I had the pleasure of attending a public forum on pensions in Oshawa a few weeks ago. Organized by the retirees’ chapter of the Canadian Auto Workers’ (CAW) Local 222, over 200 bodies were in attendance.
While the theme of the evening was universal public pensions, speakers had experienced a number of social ills: a single mother who lost her home and car after being laid off from GM, now enrolled in a government re-training program as a care provider and struggling to make ends meet as a student and mother; a woman whose father had lost his workplace pension, reduced to poverty in his final years on the paltry public pensions currently paid in Canada; a former Nortel worker who recounted what it was like to lose his income security on the brink of retirement. Following these testimonials, Sylvain Schetagne, an economist with the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), gave a brief presentation on how a more generous public pension plan and ‘retirement security for everyone’ could be turned into policy.
The remaining time was then given to questions and comments from the audience, and a large line quickly formed. I heard many positive reviews of this afterwards – to paraphrase one woman in the audience I overheard: it’s about time they gave us equal time to speak. Again and again, people said that they just wanted to be heard. Unfortunately, only a couple of politicians attended. The many who were invited were represented only by a name card and an empty seat at the head table.
Although the crowd was by and large a sea of grey and white hair, the themes addressed by attendees touched not only on public pensions, but on many other social issues. One popular theme was education and younger generations. One man spoke at length of his children – despite amassing debt to pay for their university education, they could only find minimum wage employment after attaining their degrees.
The usual suspects were there, too. The elderly gentleman who often turns up at public events in Oshawa to lecture on the importance of direct over proportional representation spoke at great length until he was eventually shouted down for monopolizing the microphone. Next, audience member Sid Ryan gave a rousing speech that was capped off by thunderous applause. Then there was the unsuspecting financial advisor who had clearly attended hoping to attract clients; he took the opportunity to inform those present of the benefits of individual investments over publicly-funded initiatives. The crowd became especially vocal when he suggested, in response to a comment on the inability of everyone to build savings for retirement, that people make choices and so must live with them. But again, grumblings from the audience turned to loud applause and cheers when he was followed by a retiree of Local 222 who passionately declared that low paying jobs at Wal-Mart are not always a choice, while another interjected that he had not chosen to get laid off.
People in attendance did not only express an interest in being heard; many others also wanted to know what they could do. The CAW is relatively unique in that it provides an organizational space for retirees. They form a separate chapter, and so cannot vote within the traditional structure of their locals – specifically, they have no say on collective agreement issues, and thus, on decisions made in bargaining regarding pensions or health benefits. Perhaps this is one reason why issues taken up by organized retirees often move beyond narrow collective agreement issues to encompass broader problems seniors are facing today, and in the future – rallies for universal public pensions is but one example of their activities. Organized seniors in Oshawa are also not alone; they are linked to retirees in other communities under the umbrella of the CAW, so that similar actions can be coordinated with seniors in cities and towns with a CAW local across the country.
Many of those involved in the retirees’ chapter well remember a time when the union was established to fight for basic issues that some take for granted today – job security, income protection for those ‘too old to work and too young to die’, paid vacations, overtime, and health care, to name just a few. Those who don’t remember what life was like before unions and a publicly-funded social safety net had parents who were often eager to remind them of those times. These memories seem especially relevant in our present economic climate.
In this sense, the elderly in many ways represent a part of our history. At the same time, it is heartening to see how many refuse to be confined solely to the history books, but rather insist on playing an active role in trying to shape our present and future. As such, they strike me as a vivid example of history in action.