Saturday, 5 January 2013

A Play Within Politics and Politics Within a Play

Prologue


I still remember the moment I was sitting at a local OSSTF Political Action Committee meeting listening to the Chair outline the plan for protecting public education and the labour rights of teachers: elect the Liberals, she said. That’s it, I thought. That’s the plan? I looked around, then down, and took a slow uncertain sip of my free beer. Nobody said anything. Should I? I was still deciding whether or not I should speak up when a teacher raised his hand and volunteered to put up signs for the incumbent Liberal MP in the north-centre riding of the city.  Someone else raised her hand to say she was able to canvas in the west area riding. Too late, I thought. My chance to speak was gone.

Unfortunately, I knew even back then that the OSSTF’s “plan” to protect education and labour rights would fail. I was right, but I still wish I would have spoken up, not because it would have necessarily changed the reality of what is happening today, but because it may have inspired a few more people to think critically and reflect on the true state of Canadian democracy and politics today.

 

Setting the Stage


As a student, I always received good grades in English because I excelled at recognizing structures and patterns of language, making connections and relating them to the overall meaning and themes of a literary text. Since becoming a teacher in the same subject, I try to teach these skills to my students as I find they are not only applicable to the study of literature, but to many other disciplines, including History and Politics. Thus, being someone who is also interested in these subjects, I’ve been paying attention to what has been happening in Canada, in other places around the world, and have begun to notice some common themes emerging within the main events of the past two decades. Therefore, what I'd like to do in this post is view these events through the lens of literary criticism and analysis in order to explain why I knew electing the Liberals in Ontario would not help teachers, and why what is happening in Ontario is only a tiny part of a larger global narrative. I will begin this analysis by providing a short summary of the key events happening around the world and in Canada over the past few years.

Key Events

Setting: Present Day- The World

In February 2011, nearly 70, 000 people went out to protest Governor Scott Walker's budget repair bill, a bill that would take away collective bargaining rights from public employee unions in Wisconsin. Several months later, teachers in the UK voted to go on strike in June to protest the government’s proposal to cut their pensions. They repeated this action alongside other public sector workers on November 30th, 2011 for what turned out to be the largest coordinated strike movement in the UK since 1926. Right now, in countries like  Greece, Hungary and Ireland, governments have been using the economic crisis as an excuse to introduce changes to their labour codes that diminish worker's collective bargaining rights. However, Greece, Hungary and Ireland are not the only nations being subjected to this form of bullying and coercion by governments. The attack on labour rights is happening in almost ever country in Europe.

Setting: Present Day- Canada

Similar events to those that have been taking place in the United States and Europe have also been happening in Canada. The olfactory imagery conjured up by the mentioning of the words garbage strike reminds us that something was rotten in the city of Toronto in 2009. And no, it wasn't just the piles of uncollected garbage left on the streets to decay that was the only source of that smell. Even when city workers called off the strike at the end of July, the stench of the plot to undermine organized labour and privatize public services remains in Toronto to this very day. Canadians should also remember the Canadian Postal Strike in 2011 that resulted in the federal government's shutting down of the collective bargaining process via  unconstitutional back-to-work legislation, a tactic they had previously employed in the dispute between Air Canada workers and their managers. Currently, we are in the midst of an attack on the collective bargaining rights of teachers in Ontario, and the similarities to what happened to education in British Columbia last year is no coincidence. But the assault on organized labour described above is just the tip of the ice burg. To read a full account of  the damage done in Canada click here.

I'd now like to zoom in closer to the setting of Ontario and take a look at some interesting characters who were introduced in earlier scenes. These characters were instrumental in advancing the plot, and are also important to the thematic development of the story.

Characters


Setting: 1990s- Ontario
PAY UP!

IMF 
If you read the description of the IMF on their own website, you may might be tricked into thinking they are the heroes of this story, but don't fall be fooled into trusting a honey-tongued sweet-talker as King Lear did in one of my favourite Shakespearean tragedies. Bestselling author and researcher Holly Dressel describes the IMF as a "muscle for international loan sharks". In fact, it is from Holly Dressel that I learned the true nature of the IMF and the actions of which they are capable. But before I get to the telling of the evil deeds committed by the IMF, I thought I’d briefly touch on a couple of  minor characters in this story.  

