Letter to a Councillor

This is an email sent by our president Heather Corkum to one of the Halifax Councillors, in response to his communication with a concerned constituent.

Dear Mr. Hendsbee,

I am the President of CUPE Local 1431 and, while I know that you may not have had much involvement in the negotiations which took place over 15 months from February of 2014 until Halifax Water locked us out on May 19, 2015, I would like to take the time to respond to you on a few things in your response to one of our members. I have copied the email (below) which one of your constituents took the time to pen to you today, along with your response to him. It is disheartening to learn, to say the least, with you being a member of the Halifax Water Board, and essentially one of the lead decision makers, that you do not fully understand the impact of what has been going on for at least the last 4 weeks.

Please be assured that these responses are mine, and mine alone. I do represent CUPE Local 1431, but these views and comments are entirely my own. I am outraged and astounded by your response to the member. So here goes:

“Security was only hired to ensure there is no interruption or disturbance to any water plants or treatment faculties.”
James Campbell has stated publicly that AFIMAC security is costing the utility $28,000 per day. He has not admitted how much the total cost is – the cost of the additional, local, security companies, the cost of their room and board, meals, vehicle rentals, the fact that they have security in locations where we are not even picketing, the cost of shuttling non-union and management staff to and from work, the cost of security sitting in a public parking lot full of empty non-union and management cars, etc. In The Chronicle Herald, June 1, 2015, he says “The reality is we need security in place for the safety of our staff, for the safety of union people on the picket line and to maintain the integrity and security of our infrastructure,”. I’m sorry, Mr. Hendsbee, but I can tell you that not one of our members feels that they need protection, nor do they feel that those security guards would be assisting us in any way, even if we did. In fact, it was due to the ignorance and lack of understanding in their job that one of these security officers nearly got one of our members killed by a transport truck at the Mill Cove wastewater treatment plant this past Tuesday. No one from Halifax Water showed up or called to see if the member, their VALUED employee was ok, by the way. Not one of the staff at Halifax Water is in any way jeopardized by our peaceful (albeit noisy at times) protests at any of the Halifax Water locations. And it is OFFENSIVE that our employer would think that we would jeopardize the very infrastructure that we are charged to maintain on a daily basis under normal circumstances and risk our jobs, our integrity, or our future employment by harming any part of it. We have access to this infrastructure 24 hours/day, 7 days a week when we are not locked out and there is NOT ONE security guard around to protect it from us. Even if you could justify having security during a labour disruption, how do you justify bringing in known union-busters and strike ‘specialists’ to use intimidation and coercion to try and strong-arm us into who-knows-what at such a high cost to the ratepayers? That’s disgusting from a so-called ‘World Class’ employer.

“No one is reporting the savings the water commission is incurring from not having a payroll obligation. “
In the very same article cited above, in The Chronicle Herald, June 1, 2015, James Campbell is quoted as saying “Halifax Water is saving about $80,000 a day in wages and associated benefits”. I’m not sure what else to say about that.

“The cost of security is a very minor point that the union is trying to extract some publicity on.”
I dare say that Halifax Water’s ratepayers (ie the customers AND your constituents) do not feel that close to $800,000.00 (minimum) on security since this lockout began four weeks ago is a minor point. It’s shameful that you would feel the need to say that when customers have seen their water bills increase year after year after year because Halifax Water tells the UARB that they need more money to put into their infrastructure, wages, and (of course) pension. Believe me, I work in Customer Service and can tell you first hand that they will NOT be happy when there is another rate increase next year due to the fiscal irresponsibility of this utility.

“The union needs to hear from its membership to get back to the table.”
The union HAS heard from it’s membership – our members have told us to protect their retirement security and protect those who come after them, as those who have come before us have protected us. Our members took a democratic vote and voted OVERWHELMINGLY for our bargaining team to make sure that they, and everyone else coming in the door of Halifax Water, are able to retire with dignity and are able to keep the pension that was offered to them as deferred wages when they signed their working papers with Halifax Water. We are willing to go back to the table with Halifax Water. The Board needs to learn how to negotiate – not dictate since day one, 16 long months ago. We started chipping away at a pension that had a current service cost of just over 26% in Feb of 2014 and the UNION negotiated (by themselves most of the time) changes that would take that current service cost down to below 20%. I would dare say that is movement, sir. Halifax Water came into negotiations, sat down and said that the CSC had to be 18% – “we don’t care what you do to gut the plan, but it has to cost 18%”. AND THEY HAVE NOT MOVED FROM THAT SINCE THEN. Sound like negotiating to you?

