Presented by Barbara Byers on Tuesday, 24 November 2009
Sisters and Brothers.
It is my honour to bring you greetings of solidarity from President Ken Georgetti; Executive Vice-President Marie Clarke Walker, and Secretary-Treasurer Hassan Yussuff on behalf of the 3.2 million workers who are members of the Canadian Labour Congress. I also take these opportunities to bring you greetings on behalf of the staff of the CLC; the members of the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union. These workers are comrades who work with you, and for you, every day in creating a better world for all.
On behalf of the CLC, and indeed on behalf of workers from coast to coast to coast, I want to thank Brother Samuelson and Secretary-Treasurer Sister Irene Harris for their dedication and hard work for so many years, on behalf of the working women and men of this province and across the country.
I have had the pleasure of working with both Wayne and Irene on so many issues over the years. Their dedication to the labour movement and their contribution to the issues that matter to working people and to advancing social justice are immeasurable. They will be going on to do other things in the years ahead but I know they will never be far from the struggles for dignity, equality and justice.
It’s a privilege to be with you and to hear firsthand about the important work your Federation is doing. Thank you for all of your actions.
I particularly want to congratulate the Federation for its work in highlighting the effects of the economic and employment crisis on workers, their families and their communities. The OFL Executive and staff, and the activists from affiliates and labour councils are working hard to draw attention to not only the effects of the crisis, but also to what needs to be done to help families and and communities deal with it.
You may have noticed that I am saying ‘economic and employment crisis’. I do so for a very clear reason. Words have meaning and impact and remind us what is at stake and who is at risk.
Too many people view the current situation as an ‘economic or financial crisis’ and say that as soon as the economy recovers all will go back as it was.
We know that is not true. While the financial markets may recover slowly over time we know that the jobs recovery will be slower and will have profound change for the future.
Last summer the Governor of the Bank of Canada declared the recession in Canada was over. Well, the recession sure wasn’t over for the thousands of workers who lost their jobs and isn’t over for those still losing their jobs. The recession isn’t over for those workers who can’t access unemployment insurance; or if they can, they find the benefits are too low and don’t last long enough. The recession isn’t over for the workers who came out to community discussions about Communities in Crisis which were organized by the CLC’s Social and Economic Policy Department this past summer.
Since the start of the recession in Canada, over 500,000 wage earners lost their jobs, with 400,000 of those workers losing full-time, decent-paying jobs.
The recession also has a female face that is not often seen. Before the major job cuts women held about 30% of the jobs in manufacturing. Numerically, we did not lose as many jobs. However, research done shows that on a percentage basis women in manufacturing have lost more jobs. The gains of women, workers of colour, Aboriginal workers and workers with disabilities over the past twenty years are being wiped out by the effects of corporate greed. And we know that, while the focus has been on some of the private sector jobs that have been lost, governments at all levels and their corporate bosses are setting their sights on the public sector.
You have seen the headlines “It is time for the public sector to share the pain” and newspaper editorials attacking the rights and jobs of public sector workers. Governments will use their ballooning deficits, which were created to bail out their private sector bosses, to attack the contracts and job security of public sector workers. Unlike the manufacturing or resource sector where a plant closes and you can see the gates being locked behind the workers, governments are not likely to close whole departments. They will cut jobs, privatize and cut services in large and small ways and it will be just as devastating to our lives and our communities as the jobs that have been lost in the private sector.
We all know that workers didn’t cause this economic and employment crisis. Big business did.
They are taking advantage of the crisis they created to attack workers’ wages, to attack our pensions, to attack our benefits, and to attack our quality of life.
And they have willing partners with the Harper government.
Workers, women, recent immigrants to Canada, people of colour, Aboriginal people, gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgendered people, people with disabilities – it doesn’t matter – the Conservative government has attacked them all. The list is too long to cover in one speech.
This government removed the word “equality” from the mandate of its own department responsible for the advancement of women’s equality in Canada!
However the latest outrage is on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the murders of 14 young women at Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal, the Harper government is providing mega-support to a Private Members Bill that will eliminate the long-gun registry and the records that have been created in the registry! This is a travesty to the memory of those 14 women and to all those who have lost their lives due to violence.
It’s unbelievable that in 2009 we must defend not only workers’ rights, but also human rights, from attacks by governments who simply want to turn the clock back on progress.
We need to remember that when unionization rates drop, income inequality grows. And that inequality lasts for a life time when you consider the issue of pensions, which I want to get to later.
We should remember that the attack on equality rights is an attack on workers’ rights.
