President's Commentary: Cruel and needless recession hangs like a cloud over Labour Day 2009

(31 Aug. 2009) - 'I ask you to reflect on the victims of this powerful recession and to speak out for the changes that our government must make if we are to build a better world for ourselves and our families.'

National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE)

Every year on Labour Day we celebrate workers and all that the labour movement has done to enrich our lives. Labour Day is also a time to reflect on the fundamental values of fairness, compassion, equality and dignity that generations of workers have fought to establish in Canada.

Our observances this year are especially poignant. Workers and their families are struggling to cope with an economic crisis caused by unprecedented corporate greed and by the tragic failure of regulatory authorities to foresee the crisis and take action to prevent it.

The fallout has been massive – thousands upon thousands of good jobs destroyed, unthinkable levels of bankruptcy, shrinking public services and the devastating collapse of pensions and retirement savings.

The middle class, through no fault of its own, has borne the brunt of this carnage.

Now, as the Harper government tries to grapple with these urgent challenges, it becomes more important than ever that their decisions and actions be guided by our most fundamental values as Canadians.

Critical failures

Sadly, in two of the most critical areas, Employment Insurance (EI) and retirement security, this has not been the case. The government has failed the citizens it was elected to serve.

To Canada’s great discredit – especially given the $57 billion in surplus contributions workers have made to the EI program over many years – their government is letting them down. The EI program has failed when it was needed most. Thousands upon thousands of men and women, thrown out of work by forces beyond their control, have been left to fend for themselves.

Think of it – a mere 40% of unemployed workers now qualify for EI benefits and, even for those who do qualify, benefit levels are too low to live on and they run out too quickly. This is an indictment of our national leadership and a blow to our values as a nation. We can and must do better.

Canadian values demand that EI be more accessible and that benefits be raised and made available for a longer period of time. The need is obvious to all. Yet rather than get on with the job, Conservative and Liberal politicians alike have chosen delay over action and distraction over solutions by resorting to yet more studies and committees. 

Meanwhile, pension funds and private savings have been savaged by the economic crisis.

Serious trouble

Several large private sector pension plans are now in serious trouble and many Canadians who have worked hard to put aside money in RRSPs and other investments have watched their savings melt away in the global market crash.

Worse still is the stark fact that the vast majority of Canadians have no workplace pension plan and no private savings at all. They are relying entirely on an inadequate public pension system – the Canada Pension Plan (CPP), Old Age Security (OAS) and Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) – to look after them in their senior years.

To its credit, our public pension system in Canada has managed to reduce poverty significantly among senior citizens over the years– and for that we are grateful – but benefit levels are still so low that they strand citizens with no other means of support far below the poverty line.

We in the trade union movement, and all Canadians, must unite to demand that our leaders expand our public pension system to ensure that all seniors can retire with dignity and security.

The Harper Conservatives, with the support of all parties in Parliament, should increase GIS benefits to support the most vulnerable seniors. They should raise CPP benefits for workers who don't have a workplace pension plan. And they should also create a national insurance plan to protect workplace pensions.

The government must act

To date the Conservatives have refused to take any of these steps. In fact, they have made the situation worse by tightening CPP rules to punish all workers who choose to retire before age 65, imposing greatly reduced benefit levels that will last for the rest of their lives.

On these two critical public policy issues – Employment Insurance and retirement security – the Harper government rides roughshod over the basic Canadian values I’ve cited – fairness, compassion, equality and dignity.

Saddest of all, the Harper administration is hurting our economy by its stubbornness. If the measures mentioned were implemented, the economy would be strengthened rather than weakened. The money that would flow out in the form of higher EI and CPP benefits would in turn flow back to local businesses and local communities. Everyone would benefit.

I hope you will join with me this Labour Day in celebrating all that workers and unions have achieved over the years – our rich and wonderful history. But I also ask you to reflect on the victims of this powerful recession and to speak out for the changes that our government must make if we are to build a better world for ourselves and our families – based on Canada’s fundamental values.


James Clancy
National President


James Clancy is the national president of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE