Will austerity lead to prosperity?


After the 1930s depression, Canadians recognized that the growth of ungoverned capitalism and greed could destroy the future of a generation. If human dignity was fine coloured cloth, unbridled economic forces were Javex. That played a big role in unions achieving legal recognition. Unions were to act as a counterbalance to these powerful forces. With these legal and policy changes, the post 1930s period was marked by sustained growth and prosperity.

A lot has now changed. Stories are told of how unions are the root of the evils facing our economy. Any voice that states otherwise is silenced or misquoted. Why should we expect any different from the electronic media, newspaper or online news sources operated by large corporations? What does this tell us about these dominant groups in society?

There are wedges dividing society

This negative message, like a wedge, divides. Differences grow. Those across the divide begin to fight. Unionized workers are pitted against non-union workers. Private sector business is locked in warfare with public sector services and agencies. One part of our economy is forced to battle other parts of the economy in a winner takes all match. It all starts to look like  gladiator matches in ancient Rome.

Income inequality works against us all

While the crowd in the arena hoots and hollers at the fight, a strange thing called income disparity merrily rolls in. Some grow rich while most are left behind.

As time passes, the gap between the have and have-nots expands, forming the most important barrier of all. This barrier divides many of us from what society was meant to provide: equality and basic human rights. It cuts away the work of those from past generations who proudly created a province based on equal rights and opportunities. That generation worked to close the gap between the rich and poor rather than widen it. That generation encouraged a burgeoning and dynamic middle class.

So how did this happen? Who was at fault? Perhaps it was unions? Or was it greed? Was it government or the public sector? What about corporations?

A nasty chain of events

One important factor is growing income disparity. We can measure the past drop in union membership (density) and how this matches with an increase in income disparity. When corporate profits increased, with a big jump after free trade agreements, income disparity grew even faster.

We see how changes to legislation reduced union rights while society was subjected to a continuing stream of messages from the corporate media painting the labour movement as a home for the lazy and entitled.

Adding to this was the global financial crisis, commencing in 2008. Stock prices and mutual funds suffered. In the United States the mortgage industry, built on unrealistic credit, collapsed. With this the financial industry had a near death experience. Economic annihilation appeared real. This took us to a new world order.

Many started to believe that equality could be regained by tearing down rather than building up. The new order called for austerity programs to get us to a place normally reached with visionary projects.

An order based on envy and anger

In this world, most people end up fighting each other. Meanwhile, the privileged flourished. The global results were predictable and negative:

  • Pensions and basic insurance benefits? Who needs them? That’s a non-issue for the wealthy, including CEOs earning seven figures.

  • Retirement? Work until you drop. Remain a productive person by being a working person.

  • Job security? Not in today’s environment. Another non-issue for a CEO or financier with a golden separation package and an off-shore bank account.

  • Health and safety laws? C’mon – just use your common sense. Each worker is personally responsible for what they do.

  • Pay raises to meet the cost of living? Not if we can find someone to take your job for a lower wage. Just ask London Electromotive/Caterpillar employees.

  • Equity for designated groups? No way! Don’t tell me who I should be hiring.

Who thinks like this? You can find these ideas daily in many newspapers. Many now consider these statements to be facts.

A new disease is spreading

A new sickness has crept into society. Its symptoms include a sense of envy and anger at anyone who seems to have even a little more than the sufferer. Simply put, as the sufferer’s situation worsens their envy at the lives of those who have yet to suffer increases exponentially.

This new sickness results in a society made up of people who, faced with the death of the family cow, want the family next door to have their cow die too. And where do we think this perverse thinking will lead? To a place that offers abundance for all? No, not even close.

I don’t believe everything I read or hear in the media. Media corporations exist to make money for their owners. What is good for their bottom line is not so good for the rest of us.

Advertisers pay the costs for papers, television and radio. That money buys influence. When they complain, media organizations meet their needs. When we accept a message in the media without a critical eye we submit to their power and control. When this happens the tail begins to wag the dog.

I know these connections are a big part of why we see such fear and suffering. This is why average people are under immense pressure. This is why working people are forced down society’s ranks.

Political leaders are privileged leaders

Now let’s look at our elected leaders. How have they done during this crisis? Many elected leaders make just a brief pit stop in politics. They stay long enough to earn a great pension, like the one working people should not expect. They also make the connections they will needed to get a comfortable spot in the corporate world when they leave public life.

It seems that corporate tax cuts can create good jobs – but only for just a few. This could explain why, in Ontario, Premier McGuinty and Finance Minister Dwight Duncan turned to retired Toronto Dominion Bank economist Don Drummond for guidance.

Does Mr. Drummond have a pension? Yes, a great one from his previous big bank employer. Did he get a nice buy out with stock options when he left his former position? You bet.

I think it is strange that a banker is called on to lead us to the path of recovery. Bankers got us into this mess to begin with. That is why we should not be surprised when this retired economist recommended cuts to hysterectomies, C-sections and knee surgery. This is the outcome we should expect given his mandate prevents an examination of the revenue side of the equation. Between big bank thinking and a restrictive mandate, the “little Drummond boy” can only cut, cut, cut…

OPSEU responds

Our response has been responsible, sustained and robust. We have taken the challenges faced by Ontario to the people. In corporate terms, we are consulting with Ontario’s shareholders.

Depositions heard by The Commission on Quality Public Services and Tax Fairness provide a very different picture than the one we see in the media. The proceedings of the Commission are not filtered. They are raw and true.

There is a real thirst for accountable, quality public services. This contrasts with the approach practiced by the business leaders that were allowed to take over ORNGE, our air ambulance service. Recent reports prove that as well.

The Commission proved that the best approach can come from the knowledge of skilled front line workers. The people that provide and use public services hold the key to improvement and success. All we need do is ask.

Working together can bring progress

When we work together things improve. We see this clearly in OPSEU. Unions like OPSEU are a bastion of hope. Through solidarity, members protect their work and the public services they provide. Strong public services benefit society. This is win- win- win.

Reasonable economic gains are made and protected from corporate greed and arbitrary cuts. Unions like OPSEU are the foundation for a vital economic force: the middle class. It is the success we have at the bargaining table, at boards of arbitration and in the court of public opinion that will bring the hope that our best days are still ahead.

The domination of the corporate media makes it hard to communicate this message of hope. This is why each of us has to be a steward for this message.

We support the principle that individuals should be able to grow and prosper, moving themselves and their families up the socio-economic ladder. By working together, unions provide the balance to the right-wing agenda that resulted in the situation now present in Ontario. Unionization ensures middle-class salaries and benefits.

OPSEU is at the forefront of the fight to end corporate tax cuts and create good jobs. This is critical to individuals and the community. This message has gone viral. We continue to lead by supporting the Commission on Quality Public Services and Tax Fairness. This Commission is now listening and talking to Ontarians. It will share its report with the provincial government and the public.

If there is going to be change we will lead it. I say change is on its way. We all have a part to play in making it happen. Unions are not the problem…they are the solution.

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