Photo provided via Flickr/Creative Commons agreement by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories.
Ottawa Local 586 represents a little more than 100 employees at the Chalk River Laboratories nuclear plant. The facility opened in 1944.  

The IBEW and other Canadian trade unions are urging the federal government to scrap a measure that would lead to major cutbacks in retirement benefits for the country’s nuclear workers.

Members of Ottawa Local 586 and their allies rallied in the Canadian capital on June 5 to protest the federal government’s plan to end their contributions to the public-pension plan this September.

Without it, those workers will not be allowed to contribute to the public pension plan after Sept. 11, eliminating a primary reason many chose to serve Canada’s citizens instead of opting for private industry.

The planned elimination will affect about 3,400 workers in the Canadian nuclear industry, including 104 members of Ottawa Local 586 who are employed at the Chalk River Laboratories nuclear plant, located about 180 kilometers northwest of the nation’s capital.

“The public service pension plan is the best in the country,” said Keith Alberry, a Local 586 steward at Chalk River. “Most of us were planning to retire at 55. If I lose that pension, I’ll probably have to work longer. There’s no way I can retire as early as I’d planned.”

First District International Representative Matt Wayland said the move breaks a longstanding promise to those workers, who accepted less money to work for the federal government than in private industry because they knew a guaranteed pension was awaiting when it came time to retire.

It also could lead to safety concerns at the remaining five nuclear facilities across the country as more workers leave because of the changes.

“It was the really good pension plan that drew people to go to these remote locations,” said Wayland, who co-chairs the Canadian Alliance of Nuclear Workers, a group that includes 11 unions that are urging the federal government to ensure workers stay in the public pension plan.

The measure was passed as part of an omnibus budget bill and signed by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper when Conservatives were the ruling party in 2013. As part of the bill, the Harper-led government installed a government-owned, contractor-operated model – commonly called a Go-Co – to run Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, the Crown-owned nuclear research laboratory.

“It was buried in a 400- or 500-page document that even their own members didn’t get to see,” Alberry said.

By doing so, the federal government forfeited control over Atomic Energy’s employees. A private contractor notified employees in 2015 that following a three-year phasing out period, they no longer would be allowed to contribute to the pension plan. Any new hires during that period weren’t allowed to contribute either.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau replaced Harper after the Liberals trounced the Conservatives in the 2015 parliamentary elections. IBEW representatives in Canada said Liberal leaders appear to be sympathetic to their arguments, but they are concerned a reversal might undermine future attempts by the government – no matter the ruling party in charge – to privatize any operation now performed by a public entity.

That’s why it’s important for all IBEW members, no matter what branch they work in, to contact their representative in the House of Commons and urge them to change course, Alberry said.

“There seems to be a mandate, no matter if you’re a conservative or a liberal, that privatization is the wave of the future,” he said. “This government has even told us if they reverse this decision, they’ll be setting a precedent when it comes to future divestiture.

“So that’s the message to us. What else is under private attack?”

Daniel Blaikie, a member of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Local 2085 and a New Democratic Party MP in the House of Commons, also is concerned the federal government is looking to privatize even more services by its refusal to reverse the earlier decision.

“Working in the nuclear industry is not an easy gig,” Blaikie said at a news conference in Ottawa last month. “It comes with a lot of risk. It involves a lot of training and highly-skilled workers. Workers get into it to provide for their families and know they will have a good pension. Now, they’re staring down a government that’s promised to be a friend to the middle class and to working people and to protect pensions.”

Alberry and Wayland both pointed out participation in the public pension plan is guaranteed in the contract between Local 586 and Chalk River management. That contract expired earlier this year, but both sides work under its terms until a new agreement is reached. Any change should come through the collective bargaining process, they said.

Canadian trade unions had a long list of disagreements with the Conservatives and have generally supported the Liberals since they formed a majority nearly three years ago. That’s why they’re surprised by their actions on this issue.

“We are disappointed in the Trudeau government’s response thus far, but we’ve not given up hope,” First District Vice President Tom Reid said. “Denying access not just to our members, but all Canadian nuclear workers, to the public pension plan would be a moral failure. We think that will become increasingly clear to more people on Parliament Hill in the days and weeks ahead, but we need the help of our IBEW brothers and sisters.”

Click here for instructions on how to contact a member of the House of Commons. For more information, watch the news conference with Blaikie and others outlining the reasons to reverse the plan.