Sometimes the boss offers us a fight that directly exposes the destructive effects of corporate power.
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that moment came when ExxonMobil asked for yet another handout from taxpayers—property tax exemptions totaling $6 million.
For the ninth-largest corporation in the world, it was a routine request. ExxonMobil is accustomed to receiving such perks from obedient state officials. But teachers saw it differently: as a $6 million theft from the local schools budget.
Educators and other school employees voted 445-6 on October 23 to stage a one-day walkout the following week. Teachers planned to pack a hearing on ExxonMobil’s requests.
Within hours of the union vote, the company’s exemption bids were off the Board of Industry and Commerce’s agenda.
Government + Business = True Love
The backstory here is how members of two teachers unions and a Service Employees local in East Baton Rouge got educated about the connection between corporate giveaways and the deteriorating conditions in their schools.
These unions participate in a faith, labor, and community coalition called Together Baton Rouge, which holds “Civic Academies” to educate about community issues, including education. It was there that union members learned more about the state’s Industrial Tax Exemption Program.
The ITEP, enacted 44 years ago, makes corporations eligible for tax exemptions if they can show—or claim—that their expenses for projects will contribute to a community’s economic growth.
In this round of requests, ExxonMobil was asking for tax exemptions for work completed two years ago. The company didn’t even bother to argue that the new exemptions would bring jobs or more revenue.
In the Civic Academies, union members learned to find ExxonMobil’s submissions and read them for themselves. “They see the date of submission and the date of project completion and they see it doesn’t make sense,” said Shanize Byrd, an organizer with the National Education Association. “The projects were already completed.”
“We started educating our employees and showing how these exemptions affect everyone,” said Angela Reams-Brown, president of the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers. “The children of our district suffer when we don’t have qualified teachers, when bus drivers are driving old and dilapidated buses—this lack of money has far-reaching consequences.”
Teachers haven’t received an across-the-board raise since 2008.
“It hurts to see my colleagues working part-time at a fast-food restaurant because their full-time job is not enough to sustain them,” said Tia Mills, president of the East Baton Rouge Parish Educators Association. “Teachers put a lot of their money into classrooms just to make them conducive to learning.”
Together Baton Rouge did the research that the unions used to educate their members and the community. That education was not just about who’s stealing from the district—it also exposed the distortions of corporate philanthropy.
“Exxon comes back and says, ‘Look at all the time and money we are putting back into the city,’” said Reams-Brown. “We say, ‘If you are paying your fair share of taxes we will not need your handouts.’”
Louisiana ranks fourth in the country in income inequality. Between 2007 and 2017, the ITEP exemption had already cut ExxonMobil’s property tax in East Baton Rouge Parish (Louisiana’s equivalent of a county) in half. Over the last 20 years, exemptions for the oil giant have cost the parish $700 million, even while 1,900 ExxonMobil jobs have been lost.
Teachers and other workers’ input into the ITEP process is new, brought in under current Governor John Edwards. Edwards ordered that requests for tax exemptions include resolutions from parish councils and any relevant school, municipal, police, and sheriff boards supporting the request.
Exemptions are reviewed by the state Board of Industry and Commerce. If approved, municipal councils have 30 days to put the issue on their own meeting agenda and 60 days to approve or reject. Prior to Edwards’s order, municipalities had never had a chance to weigh in.
Leading up to Election Day, teachers were focused on the nine open seats in the school board elections, where out-of-state money from corporate-backed Democrats for Education Reform helped two charter-school proponents outspend the other 13 candidates by almost double. Both pro-charter candidates were elected. Baton Rouge public schools lose more than $10 million a year to charter schools, which capture state funding on a per-pupil basis.
Strike Wave Fired Them Up
There were rumblings of a walkout in Louisiana last spring as educators watched teachers strike from West Virginia to Arizona. “Most definitely the red-state rebellion influenced the teachers,” Reams-Brown said. “We said it is always possible but it requires great planning. We want the community and the parents on our side.”
Members were still fired up at her union follow-up meeting, the week after ExxonMobil removed its requests and the walkout was canceled. Some were disappointed not to walk out. Byrd said she had never before seen members not wait for staff or leadership to tell them what the next steps would be: “They said, ‘Let’s do this.’ They have learned the mechanics of organizing. They are ready to go back into their schools, talk to people, and take action.”
While school employees are continuing to organize—including making plans for a walk-in to celebrate public education—the unions have also filed a lawsuit against the tax assessor, who they claim has improperly left ExxonMobil and other corporate properties off the tax rolls, costing the district millions of dollars.
Meanwhile, Mills said, the superintendent just indicated he’s going to recommend deep cuts in next year’s budget. “We are going to be experiencing deep cuts but we are giving money to a big corporation,” said Mills. “How is giving money to business good for our children?”
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