Anti-poverty arsenal lacks key weapon

Posted on May 7, 2008 in Debates, Governance Debates, Inclusion Debates, Social Security Debates – comment – Anti-poverty arsenal lacks key weapon
May 07, 2008. Jim Coyle

In its war on poverty, the Ontario government is beginning to sound a little like Saddam Hussein’s old spokesman Comical Ali, who rhapsodized about glorious Iraqi victories even as American troops rolled into Baghdad.

“We’ve set out to take poverty on,” Premier Dalton McGuinty boasted again yesterday.

But like Ali, the Liberal government sometimes seems bigger on grand talk than performance.

Two things should give anti-poverty activists cause for alarm in recent days about the government’s stomach for the fight.

The first was the start this week of ballyhooed public consultations on poverty reduction and the decision to hold them behind closed doors, ejecting the uninvited with a vigour that made Mike Harris’s Common Sense revolutionaries seem like tie-dyed peaceniks.

The only thing worse than hearing Children and Youth Services Minister Deb Matthews defend that embarrassing show – let the excluded use websites! she sniffed – was that last week she was among Liberal MPPs who voted down a private member’s bill that offered one of the best anti-poverty tools available.

NDP Leader Howard Hampton’s bill would have rolled back a Harris-era crackdown on unions and restored the right of card-membership to Ontario workers as it existed from 1950 to 1996.

True, unions aren’t perfect, any more than are corporations. Over the decades, there have been lots of abuses by unions. But it remains true that unionization helped build the postwar middle-class on a solid foundation of good wages, benefits and job security – none of which are easily had by workers in the new millennium.

Statistics Canada data made clear last week that over the last quarter-century the rich have got richer, the poor poorer and the middle-class has shrunk or stagnated.

As New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse says in his new book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, labour unions, more than any other institution in society, “work to improve the lives of low-wage workers and to reduce inequality.”

The labour movement, for all its faults, is the one force “that created some semblance of balance between workers and management during the second half of the 20th century.”

Political leaders serious about helping low-income workers, and reducing widening inequality, would make it easier for workers to join unions, he said.

“Labour unions once were, and could be again, the most effective tool to improve the lot” of workers,” he said. And card-membership such as that proposed by Hampton “would be the single biggest step to enable unions to grow again.”

As Hampton said, the people who benefit most are the lowest-paid workers – women, students, younger workers, new Canadians.

“Does it mean that overnight they get huge, whopping pay increases? No. What it means is that they can get, through collective bargaining, a decent wage” and some benefits for their families, he said.

Telling a story common to his generation, New Democrat Peter Kormos said his father was an immigrant from Slovakia with a Grade 8 education, a steelworker able to reach the middle class and send his five kids to university on the strength of a union wage.

For his part, McGuinty noted again yesterday that making good on his poverty reduction promises isn’t easy in “challenging” economic times.

But a premier branding himself progressive, and looking for inspiration on leading through difficult times, could do worse than consult the inaugural addresses of Franklin Roosevelt made during the Great Depression.

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much,” he said.

“It is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

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