“The current pension contributions in the range of 13% apiece by the employee and employer is far too much. A slight reduction and having pension contributions at an affordable rate ensures a sustainable plan into the future is the crux of the strike. “
I’m not sure how you think that reducing a plan by more than 30% is ‘a slight reduction’. I’m sure the taxpayers in this city would like a ‘slight’ reduction in your earnings as a councilor to save money, but I bet you don’t think 30% loss of income is ‘slight’ in your pocket, why do you think it is ok to take it out of ours? Having said that, the union HAS come up with a proposal that brings the 13% down to 10% – a full 23% reduction. Halifax Water will not entertain that. Again, we have been told that ‘the Board’ – of which you are a vote and accountable – is set on 18%.

“Having contribution rates equal (18% = 9 % each ) to the maximum allowable under CRA – Canada Revenue Agency – regulations is what we are asking to achieve.”
We understand what you would like to achieve. In fact, we would love to pay 9% maximum contribution rates – but we need our retirement benefits to be whole. We want what we were promised when we started working at Halifax Water. We want to be able to enjoy retirement on the deferred wages that we were told we would have. We are willing to pay for this. We are willing to mitigate the cuts as much as reasonably possible to work towards that goal. We want an employer who will also see reason and see that the rates have not been that low in 7 years and a good pension plan is worth paying for – for both the Employees and the Employer. That is what we are asking for.

“Reducing the pension contributions means more money back onto the pay cheque .”
For how long? What promise or evidence do we have that at the next actuarial valuation that those pension contribution rates will not increase again? As soon as January 2016? We as plan members have NO control over who the actuary is or if the valuation gets approved and filed. What happens when Halifax Water works with Eckler and agrees to another unnecessarily conservative valuation, which causes the contribution rates to go up again? Then what do we cut when Halifax Water tells us, again, that the current service cost is too high and we have to make MORE cuts to an already busted pension? Forgive me, but I have to say that I have very little faith in the Board to back up the members of the pension plan at the next go round, either.

“The union and employees do not bear any of the risk associated with the overextended pension plan. The underfunded liability rests 100% with the water commission and it’s ratepayers. The members with seniority don’t really care about the junior members. They will get their pensions but what will be left for the others when it comes their time to consider retirement. “
Ok, this is the hardest one so far. How DARE you say that the union and employees do not bear any of the risk associated with the overextended pension plan. There are members on the picket line who aren’t even members of the Halifax Water Pension Plan but are being held hostage by our employer because they cannot get a signed collective agreement because of the cuts our employer wants us to bear to our pension plan. The members of the Halifax Water Pension Plan are bearing the risk of the plan RIGHT NOW because of the cuts we, the union, are willing to take in our pension. They are bearing the risk of benefits lost forever because of an unfunded liability that they had no say in to try and help mitigate. They have the risk of allowing our employer to blindly follow an actuary who may be over conservative and underestimating the growth of the plan, thereby making it look like the plan is funded less than it actually is. Not only do we care about the junior members and others that come into this company after us, we are FIGHTING tooth and nail to protect THEM. I guess I need to remind you, but certainly not our members, that these cuts LEAST affect the senior members and if it were true what you say that we do not care about the junior members, there would be NO FIGHT. And, Mr. Hendsbee, might I remind you that there are 335 members walking the picket line TODAY because of the risk we bear. These are members of CUPE Locals 1431 and 227 who are not working at the jobs they love. Whose relationships with our employer is diminishing on a daily basis. Whose health and well-being are at risk because of the stress and turmoil this is causing. Whose lives have been turned upside down due to this lockout. That is the RISK that we bear and that risk is immeasurable.

“So I hope the union will accept this position and get back to the bargaining table for everyone’s sake.”
Mr. Hendsbee, I hope, with everything that I have, that I might have opened your eyes a tiny bit on this situation. I hope I have enlightened you on the reality of what is happening here to our members. I hope that Halifax Water and its Board of Commissioners will take a long hard look within and realize that they have NOT negotiated in good faith as the union has. I hope that the Board changes the so-called hard mandate of 18% current service cost and gives their appointed negotiators a chance to actually go back to the table with the intention of negotiating (not dictating) a fair and decent settlement for both sides. On that, Mr. Hendsbee, we can both agree.
I would like to leave you with the knowledge that our members are strong, our members are solid, and our members are behind our negotiating team. They are well informed, and they are well aware, that this is the right fight, we all deserve to receive what we were promised, and we all deserve to be able to retire in comfort for the years of dedication and devotion we have put into making Halifax Water a “World Class” utility. Carl Yates has not done that by himself, do not forget that.

Please feel free to contact me at any time should you, or any of your colleagues have any questions, comments or concerns. My phone is always on, as is my email.


Heather Corkum
President, CUPE Local 1431