Nortel workers fight for pension, disability benefits

Stephanie Smith, Centretown News

Stephanie Smith, Centretown News

Nortel pensioners, terminated and disabled employees rallied on Parliament Hill calling for the federal government to protect their severance and health benefits.

Martin Proulx worked at Nortel Network Corp. for 20 years but was laid off with no severance package, no vacation pay, no benefits and only a portion of his pension – but no one will tell him how much.

“I find myself in an urgent situation to find work again,” says Proulx, a Centretown resident who is raising three young children and is the sole income earner for his family.

Proulx joined thousands of former Nortel workers who rallied on Parliament Hill earlier this month to demand the Conservative government immediately amend bankruptcy laws to ensure workers are lifted from financial trouble before creditors get paid.  

“The funds are literally being taken from everyday families . . . They are the ones who have to pay to help reimburse the debts to the corporations and that doesn’t feel right,” he says.

The crowd, estimated to be 4,000 people, was made up of Nortel pensioners, laid-off workers who must now claim their severance payments and long-term disability employees.

Also at the rally to offer their support were members of the Canadian Auto Workers, Teamsters Canada and other unions.

 “We all stand to lose a lot of money while junk bond holders and foreign entities grab the assets of Nortel that is being sold in piecemeal,” says Francois Meunier, Ottawa chairman of the Nortel Retirees Protection Committee. “The laws of the province don’t help us.”

Opposition leaders Michael Ignatieff, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe spoke at the demonstration and offered their support to change current bankruptcy laws. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper failed to attend or mention any information on the matter.

“Their heads are in the sand,” says Don Sproule, national chairman of NPRC, referring to the Conservative government.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced this Tuesday plans to amend federal private pension laws that will give pensioners more protection.

However, only seven per cent of pension plans in Canada are covered by federal legislation. The rest – including Nortel  – are governed by provincial legislation.

But amending the Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act – which sets out the rules for dissolving a company – is not an immediate solution for the Nortel problem, says government whip Gordon O’Connor.

He says this is because passing an amended bankruptcy law would likely take a year and up to two more years would be needed for the new regulations take effect. By then, Nortel would already be bankrupt.