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Islanders protest federal government’s austerity plans

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Dozens of people marched through downtown St. John’s Saturday afternoon to protest the federal government’s plan to eliminate tens of thousands of public sector jobs.

Organized by the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), the protest and subsequent rally at Harbourside Park coincided with PSAC’s nation-wide We Are All Affected campaign, which denounces the Harper administration’s turn to austerity measures as a way to reduce fiscal spending.

People shouted, “Public services are under attack! What do we do? We must fight back!” as they made their way eastward on Water Street toward Harbourside Park.

“It’s a nation-wide protest to get everyone together and make a point,” striking airport worker Larry Flynn told The Independent during the march. “We need a new government — Stephen Harper’s gotta go. He doesn’t stand for anything that I believe in.”

Union of Taxation Employees member Beverly Ryan was also vocal about the Harper administration’s decision. “I’m here because all the job cuts (by) Stephen Harper’s government is affecting us, and it’s affecting services to Canadians as well. We need to understand that all these job cuts is not good for Canadians, of public services.”

John O’Rourke, a Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) union member and employee with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, says he has been designated an “affected employee” by the federal government. “So my job as I know it is gone,” he said, marching near the back of the protest, holding a banner. “I’m under the workforce adjustment program, so I’m right now looking for another job. After 23 years I guess I’ll be hitting the streets looking for other employment.”

Entering the age of austerity

In an article published in the Council for Canadians’ newsletter “Canadian Perspectives” last spring, Brent Patterson addresses austerity measures and outlines the imminent consequences of the federal government’s new austerity program:

‘Austerity measures’ is a term used to refer to government deficit and spending cuts that reduce or eliminate public programs and services. They could come in the form of pension rollbacks, wage and job cuts for public servants, service cuts, and more. They may be coupled with increased taxes and their impacts are most often felt by society’s most vulnerable people.

Federal Treasury Board President Tony Clement has said that the federal government is looking to cut $1 billion in federal spending this fiscal year, $2 billion in 2013-14, and $4 billion by 2014-15. Government departments and agencies have had to submit proposals to cut their own budgets by 5 and 10 per cent. The Harper government is also paying Deloitte Consulting nearly $20 millionalmost $90,000 a day to advise them on where ‘savings’ can be found. The first big cuts were announced in Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s spring budget.

At Harbourside Park, union leaders and politicians from the municipal, provincial and federal levels, including St. John’s Mayor Dennis O’Keefe, spoke to the impacts of the Harper administration’s plans, some of which were tabled and pushed through via the controversial omnibus budget bill, Bill C-38, last spring.

Excerpts from some of the Harbourside Park speeches

Lana Payne, President of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour

“The Harper attack includes the biggest firing in Canadian history. Let’s stop calling them layoffs — they are not layoffs. Thousands and thousands of people are being thrown out of work. The Harper attack includes changes to our Employment Insurance (program). These changes are about attacking the unemployed, not unemployment. It’s about catering to a low-wage economy and the people who depend on cheap wages. It’s about fundamental changes to the temporary foreign worker program, changes that will make this program even more exploitative. And we need to be very, very clear here: the temporary foreign worker program is not immigration — it’s exploitation, sisters and brothers. Immigration is what we need, and we must challenge and denounce at every turn this exploitative program.

“It’s about billions of dollars in tax cuts to corporations like banks and mining companies and oil companies, adding to their growing stockpiles of cash. Corporate Canada at the moment is sitting on nearly $600 Billion in cash that they refuse to invest in our economy. And at the same time the Harper government is delivering billions of dollars to them in tax cuts, tax cuts that we’re paying for by the loss of public services, tax cuts that we’re paying for because we’re now borrowing money from banks to be able to finance those tax cuts. Shame on Mr. Harper and his government.

Protesters march to Harbourside Park shouting, "Fee-fi-fo-fum! Look out Harper, here we come!" - Justin Brake photo

“And then there is the attack that we all know here, on unions and collective bargaining. And make no mistake, this is an attack on workers’ rights and fundamental freedoms in our country — the freedom to be a member of a union and the right to fair and free collective bargaining. Today we have a strike at the St. John’s airport — some of them are here today. And what do you think this labour dispute is about? It is about an employer in the federal sector who is feeling emboldened by Harper’s attack on unions. This is an employer that is demanding concessions not because he needs them but because he can. This is about a labour relations climate where the Prime Minister has very clearly said to the employers of this country, ‘I’m on your side, do your worst.’

