All posts by Guest Contributors

Politics, Re-Spun welcomes guest contributions from activists, organizers, and people who really care about their causes and author pieces we'd like to highlight.

Government and Human Wretchedness

What is government if not a living reminder of our human wretchedness, of the fall made secular, of the post-lapsarian world and the prison house of procedure and law that outlines and structures our existence? Our political institutions are decorated with the heritage of Christianity and Western civilization, and no matter how hard we try to be secular in unwritten form, we as Canadians are procedurally still beneath a monarchy crafted in the ages of kings and queens. The question—if we cannot control ourselves, then who will?—echoes in the halls of western government, and no less in the legislative assembly of British Columbia, where I had the opportunity to spend two days sitting in the press gallery, observing the BC Liberals as they attempted to control themselves, and in the process portray the proper conduct of humans governing humans.

Before we get to far into this, I want you to know some of my motivations (some): the question of whether or not we can govern ourselves through some form of direct democracy will be behind my future contributions. The motivation to create new institutions in-between and out-of old ones inspires me, and is also constantly hanging behind these, my public words. I am inspired by the recently deceased Elinor Ostrom to continue to articulate the empirical complexities of collective action and governance without recourse to panaceas like ‘market’ or ‘state’, like ‘community control’ or ‘centralization’. Because of this love of the fragmented and the material, of the difficult conceptual and pragmatic intersections collapsed in the term ‘socio-ecological’, I have a certain distaste for approaches that involve some random number of principles, guidelines, programs, etc.  As my good friend once put it after a seminar I led on Ostrom’s work, ‘everyone seems to have their 5 or 6 or 10 principles, that if everyone else followed, would surely change the world.’ We don’t need any more tight interlocking systems of digits and concepts, we need messy data, known unknowns, unknown unknowns, and other glorious uncertainties—and we need to embrace their complexities and work through them in collaborative gestures of direct democratic decision-making that involve experts and laypersons alike.  (At least this is what we try to do at The Wayward School.)

Alas, the political world is not built in such a way as to gear well with an appreciation of complexity. During the two times that I sat in the press gallery of the BC Legislature, I witnessed the use of science to supposedly settle a long-standing issue of great complexity, uncertainty, and impact… namely pesticide use and its effect on human and environmental health. In my next piece, I will briefly explore the way that the material recalcitrance of pesticides was represented and navigated through the ‘conduct of humans governing humans’, and offer some reflections about the history of science and policy in the western political tradition.  Throughout my contributions, I hope to outline a few useful ways of recasting the same “critical socio-political intersections” that the Manning Centre for Building Democracy explores in their School of Practical Politics: Business-Politics; Faith-Politics; Economy-Environment.

Needless to say, I’m going to try to think through how these critical socio-political intersections can be navigated in a way to include the public in the articulation and co-creation of values and policies related with them, rather than how they can be navigated to capture the public in frames and schemas for thinking and acting that lead us toward the endless pursuit of panacea.  To open this necessary can of worms requires us to consider a fourth intersection: that of the socio-political to socio-ecological.

I believe humans have good days and bad days.  We have some days where we are angels capable of mystical anarchism, and others when we are wretched sinners in need of a mediator (read: government) between our scrubby human filth and some transcendent realm of goodness. I do believe that we must govern our worst behaviors and our bad habits, but I don’t think the current system of representation can handle this task in any meaningfully inclusive way.  So, next time I will talk about pesticides in BC, along with all this other stuff.  I hope you will follow me.

Balkan Voices: Anti-Austerity Protests in Montenegro Heat Up

Translation and contextual information by Konstantin Kilibarda

Montenegro has been ruled by the same political party, the Democratic Party of Socialist (DPS), for the past 23 years. Along with the government of Belarus, Montenegro has the dubious distinction of being the only country in Europe that hasn’t seen a change in government since 1989. In the past several months an unprecedented wave of protests has hit the country, with workers, students, NGOs and citizens mobilizing against the government. The growing movement has called for the government to resign by 15 May 2012 or the organizers plan to escalate their campaign of non-violent civil disobedience. The movement’s demands include a call for an end to criminal privatizations, free post-secondary education and a serious confrontation with organized crime and corruption in Montenegro.

