Northern Lights (July 2005)

News and Views from SA Canada

by Barry Weisleder

Money-starved Medicare on the Ropes

As wait times got longer and longer for certain medical procedures, it was only a matter of time until a legal ruling would declare that human rights are being violated within Canada’s single-payer, universal health-care system. That’s just what the Supreme Court decided in June — that if the public system cannot provide timely treatment, people must have the right to buy private insurance and private care.

The super highway to a two-tier health system, one for the rich and a lower standard for the poor, gained another fast lane thanks to Alberta’s Conservative Premier Ralph Klein. On July 12, Klein announced that the oil-rich western province, population 3 million situated between the Rockies and the prairies, will let people pay for a hip replacement or an upgraded hospital room, and buy secondary insurance to help cover the costs of podiatry and chiropractic services beyond what the public system pays for.

The Supreme Court earlier found that Québec patient George Zeliotis waited too long for hip replacement surgery, that he should have been able to purchase private insurance, and that his physician, Dr. Jacques Chaoulli, should have been able to accept such payments.

But what about those who cannot afford to jump the line and pay for speedier treatment? Suffer obscurely. The Court didn’t say, but most Canadians know that medicare has been starved of adequate funding for decades. Three years ago Roy Romanow’s Royal Commission into the future of medicare called for a major reinvestment by government. 

Politicians loyal to business interests and the rich have been dragging their feet. Prime Minister Paul Martin and the provincial premiers talk about putting $41 billion into the system over a 10-year period. But that wouldn’t replace the money cut out of health care transfers by Paul Martin, then Finance Minister in the Jean Chrétien Liberal federal government, in the 1990s.

The truth is, to save medicare, twice as much money in half the time is needed. It’s another compelling reason why a government willing to tax the rich and re-build public services is increasingly a matter of life or death.

NHL deal’s a draw, after Owners’ Greed costs a season

Although the corporate media declared the deal between the National Hockey League and the NHL Players’ Association that ended the 301-day lockout in mid-July to be an overtime win for the owners, the details reveal more the makings of a draw.

While the owners secured a $39 million cap on team salaries, and a 24 per cent rollback on existing contracts, the players couldn’t have won the following gains without waging a fight:

·   more than doubling the minimum salary for league players to $450,000 a year;

·   lowering the age eligibility for free agency from 31 to 27, which means players will eventually have four more years of freedom in their careers to play for a team of their choice;

·   revenue sharing, something the owners adamantly opposed, which requires the wealthiest NHL teams to give some of their earnings to small market teams like Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa.

Finally, the urgency of re-launching the NHL has prompted some rule changes that will more severely punish obstruction and intimidation on the ice, while promoting speed and finesse.

Unfortunately, ticket prices are unlikely to drop much (big surprise!). And another money grab will see the number of teams to make the playoffs absurdly increase from 16 to 20.

The saddest aspect of this episode, which cost fans and players an entire NHL season, is that the lockout was caused by the owners’ inability to curb their own coveting of the best talent on the ice. Player salaries rose exponentially over the past 25 years because owners out-bid one another for the services of the best players.

Keep in mind that it is the stars on the ice who draw the fans to the arenas and TV screens, not Messrs. money bags. In a conflict between billionaire owners and millionaire players, there should be no doubt as to where workers ought to stand. Too bad the players couldn’t form a new league, and run it along cooperative lines, without the owners. The idea was mooted, but its proponents found it nearly impossible to create an island of cooperation in a sea of capitalist greed.

UFCW pension plan “corrupt” says union reform group

Members for Democracy (MFD), a reform caucus in the United Food and Commercial Workers’ International Union, is calling for a police investigation into a major pension plan and the resignation of its trustees after they invested more than $280 million in questionable ventures, including deals with a defrocked priest, the Toronto Star reported on July 11.

The MFD, which fights for greater democracy and accountability in the UFCW, wants an immediate criminal probe into the Canadian Commercial Workers Industry Pension Plan, the biggest private-sector, multi-employer fund in the country.

Reacting to a series of revelations in the Saturday Star, the union caucus said about 12 management and union trustees of the plan should also resign or be removed because of internal government findings of sloppy bookkeeping, lack of investment homework, weak monitoring, potential conflicts of interest and numerous violations of pension law.

“I think there is something awfully fishy going on,” MFD web site administrator Sharyn Sigurdur said in an interview. “The police, including the RCMP, have to get involved right away and do a thorough investigation.”

The plan, which manages about $1.2 billion in assets, has more than 240,000 members. Two-thirds of them are active UFCW members employed by companies such as Food Basics, Zehrs, Loeb and Safeway grocery stores.

The pension plan pumped almost $170 million — mostly in companies controlled by Ronald Hubert Kelly, a former priest convicted of indecently assaulting five boys in Newfoundland in 1979 — into four hotels and resorts and some land in the Bahamas and Jamaica from 1997 to 2003. Kelly’s companies defaulted on his Caribbean loans in 2000. The plan also invested $110 million or more in loans, mortgages and equities in other risky businesses.

Well known labour movement figure Cliff Evans, the plan’s founder and a retired national director of the UFCW, has been chairman of the investment committee for many years. Plan chair Bernard Christophe claims the plan stopped doing business with Kelly years ago.

But MFD members will tell you it’s hard to get reliable information in the UFCW about pension investments or anything else. This latest crisis appears to be symptomatic of a highly centralized union, one with huge amalgamated locals where meetings are both infrequent and inaccessible to most members, and one whose leaders recently negotiated a two-tier wage structure with grocery giant Loblaws — a deal on which the vast majority of members affected did not even get to vote.

An MFD activist participated in the founding conference of the Workers’ Solidarity and Union Democracy Coalition in October 2004 in Toronto. For MFD info click here.

Canadian Corporate Takeovers and Mergers slow down

Everything’s relative. While corporate mergers and acquisitions worldwide were up 14 per cent (US $771 billion, or about CDN $951 billion) in the first six months of 2005, in Canada transactions in the same period were down 13 per cent, compared to the first half of 2004.

KPMG Corporate Finance reported that the number of Canadian deals that closed in the first half stands at 638, compared with 649 a year earlier.

The biggest deals this year were Toronto Dominion Bank’s purchase of 51 per cent of Banknorth Financial Group, the merger of Adolph Coors Co. with Molson Inc., the takeover of Masonite International Corp. by Stile Acquisition Corp., and Noranda Inc.’s consolidation of its ownership of Falconbridge Ltd.

Though the numbers for Canada in 2005 disappointed domestic financiers with more bullish hopes, the overall expectations of global magnates were unsullied as the worldwide trend towards ever bigger corporate monopolies proceeded apace.

The fate of workers affected by the job shedding that accompanies mergers, however, is another story.