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April 2019

The Front Line: Politics & Jobs
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It's Tax Season, and These Deductions
for Working Families Disappeared

Tax season is here, and tens of millions of Americans are finding an unpleasant surprise when they enter the final calculations on their returns.

Tax returns being filed in 2019 are the first under the tax reform bill passed in 2017 and more than a dozen deductions working Americans relied on for decades are gone. Changes to the withholding rules mean that many people expecting a refund check from the IRS are finding that they are the ones on the hook.

"People got used to their taxes being a certain way," said Political and Legislative Director Austin Keyser. "It isn't that way anymore and a lot of people are getting hit with some terrible news."

The last time a major tax reform bill was passed was 1986, so entire generations of working people have grown to expect consistency when tax time rolls around each April.

When Republicans pushed through the most recent changes, most of the attention went to the hundreds of billions of dollars that corporations and the billionaires behind them would save, and the eliminated deductions for working families might have slipped by unnoticed.

Grand Rapids, Mich., Local 876 Business Manager Chad Clark was so concerned about the possibility of much higher taxes for his members that he joined a handful of business managers in sending a warning letter to his members in January.

"Due to the recent tax reform (effective January 1, 2018) many miscellaneous itemized deductions that you have claimed in the past are no longer deductible," he wrote.

The list of no-longer deductible items was fairly long:

  • Union dues
  • Tools and supplies used for work
  • Work clothes and uniforms, if required and not suitable for everyday use
  • Work-related travel, transportation and meal expenses
  • Depreciation on a computer or mobile phone that your employer requires you to use in your work
  • Work-related education
  • Home office expenses for part of your home used regularly and exclusively in your work
  • Expenses of looking for a new job in your present occupation, including travel
  • Legal fees related to work
  • Subscriptions to trade journals or magazines
  • Business liability insurance premiums
  • Dues to professional societies

The letter was similar to some he had seen other business managers send.

"A lot have called back and said, 'Gosh you were right,'" Clark said. "One individual said it was a $7,000 difference. People need to understand this."

The IRS in February was already reporting, in only the second week of filing season, that the average refund was down nearly 9 percent and the number of refunds of any amount was down 16 percent.

Everyone's situation is different, Clark said, and he was at pains to remind his membership that they shouldn't rely on anyone's general advice over a tax expert.

"This was just for information, to let them know not to expect to take this stuff off," he said.

International President Lonnie R. Stephenson wants to go a step further and fix the problem at its source.

Back in November, Stephenson sent a letter to every member of the U.S. House, asking them to co-sponsor a bill introduced by Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb called the Tax Fairness for Workers Act.

The bill would reinstate the tax deduction for union dues and unreimbursed employee expenses, returning nearly $20 billion to working families, according to an AFL-CIO study.

Even better, the bill would allow workers to make the deductions even if they don't itemize their returns.

"These important tax provisions were key features of the federal tax code for decades and helped sustain not only IBEW members, but all of our nation's middle class," Stephenson wrote. "Congress should reinstate them and allow working American households to keep more of their hard-earned money."


Nearly a dozen tax deductions important to union workers were killed for this year, causing some nasty surprises at filing time.

BC Member Selected for Canada's Future Skills Council

The government of Canada has assembled a new council to address the future of jobs in the country, and Vancouver, British Columbia, Local 213 assistant business manager Lisa Langevin will serve as a member.

"This is a great opportunity for Sister Langevin to share her expertise as well as her experience as a tradeswoman and to ensure that our industry has a voice at the table," said First District International Vice President Thomas Reid.

The Future Skills Council, alongside its counterpart research facility the Future Skills Centre, is part of an initiative by the government to look at how new trends and technologies are shaping the future of work and to develop a plan that will help Canadians acquire the necessary skills to get good-paying jobs that will also grow the middle class.

"The world of work is changing and Canadians need to be equipped to seize the opportunities this presents," said Patty Hajdu, minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, in a statement released on Feb. 14. "Future Skills is part of the government's plan to build an agile workforce that can find and keep good, well-paying jobs, and strengthen the middle class so that everyone has a fair chance at success — today and tomorrow."

Langevin is the only tradesperson on the council and one of two from the labour movement, joining Mike Luff of the Canadian Labour Congress. Others on the 15-member council include representatives from the public, private and nonprofit sectors.

"I think having a tradeswoman on the council speaks to the council's commitment to diversity, which is just as important a consideration for the future as issues like automation and the aging of the workforce," said Langevin, who brings years of experience promoting women in the trades.

Langevin is a founding member of Local 213's women's committee as well as the national and provincial chapters of Build Together — Women of the Building Trades. She is also president of the BC Tradeswomen Society, serves on the Governance Committee for the BC Centre for Women in the Trades and is a board member of the Industry Training Authority, which coordinates the provincial skilled trades system.

"We need to look at how we can create an open and inclusive workplace," Langevin said. "We need to think about the face of the workforce as well as the technology driving it."

Langevin noted that indigenous people are the fastest growing population in Canada, along with immigrants, two groups that are underrepresented in the trades.

"The future of the trades is a diverse workforce," Langevin said.

As technologies continue to evolve, the trades are too, Langevin said, and that perspective needs to be part of the conversation.

The council has been directed to operate at "arm's length," which Langevin says will give them space to think outside of government constraints and generate new ideas.

"We'll be meeting with our stakeholders and bringing that back," Langevin said. "And we'll be thinking outside the box to make sure that all Canadian working families — including the trades — are part of the future."

Plan to Repeal Tax on Many Union
Health Insurance Plans Introduced

A renewed effort to repeal a 40 percent tax on millions of health insurance plans has new hope of becoming reality thanks to rule changes in the House of Representatives.

The plan to repeal the so-called "Cadillac tax" has been introduced several times since the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 — including last year, backed by more than 300 co-sponsors — but has never passed in both chambers of Congress.

This year, however, rules passed by the new Democratic majority give the bill a real chance of becoming law, if it can get more than 290 co-sponsors once again.

"This is one of our highest priorities this year," said Political and Legislative Department Director Austin Keyser. "Slapping a 40 percent tax on many, if not most, union health plans is bad for workers, bad for business and bad for the country."

The Cadillac tax was introduced in the ACA, also known as Obamacare, as a misguided attempt to control health care costs nationally and discourage overly generous health coverage that was, allegedly, driving up health care costs, Keyser said.

But the lower limit was set so low — $10,000 a year for an individual, $27,000 a year for families — that 18 million working people were facing dramatic benefit cuts immediately, rising to nearly 60 million within a decade. The hit to working families was perhaps unintentional, but a hit all the same.

"Even if $10,000 and $27,000 seemed like a lot in 2010, there was no provision for inflation, which is much higher for health care. Pretty soon, most health insurance plans are going to be facing lethal tax increases," Keyser said. "Billionaires got their tax bonanza; we get the bill."

The Cadillac tax has already been delayed twice. It was supposed to go into effect in 2018, stripping $100 billion in worker benefits. That has been pushed out to 2022, but the specter of the tax hike is complicating contract negotiations and a permanent fix is the only way for unions and employers to negotiate three-year deals with any confidence, Keyser said.

There was and is overwhelming support among both Democrats and Republicans for what is called a clean repeal with no amendments, but Republican leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell never allowed one to come up for a vote. Instead, Republicans only introduced repeal bills that also tossed millions of people off insurance or went after the heart of the ACA. Democrats simply would not support that.

Now that Democrats control at least one legislative chamber, however, a clean repeal like the one proposed in H.R. 748 — the Middle-Class Health Benefits Tax Repeal Act — could finally make it to the floor.

When Speaker Nancy Pelosi took the gavel, Democrats passed a new rule: every bill with more than 290 co-sponsors would be added to a list. Every week, one bill from that list would be chosen by the speaker to go straight to the House floor for an up-or-down vote. No long detours to committee, no opportunities for popular bipartisan bills to be poisoned with unrelated amendments.

Last year, a similar bill had 304 co-sponsors, 168 Democrats and 136 Republicans. The current bill has only 151 co-sponsors, neatly split 50/50 between the parties.

