Posts Tagged ‘protest’

Olympics, debt and repression: An interview with Andrew Zimbalist

Monday, August 8th, 2016

Andrew Zimbalist is professor of economics at Smith College and author of Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, which The Guardian newspaper has called “A remarkable study that exposes the extraordinary chicanery and dodgy dealing behind staging the Olympics and the World Cup.” Zimbalist was one of the leading voices in the successful No Boston Olympics movement.

SB: Wherever they are hosted, the legacy of the Olympics is one of private affluence, public austerity. Why do cities continue to compete so fiercely to host the Games?

AZ:  Like most investments, the Olympics reproduce class relations; in that respect they are not peculiar. As a public investment, the Olympics reflect politicians’ ties to private capital and politicians are responsive to important voices and sources of power in the community.  If you’re a Mayor and the head of the largest construction firm in the city or three execs from the largest companies come to you and say “the Olympics would be good for the city, and by the way, there are 50,000 unionized construction workers and they like the idea too, and I can bring along some executives from the insurance industry and the hospitality sector.”  Mayors will listen. Combine this with the fact that the IOC has a very well honed public relations mantra that it uses about how the Games will bring tourists into the city, put the city on the world map and excite businessmen from around the world who would want to come and invest in your city and all these other things that they say, and then they go out and they hire a private consultant firm to make some estimates about the economic impact and the private consulting firm gets paid a couple of million dollars, they use a false methodology with unrealistic assumptions and they come out with an example that you would expect. They have a very well studied program about how to get these things through.

SB:  And yet it’s now well-known that the Olympics leaves behind huge public debts.

AZ: Here’s how it works; it goes in cycles. Back when Los Angeles was awarded the 1984 Olympics in 1978, it was the only city that was willing to bid (editor’s note: this followed the 1976 Montreal Olympics which stuck Quebec taxpayers with a $1.5 billion bill).  LA was successful for a variety of unique reasons, primarily because of the city’s bargaining position with the IOC.  Because they were successful, then other cities looked at that and they said “oh, you can do this successfully,” and they wanted to do it, and then what happened was the costs of hosting started to explode.  The costs started going into tens of billions of dollars and then cities started to lose interest again. Most recently five European cities dropped out of the competition for the 2020 Winter Olympics. The IOC was smart enough to realize that they had to switch the gestalt.  They had to produce cleaner images of what the Olympics could be and so they passed a reform agenda. Agenda 2020, as its known, has all these nice resounding phrases in it about being more flexible, looking for bids where the city doesn’t waste money and putting more emphasis on sustainability.  So far, those are just words, but they’ve been relatively successful: the number of bidders for the 2024 games is up to four.

SB:  Do the protest movements that spring up around the Olympic bids and the actual Games have an impact? Take Rio as an example.

AZ:  They will have some impact, but it’s very hard to detect the direct line from the protests to who gets influenced by it or general impact.  One thing that’s going to happen— it’s already happening in Rio—is that you are going to get a lot more repression during the Games; you’re going to get a militarization of the streets.  Rio will have 85,000 security personnel trying to make sure there is no disruption and it’s going to be very regimented and very harsh. That’s the way that they are going to try to contain protests and try to stop them from spilling out onto the streets.

SB:  Do you think it’s more likely that authoritarian governments will increasingly host the Games? Places where dissent is more easily quashed without public outcry?

AZ: Yes, probably it’s more likely.  However, that’s going to be mediated by the IOC’s concern for its image.  So I think it’s hard to predict, but it makes it more likely certainly that the IOC is going to look for host cities and societies where it’s less likely that there will be dissent, protest, and disruptions.

(This interview was edited and condensed for length)

A version of this article appeared in Canadian Dimension magazine, volume 50 number 3, Summer 2016.

The PT’s Own Goal

Monday, August 8th, 2016

Brazil’s Workers Party (PT) government, led by former Marxist guerilla, Dilma Rouseff, is in the midst of a political crisis that it may not weather. Embroiled in a corruption scandal involving the state petroleum company, Petrobras, and a number of construction firms, the government has been rocked by massive street protests and the machinations of a ruling elite hell bent on ending 12 years of leftist rule in South America’s largest and most economically powerful country.

Acting through the judiciary, and backed by a corporate media which ignores the corruption of right-wing politicos, the opposition appears to be plotting a coup, pushing for the impeachment of President Rouseff and the imprisonment of her beloved predecessor, the former lath operator and trade union leader, Lula da Silva.

The PT has endured political crises before. Brazil has seen waves of anti-government protest over the last three years. But now the government faces a confluence of factors that has shaken the foundation of Brazilian society, including the spread of the Zika virus, an economic downturn, and a rush to prepare for the 2016 Olympics.

