Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Harper to prorogue Parliament... again!

As the CBC has reported, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has again shown his disregard for our democracy by asking the Governor General to prorogue Parliament in the middle of session.

While it's no doubt unlikely that we can change anything, at the time of this writing the GG hasn't yet publicly responded.  So I suggest we all send GG Michaelle Jean a message expressing our outrage.  The GG's e-mail address is  If enough people weigh in with their opinions, there's a chance we might convince her to save this session of Parliament and force the government to be accountable to the people.

Here's the text of the message I sent the GG, feel free to use it as a template:

Dear Ms. Jean:

I've heard that Prime Minister Harper has again asked you to prorogue Parliament.  As your response has not been publicly announced yet, I implore you to deny his request.

Proroguing Parliament is not in Canada's best interest.  At stake is $1 billion in Employment Insurance increases which will die along with other very important legislation.

Perhaps more important is the question of whether Mr. Harper can be allowed to turn proroguing Parliament, something which should be seen as an extraordinary measure, into a common occurrence that allows a government to dodge accountability.

With motions passed in the House calling for a public inquiry into the Afghan detainee issue, and calling for the government to disclose all information it holds on this issue, allowing Mr. Harper to prorogue Parliament is to allow him an abuse of process.

Mr. Harper is demeaning our Parliamentary system by treating extraordinary measures like proroguing Parliament as mere tools of political gamesmanship.  Under Mr. Harper, responsible government is a thing of the past.  He has systematically undermined government accountability to Parliament.

What Canada needs most right now is an extraordinary Governor General who will put their foot down and protect the integrity of Parliament and Canada's democracy.  Please do not grant Mr. Harper's request to prorogue Parliament.


Mark Carter

There's also a Facebook group you can join for more information and opinions on this topic.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Ontario college teachers set to go on strike

Ontario's college teachers are set to go on strike in January, and I can already hear it... students and their parents complaining (most likely to the workers who aren't the problem, rather than to management) that they're going to miss a semester, or have their semester extended into the summer vacation season if a strike goes on for too long.  Letters to the editor will be written, Facebook groups will be created, all focused on the students' needs with no regard (or, likely, any knowledge) of what the workers are fighting for.

What students and parents who call for quick ends to labour disputes fail to understand is that they're sabotaging their own futures and those of their children.

How often is the lesson taught in colleges and universities that short-term thinking is the cause of so many seemingly intractable problems?

Yet students engage in this same short-term thinking when they're only concerned about finishing their semester on time and fail to look at the big picture.

If you don't support striking workers, you doom yourselves to a future where all that will be available to you is part-time work without benefits.  You'll likely be low-paid, you'll have uncertain hours, and your working conditions will be poor.  You'll be working two to three jobs to make ends meet.

Workers in all industries are fighting these same fights.  Declines in working conditions spread from employer to employer far faster than gains made by workers.  So, students need to learn this lesson now: United we bargain, divided we beg.

Your teachers' fight is your fight.  They're protecting your future, so have the decency to support them.

For more details, click here, and/or visit the OPSEU site.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Budgeting for Change

As we approach the end of the year, we're reaching the deadline to make charitable donations which can be deducted from this year's taxes.  This can be problematic, because we're also at that time of year when many of us have spent lots of money on gifts for the holiday season.  Tack on complications like high unemployment, and an increasing trend towards jobs being cut to part-time without benefits, and many of us are thinking twice about making charitable contributions.  In many cases it's just not financially viable.

One solution is to integrate charity into our monthly budgets.  Instead of trying to come up with unwieldy lump sums at the end of the year, why not spread your donations through the year by enrolling in the monthly pre-authorized giving programs most organizations now offer?  The organization will appreciate a steady donation stream rather than relying on an uncertain once-a-year donation, and integrating $5-20 per month into your budget is probably a lot easier than trying to come up with an extra $200 at Christmas time.  You may even be able to painlessly increase your donations by 20%... if you donate $50/year to an organization, for instance, converting that to $5/month increases your donation to $60.00.

Another option is to donate to a political party.  There are two good reasons to consider this: first, political party contributions receive very favourable tax treatment; you'll get 75% of your donation back.  Secondly, a political party that's successful (and success in politics is measured by more than how many seats are won in a legislature) has the power to influence the movement of huge sums of money and resources.  When you empower an organization that actually has the power to make or influence change, it's like exponentially multiplying your donation.

