IAM, IBEW retirees protest pensions

Duane Hicks

Dozens of retired members of the International Association of Machinists Local 771 and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 1744 rallied here yesterday to raise awareness of a dispute they have with AbitibiBowater regarding changes to their pensions which they have not agreed to.
IAM Grand Lodge rep Brian Short, who came from Winnipeg for the rally, and Herman Pruys, who organized the rally and was IAM 771 president from 1996 until he retired last year, said in an interview yesterday that AbitibiBowater is imposing a new pension plan on IAM and IBEW members in contravention of the terms of the “biomass agreement” struck in early 2007.
“In that agreement, we gave up our right to strike in this collective agreement and in return, the company got the big boiler and it would afford them an uninterrupted payback period over the term of the collective agreement,” Pruys explained.
“So in this biomass agreement, it said specifically what could be bargained and what could not, and there was an unambiguous exclusivity on pension,” he noted.
“The last collective agreement had a moratorium on pensions through to 2014,” echoed Short.
“Part of that, from that period of time when the collective agreement expired in 2009 to 2014, there was some pension plan improvements that were negotiated and part of those pension plan improvements were a couple of indexing increases.”
Indexing increases are a sort of pension increase, whereby the retiree gets 50 percent of the Consumer Price Index every two years.
Pruys said it’s just come to light that AbitibiBowater is not going to pay the indexing for 2011.
Short noted the company has negotiated with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) union for a new pension plan, but IAM and IBEW stand fast that this new plan—which does not include the aforementioned indexing—does not apply to them.
“By going into this new pension plan, part of the deal was that indexing for the old pension plan would go away,” he explained.
“We’re in the throes of a dispute; the IAM and the IBEW are in the throes of a dispute with the employer.
“The employer wants to impose upon us the new pension plan and what we are saying is that the biomass deal does not allow the company to open up talks for pension,” Short added.
“It specifically says that only the unions have the right to open up talks for pension.”
Short said the CEP chose to bargain outside the biomass deal, and that’s fine.
“We’re choosing to bargain within the parameters of the biomass deal, which very clearly says only certain items can be carried over from the pattern agreement and that does not include pension,” he remarked.
“We’re not exercising our right to open pension talks, and so basically what we’re saying is our existing pension plan remain in place.
“We do not want anything to do with this new plan that was bargained with the CEP, and part of the old plan are these improvements that were negotiated with respect to indexing.”
Short stressed the unions are “pursuing all the avenues” to address the situation.
“We’re currently in the throes of an arbitration hearing,” he noted. “We’re proceeding with respect to that.
“As far as the interpretation and application of the biomass deal, we have filed an unfair labour practice with the Ontario Labour Relations Board on the employer with respect to how they’ve bargained with us this time around, with respect to how they’ve arbitrarily implemented the 10 percent wage cut, arbitrarily implemented all of their proposals to us that we’ve said they can’t do because they are not carrying over items from the pattern [agreement] in accordance with the biomass agreement,” he charged.
“We’re pursuing all of those avenues, and we’re going to do what we can,” Short reiterated.
“We’re going to do what we can to maintain what these retirees negotiated, what they expect, and we’ll see what we can do,” he pledged.
Pruys organized yesterday’s rally, which saw a group carrying signs—reading “Abitibi Don’t Play Around with Our Pensions” and “We Worked Hard Four Our Pensions”—walk down Scott Street from the Legion to the mill parking lot at Scott and Central Avenue.
“It really bothers me. . . . We’ve worked for those pensions, we’ve paid into them for many years, and we expect the company to live up to their commitments,” he stressed.
“We’ve got retirees out here who are being denied what we felt was negotiated—indexing increases in their pension,” remarked Short.
“The retirees got to the point where they wanted to make sure the Town of Fort Frances finally saw everything isn’t just all hunky-dory with this company,” he said.