Labour Day Message: Public Pensions Must be Part of Economic Recovery -By CAW President Ken Lewenza

September 3, 2009, 8:39 AM EST

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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 reforms.

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.

More on Labour Day

-Find out about unionization across the country.
-Women wage earners now outnumber men, read why.

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