University unions cry blackmail amidst economic downturn

UGuelph denies it threatened closure, says all universities are being hit hard

Unionized university staff say they are being pressured to accept pay and benefit rollbacks as their institutions cope with pension and operating shortfalls, according to this story in the Toronto Sun.

CUPE Ontario president Sid Ryan says unionized workers are increasingly becoming the scapegoats for the economic downturn. In a press release issued Monday, he said the University of Guelph, whose pension fund has a shortfall of $260 million, recently told its workers to open up their collective agreements or face the closure of their university.

“The University of Guelph is…blackmailing employees and threatening closure if they don’t open up collective agreements and give concessions,” said Ryan. “Universities can’t just threaten to close if workers don’t bow down to their demands.”

Alastair Summerlee, president of the University of Guelph, says there are absolutely no plans to shut down the university and no request has been made to re-open staff collective agreements. However, he did concede that union representatives have been asked to meet with human resources to discuss ways to address the university’s $16 million operating deficit with as little impact on jobs as possible.

“Everybody is in this kind of financial challenge — not just the higher education sector,” he says. “We’ve been working to try to do this without involuntary layoffs, so we’ve had an early resignation and retirement package, and so far we have been successful.”

According to Summerlee, all universities are currently struggling with the effects of the economic downturn on endowment funds and pension plans, which has been combined with the strains of increasing enrolment on operational budgets.

Despite facing a similarly large shortfall in its pension fund, Duncan Watt, Carleton University’s vice-president of finance and administration, told the Ottawa Citizen the school has no plans to ask unions to re-open contracts.