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Public-sector unions launch legal challenge to Higgs pension bill

Premier Blaine Higgs set up the shared-risk pension system in 2014, when he was finance minister. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)
Premier Blaine Higgs set up the shared-risk pension system in 2014, when he was finance minister. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)

Three public-sector unions in New Brunswick have filed a legal challenge to the Higgs government's legislation forcing them into a shared-risk pension system against their will.

Locals 2745 and 1253 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions filed the legal action Jan. 30, asking the Court of King's Bench to declare the law unconstitutional.

They argue the law, the Pension Plan Sustainability and Transfer Act, and its regulations, "substantially interfered" with their right to free bargaining under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"The province has unilaterally overridden the terms of the plaintiffs' collective agreements," says the statement of claim.

It quotes passages from the unions' existing contracts that say their pension plans would continue to apply during the duration of the agreements.

The Progressive Conservative majority in the legislature approved the law in a raucous Dec. 12 vote during that dozens of union members sitting in the public gallery jeered and heckled, almost drowning out the proceedings.

As New Brunswick's finance minister in 2014, Premier Blaine Higgs set up the shared-risk system and persuaded or forced several public-sector employee groups to join it, including some CUPE locals.

Kimberly Copp of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions.
Kimberly Copp of the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions.

In November, union members protested against the bill, which forces two CUPE locals and three groups in the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions into a process to determine the future of their pension plans. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

But two CUPE bargaining units representing school custodians, maintenance workers, bus drivers and administrative staff continued to resist as recently as 2021, when Higgs, now premier, tried to shift them into the system during contract negotiations to end a strike.

They signed a side agreement on pensions with the province in 2021 at the end of a 16-day strike, setting up a separate process to resolve the issue.

Last November, Higgs accused the union of dragging its feet on that and introduced the Pension Plan Sustainability and Transfer Act.

It forces the CUPE locals and three groups in the New Brunswick Council of Nursing Home Unions into a process to determine the future of their pension plans and begin the transition this month.

The unions are asking for an injunction blocking that transition and for the court to declare the new act unconstitutional.

The premier's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The application for an injunction will be heard March 12-13.