News & Politics

'Tax Timmy's Friends': Nurses Follow Obama to France Demanding He Tax Geithner's Wall Street Cronies

The nurses' union takes the movement for a financial transaction tax to the G-20 in Cannes.

Nurses from around the world will rally in four cities today, November 3, with one demand: A financial transaction tax to discourage speculation and fund economic recovery.

In San Francisco, they’ll march from a Federal Reserve Bank to Wells Fargo headquarters. In Los Angeles, they’ll march from Occupy LA to U.S. Bank. In Washington D.C., they’ll march on the Treasury Department, then lobby Congress. And in Cannes, France, nurses from four continents will rally at the G-20 Summit, which is hosting the leaders of major world economies -- including transaction tax holdout Barack Obama.

Today’s actions are spearheaded by National Nurses United, the largest American nurses’ union, with backing from the AFL-CIO, Oxfam, the World Wildlife Fund, and two international union federations: Public Services International and the International Trade Union Confederation. The FTT is expected to be a major topic of discussion at the G-20 summit, having gained the support of German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Nicolas Sarkozy -- both influential conservative heads of state. In the United States, the 170,000-member NNU has been pushing for the tax for months; its campaign has included June demonstrations outside the Chamber of Commerce and the New York Stock exchange and a national “Tax Wall Street” day of action September 1.

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NNU co-president and 37-year nursing veteran Karen Higgins says she and her co-workers “see the fallout” of a broken economy on a daily basis at work. “We’ve been watching patients coming in sicker because they can’t afford health insurance, or they have health insurance but they can’t they can’t afford the co-pays, or they can’t afford the test...So what happens is they get sicker, and we see things that could have been preventable that now are not.”

Higgins has also seen an increase in stress-induced afflictions among young people in the current economy. Rather than asking further sacrifice from the unemployed and working poor, NNU wants to make Wall Street pay to repair what it broke.

The logic of the transaction tax is two-fold: First, it’s an austerity alternative – it raises revenue from those wealthy enough to have large sums of money to move around the stock market. NNU estimates that a modest tax could raise $350 billion a year. Second, it discourages gambling by the 1 percent that messes up the economy for the rest of us. “High-frequency trading would no longer be lucrative for a lot of firms, and that would definitely be a positive impact," says AFL-CIO spokesperson Heather Slavkin. “It could have a regulatory as well as fiscal impact by deterring unhelpful bad activity by Wall Street banks.”  

Taxing each transaction means that putting your money somewhere and leaving it there incurs far less taxes than the minute-by-minute speculative trades that create no value but drive up costs and distort our economy. “There are a lot of people that are getting very rich,” says economist Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “who are basically just shuffling assets back and forth…contributing nothing to the economy.” He adds, “I’m hard-pressed to think of a better way” to raise revenue.

The political logic is perhaps even simpler. Occupy Wall Street has achieved astounding success in part because it chose the right target, and focused on who wrecked our economy and who should have to pay for it. Slavkin says OWS has been "hugely helpful” in building political momentum for a transaction tax. Calling for “shared sacrifice” and threatening social insurance while refusing to tax Wall Street gambling should be a huge liability for politicians of either party. But it hasn’t become one, in part because Obama and Republicans are both doing it.  

Ron Suskind created a stir when he reported in his new book, Confidence Men, that Obama initially leaned in favor of a transaction tax, but was talked out of it by his Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, a vocal FTT opponent. That leaves Obama to the right of Germany and France’s austerity-happy conservative heads of state on the FTT. “The time has passed when people looked to the White House for any kind of leadership role in changing the dynamic in this country,” says NNU legislative advocate Donna Smith.

Europe and the United States can influence each other’s course on a financial transaction tax. Passage of the tax in EU countries (as a set of coordinated national taxes) would address American opponents’ argument that a US tax would just drive such transactions to Europe. Conversely, as long as the US holds out on a tax, Baker expects that some minority of European traders will choose the US as a “tax haven.”

Though NNU and the AFL-CIO are together in pushing a transaction tax, they’ve taken different tacks towards the Obama administration. NNU executive director Rose Ann De Moro recently wrote on AlterNet that “a major stumbling block continues to be the opposition of the Obama administration, led by U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner…who has personally lobbied European finance ministers to oppose an FTT."

Smith says NNU wants “to make sure Mr. Geithner understands that whether or not he’s comfortable taxing his good friends on Wall Street, the nurses feel very strongly about doing what’s right for the American people.” While the AFL-CIO’s Slavkin says that “Geithner has been largely protective of big banks and Wall Street since he became the Treasury Secretary,” NNU’s language is more aggressive. Its Web site offers “Tax Timmy’s Friends” stickers, “dedicated to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, whose friends run Wall Street.”  

Asked whether the AFL-CIO backs that confrontational message, AFL-CIO spokesperson Amaya Tune responds, “I don’t think you can go by a bumper-sticker on what the message is…[AFL-CIO] President Trumka has been on the record [and] vocal talking to the [Obama] administration about this proposal and really pushing it with them.”

Congressman Peter DeFazio yesterday introduced a “Let Wall Street Pay for the Restoration of Main Street Act” that would impose an FTT, and Senator Tom Harkin plans to introduce a similar bill in the Senate next week. Though the obstacles to getting a Wall Street tax through the current Congress are daunting, pro-Wall Street groups aren’t taking any chances. The Chamber of Commerce and six other major business organizations have written to Geithner emphasizing their “strong opposition” to taxing transactions, airing concern over momentum for an FTT within the G20, and praising “the Administration’s public opposition to such a tax.”  

As Baker notes, an FTT would be a “trivial tax” for non-wealthy Americans. But as the FTT debate heats up in the United States, expect an overdose of “ownership society” rhetoric insisting that anyone who owns a stock or has a pension should share the top 1 percent’s commitment to leaving the stock market alone. Indeed, Bloomberg’s report on the DeFazio-Harkin legislation noted that “U.S. exchange operators fell the most since August on the news that the lawmakers would propose the tax.” In a media environment where the storyline too often is what’s good for Fortune 500 stocks equals what’s good for “the economy,” it’s not just Congressional Republicans who take hostages – so does the stock market.

But the nurses say they won’t be backing down from the fight. “Our feeling as nurses is that we feel very responsible to those we take care of," says Higgins. “We don’t just care for people at the bedside.”

Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. He worked as a union organizer for five years. Check out his blog or follow him on Twitter.