In a country in which sports—and especially soccer—and politics are deeply intertwined, it was the PT’s insistence on hosting the World Cup and the Olympics back-to-back (in 2014 and 2016) that seems to have weakened support amongst the party’s poor and working-class base. Although the government’s partial break with neoliberalism and strong economic growth has lifted close to 40 million Brazilians out of poverty, in a country in which so many still lack access to the basic necessities of life, the millions spent on sporting spectacles has led many supporters to question the PT’s priorities.

Such is the religious devotion to soccer that the PT’s sins might have been forgiven had Brazil won the World Cup. Instead, it crashed out of the competition in spectacular fashion in the semi-finals against Germany. The unraveling of the national team seemed to mirror the unraveling of the political compact that has kept the PT in power.

Problems on the pitch

On that infamous day in July 2014, the game started badly. With only 10 minutes passed, Thomas Muller—Germany’s most prolific strike—stood unmarked at the back post and easily converted a corner kick. Ten minutes later, Germany scored again and added another within two minutes. And then, with the home crowd in a state of shock, a fourth German goal a mere twenty seconds after the restart. By halftime, it was 5-0.

After the break, the Canarinho—as the national team is nicknamed—returned to the field looking like they would much rather have been somewhere else. The thousands of Brazilians who had packed the Estadio Minerao sat in stunned silence; the atmosphere eerie for a match of such grand importance.

The game ended 7-1, the biggest defeat suffered by the national team in its 100-year existence. The team of footballing legends such as Zico, Socrates, Girancha, and Pele, had been dismantled, humbled, and humiliated in front of a television audience of close to one billion people.

Brazil’s manager, Luiz Felipe Scolari called it the “worst day of my life.” In a post-match interview, tears streaming down his face, the Canarinho’s captain, David Luiz, said, “I just wanted to bring happiness to these people, my people have suffered so much with other things.”

As the Guardian’s South America correspondent, Alex Bellos, wrote on the eve of the World Cup, the PT was banking on national team success to “help soothe unrest.” “Nothing less than glory,” Bellos noted, “is good enough for the host nation.”

Two years on and with Brazil’s right-wing forces and upper middle class on the march, the PT needs its poor and working class base more than ever. But as Dave Zirin has observed, the “party is not drawing millions of defenders into the streets, partly because there is a mass dissatisfaction with the status quote, and partly because the World Cup and the Olympics have exacerbated the hard times and symbolized a government woefully out of touch.”

On entering office, President Lula had a soccer pitch installed on the presidential lawn. Rumour has it that during kickarounds, the former President liked to play right midfield, emulating his hero Zizinho by dribbling around the finance minister or a trade union leader. It should have been his and the PT’s first and last attempt at capturing sporting glory.

 

A version of this article was published in Canadian Dimension magazine, volume 50 number 2, Spring 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Samba, Soccer and the Limits of Social Democracy

Monday, December 30th, 2013

In my latest column for Canadian Dimension, I reflect on the summer protests in Brazil and the upcoming World Cup of soccer.

During its coverage of the summer demonstrations in Brazil, the New York Times ran a clever little online feature: they posted photographs of two marches, one in Sao Paulo and another in the city of Recife. Each image captured hundreds of protest signs—move your computer cursor over a given sign and an English translation of its contents appeared on the screen.

Slogans ranged from the general: “Come take to the streets to change Brazil!” to the particular, “I’d exchange a congressman for 334 teachers.”

Some seemed like they’d been thought up by a policy wonk caught up in the crowds on their lunch break:  “10% of the GDP for education!”, “Put 10 cents in the public health system!”

The politically ambiguous, “No right or left, we’re all Brazilians!”, “Too many reasons to fit here!” were uneasily juxtaposed with the rallying cries of revolution: “Workers, come take to the streets!” and the perennial “Smash the capitalist state!”

Such was the cacophony of cir de coeurs rising up from the Brazilian streets.

Yet if there was a single collective grievance prioritized by the masses, it was the World Cup of Soccer, due to be hosted by Brazil next summer: “Wake up Brazil! Teachers are worth more than [soccer star] Neymar!”, “Lower the bus fare and put it in FIFA’s check!”, “I want health and education on FIFA’s standards!” (FIFA being the bloated, corrupt world governing body of the beautiful game).

Brazilians frustrated with public transit fare hikes or dismayed at dilapidated hospitals and schools, see the billions being spent on new stadiums, security, and Cup-related luxuries (e.g. inflatable mascots guarding the entrance of public venues) and ask “can we afford this?” Among those stuck in Sao Paulo or Rio’s infamous traffic jams or public transit queues, a unified chorus emerged: “imagina na copa” or “imagine during the cup”.  

In Brazil, soccer is a national religion. The country has won the World Cup more times than any other nation. Brazil is home to the great Pele and a breeding ground for the game’s most skilled, creative…and mononomous players: Ronaldo, Fred, Hulk, Ronaldinho, Kaka. The national team prides itself on fast-paced, rhythmic, technically complex style of play inspired by Samba, the music and dance that permeates Brazilian life.  

