Arizona teachers want to tax the rich for their students
In this July 5, 2018, file photo, Joe Thomas, center, president of the Arizona Education Association, speaks in support of the Invest in Education Act in Phoenix. In the 2020 election, the 'Red for Ed' coalition is spearheading a ballot initiative to raise taxes on the rich to boost school funding. The proposal, backed by Arizona's teachers union and progressive groups, and would raise more than $900 million a year for schools. | Melissa Daniels / AP

The Arizona Chamber of Commerce and the ultra-right-wing state legislature were hoping that the COVID-19 pandemic would save them from those pesky citizen initiatives that regular citizens can place on the ballot to be voted into law. The corporate interests and their right-wing backers are especially fearful of a proposed initiative that would raise over $900,000,000 for education by taxing the rich.

Arizona’s “Red for Ed,” the militant coalition of teachers, parents, students, and other community members, is flexing its grassroots muscles once again. Starting just five months ago, the coalition managed to gather over 435,000 voter signatures to place an initiative on the November ballot to impose the tax measure. Ballot initiatives require 237,645 signatures, but the coalition blew past that total to guarantee they’d meet the legal hurdle.

The “Red for Ed” coalition was born out of the 2016 teachers’ strikes and actions in several states, including Arizona. Those actions won some concessions when the governor and legislature agreed to some funding increases for teachers’ pay, but there is still not adequate funding, and increases don’t even make up for the cutting and slashing of education budgets over the previous several years. Arizonans are sick and tired of being the 49th or 50th state in funding public schools. We don’t even want to be average. We want to be in the top ten.

Starting so late, the movement had to collect most signatures during the pandemic by overcoming the need to socially distance and avoid too much touching of the petitions. Tactics included inviting people to stop by an outdoor place where they could sign with their own pen, or leaving it by someone’s front door and backing up while they come out, pen in hand, to sign. These Herculean efforts succeeded in spite of all difficulties, demonstrating the broad statewide support for an end to the attacks on public education and the shoveling of state revenues to the top 1% through endless tax cuts.

In 2018, the teachers, with their coalition, managed to submit enough signatures to get this initiative on the ballot, but it was thrown out before the election based on a technicality by the Republican-controlled state Supreme Court. The Chamber of Commerce will try that again, and challenge signatures and any other tactic their lawyers can come up with. Chances are that they won’t succeed this time.

Three other voter initiatives submitted enough signatures to make the 2020 ballot, also with a large cushion needed overcome challenged signatures. One initiative will be a measure to legalize recreational marijuana, following the lead of most neighboring states. Another initiative is for criminal justice reform to ease sentencing, help reduce jail time for nonviolent offenders, and turn back some of the draconian mandatory sentencing laws passed by past GOP-led legislatures.

The fourth, named Stop Surprise Billing and Protect Patients Act, will, if passed, impose new rules on hospitals and insurers. The initiative drive, led by SEIU’s United Healthcare Workers, will eliminate surprise billing from out-of-network providers, require hospitals to meet national safety standards, ban discrimination based on pre-existing conditions, and mandate a 5% wage increase per year for all hospital staff, from janitors to nurses and even bosses.

The Chamber of Commerce and their Republican allies will do all in their power to keep these initiatives off the ballot because they cut into their profits, grow the public sector, and bring out the vote. With strong support from labor, the teachers, healthcare workers, prison reform activists, as well as the stoners backing legal marijuana, the grassroots have shown they can bust ass and build broad support in spite of the ravages of the pandemic in one of the country’s worst-hit states. The popular coalitions that accomplished this task will be a huge asset in November by helping turn out voters to turn out Trump and hopefully end ultra-right control of the Arizona legislature.


Joe Bernick
Joe Bernick

Joe Bernick is the Director of Salt of the Earth Labor College, Tucson, Arizona.