Organizing Against Austerity: By Harold Lavender
Austerity is not a lack of money. Austerity is a lack of democracy. When
government says we have to tighten our belts, they are hoping we won’t
find out how their tax system helps the rich and hurts the rest of us. We
are told there’s not enough money, and we have to spend less. But
austerity isn’t just cuts to health care, education or the public sector.
Austerity is sacrificing the common good for corporate profits. Austerity
keeps migrant workers from exercising their rights, rolls back
environmental regulations, muzzles scientists, undermines unions, keeps
women earning less than men, and prevents Indigenous people from taking
care of the land, all while spending billions on war.
Governments at all levels (federal provincial and municipal) are increasingly saying no to spending money on programs that meet human needs.
They justify these austerity policies in terms of balancing the budget and paying down the debt. The policies help the holders of the debt (big banks etc,) the very wealthy and big corporations who have been rewarded with large subsidies and major tax cuts.
But austerity policies hurt nearly everybody in the Downtown Eastside (DTES), and the vast majority of the population everywhere, though to widely varying degrees, and the earth which supports all life.
In the DTES we are prime targets of the war on the poor. Many are denied enough income to live (especially those on basic welfare), cannot get housing, go hungry and are unable to stay healthy.
In organizing to raise the rates, build thousand of units of new social housing and protect SRO tenants against gentrification we run into the wall of austerity.
But austerity is not widely used in popular everyday language or fully understood. Organizing and education made gentrification much more visible. We need to do the same with austerity.
Communities need to organize around the specific issues that affect people’s lives. This is often done on an issue by issue or sectoral basis. But without larger alliances and wider movements for change this can be isolating.
In Vancouver, there is no broad mass movement of resistance to austerity. How can we build greater unity to transform this situation?
A diverse panel spoke at the meeting.
Harsha Walia said,” When there are cuts to women’s centres and health care the money provide goes to provide for more “security”prisons and corporate bailouts. Austerity affects us all differently so we needed to be attuned to the differences while working together” to build a national campaign to stop austerity.
Reily Yeo of Groundswell Economic Alternatives noted governments are cutting both services and corporate taxes. This means they have a less money available. But governments could get $31 billion more to fund public services by means of an inheritance tax, ending oil subsidies, closing corporate tax loopholes, stopping tax evasion and restoring corporate taxes to the same rate of a few years ago.
Arielle De la Cruz Yip of the Philippine Women’s Centre said the racist and unjust Live in Care Caregiver Program (LCP) privatizes health care for the upper and middle classes while providing no solutions for the working class.
“Austerity is cover for a government to shift wealth from the many to the few who hide their money from taxation,” said Adrienne Montani of First Call. As austerity proceeds, wages go down and users have to pay for more services like health care.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip said, “Indigenous people have been dealing with austerity for many centuries,” and added, “Europeans looked around paradise and told us they could manage things better. After several hundred years of things are getting worse. There has been a devastating impact on the vulnerable and on global warming and climate change.”
How can we unite in common cause, and overcome divisions that pit people against each other?
Austerity creates vulnerable groups of people. Cuts to Employment Insurance make the unemployed vulnerable. The Temporary Foreign Workers makes these workers vulnerable . Young people are vulnerable because of education cuts and lack of decent jobs. Groups struggling to just get by are lured into blaming each other, and not government austerity policies and the corporations. Instead of working to create a system where everyone has a decent job and full rights, some scapegoat migrants and temporary foreign workers for “stealing” jobs. When unionized workers go on strike to prevent gains won through years of struggle from being taken away, too many shy away from solidarity. Low wage workers and welfare recipients, often stigmatized, need broader and more active solidarity to win major increase in rates. Others, in the name of jobs, stand with resource companies and big oil instead of standing in solidarity with indigenous land defenders. Meanwhile the Harper government is slashing funding for the Coast Guard and removing many environmental protections.
We cannot fully unite without dealing with these difficult problems.
United Against Austerity is seeking to the build a broad based grassroots movement in Toronto, Vancouver and other urban centers. A stronger more united opposition would make it much more difficult for governments to get away with austerity.