For instance, if you believe in environmental issues, you can donate to environmental groups who will lobby for legislative changes, perhaps buy land for conservation, and so forth.  Or, you can help a political party that shares your environmental values become successful.  That party can actually introduce the legislation to make the changes you want, they can set aside vast swathes of land as protected parks space... even if they're not the party in power, they'll be able to get the message out, influence the final versions of legislation, introduce new legislation on their own, (hopefully) have their ideas stolen by those in power... all told, supporting a political party that shares your values is a pretty good strategy.  Politics is all about the allocation of scarce resources, and it's always more effective to be working for change from the inside.  Of course, this strategy works much better if you also make the effort to go out and vote for your chosen political party during an election!

So if you're feeling like you're stretched too thin financially to donate to causes you believe in at this time of year, consider a more structured approach to giving.  Monthly contributions split the donation into easily manageable chunks, and converting some of your giving into a donation to a political party is more tax effective and potentially has a multiplier effect in the effectiveness of reaching the goals you support.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Dark Side of Privatization

Across Ontario, hundreds of USW 9511 workers are striking outside their employer, Ontario's DriveTest driver examination centres.  Their strike is now entering it's fifth month.  The issue?  The preservation of full-time jobs with benefits. 

In 2003 the Conservative government in Ontario privatized driver's license testing centres.  In exchange for a mere $114 million dollars, the government awarded Serco DES Inc. (of the UK; that's right, they not only privatized a public service, but they outsourced it to a foreign country) a 10-year exclusive contract to provide driver examination tests such as road tests (both passenger vehicle and transport trucks), vision tests, and written examinations.

In the press release issued at the time, then Transportation Minister Norm Sterling said that:
"With this transfer, we are committed to reducing test wait times to no more than six weeks everywhere in Ontario," said Sterling. "Customer service will be improved through innovative service delivery and the government will continue to diligently safeguard the public interest."
 In the same press release, then Finance Minister Janet Ecker said:
"Private-sector involvement in driver examination services will bring efficiency to service delivery, savings to taxpayers and will allow government to focus on what matters most to Ontarians - health care, education, the environment, and a climate for job creation."

As Serco DES Inc. employees across the province now enter their seventeenth week of strike action, let's examine whether the public interest has been served, and whether this privatization has facilitated a climate for job creation.

According to the press release, there were 750 MTO employees at the time of the privatization:
Staffing Implications

Approximately 750 permanent and contract MTO employees are affected by the service transfer. Permanent employees may choose to transfer to Serco DES in accordance with their collective agreement. Staff who choose not to transfer will be entitled to severance packages as outlined by their collective agreement.

Seven hundred and fifty (750) government employees, most of which were full-time with benefits and pension plans.  How many Serco DES employees are currently on strike?  Well, after imposing a 15% pay cut and taking away their pensions, Serco DES has whittled down its workforce to about five hundred (500).  However, they haven't stopped there.  They've turned formerly good jobs into marginal employment: 50% of Serco DES employees are now part-time with no benefits, with no guaranteed number of hours each week, and Serco DES is seeking to convert more employees into part-timers.

So out of the original 750 good jobs, 250 have been lost entirely.  Of the remaining 500, the company has marginalized 250.  That means that only a third of the original jobs remain.  So, did the Conservative government succeed in creating a climate for job creation?  Clearly not.  The privatization of driver testing in Ontario has decimated hundreds of jobs in the province.

Which brings us to the public interest.  With hundreds of jobs eliminated and marginalized, the province and the communities where these workers work(ed) have seen a decline in tax revenues.  Local economies will have seen a decline proportionate to the decline in spending power of these workers.  The ripple effects of job loss and job marginalization in communities are widespread.  Is that in the public interest?  Hardly.

The government trumpeted reduced waiting times as a benefit of privatization.  Well, due to the shoddy way Serco DES treats its employees, they now have a four month backlog of driver's license tests.

Worse, in trying to undermine the union by continuing to offer services by having unqualified managers performing the jobs of driver examiners, Serco DES is creating a burgeoning public safety issue.  Striking workers have documented drivers' tests, for transport truck drivers, which have broken just about every rule in the book.  Serco DES managers are awarding licences to drive transport trucks based on extremely sub-par drivers' tests which do not meet Ministry of Transportation standards.  When one of these improperly tested drivers kills someone on the road, who will be held responsible?