Below are two translated interviews with Janko Vucinic, head of the Niksic Steelworkers Union and a key trade union official in the Union of Free Trade Unions of Montenegro (UFTUM) that originally appeared in the independent dailies Vijesti (The News) and Dan (The Day). The first interview deals with the lead-up to the last mass protest held last week (5 May 2012). The second interview deals with the position of Montenegrin workers in light of May Day. Images accompanying the text and the accompanying captions help provide further context to the protest movement.

Thousands attend 5 May 2012 rally in Podgorica, Montenegro protesting government austerity, criminal privatization deals, high level corruption and the erosion of worker, student and citizens' rights.

Continue reading Balkan Voices: Anti-Austerity Protests in Montenegro Heat Up

How To Resolve The Transit Fare Evasion Problem

Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom is bringing in new legislation to crack down on fare evaders, allowing collection agencies to go after people who don’t buy tickets. If Lekstrom really wants to deal with fare evasion, then he needs to realize why people don’t pay the transit fares.

If people can’t afford to buy a transit ticket, then how can you expect them to pay the $173 fines for not paying the fare? Now he wants to legislate collection agencies to further harass these people who can’t afford to buy a bus ticket. He further wants to prevent fare evaders from being able to renew their drivers licence or buy car insurance. But Lekstrom does not realize that if people can’t afford to buy a transit ticket, then how can the afford a car let alone buy car insurance.

Mayor Gregor Robertson who didn’t pay a $173 fine during his 2008 election campaign for accidentally riding two SkyTrain zones on a one-zone fare said he wanted to draw attention to what he called unreasonably high fines. He finally did pay the fine. BC NDP leader Adrian Dix also forgot to pay his fare and had to pay the fine. But people forgetting to pay the fare are not the problem. They can afford pay their fines. Now Lekstrom wants to go after those you can’t pay their fines.

The problem is that low income people, particularly those on social assistance cannot afford to pay the fare which is why the evade the fare. The fare really becomes a problem when those who can’t afford to pay the fare for three zones, so sometimes they only have a one or two zone fare to cross three zones, and then they get hit with a $173 fine. Low income people have to pay the same one, two and three zone fares as those who are working.

After years of hard work and campaigning, concession fares were offered to post-secondary students to pay only a one zone fare to cross all three zones if they had a valid student card. But they were not afforded the same concession fare as high school students and seniors. University and College students now get a U pass as part of their student fees which makes transit accessible and affordable to them. The rationale given for this is that students are not able to work full-time. People with disabilities can access an annual pass a low annual fee. So fare evasion is not a problem for them.

How can low income people, especially those on social assistance pay the same fare are those who are working? They should also have access to concession fares or they should be given a transit pass with their assistance or both depending on their situation. This would solve problem of fare evasion and all so-called cost for cracking down on fare evasion with extra security costs and installing turnstiles. This type of legislation that goes after the poor is extremely counter productive and does not solve the problem of fare evasion.

No Iron Lady, But the Lady is a True Orchid of Steel

Michelle Yeoh during her visit with Suu Kyi outside her house gates in Rangoon.

Coming out in the heels of Aung San Suu Kyi recent electoral breakthrough of her National League for Democracy, The Lady, is an epic feature film directed by Luc Besson, about the Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Michelle Yeoh’s true to life depiction of Suu Kyi’s political life as the Uniter of the Burmese peoples’ democratic aspirations gives us a very accurate understanding of the events that led to her pro-longed house arrest. She was no Iron Lady but Suu Kyi was called the Steel Orchid.  This film really helps us understand why and how she used her time in solitude to read and write her ideas about democracy and justice.

