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The Three-Quarters Majority

Speaking notes I prepared for the CUPE National Convention in Vancouver on November 2, 2011:

It is a very great honour to speak to you today and a great pleasure to stand on the podium with brother Paul Moist, my close friend and travelling companion on a fabulous national tour to expose and defeat a perfidious trade agreement called CETA. Your president is a tireless fighter for justice, a passionate defender of public services and public sector workers, and a leader in the resistance to Stephen Harper’s assault on democracy. You should be proud of him!

These are troubling times and they demand much of us.

The world has divided into rich and poor as at no time in living history. The richest 10% hold 85% of total global assets and the bottom half of humanity owns less than 1% of all the wealth in the world. The three richest men in the world have more money than the poorest 48 nations.

While those responsible for the global recession were bailed out and even rewarded, the International Labour Organization now tells us that over 1.5 billion people – half the global working population – are either unemployed or working in vulnerable and insecure conditions.

Importantly, says the ILO, the largest increase in unemployment in the last three years is in the developed countries. A breath‐taking twenty five per cent of European youth are now unemployed. This global financial crisis has been the great leveller.

These tragic statistics are the legacy of 30 years of neo‐liberal market capitalism, which is now being exposed for the fraud it is. And make no mistake; this situation was driven with deliberate policy by the powerful, for the powerful, and has had its desired effect.

It started when right wing politicians in Europe and the United States eliminated banking controls in the early 1980s and culminated with government‐bankrupting bailouts to the very financial institutions that caused the crisis in the first place. Billions around the world have been cast into an abyss.

Today, the uncontrolled frenzy of the financial speculators continues outside the rule of law. Yet all calls to regulate these institutions are met with steely resistance from the lords of finance. U.S. lobbies alone spend more that $200 million a year to fight new regulations. A leading U.S. banker says that any attempt to control the banks is “anti‐American.”

And so the people, everywhere, have to take the hit. They call it “Austerity” and is the new mantra whispered in the halls of power everywhere. While global military spending has now reached a staggering $1.6 trillion a year, cuts to social programs, public services and environmental protection are ruthlessly tearing down a hundred years of democracy building in the global North and crushing the dreams for a different future for untold millions in the global South.

Europe has entered a frenzy of privatization, giving control of essential public services such as postal, energy, water and transit over to powerful corporations only too happy to step into the void governments have so shamefully abandoned.

The government of Italy passed a law telling all municipalities to privatize their water services. The people were so outraged, they held a referendum that overruled that law. Never mind, said the European Central Bank in a directive to the Italian government, your austerity measures have to call for water privatization no matter what the people think.

Watching the crisis unfold in Greece, I was not surprised to learn that the suicide rate there has doubled since the financial crisis hit.

The United Nations says that the pursuit of austerity in this climate is pushing the world into “economic disaster.” Naomi Klein calls this the “great sacking” and says it has been fuelled by a pathological sense of entitlement, and done with all the lights left on as if there is nothing at all to hide.

Perhaps one of the British youth who participated in the looting and vandalism of several months ago best stated it when he told a journalist, “Don’t blame me. The banks set the example.”

Now Stephen Harper is quick to tell you that these problems do not exist in Canada because we did not allow the deregulation of our banking institutions in the same way. He takes credit for this.

So does former Prime Minister Jean Chretien, which leaves me with a smile. For his government came very very close to deregulation in 1998 when the Bank of Montreal and the Royal Bank proposed a merger and a relaxing of the banking code and it was the Council of Canadians, CUPE and others who led a passionate and ultimately successful campaign against them.

Nevertheless, after thirty years of these same economic policies, Canada too has changed shape from an egg to a pear, with fewer and fewer at the top and more and more either at the bottom or not far from it. The top fifth now take home 40% of the income leaving the bottom fifth with just 7.2% of the pie.

And now Stephen Harper and his Conservatives – the most right wing government we have ever had in this country ‐ have a so‐called majority. I say so–called because if we add the number of people who did not vote for him and combine it with the number who did not vote at all, he has the support of less that one quarter of Canadians.

Yet Stephen Harper is using this false power to impose a dangerous agenda on Canada.

Stephen Harper doesn’t like democracy. He has removed funding from all groups who are in any way critical of his policies. His Conservatives now hold Parliamentary committee meetings in–camera so that we won’t know who opposes him.

