Millionaire Tax Wins in Massachusetts
For more than a century in Massachusetts everyone has paid the same income tax rate, from those who rake in millions to those working a minimum wage job. Until now.
On November 8, the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition, led by unions and dozens of community and faith-based organizations, won passage of the Fair Share Amendment. It’s a change in our state constitution that will institute a 4 percent surcharge on annual income over $1 million, with the proceeds dedicated to public education, public transportation, and road and bridge maintenance.
Wealth is so concentrated in Massachusetts that even though only about 20,000 households (less than 1 percent) will be touched by this marginal surtax, it will generate about $2 billion a year.
Retrieving billions of dollars every year from the wealthiest households in the state and returning it to the people in the form of greater investments in the public good—that’s what we call a very good start.
It was close: 52 percent for, almost 48 percent against. But over the last century, there have been six attempts to institute a graduated income tax system in our state, and the five previous efforts failed.
How we won was nearly as important as what we won.
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We were consistent and persistent. Members of the Massachusetts Society of Professors, the faculty and librarian union at UMass Amherst, began talking about progressive taxes in the early 2000s.
Educators for a Democratic Union, the left caucus whose members have been in the leadership of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) since 2014, identified progressive taxes as a core part of its platform dating back to 2011. Despite shifting statewide and internal union politics, we remained committed to the goal.
Vision statements can often be filed away on a website and forgotten. But in the case of EDU, taxing the rich animated our organizing, our candidate platforms, and our coalition-building.
When the state Supreme Court brazenly dismissed the initiative in 2018, we regrouped and pursued the second, legislative avenue for a constitutional amendment.
We won by putting unions front and center. For too long, unions have been urged to step away from the limelight lest the moderate middle of Massachusetts be put off.
It is sometimes shocking for people outside Massachusetts to learn that a third of the state voted for Donald Trump, and large majorities have installed Republican governors for much of the past quarter-century. To avoid antagonizing these voters, progressive legislative and ballot campaigns have sought union financial backing but urged us to stay out of the limelight.
This time, MTA proudly stood forward. We found that having the MTA be a leader in the coalition was not a problem but a benefit.
Educators have long been the respected voices on public education issues. The Walton Foundation learned this the hard way in 2016, when they saw a large lead in their charter school ballot initiative evaporate and turn into a landslide loss because voters spoke with their public school educators before voting.
We were further able to take advantage of the respect our members had earned from families during Covid.
The press sought to set this up as a battle of responsible businesses versus the teachers union, with CEOs merely interested in preserving a “good business environment.”
In speaking to the Boston Globe in the final month of the campaign, I was proud to tell the reporter that all of our substantial contributions to the campaign came from our 115,000 members’ dues, ratified at our annual meeting, the largest yearly democratic gathering in the state. By contrast, I noted, the “no” side was funded almost exclusively by four billionaires and two multimillionaires. While the press didn’t want to highlight the class battle, we did.
We spoke openly about the concentration of wealth and the inequities of our tax system. When the Fair Share campaign began in 2015, the emphasis of the campaign (in part based on polling) was on the investments in public education and transportation that this tax would make possible.
By 2021, what mattered more in the minds of voters was tax fairness in a state that had grown more unequal. This feeling was sharpened after a pandemic where more than 20,000 people in the state died while our billionaires saw their wealth grow by nearly 50 percent.
Some longtime political operatives involved in the campaign remained fearful of highlighting class inequality, even after polling and reports from canvassing suggested the public was eager for greater tax fairness.
The clarity of the proposal—that only very rich people would pay, and pay for investments we all care about—helped win the day, despite the headwinds of inflation, a state surplus, a deep distrust of politicians, and a well-funded ad campaign by the “no” side that was full of lies.
We began early, with our members. The mistaken name “Taxachusetts” casts a long shadow, and taxes remain the third rail in Massachusetts politics. Starting in September 2021, we decided to visit a hundred key locals to educate members about taxes and why Fair Share mattered so much to the schools and colleges where they work. By spring, we had visited 120 locals before the formal campaign had even begun.
We invested heavily in member organizing. Building on one of our more successful organizing programs, we hired 140 summer member organizers who went door to door (and phone to phone) speaking with our members and the general public last summer.
Knocking on 40,000 doors a week set a benchmark for the entire campaign. The whole campaign managed to knock on 100,000 doors in the final weeks, and broke one million doors total, a number not before seen in the state.
Post-election polling showed that “yes” voters were more likely to have been spoken to directly by our side—through casual conversations or during our door-knocking and phone-calling—than the “no” side.
Most importantly, the member organizers gained new organizing experience and left more committed to the MTA and the cause. Some of our most effective activists—including those who have been engaged in recent strikes in Malden and Haverhill—got their start in union organizing in this summer program.
The Fair Share Amendment taxes the very rich and produces billions for public education and transportation. But the third and perhaps most profound win on November 8 was that we stuck a knife in the austerity narrative, which says public resources are always scarce and that we must pull back on our “unrealistic” political vision.
Neoliberalism demands that we trust free-market capitalists, expect less from government, narrow our sense of what is possible, and accept constraints as inevitable. The Fair Share Amendment is the next step forward in recapturing our political imaginations.
Max Page is president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, a union of 115,000 public school and college educators.