Latest anti-austerity protests “only the beginning”

Saturday’s “NL Rising” protest in St. John’s was more than just a warning from the unions. It was a show of solidarity with an explicit message for the Liberal government.

If Premier Dwight Ball were watching from his office, he would have borne witness to a scene straight out of National Geographic or The Nature of Things: swarms of agitated bipeds marching in tandem to a central location, disturbed and threatened by the queen and her aides upon whom they recently bestowed the honour of leading and protecting them.

Saturday’s anti-austerity rally on Confederation Hill in St. John’s was notable not only for its size — attendance estimates range from 2,000 to 3,000 — but also for its display of the dynamics at play in a growing movement that is uniting people across the province.

Organized by the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, NL Rising summoned various labour unions and their members in a showing of solidarity and strength against the Liberals’ public sector cuts. Budget 2016 has resulted in the closure of eight Advanced Education and Skills offices province-wide, as well as two Child, Youth and Family Services offices, four provincial courthouses, and more than half of Newfoundland and Labrador’s public libraries, with more cuts expected in the fall and spring.

As hundreds of workers and supporters waited outside Confederation Building for the proceedings to begin, hundreds of teachers and students—most of them members of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association and the Canadian Federation of Students—arrived in a solidarity march from the College of the North Atlantic campus up the road. A short time later, members of the Canadian Union of Public and Private Employees (CUPE) arrived alongside a group of librarians and public library supporters, who marched from the Arts and Culture Centre, home to the A.C. Hunter Public Library, just west of Confederation Hill.

Then, moments after NLFL President Mary Shortall launched into the event’s opening speech, the anti-austerity’s movement’s grassroots contingent showed up, having marched from Memorial University.

“We’ve got cuts in healthcare, long-term care, schools, post-secondary education, and now half of our libraries are closing,” Shortall announced to a sea of signs and placards condemning everything from the contentious Deficit Reduction Levy to the government’s underfunding of libraries, schools and hospitals, to Premier Dwight Ball and Finance Minister Cathy Bennett themselves.

“Mr. Premier, if this is your idea of a stronger tomorrow then we are here to tell you we don’t want it!” Shortall shouted.

Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees (NAPE) President Jerry Earle told the crowd he has been travelling around the Island, speaking at NAPE-organized and grassroots anti-budget rallies.

“This budget has hurt every Newfoundlander and Labradorian, from Nain to Harbour Breton, to St. John’s, to Port aux Basques, to Harbour Grace,” he said. “It is unbelievable what they have done to working women and men, what they have done to our youth — what they have done is unforgivable!” he said in an impassioned speech.

Earle told the story of a woman from Harbour Breton who he said is fighting for her life.

NAPE President Jerry Earle addresses the crowd at the May 6 NL Rising anti-austerity protest. Photo by Justin Brake.
NAPE President Jerry Earle addresses the crowd at the May 6 NL Rising anti-austerity protest. Photo by Justin Brake.

“Less than two years ago they put a dialysis unit in her community to service the Connaigre Peninsula — less than two years ago. And we collectively contributed with our tax dollars to put it there. And guess what this Liberal government’s doing? They’ve closed it on this woman!” he said, prompting a furor of ‘boos’ from the crowd.

“When she’s fighting for her life she needs her family, she needs her community, she needs her family home to live in. She’s been told to sell it, move to St. John’s, away from everybody.

“My friends, they make promises to get elected, they raise hope to get elected. And with the stroke of a pen, just two weeks ago, they introduced a document, a mean-spirited budget that destroyed the hope, that destroyed the future, that took away those promises to young women, to young men, to seniors, and they shattered the future of Newfoundland and Labrador in the single stroke of a pen,” Earle concluded.

Jenny Wright, outspoken feminist and Executive Director of the St. John’s Status of Women Council, called the budget “a very personal and economic assault on women.

“It will widen the wage gap for women, lock women and their families into poverty, forcing them to rely on services that are now gone. Let’s be clear here: the pain is not spread evenly and there is more to come. Other choices could have been made, and other choices must be made,” she said.

“Absolutely no one who advocates for these types of broad cuts and regressive taxes, which disproportionately and negatively affect women, can ever claim to be an advocate for equal rights for men and women or an economy that works for everyone.”

Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) N.L. President Wayne Lucas pointed to the library closures, outgoing Nalcor CEO Ed Martin’s nearly $1.4 million severance, and the government’s hiring of an out-of-province law firm at a rate of $350 per hour to guide the Liberals through collective bargaining in the fall as indications the Ball administration has “no knowledge, nor do they have any respect, for the bargaining process.

“I have a message for the premier and the provincial government: If you think you’re going to intimidate CUPE or any of the unions here on the Hill with these measures, you’re wrong,” he said angrily.

