Labour calls on Flaherty to keep workers in mind – Opinion – Labour calls on Flaherty to keep workers in mind: Investing in public infrastructure would create jobs and provide badly needed support to hard hit sectors
January 15, 2009. Ken Georgetti

The Prime Minister, premiers and territorial leaders will meet this week to talk about the federal budget to be tabled on Jan. 27. On behalf of the 3.2 million Canadian workers represented by the Canadian Labour Congress, I am calling on them to take decisive action to protect Canadians from the devastating economic crisis that is ravaging our country.

More than 100,000 people have lost good full-time jobs in the past two months alone. We are officially in a recession and things will get worse unless governments respond to this crisis quickly and in a determined way. Other countries have taken steps to protect their citizens.

Jim Flaherty, our finance minister, tabled an economic update in November but it provided no plan to protect the jobs, savings and pensions of Canadians. Flaherty later named an 11-member economic advisory panel to advise him about what to do. It consists mostly of super-rich CEOs who have no idea about how most Canadians are struggling to deal with this crisis. The Toronto Star editorialized, accurately, that the group “appears unnecessarily tilted to one side of the economic equation.”

Working people had nothing to do with the short-sighted business decisions that caused this economic crisis, but many of us are paying for those mistakes now with our jobs and our retirement nest eggs. Which is why working people must be part of the government’s action plan and why the labour movement has something to say.

We insist that the federal government move to stimulate the economy at a time when jobs are being shredded and people are losing confidence. Merely cutting interest rates, as the Bank of Canada has done, is not enough.

Labour’s economic blueprint would create jobs by making badly needed investments in public infrastructure and in retrofitting homes and public buildings. The plan would provide support to our hard hit manufacturing, mining and forestry sectors. It would also improve employment insurance and training opportunities for laid-off workers, and it would protect the pensions of Canadians.

Here is what we are calling on the federal government to do:

Increase employment insurance benefits. Workers have paid billions into EI but benefits have been drastically reduced. The average weekly benefit is just $335, and fewer than half of unemployed workers actually qualify for benefits under today’s rules. The EI fund is running a $54 billion surplus that should be used to improve access to benefits for unemployed workers and to ensure that laid-off workers have access to training and adjustment programs.

Launch a major public investment program to create good jobs in infrastructure, manufacturing and public services and link this program to a made-in-Canada procurement policy.

Provide a guarantee fund for workers’ pensions. The United States has such a plan and we should as well. Phase in increases to the Canada and Quebec pension plans and immediately raise Old Age Security to protect retirees and reduce reliance on private pensions and RRSPs.

Invest directly in sector renewal strategies designed to save jobs and promote successful restructuring in hard hit industries such as auto and forest products. Pursue strategies to support cultural industries, environmental technology, renewable energy and other promising sectors.

Maintain equalization and other transfers to provinces, territories and cities for infrastructure, public services and social programs.

Do not, as Flaherty has suggested, cut taxes. Investing in public infrastructure, manufacturing and other industries will do far more to stimulate the economy than providing tax breaks – a tax break tried by the U.S. earlier this year didn’t work.

We can turn this economic crisis into an opportunity to build for the future. Investments in public infrastructure would address a huge deficit that has been allowed to build up over the past 20 years of spending cuts. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimates this infrastructure deficit to be $123 billion and it consists of roads, bridges and buildings not repaired, and of water plants and rapid transit ways never built.

A study by the Ottawa-based firm Informetrica Ltd. shows that each $1 billion in additional spending in basic infrastructure would create 11,500 jobs, half in construction and half in other sectors.

Canada needs a real economic plan to get the economy moving and put people back to work now. The labour movement has a plan to make that happen. We must ensure the government is really listening and doesn’t forget about working people when it brings down the next budget.

Ken Georgetti is president of the Canadian Labour Congress.

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