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Get ready to defend your right to retire

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If you are an OPSEU member with a pension plan, get ready to defend your right to retire.

The Oct. 6 provincial election is coming up fast. In the weeks ahead, you’ll hear more voices calling on government to pay less in pension premiums. Business groups will say your pension is “platinum plated.” Sun TV “experts” will say it’s time to get rid of defined-benefit pensions, where you know what your income will be when you retire.

And don’t be surprised when Ontario PC leader Tim Hudak says he’ll “review” all public pension plans if he becomes Premier.
Everyone has the right to retire with dignity. This is true for private sector workers, and it’s true for public sector workers. But the richest companies in Canada have a different view. To boost profits, they want to keep wages low, and pension premiums are a form of wages.

In the private sector, corporations have been squeezing workers’ pensions for three decades. In 1985, 40 per cent of private sector workers were in a pension plan. That was the peak. Now it’s down to 35 per cent.

In the public sector, the percentage of workers in pension plans is twice as high. That’s a bright spot on the pension map, but corporations don’t see it that way. Decent pensions draw many people into public sector jobs. So to attract good people, business can’t slash the pensions of its own workers as quickly as it would like. And that cuts into profits.

This might be a concern if companies were broke. But they’re not. According to Statistics Canada, Canadian corporations are sitting on $471 billion in cash right now. That’s money they’re not investing to create jobs. It’s money they’re not paying out in wages. And it’s money they’re not spending on employee pensions.

Instead of supporting their own workers, corporations are attacking us instead. As they step up their attacks in the weeks ahead, you may hear your friends and neighbours repeat what they’ve heard in the news. When that happens, you need to respond. Here are three things to know when talking about your pension:

  1. Corporations and the politicians and pundits who serve them are attacking pension costs in the public sector to keep their own pension costs down and their own profits up.
  2. Public sector pension plans are not “platinum plated.” The average pension for a retired worker in the Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan (HOOPP) is about $15,900 a year. An OPSEU member who retires from a job in the Ontario Public Service (OPS) earns under $17,000 a year – about $325 a week. Retired workers in our community colleges earn $22,500 a year, with college support staff earning just $13,730. Retirees in the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System, better known as OMERS, average $14,200 a year. And more than a quarter of a million Ontario public sector workers have no pension at all.
  3. Good pensions are not a problem to be fixed. Cutting public sector pensions will do nothing but create more low-income retirees. The real problem in Ontario today is the lack of good pensions for millions of workers. That’s why we need to expand the Canada Pension Plan. And that’s why we need private sector employers to see funding decent pensions as part of what they pay to get the healthy profits they make.

In 2002, OPSEU members in the OPS walked the picket line for 54 days in a strike in which protecting their pension plan was a central issue. We faced down a Tory government then, and if we have to do it again, we will. But no matter where you work, defending your right to retire can’t start after the election – it has to start now. When it comes up in conversation, be ready.

Warren (Smokey) Thomas, President
Ontario Public Service Employees Union

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