OTTAWA — NDP MP Daniel Blaikie says pruning the pensions of nuclear-plant workers could endanger the decommission of a Whiteshell facility, though the federal Liberals say that claim is overblown.
"There’s an important moral reason for government to back up the pension promise," Blaikie, the MP for Transcona-Elmwood, said Tuesday.
The former Conservative government privatized the operation of nuclear facilities across the country, making their staff no longer public servants. According to federal law, those who work at a nationalized agency can only stay on the civil-service pension plan for three years, before rolling onto a private one.
That rollover is set to take place in September, and unions say the private plan is far less generous.
Blaikie said he’s heard of workers planning to leave the Whiteshell Laboratories research facility in Pinawa, 115 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg — despite the centre’s ongoing decommissioning, which is currently set to conclude in 2024.
"By being kicked out of the plan, it’s causing those workers to look for work elsewhere, or consider an early retirement," Blaikie said, citing conversations he’s had with some of the Pinawa plant’s 350 employees.
They can still access their pension savings — but those who stay won’t be able to top them up nearly as much as they’d planned.
"A lot of the workers there have site-specific knowledge that would be useful and important in that decommissioning process," he said.
"It’s not good for the workers, and it’s not good for Manitobans."
Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, whose department regulates nuclear energy, said dismantling the facility will follow such stringent standards that even a large amount of turnover won’t impact safety risks.
"There ought to be no link there," said Carr, MP for Winnipeg South Centre.
Carr said the Pinawa facility "served the Canadian economy well, but now it’s being decommissioned, and it will be subject to the highest environmental review by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission."
A spokesman for Treasury Board president Scott Brison blamed the issue on the former government, saying its outsourcing "has had a significant impact on its employees, who by law, are no longer eligible" for public-service pensions.
"We are committed to providing our full support to the workers of Canada’s nuclear industry," wrote Jean-Luc Ferland.
Flanked by union officials and a cart full of bankers’ boxes, Blaikie said he’d be presenting thousands of letters to the federal Liberals, asking them to reconsider.
"Working in the nuclear industry is not an easy gig; it comes with a lot of risks and people get into that line of work… in order to be able to provide for their families."
The International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) commissioned an actuary to assess how much Ottawa would have to pay to keep 3,300 nuclear workers across Canada on public pensions. They found it would start at around $3 million in the first year, before declining as people retire.
Blaikie filed a formal request in Parliament asking the government how much it would cost to keep those employees on its pension plan; the Liberals responded in April by instead explaining federal pension rules.
IUOE spokesman Steven Schumann claimed because the feds continue to monitor contracted nuclear facilities, privatizing them had effectively created a "shell company" that let Ottawa renege on its pension obligations, which he said is a bad precedent for the entire labour market.
Blaikie compared nuclear workers’ pension woes to Ottawa’s reluctance to intervene in the January closure of Sears, during which 16,000 retired employees lost one-fifth of their pensions, despite the retail company paying dividends to its shareholders.
"We have a government that said they were going to stand up for the middle class," he said.
"Every time that they could actually stand up and do something for real people’s pensions — that would make a difference in the life of real people — they take a pass."