News & Politics

Nurses Take on Wall St. and the Politicians Who Pander to Corporations

On September 1, nurses will converge on congressional offices, calling on lawmakers to support a tax on financial transactions to raise revenues to "heal America."

National Nurses United has long had a reputation for militancy and political activism among the U.S.'s labor unions. Long after the battle over President Obama's health care reform bill ended, the nurses have been taking to the streets, planning actions around the country calling for policies that benefit Main Street, not Wall Street.

Their latest campaign? Calling for a financial transactions tax on Wall Street to raise revenue to help get out of the economic crisis for good—funding essential programs rather than cutting them, putting money into infrastructure and creating jobs, repairing budget holes and paying for health care and support for the people most hurt by the financial meltdown.

On September 1, nurses and their allies and supporters will converge on 61 congressional offices in 21 states, calling on Republicans and Democrats alike to sign on to a pledge that would support a tax on financial transactions to raise revenues to “heal America.”

“What we know as union members, we have a contract, that's what gives us the opportunity to fight back,” Jean Ross, registered nurse and co-president of NNU, told me. “America needs a contract--we call it a Main Street contract. They deserve the same kinds of things that, if you were able to be in a union, you would have.”

Hurricane Irene, Ross said, was terrible, "but we look at what's happening in America here as an economic storm and the eye of that storm is Wall Street.”

The protests, like past actions from NNU, will be colorful and interactive. In San Francisco, at the office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, they'll hold a soup kitchen. Others will involve street theater, food drives and more. Targets include Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown (possibly soon to be challenged by Elizabeth Warren), and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Darrell Issa in California.

Wisconsin's Paul Ryan, who's been in the news recently for charging constituents $15 to attend town hall meetings in his district and who has been the target of an ongoing sit-in in his office, will see nurses as well. Big cities like Boston and Chicago as well as small towns like Council Bluffs, Iowa (home of Representative Steve King) will see actions.

Ross herself is heading to two actions in her home state of Minnesota: one at the offices of GOP representative and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, and one at the Minnesota State Fair targeting Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar.

Why a Financial Transactions Tax?

“It’s time for Wall Street financiers, who created this crisis and continue to hold so much of the nation’s wealth, to start contributing to rebuild this country, and for the American people to reclaim our future,” NNU executive director Rose Ann DeMoro said.

A tax on financial transactions isn't a new idea. Back in 2008, at the height of the financial crisis, the New York Times Magazine named it one of the top ideas of the year. “We want a financial system that allocates money to people wanting to save or invest,” economist Dean Baker told the magazine. “There’s no reason for it to be a casino.”

And Nancy Folbre, writing this year on the Times' Economix blog, called it, “A sales tax on Wall Street transactions.”  She points out that the tax is alternatively called a Tobin tax, after Nobel Prize-winning economist James Tobin, who argued for it way back in the 1970s.

The tax the nurses are calling for is around 0.5 percent of each major Wall Street transaction. It would, as Baker pointed out, de-incentivize the kind of complex securities that helped bring down the economy—what Ross called “The gambling that got us into this mess.” The more you repackage and resell something, the more tax you'd wind up paying on it. It would also be a step toward evening out the gaping holes in our tax code that let those who make money on paper by buying and selling products they never use (who tend to be rich already) pay a lesser percentage in taxes than those who work at a job.

As no less an expert than Warren Buffett pointed out in the New York Times recently when asking nicely for his taxes to be raised:

“Some of us are investment managers who earn billions from our daily labors but are allowed to classify our income as 'carried interest,' thereby getting a bargain 15 percent tax rate. Others own stock index futures for 10 minutes and have 60 percent of their gain taxed at 15 percent, as if they’d been long-term investors.

....If you make money with money, as some of my super-rich friends do, your percentage may be a bit lower than mine. But if you earn money from a job, your percentage will surely exceed mine — most likely by a lot.”

Most importantly, the nurses, Folbre and Baker all point out that a financial transactions tax, even if it discourages speculative trading somewhat, could raise up to $150 billion—money the government could desperately use right now. Folbre noted that in Britain they have a 0.5 percent tax on financial transactions and it raises $40 billion a year, and the conservative heads of state in France and Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, have recently endorsed bringing such a tax to the European Union. In other words, it's already going to happen elsewhere, so it's not as if financiers can simply take their speculation elsewhere.

That money could go to health care, schools, and toward creating and keeping jobs. “All of the things that some of the extreme right-wingers are trying to topple,” Ross said. “It's no accident that they're attacking unions, it's to turn the working public against one another.”

The nurses are arguing that the working public needs to stick together and fight for the same rights for all—whether it's a single-payer health care system that guarantees everyone care, or a healthy public school system, or a living-wage job.

In our current political climate it might seem impossible to raise taxes, but in fact there's plenty of popular support for taxing the rich—72 percent, as we reported last month—and Wall Street doesn't exactly garner a lot of sympathy among the average person from either party. Thirty percent of the public has confidence in the banking sector, and Gallup noted that financial regulations were more popular when framed as “Wall Street regulations.”

Meanwhile, nurses continue to be the nation's most trusted profession. And the nurses of NNU are asking politicians to make a clear choice. As Folbre puts it, “Our current tax policies favor speculative investment in financial instruments over productive investments in human capabilities. This imbalance helps explain why nurses’ unions in the United States have been particularly outspoken advocates of a financial transactions tax.”

NNU and its allies are calling on politicians of both parties to prove they put Main Street ahead of Wall Street by supporting this financial transaction tax.

“I've had it up to here with 'oh it's not class warfare.' Yes it is,” said Ross. “They started it, they're winning, now it's time for politicians to decide: whose side are you on?” 

Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.