Public pensions part of economic recovery (Guest commentary)

Improvements also needed for EI, wage protection and clean energy sector

Many people are wondering if the recession is over. While economists, including the Bank of Canada’s own Mark Carney, are proclaiming better times are on the way, workers across the country are much more skeptical. The recession has been disastrous for hundreds of thousands of families across the country. The impact will last for months and maybe even years.

Since the official beginning of the recession in October, nearly half-a-million full-time jobs have been lost — and that doesn’t include the tens of thousands of 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 employment insurance) are also at an all-time low, after being stripped away in rounds of reform in the 1980s and 1990s.

What comes next is less clear. Nations right across the globe have recognized 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 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 suffice.

Now, more than ever, we need to turn our attention to ensuring governments make long overdue improvements to pensions, severance legislation and EI. We also must be proactive in our efforts to build our economy and protect our environment by investing in good, green jobs.

Pension enhancements

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. These early retirement programs 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, whether union members or not, must renew their call for enhanced public pensions. Part of this must be setting up a federal pension guarantee fund, similar to that which exists in Ontario, that 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 10 unemployed Canadians did not qualify for EI. Today, that number has ballooned to one-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 thousands of workers have gone from unemployment to working back to unemployment in a short period of time, impacting their chances of qualifying for EI benefits.

To improve this system, we need a change to the number of qualifying hours, an extension of the benefits period, an increase in the benefit level and an elimination of the waiting period and the severance clawback.

Too many workers have failed to receive severance pay and other monies owed to them under law when their employers went 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 employers go bust by establishing wage earner protection programs that ensure workers get a fair shake during bankruptcy filings and hold deadbeat employers firmly accountable.

Green initiatives and job-transition support

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 negotiating 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 to ensure economically vibrant and sustainable communities.

This agenda is ambitious but also possible and incredibly urgent. It is not enough that we patch up the problems of today, 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.

Ken Lewenza is national president of the Toronto-based Canadian Auto Workers union.

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