circumstances for historically disenfranchised workers than private sector jobs. For example, the public sector has offered more opportunities for women and workers of color to achieve income parity with white men.

SoD 2011 - Chart 19

Initiatives such as that of Wisconsin’s Governor to break down public unions will be especially harmful to those who already face a constant battle against workplace discrimination.

A recent report by United for a Fair Economy emphasizes the vital role of the public sector in providing opportunities to people of color, who are burdened not only with the residual effects of past injustices, but also contemporary barriers to upward economic mobility. Today, Black workers are significantly more likely than the overall workforce to hold government positions. Because of that reality, across-the-board cuts to the federal, state and even local budgets would have particularly ruinous effects on Black workers.

SoD 2011 - Chart 18

If we’re ever to move beyond a jobless recovery, and meaningfully address the disgraceful racial inequality that tars our supposed “civil” society, it is imperative that we preserve the public sector by funding a jobs program that invests in our people and in the longer-term stability of our economy.

Where’s the Money?

The phrase “we’re broke” as rationale for bone-deep budget cuts isn’t just tired, it’s wrong. We’re not broke. We’re still a very wealthy country. The problem, as earlier mentioned, is that too much of this country’s wealth is concentrated in too few pockets. Robert Reich asserted:

You can’t fight something with nothing. But as long as Democrats refuse to talk about the almost unprecedented buildup of income, wealth, and power at the top – and the refusal of the super-rich to pay their fair share of the nation’s bills – Republicans will convince people it’s all about government and unions.

And, not to make a total scapegoat of the GOP, Reich points out the Dems’ misguided politicking:

The Republican message is bloated government is responsible for the lousy economy that most people continue to experience. Cut the bloat and jobs and wages will return.

Nothing could be further from the truth, but for some reason Obama and the Democrats aren’t responding with the truth. Their response is: We agree but you’re going too far. Government employees should give up some more wages and benefits but don’t take away their bargaining rights. Private-sector unionized workers should make more concessions but don’t bust the unions. Non-defense discretionary spending should be cut but don’t cut so much.

The money for a jobs program and other recovery measures exist, but we’re not tapping the most abundant sources.

Let’s demand that corporations stop dashing off-shore to avoid paying their tax tabs.

Let’s tax the high-risk, casino-like investing on Wall Street that so heavily contributed to the financial meltdown.

Let’s restore progressiveness to the personal tax system by raising taxes on the wealthy, who have reaped the most from our economy and are most able to contribute more without sacrificing their livelihoods.

We can raise the top-tier federal income tax rates to their pre-Bush levels (at the very least), and add new brackets for those with remarkably high incomes. We can strengthen the estate tax – a means to prevent the creation of American dynasties and reduce wealth inequality – well beyond its current form. We can bring an end to preferential treatment of investment income – like capital gains and dividends – by taxing it the same as earned income.

And, let’s wean the Pentagon – which now accounts for 58 percent of the discretionary federal budget – off of the taxpayers’ proverbial teat by cutting unnecessary defense spending.

The revenue generated would be more wisely applied to domestic investments. But, investments should be made using a targeted approach that would address chasms of race and class in the U.S.

SoD 2011 - Chart 17

We’ll first have to establish a shared agreement about the type of society in which we want to live. Will it be one that encourages greed and inequality, or one that provides essential services and opportunities to all of us? Will it be one that provides access to only the financially enriched, or one that’s truly democratic? Will it continue to pit us against one another, or will it inspire togetherness and community?

At its best, the American labor movement has not only fought for its own members, but has campaigned for policies that would benefit us all, like a national health care system, a higher minimum wage, safe workplaces, labor rights and environmental protection.

And, while the historical intersections of the civil rights and labor movements haven’t always been flattering, it would be counterproductive to target unions for a legacy of discrimination that belongs to the nation as a whole. We should embrace the real hope that the two movements can find shared purpose, and move forward as a more diverse, inclusive and, most importantly, unified movement.

Ironically, It may well be Governor Walker’s outrageous attacks on public employees that ignites the very movement he seeks to destroy, and brings the U.S. toward a more just and egalitarian society.

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Estate Tax


A strong federal estate tax is a crucial to achieving greater economic and racial equality. The estate tax reduces concentrated wealth by ensuring that a portion of America's greatest fortunes are used to generate needed revenue to fund vital services, instead of being simply passed from generation to generation in predominantly white families.


What is the estate tax?
The estate tax is a tax on the transfer of assets at death. When someone dies, his or her assets (the "estate") are distributed to heirs. If the total value of the estate is larger than the tax-exempt amount (currently $5.25 million for individuals and $10.5 million for couples), an estate tax is imposed on everything above the exemption before the remaining assets are distributed. Any amount of an estate given to a spouse or charity is tax exempt.

Who pays the estate tax?
The estate tax is reserved only for society's wealthiest elite. In 2013, just 0.14% of Americans (less than 2 out of every 1,000 people who die) are expected to owe any estate tax.

How much does the estate tax raise every year?
It's estimated the estate tax will generate about $200 billion in the next 10 years under current law.

What about farms and small businesses?
It's estimated that only 20 small businesses and farm estates nationwide will owe any estate tax in 2013. The Tax Policy Center estimates that these 20 estates will owe only 4.9% of their value in tax, on average. Repeal of the estate tax or exempting farms completely will only encourage further concentration of farm ownership, which reduces competition. An unlimited exemption for farm assets could create a giant loophole from the estate tax because wealthy individuals who expect to owe estate tax could use much or all of their wealth to buy farms before they die. 

What makes for a good estate tax?
UFE's Estate Tax Campaign is calling on Congress to stop enriching the inheritors of wealthy millionaires and billionaires by reinstating a robust estate tax. A strong estate tax should raise significant revenue to reduce the deficit and fund vital services. It should only be paid by the top 1% of estates, raising more money from the wealthiest estates through a graduated rate structure. Check out our 2012 Responsible Estate Tax Proposal for more specifics.

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Shifting Power: From Citizens United to Wisconsin

By Brian Miller | Originally published on CommonDreams.org, March 1, 2011

Stop the War on WorkersLet’s be clear: Governor Scott Walker’s proposed cuts are not about balancing the state budget. It’s a power play aimed at cutting the heart out of what remains of the once vibrant labor movement. A war waged against unionized workers ultimately harms all workers, and the overt strategy to squelch collective bargaining exposes the deep resentment that monied interests hold towards worker rights everywhere.

The public sector unions in Wisconsin have already agreed to make sacrifices, including significant wage cuts and increased contributions to the pension fund. But these economic concessions are not enough for Governor Walker. That’s because his true goal is to permanently cripple the unions by defunding their organizational base and stripping away their right to collective bargaining.

Sadly, Wisconsin is just one of many front lines in this fight. In the wake of the November elections, anti-union measures are on the move in Ohio, Indiana, and elsewhere.

To understand the true significance of this assault on unions, one must remember that unions do far more than negotiate benefits for its own workers. Unions have fought to strengthen public policies that benefit all Americans, both unionized and non-unionized. We have unions to thank for the weekend and the 40-hour workweek. More recently, unions fought to strengthen minimum wage laws, worker safety protections, and public safety nets. And unions, much to the dismay of corporate power brokers, help provide a powerful mechanism for voter turnout that keeps our democracy strong.

Unions have long understood that “speaking truth to power” is not enough. It takes a strong, organized movement to affect real change in our society. That has become especially important in the face of rising corporate power and, more recently, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. Today, unions represent one of the few organized forces providing a counterbalance to the role of corporate money and power in our democracy. As the fight to limit corporate power through campaign finance reform and other such policies heats up, unions will undoubtedly play a crucial role.