So where is the Ministry of Transportation in all of this?  When the privatization occurred, it was stated that the Ontario government would:
  • monitor driver exam services to ensure they are delivered fairly and consistently across Ontario;
  • continue to establish standards and set policy;
  • continue to regulate fees for driver examination services;
  • ensure legislative compliance;
  • rigorously monitor and audit the new service provider's performance; and
  • apply remedies if contract standards are not met.
Where is the rigorous monitoring and auditing?  Where are they ensuring legislative compliance?  Where are the remedies for failing to meet contract standards?  As a public safety nightmare unfolds, as the provision of public services by a private, foreign company completely unravels because of the terrible way they treat their workers, the Ontario government has remained silent on the issue.  They have done nothing to address what is clearly a failed experiment in privatization of public services.

Serco DES has collected testing fees for hundreds of thousands of backlogged drivers' tests.  They're sitting on a massive war chest of taxpayers' money collected for services they haven't delivered.  They're using this money to conduct a drawn-out siege against the union rather than returning to the bargaining table in good faith.  In addition to enforcing the terms of the contract (which includes penalties for failing to meet service standards), the Ontario government should be seizing these test fee monies and holding them in escrow until service at DriveTest centres resumes.

Do you want to help make a difference?  Don't cross the picket lines.  Tell your 16-year-old that by supporting the striking USW 9511 DriveTest workers, they're fighting for their own future.  We need to fight the marginalization of jobs everywhere, else there'll be no decent jobs in the future for today's teenagers who are having to wait to get their first driver's license.

Contact Jim Bradley, the Minister of Transportation, and demand that he take action against Serco DES for the deplorable way they've treated their workers and for failing to live up to the terms of their contract.

Contact Dalton McGuinty, Ontario's Premier, and tell him what a travesty this experiment in privatization of government services has become.

Tell Serco DES that their deplorable treatment of workers is not what Ontario taxpayers signed on for, and that their union-busting "Q&A Regarding Returning to Work During the Strike" is unethical and disgusting.  Send a message to their and addresses telling them that instead of encouraging workers to betray their union brothers and sisters by becoming scabs, that they should be returning to the bargaining table in good faith, and offering full-time jobs with benefits.

How much profit is enough?  It's time that Serco DES acknowledged that they've crossed the line between profit-seeking and unethical profiteering at the expense of workers and the public.

Update: DriveTest employees ratified a new collective agreement on December 31st, 2009, after nineteen weeks of striking. Thank you to everyone who supported them! Please, remember these workers and the impact of privatization on DriveTest the next time you hear politicians speaking of privatizing public services! Make sure your voice is heard by voting in the next elections!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Union Movement Online

You know that you're part of a union, but maybe you haven't figured out yet exactly what that means.  Or maybe you're interested in what unions are all about (or even better, interested in organizing your workplace).  Essentially, unions exist to address the massive power imbalance between employers and employees.  The union is your advocate, and derives its power from collective action.  As the saying goes, "United we stand, divided we fall."

The web is a great resource for gaining an appreciation of the positive role unions are playing around the world.

One place to start is, an aggregator of union news from around the world.  Another good place is UnionBook, a Facebook-like site for union activists. is a Canadian site dedicated to advocating for improved working conditions for people in low-wage and unstable employment. The Workers' Health and Safety Centre ( is Ontario's worker-based health and safety advocate. For progressive news on all topics, is the place to be, along with its companion sites, and

Another prominent union site for news and information is the Canadian Labour Congress (, which is the umbrella organization for dozens of affiliated unions representing over three million workers across Canada.  The Ontario Federation of Labour ( is Ontario's CLC-affiliated regional umbrella organization.  Some of the larger nation-wide unions, such as CAW, NUPGE, CUPE, and SEIU have comprehensive web sites dealing with far more than ther individual union's issues.

The National Union of Public and General Employees ( is currently offering free associate membership ( to all workers across Canada, which gives them access to various benefits of union membership.  Pointing non-unionized workers towards NUPGE Associate membership may lead them to further explore the benefits of organizing their workplace.

If you're more of a paper book person than a web researcher, you can order books about the labour movement by visiting the UCS Labor Books online catalog.  There you'll find a wide variety of books including "The Union Member's Complete Guide", "The Bully at Work: Stop being Hurt, Reclaim your Dignity", "Building Powerful Community Organizations", and of course, "A Troublemaker's Handbook".

Saturday, April 11, 2009

I Stand With Diane Campaign Success!

The I Stand With Diane campaign has had an important victory. Diane, a hotel worker in St. Catharines, was fired by her employer for trying to organize a union in her workplace. She was reinstated by the Ontario Labour Relations Board, but the employer was successful in intimidating the other workers so that they wouldn't support the union. Well, I'm happy to report that the massive support the campaign in support of Diane received has emboldened Diane's co-workers to step up and stand by her side.

