THE BLOG

It's Only Fair

10/20/2013 02:47 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

In many ways the Canadian Union of Public Employees is a much different union than it was 50 years ago, as evident from the photos from our founding convention. The delegates who gathered in Winnipeg to form CUPE were mostly middle aged, mostly male, and overwhelmingly white.

Five decades later, CUPE - like much of the Canadian labour movement - has grown to be far more representative of all Canadians. Over 60 per cent of our members are now women. Pay equity has become a corner stone of unionism. Aboriginal and racialized workers are an integral part of our union - at the grassroots level and in our leadership.

The one thing that hasn't changed, however, is what's at the core of the work we do at CUPE.

Fairness.

By bringing workers together in united action, unions help create fairer and more equitable workplaces. This benefits not only union members, but also raises standards for all Canadian workers and their communities. The progress CUPE and other unions have spurred over the last half century has built a prosperous middle class, who in turn support local businesses and fuel the country's economy.

We make Canada fairer for workers.

It's safe to say most Canadians agree fairness is a value we should all strive for. While it's something our society doesn't always achieve, most agree it is the ideal.

Where the real challenge lays for us is how do we achieve fairness - do we raise people up to share in prosperity and opportunity, or do you take a more cynical view and try to drag people down to a lowest common denominator?

Attempts to dismantle pensions, push down wages and benefits, abolish the very notion of job security, drown-out and silence the political voice of workers - that is the choice of the Conservative federal government, and they are supported by right-wing think tanks.

But it is not our choice.

Take for example the recent deluge of reports on the state of pensions in Canada. Through manipulated data and an almost religious devotion to the "gold-plated pensions" mantra, right-wing think tanks have tried to portray defined benefit pensions plans - particularly those of public sector workers - as unaffordable and extravagant.

The average retirement income of a CUPE member with a workplace pension is $18,000 per year.

It's worth repeating what some call extravagant - $18,000 a year, after a 30-year career of making contributions to the plan with each and every pay cheque.

But unfortunately, for more than 11 million Canadians without a workplace pension, a decent and fair retirement income is a far off dream.

Expanding the Canada Pension Plan would help address the 6-out-of-10 workers with no workplace plan. Gradual increases to CPP contributions could mean doubling benefits. It's the most effective and affordable way to tackle retirement income insecurity.

Securing workplace defined benefit pensions for those who have them, and expanding CPP for others (with the ultimate goal of those workers one day getting their own workplace plan) is the fair thing to do.

Lowering the pension expectations for workers in unions does so even more for those without a union. Dismantling pensions, driving down wages, workplaces where managers have unilateral and arbitrary power over employees - these are the policies put forward by the Fraser Institute, Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses, Merit Canada, and many more corporate-backed think tanks.

Advocating for policies that would make all Canadians have less job security, weaker pensions, and careers relegated to low wages is in no way fair.

Ironically, these policies only hurt the interests they claim to safeguard. Fewer pension plans means more seniors relying on government assistance like the Guaranteed Income Supplement program. Workers making less means they have less money to spend at local, independent businesses.

Already we're seeing a growing gap between the incomes of the richest Canadians and the rest of us. The salaries of corporate executives have skyrocketed, while the average Canadian worker has seen a nearly negligible increase in real wages.

This inequality is hurting our economy and weakening our communities. But Canada's right-wing interests don't have any solutions, except to drag more and more workers down.

There is a better way. One based on actual fairness, with a goal to make life better for all Canadians. Negotiating better working conditions, decent wages and benefits, working with employers to build and strengthen good pension plans, advocating for policies that safeguard the interests of working people and their families - this is what CUPE does every day.

Fairness is the goal CUPE undertook 50 years ago, and we will continue to work on it, for our members and all workers, for decades to come.

Paul Moist is national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Canada's largest union representing over 627,000 members. CUPE is holding its 50th anniversary convention this week in Québec City.