In the News April 9
University of Alberta Staff Reach Settlement
New Contract Poisoned by Two-Tier Wage System
for New Sessionals
On March 2, the Association of Academic Staff of the University of Alberta (AASUA) announced that a majority of its 3,925 members had voted in favour of a mediated settlement, ending the possibility of a strike. In the spirit of solidarity, post-secondary educators are congratulating the AASUA on achieving a settlement. However, as even the AASUA publicly admits, there is one particular aspect of the March 2 agreement that has drawn a lot of fire from those in the post-secondary sector, including AASUA members themselves.
The contentious aspect is that the new contract creates a two-tier wage system for members of the Academic Teaching Staff (ATS) constituency of AASUA, currently made up of 880 sessionals who teach classes on contract. Any sessionals who have been or are currently working for University of Alberta will continue to be paid according to the old wage scale. They will be “grandfathered” in. But any hired subsequent to the March 2022 agreement will be paid based on the new scale which pays less than the existing scale.
The whole issue of two-tier wages has been and is being fought about in collective bargaining all over Canada and Quebec (where it is known as “orphan clause” bargaining). It is a divisive practice that is inherently concession bargaining. Eventually all workers in the bargaining unit will lose, including those still working and being paid on the “old” basis. A two-tier wage system is essentially a rollback because in the long run through attrition every existing employee will be “new” and will end up working at the lower rate, erasing years of hard work by union members to improve their wages and working conditions.
Another major danger is that two-tier offers commonly include concessions related not only to wages but also to benefits. The new wage system for new hires will likely offer a poorer benefits package to go along with the lower wage package. Here it should be noted that the University of Alberta only provides benefits for “full-time” sessionals who teach a minimum four courses per regular term. Benefit changes might include fewer health benefits, elimination of dental coverage, lower life insurance and disability payouts, less paid vacation time, and so on.
Two-tier offers also commonly include concessions related to pensions. Usually, the employer tries to replace existing defined benefit pensions with defined contribution plans for new hires. A defined benefit pension plan promises a defined payment amount when you retire based on a formula; you know in advance what this formula is and therefore what the amount will be. On the other hand, a defined-contribution plan promises nothing. It only grants employees the opportunity to contribute funds over time to save for their retirement and the employer provides matching contributions up to a certain amount.
A two-tier wage system chips away at the unity and size of the entire bargaining unit, weakening its overall bargaining power. It undermines union solidarity by creating two classes of employees based on wages. The fact that older workers are paid more than new workers can be divisive. In fact, sowing disunity is one of the employer’s aims. A two-tier system subverts the very important task of continuing to bring in and involve new, young workers with their energy and activism.
Employers often promise that a two-tier system will “protect jobs.” Workers’ experience has demonstrated over and over again that this is totally false.
Once a union accepts two-tier provisions, subsequent rounds of bargaining are often spent trying unsuccessfully to remove those tiers or finding ways to compensate lower-tier workers. Obviously, removal will be difficult because once the second tier is in place, the employer will want to maintain that new status quo and also will try to shift more work to those workers who are paid less, away from workers who enjoy full pay and benefits.
Everyone in the post-secondary sector should educate themselves and their members to understand the true cost of two-tier collective agreements, both for new hires and everyone else. Members should be made aware that under no circumstances are such agreements desirable. They do not “create jobs,” nor are they necessitated by so-called fiscal austerity. As well as rejecting such agreements at the bargaining table, post secondary education unions and other unions should initiate fighting campaigns to force governments, especially those governments that claim to be “labour-friendly,” to bring in new labour legislation completely prohibiting two-tier agreements.
Workers’ Forum, posted April 9, 2022.