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Carleton CUPE 2424 workers strike to protect their pensions

By Rick Telfer

Around 850 administrative, technical and library workers at Carleton University began picketing at campus entrances on Mar. 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 Jul. 2017. Negotiations with the university administration broke off early in the morning of Mar. 5. 

Picket line at Bronson entrance, Mar. 14 Credit: Rick Telfer

In a statement released by CUPE on Mar. 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.”

A collective agreement details terms and conditions of employment for unionized workers and their employer. It replaces individual employment contracts and is negotiated on behalf of workers by their union representatives — the process known as collective bargaining.

On Mar. 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.

The university administration’s Mar. 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 Mar. 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 Mar. 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 Feb. 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 Mar. 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 Mar. 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 Mar. 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 Mar. 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.

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 Mar. 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 Mar. 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 Mar. 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 Mar. 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.”

The steady inflow of support seems to have nudged the university administration back into talks with the union.

On Mar. 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.

But as the strike entered its third week on Mar. 19, both the university administration and the union announced that talks had broken off again. The university administration reported on Twitter that the parties had met for 14 hours on Mar. 18 with the assistance of a mediator but “they were unable to reach an agreement.”

The union had also posted an update to Twitter: “The negotiating team worked extremely hard at the bargaining table with sincere efforts to find acceptable solutions for both parties, but our employer still refuses to negotiate in any meaningful way.”

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 6 (Mar/Apr 2018).

“Discrimination towards Indigenous youth has to end”: Marchers confront RCMP after eight-kilometre justice march

By Andy Crosby

Dozens of students participated in an eight-kilometre march from Carleton University to RCMP headquarters on the Vanier Parkway on March 9 to demand justice for murdered Indigenous youth.

The rally, which began in the university atrium, was prompted by the recent hit-and-run of 22-year-old Brady Francis from the Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick on Feb. 24. 

Summer-Harmony Twenish, a queer Algonquin Anishinabekwe from Kitigan Zibi and art history student minoring in Indigenous Studies, addresses the rally in the Carleton atrium. Credit: Vincent St.Martin

Summer-Harmony Twenish, a queer Algonquin Anishinabekwe from Kitigan Zibi and art history student minoring in Indigenous Studies, addresses the rally in the Carleton atrium.
Credit: Vincent St.Martin

“When Brady was killed it shook me up. It was difficult to be away from the community,” said Carolyn Simon, a Carleton student from Elsipogtog who helped organize the rally. “This was happening during the Tina Fontaine and Colten Boushie verdicts, and it pained me to think that this might happen to one of my fellow community members.”

“I wanted to bring the #JusticeForBrady movement to Ottawa, also not forgetting the other murdered Indigenous youth,” she told The Leveller.

The students blocked the road for hours, causing delays in the afternoon commute. Their aim was to exert pressure on the RCMP to avoid a repeat of injustice dealt to the families following the acquittals of Gerald Stanley in the murder case of 22-year-old Colten Boushie from the Red Pheasant First Nation in Saskatchewan and Raymond Cormier in the case of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine from the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba.

The driver of a GMC truck fled the scene after striking Francis in Saint-Charles, N. B., just north of Elsipogtog, while Francis waited for a drive home. The RCMP seized a truck on Feb. 25 as part of the ongoing investigation, but no arrests have been made, according to a news release dated Feb. 27.

“The purpose of the rally was to put pressure on the RCMP to progress in the investigation of Brady Francis’ death,” said Simon. “Also, to tell them that the discrimination towards Indigenous youth has to end [because] so many Indigenous people are unfairly killed and nothing comes of the investigations; the suspect ends up being found not guilty.”

A small group, including Simon and Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail from Attawapiskat First Nation, approached a group of officers standing on the driveway closer to the RCMP headquarters. The exchange was filmed by Trycia Bazinet, a PhD student in the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies.

“We have walked for eight kilometres to this place just to show you that we are willing to travel great lengths,” said Simon. “We are here to deliver a list of demands so that one day Indigenous youth will finally face justice, and that we will not be overrepresented in jails and we will not be failed by the judicial system any more.”

Wabano-Iahtail demanded that the officer who received the demands, identified in a Facebook post as an Inspector Cooper, read them aloud.

The Leveller obtained a copy of the demands, which read:

  1. We demand the RCMP continues to work on the case of Brady Francis and ensures to treat it with the utmost fairness. Treat this case the same as you would for a deceased white person or a family member. We demand that the family be treated with respect and care. We demand the RCMP maintain their professionality always, treating evidence with confidentiality and making sure that it is not altered in any way.
  2. On a broader scale, we demand that the RCMP confronts racism towards Indigenous Peoples and people of colour, and aims to do better. We demand that the RCMP begins anti-racist and anti-oppression training for all of its staff. This includes a portion on the history of the RCMP and why it was created in Canada, including its role in carrying out the colonial project. The RCMP must implement disciplinary actions in the event of racism towards Indigenous folks.
  3. We demand that the RCMP becomes aware that each territory under “their” jurisdiction is Indigenous land. These lands are governed by the legal orders of the original Nations of Turtle Island. The police institution needs to learn about these legal orders and it needs to start respecting them and consult with Knowledge Holders, Medicine Bundle Holders, and Language Speakers when appropriate. The RCMP needs to be aware that there are alternatives to policing here.

