by Rick Telfer
OTTAWA — Over 900 administrative, technical, and library workers at Carleton University are preparing for a fight with the university administration in response to the administration’s demand to eliminate collective agreement language that guarantees a defined benefit pension plan for workers.
The workers are represented by Local 2424 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. Their collective agreement expired on Jun. 30, 2017. Bargaining began on Jul. 5.
In a telephone interview on Feb. 26, the president of CUPE 2424, Jerrett Clark, explained that Carleton University has “hybrid pension plans” that provide “a couple of options for employees upon retirement.”
Some employees retire “on their contribution” which is “the defined contribution part of the plan,” Clark said. Other employees retire on “a defined benefit” which is the “minimum guarantee portion of the plan.”
The latter — a defined benefit plan — ensures that “an employee, upon retirement, knows exactly what he or she is going to have” because “the retirement benefit will never go below that [defined amount] and the retiree can count on that going forward,” he said.
Currently, upon retirement, an employee receives either the defined contribution pension or the defined benefit pension upon retirement — whichever is greater depending on an employee’s salary and length of service.
Jerret explained that the university administration’s proposed change to existing collective agreement language — which has been a feature of the workers’ collective agreements since their first agreement in 1976 — is what has the union concerned. It “could open the door to serious adverse changes to our pension benefit,” he said.
“The university wants us to give that up wholesale,” Clark said. “They’re doing it very systematically,” he added. “We are the only union on campus that has that language presently.”
Until 2015, maintenance workers at Carleton — represented by CUPE 910 — had the same language in their collective agreement. But they were “were forced to give it up by the university in their bargaining,” Clark said. “It’s a smaller local. They don’t have the resources or, frankly, the numbers to withstand the pressure from the university.”
“But we do,” he said.
In October, members of CUPE 2424 voted 93 per cent in favour of strike action.
On Feb. 13, after the eighteenth day of bargaining, the union requested that a “no-board report” be filed by the Ministry of Labour-appointed conciliator who had been assisting with the last five days of negotiations.
A no-board report is a formal declaration that the negotiating parties have reached an impasse and that there is no reasonable prospect of settlement. It triggers a short cooling-off period.
Following the union’s request, Mar. 5 was set as the deadline for a legal strike or lockout.
In a statement emailed on Feb. 23, Carleton’s assistant vice-president of human resources, Rob Thomas, stated that “the university and the union have made significant progress, including agreement on more than 20 improvements to the collective agreement. Additionally, the university has tabled increases to wages and benefits.”
Thomas acknowledged, however, that “the union advised the university that the parties have reached an impasse over pension.” But, he added, the university “is not demanding a pension concession from the union, but is ensuring consistent language as it would be unfair to treat one group of plan members differently from another.”
“The university is not proposing any change to the pension plan and remains committed to longstanding governance practices that have ensured Carleton’s retirement plan is strong and will remain stable and sustainable into the future,” he stated. “The university’s focus at bargaining is to harmonize language in the collective agreement to reflect the current practice of a collaborative approach to administering the pension plan.”
Further, according to Thomas, the administration is seeking to ensure “that no one employee group can withhold agreement on decisions that are in the best interest of all plan members.” However, despite the administration offering “a solution that would allow the union to preserve any pre-existing legal rights,” he stated, “the union is seeking to maintain a proposal that would alter the governance of the pension plan and we cannot privilege one group over another.”
Clark rejected Thomas’ statements. “Frankly, I think the university is just trying to confuse and complicate the matter, and to raise doubts,” Clark said. “We’re not asking for anything different or special compared to other unions on campus. We’re simply trying to maintain and protect our benefit that we already have.”
“By the university’s own admission our plan is comparatively stable and well managed. So it begs the question: Why is the university coming after our pension language?” he said.
On Feb. 26, CUPE 2424’s national parent organization, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, posted a statement on its website stating that “Carleton has made all outstanding contract issues dependent on the union’s acceptance of its latest pension offer — a deal that … will jeopardize their retirement futures, as well as the retirement of future workers.”
Clark was quoted in the statement as saying that “Canadians know that they can no longer take their pensions for granted; workers everywhere, from Sears to Stelco, can attest to that.”
Although “the university says it’s trying to ensure consistent language across collective agreements at Carleton,” he added, “this claim is hardly credible when you consider the wide range of agreements that cover thousands of workers at the university. Rights, benefits, and protections vary across all collective agreements at Carleton.”
Asked on Feb. 26 whether he thought the university administration’s demand was a cost-cutting measure, Clark was unequivocal.
“It would certainly be a cost-saving measure on their part, and that’s why it’s happening so broadly,” he said. “We know it’s not a unique issue to us. It’s certainly a broader issue nationally and globally.”
“We fear — and we’re not suggesting that the university definitely does — but we fear that, like a lot of other governments and organizations and corporations, that they may want to change to a defined contribution plan and to eliminate that defined benefit — that minimum guarantee — as we see happening outside the boundaries of Carleton,” he added.
For its part, Thomas wrote that “the university remains committed to resolving this matter with CUPE 2424 and reaching a negotiated settlement.”
But given the university’s drive to eliminate collective agreement language that provides defined benefit pension plans for all of its employees, and the union’s determination to resist what it considers to be a major concession, labour action seems likely.
“We’re holding firm on what we believe is right and want to protect that for our members,” Clark said.
Rick Telfer is an Ottawa-based freelance journalist and a member of Local 1281 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.