Two weeks ago, the Town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay locked out its municipal workers.
The 43 members of CUPE Local 2019 are fighting to keep their Defined Benefit (DB) pension plan, which their employer is looking to downgrade. In a 96 per cent strike vote, the workers rejected the Town's demand for a two-tiered pension plan, which would have seen all new hires move to a Defined Contribution (DC) plan.
"The 48 members at the local have said look, a defined contribution plan is nothing better than an RRSP and that's an absolute sell-out to the next generation," said President of CUPE Newfoundland and Labrador Wayne Lucas.
The two parties met on January 17 to continue negotiations, and the Town presented the union with a revised contract proposal on January 21. The union rejected the offer, saying that little had actually changed between the first and second offers.
With temperatures below -20 C and major snowfalls, the lockout has been hard on both the union members on the picket line and city residents, who are dealing with insufficient snow removal.
"Today the Mayor has come out and said he needs more from the workers," said Lucas. "We said: 'Look it's the mayor that locked the workers out. What does he expect when he locks workers out in January in a northern community? He knows it's going to snow."
In a press release, CUPE 2019 President Glenn Pittman said that union members have been overwhelmed with the support they are receiving from the community.
"People in this community have really rallied around us," said Pittman, "The amount of food and coffee we've received in the first two days has been incredible [...] we had so much left over we had to take it [to] some local charities."
CUPE 2019 members are not the only unionized employees feeling pension pains.
Public sector workers in every jurisdiction and every sector have been facing unprecedented attacks on their workplace pension plans, reports CUPE . Though such attacks have long been commonplace in the private sector, they have recently taken hold in the public sector as well, where austerity agendas have become the norm.
"It's happening in a lot of municipalities," said Lucas, "but what's so galling about this particular case is that this particular plan is 110 per cent funded. I believe that the mayor of this town and the council of this Town have just jumped on the bandwagon of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. You know, 'let's do away with pension plans, let's trade everybody off to defined contribution plans."
Many public pension plans are currently underfunded, as they continue to recover from the 2008 market downturn. These funding difficulties are used by public sector employers to justify permanent plan cutbacks.
However, in the case of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, CUPE says that the pension plan is currently funded at 109 per cent, and that the union has made proposals to the Town to help mitigate future risk if the town were to face a financial crisis.
"We urged the mayor to get back to the table and settle up the issue on pensions," said Lucas, "then our workers could get back to providing high quality public services like we usually do."
Ella Bedard is rabble.ca's labour intern. She has written about labour issues for Dominion.ca and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People.