Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 95th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
Today we bring you a conversation with Jody Calemine, the general counsel for the Communications Workers of America (CWA). Calemine discusses how CWA is holding the GOP to account for its promises in the tax bill: by guaranteeing every worker in the union a $4,000 boost in annual income in a written contract.
Sarah Jaffe: We are talking today about the strategy [being put forward by CWA] for tackling the problems with the tax bill…. First off, for folks who haven’t heard, can you explain what that is?
Jody Calemine: We represent around 700,000 workers across the United States and therefore, we have a keen interest in what is going on with this tax bill. The vast majority of the benefits of this tax bill are going to go to the very rich and to corporations, not to working people. But the White House has been telling everybody not to worry — those benefits will “trickle down” to workers and they have been very specific about it. They have said that if the corporate tax rate is cut from 35 percent to 20 percent, every household in this country will receive a $4,000 boost in their income per year.
The promises made by this White House are so specific about what the outcome would be that it simply spurred us to try and hold them to this promise.
That is a very specific promise about how “trickle down” is supposed to work. We are going to take that promise literally. We acted as a labor union should react — by writing to our employers, because what we do all the time is negotiate wage increases. We wrote to eight of our key employers, and attached to those letters to a bunch of CEOs was a contract proposal. It says, “If the corporate tax rate is cut to 20%, every employee in our bargaining unit will receive a $4,000 wage increase.”
Have you gotten any reactions from any of those companies yet?
Not yet. We gave them until Friday, December 1, to get back to us, but there has been no official reaction yet. The New York Times did a story on this last week. It appeared to have gotten some reaction from some of the employers who are dismissing it as a stunt, but it isn’t a stunt. It is very serious. For once, we want to make sure that these promises that the White House and congressional leaders are making are put in writing and signed by the people who will actually pay this money.
Just for example, some of the other stuff in the tax bill would actually be very bad for some of your workers. I imagine you have done some thinking about exactly what this could cost some of your members.
The bill itself — about 75 percent of the bill’s benefits are going to go to big business and the very wealthy. Those benefits are made permanent by this bill. The things that are for any individuals are temporary, and over the course of this bill, people who make less than $75,000 a year are actually going to see their taxes increase. So, working people are really being harmed by the bill. And it is not just the overall tax structure that they are trying to implement, but it is lots of little things. We don’t happen to represent teachers, but teachers have this deduction that they can make — up to $250 when they spend money out of their pocket for classroom supplies. That deduction goes away under these bills. We do represent graduate students at a few places. They want to now tax the tuition that grad students might receive in exchange for their work at the university. This is money that the graduate student never actually sees. They want to treat that as if it is wages earned, but these same organizations behind this bill also want to make sure that graduate teaching assistants cannot organize.
There have been many attempts to cut taxes over the past decades. Always with these promises that, as you said, it will “trickle down” to workers. Is this a new strategy? Have unions tried to do anything like this before? How is this time different, if so?
As far as I know, we have never responded in such a direct way before. The promises made by this White House are so specific about what the outcome would be that it simply spurred us to try and hold them to this promise and got to our employers and ask them to sign. There is another specific promise that these guys made … that this tax bill is going to prevent the offshoring of jobs. That is a big issue for us. We have been fighting offshoring for a long time. It is what the Verizon strike up and down the East Coast last year was all about. They are saying this is going to prevent offshoring? Then we are going to our employers, and in these contract proposals, there is a second provision: It says, “So long as this tax bill is in effect, they will not offshore work. New jobs will be created here rather than overseas and work that is here isn’t going to move overseas.”
I think a lot of people are starting to see the gaps between this administration’s pro-worker rhetoric and the reality. This tax bill is one of them. Attempts to repeal the ACA is another one.
Again, just like the wage increase, this is something entirely within these corporations’ control. Based on the tax savings they are going to enjoy under this tax bill, they get to decide what they are going to do with it. The politicians are saying, “This is what will be done with it. That is why working people should support this bill.” So, we are going to those employers and saying, “Is that, in fact, true?” and we haven’t gotten a response.
