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Op ed: Halifax Water increases revenue while short-changing workers

by Shay Enxuga

Halifax Water looming strike over pension benefits and wages is only one piece of the puzzle, says Shay Enxuga. Rate increases, a crumbling infrastructure, and Federal neglect also need to be considered. It's all part of austerity capitalism. Photo Robert Devet
Halifax Water looming strike over pension benefits and wages is only one piece of the puzzle, says Shay Enxuga. Rate increases, a crumbling infrastructure, and Federal neglect also need to be considered. It's all part of austerity capitalism. Photo Robert Devet

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) - Bargaining has broken down between Halifax Water and 330 CUPE members in two different locals. These workers manage infrastructure that is essential to daily life across the Halifax Regional Municipality: our water.

More than 90% of these workers have voted in favour of strike action to back their demands. Halifax Water is proposing both a reduction to the pension plan that would reduce the incomes of pensioners as well as a wage increase that is well below the level of inflation (essentially a pay cut). Faced with a double reduction in both their pension plan and wages, it is not a stand that these workers are taking lightly.

In order to fully understand this struggle we need to consider several things. The pressure placed on CUPE unionized workers is only one piece of the puzzle. While slashing workers’ wages and pensions, Halifax Water is also increasing the cost of water.

In 2013 Halifax Water successfully applied to the Nova Scotia Utilities and Review Board to increase the rates they are allowed to charge customers. As a result, water rates will increase by more than 12% over two years - an increase far greater than the rate of inflation.

Nova Scotia will be impacted by elevated water rates across the board. Businesses, homeowners and renters will all bear some of the costs of rate increases. As per usual, the most heavily impacted Nova Scotians will be poor people living on a tight budget.

Why are these things happening at once? Why is Halifax Water hiking fees to increase their revenues, while at the same time trying to nickel and dime their workers over just and reasonable salaries and pensions? The answers become clear when looking at the big picture.

Since coming to power in 2006 the Conservative government has allowed Canada’s infrastructure deficit to grow to over $400 billion. A huge number of our schools, parks, water systems, recreation centres, roads, and garbage and recycling systems are not being provided with the maintenance they need to continue serving public needs. The federal government is literally letting the infrastructure needed to provide basic services across Canada crumble to pieces.

This is not a simple symptom of penny pinching and it is not an oversight of the government. Under capitalism - particularly the radical type of austerity capitalism embodied by our federal government - a huge amount of energy is expended in the service of moving public wealth into the pockets of a wealthy few. Tax breaks for the wealthy, cuts to the public service, attacks on unions and the erosion of public goods (including infrastructure like that administered by Halifax Water) - these are the tactics through which public resources are funnelled to private entities.

Stronger federal investment in infrastructure would make it possible to both reduce water rates and pay workers fair wages and pension. It would mean that Halifax Water, and other utilities like it across the country, would have the resources it needs to repair and maintain existing water and wastewater systems in our city. It would mean that the men and women who work at Halifax Water can go on living and working with the security that a fair wage and a fair pension brings.

Labor struggles like the one between Halifax Water and CUPE members are not isolated. What is at stake here in this struggle goes beyond the livelihoods of 330 workers and their families – this is a larger fight for our collective wealth and our collective wellbeing.

What do unions represent? That another world is possible.

Shay Enxuga is a member of Solidarity Halifax


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Topics: Labour
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