The attack on unionized workers during this employment and economic crisis is just the beginning. The government and the corporate class have the long term objective to weaken our voice and our influence with our own members and in our communities. If they can silence us they will have removed the first and the last lines of defence that many of our members and our community allies have.
We need to call the corporate class on their greed. We need to tell people that while workers are being told to take pay cuts, to take pension reductions, to take benefit cuts, to take unpaid holidays, to take fewer hours of work, to forget about every collecting UI from the fund that they paid into and which had a $57 billion surplus which has been stolen by successive governments, our corporate class has done pretty well.
If you want further proof you should check out the website for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives www.growinggap.ca.
Just to pique your interest, consider these facts from the CCPA study...
By 9:04 AM on January 2, 2009 each of the top 100 CEOs in Canada made more than the average worker does in an entire year. The day before, January 1st, they had each made more than the average minimum wage earner.
But what are corporations doing to help us – to help workers?
Worse than nothing – they are laying off workers in record numbers.
And their corporate executives are still taking multi-million dollar salaries and cashing huge bonus cheques.
So who do some in the media blame for this crisis?
Not the bankers. Not the CEOs. Not the wealthy.
No – they blame unions!
We saw it over the past year when workers in the resource and manufacturing sectors lost their good unionized jobs and were told that the pensions they had negotiated were too generous. And as I have mentioned, a similar attack on the public sector is heating up.
Here’s what right-wing columnist Terence Corcoran of the National Post newspaper said about public sector pensions – and I quote: “Why do these giant public pension plans exist? They are, essentially, wealth confiscated by governments.”
Confiscated by governments! And we always thought pensions were the deferred earnings of workers set aside so they could retire with dignity and security!
Corcoran continues: “Hydro workers, police, municipal employees, teachers. All are set to receive relatively lavish pensions paid for by Canadian taxpayers.”
What an insult!
It’s outrageous that commentators like Corcoran and millionaire corporate executives attack the hard-working people who built this country and deserve every last penny of their pensions.
But the greedy, incompetent CEOs who are robbing our economy and who are stealing the future from retiring workers can’t do it alone – they need help.
So who’s driving the getaway car?
Governments that won’t regulate the financial markets, that won’t stop corporate executives from being grossly overpaid, and who let companies slash pension plans that workers had thought were safe for their retirement.
It’s time we sent those governments a clear message – you work for us – not for big business! And if they don’t get that message – we have to make them pay – at the ballot box!
Our unions and our movement must win political power – we must elect politicians who support labour, who will listen to the needs of working people – not corporate elites – and who will take action on our behalf despite the strong opposition of business interests.
It is time to put the citizens back in charge!
That’s why the Canadian Labour Congress is working with the Ontario Federation of Labour, our affiliates and labour councils to do exactly that – use the ballot box to make sure local and provincial governments and the federal government are more receptive to the needs of working people.
In the past few years the CLC and our labour councils helped elect more than 800 labour-endorsed mayors, city councilors and school trustees across the country.
Those elected officials are supporting the goals of organized labour, including hiring unionized workers and using local procurement policies.
And we’ll be there in next year’s Ontario municipal elections – making sure that candidates endorsed by labour get elected, and that they remember the working women and men who got them there after election day.
Federally we still have more work to do but through targeting ridings with large numbers of union workers, the CLC and affiliates helped our ally, the New Democratic Party, win its second highest number of Members of Parliament ever.
And believe me, we need more NDP politicians standing up for working people than ever before.
The financial disaster and the unprecedented rip-off of workers by corporations are why the CLC is demanding action by the Harper government and all federal politicians on three key points:
First – Fix the broken employment insurance program.
We have long promoted equal access to EI benefits for all workers no matter where they live or where they work. That access needs to be 360 hours for all regular and special benefits. Consider what this would mean for so many people who pay into EI for years and then when they lose their jobs they find they can’t access the benefits they thought they were insured for. If you are unemployed in Timmins Ontario or Tisdale Saskatchewan you are still unemployed until you can find your next job.
We need to increase the benefit levels and duration. Benefit levels need to be at least 60% of insurable earnings based on the workers best 12 weeks. Benefit duration needs to be 50 weeks in all areas (and not as a short term or “pilot” measure).
Because when you get right down to it, we can promote all sorts of changes to EI, but if the issues of access, benefit level and benefit duration are not addressed then we are just improving a system that people can’t even get into and can’t help them when they have lost their jobs.
Second – Get serious about creating and supporting Canadian jobs with industrial strategies, a national training strategy, social infrastructure investment, and procurement policies that support industries and jobs in Canada.
Ontario activists have been working hard on this message.