Yeoh describes the film as “an incredible love story” against the background of “political turmoil”. Paris Match names the film an extraordinary story of love between her deceased husband Michael Aris played by David Thewlis, and a woman who sacrifices her personal happiness for her people. Michelle Yeoh called the film “a labour of love” but also confessed it had felt intimidating for her to play the Nobel Prize winner.

During the shooting of the film, news broke that Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest had been lifted. Luc Besson hesitated to believe what he saw on TV because it looked so much like his recent footage. Yeoh used her spare time to visit Suu Kyi immediately. She says that she got the feeling she was still on the film set during the visit because Luc Besson had recreated the house so accurately. On 22 June 2011 Yeoh wanted to visit Suu Kyi a second time but was deported, reportedly over her portrayal of Suu Kyi. Yeoh watched about 200 hours of audiovisual material on Suu Kyi and took lessons in Burmese to get it all right. This really pays off and becomes evident when she delivers Suu Kyi’s historic first speeches in public in Burmese.

Social Justice and Democracy Activists Fool their Foes on April Fools

Long time social justice and democracy activists fooled their foes on April Fools this year giving the world a double victory with Aung San Suu Kyi and George Galloway winning by-elections to restore voices for reason in the world.

Suu Kyi, a long time political prisoner, won her first election after being freed by the Myanmar military regime. She has fought long and hard for the democracy movement in the former Burma in the tradition of her father General Aung San. The military still controls the country and elected politicians have a token role to play.

George Galloway was also returned to the British Parliament in a by-election, handly defeating his Labour rival Imran Hussien by over 10,000 votes. Galloway formed his own Respect Party when he was thrown out of the Labour Party for his critical opposition to the Labour government policies on the Middle East. This was a great comeback for him after loosing his seat in the 2010 general election.

Even though these two are lone voices in the wilderness, this April Fool’s victory is a victory for all of those who are fighting for social justice and democracy around the world.

SFPIRG: We stand in solidarity with CUPE 3338 and oppose the “reprehensible” recommendation to evict SFPIRG

The following is a quote from SFPIRG’s announcement to students, members, and supporters, posted on its website at www.sfpirg.ca.  It is republished on PoliticsRespun.org in solidarity and to spread the word.

SFPIRG stands in solidarity with and extends our full support to SFSS staff, members of CUPE 3338, who have been locked out of their workplaces by the SFSS Board of Directors. These staff keep vital services (e.g. the Women’s Centre, Out on Campus, clubs’ events, etc.) running for 20,000+ SFU students, including members of the SFSS board themselves. Follow the latest updates on http://twitter.com/#!/cupesfu.

SFPIRG also finds reprehensible the SFSS Student Space Oversight Committee’s recommendation to the SFSS Board of Directors that we be served 3 months’ notice to vacate offices we have occupied for approximately two decades. This was done without consulting us in good faith or considering the needs of students accessing our space and services every day. The Committee also failed to adequately publicize the meeting where this recommendation was deliberated and passed.

SFPIRG is a student-based and student-directed non-profit organization that offers not only community-based research opportunities for students, but also student communal spaces (e.g. lounge, meeting room), a bike tool co-op, training and materials for student organizing, printing/photocopying, outreach/postering support, a wide range of critical academic and grassroots resources, infrastructural support (funding, training, storage) for student groups, and most importantly, a diverse and vibrant student community passionate about social and environmental justice.

Follow our latest updates here: http://twitter.com/#!/SFPIRG, and check out our Programming and Education Coordinator, Setareh Mohammadi, and SFPIRG Board Member Isaac Louie, giving the low-down via CJSF today:

http://www.cjsf.ca/vanilla_archives/2011_July_13_13_00.mp3

 On their website, SFPIRG describe themselves as: “The Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group (SFPIRG) is a student funded and directed resource centre at SFU. We support environmental and social change through research, education and action.”

SFSS CUPE 3338 Lockout “either ignorance or malicious denigration of their vital work”: SFU student

The following open letter to the SFU community was written by SFU student Emma Noonan, originally titled “In Support of a Livable World” and originally published here. It is republished on PoliticsRespun with permission.

On Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 2:13pm, the SFSS Board of Directors issued notice that they were locking out the staff members belonging to CUPE local 3338, bargaining unit 5. This included the office staff of the SFSS General Office, the Copy Centre, the SFU Surrey Office staff, Out On Campus and the Women’s Centre, a total of 15 permanent and 5 term employees. They took this action after almost two years of negotiations over the expired collective agreement. Without going too far into the specifics, the Board of Directors has stated that this is primarily because the SFSS currently pays unreasonably high wages to CUPE employees, who have been unwilling to negotiate wage cuts.

I would like to examine, for a minute, the idea that the SFSS pays too much in wages to its employees. On the SFSS’s lockout website, they state that they were contractually obligated to pay $748 911 in wages and benefits for 12 permanent employees. I am slightly confused by this number because it is the number they use to state how much they pay in wages, for any number of employees, in their budget infographic. Given that this particular CUPE bargaining unit consists of more than 12 people, I must conclude that either the SFSS in fact pays more than that in total wages, or that that number is divided among more people than they imply. However, I will assume that that is money is divided only among the 12 employees mentioned. That means that on average, assuming all possible benefits such as medical and dental were claimed for every employee, these employees had a before-tax income of $62 409.25 for the year.

I know that $30/hr sounds like a lot of money to be paying someone. I understand that $62 409 per year per employee sounds a bit scary, especially as a student who can make maybe a third or a quarter of that and is barely scraping by. It’s frustrating to think that you’re paying someone that much more than you make yourself. But would you really rather we were paying SFSS staff $10/hr? In Vancouver, for people who have families and homes, this is not a realistic living wage. You live here. You know that. With mortgages and groceries and school fees and all the other costs of just getting through the world, is $62 409 really so much to be paying dedicated and experienced professionals?

And it’s not as though your student fees are being shoveled out the door on a daily basis as hand outs or as money wasted, as the SFSS Directors “money saved” tweets would have you believe. The General Office and the Surrey Office staff does the work of actually providing a great many of the SFSS’s services such as coordinating room bookings, making sure allocated funds get where they need to go and serving as a stable frame around which a new Board of Directors can form from year to year. I would even argue that many of the activities and events proposed by the SFSS Directors on Twitter over the course of the lockout would be much more difficult and time-consuming to organize without this staff. Outside of the General Office are the Out on Campus and Women’s Center staff, who provide invaluable services to SFU students. Not only are they available to answer questions and help deal with crisis situations, but on a day-to-day basis they run libraries, organize events, participate in and are responsive to their respective collective bodies, advocate for students both specifically and generally, give guest lectures in classes, organize with the Health Center as well as with off-campus groups to provide free condoms and lubricant to anyone who needs them, organize the volunteers of their respective spaces and liaise with the SFSS board Continue reading SFSS CUPE 3338 Lockout “either ignorance or malicious denigration of their vital work”: SFU student

We are “refusing to cross picket lines”: Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Student Union and the SFSS CUPE Lockout

This open letter was originally written by Chelsea Mackay and the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Student Student, published originally here and republished on PoliticsRespun.org with permission.

Dear SFSS Board Members and President Jeff McCann,

The Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Student Union (GSWSSU) has been blindsided by the recent lockout of CUPE 3338 workers at the SFSS General Office, Out On Campus, and the SFU Women’s Centre.

Firstly, we are shocked that you have justified this lockout on our behalf. We were not consulted on this issue, and we absolutely do not find a lockout to be an appropriate solution to the financial issues of the SFSS.

The GSWSSU received $100 in Core funding this semester, and have not requested any grant money so far. While we understand that other Student Unions and clubs use more money than we do, we still do not find the cuts you suggested for CUPE 3338 Unit 5 workers to be acceptable, nor justifiable. Full time staff, according to your website, get paid $30.48/hour, and you argue that they should take a decrease in pay to $26.66/hour. According to our calculations, if staff were to work 30 hours/week, and 48 weeks/year, they would be going from $43,891.20 per year before taxes to $38,390.40 per year before taxes. This is a pay decrease of over $5,500 per year. As a collective, the GSWSSU agreed that this is an unacceptable pay decrease, and that the refusal of this wage is absolutely justifiable. We are offended that the SFSS would suggest such a large wage cut for workers who we greatly respect, and we are especially offended that this has supposedly been done on our behalf.

