Looking behind the mask of austerity in New Brunswick

Written by Asaf Rashid on June 22, 2015


Members of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in New Brunswick, the province’s largest public sector union, have been mobilizing against the Gallant government’s cuts to education and privatization schemes of vital services such as health care. Street demonstrations and rallies have occurred, including a rally at the Legislature on May 28, 2015 attended by hundreds, including the widows of health care protesting the death of public health care, seen here.

One word defines the New Brunswick 2015 /2016 budget and its aftermath: austerity, largely felt through cuts to public services. The cuts have galvanized the creation of the NB Prosperity Not Austerity Coalition, which is challenging the austerity measures.

“The coalition is growing and represents over 100,000 people in New Brunswick,” said Patrick Colford, president of New Brunswick Federation of Labour. The coalition includes the NB Federation of Labour, CUPE NB, Unifor, NB Coalition for Pay Equity, Common Front for Social Justice, Mount Allison University Faculty Association, Reproductive Justice NB, Fédération des étudiants et étudiantes de l’Université de Moncton, among others.

The coalition rejects austerity as a solution to New Brunswick’s economic woes.

Announcements of major cuts to public services in New Brunswick followed the release of the 2015 /2016 budget. Each government department is expected to cut 10% of their expenses, which the government claims is necessary in order to chip away at a $476 million deficit that places it on a fiscal cliff. Finance Minister Roger Melanson has also given an ominous warning that the worst is yet to come in future budgets.

The entire logic of the fiscal cliff argument has been challenged. “We look at the debt ratio in the province and we’re actually in the middle of the pack. This talk of going off a fiscal cliff is not true. We actually line up fairly equally with the national average with our debt,” said Colford. “It’s just fearmongering.”

Making the debt emergency look even more suspect is the fact that the government, “piled on to this deficit a $150 million slush fund.”

Richard Robbins, co-author of a forthcoming book, Debt as Power, also rejects that there is a fiscal cliff threatening people in general. Austerity, he says, is simply banks “taking” from ordinary people in order to sustain economic growth, a necessary aspect of capitalism. “If the economy can’t grow fast enough, the money has to be taken from somewhere. (They) get to take money from elsewhere: pensions, education, from labour by laying off workers …and in the form of property by privatization.”

The reason banks seek to take in this manner is to benefit themselves and wealthy investors. “There is 4000% more money in the Canadian economy now than in 1968. Why then is austerity necessary? So the 1% can retain their return on investments. The only reason you want to reduce the national debt (through repaying banks) is to keep money scarce so that money can retain its value, (which is only a concern) for those with a lot of money who fear inflation. For most people, inflation is good because it makes it easier to pay off debts,” said Robbins.

Public service workers and users in New Brunswick know the pinch of austerity well. As part of the government’s trimming exercise, “(Education will be losing) $111 million. That’s going to have a big impact in children,” said Brian Watson, president of CUPE 1253, representing bus drivers, custodians, maintenance workers and engineers in the public school system. He knows that the budget cuts will inevitably lead to sizable job losses in his area. “I’m also a grandparent that has a child in the system. It concerns me that my granddaughter is going to a school that can’t be properly maintained.”

Ida Haggerty is an educational assistant at a high school in Bathurst. “We will have layoffs coming up in my area… I work with children who are not getting the services they deserve. They don’t get to stay for a full day, don’t get to participate in extracurricular activities because of cuts over the years. My fear is that they’ll be cut even further, which will lead to devastating effects.”

Even emergency services have not been free from cuts. “We’ve had one ambulance cut (in Chipman), potentially cutting 8 full time and 2 part time jobs. There’s not enough ambulance service as there is. (with these cuts), it’s going to increase response times … there’s going to be more open areas in the province,” said Judy Astle, president of CUPE 4848, which represents paramedics and dispatchers.

Many more cuts are threatened as a consequence of this year’s budget and those to follow. In response, NB Prosperity Not Austerity has challenged the austerity measures with a recent declaration . It warns that, “a reduction of government expenses at a time of economic hardship would have a negative impact on employment, public programs and the economy, and would further damage the social safety net that was put in place in the last decades.”

Instead, it calls for “diversifying the economy, encouraging value-added transformation of our natural resources and developing a green economy.”

Workers represented by locals of CUPE NB have been particularly hard hit by the cuts, which only look to get worse. Daniel Legere, president of CUPE NB, considers this irresponsible. “Government has a role to play in a depressed economy. (The government can) run a deficit to stimulate an economy.”

He pointed out that austerity measures to reduce deficits in the past have failed to improve the economic condition of people in New Brunswick. “We had past governments that cut corporate and personal taxes with the idea that people would flock back to New Brunswick. That exercise failed.”

Recognizing that the government has thus far ignored CUPE’s warnings about the effects of such cuts, the union is seeking to approach the public directly, to inform people about the pitfalls of the government’s austerity measures. They have already held several information pickets and rallies, including one at the New Brunswick Legislature where approximately 500 people attended. CUPE intends to carry the message further through postcards and having a public presence.

NB Prosperity Not Austerity is planning on doing their own exercises in public engagement, through town halls that turn the government’s logic on its head. “The government has been organizing these town halls that ask ‘where can we cut’? We’re looking asking ‘where can we improve?’ and ‘where should the priorities be?” said Colford.

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