And soccer is woven into the country’s political fabric. Take the figure of Socrates, a stylish attacking midfielder who captained the club Corinthians during the dark days of Brazil’s military dictatorship. Historically, Corinthians are the team of Sao Paulo’s working class, counting former president Lula da Silva amongst their fans, yet ownership of the club was controlled by right-wing elites.  From 1978 to 1984, Socrates organized the Corinthians Democracy movement, an informal players association that demanded players’ rights but was understood by fans and players alike to be a symbolic challenge to the ruling junta.  The movement eventually wrestled control of the club from the team’s management and installed a workers democracy.

In perhaps one of the bravest acts in politico-sporting history, in 1982 the players decided to print “Vote on the 15th” on the back of their team uniform in the hopes it would motivate Brazilians–and particularly Corinthians’ working class fans–to vote in the November 15th election. The election turned out to be a pivotal moment in the democratization of Brazil and the Corinthians Democracy movement is widely regarded as an important factor in the country’s transition to democratic rule.

As the mass protests of this summer suggest, some thirteen years after the historic election of Lula, Brazil’s social democratic experiment is pushing up against its internal limits.  Under Lula and now Dilma Rouseff, the governing Workers’ Party has sought to massage big capital, reduce poverty, please its working class base, and keep the middle class on side. But now no one seems happy: the middle class don’t like mixing with the newly mobile poor; the poor want better housing and more social programs; the rich, lower taxes; teachers, a raise; doctors, a vacation; rural peasants, land reform; urban workers, higher wages; and students, free transit. And absolutely no one seems in the mood for a game of soccer. For the country’s political class, that may be the most disturbing trend of all.

 Published in Canadian Dimension Nov/Dec 2013 Issue

How Martin Luther King’s legacy speaks to our Canadian reality

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

My op-ed for The Toronto Star on the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Most Canadians, even those with little knowledge of American history, will know King as a leader of the African-American civil rights movement, a Christian minister and a proponent of non-violent civil disobedience. And many will be acquainted with the public address with which King is most closely associated, the I Have a Dream speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. in August 1963.

The version of King commemorated on the third Monday of January each year in the U.S. — the version Canadians will be familiar with — is that of a prophetic, revolutionary voice tamed and made safe for an America — and a world — still characterized by racial, economic and social injustice. As African-American philosopher Cornel West has said, “Martin has been deodorized, sanitized, sterilized by the right wing and neo-liberals to such a degree that his militancy is downplayed.”

On April 4, 1967, a year to the day before his death, King departed from his message of civil rights to deliver a speech against America’s war in Vietnam. Standing at the pulpit of Harlem’s historic Riverside Church, King denounced the war, connecting his government’s military adventures abroad to the failure of the war on poverty at home. The programs designed to house the homeless, feed the hungry and provide jobs for the unemployed — “the real promise of hope for the poor” — were starved for cash as the war effort was ramped up.

As King said that day, “I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

He argued that America must “undergo a radical revolution of values” for “when machines and computers, profit and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

King’s criticism of U.S. imperialism, his commitment to ending poverty, and his belief that the promise of civil rights could not be fulfilled without economic and social rights did not endear him to a broad swath of the American public. In the months before his death, his disapproval rating stood at 74 per cent; among black Americans it was 55 per cent. In the wake of his Beyond Vietnam speech, some mainstream civil rights leaders distanced themselves from King, fearing he had aligned himself too closely with the radical left of the Black Power and peace movements. The Washington Post declared: “King has done a grave injury to those who are his natural allies . . . and . . . an ever graver injury to himself.” In denouncing the war, he had denounced a president — Lyndon Johnson — who had taken political risks in supporting civil rights legislation. Financial contributions to King’s civil rights organization dried up. “I’d rather follow my conscience, than follow the crowd,” King replied.

This is the King we seldom hear from today, the King who called for a “radical revolution of values.” His message is a moral beacon, a light whose source may have been the black church, a prophetic Christianity forged amid the struggle against American apartheid more than 40 years ago, but it illuminates the dark corners of Canadian democracy today.

In Canada, we have spent $11.3 billion on the mission in Afghanistan, yet in the latest federal budget there was little for the 3.2 million of our fellow citizens who live in poverty.

We can afford to spend upward of $25 billion on new fighter jets to patrol the skies, but do not have the money to address the crisis of affordable housing that leaves so many Canadians homeless or precariously housed.

We live with racial inequalities — for example, racialized Canadians are three times more likely to live in poverty than other Canadians and in Toronto black males are three times more likely to be carded by police — yet do little to address institutionalized racism in our labour markets and criminal justice systems.

