Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Direct Action Case Work Victory in Sudbury

Yesterday, L and I took part in a piece of direct action case work at the Ontario Disability Support Program office here in Sudbury with a woman on ODSP to support her in her struggle to win some badly needed food money.

The background is this: Last year, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and the Ontario Common Front were working with health professionals around the province to get people more money. The ODSP and Ontario Works rules at the time allowed health professionals to determine, using their professional judgment, whether a person needed more money to buy food for health reasons. Increasing numbers of health professionals were responding to the mountains of data that show that poverty is a central determinant of ill-health, in part via its impact on ability to meet nutritional needs; and to both the lived experiences of recipients and the easily accessible numbers showing that, despite the rhetoric to the contrary that comes from our provincial Liberal government, social assistance rates do not allow for most recipients to have access to adequate, healthy food. In response to this campaign winning millions of dollars for people living in poverty, the provincial government changed the rules so that people now have to fall into pre-existing diagnostic categories in order to get any supplement -- simply having your health ruined by being poor was not good enough to qualify for the money you might need to actually eat well. There are additional problems with the new regulations, including the fact that people are now forced to diclose private medical information, including things like HIV/AIDS status, to the state.

The group I am involved with, formerly the Hunger Clinic Organizing Committee but recently renamed the Sudbury Coalition Against Poverty, was involved in getting people signed up for the special dietary supplement under the old rules. We never managed to have a full scale "hunger clinic" here in Sudbury, but through taking folks down to Toronto and helping people educate their private doctors, at least a few local people were able to get more of the food they need to live. Since the rule change, we have been involved in both political action to try and change the special diet rules and/or get a general raise in social assistance rates -- the province raised them an insulting few percent in the most recent budget, but they are still more than 30% below what they were in 1995, in constant dollars, and were widely regarded by anti-poverty activists as being inadequate even at that time -- and in some direct action case work.

Direct action case work has always been one of the things I have liked the most about OCAP's approach to social change. Of course it didn't originate with OCAP -- I've heard OCAP members say they model it on actions that were common during the Great Depression in response to evictions and abuses of people who were "on relief", to use the language of that era. The idea is that a person comes forward with some situation in which they have been unfairly treated by the welfare bureaurcracy or a landlord or the immigration bureaucracy or some other authority. OCAP figures out what basis there is for restitution, complaint, or better treatment, sends a polite letter demanding that the issue be addressed, and then backs it up with things like office occupations by lots of unruly activists. This has proven to be very effective over the years, to the extent that often these days all it takes is the initial letter to win appropriate action. It is founded on having a solid knowledge of the rules of whatever institution is being confronted, both at the level of the texts that shape that institutional space and at the level of the actual practice of the people who put those texts into effect; a sufficient base of activists to disrupt the normal functioning of an office or other such action; and a proven willingness to refuse to cooperate with authorities.

There are groups that use this model in other cities in Ontario, many of which are part of the Ontario Common Front. I have also heard about groups in cities beyond the province using this approach, though I'm always surprised that it isn't much more common than it is, given how effective it can be both in winning immediate victories for people and in getting people connected to each other and thereby building capacity for other kinds of struggle.

There is some history of direct action case work in Sudbury. SCAP was a functioning organization for awhile, disintegrated about two years ago, and is now getting going again (with some of the former membership and some new membership, including me). We are focusing most closely on activity related to the special dietary supplement and the more general campaign to raise social assistance rates. I have not yet been particularly involved in the case work, largely because it often requires a kind of flexibility and ability to dedicate significant blocks of focused time that I don't have because of my caregiving responsibilities to L. I have been in on the preliminary stage of a visit to ODSP before, but L got cranky before we actually got to the office that time. But this time, he was content to go through the whole thing.

Here is a report from another SCAP person on the action:

A delegation of about 10 SCAP folks occupied the ODSP office yesterday morning until a meeting was had with a worker and a decision made in favour of special diet supplement recipient, Michele.

Michele had been cut back in March to a miserable $20 with the new form. The devastating cut imperiled both her health and medical plans since she couldn't eat properly and continued to lose weight at an alarming rate. A new application subsequently submitted and now approved gives her a substantially higher amount as of this month. It is blatantly clear, however, that Michele's health situation existed all along and the cut should never have happened.

Raymond Boucher set the precedent for retroactive payments in situations where a second new form with a higher amount than the first is approved.

This is what Michele with SCAP's help demanded and won. The higher amount of $$ will apply back to the month of the original cut, March.

The fundamentally punitive changes in the new form, the systemic practice of failing to provide adequate instructions to medical professionals and lack of an attached fee schedule make it impossible for applicants to get a decent special diet supplement. SCAP has developped a flyer to help get information and relevant tips out to people. The flyer is posted on the SCAP website. Perhaps this can be helpful for other folks.

The word "occupied" probably makes it sound a bit more dramatic than it actually was, but the presence of those people was central to coming out of the meeting with Michele's dietary supplement paid the new, higher amount retroactively back to the date it was cut.

It is interesting how actions like this work. As simple an act as letting the frontline workers and managers know that they are being watched can be tremendously important. I was involved with an initiative in Hamilton that did not do advocacy but merely accompanied recipients to meetings with the bureaucracy, and the people who were accompanied consistently reported a difference in treatment because someone else was there. And that feedback came from experienced activists/advocates who were themselves recipients as well.

In this particular case, it was not merely an extra pair or ten pairs of eyes that made the difference. It was the fact that Michele and the two SCAP members who actually went in to the meeting with her were very clear on what she was entitled to and refused to be distracted -- there were several attempts by the worker to make us just go away without giving any money, includings things like trying to insist we get a note from a doctor saying he had made a mistake in how he initially filled out the new form, vague promises to get back to us, and hints that it would take hours to get to see a manager to get her/his permission, and so on. But being very clear that retroactive payment had already been set as a precedent, that we would not be distracted by being sent somewhere else, and that we were not going to leave until the demands had been met made a difference. The worker left the meeting and five minutes later was back with her manager's approval. It also didn't hurt that two recent cases involving similar issues in which SCAP was involved garnered substantial local and even (in one instance) some provincial media attention. So it was clear to the bureaucrats that we knew what we were talking about, that we were perfectly willing to engage in actions that we said we would engage in, and that we are able at least sometimes to generate a response from the media. In this instance, I would imagine the fact that they had significantly cut back food money for a woman with serious medical issues related to her ability to absorb food, and done so to such an extent that she had lost so much weight that she had to postpone needed major surgery, also contributed to the decision that they didn't want us making a fuss about it.

L and I (and a couple of the other SCAP members and supporters) played with toys in the lobby through most of this. For a government office, it wasn't badly equipped -- some puzzles, a bus, a transport truck, a few books.

Again, it all goes to show how little the Ontario social assistance regime has to do with the actual needs of actual people, whatever the Liberals in Toronto might claim.

Anyway, direct action case work is an important tool, and I hope folks in other jurisdictions who read this consider taking it up in their struggles.

(Action report from CL.)

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