César Chávez Day came and went without acknowledgment from most mainstream print media of a Chávez-inspired 365-mile march that lasted 48 days and culminated in thousands of Californians converging on the State Capitol on April 21. Wave after wave of union workers, educators, students, and parents marched to demand funding for basic public services that citizens in developed nations expect for their tax dollars, such as functioning schools, roads, and parks.
The route was 25 miles longer than the one led by César Chávez in 1966 from Delano to Sacramento to protest growers’ deliberate spraying of striking farm workers with lethal pesticides. "Most of the farm-workers’ energy was focused on the grape boycott. At its height, more than 14 million Americans stopped buying grapes. The pressure was irresistible and the Delano growers signed historic contracts with UFWOC in 1969," observed PBS filmmaker Rick Tejada-Flores in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Latinos and Latinas.
The recent March for California’s Future began in Bakersfield on March 5 with the aim of safeguarding the future of California’s students, the infirm, and elderly, and to protest the deteriorating quality of life for the majority of Californians. The core group of marchers that reached the finish line included a San Diego college professor, a Los Angeles probation officer, and a Bay Area community organizer. According to the San Jose Mercury News, they endured rain and heat and slept in churches, schools, and parks.
Before Governor Schwarzenegger’s latest cuts, California ranked 47th in the nation per pupil spending. Now critics predict it is closer to 49th. Adult schools, the last safety net for those who "have been left behind," are being closed throughout the state. Among other cuts, the governor has also threatened to eliminate the state’s In-Home Supportive Services Program employing 65,000 of the state’s home-care workers and jeopardizing the lives of the disabled they care for.
At the Capitol Rally, Marty Hittelman, president of the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), attributed California’s woes to the absence of a progressive tax system that would require the ultra-rich to pay their fair share. CFT spokesperson Fred Glass explained, "Taxes for the wealthiest have been steadily reduced even though the top 1 percent of taxpayers in California [averaging $1.6 million in annual income] has nearly doubled its share of adjusted gross income since 1993 from 13.8 percent to 25.2 percent in 2007…. The state income tax rate of this super-rich group has been pared during that time from 11.3 percent to 9.3 percent, robbing the state of $3 to $6 billion each year. Another $9 to $10 billion in annual revenues have been whittled away through corporate tax reductions."
According to Alternet’s David DeGraw, "The poorest one-fifth of the population pay more than 11 percent of their income in taxes, whereas the top 1 percent earning an average of more than $2 million a year, are paying about 7 percent." Over the last 60 years, the federal income tax level levied on those earning more than $400,000 has dropped nearly 20 percent, according to a recent report by the Institute for Policy Studies.
According to Forbes, during the first full year of the economic crisis, the wealth of the 44 richest people increased by $30 billion, "bringing their total combined wealth to $1.56 trillion, which is more than the combined net worth of 50 percent of the US population."
In 2007, the top 1 percent held 43 percent of U.S. financial wealth, according to UC Santa Cruz Professor G. William Domhoff. It is tempting to reason that were this wealth divided, the bottom 90 percent would be almost twice as wealthy. Instead, Governor Schwarzenegger and Republican lawmakers led the charge in recent budget negotiations to further cut corporate taxes by $2 billion a year, according to the San Jose Mercury News.
To help remedy this situation, State Assembly representative Alberto Torrico has authored AB 656 that will levy a 12.5 percent extraction fee on oil companies that currently don’t pay a dime in taxes for extraction. The revenues would generate nearly $2 billion a year for the state’s public colleges and universities. "Even Sarah Palin’s Alaska and George W. Bush’s Texas levy an oil severance fee," says Torrico in an opinion piece in the Mercury News. "California is the only oil-producing state that continues to miss the opportunity to generate funds with a fair oil severance fee."
At present, the bill is likely to fall short of the two-thirds majority votes that are needed to raise taxes since Proposition 13 passed in 1978. This is why rally organizers are calling on citizens to sign UC Berkeley Professor George Lakoff’s petition for a ballot measure that will change the two-thirds voting threshold to a simple majority for the legislature to pass budgets and to impose higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy.
While this legislation is desperately needed as a quick fix, were César Chávez still alive, he might caution supporters about turning over all their power to the legislature instead of building a movement willing to engage in direct action, strikes, sit-ins, and boycotts. When the California legislature created the Agricultural Labor Relations Board in 1975, the United Farm Workers (UFW) was forced to give up wildcat strikes and secondary boycotts. Growers used legal loopholes in the union election rules to drag out negotiations for years and avoid signing contracts with the UFW.
As for the media blackout on the story, one need only inquire whether media owners are in that top 1 percent, earning more than $1.6 million a year, to know whether they stand for a more equitable tax distribution or prefer that this story disappear.
Margot Pepper is a Mexican-born journalist and author whose work has appeared in Common Dreams, Utne Reader, Monthly Review, ZNet, Counterpunch, Dollars & Sense, Prensa Latina, NACLA, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, City Lights, Rethinking Schools, and elsewhere. Photos are by Mark Coplan.