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Archive for May, 2012

Inequality Matters

When Chuck Collins started United for a Fair Economy (originally called “Share the Wealth”) in the 1990s, some economists denied that economic inequality was growing.  That debate is over.  Speaking in Manchester May 29, Collins said the debate is now whether inequality matters and what can be done about it.

Here’s the short answer:P1000690

Inequality matters.

The trends which increased inequality are reversible.

We are in “a new period of extreme inequality,” Collins told more than 80 people at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Manchester, and it’s “trashing all that we care about.”  It’s not jut that some people are poor and some are rich, but that the growing gap leads to a breakdown in social solidarity as the wealthy stop investing in the social infrastructure .  Our children, our health, our culture, our environment, and our democracy all suffer.  

Collins outlines the problem and some solutions in his new book, 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It.  The prescription has three basic components:  invest in opportunity, raise the floor, and tax wealthy people and the corporations they own.  

While the 99 to 1 framework is a tad simplistic, he said, trade and tax policies really have been changed to benefit the wealthiest Americans at the expense of everyone else.  

As the great-grandson of Oscar Mayer (yes, that Oscar Mayer), Collins knows a thing or two about the 1%, including his former schoolmate Mitt Romney.   In addition to development of creative educational techniques to demystify economic issues, Collins has also worked to find allies for change within the ranks of the wealthy. 

A Q&A session that could have gone on much longer touched off an important discussion about whether solutions can emerge from the existing political system.    Collins is not ready to throw out lobbying or electoral politics, but sees the greatest potential in social movements made up of small groups of like-minded people working together on common projects.  He reminded the audience that Gandhi based his program not only on mass nonviolent resistance but also on the “constructive program.”

“Exercise your democracy muscles each day,” he said.

Collins’ talk was sponsored by the UU Church of Manchester, the American Friends Service Committee, Granite State Priorities, Occupy Manchester, NH Citizens Alliance, and the Granite State Organizing Project.  

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Occupy activists posed with Chuck after the talk.

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Laura Hainey of AFT-NH

Fall Election May Hinge on Debate Over Fiscal Future

Months of State House wrangling over marriage, collective bargaining, and whether the Speaker of the House is a tyrant are about to give way to a more usual topic: New Hampshire’s archaic tax structure.  In addition to a gubernatorial election which could pit a status quo candidate against a reformer, voters could face as many as three proposed Constitutional Amendments with profound fiscal implications. 

The one getting the most attention so far is CACR 12. (CACR stands for “Constitutional Amendment Concurrent Resolution.”) It seeks to undo the Supreme Court’s Claremont decisions,which declared education to be a fundamental right and ordered the Legislature to provide adequate funding for the state’s public schools.   House and Senate negotiators will meet this week to try to iron out the wording. 

While some amendment advocates say a change is needed to allow the State to target aid to poor communities, critics note that state’s failure to target aid is due to lack of political will, not Constitutional restrictions.  Moreover, the amendment could make it possible for the State to withdraw from education funding completely.  “Freed of constitutional restraint, the Legislature would retreat to the bad old days of patchy and inadequate support of public education,” Laura Hainey, New Hampshire President of the American Federation of Teachers, told participants at the May 19 NH Progressive Summit held in Henniker.

If a proposed amendment gets support from 3/5 of the members of the House and Senate it will be placed on the ballot for the November election.  Then, if 2/3 of voters vote “yes,” it would be added to the State Constitution.

The House and Senate are also likely to approve CACR 13, which would prohibit “new” taxes on personal income.  The point of this one is to install the state’s aversion to an income tax into the Constitution and create a higher hurdle to ever creating a system in which taxes would be related to the ability to pay.  CACR 13 is held up so far only by a need to figure out how to make it clear that this amendment is not meant to restrict taxes on “corporate persons,” only “natural persons.” 

Clifton Below, a former legislator who attended the Progressive Summit, says “what 5-19-2012 NEC 013 they are proposing is the very antithesis of what the founders and adopters of our state Constitution understood to be the foundation that is fair, proportional and reasonable.”  Most of us now earn our income from wages, but that wasn’t the case when the constitution was written in 1784.  At that time, most income derived from productive land, livestock, and commercial property.  18th century lawmakers specified that “every person may be compelled to pay in proportion to his income.” 

