Gone, but not forgotten

How retirees can impact the bargaining table

With workers generally leaving the workforce between the ages of 55 and 64, Canada has never had so many people close to retirement, according to Statistics Canada. Workers in that age bracket make up 16.9 per cent of the workforce, a number that will rise to more than 20 per cent by 2016.

This means the country will have an explosion of retirees. And, according to Doug MacPherson, national co-ordinator for the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), nearly two million of them will be from trade unions or married to someone who is, and they are used to the idea of having retirement benefits. Couple this statistic with the fact many companies and governments are trying to curtail these benefits and it’s the makings of a perfect storm.

Protecting retirees is an important goal for most trade unions — perhaps simply because of union membership demographics: Union density is greater among those in mid-life (about 40 per cent) than those in their 20s (about 15 per cent).

Equity is also at play. Providing for retirees should be done to share the wealth between generations of workers, according to a 2005 report from Buzz Hargrove, president of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union, posted on the CAW website. In fact, in negotiations with the CAW for the 2005 to 2008 contract, the Big Three automakers agreed to contribute three cents per hour worked to a fund for retirees’ activities.

Retiree issues were on the minds of hospital workers in Halifax who walked off the job in April 2007, mainly over the issue of benefits for retired workers. Joan Jessome, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, said the union wanted the government to “immediately share the costs of benefits for retired workers.”

Shortly after, in May 2007, Bell Canada employees in the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union and the Canadian Telephone Employees’ Association in Quebec and Ontario demonstrated in front of the telecommunications giant’s offices to protest against planned cuts to retired workers’ benefits.

Influence of retirees growing

Given that retirees are no longer in the bargaining unit, and there is no statutory obligation from the union to represent retirees in disputes over benefits, how do retirees manage to have an impact at the bargaining table?

MacPherson said their influence is growing. SOAR is an associate member of the Steelworkers union and the retiree organization is incorporated into the union’s constitution. Each active local is supposed to form a SOAR chapter. In 2007, SOAR had 26 chapters across Canada involving nearly 10,000 members.

SOAR shares information, collaborates and acts as a consultant prior to collective bargaining. When asked whether SOAR has representatives actually sitting at the bargaining table, MacPherson said it is infrequent because of resistance from both the company and some members of the union.

“In most instances, there are discussions, recommendations and involvement in the bargaining committee,” if not actual attendance at the bargaining sessions, he said.

Tom McSwiggan, president of the Retirees Association of CAW Local 27 in London, Ont., and vice-president of the area council, has a similar account. Each CAW local can set up a retiree chapter as long as it contains at least 25 members.

They meet every month and while the goal is mostly to be social, the chapters do send resolutions to the national executive board of the CAW and discuss with them “what we see happening with pensions, benefits and policies like pharmacare,” said McSwiggan. They “buttonhole active union members” at conferences, but as for literally sitting at the bargaining table, “the answer is no,” he said.

Retirees lobby government

How else do retirees make their presence felt? Many union retiree organizations lobby government directly.

For example, McSwiggan said CAW retirees in the London area have recently made submissions to various levels of government on topics such as pensions, pharmacare and long-term care.

Similarly, MacPherson said SOAR was one of several organizations in Saskatchewan that successfully lobbied the provincial government to cap prescription costs at $15 per prescription for those over age 65.

There are also other, more direct ways of influencing public policy on behalf of union retirees. When Stelco was facing bankruptcy in 2004, pensions were threatened, said MacPherson. The Hamilton SOAR chapter held “rally after rally after rally” and the issue become such a “public embarrassment that it was cranked up to the top of the agenda,” he said.

As a result, the Ontario government promised a forgivable loan to Stelco conditional on Stelco’s fully funding the pension plan over 10 years.

Joining picket lines

And how do the retiree organizations win over younger union members for whom retirement is decades away? One way to gain their support is to join in the picket lines with younger workers when they are on strike. SOAR members turned out at retail outlets and helped distribute leaflets encouraging a boycott of products made by Goodyear during the 86-day strike by the Steelworkers union in 2006.

Such support is encouraged quite frequently, said MacPherson. The retired union members hope for some quid pro quo later at the bargaining table.

“Retirement catches up to us quicker than we think,” said Larry Wagg, president of the Ottawa-based Congress of Union Retirees of Canada (CURC).

Founded in 1993 under the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), CURC works on a national level on behalf of retired union members and their families by lobbying all three levels of government, especially in the areas of medicare, pharmacare and pensions. Its goal is to counteract the influence on legislators of “private enterprise providers” of these and other retiree services.

It receives modest funding and administrative support from the CLC and is trying to find ways to ensure the long-term financing of union retiree organizations.

Lorna Harris is the assistant editor of Canadian HR Reporter’s sister publication CLV Reports, a weekly newsletter that reports on collective bargaining and other issues in labour relations. For more information visit www.hrreporter.com/clv.

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