Pension ‘status quo’ is not an option – CLC

by Barry Weisleder

Pension plans and retirement savings have been hit hard by the downturn. The security of many Canadians is at risk. Some companies even want to cut defined benefit plans that employees paid into throughout their working lives. (That’s a big issue in the United Steelworkers’ strike at Vale Inco.) People with Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs) and other private pensions that invested heavily in stock and financial markets have seen their investments lose much of their value. There is an urgent need to expand public pensions and reduce reliance on financial markets for economic security. Public pensions remain secure, but they replace only a modest share of previous work-related earnings.

In fact, 11 million Canadians (one-third of the total population) don’t have a workplace pension. 1.6 million seniors qualify for Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) benefits (and therefore earn less than $11,300 per year). Employers use bankruptcy courts to shirk their pension promises. In the Nortel bankruptcy case, retirees stand to lose a third of their pension incomes. Average fees gouge a third of workers’ RRSP earnings.

Thus, pension reform is in the air. The New Democratic Party is pushing a Canadian Labour Congress plan. The federal Conservative minority government is resisting. The Liberal Opposition, following the lead of British Columbia and Alberta, wants a CPP supplement to which individuals could voluntarily contribute. The banks, fearing that a beefed up CPP will cut into their lucrative RRSP business, are notably hostile to the idea.

The CLC proposal asks the federal government to:

*Phase in a doubling of payouts from the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and the Quebec Pension Plan (QPP). (The average CPP payout is about $600 a month.)

*Immediately increase by 15 per cent Old Age Security (OAS), which is about $500 a month, and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), which is about $450 a month for all retirees.

*Create a national pension insurance fund to ensure that workers’ defined benefit pensions aren’t at risk when employers go under or speculative bubbles go bust. (The United States has a pension guarantee fund covering up to about $50,000 of pension income.)

Working people and nature are the source of all the wealth. It is appropriated by Capital. Workers shouldn’t have to beg for crumbs in retirement. In the face of the economic crisis we did not cause, and the bail-out of banks and big businesses we did not approve, our demand is that, in addition to doubling the CPP and QPP, the OAS and GIS be increased sufficiently to ensure that no senior is condemned to subsist below the poverty line (approximately $30,000 a year in large urban centres).

The federal and provincial Finance Ministers met in Whitehorse, Yukon in December, and will meet again in May 2010. Several of them said there’s nothing wrong with the existing pension set up. So, it’s time to start organizing and agitating. They need to hear the CLC’s message amplified many fold: The pension status quo is not an option!

Will Copenhagen Make a Difference?

– Toronto Socialist Action Public Forum Presents –

Will Copenhagen make a difference?

World leaders gather for the climate change conference in Denmark, after ten years of market-based ‘solutions’ set out in Kyoto have failed miserably to effect real reductions in carbon emissions. Will it take a social revolution to make the energy revolution needed to stop our planet from burning?

speakers:
Judith Deutsch, president of Science for Peace
John Valleau, member, Science for Peace; professor (retired), University of Toronto.

Q & A, and discussion period will follow the presentation.
Friday, December 11 7 p.m.
OISE, 252 Bloor St. West, Room 2-212
(at the St. George Subway Station)

Everyone is welcome. $3 donation is requested.
For more information, visit the SA web site at:
http://www.socialistaction-canada.blogspot.com or call 416-535-8779

Will OFL Join OPSEU to Fight Ontario Cuts?

When Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan declared October 22 that his Liberal provincial government faces a $24.7 billion deficit this year, it was a signal that a major assault on public service wages and programmes for the poor is in the works.

This is the major challenge facing delegates at the biennial convention of the Ontario Federation of Labour, November 23-27 at the Sheraton Centre in Toronto. Firebrand CUPE Ontario leader Sid Ryan is set to replace retiring OFL President Wayne Samuelson. Many labour activists wonder whether this will mark a shift towards mass action to challenge labour concessions, disappearing pensions and benefits, and rising unemployment (expected to stay above 9 per cent, officially, in Ontario for the next three years).

