This bulletin is a follow up to last week’s update about the negotiations between the Central Administration and the Support Staff of the University of Ottawa (SSUO). The APUO has strongly expressed its disagreement with the Central Administration’s decision to request a final offer vote with the Minister of Labour, Training and Skills Development. The exceptional circumstances in which we find ourselves should not be used to push SSUO members to accept an unfair deal.
The outcomes of this negotiation may prove to be precedent-setting and have severe ripple effects on the working conditions of the other bargaining units. With this in mind, we want to share with you the issues that have halted negotiations between the SSUO and the Central Administration, and their potential implications for the APUO’s next round of collective bargaining starting in January 2021.
Wage increases capped at 1 percent
Following exchanges between the two parties, in May 2019, the Central Administration proposed a wage increase offer of 1.25 percent, 2 percent, and 2 percent over three years. This is funding for which the Central Administration had budgeted and could afford. However, once Bill 124 (the Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act) was tabled at Queen’s Park in June, the Central Administration reduced its monetary offer to an annual 1 percent wage increase for three years. Bearing in mind that the cost of living increases by approximately 2 percent each year, the revised offer of the Central Administration represents a wage loss for SSUO members.
Contrary to the widely held view that the Protecting a Sustainable Public Sector for Future Generations Act prevents the Central Administration from proposing a monetary offer that would increase SSUO wages by more than 1 percent, the legislation contains provisions allowing public sector employers to request exemptions from the 1 percent wage increase cap. The Act’s Explanatory Note reads:
“The Minister is given the authority to make regulations specifying that the Act does not apply to an employer, or to employees, or classes of employees. The Minister may also exempt a collective agreement from the application of the Act by regulations”.
To date, the Central Administration has refused to explore the possibility of applying for an exemption for the SSUO bargaining unit, and has declined other SSUO proposals that could offset potential lost wages under the legislation. It appears The Central Administration is emboldened by this new legislation to reject compromises that could deliver a fair deal for SSUO members.
As we look ahead to our own collective bargaining in the coming months, we find the Central Administration’s approach very concerning.
SSUO members have a stronger overall health benefits package than APUO members. Indeed, they are the only unionized University of Ottawa employees to have maintained 100 percent reimbursement coverage for medications. The Central Administration now wants to bring these SSUO benefits in line with those of other bargaining units by reducing them to 80 percent of medication costs while failing to acknowledge other employment variables with which SSUO members must contend, including lower wages.
Before every round of collective bargaining, the APUO and the Central Administration jointly commission a study to analyze our benefits and measure them with a comparator group of universities (Carleton, McMaster, Queen’s, Guelph, Waterloo, Western, Windsor, and York). Prior to 2016, APUO members had 100% health and dental coverage. Throughout every round of collective bargaining since then the APUO has consistently attempted to regain this level of coverage. In our 2018 round of collective bargaining the University of Ottawa ranked:
- Between 7th & 8th for Health Care Coverage as a whole (pre-retirement, including vision, hearing, and dental);
- Below 8th rank for Dental Coverage on its own;
- Below 8th rank for Post-retirement Health Care; and
- Below 8th rank for All Health Care (pre- and post-retirement)
It is worth noting that the ‘below 8th rank’ reflects the finding that the benefits received by APUO members are so far below those offered at the universities comprising the comparator group that the University of Ottawa fell out of the 1 to 8 ranking margins established by the study.
Our University’s benefits ranking speaks for itself. Throughout the 2019 APUO Listening Tour, our Strategic Thinking and Action Forums (STAF), and in our Virtual Coffee Hours held earlier this spring, members have consistently expressed concerns about our limited health and dental benefits. Should the SSUO lose their current health benefits as a result of the Central Administration’s request for a final offer vote, it will become very difficult for the APUO and other bargaining units at the University of Ottawa to successfully negotiate improvements to health benefits.
In keeping with the Central Administration’s identification of health and wellness as a top priority for our institution, negotiating health benefits should be both understood and viewed as an opportunity to support the improved overall health and wellness of our community rather than a race to the bottom.
Included among the Central Administration’s proposals to the SSUO is an effort to eliminate the retirement allowance for all new hires. This would in effect introduce an “orphan clause” creating two classes of SSUO members, and further undermines the SSUO’s bargaining strength in future negotiations. In 2013, the Central Administration tried to eliminate the retirement allowance for new APUO members, a proposition that was rejected. It seems highly plausible that, were the SSUO to lose this benefit, the Central Administration will likely attempt to also roll back this benefit for other bargaining units, including our own.
In 2017, the federal government introduced changes to the Employment Insurance (EI) legislation, bringing down the waiting period to receive EI premiums from two weeks to one week. Like APUO members, SSUO members receive a salary top-up for maternity, pregnancy, or parental/adoption leaves. The shortened wait time to receive EI premiums means that the Central Administration saves 55 percent of the salary of a member on maternity, pregnancy, or parental/adoption leave for one additional week. However, the Central Administration is refusing to reinvest these savings to pay SSUO members up to 100 percent of their salaries, or to offer any other benefits when they take these leaves. For members opting to take an extended parental or adoption leave, the Central Administration is looking to reduce its Supplementary Employment Benefits by 21.7 percent.
It is widely recognized and acknowledged that there are short and long-term inequities for those who take maternity, pregnancy, or parental/adoption leaves. Many women must contend with financial setbacks that have lasting impacts when they relinquish a percentage of their salary to take maternal or parental leave. Furthermore, many women remain primary caregivers beyond the period of their leave, often at the expense of their careers and, this too comes at a financial cost.
Maintaining a competitive maternal/parental leave for University employees is a matter of gender equity. We are troubled to see the Central Administration attempt to claw back a benefit designed to provide more equitable working conditions for employees with familial responsibilities. It would set a very damaging precedent that would directly impact collective bargaining with other unions on campus were the Central Administration to succeed in its efforts to claw back advances aimed at fostering greater gender equity.
In September 2019, Jacques Frémont sent a communication to our University community about a $91.8 million-dollar surplus of revenues over expenses. In his message, he identified “delays in hiring” as a contributing factor to this financial surplus. According to an SSUO calculation made by multiplying the number of positions left vacant for more than 90 days by their average salary ($55 000) the University has saved over $3.9 million in SSUO wages in the last year. To put this number in perspective, the total salary mass of SSUO members is around $92 million.
In contrast to the Central Administration who seemingly views postponing the filling of vacant SSUO positions as an opportunity for financial savings, the SSUO and the APUO view these vacant posts as services non-rendered to our community. These vacancies download additional workload burdens onto other SSUO members and APUO members alike. As our members are all too well aware, the APUO has long been advocating for SSUO vacancies to be rapidly filled.
The Central Administration’s refusal to commit to filling SSUO vacancies at the bargaining table may be a sign that the ongoing pressures felt by both SSUO and APUO members regarding our workloads and working conditions are likely to persist. The myriad negative consequences flowing from the failure to fill SSUO vacancies is a frequent and repeated concern raised by APUO members.
We call on our members to join the APUO Executive Committee in expressing solidarity with SSUO members. As expressed to President Frémont in our most recent letter of support for the SSUO, members of the support staff are colleagues with whom we work every day. We all know how excellent, professional, dedicated, and essential they are in the execution of our University’s mandate. Their work should be recognized with fair compensation, comprehensive benefits, and great respect. As SSUO members await a date for a vote on the Central Administration’s final offer, we encourage APUO members to express their support and solidarity for the SSUO by tweeting at @psuossuo, by sending email messages to SSUO members they know, and by bringing back the #Respect hashtag used during our last round of collective bargaining on twitter.