An open-air soup kitchen staffed by registered nurses in union T-shirts feeding a line of San Franciscan's midday outside a busy federal building is not something you see every day and it caused heads to turn.
It was intended to make a point, one also emphatically made at protest rallies outside 60 other legislative offices in 21 states attended by thousands of nurses and community friends.
National Nurses United (NNU) selected the offices of major federal legislators to announce loud and clear: Our communities are hurting; tax Wall Street to rebuild Main Street.
This project is another bold, political step for the politically active and growing NNU, now the largest nurses' organization in the country's history.
In addition to today's political outing, it also strongly advocates the government providing quality health care for everyone, much like Medicare currently does for seniors, and not exclusive to only those able to pay.
I asked why nurses were so interested in politics while most other unions have their hands filled just defending members on contractual issues.
“It's natural for us to advocate for patients and for their families,” nurses told me repeatedly. “In fact,” Martha Kuhl, NNU national secretary and a nurse who works at a children's hospital in Oakland, emphasized, “we are bound by law to do so.”
“But it's not enough for us only to care for people at bedside. When so many are hurting outside the hospital, we need to take it further and make the general public aware of social justice issues affecting us all, ” Zenei Triunfo-Cortez told me just moments before she took the podium to chair the rally.
Triunfo-Cortez is national vice president of NNU and co-president of the NNU-affiliated California Nurses Association (CNA).
Diane Koorsones, CNA board of directors member, expressed the same idea. “Our union leadership works in the hospitals and what we see every day in the faces of those without insurance or without adequate insurance,” Koorsones earnestly confided, “other people, other progressive organizations maybe don't see. Maybe they are too far removed from the misery we see and then they miss the big picture, miss the big solutions that need to be adopted.”
In fact, it is true. Most unions concentrate so much on the economic problems threatening workers that they fail to address broader political issues or they simply defer to the opinions of their preferred politicians.
If it is true, as some are beginning to appreciate, that it is inadequate to fight the battles of working people only on the economic level, confined to just picket lines and contract negotiations, then the example of the NNU to put forward policy independent of the compromisers and squabblers in the nation's capital is well worth considering.
Main Street Contract
“Just as we have good nurses' union contracts guaranteeing healthcare and retirement, all Americans should have a social contract with such guarantees,” Koorsones told me.
The NNU suggests a “Main Street Contract for the American People” that initially proposes raising $350 billion dollars by assessing “a tiny tax on Wall Street trading of 0.5% on transactions like stocks, bonds, foreign currency bets and derivatives.”
NNU claims more than 15 nations already have such a tax, commonly referred to as a Financial Transaction Tax (FTT). In fact, the proposal does currently enjoy support among informed economists in this country and in Europe where budgets are also hurting.
According to the August 31 Bloomberg, France and Germany in September will propose a FTT to the European Union in order to raise money for development projects.
Even French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who faced huge mobilized opposition when he attempted to cut pensions and social services in his country, conceded that “it's normal to pay a tax when you buy a material good. Why should financial transactions be the only transactions exempt?”
It all sounds very reasonable. But taxing the wealthy is always a harder sell stateside where the rich seem to be far more greedy and where the public seems to be far less informed. As a result, rich individuals and large corporations in this country are increasingly paying fewer and fewer taxes.
For example, the nonprofit Institute for Policy Studies was cited by the August 31 Chicago Tribune as documenting 25 examples of the 100 largest US corporations paying their chief executives more in 2010 than they each paid in federal income taxes. With absolutely no shame, many of these same corporations actually netted a huge gain by receiving government tax credits. Another reason the NNU political education campaign is such a good beginning.
“It all starts with explaining the human costs of big political issues like war and healthcare that actually impact families directly, in their pocketbooks and in how they live their lives hoping for some safety, security and dignity,” Sal Rosselli, president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) told me at the San Francisco rally.
“The NNU 'Main Street Contract' proposals and the involvement of their members in educating and informing the American public means they are involved in politics on a broader and deeper level than just writing checks to politicians and this, I believe, is an example for other unions,” Rosselli added.
Make Wall Street Pay
“Make Wall Street pay for the devastation they caused to Main Street,” Koorsones said to cheers and hollers. She was joined on the podium by several people who recounted shattering experiences of illnesses, poverty and death resulting from the deteriorating living conditions in this country.
Today, there is a record 46 million Americans on food stamps. Instead of seeing this huge number as a deeply troubling sign of crisis, Congress is considering altering eligibility criterion to get the numbers down by kicking people off the rolls.
It's such loathsome examples that explain why several speakers from San Francisco communities and workplaces lined up behind the idea of a “Main Street Contract.”
Sixteen-year San Francisco firefighter Heather Piper recounted a dramatic personal story and told the rally that “people should be allowed to retire in security and die with dignity. Taxes should pay for jobs and healthcare and Wall Street should pay its fair share.”
Twenty-one year old Jaquayla Burton got lots of applause by insisting, “Wall Street should start paying for what they broke. I didn't wreck the economy,” said the young black woman from the heavily unemployed Bayview neighborhood.
These voices from the podium in San Francisco and the other rallies throughout the country echo the hopes and dreams of millions of Americans.
Hopefully, the campaign for a “Main Street Contract” means these voices will finally be heard in Washington and in city and state governments throughout the land that have so far turned a deaf ear to the real needs and aspirations of ordinary, working people.