Tax Fairness And Public Services

"I match children and teens with foster parents," says Melissa Dvorak, an employee at Macdonald Youth Services in Winnipeg. "Who knows where these young people would be if we didn't provide this public service." Dvorak's sense of pride in her work is more than a personal belief; it also informs her enthusiasm for a national union campaign called "All Together Now," which defends and promotes public services. Dvorak, who is also president of Local 369 of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union (MGEU), is one of its champions.

"Eight of us travelled from Manitoba to Ottawa for a training session last October," Dvorak says. Sponsored by the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), Dvorak is among the close to 100 "champions for change" representing provincial government employee unions across the country. In the wake of the economic downturn of 2008, public employees are at risk of becoming targets for government cutbacks. NUPGE has countered this potential attack with three basic campaign messages: defend public employees; promote public services; and fight for tax fairness.

"You don't have to be a tax expert to understand the messages," Dvorak says. "It's given me a new way of thinking. I watch the TV news and read the papers and, because of this campaign, now I think differently about tax cuts. I make connections, asking myself: 'If we are cutting taxes, what are we losing?'"

"It's a word-of-mouth campaign and gets others thinking in a different way," Dvorak says. "I have spoken to about 150 people in eight presentations. I've talked to friends in the lunch room; at the union centre; and at educational seminars. I'll talk informally in grocery line-ups and at the coffee shop, too.

"A while ago I would have thought: 'No way I would do this,'" she says about her role as a champion. "But, five months later, here I am talking at the photocopier with co-workers, including about the funding to our agency. We haven't seen increases in our budget for so long." (Dvorak, who has only been in a unionized workplace five years of her 23-year career, appreciates the value of unions, saying she now has more influence over her working conditions, and a voice on funding issues, too.)

Dvorak likes to tell personal stories at her presentations, to bring home the message. "I tell people how my mother was in the hospital for two months with an aneurysm and then eight months in rehabilitation. How my dad was in a skiing accident in British Columbia. He had special medical transportation to a Manitoba hospital and is considered a 'miracle' case, having spent half a year in a coma." The point is, she says, "things can happen out of the blue. You can be in great physical shape, but something happens and it could wipe out your family if you have to pay medical costs."

"If we spend money on things that are not important, like fighter jets, we lose out on better quality of life," Dvorak believes. "Before this campaign, if I had heard the mayor was freezing property taxes for 10 years, I would have thought, 'Great!' Now, as I drive along crumbling roads, I realize there's a price to pay. I don't mind paying my fair share - if it's a fair tax system."

Pressuring corporations to pay their fair share of taxes is a key message and Dvorak believes the All Together Now campaign has been instrumental in helping people understand the issue. She says all Canadians need to get involved. "I tell people to check out the All Together Now website. It's easy to get the messages - it's not overwhelming. They can also write a letter and sign a pledge." The "Equality Pledge," which about 7,000 Canadians have signed to date, addresses the growing wage gap between the rich and poor, and the need for action to reverse this trend.

Dvorak is looking forwarding to the next meeting of "champions" in June, when more ideas and tactics will be introduced. "This campaign is better than seminars and listening to experts," Dvorak believes. "The word-of-mouth strategy is effective - everyone is on the same level."

Tina Vuckovic has been working for the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority in Regina for 13 years and is a member of the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees' Union (SGEU). Vuckovic says she "caught the union activist bug" in 2001. "Things snowballed. I wanted to know more about the labour movement," she says. "I discovered we are usually fighting the same battles, no matter what our job is."

A single parent with a 12-year-old son, Vuckovic still finds time to be involved at all levels of her union. "In 2010, I was elected vice-president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour," she says. "It's been an eye-opener as I get more involved. The All Together Now campaign has come at a time when discussions about privatization are going on across the province."

Vuckovic's work experience at different liquor board sites has strengthened her ability to respond to members' concerns. "As chief steward, if a union member calls, I have the background to help out," she says.

Following the training session in Ottawa last autumn, Vuckovic took the campaign's messages to union meetings and then began striking up conversations in supermarket line-ups and coffee shops.

"I get invitations from unions to make presentations," Vuckovic says. "They are about 15 minutes to one hour. At our provincial federation of labour conference, we set up a table and 300 people signed pledges. We got fuelled by this."

Next came a "day of action" on the streets of Regina. "We gave out leaflets on lunch hour," Vuckovic says, "and people wanted more leaflets. Our message was about corporation tax cuts and federal revenue loss, and how this trickles down to the province and to our crown corporations and public services. I'll connect the dots when I talk to people about this: if we have corporate tax cuts, this leads to governments clawing back the hours of working people and this affects the quality of our social programs."

