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City Hall

This morning, a few hundred teachers and allies rallied downtown. Gathering in front of City Hall, the crowd heard speeches then marched along Main, down Hughson (pausing for more speeches outside Andrea Horwath’s office) concluding at Gore Park for hot cocoa. The speakers, always a labour rally staple, were some of the best I’ve heard in years, including not just teachers but a wide range of others, from School Board trustees to anti-poverty activists and representatives of Six Nations. Along with the warm weather, frequent honks and amazing short-notice turnout, it all combined to provide an amazingly high-spirited rally.

Across Ontario right now, schools are gripped by strikes and walkouts in opposition to the Provincial government’s Bill 115 (text). The bill, which freezes wages, cuts benefits and bans strikes, has infuriated teachers over the past months. In response, both elementary and secondary teachers have been staging short rotating strikes and work-to-rule campaigns in boards across the region, joined by a growing number of student walkouts, including hundreds Hamilton’s Sir John A MacDonald and Delta students this past Monday, and our Elementary teachers are slated to hold a one-day strike Monday.

Outside Andrea Horwath's Office on Hughson

Outside Andrea’s Office

What McGuinty accomplished with Bill 115, one of the last passed before he prorogued Parliament, was effectively pre-emptive back-to-work legislation. It interfered with contract talks before bargaining had even begun, and in the process seriously offended teachers. Given the history of teachers’ unions, this wasn’t likely to go down without a fight, and it’s quickly escalating as the strike deadline approaches.

Unlike previous labour strife, like the battle over Bill 160 in the Harris years, opponents have been much less successful at isolating and demonizing teachers. With students walking out and boards passing resolutions against the bill, the province is finding itself with a lot less friends this time around. It’s hard to have sympathy, I suppose, when these legislators haven’t shown up at their own workplace in months.

Also favouring teachers is the recent history of education-related activism. Similar battles with BC teachers didn’t help with the falling popularity of the province’s Liberal government. Teachers strikes in Chicago, similarly, quickly turned into a much broader movement and successfully challenged the city’s government. Then there’s the student strike in Quebec this past spring and summer, which turned into a resounding defeat for former Liberal Premier Jean Charest. And of course, there’s what happened in Oxaca, Mexico in 2006, where protests by their teachers’ union escalated into a (deadly) battle between the state and popular forces for control of Oxaca City. Simply put, teachers’ unions have become the ‘natural predator’ of provincial governments across the continent.

Gore Park

Gore Park

As with most battles like it, Bill 115 represents only the tip of a much larger iceberg. Austerity policies are being implemented at the federal and provincial levels, tossing thousands out of work and cutting many more off benefits such as EI. Most of those affected by these cuts don’t have anywhere near the level of union representation or influence that teachers do, making this fight and others like it a pivotal battle. It also illustrates why it’s so important that teachers are connecting with other affected groups – workers, First Nations, the unemployed etc (many of whom showed a presence today). Solidarity is the only way to combat agendas on this scale, and I’m heartened to see that it’s happening.

I passed the age, long ago, where more of my friends teach high school than attend it. Having very close friends and even house-mates who teach, I’ve seen how brutal a career it can be. I may have an incredibly (physically) taxing job, but the exhaustion I’ve seen in friend’s eyes after a long day in front of classes or grading papers is just as real. Perhaps the saddest of all, I’ve known too many teachers who’ve literally begged their kids not to follow in their footsteps. These aren’t “spoiled” or “entitled” workers, they’re people we depend on to help raise our kids.

Though I’ll always have my suspicions about state-sponsored education, it won’t be improved through cuts and neglect, or broad, sweeping policy changes from the province (standardized tests and curricula, etc). Like any organization, schools need input from those most affected, and that means the people who spend time their daily – teachers, students and support staff along with parents and community members. This isn’t just about budgets and salaries, it’s a question of who controls schools and education itself.

