“If I lost my job right now I’d probably have to put my house on the market. I know they couldn’t fire me for this, but they could find another reason,” says Steve, a 30-something single father, full-time low-wage worker, and one of several people who initiated the discussion to occupy Harbourside Park in St. John’s this weekend.
“I’m robbing Peter to pay Paul, right? And losing my job would be very destructive to my daughter, who comes first before everything else. So I’m not sure I want my name out there.”
Occupy Newfoundland is the local manifestation of a movement against unequal distribution of wealth that is sweeping across the globe.
The protests were sparked by the Occupy Wall Street encampment, set up almost a month ago near the New York Stock Exchange, to protest corporate greed and corruption.
Saturday morning Steve and others will gather at Harbourside Park to express their frustration over how they say the quality of their lives has been compromised in the name of the imprudent accumulation of wealth by the richest one per cent of the population.
Simultaneously, citizens of Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa and Halifax, along with a growing number of American cities and countries like Ireland, Brazil and France, will gather in solidarity to support the Wall Street protesters.
Occupy Newfoundland already has the support of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour (NLFL), which represents 65,000 workers in 28 affiliated unions provincewide, the Canadian Federation of Students for Newfoundland and Labrador, and a growing number of groups and citizens.
“Just how unjust our economic system has been for so long has been a big issue for the labour movement, not just in Canada but obviously throughout North America,” says NLFL president Lana Payne. “And we see this kind of action at the bargaining table every day in terms of trying to roll back benefits and wages, in particular for the next generation of workers. I think it’s important that we have this kind of independent movement happening.”
Steve says he and others committed to initiating the Occupy movement locally have been handing out circulars to students at Memorial University, connecting with union representatives and organizing the logistics for Saturday’s 10 a.m. start, when union reps and citizens are expected to address the crowd and share their stories.
“It’s important that people know what’s going on in the world,” he says. “There are a lot of issues going on, and really I just want people to get together in the tradition of democracy so our voices can be heard as a people, because that’s not really happening anymore.
“The government is representing corporate interests more and more and, you know, I’m kind of waking up to a larger reality the last little while,” he says. “I’ve been focused most of my life on small issues and what’s going on closer to me, but I feel like I’ve woken up as a part of the world instead of as just a drone.”
Dr. Robert Sweeny, a MUN history professor teaching courses on inequality in Canada and the history of capitalism, says the widespread discontent is due in large part to our provincial and federal governments’ slashing of corporate and high-income earner personal taxes while leaving the rest of the population to pay disproportionately high tax rates.
“The most recent figures produced during the election campaign by the provincial government (indicated) about $500 Million is the price tag of the tax cuts this year, and at least 32 per cent of that went to the top one per cent in Newfoundland,” he explains. “And 63 per cent went to the top 20 per cent of people who pay taxes. So the vast majority of people, about 80 per cent of the population of Newfoundland, benefitted from just a little over a third of the total tax cut.
“For the top one per cent we’re only talking about 2,700 people sharing 32 per cent of $500 Million. That’s a very substantial donation to those who have already benefitted through the very skewed economic growth over the past decade. We’ve had an unprecedented growth in high income earners in the province, people earning over a quarter of a million dollars a year — it’s gone from 800 to more than 1,200 in over four years. And they are the people who are getting the most beneficial tax cuts,” Sweeney says.
“In 2009, the last year we have the complete income tax data for, the average increase for the top income earners in the province, people earning over a quarter million dollars, was $43,000 over the previous three years, and the taxes they paid on that was an additional $2,000. If $43,000 is all they actually earned, they would end up paying $7,000 in taxes.
“The tax rate at the highest end has dropped by 9 per cent at the provincial level since 2007. Nine per cent of your income is a very substantial amount when you earn a quarter of a million dollars. That’s $23,000 you’re not paying in taxes any more. That’s actually higher than the median income for Newfoundlanders. So we are talking about a very substantial growing inequality that is highly concentrated at the top end.”
More information about Occupy Newfoundland’s mission statement is available online at www.facebook.com/occupyNL.