Labour Day Message: Public Pensions Must be Part of Economic Recovery

    By CAW President Ken Lewenza

    TORONTO, Sept. 3 /CNW/ - The question that will be on many people's minds
as they go into this Labour Day weekend will be, is the recession over?
    While economists, including the Bank of Canada's own Mark Carney, are
proclaiming better times are on their way, workers across the country are much
more skeptical and with good reason. The recession has been disastrous for
hundreds of thousands of families across the country. The impact will last for
months and maybe even years to come.
    Since the official beginning of the recession in October nearly half a
million full-time jobs have been lost, this doesn't include the tens of
thousands more part time jobs that also disappeared. This year, household debt
reached a record high. For every dollar earned, the average Canadian owed
$1.40. Protections against unemployment (including EI) are also at an all time
low, after being stripped away in rounds of reform in the 1980s and 1990s.
    Much of this we know. What comes next is less clear.
    Nations right across the globe have recognized that government must play
an active role to support workers through periods of economic downturn. Our
own government nearly met its demise when federal Finance Minister Jim
Flaherty declared Canada's fundamentals "sound" in an economic update in late
November. Rather than attempting to steer Canada through a collision course
with the economic recession, the Harper government instead tried to cancel pay
equity for public sector workers, change legislation around political party
funding and a series of other self-serving moves.
    Since the onset of the recession, we've seen unprecedented sums of money
poured into domestic economies with the hope of preventing an economic
collapse. The necessity of these kinds of stimulus funds is no longer in
question (not even among our own hard-right Conservative government), but
money that supports infrastructure development projects will not alone suffice
in ensuring the country keeps working.
    Now, more than ever, we need to turn our attention to ensuring
governments make long overdue improvements to pensions, severance legislation
and Employment Insurance. We also must be pro-active in our efforts to build
our economy and protect our environment by investing in good, green jobs.
    Enhancing public pensions through the Canada and Quebec Pension Plans, to
provide seniors with a more livable income would allow aging workers to retire
in dignity and younger workers to keep their jobs. Where negotiated early
retirement programs have been put in place, they have been highly successful
in accomplishing just this. Current CPP and QPP levels are only 25 per cent of
an individual's pre-retirement income. Workers across the country, union
members or not, must renew our call for enhanced public pensions. Part of this
must be setting up a federal pension guarantee fund, similar to what exists in
Ontario, which will guarantee a minimum pension level for workers who lose
their jobs and their pensions due to a workplace bankruptcy.
    In the last recession, only two out of ten unemployed Canadians did not
qualify for unemployment insurance, today that number has ballooned to half of
all unemployed Canadians. The legacy of the growth of part-time employment
left from the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s has made it difficult for
hundreds of thousands of workers to attain the necessary work hours to qualify
for EI benefits. The precarious job market has also meant that thousands of
workers have gone from unemployment to working back to unemployment in a short
period of time, impacting their chance of qualifying for EI benefits.
    What we need to improve this system is a change to the number of
qualifying hours, an extension of the benefits period and increase in the
benefit level and an elimination of the waiting period and the severance claw
back. Political parties of all colours must recognize the necessity of these
    Too many workers have failed to receive severance pay and other monies
owed to them under law when their employers go bankrupt. The fact that workers
are forced to the back of the line behind banks and other creditors when
collecting outstanding payments, and are often left with nothing, is a
travesty. Governments in all jurisdictions need to better protect workers when
their employers go bust. An important place to start is by establishing wage
earner protection programs that ensure workers get a fair shake during
bankruptcy filings and hold dead-beat employers firmly accountable.
    Right now there is an unprecedented opportunity for Canada to meet its
twin goals of strengthening our economy and protecting our environment.
Canada's track record on greenhouse gas reductions is abysmal and more needs
to be done. Internationally, Canada needs to be committed to negotiate a firm
and fair global emissions treaty to ensure the global community steers clear
of irreversible climate change. On the domestic front, new public investments
in the auto, manufacturing and clean energy sectors, along with substantial
job transition support measures for unemployed workers and those living in
poverty, are needed if we are to ensure economically vibrant and economically
sustainable communities.
    This agenda is ambitious, but also possible and incredibly urgent. It is
not enough that we patch up the problems of today, but we must go further to
repair the wrong-headed actions of the past and build for the future. Should
there be an election once again this autumn, political parties would be wise
to push forward on these issues for the benefit of all Canadians from coast to
coast to coast.

For further information:

For further information: CAW Communications, Shannon Devine, (cell)
(416) 302-1699

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