From the 1940s through the mid-1970s, Americans saw an unprecedented period of economic growth, and more importantly, a period when income growth was shared proportionally across all major income groups. This was not an accident or a force of nature. It was the result of a deliberate set of public policies—including a highly progressive tax system, strong worker protections, and large-scale public investments in our shared infrastructure to name a few. But these laws didn’t just magically appear. They were created in part through the political organizing of strong, well-organized unions at a time when one out of three American workers were unionized.

Unions have long understood that “speaking truth to power” is not enough. It takes a strong, organized movement to affect real change in our society.

Beginning in the 1970s, well-heeled corporations began to organize and work to undo these earlier labor victories. In their new book “Winner-Take-All Politics,” Pierson and Hacker document this dramatic power shift. In 1968, only 100 corporations had public affairs offices in Washington. That grew to 500 by 1978. Only 175 firms had registered lobbyist in 1971. That grew to 2,500 by 1982. Mirroring this rise of corporate power was the realignment and dramatic growth of the Chamber and the National Federation of Independent Businesses as a powerful political force.

As corporate influence was on the rise, the once powerful labor unions that helped grow America’s strong middle class were under attack. In some cases, this was a frontal assault as powerful forces worked to undo union victories. In other cases, it was a dodge as corporations moved their operations to anti-union states, cutting the political legs out from under the unions.

As this fierce class war has waged on for the past 30 years, hard-working Americans have consistently been on the losing end. Many progressives point to Reagan as the impetus for this power shift, but Reagan was simply riding a tidal wave of corporate power that was laid in the decade before he took office. To the victor go the spoils indeed. Since this great power shift has taken place, we’ve seen tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation, and the gutting of the public sector with profound implications for our society. Income inequality is now at its highest level since 1928, just before the Great Depression.

After nearly four decades of attack, only about 12 percent of American workers are now unionized. In the public sector however, the unionization rate remains at 36 percent. In fact, over half of all unionized workers are public sector employees today. This brings us full circle back to Wisconsin. As corporate influence continues to grow, Governor Walker is seeking to limit the power of working people by removing one of the most powerful tools in our cache: unions and their organizing power. If he succeeds, it will be deeply troubling for the health of our democracy.

If we as a nation are serious about renewing America’s commitment to a strong and vibrant middle class, we must look to reform the political landscape that created the winner-take-all economy. As the nation’s eyes remain on Wisconsin, it is in each or our interests—unionized and non-unionized, private sector and public sector workers—to stand in solidarity with our fellow Americans on the front lines in Wisconsin. The health of our democracy depends on it.

Visit CommonDream.org to post comments on this article.

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Help Build the Momentum This Weekend!

Over the past two weeks, we’ve been inspired by the mass mobilization of passionate people in Wisconsin and Egypt. This weekend, the momentum is mounting and progressive rallies are popping up all over the U.S. Here's everything you need to know to get in on the action.

This weekend, progressive groups across the country are staging a series of demonstrations and rallies on Saturday to rail against corporate greed, show solidarity with Wisconsin, and oppose cuts that would harm our communities.

Take a stand this weekend by joining the millions of progressive protesters who will hit the streets in their communities. Here's the breakdown of demonstrations happening this weekend:

Rally to Save the American Dream
Noon on Saturday @ Statehouses across the U.S.
The rallies oppose tax breaks for corporations and the very rich. Protesters are calling for an end to the attacks on workers' rights and public services, investment to create decent jobs for the millions of people who desperately want to work, and that the rich and powerful pay their fair share.

U.S. Uncut Rallies
Saturday in 37 cities and counting
US Uncut is targeting the mega-banks that pay zero taxes, even while they wrecked the economy and accepted billions in taxpayer funded bailouts. Rallyers across the U.S. are calling on corporations to pay their taxes, just as hard-working Americans do.

Worker Solidarity Rallies
Throughout the week in cities across the U.S.
Show your solidarity with Wisconsin workers by attending one of these demonstrations organized by Jobs with Justice.

As our Guide to Political Protests infographic demonstrates, no protester is ever fully dressed without a great visual aid. Here are a few rally-ready printable posters courtesy of UFE. Print, share, and wave with pride.

Download a zip file with the bundle of signs here.



