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Why the Librarian Negotiating Committee Should Accept a Pension Deal Now


Submitted by Unit 17 Chief Negotiatior, Mike Rotkin

Labor negotiations are always a question of relative power and political context and require strategic judgment. Reasonable people can disagree about these issues. I intend to be governed by the views of the Librarian Bargaining Committee (two reps each campus) as informed by the survey you are about to complete, but here is what I think.

We have already won the major battle over pension. Our union and others were successful in stopping the University from moving to a defined contribution (401K) type plan. The changes now being proposed in a new pension tier are necessary to create a sustainable pension system at UC. Any significant improvements to the new tier would either require much larger premiums of employees or not be sustainable. Political context does matter, and the proposed new tier is still a much better pension plan than State employees, city and county employees in California, or almost everyone in the private sector now has. We would have few allies in a struggle for retaining the old pension system for all new UC employees.

No union activists like two-tier systems, but because pensions are property rights, nothing can be done to reduce the pension benefits promised to current employees. So either pension benefits can never be reduced or you will have a two-tier system. I don’t think we can win a battle to stop a two-tier system at UC and I don’t think that the new tier is unreasonable. People will have to wait five more years to be eligible to retire and the same five years to be eligible for the maximum payout from the plan. 

Every current Unit 17 Librarian will be covered by the existing pension plan. This includes all temporary librarians who are over 50% time. If they are less than 50% time, they are not covered by any pension plan.

No doubt, many of our members will be disadvantaged by the proposed changes to the retiree health plan; however, in my opinion, too much is being made of these changes. Unlike pensions, retiree health, which covers those who retire before they are 65 and eligible for Medicare, is not a property right. The University changes retiree health plans all the time and normally all unions have waivers in their contracts that allow the University to make those changes without bargaining them with unions. If the proposed retiree health changes were done at a time when the entire contract was not open, we would probably not even be aware of the changes, as was the case for all of the prior changes to the retiree health benefit.

The University has offered to exchange our acceptance of the pension and retiree health changes for a release of the withheld merit pay for Librarians retroactive to July 1, 2012 and to take the language out of this and future Librarian contracts (MOUs) that allows the Administration to withhold merit pay. We also would continue our current language in the MOU that Librarians cannot receive a pension benefit that is less than that received by Senate faculty.

Right now, about a third of the Librarians in Unit 17 are having their merit pay withheld. There is no requirement that UC pay those retroactively and we can assume that if this struggle over the pension goes into the winter quarter/semester that the University at some point will threaten to not make the payments retroactively. (They want us to agree to the new pension arrangements before they impose them on the Senate July 1, 2013, or our agreement is not worth much to them.) That could mean that 1/3 of all Librarians in the unit would lose between $2000 and $7000 this academic year. If this struggle were to go on past July 2013, we can assume that an additional 1/3 of the unit would then have merit pay withheld and with the possibility of not paying them retroactively.

Most importantly, the pension agreement is not the only thing holding up our ability to focus bargaining on the compensation issues that are our main bargaining goal (closing the pay gap with CSU and community college librarians), but it is clear that as long as we do not settle the pension issue, there will be no serious bargaining over librarian salaries.

I know that there are good arguments for not coming to an agreement over the proposed new pension and retiree health plans – solidarity with other unions, hatred for two-tier retirement systems, desire to see if we can’t leverage UC’s desire for our agreement with the proposed pensions for other improvements in our contract, etc.  But these arguments are abstract. My assessment of the concrete situation on the ground is that given that all members of Unit 17 will remain on the existing pension plan, given how good even the proposed new pension tier is for new employees, given the political reality and the general acceptance by the general public and the labor movement of two tier systems these days (and our good fortune in having any defined benefit retirement system), and given the serious threat to very real merit pay for 1/3 or 2/3 of our members, we would be making a mistake to hold out for more in a pension deal then we are currently able to achieve.

When we met with Librarians on the campuses, I think most of us would have been thrilled to be able leverage the University’s desire for our acceptance of the proposed pension changes to get the withholding language out of our contract now and in the future. Now that we appear to be able to make that happen, some people think we should hold out for more. I think that would be a mistake.