Issues on the Table: Joint Management of Economic Benefits

As we enter into job action, ULFA’s negotiating team wants to be sure that members have a clear understanding of the issues over which we are still bargaining. This is the first in a series of “Issues on the Table” blog posts that explain key proposals.

What are our benefits, anyway?

Over the years, ULFA has negotiated that some of our members’ compensation comes in the form of benefits for which the Board covers most of the costs. Our members also contribute to the costs of some of these benefits through payroll deductions from their salaries. If you read Schedule B of the Collective Agreement (which covers Economic Benefits), you will find very little information about what benefits ULFA members actually receive. There are passing mentions of many categories of benefits, but the language in the schedule focuses on laying out how the costs for these benefits are paid. For details of what is or is not covered under categories such as Extended Health Benefits, Vision Benefits, or the Employee and Family Assistance Program, members have to seek out benefit information booklets from Human Resources (or for Blue Cross benefits, they can download the booklet from their Blue Cross account).

Who determines our benefits?

Since these details are not written into the Collective Agreement, they can be unilaterally changed based on a decision made by a senior administrator, or by someone in the Human Resources department, with no input from the union or our members. Indeed, this has often happened, and typically members are not even informed that a change has taken place. (It has also sometimes been the case that changes have been implemented at the union’s request as part of the collective bargaining process, but these changes are usually not written into the Collective Agreement so can be revoked unilaterally.) Other than changes to total premium costs (or the changes achieved in bargaining), we only find out about changes if we look at the booklets and notice them for ourselves, or if we get an unexpected response to a claim we’ve submitted. The lack of input is disrespectful, and the lack of communication can create significant problems for members. The Board contributes a fixed amount towards the cost of our benefits regardless of what we are receiving, so has no direct interest in ensuring that the money is spent effectively. It is only sensible that union members have a clear understanding of, and some say over, how this money is spent. This is a matter of basic respect. 

So, what are the positions?

In its opening position, ULFA proposed the formation of a joint committee, with representatives from our members and from Human Resources, to oversee our benefits. This committee would be able to seek out quotes from alternative insurance providers, cost out changes or improvements to benefits, and reassure members that our benefit premiums are being spent as effectively as possible. ULFA’s proposal copied the structure and terms of reference for a similar committee that has been in place at the University of Alberta for years. In November, ULFA also requested details from the Board team that would allow the union to seek a quote for our current benefits package. This information has not yet been provided, despite several follow-up reminders.

Although this proposal has been presented several times, the only written response to it that we have seen from the Board came on the morning of our strike deadline. This response offered to set up a committee that could evaluate the viability of establishing a joint body to oversee benefits. On the recommendation of this committee, such oversight might be established through an MOU or in the next round of bargaining… or it might not. This was framed by the Board team as a major concession, although in fact it promises nothing. The Board team also presented this as part of a package in which it is the only concession beyond the positions the Board otherwise has on the table, and warned that they would probably withdraw it if the package were rejected. 

Schedule BB has been presented at the negotiation table on February 22, 2021 and February 1 2022 (and also has been included in recent ULFA presentation packages on January 13th, January 17th,  February 4th, and February 9th). A copy of the ULFA proposal on Schedule BB is included within the document package available here.