“Our province is at a crossroads. The people are rising up against our government…because they are afraid this Liberal Government is going to have a yard sale on our cherished public services.”

Unifor Atlantic Director Lana Payne gave an impassioned speech criticizing what she said is the Liberals’ lack of leadership in running the economy.

“We need leadership that understands we have tremendous tools at our fingertips: our people, our natural resources, and goddammit our defiance,” she said. “Ingenuity, stubbornness, imagination as Ed Riche wrote about this week, and a profound love of this place are powerful, powerful weapons and they must be harnessed. What we need is the political will and the know-how to tap into this, to be bold. We need solutions that build solidarity, that reinforce the collective spirit of this place rather than decisions that pit worker against worker, community against community, and sector against sector.”

Alex Noel of the CFS, which represents all 28,000 post-secondary students in the province, highlighted the perceived disparity between the Liberal government’s understanding of “tough decisions” and those many students are forced to make on a daily basis.

Photo by Jenne Nolan.
“Today we’re sending a very strong message to the government: This is just the beginning!” — Alex Noel of the Canadian Federation of Students. Photo by Jenne Nolan.

“Let me tell you something about tough decisions, Mr. Ball. A tough decision is when you have to choose between buying text books or buying groceries. A tough decision is when you have to choose between paying your tuition fees or paying your light bill. A tough decision is moving to the mainland in order to get a job and start paying off your student debt, instead of staying at home here in Newfoundland and Labrador,” Noel announced.

“The decision to move away in order to pay down student debt is one that young people in this province know all too well, and the Liberals’ cuts to the needs-based grants program will only drive more of us away. Saddling young people with massive debt is not the way to build a stronger future. Premier Ball, if you think for one moment that you can deny a generation of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians a fair shot at a future, if you think your actions will stop us from mobilizing and fighting back, well you’re wrong! We will fight for the Newfoundland and Labrador that we know we deserve, and that fight won’t be won in the halls of the Confederation Building — that fight will be won around our kitchen tables, in our classrooms, in our workplaces, and on the streets,” they continued.

“Today we’re sending a very strong message to the government: This is just the beginning!”

Ralph Morris of the N.L. Coalition of Pensioners, Seniors and Retirees told the crowd he has been travelling the Island and holding town halls to hear from seniors about the budget.

“I saw at those meetings three different things,” he said. “I saw fear on everybody’s face. I saw frustration as to what was happening, and a real fear of what is going to happen in the future.”

Morris said he talked to a 78-year-old woman in Grand Falls-Windsor who showed up to a town hall and began to cry.

“I said what’s wrong? She said ‘I’m 76 years old, I am a cancer survivor.’ She said ‘I just got off the phone with my son and I’ve called him six times since yesterday wondering what I should do. The conclusion that I have come to is that I’m going to have to leave this town that I lived in for the last 76 years and go to the mainland and try to live out [my life] up there,’” he recalled.

“This is what we heard as we went across the Island. We, as a coalition of seniors, pensioners, and retirees, offer you our support in any way, shape or form that we can give it to you in the continued fight to get this overturned and hopefully get this government out of office.”

‘NL Rising’ Photo Gallery (Click to Enlarge)

NLTA President James Dinn, who represents the hundreds of teachers who showed up at the rally and were by far the loudest contingent on Saturday, said the Liberals’ failed on their promise of a ‘stronger tomorrow’, and that the budget “fails to deliver the resources to our schools and to our teachers, [and] fails to invest in our schools and our students.”

He took a jab at Education Minister Dale Kirby who, when in opposition, called the loss of 77.5 teachers from the system as a result of PC government cuts “a recipe for failure”.

“This year he’s removed 219 teachers,” said Dinn. “He has taken failure to a whole new level. Instead, he has talked about how he has confidence in the professionalism of teachers to make it work. That is disrespectful, because for them to make it work teachers need resources.

“If there’s one thing we as teachers know, it’s how to deal with failure. Well, we have a good solution for that — it’s in our evaluation policies [and it’s] called a ‘do-over’. So we’re calling on Premier Ball, Minister Bennett, and Minister Kirby to do a do-over on this budget. And we have the professional ability…to sit down with them and guide them through the process…because if there’s one thing we know how to do as teachers it’s how to make a budget work so it does not harm those who are most vulnerable.”

“We will continue to fight for our schools, for our students, and for the future of this province,” he continued.

“Sometimes government will try to test the population and try to see how far they can go without being stopped. We are here to tell them today it stops right here!”

Informed resistance taking root

Jon Keefe, a small business owner in St. John’s and an organizer with grassroots group Coordinated Approach NL, told The Independent after the rally that any perception that unions are the only ones expressing opposition to the budget has already been debunked, and that resistance to austerity is growing among regular people across the province.