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Wisconsin & The Dirty Secret of Public Sector Union Busting

Wisconsin Statehouse ProtestAmid all the rightful outrage over Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to do away with collective bargaining rights for public sector unions in Wisconsin, one important point has been neglected: The demise of public sector unions would be most detrimental to women and African-Americans, who make up a disproportionate share of the public sector workforce.

Much has been made of Walker's decision to exempt from his plan firefighter, police and state trooper unions -- conveniently, the only three public sector unions that endorsed him. But as Dana Goldstein points out, not only are the exempted unions largely Republican-leaning, they’re also overwhelmingly male -- over 70 percent of law enforcement personnel are male, as are over 96 percent of firefighters. On the other hand, many of the non-exempt unions represent professions that are disproportionately female -- approximately 80 percent of teachers are women, for example, as are 95 percent of nurses.

African-Americans are also disproportionately employed in the public sector: According to a report by the nonprofit United for a Fair Economy, blacks are 30 percent more likely than the overall workforce to hold public sector jobs. Kai Wright reports that preliminary data from a study by Steven Pitts of U.C. Berkeley's Center for Labor Education and Research shows that 14.5 percent of all public sector workers in the nation are black, compared to 10 percent in most other sectors, and around a quarter of black workers are employed in public administration, as compared to under 17 percent of all white workers.

A Republican proposal that hurts women and people of color? I'm shocked, shocked! All jokes aside, I'm not arguing that Walker intentionally targeted women-heavy professions for union busting, or that he's secretly trying to undermine one of the remaining sources of stable employment for blacks, who are unemployed at nearly twice the rate of whites. But it doesn't need to be intentional to have serious effects.

Some of those effects are economically tangible. Despite high rates of public sector employment, black women working in the public sector make less than others, with a median wage of $15.50 an hour compared to the sector's overall median of $18.38 and a median of $21.24 for white men. Yet weakened public unions will make it more difficult for black women to bargain for better wages. Furthermore, as the Shriver Report finds, "nearly 4 in 10 mothers (39.3 percent) are primary breadwinners, bringing home the majority of the family's earnings, and nearly two-thirds (62.8 percent) are breadwinners or co-breadwinners, bringing home at least a quarter of the family's earnings." Making women's jobs more precarious has serious implications for the well-being of millions of families -- especially for families in the bottom two income quintiles and black and Hispanic families, where female breadwinners are particularly prevalent.

Others are subtler: As Wright points out, the portrayal of public sector employees as overpaid and underworked, taking advantage of hardworking taxpayers, carries echoes of racially charged caricatures -- the welfare queens of the '80s behind a desk in the Capitol. And politically motivated though it may be, the continued elevation of traditionally male professions like public safety and law enforcement over traditionally female ones like public health and public education is part of the reason women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar men do.

The events in Wisconsin are just one example of a larger trend of Republican efforts to make it more difficult for women, and particularly low-income women, to go to work (for example, by proposing significant cuts to childcare benefits and preschool programs) while simultaneously slashing services that women need to care for themselves and their families (for example, proposing to cut nearly a billion dollars from programs aimed at promoting the health of low-income pregnant women and mothers). And if that weren't enough, when public budgets are cut, women often make up for the cuts by volunteering at schools and providing unpaid childcare.

Likewise, public sector unions have garnered especial criticism for their pensions, which Republicans claim are bankrupting the state. Such lack of concern for elderly well-being is sadly consistent with Republicans' efforts to cut funding for programs providing the elderly with support for meals and housing. Incidentally, women make up two-thirds of the poor over age 65, while 60 percent of black seniors rely on Social Security for more than 80 percent of their income. So women and people of color aren't just paying for the cuts once, they're paying over and over again.

Of course, public sector cuts hurt people across the board, but they nearly always end up hitting the most vulnerable members of society the hardest. As Paul Krugman pointed out earlier this week, unions are important in part because they're some of "the few influential players in our political system representing the interests of middle- and working-class Americans." Indeed. But public sector unions are especially important representatives of middle- and working-class black and female Americans, who continue to be vastly underrepresented in every branch of government.