"Getting to 290 or more co-sponsors is probably our best opportunity to kill this tax," Keyser said. "McConnell doesn't want to put forward a clean repeal, but the more co-sponsors we get in the House and the larger the margin of victory, the more pressure he'll be under to give us something. Then it will be up to the Democrats to decide if the price he is asking is too high."

The key, he said, is mass mobilization.

"Make no mistake: this affects every member of the IBEW. The tax weakens our hand in negotiations, but it also hurts our employers," Keyser said. "This is one case where the Chamber of Commerce and labor see eye to eye."

Keyser encourages every member of the IBEW to ask their representative to co-sponsor the bill. The easiest way to find your representative is to type your ZIP code into the search box at and call or email asking them to co-sponsor H.R. 748 to kill the Cadillac tax permanently.

Maine, Illinois Members
Represent at the State of the Union

Retired Manchester, Maine, Local 1837 member Cynthia Phinney and Chicago Local 134 apprentice Lily Wu were invited as official guests to attend President Donald Trump's State of the Union address on Feb. 5 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Phinney was the guest of Rep. Jared Golden of Maine, and Wu was the guest of Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois.

"The president seems poised to charge ahead with the new NAFTA as written," Phinney said, reacting to the speech afterward. "We know it's not unusual to make changes even after these documents are signed, and this agreement as it stands isn't sufficient. We'll keep pushing Congress for a NAFTA that works for people and the planet."

Trump mentioned a specific health care initiative for childhood cancer, she said, "but he failed to lay out a plan that will address the lack of affordable coverage that is impacting families across the country facing many health care challenges."

Members of both houses of Congress are each allowed to invite one guest to watch the address from the gallery of the House of Representatives, where the speech has been delivered before a joint session of the House and Senate since 1913.

Noting Wu's membership in Local 134, Duckworth touted her as "one of the many Illinoisans working hard to shore up America's crumbling infrastructure, and living proof of the concrete benefits that come out of career and technical education and apprenticeship programs."

"I'm proud to work with my hands every day, rebuilding and repairing America one project at a time," said Wu, a first-generation Chinese-American. "As I walked around D.C., it was great to see that many of the buildings are being maintained by the architect of the Capitol. It's comforting to know the architecture and the history are well preserved, and that these projects provide skilled jobs to the people of the trades like us."

Both IBEW members, it seems, were chosen because they represent the importance of working families and opportunity to the members who invited them.

"Golden made working people's issues, trade, and unions central to his campaign message, and he continues to do so," said Phinney, a former Local 1837 business manager who is now serving as president of Maine's state AFL-CIO chapter.

Before being elected last November to his first term representing Maine's 2nd Congressional District, Golden served two two-year terms representing Maine's 60th District in the state's House of Representatives.

"We worked closely with the congressman when he was in the state Legislature," Phinney said. "He has always been a champion of working-class issues. Being invited to attend the State of the Union address as his guest was a good, symbolic choice."

The U.S. Constitution directs that the president "shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." It's up to the Speaker of the House to officially invite the president to deliver the address.

In early January, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invited Trump to deliver his address on Jan. 29. But as the partial shutdown of the federal government that began on Dec. 22 dragged on, Pelosi suggested that the president should delay his speech until after an agreement could be reached to resolve the budget impasse that caused the shutdown. After the government reopened on Jan. 25, the two leaders settled on Feb. 5 as the new date for the address.

"Congressman Golden contacted me before we knew when — or even whether — the address would be held," Phinney said.

For Wu, being selected to be Duckworth's guest was "definitely shocking," she said. "I was very honored to be invited, and I'm starting to pay more attention to politics now. It's amazing how influential politics can be."

Meanwhile, watching and listening from the floor was Rep. Donald Norcross, an active member and former business agent for Folsom, N.J., Local 351, who has represented the Garden State's 1st District since 2014.


Manchester, N.H., Local 1837's Cynthia Phinney was Rep. Jared Golden's 2019 State of the Union address guest.


Sen. Tammy Duckworth, left, spoke with Chicago Local 134 apprentice Lily Wu before the 2019 State of the Union address.