President's Commentary: Protests worldwide share dissatisfaction with the status quo

Despite their diversity, these cases of civil unrest are commonly rooted in deeply structural issues.

by Larry Brown, NUPGE President

In recent days and months, we have seen a swell of protests in regions around the world. While distinct and context-specific, these various mobilizations have something in common.

Many of the protests were sparked by seemingly everyday concerns, such as a metro fare hike in Chile, a tax on WhatsApp calls in Lebanon, rising gas prices in Ecuador, or a proposed bill in Hong Kong.

At first glance, these events may not seem like cause for widespread civil unrest. However, they are actually the symptoms of deeper systemic problems. 

In each of these instances, people and communities are simply fed up with the status quo. The current political and economic systems are no longer working for the majority of people, and these incidents — the fare hike, the tax — were the proverbial last straws.

In some cases, demonstrators are speaking out against their government or political system.

In Hong Kong, although the proposed extradition bill was eventually withdrawn, an anti-government movement has continued to grow as protestors demand political reform and democratic freedoms. Catalan demonstrators have taken to the streets in their ongoing struggle for autonomy.

In many cases, these movements are tied to issues of economic crisis, as income inequality, austerity agendas, and privatization have become rampant worldwide.

In Lebanon, opposition to the WhatsApp tax gave way to broader discontent with inequality and other economic issues. A spike in gas prices in Ecuador earlier this month led to Indigenous-led protests targeting corruption, human rights violations, and discrimination against Indigenous peoples.

In Haiti, a country characterized by widespread poverty, protests broke out over government corruption and the rising cost of living, demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse. In Iraq, anti-government demonstrations erupted due to poverty and limited access to health care, education, water, and electricity. Protestors are calling for political reform and for the current government to resign.

In Chile, the increase in metro fares kick-started widespread unrest due to broad dissatisfaction with the country’s economic situation. Chile, a key site of the neoliberal experiment, is characterized by high income inequality, privatized public services, and austerity policies. Neoliberalism, as a theory and policy agenda, espouses privatization, deregulation, trade liberalization, austerity, and reduced government spending. 

The Chilean case and others illustrate the effects of neoliberalism as a failed ideology and political project. The economic crises that have resulted have had pronounced effects on people, their livelihoods, and the environment. It is these effects that have led mass mobilizations to erupt.

Despite their diversity, these cases of civil unrest are commonly rooted in deeply structural issues. This is why, even when a decision was reversed, such as the metro fare hike or the WhatsApp tax, protests have continued.

These seemingly everyday events exposed the cracks in the underlying political economic systems, or widened them to a point that citizens could no longer overlook them. People are not — and should not be — satisfied with these minor reforms. Instead, these movements are going further to demand systemic change.

And they are making gains. Governments are responding to pressure from the protestors and have, in some cases, met their demands. The withdrawal of Hong Kong's extradition bill, the reversal of Chile's metro fare increase, and the Iraqi parliament's policy reforms, for example, occurred in response to the local mobilizations. The Lebanese prime minister has resigned, in accordance with the demonstrators' demands. 

These movements are already having a real political impact, and they continue to grow and press for change.  Furthermore, they are capturing media attention and citizen imagination around the globe. 

We are likely to see a further rise in civil unrest, conflict, and, in turn, migration, as the effects of the climate crisis worsen. 2019 has been marked by widespread climate marches led by young people and Indigenous leaders around the world, who are demanding immediate action to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Rather than responding with a doubling down on austerity measures, military repression, or by stoking the flames of racism and xenophobia, governments must acknowledge these related issues as the crises they are and take action to address them.

Governments, including ours in Canada, must reorient their priorities to put people and the planet before profits. This will require transformational systemic change to foster a more fair, equitable, and just society for generations to come.

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) stands with the movements fighting for rights, dignity, equality, and a just future. We urge our members, allies, and fellow Canadians to stand with us.


The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE