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Bully in the Church Workshop

Our Pension

There are many things to discuss at this point in our campaign, including responses to it from the Pension Board, and from Plan members.

Therefore, this letter is somewhat long and may take a little persistence on your part!

Recap of the Unifaith pension campaign

The Unifor Unifaith Community Chapter pension campaign continues. Unifaith started it because Plan members told us their real and deep concerns and questions about the United Church Pension Plan. It was almost a year ago when we requested to meet with senior church officials to discuss these concerns. We received a reply almost two months later saying there would not be a meeting. The letter advised us that all was well with the Plan, and despite the specific questions we raised, there were no reasons to be concerned.

Consequently, Unifaith communicated with Plan members in the fall of 2017 outlining the concerns we had been hearing and asking you to contact your Conference representatives to the General Council Executive (GCE, the Plan Administrator).  Unifaith was (and is still) seeking:

accountability about unilateral changes to the terms of the Plan;

a raise in pensions after a decade without one;

creativity about how to fund and offer retirees such a raise.

Our initial strategy, to have GCE members explore members’ concerns about the Plan at the fall, 2017 meeting didn’t work.* We heard from a few GCE members that the Executive accepted the explanations about changes to the Plan offered by senior staff at the November GCE meeting, and staff’s minimizing of the concerns Unifaith has been hearing. Unifaith decided on a new strategy: to get concerns about the Plan on to the agenda of General Council this summer in Ottawa. We drew up some templates for proposals and offered them to members on our site late in early March. They have already been put forward by at least one Presbytery, so it’s possible they will reach GC43 and generate whole-Church discussion there.

Recent Pension Board activities

While Unifaith was beginning its campaign last fall, the GCE, acting as Administrator, was surveying Plan members both on communications and governance effectiveness. We are glad to see that the two reports are now available on line. One of communications review recommendations is that a letter, such as the one from the Board Chair this month, be sent to all members to respond to their concerns.  A portion of it is puzzling. The letter refers to the Unifaith and our campaign, but still doesn’t address the real concerns of members we have been raising. We seem to be talking past one another. For instance, the Board’s letter explains how its 2011 move to change the language of the Plan to allow pension decreases at its discretion is both legal and common. While this is true, members’ real concern is that the Board altered the very covenant between the Church and Plan members, and did so without asking or even advising us. Most members did not find out about the change for over six years, when Unifaith brought it to light. The letter also notes Unifaith’s call for new funds to supplement flat pensions. The Board letter points out that Ontario pension law permits only employment-based contributions. Again, this is accurate, but not the point. Unifaith is calling for creativity on the part of the Administrator. If topping up a pension fund is not permitted under current pension regulations, the Church could be asking “are there other ways the church could gather money and disperse it to those whose buying power has fallen by 15% since the last pension raise in 2009?” In addition, it could also be lobbying the government to change the legislation so that employers can top up pension funds.

The Pension Board is just one of the groups involved in the United Church Pension Plan, though. The General Council Executive, as the Plan Administrator, needs to get involved in the discussion about what is fair, caring and possible for its employees, and especially for retirees struggling to live with dignity in their later years. Unifaith believes it will take active discussion with both the Board and the GCE to get needed changes.

Time to talk?

This all leads us to call again, for a face to face meeting between the Board, senior General Council Office staff, and Unifaith—to work through various issues with the Plan together. We will be writing again to Church leaders to ask for a meeting. It is clear from the Board’s own survey that the Board has work to do to address members’ concerns and apprehensions about sustainability and accountability. (Members surveyed also questioned the ethics of some Fund investments.) Unifaith as a conversation partner can bring an important perspective to the table: yours. We are all aware these are precarious days for some pension plans, and also a time of great transition for The United Church of Canada. Unifaith is backed by Unifor, its parent union, which serves over 300,000 members across Canada. Unifor has experts on staff with great experience in the field of pensions. So Unifaith brings this expertise, plus well-founded ideas and suggestions, resources that would be good contributions to a respectful, three-way dialogue, in service of the 9,000 members of the United Church Plan. Surely there is much to be gained by hearing one another and sharing ideas that would help secure the retirement of the Church’s valued employees.

Getting action

Unifaith will keep working on behalf of United Church employees and retirees to get the improvements to the Pension Plan we first proposed last summer. In the meantime, as a Plan member, you can advance the discussion by:

1) Getting proposals about the Plan to GC 43 in Oshawa in July. Check out the sample proposals on our website: www.unifaith.ca, and find a seconder in your Presbytery to get them (or your own version of them) on the floor.

2) Nominating a minister to the Pension Board, one who would be willing to bring the concerns Unifaith is hearing to the boardroom table. The deadline is April 25. A description of what’s involved, and how to nominate someone (or express interest yourself) is on the UCC website: www.united-church.ca/opportunities/nominations-committee.

3) Joining Unifaith. It has become clear over the course of the campaign that the way to get our concerns and questions heard is to work together. The Pension Plan is just one part of our lives as active or retired United Church employees that Unifaith wants to address. We hear from colleagues on a regular basis about the importance of an association that stands with and for them. Your participation will help build a stronger organization—one that will help the United Church to live out its mission more fully and more faithfully. The membership application is on the website: www.unifaith.ca.

Members’ thoughts about Unifaith’s campaign

The great majority of responses we have received have been positive and appreciative of Unifaith and its pension letters. Some members have described to us how they are managing on their United Church pension. Those with a spousal income or pension, or an inheritance, tend to be faring well. Others, often very senior retirees, are struggling. Those messages are heart-breaking. Some respondents have faith in the Pension Board and the GCE to look after their interests. “They are the experts,” some told us, and should be trusted to do things well, and correctly. A few criticized Unifaith or questioned the need for a campaign about the Plan. We appreciate all the responses we get. They help us to know one another better. (Watch for my new blog on the Unifaith website, by the way, to see a sampling of responses so far. And if you would like to comment, please do, by replying to this message.)

We know your life is apt to be busy, so thank you for reading all the way through, and for your partnership in improving the Pension Plan.

In solidarity,

Robin Wardlaw


P.S. Remits

There are also sample proposals on the Unifaith site (www.unifaith.ca) in response to the various remits approved by the Church in recent months. The remits are quite general in what they propose. In contrast, our sample proposals are very specific about protections for clergy and other United Church workers in what could be a very different church in 2019 based on the remits. These proposals, too, need to get on the docket for GC43, through a presbytery or conference. This is another area where you can provide leadership.

*Please excuse our mistake in terminology in an earlier communication. Our first letter in the series intended to point out that, since the Plan Administrator had empowered itself to reduce our pension benefits any time at their discretion, the Plan now resembles a target benefit plan. We said, wrongly, that the United Church was moving to a Target Benefit plan. (Please see our Pension Consultant’s opinion on the current status of the United Church Plan: “The UC has adopted the concept of a target benefit…”)

Another in a series of open letters to Pension Plan Members - April 2018

OPINION PIECE: Is ours a Targeted or a Defined Benefit Plan Proposal Templates

Unifaith sheds many tears over the crisis calls it receives from clergy. One of our frequent tasks is to stand in solidarity with a hurting colleague in ministry and their family. We have all seen this tragedy reflected in the recent Observer Question Box, and in  the Isolation in Ministry Report a few years ago. Some pastoral charges house bullies. They may be a volunteering committee chair or a parking lot meeting convener. Unifaith has seen - heard of - so many instances that we even created a workshop on the Church Bully. Caught in the anxiety of the moment, some clergy mistakenly just quit when confronted by this improper and hurtful behaviour. And it hurts the whole Church. If you need help, send us a note by clicking here.

Solidarity in Action

Proposals to General Council regarding

the Pension Plan and Remit Implementation