Republicans will surely protest that their efforts to undermine the public sector, whether by busting unions or slashing services, aren't sexist or racist -- they're just what needs to be done to balance the budget. And honestly, I suspect the gender and racial impacts of union-busting never consciously crossed Gov. Walker's mind. But not knowing exactly whom your policy decisions will hurt means you've never thought about the actual people who are affected by political maneuvering. If Republicans don't know who's paying for their attacks on public sector employees, it's because they just don't care.

By Alyssa Battistoni - Originally posted on Salon.com, February 24, 2011

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Estate taxes: States will want their cut, too

Retirement portfolioBaby boomers, the oldest just now reaching retirement age, can expect to receive inheritances equaling more than $8 trillion over their lifetime.

It's a record intergenerational transfer of wealth. It also provides a welcome financial boost to the federal government and the 19 states and the District of Columbia that also impose inheritance taxes on the estates of the well-to-do.

Indeed, increasing the estate tax – or introducing one – would be a good way to help ease the budget crises in many states, says Lee Farris, an expert at United for a Fair Economy (UFE), a coalition of national and state organizations that aims for a more equal distribution of wealth and income.

Existing state estate taxes typically raise 1 to 4 percent of total state revenues. State legislators may find raising estate taxes tempting.

The state levy can be substantial. In Massachusetts, an estate worth more than $1 million is subject to the tax. Since a good Boston suburb may have many houses valued at, say, $500,000 to $900,000, it doesn't take too much in other assets to reach $1 million.

And the tax is progressive. It can be as much as 16 percent of the value of a huge estate.

That tax comes on top of any federal estate tax. The deal reached in December by President Obama and Republican leaders set the federal rate at 35 percent for the next two years on estates worth more than $5 million. With Republicans in control of the House, there are already four or so proposals to repeal the estate tax completely.

With new House rules, there would be no need to raise revenues elsewhere to offset that loss of revenue of perhaps $20 billion in the next two fiscal years.

Unless Mr. Obama again makes a deal with Republicans to win another piece of legislation he considers important, the present 35 percent rate is expected to survive until 2012 when the Obama-Republican tax deal expires.

"It will be ripe then for campaign fodder," says Craig Jennings, director of fiscal policy at OMB Watch in Washington.

Democrats will accuse Republicans of trying to legislate to benefit primarily the rich. Republicans will maintain that the estate tax will damage small businesses and farms. These number 65,000, according to a study for the conservative American Family Business Foundation. UFE says only about 100 would be affected.

To Mr. Jennings, the estate tax has the additional benefit of slowing a drift in the United States toward "a modern-day aristocracy."

Over three decades, wealth and income have been accumulating at the very top of the income scale while incomes for the middle class and poor have stagnated. He argues that those who have benefited most from the American economic system should contribute more to its maintenance.

Estate taxes are America's "most progressive" taxes, thereby "leaning against the concentration of wealth," says Joel Slemrod, an economist and tax expert at the University of Michigan Business School. He was one author of a 2001 study that found that the wealthy do tend to move to states with low estate taxes, such as Florida. But the drift is so small that it does not exceed the extra revenues that state estate taxes provide.

As for those baby boomer households, a study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College calculates that the two-thirds who can expect an inheritance will receive a median amount of $64,000. That's not enough to retire on.

By David Francis. Originally published in The Christian Science Monitor, February 17, 2011

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What's the Matter with Wisconsin?

Wisconsin protestThe political quake that shook all those Dems out of office in November 2010 did a particularly nasty number on Wisconsin. The state's legislature was stormed by the GOP, which now has majority control both the assembly and senate, and the governor's office was seized by yet another Republican candidate. These conservative victories have rolled out the red carpet for austerity measures to advance, and have painted targets squarely on public employees.