Third - it is time to radically improve retirement security for all Canadians.
There are three problems with our pension system; people without decent pensions, unfair bankruptcy rules and seniors living in poverty.
A brief comment on each of these points.
1) People without decent pensions:
Most Canadians don’t have a pension plan that’s in trouble – because most Canadians don’t even have a pension! That’s why we need to move quickly to improve the Canada Pension Plan.
Only 4 in 10 workers today have a workplace pension despite years of promises from employers and banks that they would offer secure pension coverage. That leaves 11 million working Canadians today without any retirement security. They are left with the low $11,000 yearly floor in our pension system that comes through average OAS and CPP benefits. RRSPs have failed as a strategy to top up this floor to ensure a dignified retirement.
We say Double CPP benefits: The Canada pension plan is our country’s largest defined benefit plan and covers 93% of working Canadians.
We are proposing a seven-year phased-in increase of 3% of salary in extra CPP contributions for workers and employers. This increase mirrors the financial fix made to CPP benefits in the 1990's, and it would effectively double the $11,000 yearly floor in our pension system over time. Because the CPP is so large and efficient, research indicates you can double benefits without doubling contributions. CPP benefits are also portable across jobs, indexed to inflation, and protected against market slumps. Most importantly, because almost all Canadians contribute to the CPP, all Canadians would benefit.
This would provide a huge benefit to younger workers when they reach retirement.
And because so many workplace pensions are integrated with CPP benefits, a better CPP means more money could be available at the bargaining table to improve overall pension benefits, or improve other benefits for members.
2) Unfair Bankruptcy rules:
Some employers are trying to shirk their pension obligations in bankruptcy courts. We've seen it across Canada. The pensions of workers and retirees are being sacrificed given the unfair rules that give priority to banks, unscrupulous employers, and junk bondholders seeking to make a quick buck.
Introduce federal pension insurance:
We are proposing a system of pension insurance that works like the insurance Canadians already have on their bank deposits. We already require banks to contribute to an insurance system that protects bank deposits to a maximum of $100,000 per year. Our pension insurance system would require pension plans to do the same thing at a very low cost ($2.50 per plan member per year). These funds would then guarantee $2500 in monthly pension benefits. We also want Ottawa to levy a small financial transfer tax to force market speculators to also finance this insurance system.
3) Seniors living in poverty:
Today 35% of public pension recipients (over 1.6 million seniors) collect the GIS, which means they earn less than $11,000 per year.
It is not acceptable for any senior to live in poverty. That's why we are proposing a hike in public pensions (GIS) to eliminate senior poverty. This could be accomplished through an additional $700 million in spending this year.
I want to add just one more thought on pensions; and that is about the impact that a fair pension system would have in particular for people from equality seeking groups.
Few recognize the pension concerns of equality-seeking Canadians. Women, workers of colour, aboriginal Canadians, workers with disabilities, and recent immigrants all face unique challenges given pay discrimination and gaps in public services.
Studies indicate equality-seeking Canadians face a two-tier labour market when it comes to wages and unemployment. This has major implications for the pension income of these workers.
- Women earn 70% of what men make. Not surprisingly, the poverty rate for retired women is double the rate of retired men. When the research is narrowed to single, divorced, and widowed retired women, the poverty rate reaches 45.6%.
- Workers of colour and recent immigrants face an after-tax earning gap of 13.3%. The income gap for retired workers of colour and recent immigrants is 28%.
- The unemployment rate for Aboriginal Canadians is double the rate of the non-Aboriginal population.
- 46.7% of people with disabilities are not in the labour force. Studies indicate those with jobs are over-represented in part-time and casual positions.
The CLC's "Retirement Security for Everyone" campaign will dramatically help workers from equality-seeking groups who are more likely to have no pension at work, and rely more heavily on public pensions in retirement. Our proposal for mandatory pension insurance will also ensure that equality-seeking workers with an occupational pension have a hold on their hard-earned benefits.
We won’t achieve retirement security for all citizens overnight, to be sure.
But we will get there if we persevere and if we can change public opinion – from the attitude that your retirement income is your own personal responsibility – to one where – just like with public health care – Canadians believe that retiring with dignity and security is a right in a society as wealthy as ours.
Sisters and Brothers, these are just some of the steps that we must take to begin transforming our economy – from one based on greed to one based on need.
So please continue to work with us as our labour movement fights for a new and fair economy – an economy where everyone benefits, not just the wealthy.
Together we are stronger!
Solidarity Forever; for the union makes our workplaces, our lives, our communities, our country and the world a better place for all!
Thank you for listening and have a great convention!