Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre urged all sides of the municipal pension reform debate to acknowledge that taxpayers can no longer bear the financial strain of ballooning pension deficits and for all sides to work together to find a solution.
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Coderre was one of a handful of speakers scheduled to make presentations to the National Assembly committee examining the proposed pension reform legislation, known as Bill 3.
“We’re now confronting a financial reality we can no longer ignore,” Coderre told the committee.
He acknowledged that municipal employee pension plans are among the most advantageous in the province.
Coderre said those benefits help the municipality attract and retain high-quality staff.
“The City of Montreal has always maintained its commitment to maintaining this type of plan for its employees, but restructuring is now inevitable,” he said.
The costs associated with municipal pension plans has quadrupled since 2002, he said.
Coderre said the ability of taxpayers to cover the costs has reached its limits and it’s time to restore balance. Bill 3, he said, proposes an approach that has reasonable goals and timelines.
Acknowledging recent, heated demonstrations and job action by municipal workers in Montreal, Coderre said he was appealing to all sides in good faith to find a compromise.
“The last few weeks have been hectic, emotional even, for many. But now the time has come to work together,” he told the commission.
Unions call Bill 3 an “attack”
Quebec’s largest labour federation, the FTQ — which represents about 35,000 people affected by Bill 3 — spoke at the hearings this afternoon, saying the proposed legislation constitutes an unjustified attack against workers and retirees in the municipal sector.
“After analyzing the bill, we can say without a shadow of a doubt that the real objective of the government is not so much to assure the financial health and the sustainability of the retirement system, but to limit costs to employers, renouncing promises made to salaried and retired workers,” said the FTQ’s secretary general Serge Cadieux.
“The government is focusing all its attention to the demands made by certain mayors without considering any other suggestions made by the unions representing salaried municipal workers,”
Marc Ranger, the head of the coalition of municipal worker unions that is at the forefront of the protests, said he doesn’t think the pension plans are in such dire shape.
"We are going to [protest] next week that we have the real numbers. We have actuaries who put down on the table real numbers about the the real health of pension plans,” Ranger said.
Renewed protests in Montreal, Quebec City
As Coderre and Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume appeared before the committee in Quebec City, thousands of municipal employees took to the streets in protest of the pension reforms.
Union leaders said the government needs to show that it’s at least willing to compromise on the legislation, which would force past and present municipal workers to shoulder part of a $4-billion provincial pension shortfall.
In Montreal, hundreds of noisy yet peaceful protesters clad in red gathered outside the offices of Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard across from the gates of McGill University.
The demonstration followed on the heels of Monday night’s widely-criticized Bill 3 protest at Montreal City Hall.
That incident saw protesting firefighters and other municipal workers crowd into the building and disrupt a city council meeting as it was about to start.
Protesters threw papers, knocked over chairs and one city councillor claimed he was punched during the melee.
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Montreal police officers assigned to keep order at the City Hall protest were accused of standing by and not stopping protesters.
Police have been at the forefront of the anti-Bill 3 demonstrations and have taken to decorating their cars with stickers and wearing non-uniform pants and red caps as part of their protest.
Police monitored the protest, but there were no incidents that required intervention.
Couillard promised heightened security
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said added security measures would be in place at the National Assembly to ensure the hearings into Bill 3 go on peacefully and democratically.
Hundreds of anti-Bill 3 protesters gathered outside the National Assembly with provincial police officers looking on.
Representatives from three major unions in Quebec spoke at the hearings this afternoon between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. ET.
“People should act responsibly. Of course authorities will take the measures that are needed in terms of security, but it’s up to the unions and their leaders to decide how they will behave and communicate,” said Couillard.
The hearings began at 9:30 a.m., with representatives from the cities of Quebec and Montreal presenting first.
$4 billion deficits
Quebec City's mayor told the committee that the provisions laid out in Bill 3 are essential for municipalities struggling to stabilize crushing pension plan deficits, which now collectively total nearly $4 billion.
The proposed reform would force municipal workers to shoulder part of the shortfall.
'For many municipal employees, their retirement years will surpass the number of years they worked' - Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume
“Bill 3 responds to the necessity to put an end to a profound social, financial and inter-generational injustice,” he said.
“Quebec taxpayers, and especially our youth, are paying the price."
In Quebec City, the pension deficit hit $600 million at the end of 2013, a significant jump from only a few years ago.
Lebeaume blamed that increase on workers who are living longer and, in turn, drawing more from pension funds.
“For many municipal employees, their retirement years will surpass the number of years they worked,” he said.
Labeaume, one of the municipal representatives who pushed the National Assembly to draft the legislation, repeated several times that the pension deficit in Quebec City could "technically be eliminated" if the city was allowed to temporarily suspend indexation.
Coderre echoed that statement, saying it would go a long way toward relieving the burden of Montreal's pension deficit.
The bill would give municipalities the power to suspend indexation of any workers retired as of Jan. 1, 2014.
Municipal Affairs Minister Pierre Moreau said Quebec is in a unique position and a temporary suspension of indexation wouldn’t be enough to pull all municipalities out of their pension deficits.
This afternoon, the Quebec City Association of Retired Personnel and the CSN, one of Quebec’s largest unions, are scheduled to make presentations to the committee.
Since the legislation was introduced in June, city workers have held numerous protests, including dressing-down, calling in sick en masse and holding rallies.
About 80 Montreal firefighters also took early retirement after Bill 3 was tabled as a way to protect their pensions.
The five days of hearings in Quebec City are scheduled to wrap up Tuesday, Aug. 26 at 6 p.m.