Thursday, May 16, 2013

Don't mourn, organize: lessons from the BC election

Based on the past twelve years, another four under the BC Liberals does not bode well for public education. But that all depends.

There is no question that the BC Liberal record has been dismal. Underfunding, privatization, larger classes, fewer services, contract stripping, school business companies, standardized tests, the list goes on.

But there are more factors at play than simply who governs. There is also the response and political pressure by the governed. An equally big problem of the last two decades has been the failure of citizens to speak up and act up to protect social services.

My greatest disappointment about this election was not the outcome, but the fact that not a single party stood up and spoke out for a radical re-evaluation of the massive inequity in our society. No political party really spoke to the need to tax the wealthy and to reinvest that money in services that benefit everyone, collectively. Like every election in my adult memory (back to the Vander Zalm days of the eighties), the debate was between a neo-liberal party of the right, and an NDP trying to be a Blairite party of the centre who speaks left to a left audience, right to a right audience, and promises nothing to anyone for fear someone might not like it.

What was the NDP platform on education? Just like everything else - we will undo just a small portion of the damage the Liberals did. That equated to putting $100 million back into a system that has had $500 million taken out and refusing to reinstate class sizes, and preserving all funding for private schools. It reminded me of the picket sign I most hated in the early days of Liberal attacks on social services that read: "These cuts are too deep". No. There should be no cuts. A fair and equitable society depends on redistribution of wealth and the provision of universal health care and public education.

Significant cuts to public education began in the 1990's under the NDP, and partly in reaction to the substantive roll backs from the federal Liberal government of transfer payments to the provinces. In my district, Greater Victoria, the School District lost 370 full time equivalent positions between 1991 and 2009. 245 of these - two thirds - were lost between 1991 and 2001.

Interestingly, in that twenty year period, staffing increased in only four years: 1993, immediately after Victoria teachers went on strike for class size provisions, 1995, another bargaining year, and 2005 and 2006, the years just after the BCTF went on strike illegally for two weeks over class size and composition.

The lesson? We get what we fight for, no matter what government is in power.

I am not disappointed this week. I am hopeful that those wanting genuine change will give some serious thought to reevaluating strategies that put all hope into electing a supposedly, but not actually, labour and social movement friendly government. Instead, we need to be building networks of activists on the ground and in our communities.

In particular:

* "Revitalizing" the NDP is not the answer. If 2005, 2009 and 2013 haven't convinced you of this, try reading Judy Rebick's insightful analysis of the impossible task:

* Labour needs to return to its roots. That means money into strike funds, not election funds. That means taking strike action, not canvassing. That means fighting for gains that help everyone, not just ourselves. That means rejecting two-tier, divide and conquor contracts that sell out our youngest and newest members.

* Labour and social movements need to work together on the ground, not in election campaigns. We need more events like the "Battle in Seattle" - when NGO's and organized labour worked together to fight the World Trade Organization and the inequality promoted by trade deals and the World Bank. Working on the ground, together, in our communities is what is needed to influence an electorate not yet convinced of the myriad reasons why life will be better for the 99% only if we take back the wealth from the 1%, save our planet, and meet every human being's basic needs. Nothing educates better than mass movements.

We don't have time for another 12 years and another 3 failed electoral attempts by a not-so-social democratic party. As always, the words of tradition serve us well: Don't mourn, organize.