It’s budget time, and conflicts over “austerity” are continuing to rage across the western world. Canada’s budgets are out, Spain held a general strike Thursday and the situation in Italy and Portugal is continuing to worsen.

Greece and Italy
News from Europe just keeps getting more disturbing. Italy has now seen two men set themselves on fire to protest economic conditions. One did it outside a tax office, another outside the town hall over thousands in unpaid wages. Greece is taking an even scarier turn as the (unelected) government move on with plans to open 30 widely opposed “detention camps” for illegal immigrants, who they’re now attempting to scapegoat for their economic woes. This follows similar measures and proposals aimed at the Roma (“Gypsies”) in Italy and France.

These two nations are furthest along in “austerity” plans (especially Greece). They’ve both had their heads-of-state (Berlusconi and Papandreau) replaced by “technocrats”. Their economies are growing so toxic they threaten the EU itself, and austerity programs so have only worsened debt burdens by wrecking their economies. They’ve both seen enormous, riotous social unrest. Watching this from the relative security of a nation like Canada, it’s time to ask ourselves: is this is really the path we want to embark down?

Spain and Portugal
Spain yesterday saw a general strike grip the country, where (of course) some clashed with police setting tires and trash cans alight as barricades in the street. Yesterday, Spain announced their “austerity budget“, hoping to satisfy European Union creditors. It contains 27 billion in cuts, some of the worst cuts seen since the end of Franco’s dictatorship. Spanish unions and protest groups are pledging to keep fighting. Neighbouring Portugal held a similar general strike last week, and business analysts are again beginning to fear that either of the above (or Italy) may become “the next Greece”. EU Ministers met today to discuss raising the “firewall” bailout fund closer to a trillion dollars, fearing another debt-crisis and bailouts which could cripple the European banking system.

Thursday, Federal Minister of Finance Flaherty announced his “austerity” budget, as expected. During the speech a group of protesters raised a ruckus in the gallery and had to be “escorted out”. The day before, McGuinty released his, and the reality of the proposed cuts is beginning to sink in. Federally, over $5 billion in cuts have been announced, expected to directly result in about 19 000 public jobs lost over the next few years, raised eligibility ages for retirement benefits and gutted environmental oversight. The subject of new taxes was avoided, with the Conservatives hoping further investments in large resource-extraction projects like the Tar Sands and related pipelines will bring in more revenue. It’s being called the “least green budget in decades“, inflaming Environmental and First-Nations groups.

In Ontario, the main cost-cutting measure is a two-year public-sector wage freeze along with cuts to pensions. Over the next three years, cuts worth $17.7 billion are planned, with a third of it coming from wages. These measures follow a somewhat watered-down model provided by the Drummond Report, released earlier this year warning of dire financial consequences if Ontario didn’t deal with our deficits.

Canada isn’t Greece, Spain or Italy – we very clearly aren’t in the midst of a “debt crisis”. We aren’t even “sorta” grappling with one like France, Britain or America. We have the lowest debt-GDP ratio in the G7, our own currency and some of the world’s largest stocks of natural resources. Our economy was largely shielded from the shocks of the last five years for these reasons, and we needed a far smaller “bailout”. Our social programs aren’t all that lavish by European standards, and our economy is in far better shape. To say that Canada “needs” an austerity program is absolutely ludicrous, but that’s never stopped our politicians before.

Austerity Everywhere
The rapid spread of austerity programs, beyond borders and regardless of party in power, shows how widespread these problems really are. As much as I’d like to place the blame on Harper or McGuinty, they are only a few in the long list of politicians participating. Our new global economy has generated a global crisis, and it’s going to take a global movement to fight back.

