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How union leaders can change with the times — or not: Cohn
If the union movement doesn’t adapt to members’ needs, it will fall into terminal decline.
Feb. 27, 2017
Martin Regg Cohn

In an era of precarious work and nefarious workplaces, unions face an existential crisis: The labour movement is losing members and losing ground.

Fewer than 29 per cent of Canadians are unionized, compared to 38 per cent in the early 1980s. Barely one in three Ontarians has a workplace pension, with private sector workers increasingly in the lurch.

For unions, that means fighting on two fronts — for job security and retirement security. Not just today’s wages but tomorrow’s pensions.

If the union movement doesn’t adapt to members’ needs, it will fall into terminal decline.

Against that backdrop, the decade-long campaign by the Canadian Labour Congress to expand public pensions is a good example of how to persevere for progressive causes. Their lobbying won support at Queen’s Park with an ambitious plan for a supplementary public pension, which was leveraged, last year, into an improved Canada Pension Plan.

Now that the pension pressure is off the politicians, how can unions stay relevant? By reinventing themselves.

The SEIU, which describes itself as Canada’s health-care union, has 120,000 members across Canada — half of them in Ontario — who earn low wages as personal support workers. The union negotiated hard with Ontario’s Liberal government, ahead of the last election, to boost their meagre $12.50 hourly wage by $4.

But winning pay hikes and promoting pensions is only half the battle. CPP reform will help many middle-income Canadians close the retirement gap decades from now, but it will do little to improve the lives of low-paid SEIU members today — or ever.

Many of its members earn $30,000 a year, can’t count on a workplace pension plan, and have precious little money to spare for retirement savings. Even if they could sock money away, a high-fee RRSP mutual fund would be a colossal mistake.

Now, the SEIU has come up with a streamlined retirement savings plan that is tailored to low-income people. It offers low fees of 0.22 per cent (versus 2.2 per cent for many other funds), and uses a Group Tax Free Savings Account (TFSA) plan to insulate their savings from future clawbacks of Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) benefits.

SEIU president Sharleen Stewart says unions need to figure out how to respond to disruption with innovation: “We have to roll up our sleeves,” she told me, adding that her union is looking at “any innovative idea and progressive solution.”

Her approach contrasts with the traditional tub-thumping by OPSEU president Warren (Smokey) Thomas, the public sector union leader who never saw a confrontation he couldn’t conjoin. Where there’s Smokey, there’s fire-breathing rhetoric that fizzles faster than a wet match.

Thomas issued an inflammatory news release this month implying the Liberal government might somehow raid OPTrust, the pension fund OPSEU jointly sponsors with Queen’s Park. The fund enjoys a handsome surplus, which has led to an arcane accounting dispute between the auditor general and other experts about how to properly state the government’s share of that surplus on its balance sheet (which is entirely different from dipping into the fund).

But it stretches credulity, criminality and legality for anyone to keep suggesting this segregated pension fund, held in trust, could be emptied out on Kathleen Wynne’s whim. OPTrust, the professional administrator (and investor) of the pension fund (on behalf of OPSEU and the government) has said as much.

A better question is why Thomas doesn’t focus more on the pension fund for which he is directly responsible as employer of the 375 staff workers who look after his 130,000 members, working out of OPSEU offices across the province. Members of that staff union — the Ontario Public Service Staff Union (OPSSU) — have been embroiled in a bitter battle with Thomas and his OPSEU brass for more than a year about workplace concerns.

And they are wondering about the deficit plaguing their own union pension plan. OPSSU president Pati Haberman tells me the jointly sponsored plan has a deficit of more than $18 million.

Additional payments from the staff workers and OPSEU (as employer) were needed, she confirmed. Recent analysis “shows a high likelihood of further contribution increases being required” in future by both sides, her union believes.

OPSEU didn’t respond to my requests for comment from Thomas, who instead posted a blog online last week acknowledging the shortfall I’d asked about. Interestingly, however, he skirted the question of higher contributions to plug the deficit.

Easier for him to raise fears about the red herring of the OPTrust pension being plundered — a colourful way of distracting people from the red ink closer to home.