A pension dispute more than two years in the making could lead to labour disruption at Toronto Metropolitan University later this week, says the union representing custodial and maintenance workers at the school.

“Toronto Metropolitan University prides itself on lifting people up through education and promoting equity, but what they’re doing right now shows that they are not living up to those values,” said Jason Vigilante, vice-president of CUPE 233.

In 2021, the university took the unprecedented step of unilaterally imposing an increase in pension contributions on all employees. The school’s faculty association challenged this, and an independent arbitrator found the university had violated their collective agreement. Arbitrator Matthew Wilson further found the university’s administration was “liable for any shortfalls or deficits after employee contributions have been taken into account.” 

In defined-benefit pensions like this, employers are responsible for shortfalls unless higher contribution rates are negotiated for workers.

Because of the arbitration ruling, the university corrected the rates, but for faculty only.

“The result is an inequitable plan, where maintenance and custodial workers are paying more than faculty for the same benefit,” said Fred Hahn, President of CUPE Ontario. “All these workers have been asking for is the same thing that already exists for faculty. It’s the fair thing to do. It’s shocking that the TMU administration makes lofty statements about equity while they’re actively promoting inequity in their workplace.”

Making matters worse, during negotiations CUPE learned the university had secretly started a new practice in 2017 that claimed any pension contributions above the legal minimum were an employer-only credit. This would allow the employer to claim $8 million in pension contributions as owing to them.

“In other words, they’re unilaterally making workers pay more but at the same time filing documents that claim they can claw millions of dollars out of our pension fund,” said David Simao, Chair of CUPE’s provincial university sector committee. The university’s own actuarial filings show the plan is securely funded.

CUPE 233 has been in negotiations with Toronto Metropolitan University since September 2022. Members voted overwhelmingly in favour of a strike if this issue is not resolved.

Outstanding issues at the bargaining table also include job security and wages that keep up with the rising cost of living.

The deadline for job action is 12:01 a.m. on Thursday, April 13.

CUPE representatives will update media on the status of bargaining on Wednesday at noon outside 400 University Avenue in Toronto.