Wages, pensions, social programs and other benefits have always been a battleground. They’re a part of the bargain we drive in exchange for our work and compliance with laws. Most of these rights and benefits were only gained at the end of long and hard-fought struggles. This bargaining session never ends – there’s always a mediation between us and those in power (bosses, the government, etc). There will always be efforts to peel back these gains and pay us less in one way or another. When this happens, people fight back. This is the subject of a very interesting paper now making the rounds online, Austerity and Anarchy: Budget Cuts and Social Unrest in Europe, 1919-2009 by Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth of the CEPR. From the ninety years they studied, they found “a clear positive correlation between fiscal retrenchment and instability”. These results were tested against all the usual explanations – recessions, democratic/autocratic governments and the amount of media coverage, among other variables, and none showed much effect (with the possible exception of limiting the powers of government’s executive branch…). The lesson here? If you begin to pay people less for their obedience, be prepared to expect less of it.

This fight is already underway. Big days to watch for include April 21st (Toronto), May 5th (Ottawa) and of course Mayday, May 1st (everywhere). There are already big conflicts underway in Quebec (students) and British Columbia (teachers, northerners), as well as many cities like Toronto and Halifax. With these budgets now on the table, Canada’s entry into this international conflict is now official. Austerity is everywhere and the effects are only beginning to be felt, but so is the backlash.

It sure is going to be an interesting spring.

Tim Hudak is under fire for his promise to kill the McGuinty goverment’s Green Energy bill, this time for the possible loss of 200 jobs in London at a Samsung solar panel plant. “We just can’t afford it”, he claims, and plans to kill the proposed subsidy for Samsung. McGuinty, touring another Solar plant, was not impressed and wasted no time attacking him over it.

Putting aside, for a second, the issue of subsidizing foreign multinationals for opening up shops in Ontario, this seems a pretty awful approach to getting cheaper power for Ontario. Solar panels produce electricity, and solar panel factories produce them – so the net effect on our province’s generating capacity is going to be very negative. How is Hudak going to deal with our growing demand for electricity in these days of skyrocketing energy prices? He’ll cut taxes on gas and electricity bills. This way, he can use public money to cushion the blows without actually addressing the questions of energy production behind it.

The allegation that “we can’t afford it”, also, seems strange given his many expensive promises, such as tax cuts and the $35 billion infrastructure budget he’s prepared for building projects like the Mid-Peninsula Highway. Hudak boasts about the state-sponsored job creation which will happen around Hamilton if this highway is created. We may not need it, and it may cost us dearly in land, but this enormous trench filled with money will spur “economic growth”, so why not, eh?

The “jobs” argument can be made for any colossally expensive development boondoggle. Any money the government spends will enter the economy and do something. Frankly, I’m surprised these people don’t just build valleys full of pyramids. Highway development is additionally “useful” because they open up land for development into new suburbs, power-centres and business parks. Given Hudak’s avoidance of spelling out exactly what he plans to do about the Greenbelt legislation he dislikes so much, as well as what happened to suburban expansion during the Harris years, it’s likely that such sprawl is poised to grow even faster.

What does sprawl have to do with solar panels? Other than being a vast energy sink filled with distant, poorly-performing buildings, it’s a dramatic example of just how far some in government are willing to go in subsidizing certain technologies and industries. Solar won’t catch on without subsidies – not because it’s an inferior technology, but because the nastier alternatives (like oil, coal and internal combustion engines) are already heavily subsidized. What’s different about solar is that it encourages local “Energy Autonomy” as described by Hermann Scheer. Though efficient, sustainable and very liberating, this kind of vision isn’t compatible with the kind of profits which today come from fossil fuels, and drive the kinds of industry and development Hudak wishes to see.

Our energy woes stem from the fact that modern-day Canadians have some of the highest rates of per-person energy use on Earth or in history. This is in no small part a result of decisions by governments to invest in models of development and economic growth which require massive amounts of coal, oil and electricity. While I generally detest electoral politics and have no great love for McGuinty, Hudak’s ambitions scare me a lot. Ontario definitely does not need another Common Sense Revolution – but perhaps a bit of common sense would do.

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