... defined benefit pension plans have gotta stay! Why, you ask?

Well, partly because the career decisions that today's pensioners made thirty or fifty or seventy years ago were made on the basis that they were entering employment that was at least SECURE, if not in many cases as well-paid as the work they might find by working for themselves or in another field. In the words of the National Association of Federal Retirees, the government should Honour its Promise.

Also, young (and maybe not-so-young) adults now entering a complex and more precarious workforce for the first time need to plan for their future - a future which, given current and forthcoming scientific and technical advances, may be a fair bit longer than ours! How are they going to gather the information they need to make their plans in the face of so much change and uncertainty? What kind of a future can we expect for our children, grandchildren and future generations?

On Friday, I attended a rally outside Trudeau's office in the Langevin Block organized by the Ottawa Committee for Pension Security. In the rain. PIPSC people handed out blue rain ponchos. PSAC people handed out orange rain ponchos. NAFR people handed out red placards bearing the "Honour your Promise" slogan. Various other people handed out buttons with "Stop Bill C-27". There were speakers from the aforementioned committee, from unions and from a couple of federally regulated corporations, including Canada Post. People chanted "Trudeau! Morneau! Bill C-27 has got to go!" I was impressed by the large turnout, despite the miserable weather. I saw a CBC cameraman, but sadly any coverage that might have been on the 6PM news was pre-empted by flood news. What did disappoint me was that no politicians, either from the government or opposition benches, came out to address us. Now that was a missed opportunity for sure, especially given that seniors are some of the most likely people to show up at the polls on election day. We are, after all, the student protesters of yesteryear. And baby boomers, whether they vote or not, make up a significant portion of the eligible electorate!

Do demonstrations like this make a difference these days? I guess we'll have to see.
The Ontario Superior Court has determined that there is insufficient evidence to find three former Nortel executives guilty of fraud and "cooking" the books. And the cyberverse is all a-Twitter with 140-character textbytes declaiming the injustice of it all.

But the job of the courts is to decide the cases that are brought before them. It's not to "send a message" that mistakes are always criminal in nature if they have repercussions for the little guy or that ignorance of the future is no excuse.

That said, there are a lot of former Nortel employees and pensioners who have legitimate grievances. I was shocked and outraged a few years back to learn that these people who had been promised decent wages and pensions (which of course they themselves were paying into) would be unable to collect more than a fraction of what they were owed. Surely, I thought, companies in a first-world country must be required to have bankruptcy insurance and some sort of insurance or backing to their pension investments. And surely former employees should be preferred creditors in the event of a corporate failure. After all, BNR (Bell Northern Research) and Northern Telecom were considered rock-solid in the 1980s. It seemed EVERYONE wanted to work for them, and quite a few people I knew actually did! It wouldn't have taken a huge risk-taking insurance company to back them.

Apparently my assumptions were hopelessly naive. Of course, employees of Silicon Valley (whether north or south) have always been more ruggedly individualistic than employees of that other major Ottawa employer, the federal government. In the 1980s, hi-tech tended to be a young men's game, and these hotshot young geeks were willing to put in 20-hour days, dreaming of retirement at 30 or 35, investing their considerable earnings in whatever (dot-coms?), not to mention taking advantage of their stock options and living on the proceeds of the soaring share prices. Unions? Who needs them, they said!

Still, if you were going to go the high-tech route, BNR and Nortel were considered to be pretty "safe", conservative career choices. They were huge companies with a diversity of opportunities in research and development. Their library had a good reputation too!

Now that the era of the Organization Man is long-gone, at least in the western world, we are going to have to keep moving towards portable benefit packages that don't rely on years of service with one particular organization. We do have some of that, of course - CPP, EI, parental benefits and so on. Enrichment of the CPP would be a good next step towards the goal as well. Even the idea of pooled retirement pension funds may have a role to play, though not in my view a central one.

It's discouraging, however, to see governments actually REVERSING course on certain things - McGuinty bringing back health care premiums (though administered differently) which a previous Ontario Liberal government had abolished; the feds cancelling severance for their own employees, making them wait longer for their pensions, and mutterings about switching from a defined-benefit to a defined contribution pension scheme - to name just a few.

Meanwhile, I'll continue to root for those poor ex-Nortel employees!



October 2017



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