Making the Rich Pay

Union members are out knocking on doors for Proposition 55, which would continue the tax on high-income Californians—and ditch the sales tax increase. Photo: California Federation of Teachers

Pulling the lever to tax the 1% is about as satisfying as voting gets. In three states this November, voters can thank teachers and other unions for giving them the opportunity.

California’s tax on the rich is due for an extension. Four years ago voters approved a compromise that combined a Teachers-led effort for a millionaires tax with a sales tax the governor was peddling.

Now union members are out knocking on doors for Proposition 55, which would continue the tax on high-income Californians—and ditch the sales tax increase.

An initiative in Oregon would add a 2.5 percent tax on corporations whose annual sales top $25 million—generating $6 billion for public schools, health care, and senior care. The coalition for Measure 97 includes teachers, health care workers, and transit workers.

And in Maine, another union-backed measure would put a 3 percent tax on incomes over $200,000, earmarking the funds for education.


As usual, corporate cash is flooding in to oppose these initiatives. Walmart, Albertsons, and Allstate paint them as taxes on the little guy.

They’re calling Oregon’s measure an attack on small businesses (the tax won’t hit them) and on consumers, who will supposedly suffer trickle-down price increases.

Voters should be skeptical any time big business suddenly takes an interest in saving us money. It’s the same in a union drive, when the bosses cry crocodile tears over all the dues we’ll have to pay. They’re thinking of their own bottom line.

In California, the Chamber of Commerce is warning that the wealthy will sell their homes and businesses and move to Nevada. The horror! The fear-mongering is especially far-fetched since the proposition would renew a tax that’s already in effect. Far from inflicting economic disaster, the revenue boost has revived public schools and colleges after years of cuts, layoffs, and furloughs.

More funding is needed—and it needs to go to the right places. In the Los Angeles and San Francisco schools, unions are fighting for more counselors and support staff, and to stop private charter school companies from siphoning off district money.



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In Portland, Oregon, after the recent revelation that the drinking water in nearly all K-12 schools was contaminated with lead, the district is scrambling to pay for bottled water.

Teachers and activists pushed for the safety measures. But they’re also worried that urgent infrastructure needs will get pitted against longstanding student needs—more support staff, more teachers, and smaller classes. The new tax has become even more essential.

Meanwhile in Illinois, where ballot initiatives are allowed but not binding, Chicago teachers opted to vote with their feet. To stop a barrage of cuts, they threatened a sequel to their electrifying 2012 strike.

It worked—on the eve of the strike deadline, the mayor blinked and finally agreed to dip into his slush fund of developer subsidies to plump up the schools budget.


There’s a reason Bernie Sanders’ campaign was popular. People like the idea of making banks and the rich cough up their fair share. Our schools and public services are a lot more beloved than our millionaires.

By the same token, most voters like putting more money in workers’ pockets. Four years ago we lamented a missed opportunity: no statewide minimum wage hikes appeared on the 2012 ballot.

You’d think more politicians would have figured out that lifting wages is a great issue to campaign on, especially in a presidential year. Majorities of voters, even Republicans, consistently back increasing the minimum. People will show up to vote for a raise—and for the candidate who’s backing it, too.

The landscape is better this go-round, after the national Fight for $15 campaign made the minimum wage hot again. Union-backed efforts are inviting voters to raise the floor to $12 in Arizona, Colorado, and Maine, and $13.50 in Washington.

Big business may not care about workers’ bottom line. But luckily, voters do.

Samantha Winslow is co-director of Labor