A Workers’ Agenda is urgently needed to oppose the coming attacks on the Ontario public service, and to support the strike of the Vale Inco workers, now in its fourth month at Sudbury and Port Colborne, Ontario and in Labrador. Required is a programme to reject further labour concessions in the auto sector, to nationalize industry instead of dishing up corporate bail-outs, and to demand steeply progressive taxation of big business and the rich.

A good place to start would be a commitment to mobilize labour’s strength in numbers along side the 115,000 member Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union as it takes on the Liberal McGuinty government’s likely targetting of wages, jobs and vital public services.

OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas issued a statement on October 23. Here are some excerpts:

“Finance Minister Dwight Duncan promised a “sweeping review” of government spending. Premier Dalton McGuinty would not rule out unpaid days off for the million Ontarians who earn their bread in the provincial public sector. And the spectre of privatization now looms over every public service worker.

“The Liberals’ plan is to make us pay.

“Dwight Duncan won’t have much luck looking for waste in public services (except, of course, for the hundreds of millions he’s throwing away on private consultants). We already had a “sweeping review” from 1995 to 2003. It was called the Common Sense Revolution (of Tory Premier Mike Harris), and public services still haven’t recovered from the brutal trauma of those years.

“As far as unpaid days off, a lot of us remember (then-NDP Premier) Bob Rae’s “Social Contract” all too well. But much has changed since the Rae days.

“For one thing, the Social Contract would be struck down by the courts today. In 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that (British Columbia) Premier Gordon Campbell was wrong to tear up the collective agreements of health workers in that province. Since then, collective bargaining has been recognized as a protected right under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“McGuinty can’t legislate his way out of this. If he wants to use public employees to buy Ontario out of the recession, his two main options are: a) privatization; and b) mass layoffs.

“Privatization is a stupid idea. It cuts services, it destroys jobs, and it usually comes with major cost overruns. And from a budget standpoint, selling off assets like the (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) LCBO – which right-wingers are already barking for – would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

“As for more layoffs, they can only weaken local economies, destroy the services people need, and generate headlines the Liberals really don’t want to see.

“So what’s their plan? My guess is, they think that just the threat of layoffs and privatization will force public employees to agree to the wage cuts or “Dalton Days” he wants.

“How is it fair that a part-time secretary at a community college, who makes maybe $27,000 a year, should be the one paying off the deficit when the Bay Street banker is not?

“Which is more important, providing professional help to a child with a mental illness, or giving income tax breaks to profitable corporations and obscene bonuses to their CEOS?

“Public services aren’t just for public employees. They exist because we all need them. And that’s why saving them is not the responsibility of public employees alone.

“We chose careers in public service not to get rich, but because we care – for people, for families, for communities. It’s time our commitment got the respect it deserves.
“We are already planning a bold strategy to fight the coming attack. It will take courage, commitment, brains, resources, and leadership.

“Working together as we have done so many times before, I know we will do whatever it takes”, Smokey Thomas concluded.

Will the Ontario Federation of Labour “do whatever it takes”? Will OPSEU undertake mass job action, and invite all workers and allies to join the struggle?

Therein hangs a tale. –Barry Weisleder

Recovery? In a Pig’s Eye!

Wishful thinking usually dominates the financial pages, especially after an economic crash. So goes the coverage of the current ‘recovery’. It bears closer scrutiny.

Yes, in September, Canadian house sales jumped 17 per cent from a year ago. The Conference Board of Canada predicts the economy will grow 2.9 per cent next year, and up to 3.6 per cent in 2011. There’s just one catch. The gains are largely the result of government stimulus programmes — which governments are now rushing to reel in and curtail.

Looking to the south, auto sales in the United States plunged 10.4 per cent in September. Overall retails sales were down 1.5 per cent, the worst decline since retail sales fell 3.2 per cent last December. Factory sales in Canada dropped 2.1 per cent in August, due largely to declining automobile shipments.

