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The Basic Income debate

Pam Frache

April 16, 2017

On April 13, about 300 people, all of them united in their desire to improve the well-being of the most vulnerable among us, took their seats in the OISE auditorium to listen to a discussion about Basic Income (BI) and its implications for addressing poverty. What we need to keep in mind is that, regardless of a person’s views on BI, this particular event was a meeting of allies. It is unproductive to characterize any of the debaters or audience members as supporting poverty, the poverty police, or even the current inhumane system that delivers untold misery to so many. 

Moderating the debate was Avi Lewis from the Leap Manifesto, a veteran journalist, moderator, film-maker, and activist. Proponents of BI were Josephine Grey, with Low Income Families Together (LIFT) and Guy Caron, NDP MP and federal leadership candidate. Critiquing BI proposals were John Clarke, an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), and Jessica Sikora, president of OPSEU Local 586. The Leap Manifesto should be commended for organizing a much-needed debate on the issue of BI and providing a space for progressive forces to come together to grapple with strategies and tactics.

However, in the aftermath of the debate, it is worth clarifying what, precisely, was being debated.

First, neither John Clarke nor Jessica Sikora were suggesting that it is impossible to design or dream up a beautiful vision of universal adequate income for all. Nor were they arguing that a genuinely left-wing model isn't possible to theorize, as some have suggested. What they were arguing, however, is that the left-wing version will not be enacted in the foreseeable future. Not only is it cost-prohibitive under present circumstances, it is contrary to the logic of capitalism. Simply put: no capitalist state will provide workers with the resources to go on indefinite strike.

To realize the vision espoused by Josephine Grey and other well-intentioned people, we would have to forcibly re-appropriate capitalist wealth and create an entirely new economic system. Since that scenario is, at present, not on offer, we must acknowledge that whatever vision of BI is delivered will fall short of the best ideals. And if we agree that the model offered up will fall short of the ideal model, then we have a responsibility to soberly assess the ways in which it is likely to fall short, and plan accordingly.

Basic income problems

In an excellent piece, Michal Rozworski sets out the cost of a modest Ontario BI proposal based on $15,000 in annual income—a  sum that comes nowhere near lifting workers out of poverty:

To implement a $15,000 basic income, while getting rid of welfare, but keeping things like education, healthcare and higher education, would still mean raising an additional $200 billion in revenues. That’s more than double the $91 billion Ontario is able to raise in taxes today (Ontario has total revenues of $130 billion).

Given the costs, we can assume that the model offered up be neither universal (available to everyone) nor adequate. And it will certainly not be enough to allow workers to comfortably opt-out of the wage-labour system, even if the people concerned have injuries or disabilities. We know that if the program isn’t universal, it will have to be targeted, which, by definition, will require some form of income testing. This fact alone will ensure that BI recipients face financial scrutiny; this will prolong, not abolish, variations of the poverty police. We need only look at the experiences of those receiving unemployment insurance or social assistance to see what form this scrutiny and harassment may take.

Means-testing is further complicated if it relies on household income as a measure, as is common with so many social assistance programs today. If BI entitlement is based on household income, then it will reduce the agency of women (and children and seniors) because those facing oppression in society also face oppression within the household. They will have less ability to leave abusive relationships for fear of falling into poverty, and it will perpetuate gender-, youth-, and age-based inequality; we know household income is not shared equally among all members of the household.

If BI is used to top-up low wages, then it will create incentives for employers who used to pay decent wages to reduce wages so they won't have to compete with companies that benefit from subsidized labour and, in any case, BI will serve as a public subsidy for cheap labour strategies. That means our precious public dollars will be re-directed into the coffers of corporations, not to human needs. It is worth noting here that in Ontario, contrary to the rhetoric of the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, large corporations are five times more likely to pay minimum wage than small businesses.

If BI funding siphons public resources away from existing social programs, it will either displace them or erode them. This is an important point to keep in mind in the context of a targeted BI program. However flawed and inadequate are our social programs, many modest- and middle-income people rely on a variety of social programs and will suffer if these programs are cut. (And, of course, this will have the added disadvantage of undermining solidarity between themselves and BI recipients.)

And even if BI is introduced robustly at first—to entice even the skeptics into the arena—what then happens when that same or subsequent government, cuts BI the way the Ontario Tories did for social assistance or the federal Liberals did for unemployment insurance in the mid 1990s? Given the failure of the social movements to substantially reverse these and other neoliberal trends over the past 25 years, it is difficult to imagine how precisely we would stop these cuts now. And if our other social supports have already been weakened, then working people and those relying on social assistance will be left to fight in objectively worse circumstances than we are today.