Newly-elected governor Scott Walker's plan to address the state's $137 million deficit calls for public employees to assume a roughly 7 percent pay cut through increased contributions to their pensions and health insurance costs. Walker is also working to push a union-busting bill through the legislature, which would strip public employees of an obscene portion of their collective bargaining rights and threatens striking workers with termination. The starkest example that the good governor is ready to play rough is his willingness to respond to an uprising by calling in the National Guard. (Makes me wonder where he's getting his leadership advice.)

While it's disconcerting to see how much Wisconsin can resemble an autocratic nation, it's electrifying to see its people rising up. More than 25,000 people stormed the state capitol and every Democratic senate member fled the state to prevent a vote on the anti-union bill (at least one Democrat has to be present for a vote to be held).

State Rep. Alberta Darling defended the Republican plan, saying, "We don't have a lot of options here folks. It's not like we're choosing to do this. We are broke."

Of course, that's if you don't consider raising taxes on Wisconsin's most financially enriched – who are most able to help preserve the state's services and infrastructure and narrow the deficit – to be an "option." Corporate tax loopholes allow two-thirds of Wisconsin's corporations to pay nothing into the state coffers, so it's not hard to see why that revenue stream has dried by half in recent decades. A failure to act on that fact begs the question of who or what Gov. Walker is representing.

The question of what collective bargaining has to do with balancing the budget has been raised on several fronts. Georgetown University labor historian, Joseph McCartin, asserted:

"If it had simply to do with the budget there doesn't seem to be a need to eliminate collective bargaining...In other states where state's municipalities have faced difficult times, unions have helped negotiate the way forward."

Russ Feingold, former U.S. senator for Wisconsin, was unequivocally opposed to the Governor's anti-worker agenda. He even provides insight into the mystery of on whose behalf Gov. Walker is acting:

"I don't think there's any question that what Gov. Walker is trying to do here is not simply outrageous -- one of the worst things I've ever seen a Wisconsin governor do -- but he's just acting on a long-time corporate wish: the fantasy of destroying unions."

Interestingly, it's not just the usual suspects speaking out against the Governor's plan. An organized group of veterans have condemned Walker's use of the National Guard as an "intimidation force." And, members of the Super Bowl winning Green Bay Packers have come out in support of the AFL-CIO's efforts to fight back.

Our focus and admiration should be on the actions and resolve of the protesters and state legislators who have chosen to support the working people of Wisconsin.

This isn't just their battle, it's all of ours. If the sadists among the Badger State's legislature succeed in passing this bill, we should expect more of these battles to emerge across the country as copycat legislation gets drafted.

The stakes are high, so we need to support their efforts, spread the word, take good notes and be ready to prevent what could come to our states next.

Here's some footage of a rally at Wisconsin's statehouse. You don't get a turnout like this without good reason.


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State Groups Tackle Tax Fairness

Nonprofit Quarterly Fall 2010 coverIt’s July 2010, and organizers from 10 state-level grassroots groups have traveled to Washington, D.C. Rob Brown of Opportunity Maine is at the front of the room addressing the crowd. “Firefighters and other local law enforcement are key allies in property tax-cap campaigns,” Brown says, as listeners scribble in notebooks and clack on laptops. “Their perspective tends to be universally appealing to even the staunchest skeptic.”

At the event, Brown shared best practices and lessons from Maine’s successful campaign to defeat a property tax-cap ballot initiative with leaders of grassroots state tax-fairness organizations from across the country. All groups are members of the Tax Fairness Organizing Collaborative (TFOC), a coalition of 28 grassroots groups in 24 states working to promote progressive-tax reform. Progressive taxes, such as the federal income tax, require upper-income people to pay more of their income in taxes than those with lower-incomes. This is different from a flat tax, such as a sales tax, which applies the same tax rate to all individuals regardless of income level. Thus, flat taxes take a higher portion of income from low-income people than from high-income people.

The TFOC is a project of United for a Fair Economy, a national economic-justice advocacy organization. The TFOC operates in stark contrast to the brassy, anti-tax, antigovernment Tea Party. The TFOC believes that government enhances quality of life and that collecting government revenue through taxes is a necessity that should be done fairly, responsibly, and through policies that reflect our society’s values.

