This Q&A is part of Sarah Jaffe’s series Interviews for Resistance, in which she speaks with organizers, troublemakers and thinkers who are doing the hard work of fighting back against America’s corporate and political powers. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Today, Dec. 1, 2017 there is a deadline looming — a new kind of industrial action fitted for the Trump era. At BillMoyers.com we’ve reported at length on the multiple problems with the GOP tax bill. It will cut social services, increase the wealth gap and balloon the deficit all for the benefit of the few. Sarah Jaffe talked with Jody Calemine, the general counsel at Communication Workers of America about their new strategy to make “trickle down economics” more than just a fantasy.
Sarah Jaffe: We are talking about the strategy for tackling the problems with the tax bill that CWA is putting forward — 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.
— Jody Calemine, Communications Workers of America
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 percent, every employee in our bargaining unit will receive a $4,000 wage increase.”
SJ: Have you gotten any reactions from any of those companies yet?
JC: Not yet. We gave them until Friday, Dec. 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.
SJ: Some of the other elements of the tax bill would actually be very bad for some of your workers; what will this could cost your members?
JC: About 75 percent of the bills benefits are going to go to big business and the very wealthy. Those benefits are made permanent by this bill — things that are for any individuals are temporary. Over the course of this bill, people who make less than $75,000 a year are actually going to see their taxes increase. Working people are really being harmed by the bill.
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 currently have a deduction of 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.
SJ: 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. Have unions tried to do anything like this before? Why is this time different?
JC: 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.
There is another specific promise that these guys made, on Paul Ryan’s website in big letters, that this tax bill is going to prevent the off-shoring of jobs. We have been fighting off-shoring 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 off-shoring? 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 off-shore work. New jobs will be created here rather than overseas and work that is here isn’t going to move overseas.”
— Jody Calemine, Communications Workers of America
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.
SJ: Just to be clear: Overall, the union is opposed to the tax bill.
JC: 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.
SJ: 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.
JC: They have been very energized. They worked very hard to make sure that the Affordable Care Act survived rather than seeing millions of families lose health insurance. They rose up and participated in all the public actions to stop that repeal.
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 signaled an indication that they are looking to strengthen workers’ bargaining power. On the contrary, they seem to be moving in the opposite direction.
SJ: Have any other unions, after you came out with this, signaled that they are going to do something similar?
JC: 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.
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.
SJ: It feels like it is both a moment where there is potential for tremendous steps backward, 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.
JC: I think it is pretty incredible how quickly politics can turn. Opportunities can arise long before you may have 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 — various hurdles and obstacles to 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 indicate that there are people energized. Better voter turnout, I think, is coming.
SJ: Lastly, how can people keep up with CWA, with this particular demand, and with the work that the union is doing around the country?
JC: 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.