“As the colonial state police you have failed us, you have failed our families. You have failed the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the missing and murdered Indigenous men and boys,” Wabano-Iahtail told the group of officers. “You have not respected our treaties, our friendship, our peace, our respect. You have violated our laws.”

“I am holding you responsible for your injustices that you have brought here on our lives,” she said.

After the group dispersed, some participants returned to campus to partake in a solidarity rally being held for striking CUPE 2424 workers (see page 1). Bazinet told The Leveller that the organizers took the strike into consideration when planning the march, that they “chose a route so as to not disrupt the picket line.”

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 6 (Mar/Apr 2018).

All Out For Abdoul: Abdi Supporters Demand Government Intervention to Stop Deportation Proceedings

By Andy Crosby

Various migrant justice groups organized a national day of action on March 6 to stop the deportation of Abdoul Abdi.

Supporters of Abdi held a press conference outside of Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s office at 269 Laurier Avenue West as strong winds gusted through Ottawa’s downtown core. 

Credit: Aditya Rao

Credit: Aditya Rao

“We are gathered here today to offer our community’s support here in Ottawa for Abdoul Abdi as he prepares for his hearing on admissibility to Canada on March 7,” said Bilan Arte, who identifies as a member of the Black and Somali community in Ottawa.

The action was organized to express support for Abdoul Abdi and his family, and to call on the Canadian government to intervene to stop the deportation proceedings.

“As part of a tri-city action, supporters are gathering today in Halifax, Ottawa and Toronto to demonstrate our love and ongoing support for Abdoul and for many other young people who lack citizenship as a result of negligence from Canadian child welfare services,” said Arte. “We are here to show our federal government… that Abdoul Abdi is not alone, that this government can and must step in to stop the deportation and that we as a community will not waver in our fight for his rights.”

Arte explained that Abdi came to Canada as a government-sponsored refugee at the age of six and that shortly thereafter he and his sister were taken from the family into custody by the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services.

Now 24, Abdi spent the rest of his childhood in government care. While they shuffled him between 31 foster homes, Community Services never applied for his citizenship.

“Like so many children who are taken into care, Abdoul became involved in the criminal justice system,” said Arte. “He served time in prison and the government’s current attempt to deport him represents a double punishment that a citizen would not face,” adding that, “Canada’s immigration system is in need of serious overhaul.”

Arte laid out a number of steps that the Canadian government could take to intervene and stop Abdi’s deportation – as well as to reform the immigration and child welfare system that discriminates against racialized youth.

In particular, Arte implored Goodale to temporarily pause the deportation hearing so that Abdi doesn’t lose permanent resident status while pursuing his ongoing court challenge. Otherwise  Abdi will lose access to health care and employment. Arte explained that Goodale has the power to temporarily withdraw the request for a deportation hearing, since no evidence had been accepted into the proceedings by the Immigration and Refugee Board.

The ministry could also ask the immigration division to postpone the deportation hearing until the case is heard by the Federal Court, said Arte.

On March 6, the Federal Court decided to hear Abdi’s case, and set a court date in May.

The following day, on March 7, the Immigration and Refugee Board adjourned the deportation hearing until March 21. This was to allow for time to decide whether or not to further postpone the hearing, to allow for the Federal Court case.

Abdi’s Halifax lawyer Ben Perryman told CBC News the Federal Court could consider other aspects of Abdi’s case outside the scope of the Immigration and Refugee Board, including his experience in Nova Scotia’s child welfare system, as well as the bleak prospects of his return to Somalia.

At the press conference, Indigenous activist Jocelyn Wabano-Iahtail referenced the tragic death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, who was also in the care of the “child welfare industry.”

“Child welfare has been consistently, holistically negligent in the care of our Indigenous and Black children,” she said. “The colonial legal system is not one to be hearing cases and delivering verdicts when it is incapable of living and breathing justice.”

Abdi’s supporters are calling for systemic changes, including modifying the Citizenship Act to make it easier for children in government care to apply for citizenship. They also say better training and resources should be provided to child welfare workers responsible for applying for the citizenship of those in their care.

According to Arte, the Canadian government could also modify guidelines to clarify and consider international human rights law when deciding to deport a long-time permanent resident. A person’s experience as a permanent ward of the state should be a significant factor that weighs heavily against deportation as well, Arte argues.

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 6 (Mar/Apr 2018).

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