August 26, 2008

Celebrating Our Accomplishments

Canadians have a lot on their minds as they take time to relax, share time with family and friends, and celebrate the one day of the year dedicated to those of us who work for a living.

While not all of the news is good -- soaring fuel costs, the continued loss of manufacturing and forest industry jobs, an acute lack of affordable child care and the growing gap between the people at the top of the income pyramid and the rest of us -- we have some remarkable achievements to celebrate this year. For the first time in nearly a generation, there's a new federal government program in place that benefits every single worker in Canada. Over the summer, the Wage Earner Protection Program started offering help to workers who are owed wages and vacation pay from bankrupt employers.

As many as 20,000 workers each year lose up to $50 million in unpaid wages and vacation pay because their employer files for bankruptcy. Now, workers facing this situation can apply for help through Service Canada and the federal government will cover up to six months worth of unpaid wages and vacation pay. Then, the government will seek to recover the money from the bankrupt employer.

This new program is something to celebrate. It took four years of hard work and determined activism on the part of the country's unions to convince federal politicians that such a program was needed. But that's not all that was accomplished by giving working people the confidence to sit down with their Members of Parliament to tell their stories. Two additional goals got scored -- a hat trick! -- that will also make a difference in people's lives.

In addition to new protections for their earnings, working people also have new safeguards for their retirement savings. New regulations are coming into force that designate a "super-priority" status for workers' pension contributions in bankruptcy.

Employers routinely fall behind in pension contributions, leaving workers with smaller pensions than they've earned or no pension at all because of corporate bankruptcy. While persistent employer underfunding of pension plans remains a big problem, these new protections are a big step forward.

Thirdly, new rules are coming to protect the contracts that working people and their unions bargain with employers. This puts an end to a growing trend -- employers asking for, and getting collective agreements cancelled during bankruptcy proceedings. No longer will an employer's signed contract with workers regarding salaries, fair treatment, benefits and other obligations be treated differently than an employer's other contracts. Balance and fairness. Finally.

So take Labour Day to celebrate these three remarkable achievements. They would not have been possible without so many working people taking the time to talk , face to face, with elected officials. Once that happened, the big money lobbyists in Ottawa didn't have a chance.

Just imagine what else is possible if more working people did the same thing from now on. We could change our country for the better and finally have a Canada that works for working people and our families. Maybe then, all those things I mentioned at the start of this message would get taken care of.

Happy Labour Day!
Kenneth V. Georgetti,
President, Canadian Labour Congress


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