A record number of U.S. homeowners were forced into foreclosure in the third quarter. More than 930,000 homes received a default notice or were repossessed, a jump of 23 per cent from the year before. Job losses rose another 263,000 in September, pushing America’s official unemployment rate to 9.8 per cent, and that’s not counting the 571,000 workers who simply gave up and stopped looking for work. As a result, the number of bad loans will likely increase in the coming months.

The number of Canadians filing for bankruptcy in August was up 17 per cent compared to the same period last year. Canadian exports and imports fell in August, and the trade deficit rose (for the fifth consecutive month), now at $2 billion. Exports declined 5.1 per cent and imports were off 2.8 per cent. New housing starts dropped 4.6 per cent in September.

So, while investors and brokers are cheering recent market gains — the sharpest rally ever seen in the midst of a downturn — some observers are wondering out loud: Is it too good to be true, given the fragile state of the economy? Is this another bubble?

Indeed, is this another wake up call…. for socialist measures? –Barry Weisleder

Manitoba NDP Chooses New Premier

According to the business media, Manitoba Finance Minister Greg Salinger, 58, became NDP provincial Leader and Premier-elect by defeating a challenger from the left, MLA Steve Ashton, 53. “Race for top job in Manitoba pits centre against left”, read a headline in the Toronto Star.

Not so, according to long-time socialist Harry Paine. He was one of the 2003 delegates who packed the Winnipeg Convention Centre on October 17 for the party leadership vote. The difference wasn’t left versus right. The issue was who is best able to keep the labour-based NDP in government in Manitoba, the prairie province (population 1.2 million) just north of Minnesota and North Dakota.

In a report to the NDP Socialist Caucus, Paine wrote:

“More significant for anyone attempting to gauge the level of consciousness of the NDP membership and consequently how that reflects the consciousness of Manitobans was the fact that the first candidate out of the gate, Andrew Swan (a younger Cabinet minister) chose to drop out of the race after a couple of weeks. There was some speculation that the Third Way (neo-liberal) machine that had been running the party for the last couple of decades had been grooming Swan to wear the mantle of Gary Doer (the 10-year Premier who left office to become Canada’s ambassador to the United States), but the first few NDP delegate selection meetings indicated a much stronger intervention by community activists and Swan was unable to get more than a handful of delegate supporters.

“In the few short weeks of the campaign leading up to the delegate selection meetings the membership more than doubled and therein was the first serious controversy. The Steve Ashton campaign was accused of signing up hundreds of new members from within ethnic communities, many of whom had little or no real loyalty to the NDP. This raised the whole question of voting process and the ugly head of ‘One Member, One Vote’ arose once again.

“Ashton tried to present as the more traditional left candidate, but surrounded himself with some questionable and opportunistic public face supporters. The Chair of his campaign committee was maverick City Councillor Russ Wyatt who has joined, and quit, the party depending on his need for assistance from the NDP electoral machine. Main union support came from the Firefighters Union, which is often just as comfortable supporting Tory candidates as it is backing the NDP.

“Greg Selinger was able to garner support from a much wider sector of the working-class organizations that included almost all of the MLAs, the Manitoba Federation of Labour, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives staff and most of the constituencies’ traditional activists. He was seen as a leader who could bring the party together into the ‘Renewal’ mode.

“Before being elected to the Legislature, Selinger had a history of being a popular City Councillor and a key contributor to CHO!CES, a coalition of leftist independent community activists. As Finance Minister he has brought in ten fairly progressive and balanced budgets and was seen as largely responsible for Manitoba being relatively able to fend off the effects of the current global financial crisis. He also instituted an open community consultative process in the period leading up to budget production.

“’Renewal’ was the slogan adopted by the Provincial Executive going into this Leadership Campaign and that was probably an accurate choice as the departure of Doer marks a shift to a greater involvement of community based influences in the party and the government. How that will reflect itself in policy is hard to say at this time.

