General · 9th November 2011
History is fascinating, especially when we are watching it in the making. Who knew that a few hundred people camping out in a private park in New York City could provide the spark that would energize (and create!) activists all over the world?
There have been many times in history when truly grass roots movements have emerged spontaneously; times when ordinary people have decided they’ve had enough. Here in Canada, we saw those times in the 1930’s when unemployed men took to the streets and the rails, and went so far as to occupy the Vancouver Post Office, the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Hotel Vancouver, rather then moulder away in relief camps. Meanwhile, their mothers, wives and sisters organized giant marches and picnics to support their call for justice.
The anti-nuclear and anti-war protests of the 1960’s – 1980’s came from the same roots. Ordinary people were no longer willing to support an insane and out of control military machine. They took to the streets in the thousands and they were heard.
The women’s movement, at different points over the last 150 years, has erupted in radical action when women have simply had enough of being denied the vote, treated as property before the law, denied control of our own bodies and denied basic human rights.
Unfortunately, the battle is never completely over. Despite the very powerful and effective movements mentioned above, there are always forces pushing back. We no longer have relief camps, but we have mass unemployment, growing homelessness, attacks on unions, and our youth working for wages they can’t actually live on while carrying a massive debt load for their education. The war ended in Vietnam a long time ago, but there is always a new war somewhere; always a market for the arms manufacturers; always a profit to be made from suffering. Women, meanwhile, have seen real slippage in the long struggle towards equality.
For the last several years, perhaps since we became more aware of the threat of climate change coupled with the apparent unwillingness of most governments to meet that challenge, there has been a sense that something is terribly wrong. There has also been a widespread sense of disempowerment; that the problems are too big and we are not organized enough to confront them.
And then came demonstrations of democracy in action in the Middle East, inspiring Occupy Wall Street. Suddenly, we are seeing a re-energizing of many overlapping movements. Hope is in the air. There is a sense of being part of a much larger wave of common people with a common interest in progressive change. The problems are being named.
Historically, grass roots movements such as this, which include unions, have led to a more dynamic and assertive labour movement. The 99% of us who have been on the receiving end of the class warfare of the last few decades are standing up and joining together.
Many of us are motivated by the thought of our children and grandchildren and the world they will inherit. We know we have to live more simply if we are to stop burning up our planet and if we are to share her resources equally, but we are not willing to allow the privileged 1% to accumulate huge wealth at the expense of the rest of us – and the future of our planet.
The Conference Board of Canada has identified that Canada had the second largest rate of income inequality growth among peer nations from the mid-1990’s to the mid-2000’s. Clearly, many of the same conditions that have led to the Wall Street action exist in Canada as well.
In the 1980’s, the ratio of a CEO’s pay to that of an average rank-and-file worker was 35-1. Today that ratio is closer to 250-1. Workers’ wages have remained stagnant while jobs have become less secure. At the same time, the richest Canadians and corporations have avoided billions in taxes, and successive governments have weakened public services.
Meanwhile, many union members have seen our wages frozen, sometimes for several years. While those of us in the public sector have read countless columns by right wing commentators complaining about our “gold-plated pensions”, retired union members on the Municipal Pension Plan are receiving an average $1000 a month.
The Occupy movement has brought the conversation about the enormous disparity in wealth, and enormous concentration of capital, out into the open. We are seeing a public discussion of out of control corporate capitalism and the harms that are being committed in the name of enriching the few at the expense of the rest of us – and at the expense of our environment. The system isn’t working and that fact has been named.
The B.C. Federation of Labour and the Canadian Labour Congress have both made statements in support of the Occupy movement and are encouraging union members to participate. From the B.C. Federation of Labour statement: “The Occupy Wall Street movement expresses an underlying desire for fairness, equality and opportunity in the economy and in our society. The B.C. Federation of Labour stands in solidarity with that desire, as part of the 99 percent, and calls on the governments of British Columbia and Canada to act swiftly and decisively to narrow the gap. The B.C. Federation of Labour will support an ongoing peaceful occupation in Vancouver on these important issues.”
The motto of the labour movement in B.C., “What we desire for ourselves we wish for all” reflects the historic role of the labour movement as a leader in promoting decent wages and working conditions, health and safety standards, universal health care and other social programs, women’s equality and a response to racism, homophobia, etc.
The Occupy movement wi!!!!ll inevitably revitalize the labour movement and the labour movement has much to offer as part of the larger Occupy movement. All together, perhaps we can take back our planet and ensure a better future for all our children. Hope is in the air.