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January 21, 2015
Quebec pension changes spark province-wide protests

Proposed changes to Quebec’s municipal defined benefit pension plans have sparked wide-spread and sometimes violent protests across the province.

Under the provincial government’s Bill 3, unionized pension plan members would be required to contribute to their pension on a 50-50 basis with municipalities.

They will also be expected to cover half of the cost of making up any pension fund deficits.  The total municipal pension deficit in the province exceeds $3.9 billion. However, some municipal plans are in better shape financially than others.

The bill, which was passed by the Quebec National Assembly on December 4, will also end annual indexing for retired pensioners.

The new law affects more than 170 municipal pension plans covering 122,000 active members and 50,000 retirees.

Responses from affected members have been far from subtle. Since June, Montreal’s police, firefighters and other municipal workers have adopted casual dress instead of traditional uniforms.  Strikers have also blocked city buses and access points to the city’s port while police and firefighting vehicles have been decorated with protest stickers.

Demonstrations were also held in Quebec City, Laval, Sherbrooke, Saguenay and Gatineau.
On August 18, demonstrations turned violent when protestors stormed Montreal’s city council chambers, setting small fires, vandalizing offices and forcing city councillors out of the area.

The number and depth of the protests prove that pensions are not a “sleeper” issue.  On the surface, a change to a 50-50 contribution ratio appears to be relatively benign.  For example, Montreal’s blue collar workers currently work on a 45-55 contribution ratio.  Its police force has a 24-76 arrangement.  Yet, the 50-50 proposal has resulted in considerable disruption and lost work time.

While attacking pension deficits may be both responsible and realistic, without appropriate consultation beforehand, pension plan members and their representatives could perceive such measures to be attacks on their active and retired colleagues.

“If they want to steal our pension funds, we’re going to make their lives miserable,” warns municipal employees’ union spokesperson Marc Ranger.  “It’s outright theft.  We must respect our retirees. They lit a fire.  It’s up to them to put it out.”

Union protests will continue, Mr. Ranger says.

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