LABOR

Turning down the gold watch

Brian D. Johnson March 1 1982
LABOR

Turning down the gold watch

Brian D. Johnson March 1 1982

Turning down the gold watch

LABOR

Brian D. Johnson

Mandatory retirement, considered a hallmark of corporate enlightenment when ushered in during the postwar years, now appears to be faltering. Seniors are rebelling against a prevailing assumption that they would be better off playing golf or cards after an arbitrary age. Backed up by a mounting arsenal of court victories, including last month’s Supreme Court of Canada decision, their claim that forced retirement is a euphemism for unlawful dismissal has begun to make a dent on government. Most significant, when the Quebec national assembly opened a new session last week, at the top of its agenda was a labor code amendment to outlaw compulsory retirement. Originating as a Parti Québécois election promise, it is expected to pass unopposed.

That will mean a moral victory for many senior Canadians. After biding his time for more than three years with basement carpentry and an occasional stint as a security guard, Aubrey Newport is happy to have won back his job as a Manitoba court clerk. When he was forcibly retired in 1978 (Maclean’s, Nov. 20, 1978), he protested that the province’s Human Rights Act (HRA) should override its Civil Service Act, which terminates all public employees at 65. Ironically, after 39 months of legal wrangling, Newport’s case eventually wound up back in the room where he had worked—the Manitoba Court of Appeal. Now 68, he still has to negotiate damages for lost wages, but he was reinstated after the court decided the province couldn’t deny its own employees a right to voluntary retirement guaranteed in other sectors by the HRA.

In a parallel judgment on the same day (Jan. 26), the same court vindicated Dr. Dwight Parkinson, who had been stripped of operating and admitting privileges at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre following his 65th birthday. The hospital’s chief neurosurgeon, Parkinson was offered an honorary status that his lawyer, William Olson, considered “more or less like being put out to pasture.” Hospital President Peter Swerhone will try to overturn the provincial verdict in the Supreme

Court of Canada; at least eight other doctors at his hospital will turn 65 this year, and he worries that some may invoke Parkinson’s precedent.

As a growing number of the 2.5 million Canadians over 65 opt to earn a salary rather than draw a pension, pleas have been piling up at human rights commissions across the country. In every province but Manitoba and New Brunswick, protection against job discrimination is severed at 65, but lawyers are finding loopholes elsewhere in the various rights codes. “We’re going to have an awful lot of court cases,” predicts Prof. Stephen Triantis, a University of Toronto economist who has actively lobbied to abolish compulsory retirement. “Someone who is over 65 and has arthritis can say, ‘Look, I’m being discriminated against because I’m handicapped.’ ”

However, the human rights commissions move so slowly a retiree could reach his 70s before achieving reinstatement. (Wrongful dismissal suits may be swifter, points out Toronto labor lawyer Howard Levitt, with current awards averaging nine to 18 months’ severance pay. ) Quebec plans to cut through the rigmarole

by making its voluntary retirement legislation part of its labor code, but other provinces have been slow to act. Canada’s new constitutional charter would alleviate confusion with its blanket prohibition of age discrimination, yet it isn’t due to take effect for three years. And although Senator David Croll’s Committee on Retirement Age Policies urged the abolition of mandatory retirement in 1979, Ottawa has made no legislative move. Labor Minister Charles Caccia told Maclean’s he personally favored abolition, while he “hadn’t given it much thought” and knew of no plans to legislate it.

In professions where the safety of human lives hinges on a steady hand or a sharp eye, any suggestions of postponing retirement invite controversy. Ross Stevenson, who lost his job as an Air Canada pilot by turning 60 last August, has invested $12,000 in legal and medical fees to prove he is fit to fly. He claims he’s in much better shape than scores of younger pilots who have re-

turned to the cockpit after being grounded by such problems as heart attacks, bypass operations, alcoholism and even loss of an eye. Stevenson cites American studies showing that pilots in the oldest age bracket have the fewest accidents.

Air Canada’s age limit is set by a collective agreement between the company and the Canadian Air Line Pilots Association. By asking the Canadian Human Rights Commission to declare the contract illegal Stevenson hopes to strike a blow against ageism. “There are too many people being called too old,” he says. “It’s just the same as being called ‘nigger.’ I’ve got a generous pension, but there are plenty of people who don’t and have to keep working just to make ends meet.”

Unions have traditionally fought for mandatory retirement, but as the “grey power” activists gain ground, the labor movement has begun to split. Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) President Dennis McDermott, once adamantly opposed to voluntary retirement, now cautiously avoids comment. CLC white-collar unions, such as the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Public Service Alliance of Canada, have warmed up to the idea of voluntary retirement, while blue-collar groups such as the United Steelworkers of America remain hostile to it. Peter Warrian, the Steelworkers’ Canadian research director, fears a push to abolish mandatory retirement will allow employers to undercut the thrust of labor’s current demand for an earlier retirement than age 65. The Steelworkers’ model contract now provides a “30 and out” clause by which employees retire with full benefits after 30 years’ service regardless of age. Benefits aside, few in industry would elect to work past 65, claims Edith Johnston, international representative of the United Auto Workers retired workers’ program. “These are dull, monotonous, stressful jobs,” she says. “[The worker’s] glad to get out.”

Concerns about productivity throw management together with labor as foes of voluntary retirement. Both argue that the policy would deprive younger workers of jobs in a period of high unemployment. Ongoing testing for competence could drain corporate spending on benefits. Yet a recent U.S. department of labor study documents even higher employee efficiency with increased age.

The campaign to ban mandatory retirement in Canada points to the lead taken by the U.S. which removed age limits in the public sector four years ago and may abolish them in all sectors by 1983. But the real push on Canadian governments is coming from seniors suing to postpone their professional demise.