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Carleton University workers striking to protect their pensions

Rick Telfer

March 21, 2018

Around 850 administrative, technical and library workers at Carleton University began picketing at campus entrances on March 5 as they went on strike to protect their pensions. The workers are represented by Local 2424 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). The strike followed nineteen days of bargaining since July 2017. Negotiations with the university administration broke off early in the morning of March 5.

In a statement released by CUPE on March 5, Local 2424 president Jerrett Clark said “Throughout bargaining, Carleton has placed obstacles in the path to a fair deal by insisting that a new collective agreement remove our bargaining rights around pensions.” In the same release, the union “expressed disappointment and frustration at the university’s continued attempts to strip pension language from its employees’ collective agreement.”

Battling pension rollbacks

On March 6, the day after the strike began, the university administration posted a memorandum addressed to CUPE 2424 members to its website accompanied by a video in which Alastair Summerlee, the interim president of the university, stated that “the university remains absolutely committed to reaching a negotiated settlement with the union.”

According to Summerlee, the key issues in the negotiations relate to pension governance. Specifically, he said that “the union is asking for direct involvement in the design of the pension plan, the composition of the pension plan committee, and how voting on the committee would work.” “At no time has the university, the board of governors, or our negotiating team ever raised the prospect of converting our pension plan from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan. Nor have we raised the prospect of changing the composition of the pension plan committee,” Summerlee added.

Defined benefit pension plans are considered generally favourable by employees because they specify the exact level of payments that retirees receive — a minimum guaranteed regular payment for the rest of their lives — according to a formula that is based upon earnings history, years of service and retirement age. Defined benefits are paid to pensioners from a pooled fund of contributions accumulated over time. Employers are responsible for ensuring that the size of the fund is sufficient to make the promised payments.

On the other hand, defined contribution plans are essentially individual retirement savings accounts that are employer-subsidized. The amount of money that an employee will receive is limited to the balance in that individual’s account upon retirement. The balance is the sum of contributions made over time and any investment returns — or losses. Unlike defined benefit plans, defined contribution plans do not provide minimum guaranteed payments for the rest of one’s life — and any investment losses are not covered by the employer. Instead, the retiree assumes all the risk and must absorb any losses. Additionally, defined contribution plans entail less administrative overhead for employers. Such plans are therefore considered generally favourable by employers.

Employer’s doubletalk 

The university administration’s March 6 memorandum also provided specific details about proposals that the university administration claims its negotiating team had put forth for improvements to remuneration and other benefits. However, at a union rally on the campus on March 2, Clark directly contradicted Summerlee’s statements. “We’re not asking for a complete veto on the pension plan, we don’t believe we should have special treatment, and we’re not asking for anything that will negatively affect the other employee groups or unions on campus,” Clark said. “The university’s messages have been meant to confuse and create complications in the minds of our members and in the university community to try to divide us — to try to drive a wedge between the union and our members and the campus community,” he added.

On March 4, CUPE 2424 posted an open letter from Clark addressed to Summerlee.“You have stated the University does not plan to change or remove our existing pension benefits,” Clark said. “However, the University is demanding the deletion of key language that clearly protects our members from changes to pension provisions that may be decided without the agreement of the Union.” “We have tried repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, to engage the University’s negotiating team in frank discussions about possible changes to the pension plan. In the absence of any forthright answers, we have no choice but to assume and expect the worst,” he added. In an interview on February 26, before the strike began, Clark said that the union is specifically concerned that a change to collective agreement language proposed by the university administration may be part of a strategy to eliminate the workers’ defined benefit pension plan in the future.

At a well-attended community teach-in on the evening of March 14 in downtown Ottawa that was organized by some Carleton faculty members in support of CUPE 2424, Clark told the crowd that CUPE 910 — the union representing maintenance workers at Carleton — had the same pension-protecting language in its collective agreement until “a couple of years ago.” Being a smaller union, “they had to give it up” owing to pressure from the university administration during collective bargaining, Clark said.

Two other panelists also spoke at the teach-in: Kevin Skerrett, a researcher with CUPE, and Nancy Parker, a retiree and volunteer organizer with the grassroots Ottawa Committee for Pension Security. They linked CUPE 2424’s dispute with Carleton to the wider political-economic context. Skerrett, who is also the co-editor of a new book entitled The Contradictions of Pension Fund Capitalism, said that workers’ pension plans have been under attack in a variety of ways by many employers during the last 20-25 years — and especially during the last decade, despite employers’ plan costs falling in recent years. Parker told the audience about the federal Liberal government’s Bill C-27. She called it a “horrendous bill” and said “it gives employers the tools they’re going to need to continue the attack on our pension plans.” According to Clark, if adopted, the legislation would allow federally-regulated employers to establish target benefit pension plans in place of the more secure defined benefit pension plans.

