Defined-benefit pensions could be making a comeback



Greater rates of interest and a shift in energy towards workers serving to gas a DB renaissance

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A wage increase of 15 per cent over 5 years was the very first thing to catch most observers’ eyes final month when Unifor, the union representing 5,600 staff at Ford Motor Co. of Canada, ratified a brand new three-year contract with the automaker.

The historic increase was definitely worthy of constructing headlines. But it surely was one other, much less heralded, side of the deal involving employee pension plans that has some economists and specialists predicting the settlement might sign a brand new pattern in labour negotiations.

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Ford agreed to switch some union members at present enrolled within the firm’s defined-contribution pension plan to the Faculty of Utilized Arts and Expertise (CAAT) DBPlus Pension Plan — a defined-benefit type plan that shifts extra of the burden for funding worker retirements to the employer.

Labour economist Jim Stanford referred to as it a notable win for staff that would set the stage for a broader transfer towards defined-benefit pension plans as different unions and bargaining models — together with these representing workers of fellow automakers Basic Motors Co. and Stellantis NV — look to barter their very own offers.

“For not less than 1 / 4 century, private-sector employers have been doing something they might do to do away with defined-benefit pension plans,” Stanford, director of the Vancouver-based Centre for Future Work, stated. “I believe it’s fascinating that this settlement was capable of get one large world non-public firm to say, ‘No, we’re going to shift again and have a look at a DB-style association.’ I believe that could possibly be an indication of extra to return in different private-sector operations.”

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Unifor national president Lana Payne.
Unifor nationwide president Lana Payne. Picture by Brandon More durable/Regina Chief-Publish

Pension specialists say the attraction of DB plans is evident. Versus defined-contribution plans, which perform extra like group registered retirement financial savings plans (RRSPs) during which employers match worker contributions and the market determines how large every retiree’s nest egg might be, defined-benefit plans are designed to offer workers with a assured revenue for the remainder of their lives as soon as their working days are accomplished.

DB plans are usually listed to inflation and, as within the case of the CAAT plan, present advantages to survivors and certified dependants of members. If a fund isn’t producing giant sufficient returns to cowl pension advantages by itself, employers are usually on the hook to make up the distinction.

It’s an excellent deal for labour, however administration hasn’t all the time been as enthusiastic concerning the idea.

“The historical past of defined-benefit plans is that they’ve been collectively bargained,” lawyer Murray Gold, a senior associate who makes a speciality of pensions and advantages at Toronto-based Koskie Minsky LLP, stated. “The one two teams which have had them lately are unionized staff and senior executives. For the remaining, it’s DC.”

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Whereas DB plans put extra burden on employers to make sure they’re absolutely funded, specialists similar to Stanford and Gold say macroeconomic components have lately made them extra inexpensive.

Because the Bank of Canada has jacked up interest rates in a bid to rein in inflation, the worth of bonds — a key element of DB funds — has dropped, making the thought of investing in such plans extra palatable to employers. In the meantime, bond yields have been rising, offsetting destructive returns in different areas of the funds’ asset combine.

“Greater rates of interest will make (DB plans) a little bit of a neater capsule to swallow,” Gold stated.

DB pension plans are having an excellent 12 months, in response to a report launched Oct. 2 from monetary providers agency Mercer. The corporate stated 88 per cent of the DB pension plans in its shopper database have been estimated to be in a surplus place on the finish of the third quarter — up from 85 per cent three months earlier.

Greater rates of interest will make (DB plans) a little bit of a neater capsule to swallow

Murray Gold, lawyer

“2023 to this point has been good for DB pension plans’ monetary positions,” Ben Ukonga, chief of Mercer’s wealth apply in Calgary, stated in a information launch. “Nevertheless, as we enter the fourth quarter, will the excellent news proceed to the top of the 12 months?”

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If rates of interest stage off and finally start to fall, bond costs will seemingly rise. In that case, some observers marvel how lengthy the window will stay open for a DB renaissance.

“The issue is, DB pension plans function throughout many years, slightly than throughout annual enterprise cycles, and I believe most employers get that,” Robert Hickey, an affiliate professor at Queen’s College who research labour-management relations, stated.

“So willingness to return into a category of profit which may appear to be an excellent deal at this time, properly, they most likely are refined sufficient to know that what appears good at this time could possibly be very completely different a 12 months from now.”

A number of specialists level to a different key issue driving the DB resurgence: labour is having a second. A decent job market has tilted the stability of energy a bit extra towards staff in current contract talks, giving unions the leverage to efficiently push for enhancements to pension plans and different advantages.

Striking Metro workers in August. A tight job market has tilted the balance of power a bit more toward workers in recent contract talks.
Placing Metro staff in August. A decent job market has tilted the stability of energy a bit extra towards staff in current contract talks. Picture by Jack Boland/Toronto Solar/Postmedia Community

“The automakers was on loss of life’s door, and now they routinely make tens of billions of {dollars}’ revenue a 12 months,” Stanford stated. “And the employees have a look at that and so they say, ‘You already know what? I’ve needed to tighten my belt rather a lot and these corporations are raking it in. It’s time for them to present again.’”

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Even in non-union outlets, DB plans could possibly be a pretty carrot for administration to dangle in entrance of extremely sought-after expert expertise, he added.

“As of late, many staff have the chance to be a bit choosy in what job they go to, and employers realize it,” Stanford stated. “With the ability to inform potential staff, ‘We’ve bought a pension association right here which you can rely on’ … I believe that could possibly be a giant draw within the battle for scarce labour.”

Nonetheless, whether or not the brand new deal at Ford units a template that different unions will observe stays to be seen.

Unifor, which represents staff at Ford, Basic Motors and Stellantis, is at present negotiating a brand new contract with GM.

Does the labour motion within the non-public sector have the bargaining energy to compel employers to tackle threat and value that they’ve spent the final decade attempting to get out of?

Robert Hickey, affiliate professor, Queen’s College

Stanford stated that whereas the union will persist with its sample bargaining technique in a bid to make features just like those it gained from Ford, there’s no assure it can obtain the identical success — particularly contemplating solely 54 per cent of union members who voted endorsed the settlement with Ford.

“Every spherical of bargaining, the union has to have the ability to strain the remaining two corporations to just accept the identical core phrases because it negotiated with the primary firm,” he stated. “The sample system has labored very properly for the unions over the many years, however you possibly can’t rely your chickens earlier than they hatch.

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“I believe ultimately, it’s very seemingly that the union will win this, however whether or not that takes a strike or not stays to be seen.”

Hickey agrees {that a} widespread shift to DB plans in union outlets isn’t any positive factor.

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“It actually comes right down to bargaining energy,” he stated. “Does the labour motion within the non-public sector have the bargaining energy to compel employers to tackle threat and value that they’ve spent the final decade attempting to get out of? I believe that’s the actual query.”

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