Mike Harris:
I was going to say that if you are an Ontarian and were not living in a cave in the mid to late nineties, you know the name Mike Harris and all of the cursing, uncontrollable shaking and hand gestures mimicking strangulation that accompanies the mentioning of his name. But when I thought about the above clich√© statement again, I realized that, actually, cave dwellers are exactly the sort of people who would have voted for him in the first place. However, even though Mike Harris has long since resigned from his position of Premier of Ontario, his name still to this day conjures up a lot of hostility and anger. Yet, I would argue that this anger and hostility is largely misplaced. Don’t get me wrong, I am not defending Mr. Harris, but the reality is he only played a minor role in the Progressive Conservative’s performance of The Common Sense Revolution.


Bob Rae:
In order to complete my description of Mike Harris I first need to introduce another (somewhat) more benign character by the name of Bob Rae. So what can I say about Bob Rae? Well, when he was Premier of Ontario in 1993, I was between the ages of 9 and 12, and would say ‘he is gay’ because it rhymed and I thought I was cool. I now realize the homophobic nature of these words and would never say such a thing today; however, if I had intended to use another meaning of the word “gay” (which I obviously didn’t but let’s just pretend), “having or showing a merry, lively mood”, I would have been more accurate. Okay, I know Rae’s no Jim Carrey, but he is gay for a politician. I mean, he went skinny dipping with Rick Mercer and allowed the footage to be broadcasted on television. For a politician, you can't get much more “merry” and “lively” than that. 


Mike Harris and Bob Rae: In Depth Analysis 
But even though Bob Rae is more likeable than Mr. Harris, he carries with him, a deep dark secret: he, not Mike Harris, began the Common Sense Revolution. Alright, this may not be that deep and dark of a secret, but it seems there are many people who are unaware of this fact, and/or many who appear to have forgotten it. As Doug MacLellan explains his paper, Neoliberalism and Ontario Teachers’ Unions: A “Not-So” Common Sense Revolution, Rae’s NDP began most of the reforms in education that led to the Ontario teacher’s strike in 1997. MacLellan writes:

…the NDP government passed Bill 48 The Social Contract Act, which contained mechanisms to ensure the Ontario government attained its level of savings from its public sector groups. The outcome of Bill 48 was a breakdown of good will between the NDP and its traditional base of support, labour union, including teacher unions, and it also marked a shift by the NDP government toward a neoliberal approach to governing Ontario. [Emphasis mine]

Thus, it appears no matter what colour the government was, or whether their leader’s name was Bob Rae or Mike Harris, the cuts to education, health care, and other social programs were going to happen. And they are continuing to happen now under a Liberal government in Ontario. This time the name to despise is Dalton McGunity. But it could have been Tim Hudak. The point is: it doesn’t matter. All of these characters play a secondary part. They are the Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns of the show. Their role is to do the bidding of the real masterminds behind the curtain.


IMF: In depth analysis
I want go back to the role of the IMF in Canadian politics during the 1990s. Because it’s essential to be aware that what was happening in Ontario in the 1990s was happening all over Canada. As Holly Dressel explains in the following clip, the IMF created a “structural adjustment program” for Canada in order to repay its debt. However, this program was not designed to make our economy more efficient or competitive; rather, its intent was to force upon Canada a neoliberal agenda. This is why our federal government at that time drastically cut its transfer payments to the provinces for education, health care and other public services. The IMF said “jump” and Chretien Liberals did… into a never ending pit of social spending cuts and privatization.


It’s also important to recognize that the IMF’s ‘structural adjustment program’ for Canada in the 1990s is not a unique script. They have demanded that governments in other countries all around the world encore this performance. Forcing the privatization of water onto the poorest countries in Africa and South America is only one example. Right now the IMF is especially focused on European nations like Greece, Italy, Ireland, Spain, and Portugal. Interestingly enough, a couple of years before they began implementing austerity measures in these countries, the media reported that meetings were taking place between European leaders and Paul Martin, who was our Finance Minister in the 1990s. Apparently, Canada's model of austerity in the 1990s is heralded as a "great success" among world leaders.

