© Nigel Armstrong - The Guardian
Mike Lyriotokis, chief steward for the Union of Public Sector Employees looks after the door of the union's headquarters Wednesday during an open meeting. Union members gathered to plan a response to the P.E.I. governments efforts to introduce pension reform.
A crowded room filled with P.E.I. civil servants cheered their union leader and vowed to fight the government’s sweeping reforms of their pension plan.
About 200 members of the province’s biggest public sector union squeezed into a small meeting room in Charlottetown Wednesday to hear first hand from their leader about how the province’s reforms will affect their pensions.
Debbie Bovyer, president of the Union of Public Sector Employees (UPSE) explained the union negotiated with government for months, only to be told in September the province would move ahead with its own plan, ignoring ideas from the unions.
“I was told government was going forward no matter what,” Bovyer said.
“Kinda like Plan B,” a man called out, referencing the Ghiz government’s controversial highway realignment project in Churchill.
On Tuesday, government unveiled its plan to overhaul the public sector pension plan in an effort to avoid hundreds of millions in pension shortfalls.
The changes include the elimination of guaranteed cost of living increases and a change in the calculation of pension earnings from the best three or best five years to a career average, adjusted to inflation.
Bovyer told her members Wednesday the career average equation, even with the inflation adjustment, will mean lower payments to retired workers.
When asked by a member in attendance about the changes to cost of living increases, Bovyer explained they would only be paid out if the pension plan has money in it.
People laughed aloud at this.
She told her members that UPSE and CUPE put forward a counter proposal that would have seen some changes to benefits, but more modest than those being implemented by government.
“There is no need to go as far and as deep as government has done.”
Bovyer also said the unions asked for joint ownership of the pension plan, which would have eliminated 50 per cent of the province’s liability and given unions greater input and control over the fund.
“Their answer was, ‘We have to maintain control.’”
One by one members spoke up, voicing disbelief and displeasure with the changes and the way they were announced so suddenly.
“You work for 20 or 30 years, and now they want to make all these cuts, it’s just insane,” said Lillian Clow after the meeting.
“We’re not saying you can’t have any cuts, we’re just saying be fair. We work hard. They should have accepted the union’s proposal.”
When asked what she thought of the changes, Carol Graham’s reaction was ‘Oh, my god.’
“I’ve worked for the government for 24 years and I’ve worked for the people of Prince Edward Island,” Graham said.
“We’ve paid into this pension all these years and I think we should get what we were promised out of it.”
Many of those in attendance pointed to the MLA pension plan and how it offers greater payouts for fewer years’ service than the regular civil service pension plan.
Bovyer said a full-page ad will appear in newspapers across the province informing Islanders how rich the MLA pension plan is, compared with theirs.
Many also began asking about a protest.
Bovyer told them a march would be planned for the day pension legislation is introduced in the House when it resumes next month.
Several UPSE members said there is little doubt in their mind a demonstration bigger than the one after the 7.5 per cent wage rollback in the 1990s will be held if this legislation goes through.
Len Bush of the National Union of Public and General Employees pledged support for the Island’s union.
“I’m appalled at the attack on these pension plans,” Bush said.
“They’ve worked long and hard to gain security in their retirement years and to have it attacked like this seems unfair and unreasonable.”
UPSE has several more meetings scheduled to speak to and hear from union members on the pension changes.