By Shay Enxuga
Yesterday, over 330 Halifax Water Workers walked off the job to defend their pension plan.
On Monday night, May 18, 2015, employees of Halifax Water arrived at the depot around midnight to drop off their work equipment only to find the doors locked. In response, workers hit the picket lines bright and early on Tuesday morning.
This lock out has come about after 14 months of bargaining has broken down between Halifax Water and Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Locals 1431 and 227, representing office and technical workers and outside workers respectively.
Under the current proposal put forward by Halifax Water, workers could lose up to 30 percent of their pension plan. According to Dave Dort, President of Local 227, the employer, “came to the table with a mandate of slashing our pension plan.”
While Dort agrees that changes need to be made to the pension plan, he argues that they don’t have to come at the expense of workers. Over the summer, the two locals worked with together with CUPE Pension Research, Kevin Skerrett, to commission an independent actuary report and put together a proposal that they believe addresses all the concerns put forward by the employer while still retaining a healthy pension plan for workers.
“We’ve shown a way of doing that that won’t fleece the tax payer, and will in fact can actually save the tax payer some money. And we don’t think that’s unreasonable,” says Dort. However, Dort believes that Halifax Water never seriously considered the union’s proposal.
“We brought that proposal back to our employer and quite honestly they just kind of snuffed their nose to it. If you’re not going to bargain with us at the table, if you’re not going to hear us at all, then we have to take what legal actions we are allowed to take, and that’s where we are at today. Do we want to be on strike or lock out? No, nobody wants that. What we really want is the employer to be serious and come back to the table and show some flexibility, some movement.”
The President of CUPE Nova Scotia, Danny Cavanagh, points out that the proposed cutbacks to the pension plan are especially brutal when you consider the fact that pensions are actually workers’ deferred wages.
“Every year previously, the workers might have taken a little less percentage in a wage raise, or they might have taken some other things that were of lesser value in a monetary package, because they had a decent pension plan. And now for them to start cutting their pension, well, that is really those workers deferred wages from years past.”
What Halifax Water isn’t quick to point out is that these cutbacks have come on the heels of major rate hikes. Halifax Water increased their rates for residential customers first by 27 percent in 2011, and then by 8.7 percent in 2013, and 12.9 percent in 2014. In total, they have hiked their water rates up by over 40 percent in the last four years.
Apparently, cash-strapped Halifax Water is urgently calling for major cutbacks to an unsustainable pension plan.
The truth is that Halifax Water is not only the public utility that is feeling the heat. Considering the recent commitment by Kathleen Wynne and the Ontario Liberals to privatize Hydro One, it seems that public utilities (and public funding) are no longer en vogue. According to a report released in 2013 by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Canada is in the midst of a serious infrastructure deficit that leaves our public services, including our water, waste water systems, and sewage systems chronically underfunded.
Over the last fifty years, public funding for infrastructure dropped from a norm of around 3.0 percent of the GDP in the 1960s to merely 1.5 percent in the late 1990s. That difference represents about $24 billion dollars missing from annual infrastructure investment. During the same time period, the responsibility for investing in and maintain infrastructure shifted from the federal government, with a large and robust revenue base, to the municipal governments, who have a significantly smaller revenue base.
So, what’s going on here?
In our current climate of fiscal austerity, with deficit spending considered a dirty word, public infrastructure is a convenient place to cut funding because, according to the CCPA, “capital spending does not have “clients” who are immediately affected and therefore likely to object to funding cuts.” Or, vote in the next election.
The reality is that our federal government refuses to publicly fund the basic infrastructure that our country needs for daily life. With the push to privatize public utilities, such as Hydro One, or drive them into the ground and make them economically unviable, as is the case of Canada Post, it’s clear that Halifax Water is caught in the bind of underfunding. However, rather than reduce the salary of Carl Yates or other members of upper management, Halifax Water is downloading the cost of maintaining public infrastructure onto the backs of workers and then shaming them for demanding a fair pension plan. This is a not a case of taxpayers versus greedy workers. This is a fight for one of our most basic public utilities – water.
Supporters are encouraged to contact Carl Yates, General Manager of Halifax Water:
Cell: (902) 441 0985
And Halifax Mayor Mike Savage:
Phone: (902) 490-4010
And tell them that you support the Halifax Water Workers!
Pickets have been established across the city, with the main picket at 450 Cowie Hill. Stay tuned for any upcoming solidarity actions.