By Haseena Manek
On November 15, representatives from employers and unions with members in the OMERS pension plan came together to vote on changes proposed in June. The result was 50% plus one in favour of the changes, a thin majority that fell short of the two-third majority required to make changes to the OMERS pension plan.
“I think that this sends a strong message OMERS and the employers that we work together,” says 4th Vice President of CUPE Ontario and Chair of the Pensions Committee Tiffany Balducci of the grassroots mobilizing and campaigning ahead of the vote. “And that we are definitely able to be in the drivers seat, so to speak – not CUPE, but the labour movement as a whole. I think it does send a clear message, but I don’t think that that doesn’t mean they’re not gonna try otherwise to get things through whether it be pensions or other parts of any kind of bargaining or anything. I think they’ll continue to try but I do think that this kind of shows them the kind of power we can have in solidarity and it shows our members that as well.”
A victory for workers
At present, the results of the vote are a clear victory for Ontario labour. Of the six proposed changes to OMERS, conditional indexing for future pensions, integrating the pension formula with Year’s Additional Maximum Pensionable Earnings (YAMPE) and changing early retirement benefits to require retirees to be 5 years from their Normal Retirement Age were all rejected. Proposals to remove the 35-year service cap and the allow for Paramedics to negotiate into the NRA 60 pension plan were moved forward. The only concession for workers is that enhanced part time enrolment was also rejected, which Tiffany says CUPE has been and will continue to push for.
“We’re very very excited that these changes have been defeated but we know the process is by no means over,” continues Balducci. “So we’re continuing to ensure that our members are informed about any potential changes.”
“It’s a marathon, this is just one leg of it and we’re going to continue building on what we’ve already done. We’re even working on holding a pension conference. So with our members that are in different pensions or doing education on how our members [can be in pensions], some of our members aren’t in pensions, why is that, and can we find a pension for them and can we get best practises out to locals to negotiate pensions and so it’s kind of spilling over into, even members from CUPE who aren’t OMERS members, the excitement is building on just pension talk in general which is quite cool.
When these changes were put on the table in June, fear mongering and scare tactics were used to sell a spin on financial projections that made it seem like changes like de-indexation against inflation were necessary to protect the future of the pension plan.
Leading up to the vote, CUPE focused on clarity of information and education. “We had a power point presentation and we just couldn’t do enough of them. We just went from local to local and talked about these issues and it grew and grew from there. It’s an amazing feeling to know we were able to break this down for our members in a way that was meaningful to them and that they could understand. It is a very difficult thing to explain and one of the tactics very much was for it to be so difficult to understand.”
These anti-worker changes were purposefully buried in financial jargon and union representatives were knowingly manipulated into thinking these changes would protect OMERS pensions in the future.
“Its such a complicated issue and people are on all sides of it. Like the city of Toronto, there was a motion from council where they opposed the changes, and that’s the employer technically and they were onside with the union, so we saw it kind of go all over the place. Even though the council was against the changes, I think their rep on the board voted in favour of it. I think all the employers voted in favour of it.”
According to Balducci, the OMERS campaigning has opened up the conversation about the importance of pension and retirement benefits to younger workers who typically aren’t yet thinking about their pensions. “I personally know a lot of people in my age category who are newer to the unionized work environment and if they have a pension and if they’ve been attending these OMERS sessions from the union, they’re very engaged from what I’ve seen.”
“So we’re seeing a lot of intergenerational solidarity and its quite cool,” she continues on to say. “Our more most concerned cohort were people nearing retirement, but there’s been all ages involved in this and people in all phases of their working life which is another thing we’re building on as far as capacity with our membership.” The extensive grassroots mobilization is something CUPE Ontario hopes to maintain for future organization around pensions and other issues.
Building on the win
“There may come a time where it becomes clear that these changes will be contemplated again,” she continues to explain, “So we’ll definitely continue to reach out to our members and build on this because there was a level of organizing around pensions that I’ve been involved with CUPE for around ten years and I haven’t seen this level of mobilization and organizing amongst are members, especially though a grassroots effort. Community by community, it’s really quite exciting.”
“The pensions benefit act can be changed with the strike of the pen, we understand that. The end of our presentation always says ‘It’s not over yet’. This is going to be preparing for the long hall and just getting that education piece out there with our members. Someone said we’re building a small pension army type of thing and it’s exciting. We’re gonna continue working on our relationships because there’s been a lot of solidarity with the number of unions, both who were on the board and also who don’t have seats on the board so, I don’t want to make it seem like CUPE are the champions of this, because there were so many unions on this that have members in the OMERS plan.”
Looking ahead at four years under Doug Ford’s leadership, which in months has already seen various attacks on workers, this level of action and solidarity is deeply necessary in Ontario’s labour movement.
“It really gives me hope for other battles we will have ahead of us and other issues and we can see when we all work together that we can have these successes. Celebrate them, but know we’re going to see a lot more of these tactics being used so we’ll learn from this and just get better and better.”