Workers Take Center Stage in Occupy’s Second Anniversary

Sarah Jaffe

Labor and community groups are demanding a 'Robin Hood Tax' on financial transactions. (Sarah Jaffe / Flickr)

If you’re going to have a raucous, costumed march in New York City, Midtown makes for a great setting. Nurses and HIV activists in Robin Hood hats took the streets yesterday, blocking traffic as they called for a financial transaction tax to fully fund healthcare and other public services. Chants of People, not profits! Medicare for all!” filled rush-hour streets as business-suited professionals dodged through the crowds. 

The second anniversary of Occupy Wall Street was quieter than the first, but did feature a day of actions, many of them spotlighting Occupy’s labor connections. From support for fast food workers and the ongoing labor struggle at Brooklyn’s Golden Farm grocery to solidarity with striking teachers in Mexico and a save our post offices” talk, workers’ rights were front and center, along with other issues like stop and frisk, housing, alternative banking and getting money out of politics. Syria and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal also got their due. 

But the biggest event of the day was a rally and march hosted by unions, community groups, and healthcare advocates, starting outside the United Nations at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza at 5 PM. Inside, the UN General Assembly discussed the Millennium Development Goals—ambitious goals set for fighting poverty, halting HIV/AIDS, creating gender equality, achieving universal primary education, reducing child mortality and improving maternal health, and environmental sustainability. Those goals, the protesters noted, have mostly not been met. 

National Nurses United (NNU), unlike the original Zuccotti Park occupation, have had a demand for a while: a financial transaction tax, which they call the Robin Hood Tax,” a 0.5 percent tax on the sale of stocks, bonds, derivatives, and other financial products. The tax is designed specifically to hit high-frequency trading, which is estimated to be some 70 percent of the market. People who invest long-term, in other words, would not be hit by the tax — speculators would. The nurses estimate that it could raise $350 billion a year in the United States. 

Jean Ross, co-president of NNU and a Minnesota nurse, told In These Times, In this country we have been lagging. Other countries are far ahead of us, so shame on them for not doing it.” The Robin Hood tax, she explained, is a way to fight the austerity imposed after the financial crisis by taxing those responsible. In Minnesota and around the country, she noted, people understand the tax as a sales tax on Wall Street. We’ve heard all the criticisms,” she said. They say, What do nurses know about economics?’ Well, I know a lot.” 

In Congress, the tax was introduced in April as the Inclusive Prosperity Act, H.R. 1579, by Minnesota’s Rep. Keith Ellison. Ellison stressed that 40 other countries already have such a tax when he brought forward his bill, which follows on the heels of other financial transaction tax proposals by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OOre.) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). It has 17 cosponsors to date. 

Ellison’s bill would impose a larger tax than DeFazio and Harkin’s — 0.5 percent on most transactions, rather than 0.03 percent — and would exempt people whose gross income does not exceed $50,000 a year, providing them with a tax credit. Wallace Turbeville, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker and now senior fellow at nonpartisan think tank Demos, explained at its unveiling that the volatility created by high-frequency trading (done by algorithm at speeds too fast for humans to comprehend) affects the jobs of everyday people, and makes market crashes more likely. The financial transaction tax could lower the incentives for such high-frequency trading and make the markets more stable, while raising billions for public works. 

Outside of the UN, representatives from National Nurses United, VOCAL-NY, Act Up, Health GAP, National People’s Action, New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), Amalgamated Transit Union, Transport Workers Union Local 100, UNITE HERE Local 100, IBEW Local 3, and community and Occupy activists gathered in a barricaded-off area. Nurses handed out signs calling to Stop and Frisk Wall Street — Pass the Robin Hood Tax!” using the contentious local issue to highlight the fact that no one on Wall Street has faced criminal charges for any wrongdoing after the financial crisis. 

Onstage, Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez of NYSNA called for investment in community hospitals, criticizing profit-driven healthcare for turning primary care [into] assembly-line care.” Austerity targets hospitals, schools, and public services, while pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies profit off care, but, she said, As frontline caregivers, nurses decided to fight back!” 

After the brief rally, a group of VOCAL, Act Up and other activists took a banner reading End AIDS with a Robin Hood tax” to the street to block 2nd Avenue rush hour traffic, standing still as traffic piled up behind them and police buzzed around, shouting warnings and then of course zip-cuffing them and escorting them to waiting police vans. 

Bobby Tolbert of VOCAL-NY explained to In These Times that VOCAL, a community organization that works with people with HIV/AIDS, joined the call for the financial transaction tax because the possibility is there to really end the AIDS epidemic, if world leaders would agree to spend money on it. VOCAL members have been organizing, as have NYSNA nurses, around Hurricane Sandy relief and rebuilding as well, and note that money from a Robin Hood tax could help with environmentally sustainable rebuilding after climate-change-induced storms like Sandy. 

From there, the march winded its way to JP Morgan’s Midtown building, where white-shirted bankers snapped pictures from upstairs windows as students spoke about private student debt, carrying boulders” stuffed with balloons to represent their debt burdens. Then it headed down the street to the MTA headquarters, where representatives from the transit workers’ unions spoke about Wall Street’s impact on public transit. They explained that the banks have profited from interest rate swaps while the agency cuts jobs and raises fares for riders.

The march wound up at Bryant Park, across from the headquarters of SUNY, where, not too long ago, mayoral candidate Bill deBlasio and City Councilmember Stephen Levin joined nurses and community members in civil disobedience to protest the attempted closure of Long Island College Hospital. Big cheers went through the crowd when nurses pointed out that they’ve been winning in that fight to keep the hospital open.

The night concluded in the park with a performance by Sweet Honey in the Rock and ceremonial smashing of the boulders of debt and other Wall Street burdens by Robin Hood. At that rally, I spoke with Sam Aldi, a Veterans Affairs Hospital nurse of 20 years, who described ongoing cuts at the hospital that have increased the burden on staffers and made it harder to provide care. According to Aldi, when the Manhattan VA hospital was shuttered for months after Hurricane Sandy, its 50,000 patients were left to rely on the already-stressed Brooklyn VA facility for care, and it took the public facility months longer to rebuild than its sister hospital, NYU Langone. (The VA hospital employs medical students from NYU.) Cutbacks to publicly funded facilities like the VA inspired Aldi to want to join the fight for the Robin Hood Tax, So I can better care for my veteran patients. They deserve the best, not the worst.” 

The demand for a tax on Wall Street may be a long way from the open-ended revolution Occupy felt like in the beginning, but like other moves to weaken the giants of finance, it could make significant change if a Congress deeply in hock to the finance industry actually passes such a thing. That battle will certainly take a while — Jean Ross, who I first met in Zuccotti Park when NNU became one of the earliest unions to support Occupy, acknowledged as such. When you’re starting a movement, you don’t say Don’t start because it’ll take a long time,’” she said. You just get it started.” 

Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The Progressive. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous books are Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted and Alone and Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, which Robin D.G. Kelley called The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

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