When Premier Rachel Notley announced to the annual general meeting of the United Nurses of Alberta yesterday morning her government would keep a promise made to working Albertans 26 years ago by a Conservative government, it offered an ironic coda to one of the issues that contributed to the downfall of the Conservative Dynasty in 2015.
In 2014, I wrote a number of blog posts about what I then called the “ill-conceived anti-union project” of the government of premier Alison Redford, which involved controversial bills that undermined employee pensions in both the public and private sectors, as well as others that would have suspended the free expression rights of union members.
Unions in both sectors, of course, fight hard for retirement security for their members, and secure pensions have become favourite target for right-wing agitators and corporations, and the neoliberal governments they bankroll and support. As a consequence, when they attacked the pensions of Alberta working people, the Redford Government and its pro tempore successor led by Dave Hancock got a fight, which they would eventually lose.
Ms. Redford’s government promoted Bill 9, the Public Sector Pension Plans Amendment Act, as a way to protect the public from unfunded public pension liabilities. This was deceptive, since at the time the past liabilities of the largest Alberta public pension plan were well on their way to being paid off by agreed-upon member and employer contributions. The liabilities have since been eliminated.
Bill 9 seems in retrospect to have mainly been an effort to convert defined-benefit public sector pension plans that guarantee pension payments for life into “defined contribution” plans, in which pensioners must bear the risk of managing their own retirement savings.
Other impacts, though, would have included making it difficult for pension plans to recover from a stock market crash by putting a cap on contributions, imposing penalties on workers who wanted to retire early, and setting up a three-tier system in which female dominated occupations would have been the bottom tier.
All this could and would have been avoided if successive PC governments had kept a promise made by premier Don Getty in 1992 to put the plans under joint employer-employee governance. Instead, later generations of Tory government ignored the commitment.
Bill 10, the Employment Pension (Private Sector) Plans Amendment Act, was arguably even more radical than Bill 9, in that it was designed to give private-sector employers the ability to arbitrarily break pension agreements with employees and retirees, including collectively bargained contractual plans.
Arguably, this undermined the whole idea of contract law, although that didn’t seem to trouble the Redford PCs at the time.
As I speculated then, this may have been an effort by the PCs to rally to their side voters who resented anyone with a defined-benefit pension, as well as to please donors from corporations seeking the opportunity to take their workers’ pension contributions, play the stock markets with them, and simply cut pension payouts if the investments went south.
While then-finance minister Doug Horner boasted the PC government was up for a fight, it seemed unprepared for the intensity of the reaction – which included rallies across Alberta in March 2014, including one attended by well over 2,000 people on March 2 in Edmonton when outside temperatures were below -25 at times.
In September 2014, Jim Prentice, who had been chosen to lead the PCs into the future, quietly withdrew the bills. The broken governance promise, however, remained unfulfilled.
Fast-forward to yesterday. When the Legislature returns next month, Premier Notley told more than 1,000 nurses and others attending the United Nurses AGM, her NDP government will introduce legislation that will finally allow public service pensions to be jointly governed by the those who contribute to them.
“I’m pretty sure many of you will remember what it looks like to have a government that doesn’t fight for working people,” Ms. Notley said, looking back to those frigid days in 2014.
“I was a member of the Opposition at the time,” she recalled, “and you may remember the filibuster that we had in the Legislature, along with the support of thousands of people outside the Legislature, many of you, to delay and eventually kill these attacks on workers and their pensions and their union.”
“Well, my friends,” Ms. Notley told the AGM, “when the Legislature comes back next month … we will be introducing some pension legislation of our own. We want to ensure instead that you have joint governance of your pension plan because it is only right.
“When pensions receive contributions from both the employer and the employee, they should be jointly governed by both the employer and the employee,” the premier explained. “You deserve your seat at the table and you deserve an equal say on your pensions and your futures.”
Agitation against fair pensions by corporations, right wing think tanks and Astro-Turf groups and their favoured politicians never ends, of course, because they don’t want anyone to set an example that things can be better for all working people.
Just the same, when the pension legislation is passed next spring, it will be a just cause for a moment of celebration nonetheless.
FULL DISCLOSURE: The author of this blog is an employee of the United Nurses of Alberta and attended UNA’s AGM in that capacity this week, where he heard Premier Notley’s speech. The hours required for AGM work also means some stories that deserve commentary must of necessity be neglected, including the agreement announced yesterday among the Lubicon Cree Nation, Alberta and Canada that ends generations of unsuccessful negotiations, blockades and worldwide condemnation.