In that sense, the state’s property tax began it’s life as an income tax.  Now, reliance on the property tax maintains regressivity in the system and makes it hard for property-poor communities to raise the funds they need for schools and other public services.

Then there’s CACR 6.  The House version would require a super-majority of the House and Senate to raise any taxes or fees.  The Senate version would freeze state spending at current levels adjusted by the rate of inflation.  The “compromise” under consideration might adopt both bad ideas.  According to Jeff McLynch of the NH Fiscal Policy Institute, this would “lock in

CACR 13 Would Freeze

the effects of the current recession,” including the drastic spending cuts made in the current biennial budget.

Arnie Arnesen used most of her time as opening speaker at the Progressive Summit outlining the threats posed by the 3 amendments.   She also criticized another bill which would provide business tax credits for contributions to scholarship funds for private schools. 

The state’s tax structure is already regressive, meaning it demands proportionally higher taxes from low income taxpayers than it does from affluent ones. Using figures from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, McLynch said the wealthiest 1% of Granite Staters (income over $480,000 a year) pay only 2.0% of their income in state and local taxes.  For the poorest 20% (income less than $25,000),  on the other hand, state and local taxes captured 8.3% of their income.  In other words, the poorest households are paying taxes at a rate four times higher than the richest. 

While New Hampshire falls in the middle of states ranked by overall tax burden, we are 4th lowest in net state and local tax burden on the wealthiest 1%.  The fabled New Hampshire Advantage?  “New Hampshire is an especially great place to live and (not) pay taxes if you are in the top 1%,” says Below.

The 1% NH Advantage is held in place by “The Pledge,” a vow of fealty to the demands of William Loeb, former publisher of the Manchester Union Leader.  In the 1970s Loeb made opposition to “broad based taxes” the major criterion for avoiding his editorial attacks.  Since then most candidates for Governor – and all the winning ones – have given Loeb their pledges even though he’s been dead for thirty years.

Speaking to a lunchtime forum at the Progressive Summit, two of three candidates for the Democratic nomination for governor made it clear they think the state’s status quo tax policy is no longer viable.  “I will not take the Pledge,” declared former Senator Jackie Cille5-19-2012 NEC 017y. 

Cilley is not calling for an income tax, but she is not shying away from the issue either.  She understands “the Pledge” keeps the State reliant on business and  property taxes. “I know full well what the property tax does to people,” she told a house party audience Friday evening in Canterbury. 

Bill Kennedy, another candidate who spoke at the Progressive Summit, advocates an income tax. 

Maggie Hassan began her campaign for governor by taking “the Pledge.”  But she does oppose CACR 12. 

The Progressive Summit diverted 100 people from a beautiful early summer day to class and conference rooms at New England College in Henniker.  In addition to tax and budget matters, conferees also attended workshops on topics such as affordable housing, immigration, proposed voter suppression laws, health care, and the attack on workers’ rights.  The “Summit” was sponsored by NH Citizens Alliance for Action, Granite State Progress, and the Department of Sociology and Social Work at New England College.

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It was billed as a “solemn vigil” to protest the implementation of the federal “Secure Communities” program in New Hampshire.  But for more than 70 people who gathered in the rain outside Manchester’s Norris Cotton Federal Building it was hard to remain solemn when the Sisters of Mercy started chanting, “Stop Deportations Now.”

On the other hand, everyone paid close attention to Paloma SylvestrP1000505 e, who described her husband Juan’s arrest.  “He was just driving, going to work,” she  said, and was stopped “just for his features.”  Paloma was hospitalized during the months Juan was in jail, forcing the couple’s three boys to be separated from both their parents.  The family still feels the trauma.

P1000512 “I don’t want this to happen to another family,” she said.

S-Comm represents an escalation of immigration enforcement through data sharing between local police, FBI, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  It makes immigrants less secure and by fostering increased fear of police makes our whole communities less secure. 

This evening’s vigil was organized when ICE announced last week that S-Comm was in effect in New Hampshire.  The event included prayers, comments from Eva Castillo, Maggie Fogarty, and me, and several songs.  Newsmedia coverage included WMUR-TV and the NH Union Leader.

