Protesting Washington's painful cutbacks

Occupy activists join with labor and community groups to demand that Washington state tax the 1 percent instead of cut services, reports Sam Bernstein.

Protesters gathered to protest plans for a new round of austerity in Washington state (Sam Bernstein | SW)Protesters gathered to protest plans for a new round of austerity in Washington state (Sam Bernstein | SW)

THOUSANDS OF Occupy, labor and community activists from around Washington state converged on the Capitol building in Olympia, Wash., November 28 to protest a new slate of devastating budget cuts on the first day of a 30-day special legislative session.

Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire convened the special session in order to cut $2 billion from the $8.7 billion discretionary state budget. Since the Great Recession began three years ago, the legislature has cut $10.5 billion from education, health, human services and state employees. Just six months ago, legislators slashed $5 billion without raising a cent in new revenue. The Democratic Party controls both houses of the legislature.

The day of direct actions started with teach-ins organized by the Washington Education Association and Washington Federation of State Employees as well as a rally and march led by Occupy Olympia. While a mass rally was held on the steps of the Capitol building, two dozen teachers attempted to disrupt a session of the full legislature with a "mic check" before they were physically removed by the Washington State Patrol.

Hundreds of protesters then marched to occupy the House Ways and Means Committee meeting. Initially, state troopers would not let the protesters in. Following loud chanting, banging on the doors and minor scuffles, several dozen demonstrators broke into the hearing room.

As soon as the meeting started, Jesse Hagopian, a teacher at Garfield High School in Seattle, along with other teachers from Social Equality Educators, "mic checked" the committee. "We, the educators of Washington State, will not remain silent while the state legislature cuts the funding to our schools," they chanted. While attempting a citizen's arrest of legislators for failing to uphold their state constitutional duty to fully fund public education, Hagopian was arrested by state troopers.

The crowd of protesters continued to use the people's mic to speak out against years of painful cuts to the 99 percent's standard of living. After about 15 minutes, legislators canceled the committee meeting.

"We have campaigned, petitioned, lobbied and testified through the established political process for three years," transit activist Chris Mobley explained. "But instead of listening to us, they just slashed the budget more and more. They've given us no choice but to disrupt that process through direct action and democracy. It's time we force them to listen to us."

After rallying in the hallway in support of Hagopian, hundreds of protesters marched to the Capitol rotunda, chanting, "No more cuts!" and "They say cut back, we say fight back!" During a mass speak-out in the rotunda, one demonstrator suggested a march to the governor's office in order to explain to her why it's time for the 1 percent in Washington state to finally pay their fair share.

As hundreds of people walked around the corner to her office, dozens of state troopers pushed their way to the front and blocked any access to the governor. Protesters sat down and spoke out for well over an hour.

At the impromptu speak-out, people told their own stories about struggling with rising tuition and student debt, while others explained the importance of the state's Basic Health Plan that provides health coverage to 35,000 poor people. Speaker after speaker talked about pressing immediate needs as well as the bigger issues that must be confronted--the un-taxed wealth of the state's 1 percent, the nature of the economic crisis, the role of the police and the lack of democracy in government.

During a mass call-in of the governor, her secretary revealed that they could hear everything that was being said. Still, the governor refused to talk to the 99 percent.

As the Capitol building's closing time approached, dozens of labor and student activists began to set up sleeping bags under the giant Christmas tree in the rotunda, which was paid for by the Association of Washington Business. The goal, inspired by the massive struggle in Madison, Wis., earlier this year, was to occupy the Capitol overnight.

However, the crowd was not large enough to prevent a large force of state troopers from removing them. As protesters tried to hold their ground, get more people inside and later block the paddy wagon from leaving, police used Tasers on three activists, while several dozen were given trespass warnings and four were ultimately arrested.

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DESPITE PROTESTERS' success in disrupting business as usual on the first day of the special session, the rest of the week was characterized by relatively small rallies organized by various labor and community groups. While several labor unions had argued for a large rally on Saturday, December 3, they did little to mobilize for the event, which drew only a few hundred demonstrators.

But on Wednesday, a walkout of some 500 students at Garfield High School in Seattle gave a boost to the week's events. Initially, students called the walkout on Monday night when they heard that Hagopian, a teacher at their school, had been arrested in Olympia for protesting cuts to education.

