Features  Unions fight for benefits

Facing deficit, administration tries to roll back the safety net

A s the first year of the financial crisis draws to a close, the unions on McGill’s campus are gearing up for what 2010 will bring, and reflecting on the impacts of the University’s budgetary reform and deficit-reduction on their respective groups.

The unions affected by McGill’s budgetary rollback are the Association of Graduate Students Employed at McGill (AGSEM), the McGill University Non-Academic Certified Association (MUNACA), the McGill University Non-Academic Staff Association (MUNASA), and the McGill Association of University Teachers (MAUT).

Most recently, union representatives from MAUT, MUNACA, and MUNASA have been in a process of recommendation and discussion with the administration, through the Staff Benefits Advisory Committee (SBAC), regarding the $1 million in cuts that needed to be made to the employee health benefit plan as a part of the new University budget released last May.

This comes after the May 2009 delay of staff pay raises to MUNACA, MUNASA, AGSEM, and MAUT, and the finalization of the $1 million cut to the benefits plan. These raises were meant to come in January of 2010 and last until June of 2010 – with no retroactive compensation.

After nearly six months of discussion, the unions on campus have arrived at a stand still, of sorts. The decision has already been handed down that salary increases will be delayed until June of 2010, and MUNACA had in fact already integrated that provision into their collective agreement last spring.

According to Associate Vice-Principal of Human Resources Lynne Gervais, the $1 million in benefit cuts announced in the University Budget Book 2009-2010 last May have also been made, as of October 20, when it was decided that the monies would come from employer premium contributions.

Gervais characterized the resolution of these discussions as positive, saying that while it was difficult to reach a unanimous agreement, the cuts had to be made.

She also explained that the final decision and official recommendations were not made by SBAC but by the administration and the Task Force on Economic Uncertainty – a body created last spring to make cuts in the University’s budget in hopes of shrinking its $17-million deficit.

Speaking with Kevin Whittaker, the president of MUNACA, I got a different picture.

According to Whittaker, the unions intended to go into the SBAC discussion with recommendations to modify their coverage to “make their plan more healthy” and sustainable, not to cut employer contributions and premiums – which was the ultimate result.

The unions unanimously decided that they would not compromise on several issues, including the increase of out-of-pocket expenses for medical coverage, and any renegotiation or redefinition of their dental plan.

In the end, however, the University disregarded the wishes of the union members, and proposed a plan that will significantly increase costs for its employees.

First, prescription drug coverage thresholds went from $150 for a single individual to $500, and from $300 for a family to $1,000. This means that in any fiscal year, the unions’ health insurance policies will only cover costs in excess of those amounts.

This is especially damaging, Whittaker said, to single mothers who are union members. He said that he has received many calls from families, asking him how employees are expected to cover an extra $700 in expenses every year for something that, for many, is a necessary service. The plan has also seen a reduction in paramedical benefits, which include services such as massage therapy, physiotherapy, and acupuncture.

Whittaker is not happy with the changes.

“[They are] totally unacceptable. It’s penalizing the low-income and those that require a lot of mediation. There were other ways that we could have achieved savings perfectly equal to what they’ve already proposed,” he said.

With regard to the dental plan, it was determined that after 2011 all retirees will no longer receive post-employment dental insurance, a service which Whittaker said many older and long-term employees rely on, especially when their income is reduced.

“It’s outrageous,” Whittaker said. “They’re screaming they have no money and we all know that can’t be true with the wages that are going out to the upper management.”

MUNACA has been in a constant game of touch-and-go with the University since 2002, when their collective agreement with McGill from 2001 was set to expire.

Throughout 2003, during negotiations, and again in 2008, when the next collective agreement expired, McGill developed a habit of delaying these negotiations, pushing MUNACA to demonstrate against the University at least seven times since 2002 – with the majority of these demonstrations being held in the past year alone.

The demonstrations were and remain a tactic used by MUNACA to resist the University’s reluctance to come into agreements with MUNACA, instead handing down decisions that do not meet the union’s requests. Changes to the union’s collective agreement, which were only reached after the union compromised on its demands, included salary increases that were still lower than those of all workers throughout Quebec, equitable provision of vacation days – especially during holidays – and receipt of missing retroactive pay.

In that finalized collective agreement, which was voted in last March, was also the currently contested delay in salary increase, a provision that many MUNACA members, according to Whittaker, did not understand the implications of.

McGill’s attempts to downsize these benefits plans have left an especially bitter taste in the mouths of union members following last year’s revelation that McGill has a policy of paying its senior administrators hefty severance packages when they leave the University. That year, McGill also created eight new administrator positions that pay over $100,000 each.

While creating these new high-profile, high-paying positions and theoretically creating a desirable work environment, McGill is simultaneously not only reducing employee benefits across the board, but cutting employment back in some areas.

“I don’t see how they expect the few members that are still working in the student area to maintain the same level of service. There’s no relief in sight,” said Whittaker.

And he’s right: our library services are stretched too thin T one of the busiest times of the year, an already notorious McGill bureaucracy is more sloth than ever, and student services are put under pressure as H1N1 diminishes an already-dwindling staff capacity.

Something, clearly, needs to change.

On a micro level, there can be reform to the mechanisms by which McGill relates to its employees. Whittaker suggested that the SBAC lose the “A” and become a real committee, where decisions are made by the people that they affect most.

Lerona Lewis, the AGSEM president, wrote in an email to The Daily, “As a labour organization, we believe that a University in which the Administration respects the rights of student workers is critical to the life of the university. A university where negotiations are conducted fairly, where management is willing to work honestly to ensure that all student workers are adequately compensated for their role as teaching assistants, research assistants, invigilators or grade-makers is the university that we would like to have.”

“We would like to see a little more transparency from the University,” Whittaker later added. “We used to be more of a collegial community, and now we just seem to be a corporate community, where all the decisions are made, and we are left to deal with it. Unilateral decisions erode the trust we have for [the administration].”