Faculty and administration call for help in negotiations
The Dalhousie Faculty Association (DFA) has called for conciliation in their ongoing contract negotiations with the university’s Board of Governors. The provincial government has appointed John A. Greer from the Department of Labour and Advanced Education to mediate between the two sides’ bargaining teams.
The DFA represents over 800 members of faculty, including professional librarians and members of faculty from all of Dal’s departments. The previous contract expired in June.
DFA president Anthony Stewart says the 40 hours of meetings thus far have accomplished “shockingly little.” He says the Board of Governors and administration are “not as seriously engaged with the non-monetary issues as they should be.”
Parental leave and other benefits are “important on a day to day basis” to the faculty, he says, but neglected by the administration. Although some informal programs have arisen in various departments to address specific issues, Stewart says the DFA would like these codified “for equality’s sake.”
At the start of the bargaining process both sides agreed to tackle non-monetary issues, such as child care and paternity leave, before moving onto the financial ones. However, Stewart says the administration now refuses to address those concerns before the problems surrounding the governance of the Dalhousie Pension Plan are addressed.
This move, he says, has “hamstrung negotiations.” The Pension Plan serves over 3,000 full-time and part-time members of university faculty, and is currently underfunded and insolvent. The plan cannot fully cover its payments, and as the sole sponsor of the plan, Dal is responsible for the difference.
This ‘going concern’ test is one of two ways to evaluate the health of the Pension Plan, the second being a solvency test. If the university were to close tomorrow, the plan would be unable to meet its obligations, and would face a $270 million shortfall.
Currently, the university is exempt from making solvency payments to address the problem, but that temporary exemption runs out in 2013. By law, the university will then be required to pay $72 million per year into the plan, amounting to 32 per cent of Dal’s annual payroll costs, says Jasmine Walsh, chief negotiator for the university.
Both the DFA and the administration have lobbied the provincial government for a permanent blanket exemption from solvency tests, arguing that it is extremely unlikely Dal will shut down. Similar exemptions for universities are common throughout the country.
The provincial government has indicated it would be willing to grant such an exemption, says Walsh, but only if the plan is jointly sponsored. Under that structure, plan members would be partially responsible for benefits and liabilities of the plan, as well as its governance. In that case, the plan’s ongoing deficit would likely be covered in part by increased contributions from its members, or by a change in the benefit structure.
Kevin Grundy, the chief negotiator for the DFA, says in a newsletter that “there is no reason that a solvency exemption cannot be applied” to the pension plan in its present, sole-sponsored form, and that the DFA has “at no point” ruled out the possibility of increased contributions to address the plan’s deficit. However, Walsh says the administration wants to move to a jointly sponsored system in order to “achieve a sustainable defined benefit pension plan.”
Walsh says this is a question of fiscal sustainability, and of the sustainable and stable governance of the plan. Although the board of governors has put their “cards on the table,” says Walsh, a specific proposal has not yet been made to the DFA.
Stewart says they don’t want people to worry about the call for conciliation. “And we certainly don’t want students to worry,” he adds. Walsh says that conciliation is a “normal part of the bargaining process,” and that the two sides are not at an impasse.
But Stewart says it is a shame to call for conciliation again, and that the university has had a poor track record in labour negotiations. He says that the “common denominator” amongst the various faculty groups is that they feel they are “not being valued for what we do.” Morale is “disturbingly low around here,” says Stewart.