Once Hagopian was released from jail, the students change the name of the Facebook page they started for the event from "Free Mr. Hagopian" to "Seattle Student Walkout for Education." Students marched downtown and rallied outside City Hall chanting, "We are the future of this nation, no more cuts to education" and "Fund our future!"

Two days later, Grant Bronsdon and Sam Heft-Luthy, two of the lead student organizers, wrote a guest column in the Seattle Times:

The real-world effects of these cuts are apparent to us as public school students. For years, our schools have gone through major funding slashes. We walk from class to class in buildings that suffer from incomplete renovations. We are forced into lower-level classes and schedule gaps because our schools are not fully equipped to handle student demand. We each slip into our seats, one of 32 students in a classroom built for 28.

As students, we are told that we are the future, but if we truly are the future, we must have a say in the choices that are made today. Education, the paramount duty of the state, must remain intact to ensure that we can live up to the dreams promised to us by the state of Washington. It is immoral to shirk this fundamental mandate.

During an appearance on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, he said that the walkout "was one of the most amazing things...To see students who were inspired by the actions teachers took and they took it upon themselves to organize. They created a flyer, a leaflet, bullet points about how the budget cuts have affected them...To see students taking their own initiatives to fight for their own futures is really inspiring."

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WITH NO personal or corporate income tax, Washington state depends overwhelmingly on sales and property taxes to generate revenue. That revenue continues to decline as consumer demand and property values remain weak as a result of the recession. This has led to several rounds of state budget cuts.

To make matters worse, the state's tax structure is the most regressive in the entire country, with the bottom 20 percent of income earners paying 17.3 percent of their income in taxes of various kinds while the top 1 percent of income earners pay just 2.6 percent of their income in taxes.

But there's plenty of money in Washington state, and there's no good reason for the state's budget woes. It's estimated that the state is home to more than 200,000 millionaires. A 1 percent tax on just the first $1 million of their wealth would instantly raise the $2 billion needed to prevent further budget cuts right now.

Four of the 23 richest people in the country live in Washington state: Bill Gates, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Their combined net worth is $105.2 billion. A 10 percent tax on their wealth alone would cover all of the cuts to social spending over the last few years and still leave them with a combined $95 billion.

Washington state is also home base to a slew of profitable and high-profile corporations--Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, Costco, T-Mobile, Nordstrom, REI, Eddie Bauer, Expedia, Weyerhauser and so on. Not only do these companies pay no corporate income taxes in Washington state, but they also enjoy various loopholes in the tax code that decrease state revenues by some $6.5 billion annually.

For example, Microsoft received $143 million last year in special tax breaks and aircraft maker Boeing got $104 million. JPMorgan Chase, which took over Washington Mutual in 2008, continues to receive a $120 million tax break on interest collected on first-time homebuyer mortgages.

There are also tax loopholes that cater to the personal consumption habits of the 1 percent. There's one for cosmetic surgery ($6.25 million this year) and another for private-jet enthusiasts ($5 million this year).

In light of all this, Gov. Gregoire's proposal for a temporary half-cent increase in the sales tax is a slap in the face to workers and the poor. While adding to the burden of regressive taxes, it would only raise $500 million--a quarter of the current budget gap and a measly 4 percent of the cuts over the past three years.

Meanwhile, politicians would still completely eliminate the Basic Health Plan for Washington's poor (six months ago it served 70,000 people), throw 21,000 people off the Disability Lifeline, further cut funding for higher education and slash teachers' pay by 2.2 percent.

Many labor and community groups are still looking to partner with Democratic Party politicians, despite the fact that the Democrats fully intend to push through these measures that will gut social services. It will take more grassroots organizing to build sustained resistance to the austerity agenda being pushed by the Democrats in control of Washington state.

The entry of hundreds of high school students into the struggle against budget cuts and austerity marks a new phase for the movement in Seattle. As this article was being written, high school and college students were planning for a citywide teach-in on education cuts and further walkouts before the holiday break.

While Occupy Seattle faces an eviction order for its encampment this week and organized labor is reluctant to challenge the Democratic Party politicians that wield the budget ax, another round of student walkouts, protests planned for the Port of Seattle, attempts to occupy abandoned buildings and other struggles show that Occupy is opening new fronts in the ongoing battle against the agenda of the 1 percent.