CLC President Ken Georgetti speaks to the Ontario Federation of Labour 11th Biennial Convention

Presented by Ken Georgetti on Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Sisters and Brothers, I am pleased to bring you greetings of solidarity on behalf of all Officers and the 3.2 million workers who are members of the Canadian Labour Congress.

And thanks to your President, Sid Ryan, and the OFL officers for inviting me here today.

Now I know how committed Brother Ryan is to political causes and to fighting the right-wing Metro Toronto government of Mayor Rob Ford.

But I have to admit I was surprised when Sid explained to me last week that the O-F-L has been renamed Occupy… Ford’s… Lawn!

But more seriously, I appreciate the Ontario Federation of Labour’s deep commitment to stand up for the principles behind the Occupy Wall Street and related Occupy actions in Ontario cities.

Unions have been fighting the growing income inequality faced by most Canadians for years, fighting inequality the best way we know – by organizing workers, by using collective bargaining to win better wages and benefits and by taking political action.

But I welcomed the Occupy Wall Street movement from the beginning because it put corporate greed and growing income inequality in the public eye and forced the media to cover it extensively for the first time in years.

It is shameful that the media and politicians have turned it into a debate about tents in these last weeks.

But Canadians agree it is high time for a real debate on corporate tax rates, on wage stagnation and on the growing poverty facing far too many Canadians.

No matter what the outcome of individual Occupations, the Occupy movement must mark the beginning of the end of three decades where workers have seen income that barely increased above inflation.

We must bring an end to shrinking union density due to legislative restriction imposed on union organizing by right-wing governments and their corporate backers.

And we must fight to see that workers around the world get a fair share for a fair day’s work.

Unfortunately, we are facing multiple battles at once – and the stakes are high.

Sisters and Brothers, I come from Ottawa today with a strong message – there is a class war going on out there and for too long we’ve been on the losing end.

The rich are getting richer at our expense, and with the help of right-wing governments past and present, they will continue to get rich if we don’t change the debate in this country onto our values.

And with a Conservative majority government, we have to work hard, and work fast to change that debate.

We have to get our members prepared for a major fight against the goals of the new majority Conservative government.

This is a time of grave concern for workers, because Prime Minister Stephen Harper is no longer restrained by minority government status.

Already we’ve seen the Conservative government legislatively intervene on the side of management at both Canada Post and Air Canada in June, and threaten Air Canada flight attendants again in October.

In less than four months Prime Minister Stephen Harper has turned upside down over 50 years of precedent of the government’s role in mediating federal labour disputes.

Let’s be blunt – we are getting an unmistakable warning from a right-wing government that doesn’t like unions.

And we must respond to their provocation with an equally clear warning… that labour will not be intimidated and will not run from a fight.

It’s no accident that the CLC’s Action Plan adopted at Convention in May is titled: “Workers Program to Defeat the Right-Wing Agenda”.

That Plan is being put into action now.

But when we fight, we fight smart.

We are targetted, we are disciplined and we are focussed.

And most of all we are patient.

Our tactics may be varied but our strategy must be clear – we will work for 4 years if need be to defeat MPs who continue to hurt the interests of working people and their unions.

From the CLC to affiliates to Federations of Labour like yours to local Labour Councils, we will defend our union movement!

And we will also counter attack the right-wing organizations that act as proxies for big business and right-wing governments.

And let’s name names – the Fraser Institute, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses have all been consistently and at times rabidly anti-union.

If you can believe it, CFIB President Catherine Swift actually said earlier this year, and I quote:

“What would be ideal is getting rid of public sector unions entirely.”
Sisters and Brothers – how can we work with business organizations whose leaders publicly proclaim their goal is to eliminate unions?

That is not only a fundamental issue – it’s a complete deal-breaker and a violation of our democratic rights!

Can you imagine if I said: “What would be ideal is getting rid of big business entirely?”

Front page editorials would call for me to be expelled from Canada!

But no newspaper or commentator has taken Swift to task as far as I know – none.

So that indicates just how serious a fight we are facing in the years ahead.

But we also really need to go on the offensive.

We need to talk about some of the critical issues that threaten Canadian workers – issues the Conservatives desperately do not want the public to consider.

Issues that have been raised by the Occupy movement like income inequality and the right to dignity in retirement.

My friends, this summer, the world was rocked by another stock market meltdown – the 5th in just 20 years.

The stock market has been no place to put your hard earned savings for quite some time, yet what is this government’s response to the looming retirement security crisis for workers, and especially our young people?

Instead of expanding the Canada Pension Plan as proposed by most provinces, instead of listening to the CLC’s rock-solid proposals on CPP reforms which has the support of Canada’s Official Opposition, politicians of other political stripes, academics, pension actuaries, seniors’ groups and the Canadian Federation of Students – what has the Conservative government proposed?

