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Come together in 2010: Three resolutions for a beleaguered movement (1)

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Being old school and traditional in many ways, I have difficulty with new age language and politics.  In particular, at this time of year I cannot get my head around a New Year’s resolution in so-called plain language that will supplant my training in Whereas and Therefore Be it Resolved:  to wit: Because it is the beginning of the New Year, and Because I am imperfect, I Agree to be better...  This is my problem and I resolve/agree to get over it in 2010. 

At New Year’s, many of us make personal commitments, but not usually collective goals.  In the slow news days of late December, and unwilling to set myself up for more personal failures, my mind has wandered to some collective goals for your consideration, and your disagreement too.    

In short, we need a better, stronger progressive movement in Canada with unifying themes that bring us together.  This unity must bridge inter-generational gaps and differences which are often ignored, especially by my generation.  We need to strive for unity in our politics that takes us beyond divisive partisanship and the disappointment of celebrity culture.  Indeed, our movement needs real culture and to achieve that, we need a media that unifies progressive voices.

Back to my problems: I am so programmed in labour culture that all resolutions come in categories.  There are general resolutions and constitutional resolutions, and these have subcategories of their own: legislative, political action and so-on.  My categories are simply: economic, political and cultural.  


Economic resolution: Because the economic crisis is far from over, and Because the left has yet to gain any real political benefit from the recession and its social consequences, lets Agree to unite across generations and fight for both retirement security and rights and benefits for young workers and families.


There is little doubt that the pension crisis will be the other shoe that drops out of the recession in 2010.  Millions of Canadians have lost a chunk of their private retirement savings, and they are far from regaining those losses in spite of a modest recovery in equity markets.  For those without savings, in 2010 the maximum CPP/QPP plus OAP will be less than $1,500 per month.

In addition, tens of thousands in private pension plans face imminent cuts in promised benefits because their employers have gone into bankruptcy protection where the law sets up a restructuring that is all about maximizing the return to secured investors and screwing over workers and pensioners. 


The labour movement will make pensions and retirement security the focus of much of its work in 2010, and for very good reasons.  First, it is the right thing to do for these thousands of retired workers who built our unions and who are now entirely innocent victims of a most unfair and immoral system.  But also, it is the demographic reality of the labour movement that pensions dominate all other issues.


The Canadian Labour Congress has done very good work on the pension crisis and its major demand for a doubling of CPP/QPP addresses the needs of all workers, union and non-union, and those with and without pension plans.  But the declaration by the Finance Ministers in Whitehorse before Christmas that the pension system is not in crisis, but working well, shows how far we are from any real reform.


2010 is looking like a series of pension struggles affecting thousands of members and former members of my union.  I know many of them, and it brings a personal urgency to this battle.  At the same time, I have a concern:  the movement needs a balanced economic agenda that connects and unites us all.


There are fault lines that make pensions a tectonic issue.  Unions, across the board, are being offered up a poison pill:  Freeze your defined benefit pension plan for existing and retired workers, and force all new employees into a lesser, defined contribution plan.  It is a quick fix, and in some cases it may also be the only way to protect defenseless retirees. But it is a generational divide which eventually we will pay for in weakened solidarity.


I also fear that our economic struggles become disproportionately focused on pension and retirement issues, and this may exclude the new leadership we need.   Only a few years from retirement myself, I am more than aware that social change must be driven by the generation building their future.  The average age of a Canadian labour leader today is 50 plus -- but the organizers and leaders who have made a difference in our movement were typically a decade or more younger when they took us to the barricades.


Labour’s challenge is to make sure that we fight for retirement security, and also show our commitment to economic progress for young families which have seen little progress in spite of productivity gains.  Equally important is the will to commit the large scale resources needed to organize in economic sectors where the new working class remains stuck in low wage ghettos with few rights and no pension plan.  

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