Unions rally around pensions

Stephen Harper wants to meddle with your pension, the Public Service Alliance of Canada warns Whitehorse's civil servants. Union bigwigs plan to spread this message at a town hall meeting at the Gold Rush Inn tonight at 7 p.m.

Stephen Harper wants to meddle with your pension, the Public Service Alliance of Canada warns Whitehorse’s civil servants.

Union bigwigs plan to spread this message at a town hall meeting at the Gold Rush Inn tonight at 7 p.m., as part of a national campaign that aims to pre-empt bad news expected in the 2010 budget next week.

Treasury Board President Stockwell Day has warned “sacrifices” will be required to tackle the $56-billion deficit. Day hasn’t specified what belt-tightening is in store, but he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of chopping public pensions.

“We know that something is up,” said Jean Francois Des Lauriers, regional executive vice-president of PSAC.

It’s not just employees of federal agencies who would be affected. The Yukon government’s 4,000 workers and an additional 750 teachers all pay into Ottawa’s defined pension plan.

Liberal Leader Arthur Mitchell called on Premier Dennis Fentie and Elaine Taylor, Yukon’s minister of the Public Service Commission, to speak out on the pension issue.

“I think all Yukon government employees and their families would like to hear where the Yukon Party government stands on this issue,” he said in a release. “It’s time for Mr. Fentie to stand up to his fellow Conservatives and tell them to keep their hands off. It should be a pretty straightforward case of standing up for Yukoners.”

The NDP’s Steve Cardiff expressed similar concerns in a letter to Fentie today.

“A decent pension plan is a key element in attracting new employees into the public service,” Cardiff wrote. “This is especially important in the northern territories.

“There is a looming recruitment crisis for the public sector as baby boomers retire. One crucial factor in attracting skilled workers to the public sector is a stable and predictable pension income.”

There’s been no response from the Yukon Party government so far.

The Conservative government has ruled out raising taxes or cutting transfers to the provinces and territories. That means the government will have to fight the deficit with spending cuts in its next budget, to be announced March 4.

Des Lauriers faults groups such as the Canadian Taxpayers Federation for egging-on Harper’s government to raid the pension fund.

Conservatives have grumbled the federal plan is particularly generous because workers only pay one-third of their contributions and the government tops of the rest. Provincial plans vary, but typically require workers to contribute half.

Federal pensions are also fully indexed to inflation, a rarity in private pension plans.

But the pension funds are not the government’s to take, said Des Lauriers. “We paid money into this out of our own pockets,” he said.

In the late 1990s, the Liberals skimmed $30 billion in surpluses from federal pensions to put the country’s finances in order, said Des Lauriers. “We paid-off the national deficit, he said. “Nobody can say we haven’t been pulling our own weight.”

This should be an easy message to sell in a government town like Whitehorse. But it may be more difficult to whip up public sympathy among private-sector workers, who lack the job security, wage premiums and plush pensions found in government work.

More than half of all working Canadians lack a pension plan of their own beyond the Canada Pension Plan.

Des Lauriers wouldn’t venture any suggestions as to how Ottawa should balance the budget. “That’s not the issue right now,” he said. “I’m not going to speak to that.”

Speakers at tonight’s meeting include John Gordon, PSAC’s national president; Laurie Butterworth, president of the Yukon Employees Union; Katherine Mackwood, president of the Yukon Teachers Association; and Alex Furlong, president of the Yukon Federation of Labour.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com.