Statement on the Withdrawal of the California Millionaire’s Tax Initiative

by California Solidarity members

Posted May 8, 2012

The termination of the campaign to put the California Millionaires’ Tax (MT) on the November ballot was a setback for the movement for progressive taxation and for more equal income distribution. The MT had the rare potential of serving as a focal point for the movement of the 99% against the 1%. While the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) and a group of Community Based Organizations (CBOs) under the umbrella of California Calls should be commended for initiating the measure against the wishes of the California political and labor establishment, the failure of the campaign to break from conventional electoral strategy paved the way toward its eventual compromise with Governor Brown.

It is clear that the main blame goes to the two largest public sector unions in California – SEIU and the California Teachers Association (CTA) – which, acting as Governor Brown’s hatchet men, launched a vicious and dishonest smear campaign to discredit the initiative. The CNA, which had previously endorsed it, ultimately backed away from promises to fund it. Defenders of the decision to make a deal argue that CFT, et. al., had no choice but to stop the campaign and get whatever concessions they could from Governor Brown, especially given the lack of funds to continue a PR campaign to counter the millions that corporations would spend to defeat the initiative.

A deeper look at the MT campaign, however, reveals a more complex picture that movement activists and socialists need to consider. Before fall 2011, the idea of taxing the rich as an alternative to austerity was being promoted by some on the left to little statewide or national effect. The explosion of Occupy on the scene took this idea out of the realm of abstraction and created the possibility of making it an urgent policy demand. The Millionaire’s Tax was enormously popular, substantially outpolling the Governor’s initiative. Elements within Occupy were enthusiastic about it. Occupy did not devote many resources to the signature-gathering campaign to get it on the ballot, but Occupy Education’s 99-mile march to Sacramento and the March 5 mobilization there represented the possible beginning of a campaign which could have featured the MT as a primary component, possibly shifting more and more towards a focus on the MT as the fall election grew closer..

However, what was fundamentally lacking was a campaign strategy to capture this positive public and movement sentiment based on an independent mobilization of the 99%. Only this could have created the momentum necessary to prevent defeat or a compromise with Brown.

The reasons for this were twofold. First, CFT and its allies were advised by conventional political operatives with no experience conducting movement campaigns as a component of electoral work. The leadership of the CBOs involved also did not see movement building as a priority. ACCE (formerly ACORN), which does have a movement building perspective, and was involved in formulating the initiative, for their own reasons never prioritized it sufficiently. The result was that the campaign to gather signatures, which could have been used as an organizing tool to meet new people, recruit signature gatherers, etc., became little more than a paid operation, with some notable exceptions such as AFT 2121 in San Francisco, Tax the Super Rich in Oakland, and the Richmond Progressive Alliance. Opportunities were missed to aggressively recruit signature gatherers at mass events, such as the March 5 Sacramento student march, rally, and capitol building occupation.

The compromise measure represents a real improvement in several respects over Brown’s original measure. However, the process of the compromise was disorienting and dividing for the movement. The CFT leadership and the CBOs at the center of the MT campaign negotiated with Gov. Brown on behalf of the entire MT effort, without involving or consulting other movement forces who had begun (if somewhat belatedly and perhaps insufficiently) to orient to the MT campaign, such as Occupy Education, the higher education student movement, some of the higher education unions, and CFT’s own local leaders. The many in the movement rightly felt that the CFT leadership had betrayed them and gone behind their backs to negotiate this compromise; in the ensuing anger, the greater betrayals of the larger unions (SEIU, CTA, and CNA) and the laudable role the CFT had played in developing the MT campaign and keeping it going for so long were sometimes forgotten.

How could the process have been better? How could it be better next time? It’s unclear how a ballot measure campaign can effectively include broad, movement forces while maintaining tactical flexibility. Our unions negotiate with management; we believe that elected bargaining teams should operate with a great degree of transparency, but there may very occasionally be times when they can’t immediately make everything public to the entire membership, or times when they need to operate with tactical flexibility and speed. Similar principles should operate in a movement ballot measure campaign: negotiations are not inherently unprincipled; they should be as transparent as possible; they occasionally might need to operate with a level of tactical flexibility and speed which wouldn’t permit in-person check-ins with local movement meetings in many locations around the state. What a democratic, transparent structure would look like for a movement campaign which also honors the disproportionate member resources a union like CFT may put into such a campaign is a question that needs further development elsewhere, but such structures need to be developed in the future if movement-driven ballot measure campaigns are to be a reality.

The second reason for the failure of the campaign has to do with the failure of the Left, including Solidarity, to attempt to fill the movement vacuum created by the campaign. We could not have filled this vacuum on our own, of course, as the organized Left is small and weak, but we could have played a greater role in Occupy and other movement settings to motivate a level of focus on and participation in the MT campaign. We could have made the argument more clearly and systematically that without such focus and participation by the movement, the MT campaign would not be able to succeed. Of course, making such a case would not necessarily have been straightforward. Sometimes on the Left, we tend to treat Occupy as a general panacea, but the reality is more complicated. First, while Occupy and its critique of the 1% continue to have broad public support, direct participation in Occupy activities is lower now than it was with the immediate inception of the movement in Fall 2011. In addition to a decline in sheer numbers, participation in the movement has tended to skew more and more towards younger and unemployed or underemployed people who might have different networks and proclivities from those of the broad movement of the 99% at the inception of the movement in Fall 2011. Second, there are political limitations to some of the dominant trends in Occupy – including a reluctance to make demands on the state in general and a shunning of electoral work in particular as tantamount to “lobbying,” which did not prepare the Occupy movement to see the Millionaire’s Tax as a priority for movement building. For its part, the Left was unprepared to make that argument either within Occupy or with CFT, ACCE, etc., bearing in mind the different roles different movement organizations could have played. It’s a bit difficult to imagine Occupy in its current state marshaling hundreds or thousands of volunteers for petition gathering or door knocking, but it might have been reasonable to develop an attention-grabbing action campaign around the MT via Occupy.

This is not to say that if Occupy and the Left had been better prepared, it could have compensated for the lack of a movement strategy by the initiators of the campaign. Nor is it obvious that even if the campaign had embarked upon a movement strategy, this would have been enough to compensate for the lack of resources to avoid a demoralizing defeat. The point is that the Left didn’t even try to make a difference. As such, this setback should be a wakeup call for [Solidarity and others on] the left to rethink movement strategy both within and outside of Occupy, and to imagine what a democratic, movement-driven ballot campaign might look like as one among several vehicles for creating a movement of the 99% in a state like California which can build power.