Liberal Cabinet Members from left, Allen Roach, Robert Vessey and Wes Sheridan watch as a crowd assembles on the grounds next to Province House in Charlottetown Friday for a rally to protest pension reform.
©Nigel Armstrong - The Guardian
The P.E.I. government is making itself immune from any future legal action over its controversial pension changes – a measure Opposition Leader Steven Myers equates to a dictatorship.
Finance Minister Wes Sheridan tabled legislation Thursday that will enshrine into law the changes to the Civil Service Superannuation Fund (CSSF) he announced last month.
But it contains one provision that was not previously announced. It protects government from liability for any changes in the Act, including changes that affect benefits, contributions and funding.
Sheridan acknowledges this means anyone upset over his pension reforms will not be able sue government over the changes.
“It would protect us going forward,” Sheridan said.
It also would eliminate the ability of unions or union members to file grievances over the changes.
Sheridan said the whole reason reforms are being made is to achieve sustainability in the pension funds to ensure all civil servants have a pension when they retire.
“We have to be able to act responsibly and do what is needed, so we can’t be bound by an ability that members would come forward and say, ‘That’s null and void and you have to continue to do exactly what you’re doing,’” Sheridan said.
“We have to ensure that we’re doing everything that we can possibly, legally, to ensure we go forward and continue with the changes into the future.”
The province’s biggest public sector union has filed a grievance against the government, accusing it of violating the union’s collective agreement by not living up to its obligation to the pension as outlined in the current CSSF Act.
The union wants the province to “stop all planned changes to the pension and return to the table and discuss further its concerns in regard to the current pension plan and its formula,” according to the grievance filed by the Union of Public Sector Employees (UPSE).
Union president Debbie Bovyer said, despite 16-months of negotiation between the province and unions, this new immunity provision is news to her.
“The union was not consulted on the ‘immunity from legal action’ amendment the government has introduced in the bill – it was not part of the talks.”
Myers says the Ghiz government is trying to silence those opposed to the pension reforms.
He said it’s especially egregious because it appears the wording in the Act may not only prevent future legal action and grievances, but may also cancel out UPSE’s current grievance.
“Making a move like that to squash it seems at the very least undemocratic and something that you would see in a third world country where you have dictators driving the decisions, taking the rights of people away.”
Myers says he does not believe Sheridan ever intended to negotiate with the unions, but only to push his own reforms on them and then try to make it impossible to challenge them, even in court.
“It’s a sad day for people in Prince Edward Island when a government starts to legislate their rights away.”
Myers also believes removing the union’s right to grieve the changes would be a violation of their collective agreement, and that the immunity provision would not likely stand up in court.
“Why is this government so scared of their employees? Why are they so scared of letting them have due course and why are they so scared of negotiating in good faith with them?”
Sheridan said he did obtain a legal opinion before going forward with any changes, which makes him comfortable with moving ahead.
He also said he is not concerned over the union’s current grievance.
The legislation tabled this week only deals with the core financial changes to the pension plan – mainly the elimination of guaranteed indexation and moving to a career average for pension benefits calculation.
Sheridan said other details, such as how the fund will be managed, would continue to be negotiated and finalized in the spring.
And he is willing to discuss joint trusteeship – a measure UPSE and the Canadian Union of Public Employees have been pushing for.
Legislation for the Teachers’ Superannuation Fund will be tabled early next week.