Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Proletarian Unity League

The tax attack in Boston: Lessons of the battle against Proposition 2 1/2

Cover

First Published: The Call, Vol. 10, No. 5, July 1981.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Call Note: The following is an edited version of a speech by the Proletarian Unity League (PUL) given in November 1980. The full speech, “Losing, and Learning How to Win,” is available in pamphlet form for one dollar from United Labor Press, P.O. Box 1744, Manhattanville Post Office, New York, NY 10027.

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The Left has precious little influence in the national debate over tax questions. So when the people cry out for tax relief, as they did here in Massachusetts, we shouldn’t be surprised if tax reductions cut into social programs instead of big-business profits.

Massachusetts’ regressive tax structure desperately needed reform. The main reason was its over-reliance on the property tax, a giant sales tax on homeowners and renters.

This tax is riddled with loopholes, like exemptions for businesses that locate, or remain in the state. For example when the Prudential Center was built, Chapter 121A exempted it from property taxes forever. Also religious, education and government property is exempt-as much as 50% of the property in Boston. There’s also favoritism in assessment. Before 2 1/2, a West Roxbury property might have been assessed as low as 1%; but in Roxbury as high as 25%.

Big cities like Boston, Lynn and New Bedford have a shrinking tax base. Yet the must support services for the unemployed, the working poor and suburban commuters. Black and Latino communities have been especially hard-hit by the whipsaw of high assessments and low return of services.

The state income tax is almost as regressive. So the stage was set for a tax revolt.

How did such a natural issue for progressive organizing turn into a right-wing program of social service slashing?

We think that the problem is the political weakness and disunity among progressives, including those on the left. This is why the graduated income tax, the centerpiece of any tax reform, has been defeated four times; why the right-wing Citizens for Limited Taxation got enough signatures for Proposition 2 1/2, while no progressive tax relief has ever made it; why, despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent by the statewide anti-254 coalition, the proposition passed, even in cities which will be hard hit.

THE COALITION

The broad coalition against Proposition 2% included conservatives who will be hurt, like the leadership of the Firefighters Union; Democratic Party liberals who felt that Proposition 2 1/2 was just too extreme; activists from the public employee unions, the Black liberation movement, and organizations like the Boston People’s Organization; human service advocates; and democratic socialists and a sprinkling of communists.

It was necessary to unite everyone possible against the threat. Some of the liberal Democratic Party operatives and mainstream leaders of the public employee unions provided the forces with money, media attention and organizational resources. Among them were many skilled and honest organizers who were committed to stopping the right-wing tax legislation.

The liberals and the mainstream public employee union leaders determined the main political directions because of the absence of an effective anti-racist, pro-working-class movement. They saddled the movement with several major political liabilities.

WEAKNESSES

First, the public service union leaders have been weak at gaining public support. They have historically defended patronage and discrimination, especially in the better-paying sectors. Few locals have shown concern for improving the quality of services they provide. The campaign never erased the stigma of self-interested unions out to protect their jobs and nothing else. Those unionists with a broader view were largely eclipsed by big-name politicians and labor leaders. The Massachusetts Teachers’ Association didn’t help by pushing Question 3, which would have basically cut funds for everything but schools.

A second problem with the committee was its reliance on simplistic scare tactics especially in the media. For example they portrayed an old woman worried about starving and a family home burning to the ground for lack of a nearby fire station. This kind of shallow, negative appeal was not very effective. If voters had seen a clear, progressive tax argument against the right-wing approach, things might look different today.

In typical liberal style, the coalition didn’t place much importance on involving the masses. Despite their size and statewide connections, some of the key unions could come up with only a handful of poll watchers on election day. While the battle was heating up many of the liberals spent their time in a futile lobbying effort to win a last-minute property-tax reform.

The coalition bent over backwards appealing to the white suburban vote, showing little interest in the Black, Latin and Asian-American communities. They chauvinistically discouraged participation of Blacks and Latinos in TV press conferences on the grounds that their appearance would turn off white voters.

Finally, the Committee’s politics tailed after the right wing in its attacks on the so-called “big spenders.” They didn’t talk about why Proposition 2 1/2 was pro-business in its overall approach. They even argued that they are not against across-the-board tax cuts at the state level, where the real “big spenders ”are. This attempt to protect the regressive local taxes hardly inspires people who are genuinely seeking tax reform and relief.

Some progressives tried to bring better politics and organization into the coalition, while at the same time doing independent organizing. The Boston People’s Organization (BPO) succeeded in going beyond the top-down approach. They worked within the broader coalition and tried to influence its direction.

BPO gave emphasis to discrimination in the delivery of services and pointed to the links between service cutbacks and police brutality in minority communities. They argued for the graduated income tax.

The BPO did organizing and voter registration in minority communities and worked for minority leadership. They also went into South Boston and debated the Marshalls on Proposition 2 1/2. The BPO tried to use the campaign to build up the foundation for ongoing progressive organization in the neighborhoods, and for an alliance between the unions and the community.

DISARRAY OF LIBERALS

Despite its limited influence, we think it was very important for the left to have participated in the Vote No on Proposition 2 1/2 Committee.

The right-wing is setting the terms of political debate on taxes and many other issues today. Broad sections of the Democratic Party are off at a gallop to keep up with the right wing. The liberals are in tremendous disarray. They are looking around trying to figure out where their supposed grand coalition of labor, women and minorities disappeared to. And lots of social democrats are wondering how they’re going to get anywhere if there’s no liberal wing of the Democratic Party for them to rely on.

The grassroots organizing done by people like the BPO contained the seeds of real mass politics, aimed at mobilizing the people, instead of just dazzling them with a superficial media campaign. Their effort to challenge the discriminatory effects of the measure was a step towards challenging white supremacy on a statewide electoral level.

NEW POLITICS

The meetings of labor activists, the use of union political action committees, and the new contract between workers at Boston City Hospital and the South End neighborhood were all tentative steps toward getting labor to take up community issues. The campaign showed signs of a new desire among progressives to build alliances around an anti-racist pro-working class program.

Sometime down the road, the American people will break out of the strait jacket of the Democratic and Republican parties, and form an independent mass party based in the progressive movements. We have our work cut out for us on the state and local levels. A third party can’t just appear full-blown in Washington, D.C. It needs to grow from the bottom up, taking its lumps in struggles like 2 1/2 building a broad, united progressive movement, capable of turning the tide.