Just to be clear, overall, the union is opposed to the tax bill.
Yes. We view it as an outrageous money grab. It is not as if the $4,000 will make up for everything else that this bill does to working people, but if they are going to make these kinds of promises, we want it in writing.
CWA has been involved in various fights over various Trump policies over the last year. Tell me a little bit about how the members are reacting to all of this.
The way our members have been reacting to things emanating from Washington in this new administration — I think they have been very energized. They worked very hard to make sure that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) survived rather than seeing millions of families lose health insurance. They rose up and participated in all the public actions to stop that repeal. It has been a very energizing moment.
I think one of the interesting things about this administration is that they got themselves elected with a lot of pro-worker rhetoric. I think a lot of people are starting to see the gaps between that rhetoric and the reality. This tax bill is one of them. The attempts to repeal the ACA is another one. Where they land on offshoring will be another test over time. The things that they are prioritizing in Congress — they send a signal to working people across the country. Infrastructure was supposed to be a priority; that has taken a back seat. No one knows exactly when they will ever get around to that kind of job creation work. The appointments to various agencies have not signalled an indication that they are looking to strengthen workers’ bargaining power, which is actually what we need to be doing right now if we want to have wages rise and the economy be more sustainable and fair for everyone. We need a lot more done on that front in terms of increasing workers’ bargaining power. On the contrary, they seem to be moving in the opposite direction.
Have any other unions, after you came out with this, signalled that they are going to do something similar? Has this gotten a reaction from other unions?
Since we have come out, I have not had conversations about it directly with other unions. I don’t know if they are going to plan to do the same thing. I can tell you what: If this tax bill passes, I think everyone knows what their campaign is. Workers will have to organize and bargain to get their fair share of these tax cuts.
Are there any thoughts about strategic places where there might be room to have a big campaign around this? Any contract fights that you have got coming up, maybe where this would be a place to focus?
With respect to the $4,000 wage increase, that is supposed to be an ultimate windfall after it “trickles down” to workers, on top of what we would be bargaining for anyway. So, these contract proposals are in addition to existing contracts. They are modifications without affecting whatever raises we have already bargained for. Whatever the terms are today, we are supposed to get an additional $4,000. If this tax bill were to pass and become law, I think you will see this being inserted in all the fights going forward, because everybody is supposed to get a $4,000 wage increase. That is what Donald Trump says.
We will see how that goes. In terms of broader strategies and things that you are thinking about going forward, we are in this interesting moment where, as you said, Trump got elected on a lot of pro-worker rhetoric. On the other side of the aisle, your union was one of the ones that backed Bernie Sanders. There has been, since his campaign, a lot of interest and a lot of actual victories for candidates running in a sort of Bernie Sanders, left populist, even Democratic Socialist mold. It feels like it is both a moment where there is potential for tremendous steps backwards, but also steps forward. I wonder what you are thinking about in terms of bigger demands that it is possible to make right now for labor, for working people.
I think it is pretty incredible how quickly politics can turn and … opportunities can arise long before you may have otherwise expected them to enact real change. Pundits talk about a “blue wave.” That may or may not come about, but you do see people being very motivated to get involved and to get out and vote. There were too few people who voted in the last [presidential] election. The direction of the country will depend upon voter turnout.
We have headwinds against us on that front that come from those who would like to keep people from voting, with various hurdles and obstacles to keep people out of the booths or to keep people from getting registered. It is an uphill battle, but this year’s elections in New Jersey and Virginia and various special elections that have occurred indicate that there are people energized and voter turnout, I think, is coming.
Lastly, how can people keep up with CWA, with this particular demand, and with the work that the union is doing around the country?
I think the best way to keep up with us is to subscribe to our Twitter feed @CWAUnion. We have a great digital media operation to try and keep people informed and let people know about actions we are undertaking and how they can participate.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.
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