Themes

The examination of the various settings, events and characters in this story should lead us to the identification of the following themes: attacking organized labour, reducing collective bargaining rights, cutting social spending and privatizing public services. But what do these themes have in common and how do they contribute to the main message of the story? To answer this question, we need to ask two more: who is harmed by these actions and who benefits from them? The answer to the first question is obvious: the working and middle classes. The answer to the second question is: the masterminds behind the curtain. The masterminds behind the curtain are the ones setting up the stage, they are the authors of the lines  spoken by characters like Mike Harris and Bob Rae. But who are they? To be honest, I don't know have a definitive answer to this question, but I do have some ideas. I know that characteristics of the masterminds are reflected in the IMF and so taking a closer look at their script may provide us with more clues. I also know that they are extremely wealthy and powerful and their main message seems to be: F*** democracy.




Epilogue

I had wanted to say all of this at the OSSTF PAC meeting but didn’t because I was afraid. I was afraid that people would think of me as one of those radical and crazy conspiracy theorists. I realize that what I’ve written here does sound a lot like a conspiracy theory, but is it really that crazy to believe there are powerful groups of people in this world who come together and make plans to further their goals and protect their interests? I mean, here I was sitting in one group of people doing just that. Isn’t it crazier, given the evidence, not to believe such meetings are likely to occur? And isn’t it even more crazy to keep using the same strategies (i.e. electing a government that will do the same thing regardless of its colour) over and over again? I don’t think we should sit back and do nothing, but I also don’t want us to continue to participate in this charade. Because honestly, if we do, we will surely end up as insane as Hamlet.

"Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged./His madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy."(V, ii, 225-226)

2 comments:

  1. Nice one Elle. I will post a link on my teacher protest blog. My only question to your critique of the political-economic system is: what do we do then? Are we beat no matter what?

    David at http://www.tsu3rdvp.blogspot.com

    Solidarity!

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    Replies
    1. Hi David,

      Thanks for your comment.

      It is hard to know what exactly we should do, but I have a few ideas.

      First of all, I think we (teachers and our unions) need to re-frame the issue, which really is not about teachers and the education system. We are the latest victims of the government's attack on the working and middle classes and we need this to be the central focus of all our discussions with the public. Let's get off the defensive and on the offensive. We should not be letting the government shape the discourse.
      Ultimately, unions need to start seeing themselves not just as representatives of their members, but of all working and middle class people. To be honest, I think their long-term survival depends on it. The following article explains why in more detail: http://www.rabble.ca/news/2012/06/defeat-wisconsin-lessons-us-labour-movement

      I think we can also get a lot of inspiration from the Idle No More movement that is happening in Canada right now. All unions should be supporting it and can learn from the strategies being utilized there. Some of their activists are organizing workshops and teach-ins in order to explain to the public why they are unhappy. We could be doing the same! Since we are no longer running extracurricular activities, we can use this time to team up with other unions and organize events outside of school in which we invite students and parents to come and learn more about the history of and current issues in the labour movement. We could even come up and showcase an alternative budget in which we demonstrate that the cuts to education and other social programs are completely unnecessary.

      Lastly, if we want to see REAL change, we cannot be afraid to get more radical. Pretty much all progressive social movements that happened in history and were SUCCESSFUL included acts of civil disobedience. When Broten announced she was going to use Bill 115 to impose a contract on us, I think we should have gone on strike anyway and then refused to pay the fine. What is the government going to do? Throw us all in jail? If they did, then we would expose them for the fascists that they really are!

      We also need to organize more serious protests and demonstrations. I'm sorry but going out for an hour outside an MPP's office who isn't even there is completely useless. Can the symbolism and let's see some real action. It's time to start occupying government buildings, MPP's offices until they give us back what many early labour rights activists died for in previous centuries: our right to unionize and collectively bargain!

      I will end with one of my favourite quotes from Tony Benn http://www.tonybenn.com/ :

      "There is never a final victory for democracy. It’s always a struggle – in every generation. And you have to take up the cause time and time and time again."

      In solidarity,

      Elle

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