Also, while we have heard from your office that the cuts were meant to be 12% across all workers from all areas, we have heard differently from CUPE workers. Specifically, we have heard that student part-time workers are facing cuts of 40%, and even 50% for recently hired employees. We have also heard that the staff of the Women’s Centre and Out on Campus on facing higher wage cuts than the staff from the General Office. Please correct us if we have heard wrong, but the GSWSSU does not support these unequal cuts.

Every interaction Continue reading We are “refusing to cross picket lines”: Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Student Union and the SFSS CUPE Lockout

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose”; or, how to ideologically re-structure your student society: a beginner’s guide: the SFSS CUPE Lockout

By Joel Blok, originally published here

This summer five years ago, the Board of Directors of the SFSS suspended its office staff, barring them from entering their offices and sending them home.  This past Thursday, a different board issued a lockout notice to its office staff, preventing them from work.

In 2006, the rhetorical justification was fiduciary responsibility to the society.  This summer, it’s financial responsibility to the student members.

The arguments will be different, and the current board will undoubtedly do its utmost to disassociate itself from 2006.  The outcome has yet to be seen.  But the goal, invariably, is the same.  The board of directors of the SFSS have unilaterally decided to re-structure the student society, and will exhaustively work to rhetorically cloak their own ideological efforts as being in your best interests.

Here’s the structural reality: the SFSS cannot exist without its staff.  None of the many services it offers could be accomplished, none of the important campaigns it mounts could be undertaken, none of the advocacy that it does could occur without the honest and sincere labour of the staff of the student society.  So how do you radically alter the direction and orientation of your society, with no transparency, accountability or consultation?  You replace your staff.

The important lesson that this board apparently learned from 2006 is to undertake this project under a more “legitimate” (though no less antagonistic) means.  As there is no contract in force between the SFSS and its employees, the board can, legally under the labour code, lock its workers out.  The last time draconian staff re-structuring was afoot, the board was much less sophisticated, and much clumsier, in its approach.  This time, you will hear arguments about how student unions and clubs will not be funded, how the membership is being taken advantage of by the “shamefully” high cost of providing fair employment to SFSS staff.  You will of course be told of the “intransigence” and “unreasonableness” of the union, who, as of course you all know, are simply unrealistically greedy individuals exploiting the system, and through it, you.  You will be told that, in spite of the board’s best intentions, this is the only way the society can fulfill its “constitutional” duties to its membership, and that the “fiscal reality” of the situation is that either you will lose resources and service, or staff will have to be cut.

All of which carefully distracts from the real imperative of the board in a clever sleight of hand.  The question really has nothing to do with the fallacious and reductive “staff vs. students” antagonism that is being presented, but rather with the ability of the board to exercise unchecked executive power over the society. Again, there’s a clear manipulation of the market discourse. While employing the staff causes “financial problems”, the real “market value” of their labour is never honestly discussed or disclosed when the management goes after the union.

Anyone who has worked in, for, or with the student society knows categorically the importance of the staff to the organization.  Not only does their labour ensure its continued functions, but their expertise and experience, their institutional memory, guarantees that it continues to exist beyond the whims of a one-year-term board.  The staff at the SFSS not only actually provides the services that this board will argue they are threatening, but ensures that those services exist in a meaningful way, that students can depend upon them as they undertake their studies, from year to year.  Without the SFSS staff none of the services their continued employment is purportedly threatening would exist in the first place.  Without the serious responsibility and care they feel towards the students they work for, there’d be no student society to speak of.

