Canadian Federation of Independent Business VP Dan Kelly

Why does the so-called Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses push a far-right agenda that benefits the country’s richest corporations and individuals at the expense of independent businesses?

Well, it’s not that complicated, really. Like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which doesn’t represent the interests of Canadian taxpayers, it’s fair to say based on its actual behaviour that the CFIB is a typical example of pure, unadulterated AstroTurf pretending to serve the interests of one group while actually working against them.

“AstroTurfing,” colloquially speaking, is the establishment of groups that really represent commercial or political special interests while purporting to look out for “grassroots” citizens. This activity is named for a brand of synthetic carpeting that is designed to look, from a distance, like real grass.

The CFIB claims to represent about 100,000 “entrepreneurs” in Canada, and no doubt independent business owners who have been misled by the organization’s propaganda spend their hard-earned income on membership. But when they do, they are not getting much value for their money, for the goal of the CFIB’s agenda is clearly to benefit big business, and the little guys who pay the freight can take the hindmost.

Consider the CFIB’s recent campaign against defined-benefit pension plans. Like the CTF, the existence of the modest pensions that are among the benefits won over the years by public sector employees is a particular bete noir of the CFIB. Both the CFIB and the CTF constantly complain about the alleged cost to society of public sector pensions, endlessly repeating dubious claims about the “sustainability” of these plans.

Recently, a CFIB vice-president named Dan Kelly had an op-ed piece published in a number of Postmedia (of course) newspapers carrying on about this very thing, which you can read for yourself if you can keep your eyes from glazing over. Or, you can save yourself the pain and just take it from me that Kelly thinks we should reduce all public service pensions posthaste to defined-contribution plans.

Once you retire, defined-benefit plans pay the same benefits as long as you live. Defined-contribution plans pay no benefits but merely give you contributions to invest on your own. The contributions are usually smaller, and they leave retirees vulnerable to the fluctuations of the stock market and hostage by the depredations of the so-called “wealth management” industry. But that’s just fine with Kelly and Postmedia, thanks very much.

The CFIB’s issue, however, is not really the sustainability of public service pensions. Rather, it is the cost to major corporations of defined benefits pensions, not to mention the confidence this kind of retirement planning can give to working people and the powerful illustration the plans’ existence provides to other working people of the benefits of union membership.

Big corporations hate fair pension arrangements. And it’s fair enough for the CFIB to push this agenda, one supposes, seeing as it’s pretty obvious that the organization in reality exists to benefit businesses that are “too big to fail” when it comes to their own massive taxpayer-financed subsidies and their owners’ endless tax breaks. But where is the benefit to independent businesses in this, pray?

Consider what happens when the state intervenes in the labour market to “tilt the playing field” in favour of major corporations, as the CFIB, the CTF, chambers of commerce and similar right-wing AstroTurf organizations relentlessly propose. The uber-wealthy take their money and invest in productive capacity in other countries, spend their recreational time in other countries, send their children to universities in other countries and buy luxury automobiles made in other countries.

Canadians other than BMW salespeople on commission and restaurant servers praying for tips benefit very little, if at all. The savings sure as hell aren’t spent on research and development in Canada!

Now, think about what happens when defined benefit pension plans and similar arrangements are available to ordinary working people. Even though these plans tend to be quite modest, as Canadian Labour Congress President Ken Georgetti rightly pointed out in a short letter taking issue with Kelly’s bloviations, they also tend to stay right here in Canada.

In aggregate, that adds up to a huge benefit for Canadian entrepreneurs.

Moderate-income pensioners, after all, buy local goods and pay for local services, they finance holidays in Canadian locations, they send their children to Canadian universities and technical schools, and they even buy Canadian-made cars in significant numbers. You know, the reliable, inexpensive, fuel-efficient, union-made Fords and Chevrolets that make the conspicuously wealthy among us turn up their surgically sculpted noses in favour of foreign luxury brands.

Who are the beneficiaries of all this local financial activity by people with decent pensions (substantially paid for with their own contributions over the years)? Why, local entrepreneurs, of course! The very kind of business people the CFIB purports to represent but, in reality, so clearly works against.

This is why, when you look at it closely, the CFIB’s anti-pension campaign has to be based to a significant degree on disingenuity, the implication such pensions are much more generous than they in reality are, and the destructive force of envy, which encourages the idea that since someone else has something you don’t, it ought to be taken away.

The CFIB knows perfectly well, of course, that as U.S. president Ronald Reagan used to claim in another context, there are in fact occasions when a rising tide floats all boats. For years, decent public service pensions have put upward pressure on the private sector’s shabby or nonexistent retirement arrangements.

The CFIB is not kicking public service pensions because they hurt entrepreneurs — they self-evidently do the opposite. It is obviously fighting them because of the cost to large employers, the choices they give to working people, and the clear way they demonstrate the benefit of union membership.

Unions, after all, help local independent businesses by bringing more cash into their communities and fighting for fairness for all citizens. Naturally, therefore, given their true agenda, unions are anathema to the CFIB and its ilk. Anything that can be done to weaken unions is part of the corporate right’s overall strategy to “defund the left.”

What does it tell us that the last pre-political stop made by Danielle Smith, the leader of the Wildrose Alliance, a political party that purports to represent small entrepreneurs and ordinary taxpayers and today stands for the destruction of collective bargaining rights and public health care in Alberta, was as the CFIB’s Alberta director?

When Conservative leadership candidate Alison Redford bravely called for a significant increase in the supports provided the most severely disabled Albertans last week, Smith’s Wildrose Alliance was quick to scream that the Richest Place on Earth can’t afford to be generous to its most vulnerable citizens?

Blogger Dave Cournoyer, better known as Daveberta, reported that the Wildrose Alliance communications director was swiftly a-Tweet with warnings that increases to Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH), which Redford rightly characterized as an embarrassment, would be more than the province could bear.

Well of course they would be! The Wildrose Alliance, like the CFIB, thinks we need the money to finance tax breaks for billionaires and the most generous subsidies on the planet for foreign energy companies!

Real entrepreneurs who naively support groups like the CFIB and the CTF, not to mention vote for parties like the Wildrose Alliance, ought to look closely at the agendas of these groups and their likely impact on their business if they succeed.

If they used their heads, they would reassess their contributions!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

NOTE: After this post, Alberta Diary will be closed for vacation for two weeks. David Climenhaga’s commentaries will return to Alberta Diary and Rabble on Monday, Aug. 22.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...