In some communities, organizing work to promote tax fairness has taken place for decades. But in early 2000, the movement came to a head, following the bursting of the technology bubble and waning government support for public services. As more people felt the effects of severe budget cuts and imbalanced tax policies, the movement gained momentum. By 2004 the TFOC launched to strengthen state-level efforts and facilitate connectivity across state lines. The TFOC has filled an important role in the progressive movement by providing a national infrastructure for tax-fairness organizers to collaborate, share best practices, problem-solve, and learn the latest in communications from pollsters and researchers. Through the TFOC, grassroots leaders regularly convene in affinity groups to tackle common issues, such as no-income-tax states, conservative states where taxes are limited, and states fighting corporate tax loopholes. The emphasis on grassroots organizing distinguishes the TFOC from other progressive tax-policy organizations and networks.

In the states, the tax fairness movement is firmly in place. And the work is more important than ever. From New York to Nevada, grassroots organizations have led the fight for progressive and adequate revenue to support the schools, bridges, parks, and other public resources that keep our communities strong. To a large extent, these organizations are part of coalitions that include teachers, seniors, human-service associations, community organizations, unions, faith-based organizations, and various nonprofit advocacy groups. A snapshot of the work taking place in states across the country paints a hopeful picture:

  • Washington. Washington Community Action Network has led the field campaign to pass I-1098, a November 2010 statewide ballot initiative to cut property taxes and taxes on small businesses to benefit the middle class and establish a high-earners income tax for the wealthiest 1.2 percent of households (that is, families earning more than $400,000 annually, or individuals earning more than $200,000 a year).
  • Alabama. Alabama Arise has worked to remove the state sales tax from grocery purchases and to pay for it by eliminating the state tax deduction for federal taxes paid, which benefits primarily the wealthy.
  • Colorado. The Colorado Progressive Coalition (CPC) has co-led the fight to defeat three measures on the ballot in November 2010 that would cut state and local taxes, fines, and fees and prevent the funding of long-term infrastructure projects. CPC plays an integral part in the campaign to defeat these initiatives by running the fieldwork operation, coordinat- ing messaging throughout the state, and providing community-level education.
  • Tennessee. Tennesseans for Fair Taxation’s overarching goal is to modern- ize the state’s tax system. This includes working to reduce the general sales tax, eliminate the tax on food, and implement a personal income tax with generous exemptions for low-income families.
  • Nevada. The Silver State has been hit hard by the recession, unemployment, and the foreclosure crisis, particularly because of its long-standing reliance on gaming taxes and regressive sales taxes. The Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada advocates creating new sources of revenue to support critical public services, including extraction taxes on the state’s gold-mining industry.

In communities across the country, great grassroots work is happening, but the challenges remain acute. As more families are having trouble making ends meet, countering the anti-tax rhetoric is particularly challenging. But we all have a vested interest in our government’s tax system, since fair and adequate revenue is critical for our communities to thrive. And through the tax fairness movement, state-level grassroots organizations and their allies are working to rebuild—from the bottom up—a more progressive tax system that reflects values of fairness, responsibility, and sustainability.

Karen Kraut is a coordinator at the Tax Fairness Organizing Collaborative. Shannon Moriarty is the TFOC’s communications director.

Learn more about these TFOC member groups:

Opportunity Maine logo

TFT logo

ARISE Alabama logo Washington CAN logo 
Colorado Progressive Coalition logo

PLAN Nevada logo

By Shannon Moriarty and Karen Kraut. This column appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of The Nonprofit Quarterly.

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Why Support the Higher Education Transparency Act?

Support Financial TransparencyThis week, Massachusetts residents have an opportunity to advance the movement for economic justice in the Bay State by urging their state representatives and senators to support the Higher Education Transparency Act.

Massachusetts' private colleges and universities, which are designated as non-profit organizations, enjoy tax exempt status while also receiving direct federal and state subsidies. That's because of their primary functions—to educate and to provide opportunities and services to their communities.