Regarding the university administration’s other proposals, CUPE 2424 responded with a post to Twitter on March 7 stating that “the University indeed made offers concerning wages, other benefits, and a necessary internal wage equity process, but made their offers conditional upon a pension proposal that simply could not be accepted or recommended to our members.” In a subsequent post to Twitter on March 7, the union added: “We encourage Interim President Summerlee to stop bargaining in public and demand that Carleton return to the bargaining table immediately.”

On March 13, CUPE released another statement in which Jacynthe Barbeau, one of the union’s negotiators, accused the university administration of bargaining in bad faith and revealed that the union had filed a complaint with the Ontario Labour Relations Board. “Since the strike began, Carleton has misrepresented and mischaracterized its own position and the union’s, including the issues that led to the strike. But this type of behaviour only serves to prolong the dispute and prevent the kind of negotiations that are needed to resolve it,” Barbeau said.

Building support 

CUPE 2424 has received strong expressions of support both on campus and beyond, including from the Carleton Graduate Students’ Association, the Carleton University Academic Staff Association, the Ottawa and District Labour Council, the Ontario Confederation of Faculty Associations, the Canadian Federation of Students and CUPE 4600 — the union that represents teaching assistants, research assistants and contract instructors at Carleton. Guest speakers have also cancelled their scheduled appearances at Carleton University because they refuse to cross picket lines. OC Transpo bus drivers will not cross picket lines, either, as an expression of solidarity with the striking workers.

On March 6, the Graduate Students’ Association, together with three employee unions at Carleton, published an open letter addressed to Summerlee. “The current deadlock over pensions is especially disconcerting given that Carleton has huge pension reserve funds. As demonstrated in the university’s audited financial statements, Carleton has also had massive annual surpluses,” they said.

Then, on March 14, over 200 Carleton University faculty members published an open letter in support of CUPE 2424. The number of signatories to the letter has since grown to more than 300. “Unions have the right to protect the pensions of their members; there is nothing exceptional about CUPE 2424’s effort to negotiate a just settlement on behalf of its members,” reads the letter. “Every union at Carleton has or ought to have some language in its Collective Agreement to protect members’ pension benefits.”

The next day, on March 15, the Carleton University Academic Staff Association (CUASA) announced that it was pursuing a grievance against the university administration for “downloading” CUPE 2424 work to employees who are not members of the striking union — a practice known colloquially as “scabbing.” A grievance is a formal complaint — an allegation of a collective agreement violation or of unfair labour practices — that triggers a dispute resolution process as prescribed within the collective agreement and labour laws. “CUASA has been made aware of practices in various departments where CUASA members and others are being told to take on CUPE 2424 work. This practice is disrespectful to the bargaining certificates of 2424 and CUASA members and will not be tolerated,” reads the announcement.

On the same day, the Ottawa Citizen reported that Clair Switzer, one of two non-faculty staff members serving on Carleton’s board of governors had resigned her position the day before because she was advised by the university’s counsel that, as a member of the union, she was in a conflict of interest. “I think the board, unfortunately, is insulated. They’re sheltered. They’re getting the side that the university is choosing to give them,” Switzer was quoted as saying.

Joel Harden, the Ontario NDP MPP candidate for Ottawa Centre, has also expressed his support for CUPE 2424 and joined the workers on the picket lines numerous times. In a post to Twitter on March 6, Harden said that he worked as a contract instructor at Carleton University for years. “I know exactly how precarious, underpaid and under-appreciated this work can be,” he said. “Exploitation is increasingly the norm at our universities.”

Getting back to the table

The two-week long strike combined with the steady inflow of support seems to have nudged the university administration back into talks with the union. On March 16, the university administration posted a notice to its website to report that “the university and CUPE Local 2424 have agreed to meet to continue discussions in an attempt [to] find a resolution and put an end to the labour dispute. Furthermore, the parties have agreed that discussions at the table are without prejudice and going forward, will remain confidential.”

CUPE 2424 confirmed the agreement on the same day. “The bitter cold was tempered by good news that the employer has agreed to return to the bargaining table. Cautious optimism was the mood of the day,” reads the statement posted to Twitter. “Pensions are not a gift; they are employees’ deferred wages and we need a say in our future,” the statement concluded. The strike will continue while the new round of negotiations are underway.

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