One in five aboriginals lives in poverty and many live without access to basic necessities such as electricity and clean water. Schools on reserves face funding gaps between $2,000 and $3,000 per student each year compared with provincial schools. Yet we have a prime minister who is more eager to greet two visiting pandas from China than First Nations youth who have trekked some 1,600 kilometers to Parliament Hill.

Too many of our political leaders have become well adjusted to injustice. Too many are willing to sacrifice equality and dignity for all on the altar of free markets and the national security establishment.

In that same speech at the Riverside Church, King said, “These are revolutionary times . . . people all over the globe are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wombs of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born.”

From the Arab Spring to the global movement to end violence against women and girls, from anti-austerity protests in Europe to Occupy Wall Street, from rebellions of urban youth in France and the U.K. to indigenous struggles in the Americas, once again people are on the move the world over. We are waiting for new systems of justice and equality to be born.

At home, student protests in Quebec, union demonstrations for labour rights and, perhaps most important, the Idle No More movement, have questioned a social and economic order that benefits the few at the expense of the many.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a world free from poverty, racism and militarism is a universal one. His is a legacy worth wrestling with as we forge the path to a more just society.

 

Published in The Toronto Star, April 4th 2013, p. A25.

Poverty, Protest and Power from Below

Friday, December 28th, 2012

A friend recently sent me a cartoon depicting two workers in conversation: One says to the other, “Remember when nurses, teachers, municipal workers and poor people crashed the economy and took billions in bonuses and bailouts?” “No”, his buddy responds; “Me neither” nods the first.

If we’ve learnt anything from the economic crisis and Great Recession it’s that big business and their friends in government are brilliantly adept at blaming the victim. And through their control of the corporate media and power to shape and influence public debate, elites have been successful at convincing many of our fellow citizens that public sector workers, unions, and the poor are indeed to blame for the economic mess created by Wall Street and Bay Street, the big banks and high flying financiers.

With cuts to social programs and the assault on unions, ordinary people are being made to pay for a crisis that is not of their making. In the meantime, cor­porations continue to benefit from large tax cuts and sit on piles of cash. The rich escape tax in­creases and park their wealth in offshore accounts while public libraries close, teachers’ wages are frozen, and the poor struggle to put food on the table, avoid eviction, and cope with the daily grind of life on a low income.

Employers have used the crisis to restructure workplaces, increasing in­security for the majority of working people. Keeping workers in fear of being replaced is one method by which bosses maintain a quiescent and com­pliant workforce. Creating precarious jobs—such as temp work that is difficult to unionize under our ar­chaic labour laws—is another. The post-recession jobs recovery has seen pre-recession full-time work replaced with part-time, temporary, and other precarious forms of employment. Quiet workers make for big profits and happy employers.

Governments have used the crisis and resulting budget deficits as an excuse to roll back the hard fought gains of the labour movement. Both Harper and McGuinty have passed or threatened to pass back-to-work legislation to stop workers from exercising their rights to bargain collectively or to go on strike to defend their wages and working conditions. Weakened unions hamper the labour movement’s traditional role as a counterweight to the influence of big business on government.

Workers on welfare or disability have also been under attack. The Ontario government’s poverty re­duction plan has been put on hold. While McGuinty has raised welfare rates, these increases have not even kept up with inflation. If welfare was to be returned to pre-Harris Conservatives levels, the govern­ment would have to raise rates by close to 60 per cent. In addition, anti-poverty measures such as the Ontario Child Benefit have been cut.

So the next few years, and likely the next decade, look tough for all working class Ontarians, but especially for those already living near or below the poverty line; those who were vulnerable prior to the Great Recession are made even more vulnerable since. Low-income Ontarians are confronting fewer child-care subsidies, extended waiting lists for social housing, and persistent unemployment and underemployment. More people than ever are caught in the dire dilemma of whether to feed the kids or pay the rent. Changes to employ­ment standards and labour law, which could create the conditions to lift people out of poverty, are derided as “unfriendly to business”.

How then do we make gains in a climate of auster­ity? Confronted with the resources of the rich and pow­erful, how do we mobilize power from below to defend our past victories and fight for social justice?

We should look to history for guidance. In the 1930s and 40s, Canadian workers went on strike for union recognition and better wages and working conditions. In 1943 alone, one in three workers engaged in strike action. Unemployed workers set out to march on Ottawa to demand they be treated with dignity and respect. Those struggles led to the legiti­mization of unions, the construction of the welfare state, and a greater share of society’s wealth going to ordinary folks.

In the 1960s, unions and anti-poverty organizations pushed for the expansion of social programs and lessened in­equality. They marched, they protested, they made noise.

In the mid-1980s, anti-poverty, labour and women’s groups mobilized to influence the direction of the provincial Liberal-NDP coalition government. Poor people’s marches snaked through three of Ontario’s largest cities. The end result was a 25 per cent increase in welfare rates and the humanization of many aspects of a stigmatizing and punitive system.

