Why I'm supporting Proposition 30

Larry Bradshaw offers a viewpoint on California's Proposition 30, in an article written with assistance from Alisa Messer, president, AFT Local 2121; and Steve Gilbert, retired mechanic, Bay Area Rapid Transit, and member of SEIU Local 1021.

THANKS TO Todd Chretien for the thoughtful contribution to the debate over California's Proposition 30, the "Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act of 2012" ("What's at stake in California's Prop 30?").

Prop 30 would raise between $6 and $9 billion dollars annually for public services by increasing income taxes on the top 1 percent of Californians in steps by 3 percent--and by increasing the sales tax 0.25 percent, which will hit working people the hardest.

There is not much I disagree with in Todd's article, yet my conclusions differ markedly; I believe labor, students and the left should campaign vigorously to pass Prop 30.

The problem with much of the debate over this proposition is that the discussion is too myopic. It focuses on secondary questions such as comparing how much revenue the proposition generates from the rich (80-90 percent) versus how much it raises from a regressive sales tax that hits working people (10-20 percent), or about the length of time the taxes would be in place (four years for the sales tax, versus seven years for the tax on the rich), or how much of the money raised goes to schools versus public safety versus other public services.

I believe this is the wrong vantage point from which to evaluate Prop 30. Our starting point should be how can we strengthen unions, increase their capacity to win for working people and activate more union members in our fights. We should assess each strategic or tactical question on whether it increases the self-activity and self-confidence of workers.

We can also ask whether this or that tactic or activity aides our co-workers to see themselves as a class which has interests in opposition to another class--the billionaires who own and control the large corporations.

This is the framework by which I approach the Prop 30 debate. The particulars of the ballot language are less important than how one organizes around Proposition 30.

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TODD LEAVES out a crucial piece of history. Governor Brown's initial revenue measure was built on a 0.5 percent sales tax, contained a more modest increase on the incomes of the 1 percent, and raised less money overall. A coalition of labor, community and student groups refused to support Brown's measure and instead launched the Millionaires' Tax, which would have generated billions of dollars in permanent new revenue by raising taxes on incomes over $1 million.

My union was an early supporter of the Millionaires' Tax. We joined forces with California Federation of Teachers, California Calls, the Courage Campaign and others. We contributed funds and effort for its development. We pushed for other Service Employees International Union locals to get on board. We rolled out a series of worksite educational meetings about taxing the rich and our members collected signatures to get it on the ballot.

Governor Brown, the California Democratic Party machine and most of labor officialdom leaned on all members of the coalition to abandon the Millionaires' Tax. A few unions refused, some key community organizations refused, and many students refused.

Despite limited resources, our grassroots effort began to develop a momentum and as Todd says, generated "genuine enthusiasm." Importantly, our measure polled better than Brown's because our message, a class message, was simply and clear: "Raise taxes on millionaires and use the money to fund public services." To paraphrase Nelson Mandela's famous quote, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they negotiate with you."

Because we organized around a clear "tax the rich" message, because we were building a bottom-up movement and because our message was polling better, the governor was forced to negotiate a compromise revenue measure with our coalition.

The problem was that while our forces could have gotten the Millionaires Tax on the ballot, we had insufficient organized forces and an exhausted treasury, making an electoral victory unlikely. We could, however, if we pushed ahead, have been able to sink Brown's proposition--meaning $6 billion more cuts for working people. Brown had to negotiate, but there were strong reasons for the coalition to do so as well.

The resulting compromise was a bitter pill to all in the coalition. Although Brown's sales tax was cut in half to a quarter percent and shortened to four years, it was still there. And although the income tax on the rich was raised an additional 1 percent and extended to seven years, it still wasn't permanent. Could a better deal have been had? Maybe.

But the reality was that we were faced with this compromise. Our local had a choice--simply lament the loss of the Millionaires' Tax, or continue trying to build a movement. We chose the latter. We realized, independent of what we would prefer, a big fight would take place around the need to raise revenue versus cutting spending, about taxing the rich, etc. And this fight would not only draw in our members, but also touch millions of workers across California.

We made our plans accordingly. We decided we would only campaign around the new proposition with the "tax the rich" message. So we tied Proposition 30 to Proposition 32 (the measure that would bar unions in California from spending money on politics), and we framed both 30 and 32 in terms of income inequality.

