Opinion

Stand up for Better Pensions

Let's start an honest conversation about how we can lift everyone up.

By Jim Sinclair, 18 Jul 2012, TheTyee.ca

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'No race to the bottom': Jim Sinclair, President of the BC Federation of Labour.

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The latest effort from British Columbia's business elite to wring every last dollar out of B.C.'s middle class is focused squarely on the hard-earned pensions of working people.

Sure, they will pretend that their calls to dismantle quality pension programs are meant to protect working people from the scary pension liability bogeyman. But the bogeyman doesn't exist and they aren't being honest about their intentions.

As American companies have been struggling in the wake of an economic collapse caused by unbridled and irresponsible greed among the nation's financial elite, pensions have become a favourite, albeit misguided target.

Major auto companies were among the worst culprits. As management made error after error, the companies began underfunding their pension responsibilities, essentially financing their poor management decisions on the backs of their employees' retirement funds.

But that wasn't the story we heard. We heard that overly-generous pensions were what were bringing these companies down. It didn't matter that it wasn't true.

Clearly, Canada's business elite were watching. They witnessed working people in America turn on other working people and back measures that took away pensions from workers who had earned them over decades.

Since then, we have seen a number of trial balloons floated in Canada and in B.C., along with increasingly amped rhetoric about pensions. It's without foundation and middle-class Canadians will be captured by this American-style rhetoric at their own peril.

Playing the envy card

It is a preposterous argument we hear from politicians like Christy Clark and her big business shills, that a key reason to take good pensions away from those who have them is that more and more people don't have them.

They are hoping that British Columbians without good pensions will be motivated by envy rather than ambition, and willingly get on board the race to the bottom. I think British Columbians know that we all lose when we join that race.

Well, not everyone loses. The same investment bankers and financiers who caused the world economy to collapse stand to gain a great deal. Lower wages, lower pension costs, lower benefits all add up to more profits and bigger bonuses.

That motivation means we can expect a barrage of criticism of fair pension plans over the coming months from right-wing think tanks, from the BC Liberal party and from selfish business organizations.

Their arguments won't be based in facts. They will be based in rhetoric and trumped-up projections of how the sky will most certainly fall if big business isn't able to squeeze more money out of the middle class.

I, for one, welcome the conversation. Because it's time we got serious about allowing Canadians to live out their retirement in dignity, and not take for granted that the retirements that most working and middle-class Canadians have now is nearly good enough. And it's time we fight for good pensions for those who don't have them.

Why can't we all retire with dignity?

When it comes to retiring, defined benefit pension plans are indeed the best means by which working and middle class British Columbians can be assured a predictable retirement free of ongoing financial stress. Is that not something we should all want? For ourselves? For our families? For our neighbours?

I say yes, and that it is entirely reasonable to believe that we can all retire with dignity and confidence.

Here are some key facts. Public service pensions across Canada are well funded, with ratios from the high 90s to the low 100s. In B.C., they are fully funded and Finance Minister Kevin Falcon acknowledges that far from being a vulnerability, our public pension system is a large part of the reason for our triple-A credit rating.

Here's another fact. An average government worker retires today with a pension of about $1,500 a month. Compare that to the minimum pension Stephen Harper will receive of $223,500 per year, or almost $20,000 a month. Or, take his B.C. counterpart Christy Clark and her recent complaints about pensions for career childcare workers and care aides being too generous at less than $1,500 a month. If Clark has bought back her pensionable service, she will be in line to receive more than $80,000 a year for only 11 years of service as an MLA.

Canadians have a right to be angry about politicians who complain about middle-class pensions, while padding their own pockets with a guaranteed luxury retirement. But surely our anger at Stephen Harper and Christy Clark shouldn't translate into a desire to ruin the retirements of our friends and neighbours who've earned their pensions through hard work and in good faith.

Instead of racing to the bottom, let's start an honest conversation about how we can lift everyone up.  [Tyee]

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