History shows us that our silence will be met with government inaction. As American academics Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward put it in their classic book Regulating the Poor, “A placid poor get nothing, but a turbulent poor sometimes get something.”

We may not control great riches or other sources of power like the police and the military, but we do have the power to refuse to go along with agendas of the elites. Society’s ability to function requires that stu­dents go to classes, tenants pay their rent, workers do their jobs, and the poor remain quiet and polite. If we decide not to cooperate, not to go to classes, to with­hold our rent, to occupy welfare offices, or withhold our labour, we can exercise power from below. But we can’t do these things without organization. That’s why it’s more important than ever to join organizations like Peel Poverty Action Group and collectively defend our past victories and work toward building a better, more just world.

 

Published as “How the Powerless Can Win” in the Fall 2012 edition of the Tough Times community newspaper

The way forward for Ontario’s anti-poverty movement

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

A version of this article was published in The Toronto Star as “Ontario Anti-Poverty Movement Needs a Dose of Street Heat”.

Last week, Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh, heads of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario, released their final report, Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance in Ontario. It contains some good ideas but anti-poverty activists will have to ask themselves whether more aggressive action is necessary.

The commission called on the government to implement some of its 108 recommendations immediately, including a $100-a-month rate increase for single adults on Ontario Works (they currently receive $599 a month, 66 per cent below the poverty line); changing the rules to allow all recipients to earn $200 a month without having their benefits reduced, and raising OW asset limits to Ontario Disability Support Program levels of $6,000 for a single person and $7,500 for a couple. Adopting these recommendations would make small, but concrete material differences in the lives of social assistance recipients.

We’ve been here before. The 1988 review of social assistance, entitled Transitions, was a 500-page tome documenting all that was wrong with the system and put forward progressive measures for change. While some of these measures were adopted under the Peterson and Rae governments, in 1995 the Harris Conservatives came to power, cut welfare rates by 21.6 per cent and turned the province’s social assistance system into one of the cruellest and most punitive in the country.

Despite a few tweaks since forming government in 2003, the provincial Liberals have left this system largely intact. With a dismal record on poverty reduction and an apparent willingness to balance the books on the backs of everyday people, it is doubtful whether a new Liberal leader would move us in the right direction.

In fact, just months prior to the release of the commission’s report, the McGuinty Liberals announced plans to eliminate a benefit program that gave up to $1,500 every two years to families on social assistance that were facing eviction, in danger of having their utilities cut off, fleeing domestic violence, moving from shelters or unsafe housing, or unable to replace bedbug-infested furniture or broken appliances. This followed their cut to the Special Diet program which many social assistance recipients relied on to meet their dietary needs.

The government’s formal response to Lankin and Sheikh’s report has been to announce that it will work with its “partners, both inside and outside of government, to discuss the implications of transformation, and begin creating a road map for success.” More discussions, more timetables, more debate, consultation and “stakeholder dialogue.” The government has said that welfare rates and benefit structures will remain unchanged in the interim. In the meantime, Ontario’s poor continue to face the dire dilemma of whether to feed the kids or pay the rent.

Ontario’s anti-poverty movement — the thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations committed to ending poverty in this province — is now at a crossroads. A cynic might argue that the greatest achievement of the social assistance review process, and indeed the broader poverty reduction strategy, has been to neutralize the anti-poverty movement, channelling its resources and energies away from organizing and activism and into advocacy, away from challenging government to having dialogue with it.

History tells us that successful movements for social change play both “insider” and “outsider” politics. Social movements need advocates on the inside to push their agenda, put forward progressive policies and develop relationships with decision makers. But these insiders are powerless without the threat of disruption and mobilization on the outside, what American civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson famously called “street heat.” Organizing tenants, occupying welfare offices, knocking on MPPs’ doors, showing up unannounced at political party fundraisers, marches and demonstrations, mass political education, consciousness-raising, appealing to the moral sensibilities of the general public — these are the sometimes messy but always powerful stuff of social movement politics.

Ontario’s anti-poverty movement has a surplus of insiders, but has thus far failed to bring the street heat. Faced with an intransigent government, the question now is whether the scarce resources of the movement can be turned from consultation and dialogue — the polite politics of the inside — to organizing, activism and agitation, the street-fighting politics of the outside.

Does this shift make sense with a prorogued legislature and lame duck premier? Poor people and their allies are tired of timelines, consultations and “stakeholder” meetings. The movement’s focus on insider politics has appeared to play into the government’s agenda of delay, defer and deflect.

At a meeting of the Region of Peel’s roundtable on social assistance, a woman with lived experience of poverty turned to the group and said, “We’re tired of waiting. We want justice and we want it now.” If the anti-poverty movement can’t find justice via commissions and consultations, it’s time we look for it in the streets, constituency and welfare offices across this province.

