Big Man on Campus

Monday, February 11, 2008

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"It is the most difficult thing in the world to get any group of workers excited, agitated, interested in pensions. So when you hear of a local and a group of locals and workers coming together to say collectively on a campus that pensions is the issue, for a guy like myself that's like manna from heaven..."

Sid Ryan was on campus today for a townhall organized by Stakeholders at U of G, the panel is demanding an end to attacks on worker's pensions and benefits. The first speaker of the afternoon was Bruce Ryan from the Retirees Association to speak about what it is like on a U of G pension. Right now both CUPE 1334 representing trades and maintenance and the U of G Faculty association are considering the possibility of striking next month.

The situation for people on pension from the University of Guelph is deteriorating, especially for those on the lower end of the pay-out scale. "The important thing about all three pension plans [being paid out to former U of G workers] is that none of these are fully indexed which means if inflation increases by less than 2% in a year, there is no adjustment to the pension payout. Since 1999 the purchasing power of the pension plans is 11%." Over the course of ten years there is a loss of $2,400 in real buying power from a $12,000 pension. There is also the problem of health benefits. Insurance companies are moving the weight onto the university and to pensioners "to look after their bottom lines." Retires are without a voice on changes to medical benefits despite the fact that they contribute over one million dollars annually.

Sid Ryan came to the podium next to address workers and faculty that had sacrificed their lunch hour to be present. He spoke about the wonder of solidarity being shown by 11 separate working groups at U of G coming together in mutual support with his diluted Irish brogue. Pensions are of major importance in Ryan's eyes as can be noted by his quote at the top of this article. The biggest problem in the eyes of the unions is "contribution holidays." A contribution holiday is "a period when the contributions to a pension scheme are put on hold, the most common reason for this being a situation of overfunding." Glossary of Statistical Terms When the invested pension fund gains returns higher than is needed to maintain the fund the university has taken these holidays. However, since 2000 as markets have tumbled, surpluses seen in the 80s and 90s have disappeared. "When the employer mismanages the pension plan and can not meet the pension promise they always come back to the workers and say 'now we want you to increase your contribution, we want you to cut your benefits and your wages. It always falls back on the workers."

Ryan also explained "a pension is just deferred wages, they're yours, you've put them aside." CUPE's solution to the pension problems is for joint trusteeship where the employer and the employees decide how the pension is run and when there is a surplus, what should be done with a surplus. "Many of the problems you face today at your bargaining table is a result of not having joint trusteeship because when you have joint trusteeship you have a say in how that surplus is spent. And we always say, the first fundamental principle is that workers own the surplus in a pension plan, not the employer, not anyone else. The second is no more contribution holidays. If there's a surplus let's put it into benefits for workers. First look at retirees who helped build the surplus and then active employees for when they retire."

The last speaker of the noon-hour session was Joel Duff, head of organizing for the Canadian Federation of Students Ontario. He came to townhall to discuss the connections between labour's fights for fair wages and benefits and the student movement. "I wanted to talk to you today about solidarity. There are a lot of forces out there to divide us. When workers on a campus are in conflict with an administration, the first message sent to students is that it is the workers' fault that classes are interrupted, that tuition needs to go up, that services are being interrupted, it's the fault of the employees."

Duff sought to explain how students and workers are played off each other to justify concessions from workers and tuition increases for students. He explained that the message from university administrators is that either there can be fair wages and benefits and high tuition or low wages and low tuition. "I want to say first and foremost that that is ridiculous. Poor treatment of workers and low accessibility of education are both symptoms of the same problem and that is consistent and critical underfunding."

After the addresses, both Ryan and Duff commented on important issues that may come up if CUPE 1334 (trades and maintenance) or the U of G Faculty or both go on strike in March:

Thecannon.ca: Joel Duff, if either or both of these unions go on strike, what would you suggest to students?

Joel Duff: The students of Guelph shouldn't become pawns of the administration, they need to recognize that adequate and fair benefits and pensions for workers is an essential right. It's something that we will have to be concerned about later upon graduation when we enter the work force. So, in some ways these battles that are being fought here today are battles we will benefit from when we are out of school and in the work force. Guelph students also have to remember that the campus functions because these people make the institution operate. That goes from faculty to maintenance workers, they're all necessary. If we allow different constituents to be pitted against each other, we all lose out.

Thecannon.ca: Mr. Ryan, how important is solidarity among all the different groups on a campus in a strike situation?

Sid Ryan: It is THE most important issue when heading to a strike, honest to god. It's great that the workers have strong solidarity in getting a strong strike mandate (90% in favor) It's great that the Faculty are showing their support while they too negotiate but what is far more important is the 11 groups present today and even more than that, the student movement. If the students come out to stand in solidarity with the workers in boycotting classes, the strike will end quickly. I think that's why today's meeting is so important and now we need to take it to the students to let them know that we are doing this for them too.

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  1. Posted by: Michael Reid on Feb 12, 2008 @ 1:14pm

    Many would like students to believe that the key issue is finding a balance between the quality of education offered, as determined by the faculty salary, and the accessibility of the education, determined by the tuition fees for students. This paradigm totally side steps two important factors to be considered.
    1. The provincial and federal governments grossly under fund our current public post-secondary education system.
    2. By redirecting existing funds, we can both reduce tuition fees and increase faculty pensions. What are the salaries/pensions for the administration?
    Largely as a result of poor government funding, corporations are working their way deeper and deeper into many of the classrooms and curriculums, jeopardizing the quality and morals of the University. The more our Universities rely on private, corporate funding, the closer they resemble corporate think tanks and marketing research centers. Meanwhile, in 2006 the Conservatives set aside $1.1 billion as part of a five-year plan of spending $5.3 billion on Canadian military. A year before that the Liberal government promised almost $13 billion increase in military spending over five years.
    As students and Canadians we need to raise our voices.

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