Vuckovic says governments are prepared to bend for corporations when it comes to tax breaks, but not workers. She points out that Canada has among the lowest corporate tax rates among the industrialized countries.

Recently, in Saskatchewan, the government cut back the Human Rights Tribunal staff to one employee, a move which Vuckovic says should also cause public alarm. "We talk about what's going on in the U.S. and how our basic rights can be taken away here, too," she says, referring to how in Madison, Wisconsin, Republican Governor Scott Walker's state government passed a law in March 2011 to ban public employees' collective bargaining rights.

"Some rank and file workers may think, 'This doesn't affect me' — but it can," Vuckovic says. "The more involved you are with the union, the more you care about what's going on outside your workplace,"she observes.

Vuckovic has noticed the media are bringing up the issue of corporate tax cuts more frequently. She credits the All Together Now campaign for this. "I was reading articles about this issue and hearing debates on the evening news. I was shocked and impressed. I've never been part of something so big. Using social media, ads and word of mouth has had an impact."

"My son overhears me talking. When I listen to him talking to his friends, I realize he is picking up these ideas. I took him to Ottawa with me for the training session and he was asking me, 'What is a corporate tax cut?' He wants to know more."

"I do feel optimistic and believe we will see a change," Vuckovic says. "Maybe not big changes, but baby steps, which is a good start. We need a federal budget that is more focussed on seniors, pensions and citizens. Citizens built this country, not corporations. We need to look after them."

Glenn Kennedy has been employed as a gaming analyst in Halifax since 1997, checking and approving government-run casinos. It's also been his first union job: he's a member of Local 6 of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees' Union (NSGEU), and his job title is "labour and workforce development inspector." While the father of two small children, he didn't have much time to get involved with union activities. "As my kids got older, I had more time," Kennedy says. "I started to see things. I became interested. I went to a local union meeting and people were friendly. We had common interests. I took a course for shop stewards."

"I'm originally from Cape Breton and my father worked in a steel plant and so did my brother," he says. They were involved with their union - and now, so is Kennedy. He is not only a steward, but on the local's board and chairman of a regional council. Added to these union duties, Kennedy has signed on as a champion for change.

"When you hear politicians say they need to balance the budget and trim public services, that's what you believe," he says. "But the campaign opened my eyes and I realized, 'This is not necessarily true.' The debt means we are missing money. Corporations are among the richest one per cent in the country." Kennedy says these corporations need to pay their fair share.

"In the last 20 years, the rich have been getting richer. Tax laws haven't kept up and there are loopholes to keep them rich. This means Canada is spending less and has a revenue loss."

He says governments argue that corporate tax cuts will stimulate the economy because companies can hire more people. "But there are more economic benefits when governments increase spending on social programs."

Kennedy uses PowerPoint presentations; videos from the campaign website; and local newspaper articles, to spread the ideas of the campaign. "People will say to me after the presentation: 'I didn't know that.'"

He says the loss of federal revenue is partly due to the "super rich" - those making a salary of $250,000 a year or more - who are not paying their fair share of taxes. "There are other reasons, too," he acknowledges, "even more so in the United States. There's the housing crisis; an economic downtown; and bank and insurance risks. But who is getting bailed out? It's the banks and corporations."

Kennedy remembers how, at the campaign session in Ottawa, a participant shared a story about her child, who was in the hospital for a year before fully recovering. "She said, 'Thank God for health care. In the United States, I would have been bankrupt.' The working poor are one illness away from bankruptcy."

Kennedy says Prime Minister Stephen Harper is not disclosing the true cost of corporate tax cuts. Meanwhile, NDP leader Jack Layton has signed the All Together Now pledge.

"In Wisconsin," says Kennedy, "Governor Walker is looking at a massive debt and says he will balance the budget on the backs of public servants. His actions are spreading across the U.S. and our border. We need to spread our message more than ever - and people are getting it."

Felicia Fahey is store manager at a Liquor Control Board branch by day. But, on her own hours, she is a dynamic trade union and community activist. President of Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) Local 681, in Sudbury, Ontario, she also champions the All Together Now campaign.

"I was inspired by the Ottawa session," Fahey says of the 2010 training workshops. "For an 'icebreaker' activity, we broke into groups and talked about taking pride in our jobs. The question was: 'Why is your job important?' There was a long pause in my group. People had no idea. We don't put a spotlight on our work, as Canadians. But then people started speaking and saying things like, 'I help get children out of abusive homes.' By the end of the icebreaker, there wasn't a dry eye in the place."