And yet, we too often witness the same taxpayer-subsidized institutions—some with multi-billion dollar endowments—engaging in profit-motivated behaviors, such as tuition hikes, casino-like investing and layoffs.

Also, as this rececession forces average American workers and their families to "tighten their belts," the leaders of some of these colleges and universities are being paid over a million dollars a year. 

Economic recovery requires shared sacrifice.

This bill would strengthen the financial disclosure requirements for Massachusetts’ private, non-profit colleges and universities by mandating more thorough reporting on employee compensation; how endowments are invested; agreements with outside consultants, and the total tax subsidies they receive.

Additionally, it would give the public and the legislature a way to evaluate the financial choices being made by institutions of higher learning, and the values under which they operate.

Here is a summary of the provisions of the Higher Education Transparency Act:

  • Affects private, nonprofit colleges and universities and their related organizations who have investments (defined as value of, not interest on) or real property over $10 million dollars;
  • Requires the schools to calculate the received benefit from all tax exemptions;
  • Mandates individual conflict-of-interest disclosures by trustees or directors of the institution;
  • Mandates disclosure of payments of greater than $150,000/year to outside individuals or firms for advice or services;
  • Mandates disclosure of payments of greater than $150,000/year from outside individuals or firms for advice or services;
  • Mandates disclosure of the names and titles of anyone making more than $250,000 year;
  • Requires the Attorney General to set the method and scope by which tax calculations and disclosures are done;
  • Requires disclosure of the names, amounts, and descriptions of services provided to and from vendors.

Our friends at SEIU Local 615, which represents janitors, security workers, and other property service workers in MA, RI, and NH, are leaders in the fight for this rule change to hold private, non-profit colleges and universities in Massachusetts accountable. Visit their campaign page for more ways to get involved.

If you want to add your voice to this campaign, be sure to call your elected officials by Friday, February 4th! (Click here to find your elected officials.)

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The High Price of Austerity

Austerity is the political buzzword these days. As politicians from both parties are jumping on the “starve the beast” bandwagon, few are considering the long-term impacts of the approach. What seems like tightening the belt today will likely cost us much, much more down the line.

On the subway this morning, when I grabbed an issue of the Metro for my half hour ride to work, this headline stopped me in my tracks: "HIV/AIDS funds take steep cuts in proposal."

Deval Patrick, a Democrat, and the only Black Governor in the country, had recently announced his proposed 2012 budget. In it, HIV/AIDS funding takes a whopping $2 million hit. That’s the largest proposed cut to HIV/AIDS funding in 20 years!

To make matters worse, the burden of these cuts would be disproportionately felt by communities of color. The article pointed out that Blacks and Hispanics each make up only six percent of the state's population. Yet, Blacks comprise 28 percent of HIV/AIDS patients and Hispanics 25 percent.

Sadly, this is right in line with the findings of United for a Fair Economy’s 2011 State of the Dream report: "Austerity for Whom?", released just last week. It’s shocking that here, in the liberal Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a proposed roll back of necessary programs will so disproportionally disadvantage people of color.

The most frustrating part of Governor Patrick’s proposed slashing to HIV/AIDS program budget is that, in the long run, it won’t save much money at all. In fact, it will probably cost us more. Emerson Miller, a program manager for AIDS Action, points out in the article that the investment in HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment actually "saved the state millions of dollars in potential health care costs over the last 10 years."

In other words, investing $2 million dollars in the preventative health of Massachusetts residents today will save us millions in treatment over the next decade. Not to mention preventing pain and sickness for a whole lot of people. That seems like a no-brainer.

Instead, deficit hawks in both political parties are supporting the “starve the beast” approach. This, combined with the lack of political will to raise revenue by restoring taxes on the top five percent, means that the rest of us will pay more down the line. And low-income folks—particularly people of color—well, they will just die sooner.

Austerity should mean cutting unnecessary government spending. Not eliminating smart investments in the health of our people and our communities.

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