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Halifax Water pension battles and the hidden agenda

by Robert Devet

The battle between Halifax Water workers and their employer is part of a pattern that we see repeated at many public employers, says CUPE pension researcher Kevin Skerett. And sometimes employers inflate deficit numbers just to make their case.  Photo Robert Devet
The battle between Halifax Water workers and their employer is part of a pattern that we see repeated at many public employers, says CUPE pension researcher Kevin Skerett. And sometimes employers inflate deficit numbers just to make their case. Photo Robert Devet

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) - When it comes to the Halifax Water looming work stoppage, it's important to get the story straight, says the the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE).

Dollar figures are a big part of that story, not surprising since the most contentious issue is pensions. The pension plan is facing a deficit, and the question is how to deal with that.

CUPE contends that lately Halifax Water management has greatly exaggerated the relevant pension plan deficit.

Kevin Skerrett, a pension researcher with CUPE who has participated in the bargaining process, believes that what Halifax Water is doing is simply part of a propaganda war similar to ones launched by public sector employers facing pension deficits elsewhere.

“A number of employers are seeing this as an opportunity to argue that we have such a large crisis that we permanently have to roll back our pension commitments,” says Skerrett.

“And if this is their agenda, then they have an interest in making their problems seem larger than they really are, and forcing through a set of more significant changes to the (pension) plan,”Skerrett believes.

“I think some employers see this as their chance to get a major reduction in our pension commitment, and that it will be harder for the union to defend against that.”

The actual argument is about what amount  accurately reflects the deficit. CUPE believes it is $27 million, Halifax Water spokesperson James Campbell has lately been referring to $48 million when talking to the press.

“That $48 million is not an amount that has to be funded by the employer,” Skerrett contends. “What matters is the funding balance that you report to the Superintendent of Pensions under pension law and that you have to pay off, which is a much smaller figure.”

Not so, says Campbell. In an email to the Halifax Media Co-op he continues to defend the larger deficit amount. Campbell writes that the plan is too expensive, and contains benefits that can no longer be sustained. You can read Campbell's email in its entirety here.

Skerrett is concerned that Halifax City workers will soon face the same pension challenges as the Halifax Water workers.

The Halifax plan is also underfunded, says Skerrett.

He even thinks that the two issues could be linked.

After all, Mayor Mike Savage, City Councilors Russell Walker, David Hendsbee and Barry Dalrymple, and Halifax' Chief Administrative Officer Richard Butts are all members of the Halifax Water Board of Governors.

“I believe Halifax Council has an agenda to roll back that pension plan as well,” says Skerrett.

“If they don't come away from this round of bargaining with some major cuts, then I think it will be harder to argue that the Halifax plan needs to be rolled back.,” he argues.

:Whereas if they can invoke this so called crisis and achieve a major rollback in the Water Commission plan then they are very well set to move on to the (Halifax) plan.”

Follow Robert Devet on Twitter    @DevetRobert

 

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