This required creating and producing our own material on Prop 30. The literature on Prop 30 put out by the Democratic Party, the California Federation of Labor and the SEIU state council was, at best, unusable, talking about equal sacrifice and how we all had to pay more.

Our literature led with pictures of the richest, most powerful billionaires in California and listed their salaries. Our headline said, "Don't give billionaire CEOs even more power. Don't let them silence you. Vote NO on Proposition 32 and tax the rich for schools and services: Vote Yes on Proposition 30."

Our worksite educational material explained that 15 million Californians go to work every day. Many others work from home. Together, we produce about $2 trillion in goods and services every year. That is the equivalent of $200,000 for every four-person family. So, we ask, why is there no money for schools and services?

With graphs and figures and easily understood explanations, we showed how the 1 percent takes half of the wealth created, forcing the rest of us to make do with less. We talked about how this unequal income distribution leads to great concentration of wealth in the hands of a few billionaires. This, in turn, gives them inordinate political power (political inequality). We explained how this eventually leads to the broken economy we are experiencing today.

We concluded by arguing that the fight over Propositions 30 and 32 is about income, wealth and political inequality, and that we have to build a movement to win. We rolled this out in an agitational and educational Powerpoint to scores of workplaces and thousands of our members. It was well received by members from the Tea Party-influenced foothills to liberal San Francisco.

We had a candid conversation with members about Proposition 30 containing the 0.25 percent sales tax, and how sales taxes are regressive and hit working families harder than the rich. We explained that the sales tax was imposed on us by the governor. We said it should not be in the proposition, and that working people already pay too much in taxes, in wage concessions, and in attacks on our pensions and health care.

We also criticized Proposition 30 for not going far enough in taxing the rich and argued that this was only the first step. Overwhelmingly, our members agreed to support Proposition 30 despite its flaws, because it was part of the fight against income inequality.

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TODD BEGINS his article talking about union members being forced to campaign for Proposition 30 because Governor Brown is holding a gun to their head.

The scenario described by Todd did not resonate with how our members are experiencing the fight for Proposition 30. Yes, we are worried about the trigger cuts, but those cuts would happen anyway without Proposition 30. We will have to continue to fight cuts with or without the passage of Proposition 30. Proposition 30 will lessen the cuts, which might mean we can mount a more effective fight against the remaining cuts.

In our union, members are engaged in activity around a message of income inequality and taxing the rich. We are tying the unequal tax structure and the "tax the rich" theme into our contract and anti-concession fights. Awareness is building among union members that they are workers whose interest is opposite that of the billionaires.

This is why, I would argue, it is how one organizes around Proposition 30 that is more important than the particular provisions of the legislation. When I look at all that our members are doing with in our fight for Proposition 30 and against Proposition 32, I draw a conclusion counter to Todd's.

However, I do agree 100 percent with part of Todd's conclusion. The Democratic Party majority in the state legislature and Gov. Brown are managing the state and the economic crisis for the 1 percent. The Democrats may support a modest temporary increase in taxes on the 1 percent because we forced them to do so, and because by doing so, they hope it will head off greater conflicts with the 1 percent, who are their main financial base and whose real wealth and power they cringe before.

Most importantly, the Democrats will continue to use the state and local government budget crisis to push austerity measures on the 99 percent, as part of their plan to make California corporations more competitive on the global market by driving down our living standards, reducing our pensions, squeezing our health care, weakening our unions, shrinking the public sector and shredding the social safety net.

We must use the resources of our unions to build a powerful movement that resists concessions, champions the public sector and fights to redistribute the wealth that is stolen by the 1 percent from the 99 percent. We see the fight for Proposition 30 as part of building that movement.

Todd ends his article with a prescription that is too passive--it comes too close to sitting on our hands and simply observing. I know that is not what Todd is about. I say, join us this week in our final push to defeat Proposition 32 and pass Proposition 30. Come out with us and knock on doors, talk to neighbors and coworkers about income inequality and help us take $6 billion out of the pockets of the rich and put it back into public services.

Thanks to SocialistWorker.org for facilitating a dialogue on Prop 30, budget cuts and revenue measures. Win or lose, Prop 30 and the Millionaires' Tax are just pieces of the equation. Even if the Millionaires Tax' had survived instead of Prop 30, the Millionaires' Tax by itself never represented the endgame, either!