Prime Minister Stephen Harper boasts about Canada’s economic performance while jobs vanish and pensions shrink

TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Thu Feb 09 2012.   Carol Goar, Editorial Board

We haven’t yet reached the six-week mark, but 2012 has already brought more upheaval to our lives than the 2008-2009 recession.

When the year began we thought the cornerstone of Canada’s pension system, the 60-year-old Old Age Security program, was sturdy. We considered it our one reliable source of retirement income at a time when market forces were battering private pensions and personal savings.

Then, out of the blue, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that his government intended to curb the growth of Canada’s retirement income system. He disclosed his plan at a conference in Switzerland, providing no details. Economists at home were left to guess the specifics; actuaries to dispute the urgency; and Canadians to revise their financial plans in a vacuum.

We thought we had a functioning, collective bargaining system in this country as we headed into 2012.

Then we watched Caterpillar Inc., the owner of a productive locomotive firm in London, bust its union (the Canadian Auto Workers), thumb its nose at both the community and the Ontario government, then close the factory, throwing its 460 workers on the scrap heap and walking away with the company’s patents and technology.

Closer to home, we saw the public-sector version of this drama. Mayor Rob Ford bulldozed the bargaining agent for the City of Toronto’s 6,000 outside workers (the Canadian Union of Public Employees) into submission. He set a deadline and issued an ultimatum: Accept his administration’s offer — stripping employees with less than 22 years of seniority of job security and slashing benefits — or hit the streets. All the union could do was mitigate the damage.

If the two largest unions in the country — one in the private sector, the other in the public sector — can do so little to protect workers, our bargaining systems is on its last legs.

Six weeks ago, we believed there were still a few safe spots in the job market.

Then the January unemployment numbers came out. The financial sector — banks, investment firms, insurance companies and real estate agencies — shed 23,000 workers, casting a shadow over Toronto’s future and a pall over young people’s career aspirations. Other “knowledge” jobs vanished, too. The scientific and technical services sector cast off 48,000 workers. The health-care sector jettisoned 9,500 jobs.

Young people were left wondering whether it makes sense to go into debt to get an education.

The surprises of early 2012 can’t be attributed to the debt crisis turmoil in Europe or the fiscal uncertainty in Washington. They were largely homegrown. They can’t be blamed on weak corporate profits. Caterpillar just announced a 58 per cent jump in its quarterly profits. The chartered banks reported stronger-than-expected earnings.

Nor are government deficits the real culprit. Toronto, for all the mayor’s alarmist rhetoric, had a $154 million surplus last year. Ottawa’s 2011-2012 shortfall is decreasing so fast that it’s likely to come in  below the $31 billion Finance Minister Jim Flaherty projected last November — without any reduction in Old Age Security.

What we are seeing is a power shift. Governments and corporations are limiting their risk exposure at the expense of their citizens and employees.

This trend is not new, but it accelerated sharply in 2012.

We knew Harper had no intention of bolstering public pensions. But no one imagined he would make life harder for seniors, without any warning or public discussion.

We knew Ford had campaigned to slash the city’s payroll if he became mayor. But few Torontonians realized how easily he could eliminate unionized employees.

We’d seen foreign-owned corporations take back benefits and wage gains won by unionized employees. But none had gone as far as Caterpillar.

The lesson: We need new tools and tactics to stand our ground.

Union membership has been dropping for 25 years. Rather than reinventing itself, the labour movement fought to protect its shrinking turf.

Forty per cent of us don’t vote (50 per cent municipally). That makes it difficult to hold our political leaders to account.

January showed us what passivity produces. February would be a good time to start using our ingenuity, our solidarity and our foresight.

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