 

 

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5-5-12 038 “Don’t trust your employer to say everything’s all right,” says Al Bouchard, a member of NH COSH and an advocate for workers injured by chemical exposure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Re-Awakening the Spirit of 1912

NASHUA — Keeping their fingers crossed that the biggest legislative battles of the year are behind us, union members and labor allies rallied in Nashua on May 5 to raise spirits for whatever struggles lie ahead.  The “Solid as Granite” rally drew about 75 people to the Greeley Park band shell. 

The mood was defensive and defiant sixteen months into an intense State5-5-12 004 House battle that isn’t over yet.  “We will not be intimidated.  We will not go away,” shouted Mark MacKenzie, president of the NH AFL-CIO.  

With two right-to-work-for-LESS bills tabled in the State Senate, prospects are good that Speaker of the House Bill O’Brien’s anti-labor onslaught has been stopped.  But the Speaker, who recently took other proposals sidelined by the Senate and re-attached them as amendments to other measures, 5-5-12 011 may have more tricks up his sleeves. 

“Do not let up on any of us,” said Rep. Mary Gorman, one of ten local Representatives recognized for their “dedication to the middle class.”

The role of unions in creating and defending the middle class is by now well established.  Labor would be making a mistake, however, if it fails to connect with the issues facing people who aspire to the middle class.  Diana Lacey, president of the state’s largest union, was the only labor speaker who explicitly linked labor’s agenda to the needs of the poor.  5-5-12 012

Lacey, whose mom migrated from Mexico, also linked labor’s agenda to the importance of stopping the Arizonification of America.  She was also the one who mostly clearly identified labor with “the 99%.” 

MacKenzie also understands that labor’s fortunes are tied to other sectors, including “the religious community who care about the labor movement.” 

“That’s how we gonna take back the state of New Hampshire,” MacKenzie said.  I’m not sure we ever really had it, but his point is well taken.  With O’Brien already running again for Speaker, the 2012 election is looming large for labor. 

Other speakers included Robert Sherman of the Nashua Federation of Teachers;  Paul O’Connor from the Metal Trades Council at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard; Magnus Pardoe of the Nashua chapter of SEIU 1984; Ed Foley of the Sheet Metal Workers; Ed Barnes of the Mail Handlers; Craig Lange of the new union of Community College adjunct faculty; and Laura Hainey of the AFT.   Matt Murray, editor of NH Labor News, served as emcee.  Gerry O’Connor spoke about growing up in Lowell and made reference to the “Bread and Roses” strike of 1912.

If the New Hampshire unions are working hard to stand their ground and defend the4-28-12 008 status quo, labor activists and scholars a few miles south are looking back to 1912 in order to look forward.  The 100th anniversary of the landmark “Bread and Roses” strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts has occasioned a variety of cultural programs, including last week’s  Academic Symposium.  300 people ranged between several buildings in the city’s historic mill district for workshops on topics as diverse as “Music and Culture and Labor History,” “The Strike and Immigration in the Classroom,” The Importance of Strike Activity in Building New Unions,” and “The Legacies of Labor’s Response to Racism.” 

One hundred years ago thousands of workers, mostly immigrants and about half women, walked out of Lawrence’s mills when employers cut their pay.  According to the Bread and Roses Centennial Committee,

What started as a wage protest quickly became a fight for better conditions both on and off the job. The strikers angrily complained about mistreatment by overseers and a job pace that made them work “like horses.” They also objected to a premium system that held part of their expected earnings hostage to month-long production and attendance standards.

After eight weeks of strike activity led by the Industrial Workers o4-28-12 007f the World, the bosses gave in and granted a 15% pay hike, with the biggest raises going to  the lowest paid workers.

The Centennial is “an incredible event for my family being able to reclaim our own history,” said Donna San Antonio, whose grandparents participated in the 1912 strike and who now teaches educators.   

While there were plenty of professors at the symposium, everyone present seemed eager to apply scholarship to current struggles for workers and immigrants.  That group includes the last unionized textile workers 4-28-12 015 in the city, 500 UNITE HERE Local 311 members working at Polartec.  “We continue to fight for bread and roses in our community,” said Juan Williams, who spoke at a lunchtime plenary that also featured AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. 

At an afternoon workshop other Polartec workers explained that they have better benefits than non-union workers in the city and that the union helps them solve workplace problems.  “If you have no union and someone doesn’t like you, there’s no way to defend yourself,” said a worker named Tony.   Another worker, Anya, said she has developed leadership skills through her union activity. 4-28-12 039 “Thanks to the union I have the opportunity to go anywhere to express myself,” she said. 

Formerly known as Malden Mills, the company where the Local 311 members work had a massive fire in 1995.  In the aftermath, the company shrunk from 2500 workers to 1000 and got bought out by Versa, a private equity firm which tried to cut benefits.  But the union is hanging on.

Labor’s resurgence is an essential ingredient of halting the drift toward plutocracy and lifting up the spirit of 1912.

In the words of James Oppenheim’s now famous poem,

No more the drudge and idler,

Ten that toil where one reposes,

But a sharing of life’s glories:

Bread and roses, bread and roses.

 

 

 

 

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A crowd of about a hundred people combined pro-immigrant and pro-worker messages at a May Day rally outside the Dover, New Hampshire City Hall today.  Despite an on-again off-again drizzle, spirits stayed strong during speeches by immigrant and religious leaders, songs led by Rev. Mary Westfall, and music 5-1-12 008 performed by the Leftist Marching Band.

The rally was organized by the NH Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees, and emceed by its organizer, Eva Castillo.  Support also came from the American Friends Service Committee and Occupy Dover.

Speakers included Dr. Sara Alier, President 5-1-12 050of the South Sudanese Association; Suraj Budathoki, a member of the Bhutanese Community of NH; the Rev. Sandra Pontoh of the  Maranatha Indonesian UCC Church in Madbury; Attorney Larry Vogelman; Maggie Fogarty of the AFSC; State Rep. David Watters of Dover; and the Rev. Kendra Ford of the Exeter UU Church.

The connections between workers and immigrants were evident, for example in 5-1-12 078remarks of several speakers concerning a February incident in which reports of wage theft at a nearby construction site prompted community protests which helped the workers collect pay they were owed.  Lindsey Wettleland of Occupy Dover also noted that Dover was the site of the first industrial strike by women in the USA.  Judy Elliott, an ESOL teach and NH COSH safety trainer spoke about the common on-the-job injuries experienced by immigrant workers and the rights that all workers have to a safe workplace. 

Danny Provencal Fogarty, a Dover 8th grader, was probably the most effective speaker with his reading of the Emma Lazarus poem from the Statue 5-1-12 052of Liberty and impromptu remarks – in Spanish and English – about his own experience living in a Bolivian village and the importance of having a welcoming attitude to immigrants.  Danny has a future as a public speaker!

A small counter-protest by the Granite State Patriots, a tea party group led by a one-time head of the State Republican Party, drew only 5 people.  They complied with requests to be a non-disruptive presence and left halfway through the rally.

The rally featured spirited renditions of “This Land is Your Land,” “We Shall Not  Be Moved,” and “We Shall Overcome.”  “Solidarity Forever” was sung with choruses in Spanish and Indonesian as well as English. 

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Here’s my new verse for “This Land is Your Land”

“We are dissenters from the one per centers,

For human rights, we are defenders,

For social justice, we are extenders,

This land was made for you and me.”5-1-12 080

May 1 rallies for immigrants’ rights in recent years had been held in Manchester and Nashua.   The decision to hold this year’s rally in Dover followed a February incident in which Dover police called federal immigration authorities when a small group of immigrants showed up at the police station to report an incident of wage theft and request assistance.

Earlier in the day immigrants rights activists attended a State House hearing on a resolution of  support for Arizona’s repressive immigration law, known as SB 1070.  Not a single supporter, no5-1-12 001t even the resolution’s sponsor, showed up to speak for the non-binding expression of intolerance.  But opponents included Eva Castillo, Judy Elliott from NH AIR, Clair Ebel of the NH Civil Liberties Union, Cathy Chesley from Catholic Charities, Attorney Enrique Mesa, Louise Hannan of NH COSH, and me.  Following the hearing, the Senate Internal Affairs Committee voted 2-1 to recommend killing the resolution, which had already passed the NH House.  

Here’s more photos:

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