What took us so long? Time to occupy Bay Street

It took weeks before the mainstream media paid attention, now the Occupy Wall Street movement is rapidly taking up root in cities across the world, including plans for an occupation of Toronto’s Bay Street beginning October 15.

Author and activist Naomi Klein recently visited the New York occupation. In copies of her speech handed out to protestors, she notes that while the TV pundits are baffled about why citizens are protesting, people around the world are asking ‘what took you so long?’

For the past 30 years we have seen an economic boom that has benefited only a small number of people at the top of the income ladder. Despite this massive economic expansion, after inflation, most of our incomes remained stagnant. For those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, they have lost considerable ground. Just think of the nine years in which the minimum wage was frozen under the Mike Harris government – something current Ontario PC Leader Tim Hudak was pledging to do should he gain power.

As corporations try to beat back the wages of working people in both the  public and private sector, we are seeing more demands for two-tier settlements that effectively promise to lower the standard of living for new workers. Is that what Canadians want – a lower standard of living for their children?

While large fast food corporations saturate the air waves with commercials telling our kids how we’re “lovin’ it,” the New England Journal of Medicine warns this could be the first generation to live shorter lifespans than their parents due to a growing problem of childhood obesity.

While Wall Street and Bay Street are back to paying annual bonuses larger than most workers can dream of earning over the span of their careers, ordinary citizens are losing their jobs and homes due to the impact of irresponsible corporate behaviour.

Last night Dalton McGuinty said “the Ontario way is not about cutting people loose in difficult times.” A week earlier during the election debate he promised to cut thousands of jobs in the Ontario Public Service. If that isn’t cutting people loose, then what is?

And it’s not just about public sector workers losing their jobs. It’s also about the work they do and its impact on families. Studies have shown that the poor and middle class receive far greater value from public services compared to what they pay in taxes.

The Kaiser Family Foundation in the United States reports the average family health policy now costs $15,000 per year, or more than the cost of a Ford Fiesta. Those policies hardly entitle families to blanket coverage either – increasingly Americans are facing a higher burden of co-payments and deductibles on their health insurance. Is this what we are moving towards in Canada?

Corporations want a bigger share of our health care.

As a result we are seeing a slow and steady erosion of our public health care system. With long waits and caps on public home care provided by the Community Care Access Centres, 40 per cent of home care delivered in this province – or 20 million hours – is now paid for privately. The McGuinty government came to power in 2004 eliminating OHIP coverage for physiotherapy. At the time he suggested that those who did not have private coverage, or who couldn’t afford to pay out-of-pocket, could get publicly covered physiotherapy from outpatient hospital services. Since then, we have seen one hospital after another lose these services, leaving those kicked out of hospital early with no choice but to pay out-of-pocket – if they can find commercial rehab services nearby.

We are also seeing expansion of private for-profit delivery of public health care services. Mike Harris cleaved lab services in the province, giving community-based lab tests to the private for-profit laboratories, leaving the hospitals to do testing for patients who are within their walls. The result has been a far higher cost to the public purse, some say a decline in quality, and a negative impact on smaller hospitals to maintain a wider scope of testing and 24/7 coverage. Doctors in small communities have complained that shifting their testing to distant labs also delays diagnostic results. There is no reason for government to do this other than to provide larger profits to private laboratory corporations. What was the excuse of the McGuinty Liberals for winding up community-based lab testing at small hospitals? It didn’t fit the Local Health Integration Network model.

The growing influence of corporate power within government is reshaping society and accelerating the growing income gap between citizens. While there is greater economic equality among Canadians compared to other developed countries, that situation is dramatically changing. Canada is second only to Germany in the measured growth of social inequality. And studies have shown that inequality is a major contributing factor to rising health costs.

The Ontario Health Coalition recently blew the whistle on high-profile for-profit companies with significant connections to the provincial Tories and Liberals. That includes Shaun Francis, Tim Hudak’s chief fundraiser during his 2009 leadership bid. Francis is the chief executive of Medcan, a private medical clinic in Toronto that caters to corporate executives. Leslie Noble is another close Hudak advisor. Noble is a registered lobbyist for the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group, Canada’s first public-private hospital corporation. Also among Hudak’s close supporters is Dr. William Orovan, a Hamilton urologist who is also a former medical director of the Don Mills Surgical Unit, a private Toronto hospital. Are these people involved with Hudak out of a sense of public spirit, or are they there to open the door wider to taking private profit from public health care?

Often after implementing policies that favour the private sector, senior bureaucrats migrate to high-paying jobs with the private sector health care companies that have been banging on the doors of Queen’s Park. The most notable example is Shelly Jamieson, who was appointed as Dalton McGuinty’s cabinet secretary in 2007, the most powerful job in the provincial government. Jamieson left government to lead the Ontario Long Term Care Association, a lobby group representing mostly for-profit nursing homes. She later became president of Extendicare, the largest for-profit chain of nursing homes in the province. Who has since replaced Jamieson as interim head of the OLTCA? None other than Gail Paech, a former Associate Deputy Minister under the McGuinty government, and former lead for e-Health. Paech was notable as being one of the senior bureaucrats at Queen’s Park who skirted the salary guidelines by being placed on the payroll of a public hospital.

Now Dalton McGuinty is using former TD Bank Vice-President Don Drummond to lead a commission that is intended to restructure government in the name of finding efficiencies. While health care and education were supposed to be off the table, it seems that Drummond can talk about nothing but health care.

When OPSEU polls Ontarians to ask who has more power, corporations or government, the answer overwhelmingly comes back as corporations.

We know people are hurting. The NeoCons said that if the marketplace was given more power, that everybody would benefit. Large corporations were given tremendous freedom. They abused that trust and wrecked the world economy. Now they want an even greater share of the pie.

We are all fed up. Klein is right – it’s not a question of why, but why did it take so long? The forecast is for a warm autumn. It may get a little hotter than we thought.

—-

One of the best lines to come out of the Occupy Wall St. Movement: Noam Chomsky questions in the impunity in which financial institutions have damaged the people of the United States and the world:

“Not only too big to fail, but too big to jail.”

 

 

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