He said unemployed folks, single parents, stay-at-home-mothers, small business owners and seniors are all part of a strengthening grassroots segment of N.L. society that is cultivating a sense of community and unity in response to the Liberals’ budget.

Photo by Matt Barter.
“It takes a very large amount of bravery to go out and picket or swing a sign or shout at the government all by yourself,” said Jon Keefe, “but if you realize that a lot of other people are on your side, it makes it easier and at the same time you can help spread the word: ‘It’s not just me, it’s not just us — it’s a lot of people who feel this way.'” Photo by Matt Barter.

“I think the most important aspect of grassroots actions and activism is to sort of help build a mesh network of communities of people who may otherwise slip through the cracks or may otherwise not really have a venue to make their voice loud enough to be heard. So I think [the movement] is filling a void there, that labour unions and other organizations aren’t necessarily able to access.”

In an interview with The Independent, NAPE President Jerry Earle elaborated on a pledge he made during his speech on Saturday that the unions would be a voice for non-unionized people in the province who don’t otherwise have a platform through which to be heard.

“Let me promise you, for those who can’t fight, we will stand with you — myself, the leadership of NAPE, our board and members, will stand with you and fight. To those of you who cannot have your voice heard, we will be your voice,” he said during his NL Rising speech. “The organization that I am proud to be part of, my union, the labour movement and the labour leaders that stand here with me today, the women’s groups and the other groups that this government has brought together, will stand and fight with you right to the last day.”

Earle said that during his tour of the province many people who aren’t in unions have been turning out to the NAPE-organized rallies and calling his office to share their stories about how the budget will affect them.

“I had some idea of what the impact was going to be, but as you pop into the coffee shops and people approach you, I’m starting to realize how big it is,” he said. “We’re used to hearing from our members here at the office, but I’m getting just as many calls from seniors, from youth, from non-union folks, more or less thanking the union for [organizing rallies and speaking out], but also asking for advice, asking what we can do.”

Earle acknowledged that if the anti-austerity movement is to continue gaining momentum and effecting political change, the labour and grassroots contingents will have to work together.

“This is not a union issue alone, this is an issue that has united us collectively from the grassroots movement to seniors’ groups to the Canadian Federation of Students — you’re seeing these groups coming together,” he said. “I make no apologies when I talk about public services because when you remove people [from the public sector] you remove those services.”

 This is not a union issue alone, this is an issue that has united us collectively from the grassroots movement to seniors’ groups to the Canadian Federation of Students… — NAPE President Jerry Earle

Saturday’s grassroots solidarity march was an intentional showing of support for the unions, Keefe explained, saying that if the grassroots and unions can maintain solidarity it will be more difficult for the government to turn the people of the province against the unions in the fall.

“This is part one of the budget. The second part is going to come down in the fall. Everything they’ve released so far is really nasty, really petty stuff that hurts every Newfoundlander and Labradorian—library cuts, book taxes, multi-grading—and it’s being rolled out slowly,” he said.

“One month the insurance tax is getting added on, the next month the gas is going up. And this might sound cynical of me to say, but I think they’re doing it this way so when the fall budget gets dropped they can just slash at the services side of it whatever way they want and however deep they want, and if people complain they can just say, ‘Well you don’t want the taxes raised, do ya?’ And people will say, ‘No, I don’t want that.’

“So I think they’re kind of paving the road for a big huge battle with the unions in the fall — and maybe the grassroots component of this is the glue that will hold us all together through that because that’s going to be an ugly, nasty battle I think.”

Alison Doyle, an organizer with Coordinated Approach NL who brought her young son to Saturday’s rally, told The Independent she was encouraged to hear labour leaders like Earle talking about solidarity among unionized workers and the general public. 

“I’ve been noticing on social media there’s more and more people in the public sector and the general public realizing that we’re all angry at the same thing,” she said.

“It would be really smart of the government to put a divide between the unions and the general public because it does kind of distract everybody from everything, and there has been a history of division there anyway. But I’m hoping that social media, which has been a blessing [so far], will really help keep people together,” she continued. 

“We’re all fighting against the same thing; even though I may be angry at the budget for one thing, it may be affecting somebody else in a different way. I think that’s the biggest thing with this budget — it isn’t one issue and so it’s keeping us together. It sucks that it’s something so awful that it’s affecting everybody, but we can relate to each other.”

Solidarity for the long-haul?

Doyle said while the anger people are feeling in the wake of the budget is what’s keeping the movement growing, she’s concerned if the government does make certain concessions — namely the elimination or reform of the Deficit Reduction Levy — people might give in to austerity.

