It’s a drum beat that is growing, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21. About four busloads of UFCW activists stomped uninvited in to the Association of Washington Business’ lobby today to seek support for closing business tax breaks as a way to pay for health care programs that face cuts in the Legislature.
It's not hard to guess at how well it went over. But I'll explain anyway, because we're likely to see a lot more of this as budget cuts come more clearly into focus:
Don Brunell, AWB's president, gently met the more than 100 protesters who packed a bullhorn and made some noise. They said they wanted a sit-down talk with AWB over the closing of tax breaks to pay for health programs – and one complained about “predatory” lending.
"They delivered their message," Brunell said after the more than 100 UFCW workers left and the occasionally loud foot stomping had ended. "I think it's a little unfortunate I didn't get a chance to address them. They didn't give me the microphone." When he reached for activist Steve Williamson's bullhorn, Brunell said later: "He said, 'Get your hands off me.' "
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But Williamson, assistant to the UCFW’s president, did not introduce himself to Brunell said later it was fair not to share the moment with the business leader. Williamson said it was the union's event and that the union members had heard Brunell a dozen times on the radio declaring why workers should see their unemployment benefits are too high.
Williamson also said Brunell invited the group to send a letter and said he would respond later to the workers' request for a meeting to discuss tax breaks in Washington and why some should be closed.
It was not clear AWB would take up the offer, and AWB spokeswoman Jocelyn McCabe said later by email that Brunell had agreed to review materials left by the group. There was no commitment to a meeting.
Brunell said said in an interview after the protest that AWB has always supported a review of tax breaks. If incentives deliver jobs and create additional taxes, he said the incentives should be kept. As an example, he said manufacturing tax incentives have delivered on their promises.
But Brunell said other tax breaks urged for closure by the protesters could be given a review for effectiveness. The protesters were singling out an unlimited tax exemption for banks' interest earnings on first-mortgage loans, favorable taxation for purchasers of airplanes, and the sales-tax exemption for elective cosmetic surgeries.
Brunell said he did not mind the protesters speaking out and said the group had a right to free speech. But he did say "it would have been nice if they had let us know before they dropped down and came into our business."
He doubted that a similar business rally by businesses that disrupted workers inside a labor union's office would not be welcomed.
If protesters felt rebuffed, they also are the political climb inside the Capitol just as steep. Majority Democrats are not-so-eager to talk in specifics about closing tax loopholes and one House budget writer thinks there is no political will to end tax breaks because they need a two-thirds vote in the Legislature or a 50 percent-plus-one majority vote in the House and Senate and a public vote in November.
But UFCW spokesman Tom Geiger said the AWB event was just one stroke in a growing drumbeat in favor of lawmakers taking a look and making tough choices to protect needed health programs for the working poor and elderly. He promised more action.
Among activists taking a turn at the megaphone was Kyong Barry, an Albertson's grocery worker for nine years who was on the UFCW's bargaining team recently that hammered out contracts with major grocers for about 25,000 union members. That contract included a health-care benefit that Geiger said it one of the best around.
But Barry talked instead about those who don't have insurance and need help.
She said an uninsured friend died three years ago of cancer that he didn’t get timely treatment for. "Everyone's hurting. We're not asking for the world. We want fairness," Barry said, adding that the quick burst into AWB "was fun."
The rally at AWB echoed a similar one two weeks ago led by Service Employees International Union 775 NW at a Bank of America outlet. Like UFCW, the SEIU nurses and other healthcare workers were calling for closure of tax breaks that benefit large banks’ interest earnings on first mortgages and also tax breaks for owners of airplanes.