“Poverty is still a big issue in Manitoba especially in much of the rural farm areas, for those on a fixed income, and in almost all of the First Nations reserves and communities. At the same time there is a shortage of skilled labour and fairly dramatic population growth. While the effects of the latest crisis of Capitalism have not been felt as much in Manitoba as other provinces there is considerable nervousness and discussion among those looking for answers.

“Community activism that doesn’t pose a clear socialist alternative is little more than a band-aid solution to cover the open sores of Capitalism and make life a little more tolerable. On the positive side there is a growing consciousness that there needs to be a fundamental structural change in the distribution of wealth in society. Interest is renewed in the lessons of the past, and Marxism is very much on the discussion agenda.”

I asked Harry Paine about grass roots involvement. He responded, “Activists in Manitoba are not so much in political party life, as they are involved in community organizations. I think that is becoming somewhat universal as capitalism declines dramatically; the working class has to rely more on its defensive organizations. The challenge for socialists is how do we integrate the transitional demands of a socialist program into the pragmatic concerns of these defensive community organizations?

“Manitoba has one of the highest rates of volunteerism in North America. One in three Manitobans volunteer in their community. Of course that includes sports coaches and Girl Guide leaders, but there are huge numbers who are working with the homeless, the aged, in food banks, and so on.

“These people often support the NDP because it is a lot easier to get grants and legislation passed with them than it was with the Tories in government. The fact that community representatives are listened to and consulted does more to keep our membership figures up than anything.

“For instance, I am President of the Manitoba Society of Seniors, was appointed by the Cabinet to the Council on Aging as an advisor to the Minister and on the Boards of half a dozen other community-based organizations and as such have access to all the relevant Ministers and their departments even though I am constantly reminding people that I am a Trotskyist, and believe the only real answer is to overthrow capitalism.

“Last year I was the Campaign Manager for our MLA Rob Altemeyer and ran the most successful campaign, next to Greg Selinger’s in St. Boniface. I publish an on-line community newsletter that goes to most of the local NDP members once or twice a week, which has some pretty radical stuff in it sometimes, and I have never been challenged because of my leftist slant. Actually I get lots of fan mail from people who think that is the strength of the NDP riding association.

“In spite of his popularity, Gary Doer was seen as being inaccessible and out of touch with this growing and powerful sector of activists. There are some members who are concerned and upset because they feel abandoned by big daddy, but most members feel honoured that he was chosen as ambassador and will do a good job. Then again, there are a lot of us who believe that either there (Washington), or in the (appointed Canadian) Senate, is where Doer properly belongs.”

What about Ashton’s so-called leftist stance, including his pledge to freeze/reduce university tuition and ban strikebreakers?

“Ashton’s base was to some extent in the northern areas of the province where he comes from, although Selinger cut into that with support from First Nations’ delegates. Community activists seem to be divided into those who basically support the NDP and those who stand aside and are somewhat cynical about politics; the latter provided the main active base of Ashton’s support. Some were traditional leftists, but for the most part were an unprincipled combination.

“As for his ‘left’ policies, for the most part it was seen as posturing. It is easy to talk about strikebreaking legislation in a province that hasn’t seen a scab situation in years and where strikes that last more than a few days are pretty rare. Unions haven’t suggested anti-scab legislation and only the Firefighters and the Steelworkers from Thompson (the area Ashton represents in the Legislature) supported him. The main bulk of the Manitoba Federation of Labour supported Selinger. Students were divided about 52/48 for Selinger. I don’t think they really believed Ashton was serious about his program.”

The Manitoba NDP convention was over in three short hours; no policy debate, no election of officers. The leadership vote was Selinger 1,317 and Ashton 685. The regular annual party provincial convention will occur in the Spring. By then, in the face of the deepening global economic crisis, the direction of the new NDP Premier may be clear. The question is: what will the new crop of Manitoba NDP members have to say about it? –Barry Weisleder

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