Balance of forces

As John Clarke has noted on numerous occasions, we need to remember that when we last won major concessions from the ruling class—like unemployment insurance, union rights, and health care—it was during a period when the masses were considerably better organized and better mobilized than they are now. At the high point of the labour struggle in Canada, nearly one in every three workers had been on strike.

Although proponents of BI acknowledge we need to fight for the “best version” of BI, they fail to acknowledge the present balance of class forces. In a period where union density and strike levels are low, where those without paid work struggle just to survive on sickeningly low levels of social assistance, disability supports or workers’ compensation, and where every aspect of our social safety net from unemployment insurance to health care has been battered by austerity and neoliberal cuts, it simply not credible to dismiss the threats posed by BI as something to be defeated at some future time. If we are to defeat these negative aspects of BI, we must acknowledge these dangers and prepare the struggles now. As outlined, it will be much harder to do so once they are implemented.

If we agree that political parties funded in large measure by the very corporations that benefit from having a large pool of cheap labour will be unlikely allies (unless they are forced to do so by the strength of the social movements), then we must look to other forces to effect change. That force must be comprised of the social classes—the 99%—that are subordinated under the present system. In short, need a mobilized working class that can begin to exercise its economic strength in the workplace and provide a lead to all those being ground down by the system.

But there is nothing automatic about this process. No amount of hectoring, moralizing, or reciting the myriad of injustices suffered by ordinary people under the present system will conjure up a movement of the 99%. Most people trying to survive under capitalism know its horrors intimately. They live it every single day.

What we do need are campaigns that engage ordinary people, that offer effective work, and that can start to win even modest goals like higher social assistance rates, a $15 minimum wage, paid sick days, or easier access to unions. Such accomplishments—if based on workers’ own activity—can have a transformative impact on peoples’ confidence to fight, as we have seen most recently in the case of food service workers at York University and the University of Toronto (Scarborough). By tying their collective bargaining demands to the Fight for $15 and Fairness, UNITE HERE Local 75 members were able to leverage broader class forces to help them strike for and win a groundbreaking contract that delivers dramatic wage increases and equal benefits for part-time and full-time workers—all this in a sector that has been characterized by low union density and, correspondingly, stubbornly low wages and poor working conditions.

Sadly, some BI proponents at the debate displayed a dismissive attitude toward OCAP’s Raise the Rates campaign and the Fight for $15 and Fairness. Such attitudes, however, reveal a deep misunderstanding not only about the importance of these campaigns, but also about what forces deliver progressive change. What is important about these campaigns is not the particular dollar value of the social assistance rates, the minimum wage hike, or the precise number of paid sick days we win (although these things have important strategic implications for activating and uniting the broadest numbers of workers and, if implemented, can make meaningful differences in the lives of real people). What ultimately matters is building the confidence of ordinary people to fight—convincing ourselves (and others) that it is possible to take a lick out of the system; that, when we organize, pool our resources, and strategize, we can make meaningful change. History also shows us that success is contagious. Successful struggles often inspire other struggles.

Fight for $15 and Fairness

The Fight for $15 and Fairness matters to the extent it focuses on workers’ self-activity—not on the ballot box or on the benevolence of sections of capital. By building up our own forces to demand change, not passively waiting for our elected officials to do the right thing, the Fight for $15 and Fairness is taking seriously the challenge of rebuilding workers’ confidence to demand more. Some of the most crucial campaign goals of the Fight for $15 and Fairness are against workplace reprisals and for better enforcement of the laws to enhance workers’ ability to take action in their workplace.

Of course, $15 isn’t enough—but if we can mobilize to make $15 the law of the land for everyone, then it will be easier for unions to bargain more. And that, in turn, would make it easier to set even higher standards for work and wages for all workers. As we often say in the Fight for $15 and Fairness, we need a working-class mobilization to raise the wage floor, and will make it easier for unions to set the bar. And, of course, history shows us that the greater the combativity of the working class, the greater our ability to increase the social wage—like health care, unemployment insurance, disability supports, social assistance, child care, public education systems, public transit, pensions for injured workers and retirees, infrastructure, and even the restoration of our environment.

