Wells Fargo: the perfect target for a new Uncut movement in Baltimore.

As a Marylander living in London who has been an active participant in the student and anti-cuts protest movements, I was thrilled to come across the news yesterday that “US Uncut” groups are sprouting up around the country. UK Uncut was born when a group of seasoned activists met in a pub in North London in October to discuss government cuts to public services and the emerging student protest movement. To them, it was clear that a crackdown on tax avoidance by corporations and wealthy individuals would negate the need for spending cuts and undermine the Coalition government’s argument that these cuts are “necessary”. The target in mind was Vodafone, the largest mobile phone company in Europe. A report on the British whistleblower site Private Eye had indicated that the HMRC (the British version of the IRS) had cut their tax bill from $9.7 billion to just under $2 billion, and that this decision had been guided by government officials. This information came out at the same time that the government announced massive cuts to public spending.

About 70 people showed up for Uncut’s first action in London’s Oxford Street. People carrying orange umbrellas ushered the small crowd to a Vodafone store, which was promptly closed after they staged a sit in. Since then, UK Uncut has widened its focus to other targets like Boots (like a British Walgreens), HSBC (banks) and The Arcadia Group. The owner of Arcadia, Sir Phillip Green, is one of the richest men in Britain but doesn’t pay taxes on his earnings because they are registered to his wife, who lives in Monaco.

Uncut grew quickly, spreading all over the UK and becoming a regularly trending topic on Twitter. Ordinary citizens, from 15 year old schoolgirls to 90 year old grandmothers, went on to organize blockades and sit-ins at branches of tax-dodging brands in their own area. Much of Uncut’s success comes from a non-hierarchical structure, which allows it to be a truly grassroots movement. Rather than an organization, I would argue that Uncut is better described as a model and support system for citizen-led direct action. It also adds to the movement’s creativity. From Santas supergluing themselves to chain stores in Brighton, to Phillip Green masks in Liverpool, to turning bank branches into pop-up libraries, Uncut actions make art and protest synonymous.

And now, I am thrilled to see that people in my own country are forming Uncut groups in the US. After all, tax evasion isn’t limited to the UK and the situation is especially bad in America. In Baltimore, you only need to mention two words to highlight the corporate greed that has plagued the city: Wells Fargo. And like Bank of America, Citibank, GE and ExxonMobil, Wells Fargo paid $0 in income taxes in 2009. The decade-long CFO, Howard Adkins, is about to retire after with a pension and stock portfolio valued at about $27.21 million. I bet you can look into reports, etc. to find out how much income tax he pays – it probably isn’t very much. Wells Fargo does operate tax haven banks and the cost of this industry as a whole to uncollected taxes is somewhere between $100 billion and $1 trillion.

So let’s get this straight. The banks caused the recession, got bailed out by the taxpayer, are now making billions in profit (Wells Fargo made $3.4 billion in the last quarter), are paying big bonuses and pensions to executives… but they aren’t paying income tax. Meanwhile, the victims of the financial crisis, such as the families who lost their homes, are still struggling. And the spending cuts are going to make their struggles harder. You should be banging your head against the wall by now. Isn’t it obvious that the spending cuts are based around the same type of thinking that led us to the financial crisis in the first place?

Apart from the usual campaign rhetoric, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have done much to tame the practices of their donors. The only thing left to do is to take to the streets and challenge the tax dodgers on our own. US Uncut has called for a day of action on February 26th against the banks, on the same date that many of us will be taking action in the UK. At the time of writing, there are Uncut groups in 20 states – check http://www.usuncut.org or contact them via @usuncut on Twitter to find out about joining/creating a Baltimore chapter.

Edited/updated 16 Feb 2011
EDIT 23 FEB 2011: Last year, Wells Fargo tried to reclaim $115 million back taxes on SILO transactions that were collected for 2002. The IRS took them to court in January and they lost. It's estimated that around $340 million is owed for 2008 and 2009. Keep in mind that this is NOT income tax, and that Wells Fargo still pays $0 in income tax! Read more about the company's aggressive tax evasion strategy.

And read this one if you're feeling brave. 


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