The Conservatives announced a Pooled Registered Pension Plan just over a week ago – an idea that will only further benefit banks and financial institutions!

Yes indeed.

More ways for banks, mutual fund companies and insurance companies to pick our pockets and rob us of dignity in retirement after a lifetime of work.

This is simply another RRSP scheme that avoids the real issue – too many Canadians have no savings and can’t afford the huge market risks and high management fees that eat up investments.

Bankers prosper but workers can’t afford to retire.

And the reason is the same – the insatiable greed of the super-rich, including the CEOs who make more money in a half a day than your members make in a year and governments like the Conservatives in Ottawa who only listen to big business – and not working people.

Let’s look at just one example.

The head of one of Canada’s largest cable TV companies – Shaw Communications CEO Jim Shaw – recently retired at just 53 years old.

Shaw will collect a pension that pays him $16,000.

Not $16,000 a year.

That would be a lot more than the average Canada Pension Plan benefit of only $6,000 a year.

Not $16,000 a month. That would be $192,000 a year – or 4 times more than the average Canadian worker makes.

No, Jim Shaw will retire on $16,000 a day – every single day.

That’s $6 million a year – for the rest of his life.

He makes the maximum yearly Canada Pension Plan benefit every 17 hours!

And yet Shaw and his super-rich CEO friends tell the Canadian Labour Congress to forget about our plan to dramatically improve the Canada Pension Plan so all Canadians can retire with dignity and security.

It illustrates again the simple reality – we are in a class war right now.

That war was quietly declared a long time ago by the super-rich and big business against the ordinary working people who we represent.

It’s a war that we must win if our labour movement is to survive.

And we can win – if we fight smarter and go on the offensive.

It’s time we started talking about real solutions to the economic crisis – solutions like higher taxes on the wealthy.

Solutions like the simple one proposed by former Wall Street trader Nassim Taleb – just eliminate bonuses for bank executives and for any corporation that gets a taxpayer-financed bailout.

Taleb rightly says bonuses are an irresistable incentive for bankers to take serious risks – like investing in the US subprime mortgage market that set off the 2008 global financial crisis.

Police, firefighters, and our military risk their lives to provide public services – but they don’t get lavish bonuses for doing their jobs.

So why do bankers and corporate CEOs?

The reality is that unlike the rest of us, these greedy business bosses aren’t taking any personal risks at all – they get huge bonuses if they are successful and if they aren’t – well, taxpayers will bail them out!

These are the sort of arguments we have to make – and make them part of the public debate.

It’s time that labour questioned low corporate tax rates and huge incentives too.

Why do huge and profitable businesses not only pay no or minimal taxes but also receive government money to increase their profits?

It’s time to force companies receiving corporate tax breaks to pay that money back to Canadians if they don’t create jobs right here in Canada.

It’s up to the labour movement to raise these issues and demand change.

Here in Ontario you have an opportunity that doesn’t come very often.

A minority Liberal government where the NDP can hold the balance of power can be a recipe to advance progressive issues – like improvements to employment standards…

… or changes to labour laws that can ease the challenges working people face to join unions or bargain collectively like sectoral bargaining or card check.

Even experts at the International Monetary Fund and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development – the OECD – admit this one basic fact:

The single best public policy mechanism to narrow the income gap is broad-based collective bargaining.

Seize this moment Sisters and Brothers.

Seize this moment to remind Ontario’s politicians that there is a direct relationship between the shrinking of the middle class and the resulting growth in income disparity, and the decline in union density that has taken place over the last 30 years.

Because there’s no doubt about it, unions are the key to fighting inequity.

Being in a union means earning a decent wage so you can buy a home, buy a car, raise a family, take a vacation once in a while, put your kids through college or university, and after a lifetime of work, retire in dignity.

Sisters and Brothers, we all know that we face challenging times ahead.

We face economic troubles and political opposition.

But the key to our success is the same as it has always been for the labour movement – talk to our members.

When we issue our call to arms, we have to educate our local executives, activists and stewards to engage our members with our own message.

And we need every member’s help to get these simple messages across about the union advantage: “That lifting up our standard of living is a good thing.”

“That being in a union means earning a decent wage so that we can buy a home, a car, raise a family, take a vacation, put our kids through college, obtain benefits to keep you healthy and, after a lifetime of work, be able to retire in dignity.”

Unions are the way we achieve all these great things – so we should publicly celebrate our unions and be proud of all we do – all that you do – for workers and for their families.

So when we talk to our members, when we fight fiction about unions with the facts – the strong message of the union advantage – then Sisters and Brothers, then we will win.

Thank you for listening and for all you do to make this a better world.


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