Essential Services Tribunal Hearing Update

cupe1975Bargaining Updates, Negotiations/Bargaining

The Essential Services Tribunal hearing commenced on March 26-28.  During those three days, testimony was provided by five of the ten employer witnesses.  We are in the process of setting additional dates to continue the hearing.  Once the University’s witnesses are finished, CUPE will submit its evidence.  We will continue to update you throughout the process.



cupe1975Negotiations/Bargaining, Pensions


The University is offering a “competitive pension plan”                                                                                                                   


The University has offered two different pension plans (Defined Contribution or Target Benefit) that share the same basic legal structure. In both proposed plans: 1) the University bears no risks and 2) plan members bear all of the risks. This is a complete change from your current DB plan, which provides secure, promised pension benefits that members can count on through their entire retirement. The University says they do not want any pension risk. They would prefer to see plan members with no real pension security, where your life in retirement will be tied to the whims of the stock and bond markets. These insecure types of pensions are not in any way comparable to the current DB plan.

Upending the structure of the plan is apparently not enough, however. In both scenarios, the University also proposes lower contribution rates, which would save the University millions of dollars per year. For the average CUPE 1975 member, the employer would save about $2000 per year! (in addition to dumping all of the pension risk onto plan members).

Roughly speaking, the “Target” benefit option actually aims to deliver about 25% less than your current DB plan does! And since the benefits are not promised like your DB benefits are, you may very well receive less than this. It’s all up to the markets and if you happen to work and retire at the “right” time.

The DC option is even worse. We can’t say what it will deliver compared to the DB plan, since the benefits here are wholly dependent on market returns. This uncertainty is exactly why we don’t like DC plans. Given the contribution rates and the structure of the plan, the proposed DC plan is probably worth some 40-50% less than the DB plan you currently have.

Complete risk shifting, massive cost savings and huge reductions in benefit value do not result in a “competitive” pension plan to your current DB plan!

Current Defined Benefit (DB) Defined Contribution (DC) Target Benefit (TB)
Ongoing Cost to University (as % of Payroll) 11.37% 6.82% 7.5%
Annual University Savings (as % of Payroll) N/A 4.55% 3.87%
Annual University Savings (for an average CUPE member salary $50,000) N/A $2275 $1935


cupe1975Negotiations/Bargaining, Pensions


“This pension plan is in a deficit and running an annual shortfall”


After nine years of being in deficit, the interim 2017 valuation revealed that the plan is now back in surplus (103% funded, $12 million surplus) on the actuary’s best estimate basis. If a 5% funding buffer (or “margin”) is added to artificially inflate the plan’s liabilities, the plan has a very slight deficit (98% funded). In either case, the funding level has improved materially over the past decade.

Virtually all pension plans fell into deficit after the 2009 financial crisis – the worst market crisis since the Great Depression. Our plan fell to a low funding level of 86% in 2011. The important point is that the plan has been steadily improving its funding level since this low point. The existence of a deficit in any given year does not mean the plan is broken or in crisis. The pension system is designed to bring plans back into balance over time.

The plan is also not “running an annual shortfall.” This suggests that the required contributions to the plan are not being made and that the plan has a structural funding problem. This is not the case. The “annual shortfall” the University refers to here seems to be a reference to the fact that the University contributes more than members do for the ongoing cost of the plan. The legal plan document says that members pay 8.5% of earnings into the plan, and that the employer must pay the remaining required contributions to the plan (and must at least match what members put into the plan). Currently, the ongoing cost of the plan is 19.87%. Members pay 8.5%, leaving the University to pay the remaining 11.37%. The University calls the difference between the member and employer rates (11.37% – 8.5% = 2.87%) an “annual shortfall.” There is no legal or actuarial principle that says that employers and members must equally share the ongoing cost of the plan. Our plan text does not say that members must pay the same as the employer. It is quite common for member contribution obligations to be fixed, as ours is, leaving the employer responsible to fund the remainder, which is often a larger amount, again, as it is in our plan currently.

So this is not an “annual shortfall.” All of the required annual contributions to the plan are being made. The language used has likely been chosen (and left unexplained) by the University to advance their bargaining agenda: to convince you that your pension plan has a structural problem that does not really exist. This being said, we understand that the Employer does not like the fact that they currently contribute more to the plan than members do. Our pension proposal would reduce member benefits slightly on a go-forward basis and increase member contributions slightly to eliminate this differential. Ongoing costs would then be shared 50/50 in our proposal (eliminating what they call the “annual shortfall”). The University rejected this proposal.



cupe1975Negotiations/Bargaining, Pensions


“These significant additional contributions are expected to continue into the future under the pension’s current structure”


This is not true. The most recent actuarial report shows that University contributions have already come down significantly, with further reductions projected for the coming years. For example, in 2017, the employer required contribution to the plan was 16.14% of payroll. In 2018, the rate has fallen significantly to 12.84%. The rate is projected to be 12.05% in 2023 and then 11.37% in 2027 on wards. The Union’s pension proposal, which the University rejected, would bring this rate down even further to about 9%.


Labour Relations Board Update!


Labour Relations Board Update!

The Saskatchewan Labour Relations Board has ruled that CUPE Local 1975 is allowed to withdraw from the Scope application, LRB File No. 120-12. This removes one of our legal barriers to taking job action.

The Union  will be in front of the Essential Services Tribunal on March 26-28. CUPE’s position is that the University of Saskatchewan does not meet the criteria of an essential services employer under the Saskatchewan Employment Act. We will update you after the hearing concludes.

The parties are returning to the bargaining table on April 5th to further discuss the union’s pension proposal.



cupe1975Negotiations/Bargaining, Pensions


“The university did not take a contribution holiday.”


