Saskatoon

U of S employee pension plan debate heats up, strike possible in April

There may not be a strike at the University of Saskatchewan in the next week or so, but CUPE Local 1975 leadership says it could be on the horizon.

A strike is unlikely to happen before April, but CUPE Local 1975 reps say the union is prepared

Craig Hannah speaks to a packed classroom of CUPE Local 1975 members at the University of Saskatchewan. (Bridget Yard/ CBC)

There may not be a strike at the University of Saskatchewan in the next week or so, but CUPE Local 1975 leadership says it could be on the horizon.

The union, which represents approximately approximately 1950 non-academic employees who work in facility or operational services, said Tuesday that outstanding issues include employee wages and their pension plan.

"Our contract expired at the end of 2015. It's been over three years," said Local 1975 president Craig Hannah,

The union is asking the U of S Board of Governors and president Peter Stoicheff to meet and discuss bargaining. The request has been denied several times, Hannah said, though negotiators have agreed to meet again.

Let's get the people that are willing and able to make those decisions come and have discussions with us at the table.- Craig Hannah, CUPE Local 1975 president

Pension plan at issue

The biggest sticking point in the talks, which have been happening since the contract expired over two years ago, is the employee pension plan.

According to CUPE, the university would like to eliminate the current pension plan, which university representatives have characterized as too expensive.

CUPE national representative Ann Iwanchuk speaks to Local 1975 members about contract negotiations between the union and the University of Saskatchewan (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

A previous proposal from CUPE described a jointly-sponsored plan, which the union has said would save the university money.

Other options, such as a target benefit plan, have been presented by the university.

That option would cap the money the U of S invests into the plan, whereas with the current defined benefit plan, the university must make up any funding shortfalls.

An emailed statement from Gord Hunchak, the university's chief communications officer, said the U of S has been working for a decade to find a "financially sustainable solution to the pension plan."

"In the event of CUPE 1975 taking job action, the university will remain open and classes will continue, and it will be our priority to minimize any disruption to our students and ensure the health and safety of our campus community," the email said.

It also said the university has been "more than willing to resume negotiations."

Hannah said the union wants to speak to the U of S president and the Board of Governors.

"Let's get the people that are willing and able to make those decisions come and have discussions with us at the table," said Hannah.

Other unions on campus, including the Administrative and Supervisory Personnel Association (ASPA), have thrown their support behind CUPE Local 1975. A representative from the ASPA told a classroom full of CUPE workers Tuesday afternoon that they had already told administration not to ask them to perform the duties of CUPE staff in the event of a strike.

Strike potential, but not for weeks

Craig Hannah told reporters Tuesday that if CUPE Local 1975 workers do strike, "we don't want to disrupt anything," and that the issue is with the university, not the students. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Hannah said the union won't strike until at least April and that several things would have to happen before that point.

CUPE and the University of Saskatchewan will be waiting to hear results from an Essential Services Tribunal which will weigh on whether or not the university is a public employer and whether the unionized employees provide an essential service.

There is also a matter before the Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board, unrelated to the bargaining process. The union can't legally take job action before it's resolved. The university has until March 1 to respond to the issue.

"We have to go through those legal options first knowing that there's going to be a period of at least a few weeks before any potential job action," Hannah said to reporters after the packed union meeting.

The last time CUPE Local 1975 employees walked the picket line was in 2007. That strike lasted a month.

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