KJIPUKTUK (HALIFAX) - This Saturday unionized workers with Halifax Water Commission met at a Dartmouth hotel to prepare for a strike or lockout that could start any day now.
The main issue is pensions.
Both sides agree that something needs to be done to sustain the existing defined-benefit plan, but the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and management disagree about the severity of the changes and other details.
The mood was grim but determined among the inside and outside workers who got together to make picket signs at the Dartmouth Holiday Inn.
“A work stoppage is going to affect our members and their families, so of course people are worried,” says Heather Corkum, president of Local 1431.
“But we are sticking together. We know that this is very important, this is to protect our future and we are standing strong,” she tells the Halifax Media Co-op.
Management wants to turn a complex financial issue into a simplistic confrontation between greedy unions and long-suffering taxpayers.
“Our ratepayers are the ones covering these costs, and we have to be respectful of that. We can’t just open the till and just let the union take what they will,” Halifax Water spokesperson James Campbell told the Chronicle Herald.
That's not quite what the union is suggesting. At a press conference last Friday CUPE offered its side of the story.
What Campbell doesn't mention is that CUPE's compromise proposal centers around a reduction in the guaranteed inflation protection provision in the plan, explained Kevin Skerrett, a pension specialist who works for CUPE/
Those union-proposed cuts would save on ongoing pension costs by about 10 percent. A portion of any future surpluses would be used to restore lost inflation protection when the plan returns to a healthy status, Skerrett said.
All this would reduce employer pension costs by $25 million over 15 years, according to the Plan actuary.
But Halifax Water wants cuts that go much deeper, according to the union.
In its final offer the utility pushed for a 12.5 percent reduction in future benefits, an initial pension reduction by an estimated 4 percent, and decreased future benefit protections.
“The employer wants deep cuts to our pension, but that pension is our future,” Corkum says. “These are wages that are deferred to the future, but that we are earning now.”
“In the past we have given up on wage increases to protect the pension plan,” she adds.
Should the public be concerned?
Removing 335 workers from a total workforce of 450 or so is bound to hurt, Corkum believes.
“These are the highly-trained people who look after your drinking water and wastewater. These are the people who make sure that the bill goes our correctly. These are the people who read the meters,” Corkum says.
“We want to continue that work, we want to continue to run the utility.”
See also: Halifax Water contract talks break down
Come out for a solidarity action in support of Halifax's water workers on Tuesday, May 12th at 5 pm in front of Halifax City Hall (Grand Parade Square).
Follow Robert Devet on Twitter @DevetRobert