Diane's workplace is now unionized! Here's the press release.

While that's great news, the work isn't finished. We need stronger laws in place to protect workers, to strengthen the rights of unions, and we need to restore card-based union certification.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Voting just scratches the surface
The Ontario NDP elected a new leader today, and it's inspired me to talk about participation in the political process. Most people simply vote in general elections. At best, they've read each party's platform and voted for a party that reflects their values. But even if they've done that, just voting in general elections isn't all that satisfying over time. That's because it only scratches the surface of the political machinery.

When you vote in an election, you're voting for a party platform that's already in place. What you really need to do is join, and be active in, a political party. Membership in a party allows you to influence party policy, have a hand in choosing the leader and candidates, and essentially gives you the opportunity to participate in everything that leads up to an election. That way, on election day, hopefully you won't feel like you're forced to choose the lesser evil when you vote.

Working within a political party is also one of the most effective ways to make change happen. If you want your values reflected in a party's platform on election day, the time to start is long before an election. Even so, it's a lot easier to effect change to party policy from the inside than from the outside. Rather than lobbying, join up and work for change from within.

Even if the political party you join doesn't have much chance of winning your riding, or forming a government, your efforts still won't be wasted. Governments have a habit of taking the good ideas, policies, and initiatives of their opposition and claiming them as their own. Opposition parties also hold governments accountable, amend bills, and give different ideologies a voice.  Issues which governing parties are quite willing to ignore are often brought to light only because of opposition parties.

All told, I think you'll find that participation in any political party will be satisfying and give you a greater appreciation for our political system.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Conservative Budget Fails to Help People in Need

Today's federal budget gives the appearance that the government has taken its head out of the sand, but it fails to address major issues.

Firstly, the requirement for provinces to match funds means that many of the announcements are smoke and mirrors, as the money won't be spent.

Secondly, almost all of the tax breaks given to individuals are done by raising the income thresholds at which people are no longer eligible for them. Is this a joke? The people in this country who need help aren't the ones whose incomes are pushing against upper thresholds for tax break eligibility! They're the ones whose incomes are pushing at another threshold... the poverty line.

The Home Renovation Tax Credit? Give me a break. The Conservative government is completely out of touch with the world if they think that people who've lost their jobs or have precarious employment are going to be spending $1000-$10,000 on home renovations in order to claim this tax credit.

Similarly, with the income tax breaks, the government fails to help those most in need. Sure, they raised the base tax-free amount by a few hundred dollars. But they also raised the thresholds for moving into higher tax brackets. The first threshold, fine, but the second? Leave it where it is, and increase the basic tax-free amount a bit more. People working part-time at or near minimum wage need a tax break a lot more than people whose income is equal to three or four full-time minimum wage jobs.

I was also disappointed to see precious little for the environment, or to encourage investment in alternative energy and green jobs. Here's where a tax credit for individuals buying renewable energy from sources such as BullfrogPower would have been good. It would have stimulated a market-driven shift to green energy.

Another missed opportunity... the Conservatives could have extended the Children's Fitness Tax Credit to all Canadians regardless of age. The payoff in health care savings would dwarf the cost of the credit. Physical activity is also an essential tool in warding off stress and depression, so making it more cost effective for Canadians to participate in physical fitness programs would have been a great idea in tough economic times.

Employment Insurance reforms are where the Conservatives again failed us. They could have reduced the number of hours necessary to qualify (currently 700), which would have reflected the reality that many jobs are part-time and largely temporary in nature. They could have increased benefits from the 55% (maximum $447/week, from which taxes are deducted) EI currently pays, or increased the amount which workers are allowed to earn (currently 25% of their EI payment or $50, whichever is greater) before their EI benefit is clawed back, which effectively penalizes workers for trying to supplement their income with part-time work.

The hours required to qualify for EI benefits need to be reduced, the benefit rate needs to be raised to 60%, and the clawback threshold raised to 100%. This will relieve the financial stress placed on unemployed workers who can't pay their bills while looking for work. The Employment Insurance fund is running a huge surplus, so why won't the government return that money to workers?

Given that this budget is (in appearance, at least) quite different from what the government had been planning prior to proroguing Parliament, it will require a great deal of courage for the Liberals to defeat it and press forward with their plans for a Liberal-NDP coalition government. I hope they do, though, because this country needs a budget that actually helps people in need, instead of people who are already well-off.

