The following is the President’s Column from 2021 Legislative Report of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO.
By LARRY BROWN
(July 7, 2021) — In 1978, Californians approved one of the most consequential ballot measures in U.S. history, Proposition 13. It slashed and limited property taxes and began a “tax revolt” that spread across the nation. Ronald Reagan was soon elected president and he also cut taxes, mostly for the rich, and promised the wealth would “trickle down.”
In the 40-plus years since Prop. 13, disinvestment in public services has continued. The wealthy elite have used their media outlets to convince Americans that government is their enemy. Corporations and the rich now pay a small fraction of what they used to pay in taxes, creating wealth inequality not seen since the Gilded Age. And a straight line can be drawn from underfunded public services to some of our society’s most pressing problems: unaffordable health care, housing and child care; dilapidated schools and transportation systems; and as we’ve learned amid this horrible pandemic, insufficient public health systems.
Maybe that’s why 2021 feels like a sea change. In both Washingtons, there is a renewed focus on building back better, both in terms of our post-pandemic economy and the essential government services that support working families.
This year, our State Legislature took significant steps to rebalance our upside-down tax system. Passage of the capital gains tax and the Working Families Tax Rebate are a great start to restoring some fairness to our tax system.
Some long-standing injustices were addressed head-on, such as granting overtime pay rights to agricultural workers and reforming policing to promote accountability and discourage the unnecessary use of force. A state operating budget was approved that makes significant investments in child care, our community and technical colleges, and other essential public services.
Although there is still work to be done to protect workers’ rights and to repair and build Washington’s transportation infrastructure, the 2021 session felt like more than simply productive. It felt like a new day. Perhaps that’s because it came on the heels of Joe Biden’s election as president. The timely passage of his American Rescue Plan brought desperately needed economic relief for people and governments amid this pandemic.
And for the first time in our lifetimes, we have a president who strongly supports unions and labor law reform (the PRO Act) that will restore workers’ freedom to join together and negotiate for better wages and working conditions.
Most media coverage focuses on Americans’ stark political differences. It fans the flames of daily outrages from the worst attention-seeking politicians. But this year’s legislative session tells a different story. As you’ll read in this 2021 Legislative Report, our state’s elected officials faced the unprecedented logistical and policy challenges of a pandemic and made significant progress tackling some of our most pressing issues.
As the song goes, “there’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.” To me, it feels like a sea change. It feels like an opportunity to set aside cynicism and reflexive distrust of government, and to realize we’re all in this together. After COVID, we don’t have to settle for returning to “normal.” We can truly build back better for all of us.
Larry Brown is President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, which represents more than 600 union organizations with 500,000 rank-and-file members. He is also an Auburn city councilman.