The Occupy Wall Street demonstrators have tapped into a sentiment that has been coming to the surface ever since the crash of the economy in 2008.
Although painted by the mainstream media as a movement without an idea, in fact the basic idea is very simple and very important - there is massive inequality in our society. It has been exacerbated in the last three years since the "great recession", but the tendencies and trends have been there since the 1970's. Income inequality in some places is higher than it has been in a very long time...some say since the Great Depression, others as far back as the Robber Barron days of the 1880's.
The slogan "we are the 99" apparently arose in Italy during protests against "austerity" measures that were put in place in 2008. The slogan highlights that the measures that many governments are taking to prop up an ailing economy in fact only help 1 percent of the population while they are hurting the other 99 percent. The notorious bank bailouts have helped the banks, but not any of us. Far from the notion "a rising tide raises all ships", it is becoming glaringly evident that steps to "stabilize" the economy - notably severe cuts to social programs and public spending - actually worsen the economic situation for most people, while continuing to enrich the very few.
Teachers and public sector workers are at the forefront in many of these struggles. When governments cut public services both the public and the workers in those services pay the price. The public gets reduced quality and availability of service. Workers almost always end up working harder and longer to keep the service levels adequate and often take cuts in pay and benefits and pensions as well.
This phenomena has been ongoing for some time. It was the mid-90's when a federal Liberal government drastically reduced transfer payments to the provinces, resulting in Canada's "austerity" measures. For education funding in BC, it has been a steady downward trend since for two decades.
One of the current versions of "austerity" in BC is the "net zero" mandate of the provincial government for public sector workers. For these workers, "net zero" means a 5% decline in income over two years as inflation hovers in the 2-3% range.
Cuts to public sector workers don't just affect those workers. They also impact the communities they live in, as spending is reduced and layoffs take place. BC now has 3500 fewer teachers than a decade ago. This impacts our unemployment rate as well as class size and a reduction in specialist services in schools. The 99 truly pay the price, as local communities face higher unemployment, young teachers can't find jobs, and children don't receive the services they need.
These effects were recognized during the recent demonstrations in Wisconsin when the government brought in draconian anti-union legislation against teachers. The loss of so-called "middle class" jobs is a loss for communities, small businesses, families and everyone who relies on public schools for their children. It is a widening of inequality and pushing the "middle" down towards the bottom.
They are also evident in the "we are the 99" slogan. The problem is the grotesquely wealthy and the massive and widening income gap...not the modest pensions and benefits of unionized workers. We need a world where every one of the 99 percent has a decent income, benefits and pension, not a world where the gap keeps getting wider and wider.