The University took 17 years of partial contribution holidays between 1993-2009. The University is required to file papers with pension regulators each year, which clearly show these holidays. The Union has copies of all of these records.

During this period, the employer diverted funds from the pension fund surplus to reduce the contributions the University would have been otherwise required to make to the plan under provincial law. Members continued to pay their full contribution obligation under the plan each year. The University did match these member contributions but was required under the law and the terms of the plan to contribute more than members to fully fund the plan’s benefits. However, the University chose to fund these additional required contributions to the plan from the plan fund’s surplus, instead of making actual cash contributions to the plan. We call this a “partial contribution holiday.”

2009 Non-Academic Plan “Annual Information Return” was filed with provincial and federal regulators. Note $2,048,872 in “surplus” assets used to reduce the “required employer contributions”

In nominal terms, these 17 years of partial holidays totaled nearly $28 million. Accounting only for inflation, they would represent more than $36 million in today’s dollars. Accounting for lost investment returns that could have been realized on these contributions – had they been made – would push a total figure even higher.

It is also worth highlighting the 2009 partial holiday. The year after financial crisis (when the plan lost 16%) and the year after the last cost-of-living increases to retirees were delivered, the University used $2 million of plan surplus to cover a portion of its own contribution obligation (see above).

These decisions were not only unwise. The Union believes at least one and likely more of these holidays were illegal and violated the pension plan text. We have filed a grievance on this issue which we put into abeyance in a good faith effort to settle a collective agreement regarding pension.


The University has paid an “additional $29.8 million in contributions beyond normal contributions over the past decade ($3.1 million in 2018).”


The Union has always acknowledged the cost of these additional contributions, which were largely the result of the 2008-09 economic crisis, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. In this spirit, in the 2013-14 round of bargaining, the Union offered changes to the plan that would have seen Union members shouldering about half of the University’s special pension payment obligations – but the University rejected this proposal. And our current proposal would see any future deficits and pension costs shared on a 50/50 basis. This proposal was similarly rejected.

And, as we detail below, these additional contributions have come down significantly in the past year, with further reductions projected in the coming years.

The University should not be selective when discussing the plan’s history. To repeatedly only reference a challenging period following a historic economic downturn, when University contributions to the plan were higher than normal, is narrow and potentially misleading. The University should also speak about the 17 year period before the downturn, when the pension was in surplus and their contributions were reduced by using this surplus to take partial contribution holidays.

And we should also speak about a better future. The Union believes we should learn from this history and allow more plan surpluses to remain in the plan. This would allow future plan surpluses to function as a reserve against future downturns, in the hope of preventing future increases in contributions.



cupe1975Negotiations/Bargaining, Pensions


Public sector workers like University workers have “gold plated pensions”


The plan pays a modest average annual pension of $18,100.

The plan also does not provide guaranteed cost-of-living increases for retirees (also known as “indexation”). Indexation is provided on an ad hoc basis and has generally been delivered out of surplus, when surplus exists. As the cost of living increases each year, retirees under the plan do not know if their pension cheques will keep pace each year. The employer does not bear any pension liabilities associated with this risk. Pensioners have actually not seen an increase since 2008. Their pensions have since lost nearly 20% of their real value by not keeping pace with the rising cost of living. Most University plans in Canada offer better inflation protection.



cupe1975Negotiations/Bargaining, Pensions



The pension plan is not sustainable


Your pension plan is sustainable. Your plan is not broken, nor is it in crisis. Language like this is used by employers to convince you that we need to abandon the pension to save the pension. This is untrue ideological language that the Employer is using to advance their bargaining agenda of attacking your retirement.

  • Funding Level Improved. Like virtually all pension plans, your plan did fall into deficit following the global financial crisis of 2009 (the worst crisis since the Great Depression). This did not mean the plan was broken. The pension system is designed to bring plans back into balance over time. The plan’s funding health has since been steadily improving since the downturn, and the 2017 valuation shows that the plan is now back in a small surplus on the actuary’s best estimate.
  • University Costs Significantly Declining. The 2017 valuation also allowed University contributions to decline significantly in 2018, with further reductions projected in the coming years.
  • History of Plan Surpluses. The challenging period since 2009 follows a long period in which the pension plan was in surplus. As described in more detail below, the University used significant portions of this surplus to reduce their own contributions to the plan (“partial contribution holidays”).
  • Actuarial Basis Safer. Over the past decade, the University has accounted for the fact that Canadians are living (and will continue to live) longer and has made its actuarial assumptions more conservative, which lowers the risk of future deficits. These costs have already been factored into the plan.
  • CUPE 1975 Reasonable Pension Partner. CUPE 1975 has always recognized the fact that the period after the downturn required the University to make extra contributions to the plan. In this and the last round of bargaining, we offered changes to the plan that would have significantly mitigated these cost increases. These proposals were all rejected by the University. Our offer in the current round would ensure that the burden of any future downturns would be shared on a 50/50 basis, on top of reducing annual University costs by millions. The University has rejected this offer.
  • Solvency Funding Exemption. In 2013 the provincial government changed pension funding rules to exempt the University permanently from its “solvency” funding obligation, which makes the plan’s funding requirements much more stable over time, helping the University to fund the plan. CUPE publicly supported this exemption.
  • Pension Costs in Perspective. The University cites pension costs in the millions in the hopes that members will be convinced that abandoning the DB plan is necessary to the institution from a financial perspective. The University’s budget is about one billion dollars. The total cost of your plan to the University is not even 1% of the budget. The extra contributions the University has made to the plan over the past decade is an even smaller number. Our pension proposal would shave these fractions even further. The University can afford our modest DB plan.