Simon Black is a researcher in urban social policy at the City Institute at York University and a member of Peel Poverty Action Group.

Published in The Toronto Star, Oct 30 2012

“Those in Power Don’t Like Us; Nor Should They”: A Conversation with Anti-Poverty Activist John Clarke

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

John Clarke is one of Ontario’s most well-known anti-poverty activists. As an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, Clarke has been on the frontlines of poor peoples’ struggles for over twenty years. Tough Times contributor Simon Black recently sat down with Clarke to discuss organizing, the social assistance review process, and what the future holds for low-income Ontarians.

Simon Black: You’ve been organizing in low-income communities for over twenty years now. Can you reflect on what works and what doesn’t in poor people’s organizing?

John Clarke: Twenty years of OCAP organizing has probably raised more questions than it has provided answers.  Still, there are some sides to the issue that seem to me to stand out.  The first point really is the basis on which you organize.  In OCAP we have rejected the idea that poor people can win anything by ‘educating’ governments or by trying to be polite and respectable.  Workers in unions won what they have by going on strike.  The poor are not likely to have that power so they have to ask themselves what they can use instead.  If you are unemployed or homeless, the system has decided to exclude you and, at best, provide with a pittance to survive on.  In that situation, what they want from you is to be as quiet and invisible as possible.  The key to your power, then, lies with your ability to get together with others in the same situation as yourself and do the very opposite of what they expect of you.

The great unemployed movements of the 1930s organized resistance to the poverty of that time by taking large scale disruptive actions.  Masses of unemployed took over relief offices to press demands for income.  Hundreds blocked attempts to evict poor families from their housing.  These kinds of actions took place on a scale that forced governments to meet peoples’ needs.  OCAP tries to take a similar approach.  Those in power don’t like us and nor should they.  We are working to create a rebellion against the conditions of poverty and those conditions continue to worsen and increase the need for strong and determined resistance.

I would also say that this approach may be the right one but no form of organizing in poor communities is easy.  You have to overcome peoples’ hesitation and belief that little can be done.  You have to root yourself in a community and prove your worth as an organization over a long period of time.  We have, of course, taken up many broad campaigns but we have also put a premium on actions that deal with the problems of individual people and families.  Delegations to welfare offices to win benefits, and other such actions, have always been a big part of what we do.  We really do believe that it is possible to build an organization of the poor that is not a kind of therapy session but that really does fight to win.

SB: How does OCAP differ from other poor peoples’ organizations such as ACORN?

JC: I think the fundamental difference we have with most anti poverty initiatives that operate today is around the notion I just put forward.  The opposite idea to mobilizing disruptive collective action is to try and show those in power that you are a well behaved and responsible voice of the poor.  The emphasis is placed, with this approach, on lobbying politicians and getting supportive media coverage.  The problem with it is you don’t have anything those in power need.  They are happy to let you stay in poverty and see no reason to do otherwise as long as you are working to keep the poor passive and following the rules.  You may organize some demonstrations but they will be run as moral appeals to those in power to ‘do the right thing’.

We don’t think that this respectable approach to anti poverty organizing has ever been the right way to go but, in today’s situation, where they are cutting back on social programs and ramming austerity down our throats, it is a hopeless approach.  In Toronto, we deal with Mayor Rob Ford.  What could poor people say to him to convince him to be kinder and gentler?  At the provincial level, we are now dealing with the report from Don Drummond that advocates measures that are many times worse than anything Mike Harris ever did.  That is the direction those in power intend to go.  The have to understand that poor people will fight back or they will see no reason to hold back on what they are doing.  Those who want to issue appeals and hold polite meetings with politicians are not just wasting their time. Whatever their intentions, they are diverting people from what needs to be done.

SB: What do you think of the McGuinty government’s poverty reduction strategy and the social assistance review process? What are the benefits and pitfalls of poor peoples’ organizations participating in such a review?

JC: The McGuinty government came to power in order to consolidate and deepen the social cutbacks and giveaways to the rich that the Harris Tories established.  However, they didn’t choose to be as up front and confrontational as Harris had been.  They choose to create the impression that they were going to put things back in place.  Welfare and ODSP rates are actually much lower, in terms of their spending power, than they were when the Tories left office.  However, McGuinty has covered his tracks with a sham display of ‘poverty reduction’.  At at time when we should have been filling the streets to demand decent income from this Government, people were wasting their time going through an endless process of consultation with the Liberals.

