Monday, July 06, 2009

On the Toronto Civic Workers Strike

It's odd how the strike by 24,000 Toronto civic workers has turned the attitudes of the upper middle classes, business executives, small business lobbyists and conservative politicians upside down.
These are the sorts of people who pay civic workers little heed when the garbage is being collected and the daycare centres are operating. They take garbage collection for granted, rarely wondering what sort of pay and benefits the workers take home. They're a lot more worried about whether the TSX is going to have a good third quarter. They resent every single cent in taxes that they pay and reward their accountants handsomely to keep their tax outlays to a minimum. The idea that the City of Toronto might have to increase taxes to meet the costs of the vast range of services it provides, including social services downloaded from the Ontario Government, leaves them foam-flecked and apoplectic.

Then, the Civic Workers go on strike because they don't want the burdens of the recession to be laid-off on them---heaven knows the upper middle classes haven't stepped up to carry a heavier load---and the well-to-do and their political spokespersons suddenly become frantic about garbage collection. Long before most Torontonians were due for their first garbage pick-up after the strike started, the well-heeled crowd was screaming about the imminent demise of civilization. In truth, a Hollywood film director working here would still be highly likely to want to dirty up the streets so Toronto could impersonate a U.S. city.

In Canada, the upper middle classes assume that the state at all levels is there to provide them with roads, airports, security, universities, hospitals and to shelter their incomes from tax and give them a hand with home renovation. But they hate to pay for any of this themselves and celebrate what right-wing think tanks call “tax freedom day”, the day when in theory they've paid for their share of what the state provides for them. Living on the salary of a daycare worker (typically a little over $15 an hour in Toronto) is not something they have to contemplate.

The truth is that this country's Victorian age governmental arrangements---despite the gloss put on them by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982---won't work in the 21st century. Toronto cannot survive on property taxes with periodic handouts from Queen's Park and slaps across the face from Ottawa. A look at the city's crumbling infrastructure and a ride across its potholes are evidence of that.

Canada's cities need to come out from under the shadow of the so-called senior levels of government. They require their own place in the constitution, which would endow them with the authority to raise taxes in all the ways the provinces do. In a time when the global economy is being transformed as the American Empire drowns in a sea of indebtedness, Canadians will have to display considerably more imagination about economic renewal than they are at present if they are to avoid being drowned along with their neighbours to the south.

A key to renewal will be to rebuild our cities to make them energy efficient, to equip them to replace the automobile with trams and other forms of rail and to increase urban population density to cope with the hangover of the receding age of cheap oil. The cities that make these changes effectively will be the centres of learning, culture, and come to think of it, of thriving businesses, in coming decades.

It's too bad our upper middle classes and businesspeople, the ones who would make the big money out of this, are too dumb to figure any of this out. Do I expect them to learn that the taxes they pay include crucial investment capital for the future and that they benefit hugely from the presence of well paid public employees? Not really.