“This anger is what’s keeping us together, and I think that anger is ultimately what’s going to make us stick together and make change. And right now it’s still in the early phases, but people are talking about new political parties, talking about a huge uprising against the government, talking about what a consensus government would look like in Newfoundland,” she said, explaining how the movement’s diversity, if maintained, could continue to foster important public dialogue about the state of politics and society in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Alison Doyle and her son attended Saturday's NL Rising anti-austerity rally at Confederation Building. "This anger is what’s keeping us together, and I think that anger is ultimately what’s going to make us stick together and make change," she told The Independent. Facebook photo.
“This anger is what’s keeping us together, and I think that anger is ultimately what’s going to make us stick together and make change,” said Alison Doyle, who attended Saturday’s NL Rising anti-austerity rally with her son. Facebook photo.

“At first people were saying there’s so many rallies [and] we need to just have one big one. But all these small rallies and events and constant communication and groups on Facebook are keeping people talking about it. It’s a place for people to vent, for people to connect with other people,” she explained. “I’m in parenting groups and we’re venting to each other, how it affects us as parents.”

Asked what he thinks the immediate and longer-term implications are of the anti-austerity movement’s coming into force, Keefe said the present goal is to halt the budget from passing in the House of Assembly.

“But the immediate thing that’s already coming out of it is that there’s a growing community and network of people that are pissed off at [the government] that just wasn’t there before.”

He said most of the 50 or 60 people who’ve been organizing through Coordinated Approach didn’t know each other prior to the April 14 budget but have since built meaningful relationships by talking to each other and organizing on social media.

“It’s kind of hokey to say, but community-building and relationship-building [are the bigger benefit of this], because it takes a very large amount of bravery to go out and picket or swing a sign or shout at the government all by yourself, but if you realize that a lot of other people are on your side, it makes it easier and at the same time you can help spread the word: ‘It’s not just me, it’s not just us — it’s a lot of people who feel this way,’” he said.

“As we do more actions and put off more demonstrations I think that becomes more obvious and people start to realize through word of mouth that they’re not alone and there are other sane people out there who want the same things they do.”

Moments before the demonstration got underway on Saturday, Bennett issued a statement saying the government’s budget was mandated by the people of the province through the Liberals’ Government Renewal Initiative, which included public consultations in select communities.

“The decisions we have made follow consultations with hundreds of people in our province,” the finance minister wrote. “People told us to make the tough decisions and to make them quickly in order to correct the fiscal situation.

“It is our intention to continue to work closely with labour unions and all of the public service to eliminate waste, find efficiencies and to keep people working. This is the way to get back on track and we hope we can do this together.”

Keefe said the Liberals’ continued reference to the community consultations, which were held earlier this year, to justify their austerity program is absurd.

“They keep saying people told us to raise taxes, and people told us to cut services — it’s a very big cop out to say all the people told us to do this or that,” he said.

Keefe also doesn’t think Ball and the Liberals fully grasp the strength and determination of the anti-austerity movement, but that they’re likely starting to feel apprehensive.

 I  would encourage people not to give up. We can change anything together. — Adam Pitcher, Coordinated Approach NL

“I think they started off unconcerned, fairly out of tune, out of touch, and not at all having their ears to the ground in terms of what everyday people would think of [the budget],” he said. “And I think they’re maybe slowly starting to wake up to the fact that they don’t really understand the public as much as they think they might. They probably started with eye-rolls and shrugs, and now they’re kind of shaking their heads. But I think they’re getting a little bit more alarmed with each passing demonstration doubling in size and people still being angry.”

On Monday Adam Pitcher, another organizer with Coordinated Approach, proposed that people start filling the House of Assembly’s public gallery to show government the anti-austerity movement is strong.

“There’s a real prevalent attitude in Newfoundland that…you’ll never change anything no matter what you do, but there’s strength in numbers,” he told The Independent.

“I think it would be a great act of solidarity [for people to fill the gallery] and a good show of strength to government to say that we’re not going to take a dictatorship — this is not what we elected. We have a reasonable expectation to have a democracy and to direct our government in the direction that we want them to go as opposed to them not listening to us.

“I would encourage people not to give up. We can change anything together,” he said.

Upcoming events:

Wednesday, May 11 — NAPE anti-budget rally / Placentia Health Centre, Placentia / 12:30 p.m.
Wednesday, May 11 — Common Front NL Community Town Hall / Club 64, Corner Brook / 7-9 p.m.
Thursday, May 12 — Common Front NL Community Town Hall / The Lantern, St. John’s / 7-9 p.m.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated a law firm hired by the Liberals to assist government with collective bargaining will be paid $500 an hour. The rate of pay is in fact $350 an hour, plus an additional $175 for any additional services needed.

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