If You Could Change One Thing: Developing policy for progressive change

I had a great change of pace last week, when I stayed out at the CAW Family Education Centre at Port Elgin to teach a 5-day course on "Economics for Trade Unionists" through the CAW's Paid Educational Leave program.

While I have guest lectured many times at Port Elgin, I have never actually taught a course there, so this was a great opportunity for me to experience first-hand how our PEL system trains and inspires hundreds of rank-and-file union activists and local leaders every year, through a wide range of peer-taught courses. The Centre was bursting at the seams with about 250 students in a range of courses -- including toxic substances, pride, collective bargaining, and training to be women's advocates.

My course included 28 willing guinea pigs (first time it's ever been taught), and naturally we used Economics for Everyone as our textbook. My illustrated lectures were based on curriculum material I developed for the e4e website; I test-drove most of this material in a series of shorter courses I taught in 2009-2010 for our sister unions in the Antipodes: the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union and the Engineering Printing and Manufacturing Union (in New Zealand).

I was just thrilled with the PEL course, mostly thanks to the passion, engagement, and commitment of the students. We never lacked for Q&A; I didn't get to finish most of the lectures (which is fine, we all learned more through the discussion). Group exercises (including analyzing your own collective agreement through the lens of capitalism's "labour extraction" problem, analyzing corporate financial reports, and developing "alternative budgets" for an imaginary country) broke up the lectures.

Each student had a culminating project to prepare and present to the class, titled "If You Could Change One Thing." (In the interests of both academic honesty and continued marital bliss, I must acknowledge my partner Prof. Donna Baines for that title, which she originally used in an academic article she published in 2006!) Each student had to choose one policy initiative, with any broad connection to the economy, that they believe would make an incremental positive difference to the lived experience of working people. It could deal with any policy field. The students were asked to conduct some background research, summarize their arguments on a bristol-board poster, and then present their case to the class. These presentations occupied the final sessions of the course.

Collectively, these 28 proposals constitute a pragmatic, compelling agenda for progressive change. Here is a listing of the topics presented:

- Regulate temp agencies to prevent them from skimming wages from precarious workers

- Public pharmacare program to ensure access to medicines and reduce costs

- Financial and organizational support for the formation of workers' co-operatives

- Recognize that overall taxes must rise with income levels to pay for needed public services

- Maintain public ownership of hospitals (instead of P3s) to save money, deliver better care

- Proportional representation to ensure a better expression of democratic will regarding economic policy

- Social justice education program in the schools to sensitive students to broader social issues and problems

- Legalize marijuana to reduce policing/prison costs, and collect tax revenues on the legal trade

- Require de-concentration of private media, and better funding for public media

- Support the family unit through better tax credits, better EI and family leave measures

- Mandated expansion of wind power, with Canadian content rules for equipment

- Government program to maximize circular spin-offs from the "economic cycle of life"

- Introduce mandatory ethics education courses in all business schools

- Restore corporate taxes so corporations pay the same share of total taxes as they used to

- Expand public transportation, and reduce fare prices

- Extended producer responsibility laws to mandate and incentivize recycling in all industries

- New regulations limiting the creation and sale of derivatives (following the example of India)

- Provide tax incentives for new business investments, rather than across-the-board tax cuts

- Value teachers as much as we value professional athletes; have a "draft" to recruit the best teachers

- Government funding to pay people for their current unpaid labour (performed in the home & the community)

- Eliminate the temporary foreign worker program; give full labour rights to migrant workers

- Expand permanent immigration so newcomers to Canada have full rights as all of us, and contribute to a growing economy

- Restore corporate tax rates, and implement targeted corporate tax credits for socially beneficial behaviour (like providing workplace child care)

- "Use it or lose it" corporate tax policy: companies must reinvest 90-95 per cent of their profits in Canada, or pay uninvested funds in taxes

- Free tuition for university and college for any students with 70 per cent average or higher

- Legalize sports betting at Ontario casinos to collect revenue lost to illegal betting

- Impose maximum ceiling on CEO compensation relative to average wages

- "Buy local" strategy to educate residents about benefits of buying locally-made products

If 28 engaged union members can come up with a credible, pragmatic reform agenda like this, why can't our governments?

This article was first posted on The Progressive Economics Forum.

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