Nurses Step Up the Call for a Global Financial Tax

Before there was an Occupy Wall Street, there was a sea of red on Wall Street, and in Washington cheek to jowl with Wall Street's main lobbying arm, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and at Congressional offices across the country. It was registered nurses, members of National Nurses United, in red scrubs, demanding immediate action with a tax on Wall Street financial speculation to provide desperately needed revenue to heal our economy. The call for a financial transaction tax (FTT), sometimes called a "Robin Hood tax," has inspired a global movement, uniting international labor federations, environmental activists, and non-governmental organizations. They have already persuaded more than a dozen nations to adopt an FTT, and prodded most European Union countries, including conservative governments in Germany and France, to favor it as well. As the campaign for an FTT, a small charge on bonds, derivatives, currencies and similar speculation that targets the big banks and investment firms, has exploded internationally, it remained under the radar in the U.S. until NNU helped rekindle the call for a tax on Wall Street transactions earlier this year.

NNU leaders, seeing the broadening decline in health status and living standards directly linked to the seemingly intractable economic calamity -- from ailments linked to poor nutrition to patients rejecting needed medical care because of cost -- reasoned that a tax on Wall Street could help fund such critical needs as health care for all, jobs at living wages, and full funding for quality public education. Some major U.S. economists, and organizations including the AFL-CIO, Oxfam, Institute for Policy Studies, and Public Citizen have long supported implementation of a tax on Wall financial transactions that are now largely untaxed. Citing the work of eminent economists, NNU says a meaningful FTT could raise up to $350 billion every year to help reframe the economy.

This past spring, NNU, with the support of labor and consumer allies, began a highly visible public campaign for the tax as a major way to make Wall Street begin to pay for reviving an economy that it crashed. The big banks and investment houses did so through reckless gambling with family mortgages, worker pensions and other misdeeds that were the prime cause of the 2008 crash and resulting crumbling conditions in Main Street communities with devastating consequences for the health and welfare of American families.

In June, NNU brought thousands of nurses in their red scrubs and friends to Washington and to the doors of the New York Stock Exchange to sound the call for an FTT. From July through mid-September, NNU members held multiple actions from coast to coast, including soup kitchens, health clinics, sit-ins, and street theater, culminating in a national day of action on September 1 with thousands of nurses calling on 60 Congressional offices in 21 states. NNU signs, urging "Tax Wall Street" become a highly visible banner throughout the nation.

It was just a few weeks later that tens of thousands of other Americans began their own form of protest against Wall Street's excesses that became a prairie fire now forever known as Occupy Wall Street. Not coincidentally, many Occupy Wall Street protesters have also endorsed the call for a tax on Wall Street. Calls for an FTT now ring the airwaves, and can be found not just in obscure blogs, but in the columns of leading writers in all of the major U.S. media. And the nurses campaign has continued to grow.

In early November, nurses from four continents gathered at the G-20 Summit to tell world leaders that time is running out: Real revenue is needed now and a global FTT is the answer. And they came to put particular pressure on President Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner who have been major barriers to international action on the FTT, with Geithner actively lobbying European finance ministers to oppose it. Concurrently on that November day, 2,000 people, including hundreds of RN members of NNU joined by the AFL-CIO and other unions, environmental and community groups, and participants from the Occupy Wall Street movement, marched on the White House and Treasury Department on November 3 to step up the push on the Obama administration.

Marchers paused to see a parade of three "bankers" carrying mock golden parachutes and a contingent of nurses spelled out a special message to the Treasury Secretary with individual letters: "HEAL AMERICA, TAX TIMMY'S FRIENDS." Notably, Wall Street firms, including banks and their trading arms, which are making massive fortunes, have actually reported "more profit in the first two-and-a-half years of the Obama administration than they did during the entire Bush administration ... with very little regard for Main Street," reported the Washington Post on November 6.

All the pressure has apparently had an effect on the Obama administration which, for the first time, several media outlets reported, was easing its opposition to an FTT, at least for Europe. Demands for a U.S. FTT continue to grow as well, propelled by a social movement that converges with the Occupy Wall Street actions swarming across the U.S. With the constellation of the occupy protests and the broad international movement, the moment for achieving a meaningful FTT, and the critical revenue it can provide to help revive struggling economies, has never been greater.

"Protests matter. Pressure matters," wrote John Nichols in The Nation, writing about the shifting sands in the White House, and the erupting support for an FTT, that includes not just NNU, but now extends to even billionaire Bill Gates and the Pope.

"The nurses aren't just making noise," Nichols wrote. "It looks like they're changing the debate, altering the policies of the most powerful players in Washington and perhaps the world.

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