Why pensions are at the heart of the Carleton University strike – Ottawa

As a work stoppage at Carleton University enters its fourth week, it appears the two sides are arguing not about the present— but rather a hypothetical future involving workers’ pensions.

Support staff represented by CUPE Local 2424 — which covers admissions, administration, IT, some librarians, athletics, and counselling services — have been walking the picket lines since March 5.

The dispute has centred upon the workers’ pension plans, which are defined benefit plans. The union fears the university wants to convert them to contribution plans.

While defined benefit plans pay out an agreed benefit to retirees, contribution plans only set out what the employer will put into the plan. So if investment returns don’t materialize over the long term, retirees can see the value of their pensions decline.

In a statement posted online last week, Rob Thomas, Carleton’s assistant vice-president of human resources, said the university is willing to guarantee the pension plan won’t change.

“The employer agrees to maintain the retirement plan, which is a money purchase plan with a defined benefit minimum guarantee,” he said.

We believe that this language protects the pension plan, because if [it’s] added to the collective agreement, the pension plan could not be eliminated or substantially changed without future negotiations with CUPE Local 2424.”

Jerrett Clark

CUPE 2424 president Jerrett Clark says the union needs ‘concrete protections’ ensuring that Carleton University won’t change the fundamentals of their members’ pensions. (Kimberley Molina/CBC)

Contested language 

The school’s administration, however, is asking CUPE 2424 to remove language in the recently expired contract that guarantees employees will pay no more than six per cent of their earnings toward the pension plan.

We cannot simply relinquish all of our bargaining rights and protections.
– Jerrett Clark, president of CUPE 2424

The school argues that the six per cent contribution language — which only CUPE 2424 has — unfairly sets them apart and allows their members to potentially make lower contributions than those who belong to other unions.   

The union maintains it can’t give something like that away without a significant concession from the school.

“That, in our view, is the very nature of negotiating,” said CUPE 2424 president Jerrett Clark. “We cannot simply relinquish all of our bargaining rights and protections.”

Clark said the union’s members need “concrete protections” in their contract that the university won’t change the fundamentals of their pensions.

Committee changes

Right now, all of the pensions for Carleton staff are managed by a central pension committee.

The committee, whose membership is split equally between school administration and unions, makes recommendations that go to the university’s board for the final say.

While the committee makes decisions by consensus, Clark said that’s not enshrined in the rules — and it could change.

“We’re concerned about amendments that might be made that are perceived in the best interest of the plan, but are actually in the best interest of the university,” he said.

Clark said that, looking back, there have been changes the pension committee pushed through that didn’t work out for employees.

“We have found amendments that have been made over the last ten or 15 years that we feel are unnecessary and adversely affected our members,” he said.

Carleton’s administration has offered to enshrine that half of the committee’s membership will be in union hands, adding that there has never been a change to the school’s pension that didn’t first get approved at that committee.