AFT members turn out to fight against GOP tax bill

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With the U.S. Senate set to vote on its version of tax reform—more aptly known as #GOPTaxScam—AFT leaders and activists were out in force across the country on Nov. 29 for a day of action to urge members of Congress to vote no.

The day, which included more than 20 events in 16 states, kicked off with a press conference on Capitol Hill with AFT President Randi Weingarten, three Republican U.S. representatives and the president of the U.S. Black Chambers, an association of chambers of commerce and business organizations. They all spoke out against the tax bills—both the House and Senate versions—which will hurt middle-class families in order to give huge tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy. (Read Weingarten's letter to U.S. senators.)

Weingarten with U.S. representatives at press conference

By cutting deductions for state and local taxes, as well as mortgage interest, Weingarten said, the bill will devastate voters—including Trump supporters—because it will lead to cuts in public education and services like law enforcement and firefighting. "If you have student loans, or your kids do, that deduction is gone," she said. "If you have a child in grad school, their tuition assistance deduction is also gone. And in the cruelest twist of the knife, the House bill even takes away the $250 deduction teachers get for buying supplies for their classrooms."

What we need to do, Weingarten added, is invest in the middle class. "We need to invest in our communities, not do something that will hurt them. That is why we are all standing together—a member of the DNC and three very, very, very Republican congressmen and a person from the Chamber of Commerce—to say: Please, please, don't do this. Don't hurt the middle class of America. Don't hurt the middle class of New York, who have worked hard to help their families and to provide those services."

New York Republican Reps. Dan Donovan, Peter King and Lee Zeldin, as well as Ron Busby, president of the U.S. Black Chambers, also spoke. All three New York representatives voted against the bill in the House of Representatives earlier this month.

"We want tax relief for our constituents and for our home state," Zeldin said. "This bill is not what was promised to our constituents and to New Yorkers when they went to vote in November of 2016. For too many of our own constituents, they would not be seeing any tax relief. ... Some would actually have to pay more! That's not what was promised."

Later in the day, Weingarten traveled a few miles to Fairfax County, Va., where she was joined by AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson for a lively rally (pictured below) at the office of Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock, who voted for the legislation.

Protest at Rep. Comstock's office in Virginia

About 60 members and allies of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, including members of the Northern Virginia Labor Council, MoveOn, Indivisible and Swing Left, called on Comstock to reject the Republican tax legislation.

Weingarten talked about the bill's dangers and exhorted the ralliers to keep up the pressure on Comstock. FCFT President Tina Williams also spoke to the crowd, then led constituents into their congresswoman's office to present information about the bill and to sign in, registering their opposition.

"We can read, Rep. Comstock, and we know this bill is no good for the middle class," one member told the crowd. Others objected to how it would cut into Medicare and penalize retirees. Constituents with children came to decry how its massive federal deficit would bankrupt future generations. Comstock "chose donors over her constituents," one member declared upon stepping into her office. "That’s why we are here."

In addition to events at other congressional offices from New Jersey and New York to Alaska and Colorado, graduate students across the country—many of them represented by the AFT—staged events to protest the House bill, in particular.

A grad student rally at the University of Pennsylvania

The House tax plan would be devastating for graduate students. As employees, they teach and perform research for a stipend, which currently is taxed just as any income would be taxed; their tuition, which is a benefit, is not taxed. The House bill would change that, adding the value of the tuition to graduate students' income and, in some cases, quadrupling their tax burden. The move would make graduate school accessible only to the wealthy and would damage academic research across the country.

Grad workers rose up on the day of action, rallying, holding "grade-ins" and phone banking to tell lawmakers to kill a measure that would tax many of them out of higher education. Social media lit up with #GradTaxWalkout and #SaveGradEd.

Graduate Employees Together at the University of Pennsylvania demonstrated (pictured above), held a "work-in" and jammed the phone lines to Sen. Patrick Toomey's office. Several locals, including Princeton Graduate Students United and Rutgers AAUP-AFT, circulated petitions, and the Teaching Assistants Association at the University of Wisconsin held a phone bank session to call their representatives.

Rutgers grad workers in New Jersey, the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation at the University of Oregon, and others across the country held up signs describing why the tax bill must go: "[because] I'll have to end my studies," "because the 1% does NOT need a tax cut" and "because grad students are workers that deserve a living income." On other campuses, signs that read "My tuition waiver let me…" were filled in with a litany of reasons to keep grads in school: Waivers allow them to study how to prevent, slow or stop Alzheimer's; improve health through technology; research ways to prevent child abuse; provide psychological services to K-12 students; and research ways to teach literacy skills to struggling readers.

Several AFT-affiliated graduate students contributed to an AFT Voices blog post outlining the many reasons to kill the tax on graduate education.

[AFT staff report]