The Conservatives have chosen to ignore Canadians who have lost their jobs, and instead decided to give tax breaks to people who have enough discretionary income that they're contemplating $10,000 home renovations. That's neither leadership nor responsible government.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Stop York back-to-work legislation!

If the Ontario government legislates York University employees back to work, it will legitimize refusing to bargain as a strategy for use by employers.

If the Liberals intend to do anything other than undermine the rights of workers, they need to put some sort of "poison pill" into back-to-work legislation to deter employers from letting their labour disputes go on so long. Unless back to work legislation is as distasteful to the employer as it is to the employees, then employers will simply sit on their hands and refuse to bargain in good faith, confident that the Liberals will eventually trample the rights of their employees.

Back to work legislation needs to impose financial penalties on the employer and it's so-called negotiating team. There need to be substantial penalties for employers who refuse to bargain in good faith, as York clearly has. Any such legislation for York should mandate a refund of tuition for classes which were cancelled due to York's negotiating team refusing to come to terms with employees. Further, there need to be financial penalties for the university (or at the very least, when workers are legislated back to work, then there should be a directive that an eventual arbitrated settlement will clearly be in the employees' favour). If back-to-work legislation poses no downside for an employer, then there's absolutely no incentive to bargain in good faith.

Back-to-work legislation may seem to be in the best interests of York students, but it's not. It simply sets the stage for those students to graduate into the workforce with their rights diminished, which is ultimately going to be far more detrimental to their lives than missing a couple terms of school.

What can you do? Send letters to Premier McGuinty, your local MPP, to the Minister of Labour (Peter Fonseca, and the Minister of Colleges, Training, and Universities (John Milloy You can also send letters to NDP MPPs congratulating them on standing up for workers rights by opposing back-to-work legislation, and encouraging them to continue to do so.

CUPE has a MPP lookup tool at which also opens up a nice form letter you can send to your local MPP.

Addendum:  Well, the Liberals pushed through the legislation.  I think that the Ontario NDP nicely summed up the ramifications of it here.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Campaign for Simple Green Tax Cuts

There are a lot of tax cut schemes out there aimed at helping the environment. Some, such as Ontario's removal of provincial sales tax from sales of bicycles under $1000, are simple and work really well (and should be made permanent). Others, such as tax cuts aimed at homeowners who are doing complete retrofits of their homes for energy efficiency, don't work nearly as well. For one thing, not too many of us can afford to spend thousands of dollars on home energy retrofits, so a few hundred dollars rebate doesn't really help. For another thing, a lot of these programs are heavily laden by red tape.

Politicians have come up with some interesting plans for green tax cuts and the stimulus of green industries, but they tend to be either ineffectual, or so complex that they never become implemented. Various "carbon tax" schemes of late come to mind... complex, confusing plans that, even if they'd work, can't be sold to the public because they're such a departure from the current status quo.

What I propose are simple, effective, targeted tax cuts. For example, in order to power my condo with renewable electricity, short of installing very expensive equipment, my best option is to purchase power from a company such as Bullfrog Power. Since I don't have the option of telling my existing electricity provider I only want power from renewable sources, buying from a third party entails additional expense on my part for doing the right thing. I'm sure that lots of people would like to purchase renewable energy, but are deterred by the added expense.

A Simple Green Tax Cut would be to make the purchase of renewable energy tax deductible. Really simple from both the government and consumer side. Effective, because it encourages people to vote with their dollars and make a market-driven shift to green energy happen. It's also probably a lot cheaper for governments to support green tax cuts like this than to pour money into power generation projects directly.

Since this is budget time for both the federal and provincial governments, the time is right to start sending letters to the Prime Minister, your Premier, and so on. Here's sample text for a letter:

As you're preparing your upcoming budget, I'd like to suggest a simple "green" tax cut. Currently, the easiest way for consumers to vote with their dollars when it comes to renewable energy creation is to source their electricity from places like

However, when doing so, consumers have to pay extra for their electricity... essentially they're penalized for making a positive environmental choice.

It would be really great if you made the purchase of renewable energy (say, up to $500 worth) by consumers tax deductible. This would provide incentive for a market-driven switch to renewable energy sources, without all the confusion of complex carbon tax schemes.

So get those letters started! Send e-mails to the Prime Minister and your provincial Premier (Ontario's Premier). The public needs to give politicians ideas like this to move forward with, and we also need to let politicians know that there's a demand for action on this front. Change comes about when people make noise, not when they stay silent.

Leave comments if you'd like to share your ideas for Simple Green Tax Cuts!