Ryan Cleary, Member of Parliament for St. John’s South-Mount Pearl

On the St. John’s Airport Authority strike:  “I went to the picket line the other day and had a conversation with the men and women on the line, and one of the first people I spoke to—a gentleman—he went to his car and he got me a document, and the document was basically financial statements for the St. John’s International Airport Authority for the last year … He opened up the document and he pointed out some numbers. The numbers that he showed me were the revenues over expenses for 2011 … (which was) $4.2 Million. So you’ve got that kind of revenue, that kind of profit, and at the same time you’ve got workers who’ve been without a raise since 2008, (and) whose contract expired in 2009.

“The workers are not seeing benefits — why not? This was mentioned by Lana (Payne) earlier. It’s because of a bad attitude, a ridiculous attitude handed down from the Harper Conservatives, being adopted by corporate Canada. It’s not good enough — that’s what we have to fight against. We have to fight back.”

On the fishery:  “(Jim) Flaherty, the Federal Minister of Finance, was down here at the Sheraton Hotel this past week, and he gave a speech to the Chamber of Commerce — and he spoke about how the Conservative policies are creating an economic balance in Canada. My point is that his policies are creating an economic imbalance in Atlantic Canada. I’ll give you two examples. One example is a policy called ‘owner-operator fleet separation’, and what that does is protect the traditional inshore fishery. If you eliminate that, it creates what’s called ‘individual transferable quotas’, ITQs. They have them in B.C., and the B.C. experience, with the introduction of these ITQs, is that the inshore fishery’s taken over by the corporate sector. Fishermen make less money, skippers make less money — companies make money. And that’s not what we want for the east coast of Canada, that’s not what we want for Newfoundland and Labrador.

On Employment Insurance: “And then when you hear about the changes to Employment Insurance and how they will disproportionately impact the East Coast, disproportionately impact rural areas of Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador — that’s not good enough either.”

Michael Walsh, provincial chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students

“We know that cuts to the public service affect Canadians in all walks of life, and students can certainly feel the negative impact.

“I’m here today to express outrage against a government that puts fighter jets and prison cells before our well-being, that puts the condition of multinational corporations above the human condition. And I’m here today because students, Canadian youth — we are angry. We’re angry that in order to get the skills we need to get a job in today’s economy, we’re forced to take on insurmountable debt. Average debt to the federal government upon graduation stands at over $27,000, and collectively our debt is at over $15 Billion. Canada formerly had a ceiling on student debt that stood at $15 Billion, but as we approached that number, as the student debt crisis worsened, rather than dealing the with issue — rather than dealing with it and helping students with their families, they’ve lifted the debt cap, further indebting future workers.

Michael Walsh of the Canadian Federation of Students speaks at the Harbourside Park rally, reminding people that national student debt stands at over $15 Billion, while university and college graduates are finding it increasingly difficult to secure jobs that allow them to pay off their debt. - Justin Brake photo

“We are angry with our government’s attack on youth. These cuts to public sector jobs will make it ever harder for new graduates to find work, making it more difficult for new grads to make ends meet when they’re starting out with this mountainous student debt. These cuts are an attack on our future, such as the closure of the Service Canada centres for youth, cuts to public service pensions, and the chronic underfunding of our post-secondary institutions. We are angry with the Conservatives’ attack on public service workers on whom we rely.

“Those who rely on our public service workers the most are the most vulnerable in our society. It’s seniors, it’s students, it’s children. So as students and youth, we’re angry, we’re frustrated, we’re downright pissed off. We are pissed off that this government has handed us an uncertain future, that for the first time in history our generation will be worse off than our parents’. I’ve always considered myself to be an optimist. I was raised by a pair of optimists out in Clarenville, by parents who always encouraged me to look on the bright side. But unfortunately there is no bright side to the Harper government. The only silver lining today is that together we can fight back, that together we can send a strong message to the feds that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, that Canadians, are proud of our public services, and we won’t stand for these cuts. The only silver lining is that people across the country, people from all walks of life who are faced with these injustices that we have heard talked about here today, have chosen to take action. Today we’ve chosen to unite and fight back.”

Jack Harris, Member of Parliament for St. John’s East

“These are frontline jobs that are important to the people of this country — that’s about safety, EI jobs where people need personal contact to solve their problems.