Stephen Harper doesn’t like working people. He has declared war on unions and collective bargaining in an attempt to roll back worker rights to 1930s standards. He has even promised big bonuses to senior government officials based on how many jobs they cut in their department.

Stephen Harper doesn’t like farmers either. He has decided to unilaterally kill the Canadian Wheat Board, a 75‐year old farmer run marketing board that brings a fair return to the farm gate and economic benefits to the community.

And Stephen Harper really hates the environment. He is an eco‐outlaw who has turned his back on Canada’s commitment to fight climate change. He is savagely cutting scientists from Environment Canada so they won’t be able to blow the whistle on the damage he and his corporate buddies are inflicting on Canada.

Stephen Harper doesn’t hate everything. He loves big American grain companies and is handing them control of our grain trade. He loves big American energy companies. He is their chief salesman in Washington.

He is very fond of warplanes, war ships and war submarines that we don’t want and prisons we don’t need. He has never seen a free trade agreement he doesn’t love, because they do some of his dirty work for him.

This, sisters and brothers, is the reality we face as we gather here today. And it calls for resistance and action from the “Three‐Quarters Majority” who did not vote for the Conservatives!

For all his claim of power, even Stephen Harper cannot enforce an agenda the people don’t want. But it will take solidarity and cooperation between civil society and working people to build the resistance we need to succeed. And that is where the partnership between CUPE, the Council of Canadians and other labour and civil society groups comes in.

CUPE has long led the way as a progressive union that looks to a broader agenda than worker rights and in turn, has gained the support and gratitude of other Canadians fighting on a host of justice issues. There is tremendous power when communities come together to defend workers’ rights. In turn, it is wonderful to see CUPE members supporting the courageous Occupation movements across the country. It means everything to the young people braving the cold and snow to know that union members are family.

CUPE and the Council of Canadians have fought together for public health care, public water and fair trade policies that promote just and sustainable trade. Paul and I have toured together, made funny videos together and been tear gassed together.

CUPE and Public Services International played a vital role alongside civil society groups around the world in successfully getting the United Nations to recognize the human right to water and sanitation, something that would never have happened had labour, justice and community groups not worked as a team.

Every now and then in history, people rise up against entrenched power and refuse to comply with false authority. I deeply believe we are going to see an increase in civil disobedience in our country in the coming months and years.

CUPE and the Council of Canadians will stand in solidarity to defend public health care when the Canada Health Accord comes up for renewal in 2014. No matter how badly he wants to privatize health care in Canada, even Stephen Harper cannot take away our most cherished public service if the Three‐Quarters Majority stand together to defend it.

We will continue to expose and fight CETA – a dangerous agreement that would permit big European water companies to run our water services for profit, just one of many threats to public services and local democracy CETA poses.

We will work with the Three‐Quarters Majority to stand with workers under threat. We will walk their picket lines, support their families, and be understanding when their actions disrupt our daily routines. When an Air Canada Flight Attendant stands up for her rights, she stands up for all our rights. She is a leader.

We will stand in solidarity with the National Farmers’ Union to defend the right of farmers to set their own trade policies. The Council of Canadians, with CUPE’s backing, is going to court to support the Wheat Board, now fighting for its life. Canadian farmers grow our food and keep it safe. They must know they are not alone.

And we will stand in solidarity with First Nations who are on the front lines of massive new corporate assaults on the mineral, energy, forest and water resources found in their territories. They now have by international law the right to free, prior and informed consent before any such activity takes place on their land. They will not be alone when they stand to protect Mother Earth.

I was arrested a few weeks ago in a protest against the exports of tar sands bitumen. I proudly crossed the police line hand in hand with another union ally, Dave Coles and Fred Wilson of the Communications, Energy and Paperworker’s Union.

I have to admit that I was afraid. I was brought up to be obedient, a good citizen who trusts her government to do the right thing and to always obey authority. But it has become clear to me that democracy has been compromised and now requires steps beyond the normal. I deeply believe that the mantra of more stuff, unlimited growth, corporate power, privatization and deregulation are killing the planet and creating class warfare unlike anything we have seen before. I have four gorgeous grandchildren and for them and all their age group, I am afraid.

While much of the world has turned its back on this agenda, our leaders here in North America and Europe continue to defend it. But we, the Three‐Quarters Majority, can defeat it if we band together in an unstoppable force for good.

So I stand. And you stand. And we resist, together. And we hope, for hope is a moral imperative. And we act, together. We act for justice. And in that act for justice we find our true, our best selves.