Talk about union pensions usually brings out two reactions — the people who say that unions need to be done away with entirely and those who think they need to be supported further. This debate has been ongoing since the beginning of unions.
Recently, the Alberta government has been looking to reduce the pensions of Alberta Union of Provincial Employees members. AUPE is the local union which backs around 4,200 support staff at the university.
Now lowly university student you might be thinking, what does this have to do with me? You worry about actually getting a job after graduation, let alone what benefits (if any) you’ll have. Retirement is a long way off and probably further than you think because the baby boomers already ruined what chance you have of retiring in 45 years with a pension. What you might not know that this university is run partly on the work of support staff who help us students go about our daily routines. People at the registrar’s office, the academic departments and caretakers services all play an important role in our experience here.
Yes, I’m sure you could complain about a staff member who was cranky or unhelpful one day, but for the most part, these are people who enjoy working with students and are mostly underappreciated.
On Feb. 24, the government of Alberta announced changes to the Public Service Pension Plan which AUPE works under. The changes are scheduled for 2016 and won’t affect benefits earned before then. Current retirees living off the program won’t be affected. The government is saying there isn’t a benefit to retiring early before the changes take place. The government says that the core of the program is not changing — only the add-on benefits will be tweaked.
However, union officials disagree with this claim. The age at which certain benefits kick in is increasing by five years. Annual increases to the plan will not be guaranteed and will depend on the perceived financial stability of the program.
Alberta public servants held rallies at 30 locations in the province on March 20, including here at the U of C. Union officials say that the changes are being imposed unilaterally by the province. AUPE is saying that the changes will drastically hurt pensions, and current employees will have to change their retirement plans.
Now I’m sure you’ve all heard this narrative before. Unions want to keep the benefits which they believe are sustainable and governments or businesses don’t want to keep paying their portion. I’m sure the latest exchange is not going to change your mind on the value or lack thereof of pension benefits. However, you should keep in mind the number of support staff who work here at the university and how contributions that we don’t even notice keep the the university functioning. Consider being more sympathetic when a staff member seems to be having a bad day.
We could also take a leaf out of the union members’ book because when the government cuts their benefits, they rally even in horrible winter weather. Students have a way of not caring about what the government is doing to our funding, and no student rally has made news recently. So let’s support our support staff because they will stand up and fight for what they want, and because one day, we just might be one of them.