“Why is this happening? It’s not happening because there’s no need for the services. And neither is it happening because the country is too poor to have those services. It’s happening because this government decided that it wants smaller government. And it’s a two-step (process). Step one: Let’s reduce the revenues to the government by giving away massive tax credits and tax cuts to wealthy, profitable corporations. Step two: ‘Oh, we have to balance our budget.’ Meanwhile, as Lana Payne points out, we’ve got the profitable corporations sitting on these hundreds of billions of dollars, not even using it to reinvest in the future of the country — and they’ve been given this by the government as a freebie, and then used as an excuse to cut back services to ordinary people.

It’s not happening because there’s no need for the services. And neither is it happening because the country is too poor to have those services. It’s happening because this government decided that it wants smaller government. – Jack Harris

“The point is that this does not have to be — our economy does not demand this, our state of wealth does not demand this. We need quality public services. We demand quality public services. And we demand a good quality of life for all our people. And I’m glad the mayor is here because this is something that he can perhaps help do something about, because the other message we’re getting from the Government of Canada is that it’s quite all right to make things worse for ordinary people, it’s quite all right to have less income security, less retirement security, less employment security.

“This is the first government in Canada who is telling the next generation that they don’t deserve to have the kind of dignity of life and opportunity that this generation has, that they don’t deserve to have the income security that this generation has, retirement security, pension security they’re not going to have.”

St. John's Mayor Dennis O'Keefe speaks at the Sept. 15 rally at Harbourside Park in St. John's. "Remember Burton Winters," he said, highlighting the consequences of scaling back social services like Search and Rescue. - Justin Brake photo

Dennis O’Keefe, Mayor of St. John’s

“We should all remember Burton Winters. When you hear about cuts in the post office, remember Burton Winters. When we hear about cuts to Search and Rescue, remember Burton Winters. When we hear about cuts to the food inspection division, again, remember Burton Winters. When we hear about cuts to the RCMP, remember Burton Winters.

“When we have cuts we have a decrease of service levels, and when we have a decrease in service levels we have a decrease of the quality of life. And Burton Winters is the prime example of what happens when cuts become common, when service levels decrease, and the impact that it has on everything — not only on the economy, not only on the quality of life, but in his case, on his life. And that’s what we’re facing, and that’s why we’re here today. And the other reason to remember Burton Winters is to remember the guts and the grit that he had to try and get home, and it’s that grit that we need in order to stand up to the cuts that are happening right across Canada. For anybody to tell me that right across Canada you can take away 15,16, 17, 18,000 jobs and not affect service levels, I mean give me a break.”

Readying for more omnibus legislation and further austerity

Now that Parliament has resumed after a two-month summer break, it’s expected the Tories will table a second major omnibus budget bill sometime this fall which, as they have indicated, will likely include further cuts to social services and public sector jobs.

“We’re here to raise the alarm bells of public awareness around public safety issues,” protester and former Maritime Rescue Sub-Centre employee Merv Wiseman told The Independent while marching up Water Street. “I’ve been representing the search and rescue issue for a long time, the closure of the Marine Rescue Sub-Centre, and the bleeding still continues. We have our Marine Communications and Traffic Services, St. John’s Coast Guard Radio, St. Anthony Coast Guard Radio now, which is up to be cut by 2014, 2015,” he explained. “So we have a couple objectives. One is to restore the services that we’ve lost, and the other is to prevent any further cuts that’s coming down the tube.

There’s an ideological move of this government to centralize services, to forget the extremities of the country with (unique) needs — places like Newfoundland and Labrador. – Merv Wiseman

“There’s an ideological move of this government to centralize services, to forget the extremities of the country with (unique) needs — places like Newfoundland and Labrador. And I think what’s happening here in Newfoundland and Labrador, with the loss of Search and Rescue Services, really illustrates the point that all Canadians should set up a notice. That’s done with strategy, and this national day of action is calling for exactly the kind of further action we need, not only in Newfoundland and Labrador but also out in British Columbia. As we protest here today, our compatriots in Vancouver and Comox and Tofino—Coast Guard radio stations—are facing the same demise. They’re going to be cut. We’re fighting it in Sarnia, Ont., we’re fighting it in Nova Scotia and in Québec.

“So right across this country we’re all affected, and today at the same time we’re all reaching out and joining hands and saying, ‘No. No more. We have to stop the bleeding.’ So hopefully we can have some impact in that regard.”

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