Police officers and firefighters lighting a bonfire on the street in front of Montreal's City Hall are an unusual sight. They were among several hundred union members protesting the Quebec government's intention to reform the pension plans for municipal workers.
One of the proposals is a 50-50 split between Quebec's cities and their 122,000 employees when it comes to premiums and covering future shortfalls. Indexation would be partly frozen. Current plan members and retirees would be tapped to pay down past deficits. The aim is to reach a negotiated settlement within 12 months.
Municipal Affairs Minister Pierre Moreau estimated the pension plans have a combined deficit of $3.9-billion – late last year it was pegged at north of $5-billion – when he unveiled draft legislation last week.
Eighty Montreal firefighters retired on the spot, causing the brief closure of two stations.
Protests have gathered steam. Hundreds of workers took an impromptu pause syndicale and gathered in downtown Montreal, disrupting traffic. One Fête Nationale celebration has been cancelled, because of a refusal to accept overtime.
It's a reasonable and laudable goal for the province to adapt its pension schemes to cities' capacity to pay. The provincial government is right to rein in the expenses. That doesn't mean the workers don't have a point, too.
Cities in Quebec have long benefited from rules allowing them to suspend premiums in boom years, and it's true workers shouldn't bear the full brunt of market forces and mismanagement.
Nor is it appropriate for the cities – spurred on by the indefatigable mayor of Quebec City, Régis Labeaume, who has driven this agenda for some time – to unilaterally renege on negotiated commitments.
But the fact is that many municipal workers' pension conditions have become too generous. People join the work force later, retire earlier and live longer.
A committee appointed by former premier Jean Charest – and led by Alban D'Amours, the former head of the Desjardins credit union movement – stated as much last year. The D'Amours report provided some interesting ideas, notably a "longevity pension" with a universal, defined-benefit pension for all workers, starting at 75.
That proposal, along with others, should get a serious airing.