For inspiration we need only look to the accomplishments of the Fight for $15 in the US, where the bravery of fast-food workers taking strike action in hundreds of cities—risking their jobs and risking arrest—has been an global inspiration. But these audacious tactics have only spread because there have also been some clear-cut wins. The first substantial victory emerged in the municipality of SeaTac (WA), where airport workers mobilized the broader working class to support legislative changes that ushered in a $15 minimum wage, paid sick days, and fairer scheduling.

This SeaTac momentum was the catalyst to the victory in Seattle, where socialist city councillor Kshama Sawant was able to rally working-class voters to make a $15 minimum wage the central issue in the municipal election. As a result, Seattle became the second municipality to enact legislation to raise wages and improve working conditions for all workers in the jurisdiction, not just for those in unions or those hired or contracted by the city.

Indeed, it was the audacious tactics (the walkouts by small handfulls of non-union fast-food workers in New York City) combined with actual victories in other jurisdictions that proved inspirational. As Naomi Klein observed, the US Fight for $15 put CEOs on the ropes. Since launching in 2012, the Fight for $15 has delivered wage increases to nearly 20 million under-paid workers in the US, raising their wages by nearly $62 billion. In addition to winning pathways to $15 in cities across the US, there are now two states—California and New York—that have legislated increases to $15. The Fight for $15 has also delivered paid sick days and fairer scheduling in jurisdictions across the US.

Within 20 days after the 2016 federal election that put Donald Trump in the White House, underpaid workers in 340 cities took strike action—including airport workers, personal support workers, academic workers, Uber drivers and more. They put Trump on notice that they will not stop until they win $15 and union rights and they will not tolerate anti-Black racism, xenophobic deportations, or attacks on health care. These actions have helped put the strike tactic back on the agenda in the US among non-union and union workers alike. Low-income workers’ wages are now increasing faster than those in higher income jobs—which is an actual reversal of the trends of the past 40 years.

That the Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter are beginning to link anti-racism struggles with workplace justice is a critical development in the movement in the US. In fact, April 4 in the US was an exceptional anniversary that was marked by demonstrations and actions in dozens of cities in the US. April 4 marked the 49th anniversary of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was killed while in Memphis supporting the strike of Black sanitation workers. April 4, 2017 was also the one-year anniversary of winning state-wide $15 minimum wage legislation in New York and California. Now a new coalition, The Majority, is preparing for a mass walkout on May 1 in the US.  As Sarah Lazare, of describes:

…Momentum for a massive May Day strike appears to be growing. Earlier this month, a network of more than 300,000 farmworkers, servers, cooks and food-manufacturers, including a large local chain of the Service Employees International Union, announced that they will join the walkout “to stop the relentless attacks of the Trump administration and its allies in corporate America.” Immigrant justice organizations, including Movimiento Cosecha, or Harvest Movement, have spent months organizing across the country for Un Dia Sin Inmigrantes (A Day Without Immigrants) to win the “permanent protection, dignity, and respect of immigrants.”

To bring this discussion back to the question of BI in Ontario, the real risk of the BI debate—as we glimpsed on April 13—is that BI proponents, whether they hail from the left or the right, will counterpose BI to the urgent need to improve the wages and working conditions of the most vulnerable workers. This will have the effect of confusing and disorienting the decent work movement, just as it is acquiring enough momentum and coherence to give confidence to other workers to fight – and at a moment when the Liberal government is so politically weak that it might be preparing to make some modest concessions to that movement. In this light, it would be an utter tragedy if the ruling classes were able recover their footing by de-railing and disorganizing the movement by offering up a thoroughly neoliberal Trojan Horse under the guise of BI.

But we must also remember that proponents of BI are also our allies or potential allies—many who support BI also want to see improvements in wages and working conditions. The challenge for us is to take up the debate in a way that builds unity, confidence, and political clarity, not additional divisions. At the April 13 debate, those with a critical analysis of BI were outnumbered by a ratio of about two to one. But this is a far better starting point than many debates we have encountered; and experience itself is an excellent teacher. For all these reasons it has never been more urgent for socialists and others with foresight and political clarity to engage patiently—but clearly—in these discussions.

 Join the conference One solution, revolution, Marxism 2017, April 21-22 in Toronto, including the sessions “The Fight for $15 and Fairness: how we won at York”, “Crisis: the new capitalist normal?”, and “Leap manifesto and just transition” with Avi Lewis

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