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News ::
22 Sep 2003

By Minnie Bruce Pratt
Birmingham, Ala.
Via Workers World News Service
Reprinted from the Sept. 25, 2003
issue of Workers World newspaper


By Minnie Bruce Pratt
Birmingham, Ala.

Alabama has been much in the news lately on issues as seemingly
unconnected as the Ten Commandments and tax increases. What's been going on in this Southern state to put it in the spotlight of national media attention?

Alabama is in the grip of the same economic crisis as other states. Its budget has been gutted by the economic downturn. No help is in sight from the federal government, which instead is lavishing billions on war and on tax giveaways to the wealthy.

Alabama is in "the most severe financial crisis since the Great
Depression," says its Republican governor, Bob Riley. (Mobile Register, May 21) It faces a budget shortfall of $675 million for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1--more than 10 percent of its operating budget.

Riley proposed an unprecedented tax increase to meet this crisis. His
plan was voted down two to one.

But the national media have been focusing on something else. CNN gave
live coverage to Christian fundamentalists being dragged off as they
protested the removal of a two-and-a-half ton monument of the Ten
Commandments from the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court in

The monument was installed by Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy
Moore, who has built his career on defying the separation of church and state. Backed by far-right forces inside and outside the state--
including the "Center for Reclaiming America," an anti-abortion, anti-
gay organization in Florida--he was elected chief justice in 2000.
Moore's popularity has been strongest among poor and working whites.

Alabama workers, Black and white, have more than symbolic reasons to be worried. In the last year, thousands of jobs have been lost in the
state, mostly in manufacturing. The deadliest U.S. coal mining accident since 1984 killed 13 Alabama miners in September of 2001. At one large pipe manufacturer, 5,000 workers have suffered 4,600 injuries since 1995.

The U.S. Army has been incinerating the nerve gas sarin in heavily
populated areas. Some 60 percent of air pollution in the Birmingham area comes from energy giant Alabama Power, whose environmental damage is ravaging rivers statewide.

Judge Moore was not the first choice of Alabama big business, although
eventually big money put its weight behind him. But Moore is helpful to their strategy of dividing white from African American workers.

Moore's "trust in the Lord" brand of politics has been successful in
deflecting the dissatisfaction and anger of white workers away from
organizing, which could lead them to make common cause with Black

But when a federal district court ordered a defiant Moore to remove his display of religion, the Alabama political establishment abandoned
Moore. Though previously expressing sympathy for Moore's position, his
fellow Republicans--other justices, the governor and even ultra-
conservative Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor--in the end stood
against him. The Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission has charged him
with "violating ethical canons by disobeying a federal court order," and has suspended him.

What's made these officials suddenly act like they care about the

The answer may lie in the seemingly unrelated tax reform plan proposed
by Governor Riley--and the dire economic situation faced by the state.
Riley needs money and doesn't need a brouhaha over religion at this

Unlike the federal government, the states are required to balance their budgets. Riley put forward a state-wide referendum for approval of a "tax and accountability plan" that would both cover Alabama's projected $675-million shortfall and institute some "educational reforms" in a state that ranks at the bottom of the nation in per capita spending on schools.

This plan would have raised the earnings level of those exempt from
state income taxes, giving the poor a break. It would also have raised
the income tax on middle-class and wealthier individuals and families.
It would also have increased state property tax revenues by assessing at 100 percent of value--a move opposed by large landowners such as timber companies and farms.

Some of the money raised by these new taxes would have gone to college
scholarships for qualified Alabama high school students, and to set up a reading initiative for children in kindergarten through sixth grade.

Riley's tax plan was backed by a broad coalition of groups not usually
ranged on the same side of an issue in Alabama, including the New South Coalition with roots in the Black community; organizations representing social services such as the Federation of Child Care Centers of Alabama; and the Business Council of Alabama, which acts as a statewide chamber of commerce.

It was opposed by small business owners, timber and farm interests, some banking interests, local right-wing Christian groups--and Governor Riley's own Alabama Republican Party.

That kind of opposition made the proposal seem even more like a mildly
populist approach. In fact, Riley cloaked the plan in "Christian
morality," saying: "We're supposed to love God, love each other and help take care of the poor. It is immoral to charge somebody making $5,000 [a year] an income tax." (New York Times, Sept. 6)

On the surface, Riley's plan stood in sharp contrast to the tax cuts for the wealthy of his fellow Republican, Pre sident George W. Bush.

But in essence both are attempts by U.S. capital to manage an economic
crisis that has regional, national and international dimensions.

