Debate over a government bill that would force thousands of public sector workers into shared-risk pensions dominated the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday.
The majority government under Premier Blaine Higgs is expected to vote the controversial bill into law before MLAs break for the Christmas holidays.
The law would override defined-benefit pension provisions in several collective agreements, which guarantee certain minimum benefits to retired workers.
Those workers – which include school custodians, bus drivers, educational assistants and nursing home workers, among others – would see their pensions converted to so-called “shared-risk” pensions, also known as target benefit plans.
Shared-risk pensions don’t guarantee a certain benefit level, because they depend on the performance of financial investments.
MLAs from the Liberal and Green parties expressed outrage over the legislation on Tuesday and attempted to stall the legislation or kill it altogether.
Meanwhile, hecklers disrupted remarks by Arlene Dunn, Minister of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour, prompting Speaker Bill Oliver to order the clearing of the public gallery.
CUPE officials challenged Oliver’s decision “as it was only one person who had yelled profanities at Arlene Dunn calling her a liar,” said CUPE NB president Steve Drost.
Oliver eventually agreed to let CUPE members remain in the public gallery, “but we were given a stern warning and if we did not respect the protocol we would be required to leave,” Drost said. “We negotiated with the Speaker and were allowed to stay.”
Bill ‘guts’ collective bargaining
“This bill affects every unionized employee in the province,” said Victoria-La Vallée Liberal MLA Chuck Chiasson. “It basically guts the collective bargaining process.”
Green Party Leader David Coon, MLA for Fredericton South, said the government was using the “bulldozer of the law” to roll over workers, instead of abiding by a memorandum of agreement with the unions signed in 2021.
Under that agreement, if negotiations reached an impasse, the pensions issue would go to a board of actuaries to determine a settlement. The agreement stemmed from the 2021 CUPE strike that saw 22,000 provincial employees picketing for 16 days across New Brunswick.
At the time, the province demanded concessions on pension clauses during contract negotiations, a major factor leading up to the province-wide strike. Picketing ended after the province withdrew the pension demand and settled on a wage hike for 22,000 CUPE members.
Pensions ‘systematically underfunded’
Union officials from affected locals in the education sector – CUPE 2745 and CUPE 1253 – have stated that their pension plans are modest, providing about $9,000 to $12,000 per year, on average, due to low wages.
The proposed legislation would also affect workers from the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions, part of CUPE.
Altogether, the conversion will affect roughly 10,000 current CUPE members, and probably just as many retirees, according to CUPE NB spokesperson Simon Ouellette.
On Tuesday, Higgs said that no violations of collective agreements had taken place, and cited a lack of progress on negotiations since 2021 for the proposed legislation.
Speaking during question period, Higgs called the current pension plans “unsustainable” and seemed to suggest that some current retirees wouldn’t see any changes to their pensions under the proposed bill.
“We’re sending out letters to every single member…. they’ll know what their pension means, what it means to them,” he said. “Are they pensioners? It means nothing to them, Mr. Speaker, the plan stays at it is.”
But the New Brunswick model is unique in Canada because it allows pensioners to lose their defined-benefit pensions retroactively, according to Mark Janson, Senior Pensions Officer for CUPE.
“It’s the only jurisdiction that allows this,” he said in an interview. “It allows pensions that were promised as defined benefits to be retroactively converted to target benefits.”
NB Uncut: Watch CUPE’s Dec. 4, 2023 media conference:
A retiree who worked 30 years as a school board employee could see their benefits change overnight, he said.
The government has stated that the viability of the defined-benefit pensions is at risk, but in 2021, a labour arbitrator found that the province had withheld tens of millions of dollars in contributions to at least one fund.
Janson said the government had “systematically underfunded” those pensions to create the appearance of a crisis in the system, in order to implement its preferred policy.
Union asks for public support
On Monday, CUPE held a virtual media conference calling for the public to support the union in the dispute.
“We encourage all new Brunswickers to contact your MLA, contact the premier, let them know that you will not stand for a government that attacks workers and their families and undermines trust in our public institutions,” said CUPE regional director Sandy Harding.
CUPE NB president Steve Drost said the union had support from across the country, including public and private-sector unions and organizations such as the Canadian Labour Congress.
Labour movement officials were scheduled to meet on Tuesday to plan a “collective response” to the legislation.
Speaking to reporters, CUPE officials declined to specify what kind of actions were under consideration but said everything was on the table.
“We are looking at any and all possible action, up to including job action,” Drost said.
This report was updated at 2:40 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 8, 2023 with additional details about the Speaker’s order to clear the public gallery. It was previously updated on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023 at approximately 6:30 a.m. to provide more details about Premier Higgs’ remarks in the legislature and at 7:30 a.m. to clarify comments by Mark Janson.
David Gordon Koch is a journalist with the NB Media Co-op. This reporting has been made possible in part by the Government of Canada, administered by the Canadian Association of Community Television Stations and Users (CACTUS).