"Public services are important and so is tax fairness," Fahey believes. "We heard different perspectives about this. One person said taxes are a gift from our grandparents to us, to give us health and education."

"The campaign takes a grassroots approach," she explains. "We go to members, one on one, in lunch rooms. We talk to co-workers and family and friends. But we also use social media and YouTube videos. The campaign uses humour, too, which draws in people who don't normally listen."

Fahey helped organize a demonstration in front of a bank in Sudbury as part of the campaign. She says these financial institutions are the biggest lobbyists for corporate tax cuts. She was also involved with a community demonstration at Sudbury Regional Hospital to highlight the campaign messages. The protesters supported the cause of Sam Bruno, a local citizen who advocated for PET scans (Positron Emission Tomography) to be available to the general public, before dying of cancer last summer. The Bruno family, along with community members, continue to fundraise in his name.

"There is no accountability with corporations," Fahey says. "They don't say they will create jobs if we give them tax cuts. And we don't follow up to see if they do."

"People don't think things can change, but we elect governments," she says. "You have to motivate people. We can see this in the States. There are union rallies, and it has gone beyond union members. We are all a united force of union and community."

"I am optimistic, because the feedback to the campaign has been outstanding. People are catching on. We have a voice."

Fahey was in Toronto recently to demonstrate at the provincial legislature against a law taking away the right to strike from TTC workers (Toronto Transit Commission). "They closed down the legislature," she says. "We refused to leave. It's our government. And it is our place to be heard." (Unfortunately, the provincial government went ahead anyway and took the right to strike away from TTC workers, declaring the TTC an essential service.)

"It's time to take a stand," Fahey believes, before all is lost. "This is a unique campaign. Word-of-mouth hasn't been done in long time and we are putting pride back in people."

Sharron Gardner is an outreach worker in Kamloops, B.C., helping the homeless and people on income assistance. She has been working in social services in British Columbia's north and interior for more than 24 years and is a long-time member of the British Columbia Government and Service Employees' Union (BCGEU).

"It was good to meet other people in public services," she says of the gathering of champions in Ottawa last year. "You get to see what other public service workers were doing. You can read about these things, but it's never quite the same as talking to a frontline worker."

When Gardner gives talks, she considers the audience. "I talked to young workers a few weeks after Free the Children's WE Day event in October, during which both Martin Sheen and Al Gore spoke. So, I quoted Sheen and Gore. I also pointed out that our government collects more money in tuition fees from students than they collect in corporate taxes. Many of these young workers are part-time and go to university or college, so they get it."

Gardner says another way to look at our tax system is that we pay 32 cents on every dollar in taxes to the government, while corporations pay 11 cents for every dollar - and those taxes come from their profits. "If we have big corporations coming into our country, they should give back to Canada. They should pay like the rest of us."

As for public services, Gardner, like the other champions, says we have to connect the dots between getting a tax break and losing social services. "You may save $10 in a tax break, but the loss of the service could mean you pay $40 to get what you need, through privatization." As for universal health care, Gardner thinks we could expand the services. "I work with people and see how their physical health can be affected by the condition of their teeth." Gardner thinks dental care should be included.

The union demonstrations in the United States are very relevant, Gardner believes. "Seventeen protestors were just arrested in Washington State for protesting cuts to home care services," she says. And so is the survival of the American economy. "If Americans go under, we could, too."

With people taking to the streets from the United States to the Middle East, Gardner believes these times are as exciting as the 1960s. "We will bring about change," she predicts. "People realize we have to unite to bring change. This campaign is not just important for unions - it's important for everyone."


The richest 1% of Canadians now pay a lower total tax rate than the poorest 10%. Why doesn't this shock us any more?

Canada now has the lowest corporate tax rates of the richest 7 countries in the world. Our corporate tax rates are 15% lower than the U.S. rates. Just how low do we need to go?

In 1995, the top 10 earners in Canada made a combined total of $60.7 million. By 2007, that number had jumped to about $330 million.

Between 1990 and 2005, the total tax rate went up for the poorest Canadians and it went down for the wealthiest Canadians. The richest 1% of Canadians now have a lower total tax rate than the poorest 10% of Canadians.

Between 1993 and 2003, the five big Canadian banks used their offshore accounts to avoid paying $16 billion in Canadian taxes.

All Together Now campaign website


Janet Nicol is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and regular blogger.