Public-sector employees took to the streets across Alberta during the noon hour of March 20 to protest pension cuts proposed by the Alberta government.
In Ponoka, public workers protested these cuts in front of Town Hall to send a clear message they do not approve of the cuts.
Dubbed Pension Action Day, the protest was organized by the Alberta Federation of Labour and brought representatives from the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) and the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA).
Jason Heistad, executive secretary treasurer of AUPE stated in an interview that changes to pension plans will hurt small communities. He says rural communities such as Ponoka need to keep staff on hand. “That’s a retention piece.”
Changes in the pension plan will affect areas with a strong public sector workforce. Ponoka is home to the staff of Centennial Centre for Mental Health and Brain Injury and the Ponoka Hospital and Care Centre, plus those employed by the Town and County of Ponoka.
People working in the public sector buy their goods and services in the communities that they work and Heistad feels business leaders and chambers of commerce need to understand the financial impact of cutting the pensions.
“That money is spread around within your county,” stated Heistad.
One of the key slogans to the protest was Enough broken promises! Retire Redford! Premier Alison Redford stepped down from the top political seat the evening of March 19.
“It doesn’t change anything right now because it’s the government that’s changing our pension plans,” Heistad stated.
“It’s not Premier Redford, it’s the PC (Progressive Conservative) caucus we still have to fight,” he added.
With Redford out of the picture, Heistad feels reparation between public sector workers and the Government of Alberta is needed.
“We’ve got to wait it out and continually repair that relationship,” said Heistad.
He suggests the unions are important groups to consider and said Redford relied on the support of unions such as AUPE to get elected.
“There’s a lot of work that both sides have to do and basically we were given a lie,” stated Heistad.
He said the AUPE has received support from the Wildrose Party, which believes the unions should have the right to collectively bargain for workers. Protestors are the ones paying into their pensions, explained Heistad, and the government paid off the unfunded liability for the Alberta Teachers Association. “Our members haven’t had that.”
“The teachers had their gimme a number of years ago,” he added.
Protestors on the street
Bev Webster, Ponoka chapter president of the HSAA, said the government proposes to change the pension plan from January, 2016, so newer employees coming into healthcare are not going to have the same benefits.
Laura Moench, local chapter chairperson for AUPE agreed and suggested a unified front from unions.
“I think we as Albertans and all of us that pay into these pensions parts, we need to fight back. We need to be strong together. One voice. All of us to stop this nonsense,” said Moench.
She feels the government is dictating the terms of public sector pension plans and not considering the unions.
“They want us to pay more, work longer…As long as they keep taking away from the public sector people, it’s going to be difficult to retain skilled and professional people in this province,” said Moench.
Webster says the government claims the plans are not sustainable but has heard the opposite as well.
“The information that’s being provided…it’s very confusing,” said Webster.
Moench says the AUPE will not support any MLA that favours the changes proposed by the government.
This change will impact many employees in the public sector: the AUPE has more than 80,000 representatives, HSAA has more than 40,000, the United Nurses of Alberta represents 30,000 nurses and the Alberta Pensions Services Corporation has 41,000 active members.