Looking back, it is truly breathtaking to realize how long this Government was able to pull the wool over peoples’ eyes.  Reviews, studies, committees, hearings on poverty reduction went on for years while the poor became poorer. It was, from their point of view, a highly successful strategy.  Apart from the campaign to win the Special Diet for people on assistance and the mobilizing to confront the Liberals that OCAP and allies engaged in during this time, ‘anti poverty activism’ moved into the corridors of Queen’s Park and the theory of ‘constructive engagement’ was all the rage.  This came down to the notion that the Liberals would really reduce poverty if we could only make clear enough arguments.  Of course, they were sly enough to play along and created the impression that they were seriously interested in these ideas.  The only factor that could have forced concessions from the Government would have been a challenge to them on poverty but the friendly lobby that they kept around them took things in the exactly opposite direction.  The poor got less than nothing as a result.

Since 2008, the crisis that has broken in the world economy has swept all this away.  McGuinty no longer has the luxury of appearing nice and caring.  His Government is getting ready to cut programs and slash spending as is every level of government.  The choices for poor and working people are to accept this and retreat before the austerity agenda of to organize and fight back.  This is going to be a very hard time but it is going to be a time when the ideas and approaches of OCAP are going to more relevant than they have ever been.

 

Published in Tough Times 1 (1) 2012

Ontario’s Poor Can’t Wait

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

In my latest op-ed for The Toronto Star, I discuss how quiet acceptance of austerity is not a realistic option for those living on the economic edge.

During the last two weeks in Ontario politics, we have seen a tale of two reports. The Drummond report has received a great deal of attention and rightly so: as the Star’s own Martin Regg Cohn put it, “Cutbacks are back and bigger than ever. And this time, they’re here to stay.” Millions of Ontarians, but especially the poor and middle class, stand to be impacted should the government act on Drummond’s recommendations.

Yet another report, that of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance, slipped under the media’s radar and was greeted with little fanfare by the government and general public alike. This report discusses different approaches to improving some of the key areas of the province’s welfare system and is an important step in the broader review process headed by ex-StatsCan chief Munir Sheik and former United Way of Greater Toronto CEO Frances Lankin.

The review of social assistance plays a key role in the provincial government’s poverty reduction strategy, announced by the premier and welcomed by anti-poverty advocates back in 2008. Sheik and Lankin have embarked on an extensive consultation process, speaking with social workers, policy experts, business leaders, people with lived experience of poverty, and anti-poverty advocates. Their final report, which will make recommendations that will enable government to “remove barriers and increase opportunities for people to work,” is to be released this summer.

While the Drummond report takes a largely hands-off approach to social assistance, deferring to the work of the commission, much in it runs counter to the spirit and stated goals of both the review of social assistance and the broader strategy of poverty reduction. For one, Drummond recommends rolling back the Ontario Child Benefit (OCB), a subsidy that helps low-income families provide for their children. The OCB has been partially credited with the small but nevertheless important reduction in child poverty Ontario has seen over the past few years.

But more generally the report is silent on the concerns of the poor, from much-needed increases in child-care funding to the construction of more affordable housing. Drummond was, after all, primarily tasked with discerning where to make cuts, not how to expand social programs.

If acted upon, Drummond’s austerity package could well push Ontario’s unemployment rate into double-digits. With the federal government’s continued reticence to expand eligibility for employment insurance, thousands more Ontarians could turn to a welfare system that currently does more to punish than help the poor, who have yet to recover from the 22 per cent cut to welfare imposed by the Harris Tories back in 1995. McGuinty has raised rates slightly, but these increases have not kept up with inflation. If welfare was to be returned to pre-Harris levels, the government would have to raise rates by close to 60 per cent. You can be sure that such an increase is not in the cards in the current political climate.

So the next few years, likely the next decade, look tough for low-income Ontarians. Lower child-care subsidies, larger waiting lists for social housing, persistent unemployment and more people caught in the dire dilemma of whether to feed the kids or pay the rent. Changes to employment standards and labour law, which could create the conditions to lift people out of poverty, will be derided as “unfriendly to business.”

How then do the poor make gains in a climate of austerity? Before we mine history for answers we must first ask: “Who are the poor?” The obvious answer is, “those living at or below the poverty line,” but many of us live one paycheque away from poverty. What happens to social assistance and other social supports should be a concern for us all.

And as a recent Metcalf Foundation report concluded, between 2000 and 2005 the number of working poor increased by 42 per cent, numbering 113,000 people in the Toronto region alone. Those numbers have certainly risen since the Great Recession began in 2008. And an even larger number of people are near-poor. The poor are not only those living on social assistance.

Before the great labour struggles of the 1930s and ’40s, the poor were, like today, both working people and those out of work. Those struggles led to the legitimization of unions, the construction of the welfare state, and a greater share of society’s wealth going to labour.

In the 1960s, unions and anti-poverty organizations pushed for the expansion of social programs and lessened inequality. They marched, they protested, they made noise.

