Serving on OPSEU/SEFPO’s Executive Board is the honour of a lifetime, and like all leadership roles, it comes with great responsibility. I’ve always taken mine seriously, and looking forward, I can see that the next Board is going to have a big job – not just in the fight for public services but also against the dark forces of austerity.
After two years of pandemic spending and a growing national deficit, we must anticipate that the calls for austerity will be strong in the coming months and years.
And so, our union’s response must be even stronger.
It’ll take a mix of activism and realism – taking the concrete and practical ideas our members have, making the case for strong public services and then fighting hard to protect and improve them.
We know that protests alone aren’t going to get us there, and aggressive ones certainly won’t get us much sympathy. Protesting is just one part of a bigger strategy – but we also need strong evidence on our side and the facts to back us up. We must focus on putting forth suggestions that are workable.
Out of necessity, this will be top priority for the next president and OPSEU/SEFPO’s entire Executive Board – to face down austerity once again, and to prove that public services are needed now more than ever. Investing in them continues to be the smartest path to our collective success.
I don’t have a crystal ball, but I can say with confidence that there will be a battle on the horizon. The feds have racked up a significant deficit in the faceoff against COVID-19, at a time when the provinces are calling for more money to ease the growing pressures they face in health care and other social services.
Don’t get me wrong – spending money was the right thing to do, and we can’t fault governments for running deficits during this difficult time – but when interest rates start to rise, the calls for austerity will too. And we’ll all feel the trickle-down effect, because when the feds squeeze the provinces, the provinces squeeze public services and everyone suffers as a result.
While I applaud Ontario’s strategy to “grow the economy” I doubt this approach will be enough, or move fast enough, to adequately protect public services by reinvesting and rebuilding after 25 years of austerity and cuts.
The reality is that Ontario still spends less than any other province on public services. We have so much room for improvement, and not a lot of time to achieve it before the austerity vultures start circling.
Rumours that tax cuts may be coming don’t help either – that would mean an even bigger deficit, and even wider spending gaps in health care, education and the services that Ontarians rely on, and all for the benefit of corporations and the most wealthy, no doubt.
Instead, we need a tax system to make sure the wealthiest are paying their fair share to preserve the public services that keep Ontario ticking. We must ensure that there are sufficient resources for long-term care reform to get carried out.
I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: our long-term care system is the collective shame of our society. Despite the challenges ahead, long-term care reform is a file that OPSEU/SEFPO’s next Board will have to stay on top of.
The same goes for our province’s emergency preparedness. It’s become clear that Ontario is not prepared to handle disasters, and that goes all the way back to Bob Rae who cut everything from forest fire fighters to Emergency Management Ontario (EMO).
All these cuts done in the name of austerity have created the situation we’re in today – lacking the capacity and infrastructure to respond quickly and properly when disaster strikes.
And COVID-19 isn’t the last pandemic or disaster we’ll face. There are going to be more climate related events. We’re going to have to rebuild capacity if we want to weather the storm. Many OPSEU/SEFPO members are on the frontlines of these services, and it’s time for Ontario to listen, learn, and put our members’ knowledge to good use.
It’s time to stop wasting money on costly and ineffective privatization schemes, and it’s also time to put the wellbeing of workers first. That starts by repealing Bill 124 and its chokehold on workers’ rights.
Public services are absolutely the best investment a government can make – and access to strong public services will always help to buffer the impact of disasters – both natural and personal ones too.
It’s time to stop relearning the same lessons from history and start putting them to use by rebuilding Ontario. I’ve fought hard for it during my time at the helm. But, as the forces of austerity creep closer once again, our union’s next Board will continue to have a big job fighting it back.
Our democracy works, and that’s why I’m confident that OPSEU/SEFPO members will elect the right people for this big job.
Warren (Smokey) Thomas