CanWest pensioners’ lives in limbo

This article was published in the Globe and Mail Monday November 30th 2009

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At age 72 and with health problems to contend with, Bob Ireland says there’s not a “heck of a lot” he can do to find new work to replace his crumbling pension plan .

So the veteran Hamilton television reporter, who retired from station CHCH in 1997 after 30 years of service, says he and his wife are reviewing their finances, trimming costs and cancelling vacation plans.

“She doesn’t sleep too well at night, wondering what sort of situation we’re going to be in, whether we’re going to have to at some point sell the house and look for cheaper accommodation. God forbid that should happen.”

Mr. Ireland is one of more than 200 CHCH retirees and active workers who learned this summer that their underfunded pension plan was being shut down and liquidated as part of the agreement by CanWest Global Communications Corp. to sell the station to Channel Zero, a Toronto-based specialty television producer. Channel Zero made the purchase on the condition it would not take over the station’s pension plan.

While retirees are waiting to learn the final funding numbers, the plan had a shortfall of over $10-million at the end of 2008. At that level, retirees would face a 22-per-cent cut to their pension payments.

In a year when numerous pension plans are facing shutdown as companies fall into bankruptcy, the CHCH pension closure is far from typical.

The CHCH retirees have made an unusual and uncomfortable decision to ask their colleagues who are still active workers at the station to agree to give them a greater cut of the pension fund’s assets in liquidation, even though they have no legal obligation to do so.

The argument being raised by the retirees is that they don’t have the same opportunity to build up pension assets or other savings to support themselves in the future.

“There’s got to be some kind of responsibility from the actives to the retirees,” says David Cremasco, a former CHCH cameraman who retired in 2002 after 34 years.

The proposal to divide the pension plan’s assets unevenly between retirees and active workers is an unorthodox pitch that will be closely watched in the pension community as lawyers debate whether more cases will emerge where active and retired members see their interests divide.

Pension lawyer Hugh O’Reilly, who is representing the CHCH retirees, said he believes more such issues may emerge in union environments. “Generally speaking, unions fight to protect their retired members,” he said. “It’s not a legal obligation, it’s a moral obligation.”

But veteran pension lawyer Murray Gold, who is not involved in the CHCH case, says he isn’t sure the idea will catch on, since the law clearly states everyone should be treated the same in liquidations.

“It’s difficult to distinguish between someone who’s been on pension for a week and someone who could go onto pension in two weeks,” he says. “Wherever you draw the line, it’s going to be arbitrary and people are going to be hurt.”