A call Monday for provincial action on severance pay for autoworkers was deflected by Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, who said the federal government must do more on the issue.
Members of the Canadian Auto Workers union held the first of three planned rallies to call on the province to use this week's budget to introduce strong protection provisions for severance pay.
"When workers lose their jobs, they are entitled to get severance pay, vacation pay, termination pay - this is written in law," CAW official Peggy Nash told fellow demonstrators.
"But workers are not getting this pay, so we're here today to say to the minister of labour: Workers want the pay that they're entitled to. It ought to be protected by law."
Several workers at the rally, held outside the Mississauga constituency office of Ontario Labour Minister Peter Fonseca, wore life preservers around their necks emblazoned with "Save Our Severance."
The union wants a provincial wage-earner protection program that would provide additional protection on top of the federal program.
January's federal budget extended that program to cover severance and termination pay, subject to the current maximum of four weeks of insurable earnings of $3,254. The change will help ensure that workers losing their jobs because of a bankruptcy will receive some of the money owed to them.
McGuinty agreed that something must be done for severances in general.
"If we're talking about severances generally, for a number of folks who've lost their jobs in recent months particularly because of this recession, there is something that can, and which I agree, should be done," McGuinty said Monday.
"The federal government should change its bankruptcy legislation so it gives preferred creditor status to ordinary men and women who are workers."
As it stands, banks and insurance companies rank ahead of workers, McGuinty added.
"We've misplaced some of our priorities, especially in difficult times like these, when we're not talking about corporate profit so much as we're talking about the ability to put food on the table for the kids."
The major automakers have been negotiating with the CAW, calling for significant concessions in wages and benefits so the companies can remain competitive.
The union plans to hold similar protests Tuesday at the Labour Ministry offices in Toronto, and at the provincial legislature Wednesday.
Last week, members of the Canadian Auto Workers blockaded two parts plants in Windsor, Ont., saying they wanted fair back pay and severance.
Eighty workers were laid off at the Aradco and Aramco plants, both owned by U.S.-based Catalina Precision Products, which supplies Chrysler.
The automaker struck a deal with the workers, giving them a total of $400,000 to end the blockades and allow the company to retrieve its equipment and tools.