Among the backers of Riley's tax reform was the chief executive of
Alabama Power Co., Charles McCrary. He didn't cite concern over family
service centers being closed, or overcrowding at state mental
institutions. Instead, he based his support on the need to "make
earnings and return expectations to shareholders." (Birming ham News,
June 18)

McCrary pointed out that Riley's tax plan would provide a more educated workforce. He saw this as a necessary incentive to recruit new business to the state. He pointed to the loss of 20 percent of Alabama Power's industrial sales in the last year and of 32,000 factory jobs over the last five years. Alabama Power found that 74 percent of its recent entry-level applicants couldn't pass a basic competency test.

Corporate income tax represented only $45 million of the potential
revenues of Riley's plan. Income tax on individuals would have brought
in $375 million, with the bulk of that coming from workers and the
middle class.

However, the Republican Party in Alabama mobilized to defeat its own
governor's tax proposal.


This is the first crack in what has been a "solid South" since the
Republicans consolidated their hold on white Southern voters with a
racism camouflaged as states' rights. The stakes are high for the
Republicans, with President Bush's popularity polls plummeting and
workers being hit harder and harder by economic losses, exacerbated by
the war.

To win the next election, and hang onto control of the state's coffers, the Republicans also have to hold onto white workers increasingly pummeled by the economy. The Riley tax plan seems to have been an attempt by some Republican economic interests to forge a more centrist position in the face of increasing disillusionment and anger from all workers.

But on Sept. 9, the Riley tax reform plan was defeated by voters across the spectrum of income, race and religion. Only the poorest--mostly African American voters from the Black Belt counties--voted solidly for tax reform.

Many Black and white workers were skeptical about the plan. Ben Huntley, in Tuskegee, said, "I wouldn't vote for nothing (Riley) put out." Why? Because, he said, Riley is a rich, white businessman. Small business owners and workers in the same county said, "The only ones who can afford the plan are 'big-money pockets.'" (Huntsville Times, Jul.13)

Their suspicion and skepticism is an accurate measure of what workers
through out the state are feeling. Where, they ask, is the plan that
will better their lives--not big timber, big power or big banks?

The defeat of Riley's tax plan means an immediate, drastic cut in state government services. There will be no money this year for textbooks, classroom supplies for teachers or new technology. There will be no new enrollments permitted in the Child Health Insurance Program, now covering lower-income children. Half of the people in the state who have AIDS or are HIV positive, and who are now receiving funded medication, will no longer get their life-saving drugs. (Birmingham News, Sept. 12)

But the reactionary aspect of those pro posing the tax reform was also
revealed as the cuts were being announced. Attorney General Bill Pryor
advised people to buy handguns to "protect their homes and families" as he announced that thousands of inmates jailed in the state prison system for non-violent crimes, such as theft or drug possession, would be released because of the budget crisis.

African Americans make up 26 percent of Alabama's population but 62
percent of those incarcerated. Pryor's comments were meant to inflame

Alabama prisons are under a federal court order to reform because of
horrific overcrowding. The jails hold from two to three times as many
inmates as they were built for. One federal judge wrote in his ruling,
"The sardine-can appearance of its cell units more nearly resembles the holding units of slave ships during the Middle Passage of the 18th
century than anything in the 21st century." (New York Times, May 1,


The eyes of the ruling class, nationally and in other states, have been on Alabama, to see how its Republican power structure navigated between two different approaches on how to handle the budget crisis. The governor's approach was rejected by most workers because, although it would have saved some social services, it would have forced them to pay more in regressive sales taxes at a time when their jobs are insecure and personal debt is high.

Alabama's workers don't have to choose between a rock and a hard place. If they shake off racism and forge a united, independent movement outside the capitalist political parties, they can fight for a program that truly represents their interests and not those of one wing or another of the rich ruling class.

There are precedents within Alabama's history.

From the 1870s through the 1890s, militant interracial unionism among
coal miners and lumber workers was led by the Knights of Labor.

The Sharecroppers Union, organized by the Communist Party in Alabama
from 1929 through 1939, brought together thousands of farm workers
across racial lines to battle exploitative landowners.

The Black civil rights movement, begun by a group of African American
women in Montgomery with the bus boycott, is known throughout the entire world.

And, just last year, the death of white gay millworker Billy Jack
Gaither at the hands of anti-gay white supremacists was protested by a
coalition that included lesbian and gay groups, churches, synagogues and Muslims who refused to let religious demagoguery be used to scapegoat and divide.

With struggle, anything is possible.

- END -

(Copyright Workers World Service: Everyone is permitted to copy and
distribute verbatim copies of this document, but changing it is not
allowed. For more information contact Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY,
NY 10011; via e-mail: ww (at) Subscribe wwnews-
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