The ultimate goal here is not to ensure the “financial viability” of the SFSS; there were plenty of options open to the board both on and off the table before they decided to lockout their employees.  The goal is to remove staff from the equation as much as possible so that decisions of the board are increasingly unchecked, to consolidate executive power, and to allow the unfettered re-construction, or more ominously de-construction, of the society as a whole.  Like those directors of 2006, this current board is undertaking a project of “staff-restructuring” to re-organize the society as they themselves see fit, without membership input.  But don’t worry, this is in your best interest, just trust us.

Joel Blok is a PhD Candidate in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University, the Chief Steward of the Teaching Support Staff Union, and was a graduate student representative on the Board of the Simon Fraser Student Society once upon a time.

Online activists can join a solidarity group on Facebook, supporting SFSS staff here, or can tweet using #SFUlockout as a hashtag.

Coca-Cola: The Happy-time Beverage Made from Blood…by Ameena Mayer

Coca-Cola: The Happy-time Beverage Made from Blood

It is a hot summer day, the kind in which the sunlight splatters upon you like thick slabs of golden lava, running over your face and arms that long for a splash in a sapphire lake. However, you are drowned in the cityscape, the only respite being one of the hundreds of iced beverages available in stores and restaurants. So instead of a lake, you leap into a 7-11 and grab a Coke, salivating at the prospect of the fizzy, sweet liquid gliding in cool, bronze sheets down your throat. Only this time, you notice something a little peculiar about the taste, something sour and rank, like blood. And you think to yourself subconsciously, “It tastes like murder.”

Coca-Cola is on a war path against the world’s workers and underprivileged . For decades, it has been exploiting resources and people in countries such as Colombia and India, all for profit and corporate control. Colombians, for instance, have been struggling for years to boycott Coke due in part to the company’s responsibility for right-wing criminals who kidnap, torture and even murder trade unionists and activists fighting for labour rights. 4000 unionists have lost their lives in recent decades because they were seen as blocking development and investment in Colombia. However, they were fighting for something far more valuable than dollars and cents; over the years, working conditions at bottling plants have been deteriorating at accelerating rates, with only 4% of jobs being permanent and full-time compared with 96% twelve years ago. So while Coke advocates casual, temporary labour, lower wages and poorer working conditions, it also squeezes the blood from those challenging the loss of basic human rights.
The horror story is no less grim in India, where people in over 50 villages are trying to extricate the fangs of the vampire-company from workers’ blood and the nation’s water. In India, the issue is not so much unionists’ rights at bottling plants, but the depletion of a resource already scarce. Coke has been draining villages’ water supplies and polluting ground water, so that farmers are unable to produce an adequate crop-yield in the summer months. As in Colombia, right-wing capitalists in India’s parliament are suppressing villagers’ pleas, allowing a foreign company to lay siege upon its own people for the sake of global militarism. In a nation ridden with poverty and class-division, many are terrified of corporate control of a life-support resource. They envision a future in which Coca-Cola buys India’s rivers and lakes, so that indeed, there will be no water for bathing and drinking to relieve one from the discomfort of a scorching summer day.

As bleak as this situation seems, concerned individuals around the world have been taking measures to eradicate Coke’s war on the the planet and its people. After Coke missed a deadline to assess it practices in India and Colombia, 21 North American universities banned Coke products from their campuses. Moreover, over 6000 Coca-Cola workers are behind the company adopting a human rights policy. And more and more, North Americans, for which the majority of Coke products are created, are realizing that bottled water from Coke-owned companies such as Dasani is hardly any better in quality than tap water and leads to devastating amounts of pollution due to the plastic and fossil fuels needed to package and deliver it. Indeed, they are realizing that a sugar high and a splash of cold fizziness are merely sensory propaganda for a blood-letting war against the innocent.

So on the next smouldering summer day with no lake in sight, or on your next work break when you want a high and nothing less than a sinful pleasure will do, think about boycotting the happy-time beverage that kills, and feel the cool, sweet rush of empowerment and compassion sweep through your veins. Realize you are facilitating the end of not only this war, but others waged by companies who wish to end their pursuit for profit only when there is nothing left to fight for.