In the mid-1980s, anti-poverty, labour and women’s groups mobilized to influence the direction of the provincial Liberal-NDP coalition’s social assistance review. Poor people’s marches snaked through three of Ontario’s largest cities. The end result was a 25 per cent increase in welfare rates and the humanization of many aspects of a stigmatizing and punitive system.

History shows us that poor people’s silence will be met with government inaction. As American academics Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward put it in their classic book Regulating the Poor, “A placid poor get nothing, but a turbulent poor sometimes get something.” The Drummond report tells poor people they must wait. Now it is up to the poor to reply: “We will not.”

Simon Black is a researcher in urban social policy at the City Institute at York University and a member of Peel Poverty Action Group.

published in The Toronto Star, March 3 2012 IN6

paying tribute to Socrates

Sunday, December 11th, 2011

The following piece was published back in 2008 in the November/December issue of Canadian Dimension magazine. Socrates died last Saturday. He was one of the greatest footballers of his generation, but more importantly, he matched sporting talent with a commitment to justice and egalitarian politics; a rare thing in the hyper-corporate sports culture of today. Farewell to a giant of football and a giant of the Brazilian left.  Check his obituary in the Guardian here.


Searching for Socrates

I’m not disappointed by Canada’s performance at the Summer Olympics.  Socialists ought to be internationalists by definition and as unconcerned with the patriotic displays of sporting prowess of their own countries as they are with that of any other.  Besides, the Olympics was originally conceived to demonstrate individual achievement, athletes as representations of their own commitment and excellence, not that of their nations. But I am seriously dismayed at the lack of political protest that marred – at least from a radical’s standpoint – the Beijing Games.

Despite all the hype that preceded the Games – and resulting Chinese concern with the potential to be politically embarrassed by dissenting athletes – these Olympics were unusually quiet and the athletes disappointingly quiescent. As I wrote in my last CD column, the Olympics and protest go hand in hand; so why so few voices of dissent when the Games are held in one of the most oppressive states in the world? This absence cannot be solely attributed to the authoritarian management of the Games (and the athletes themselves) by the Chinese government.  Sure, the iron fist Beijing employs to rule its unruly migrant workers was put to use for the Games, but visiting athletes had ample opportunity and diplomatic protection to carry out acts of dissent.

Whether the oppression of the Chinese working class, the denial of basic civic and political rights, the suppression of religious groups, or the imprisonment of dissidents, there were no shortage of issues to protest at the Games. And of course, Tibet, which I leave last only because its popularity as a political cause celebre has as much to do with the fad of Buddhism amongst the North American middle class as with concerns for the national liberation of a people (Americans in particular seem attracted to Tibet while peculiarly the U.S. anti-war/anti-occupation movement is waning, but I digress). Maybe the lack of protest at the Games merely signifies the decline of the political athlete.

This brings me to one of my own sporting heroes, the Brazilian soccer player, Socrates.  If ever there was a model of the politically engaged athlete, Socrates was it (with Muhammad Ali a close second). He was a man of contradictions. Considered a late-bloomer he made his debut for the Brazilian national team at the age of 25 and continued to play well into his forties. Despite being 6 foot 4 he was one of the most elegant midfielders to ever grace the game. And although he studied to be a medical doctor he smoked a pack-a-day throughout his career.

Like in many countries, in Brazil politics and soccer overlap: the personalities, the players, and the fans. Socrates captained the club Corinthians during some of the darkest days of the Brazilian dictatorship. Historically, Corinthians are the working class club of Sao Paulo and count the nominally socialist president Lula da Silva amongst their fans. But during the days of authoritarian rule, ownership of the club was controlled by right-wing elites close to the military. From 1978 to 1984, Socrates organized the Corinthians Democracy movement, an informal players association that demanded players’ rights but was understood by fans and players alike to be a symbolic challenge to the dictatorship.

The movement wrestled effective control of the club from the team’s management and installed a workers democracy with players voting on club matters. In one of the bravest acts of politico-sporting history, in 1982 the players voted to print “Vote on the 15th” on the back of their team uniform in the hopes it would motivate Brazilians – and particularly Corinthians’ working class and socialist support who had felt the brunt of authoritarian right-wing rule – to vote in the November 15th election. The election turned out to be a pivotal moment in the democratization of Brazil and Corinthians Democracy is widely regarded as an important factor in the country’s transition to democratic rule.

While Canada has never produced its very own Socrates, Canadian basketball player and two-time NBA MVP, Steve Nash, risked ridicule and scorn to vocally oppose America’s war on Iraq. It’s too bad our national basketball team didn’t qualify for the Beijing Olympics. And it’s too bad the Games have past with the Chinese people still searching for their very own Socrates.

Published in Canadian Dimension Nov/Dec 2008 42 (6)

9 must reads for the 99 percent

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street movement has gone global. POUND’s Simon Black recommends nine must reads for the ninety-nine percent. Don’t sleep on the books behind the revolution.

Follow the link here.