This is a question we get a lot from members at the Athabasca University Faculty Association office. While we want to caution people against too much speculation, we do want to offer some insight into the employer’s actions, and some insight into what is driving the bargaining process when we can base these insights on facts. Below, we will lay out the major factors influencing the Board of Governors' aggressive approach to bargaining:
The administration sees AU making substantial surpluses, and they want to earmark that money for their own pet projects, rather than staff compensation. Administration also sees current staff agreements as a source of funds that could go towards other items. Such items may include raises for senior staff, more personal assistants for executives and senior University officials, or money for projects and programs they are personally invested in.
A previous Vice President Finance once remarked in a Board of Governors meeting that a raise in the AUFA bargaining unit of 1% would cost the institution about $400,000 per year. Based on our numbers, using the median income of the AUFA unit of approximately $100,000/year, that number is an accurate rough estimate. By these numbers, AU could afford a substantial raise for the AUFA unit while still putting money into reserves and other projects. Our current projected surplus is $9.1 million for this year, on top of multiple surpluses in past years.
While we have mostly done an analysis of contract language in these blog updates, it’s worth commenting that so far AU has not even entertained a wage re-opener beyond years one and two (the years we are told the government has mandated zeroes). By offering a wage freeze in line with the rest of the public sector, AUFA is being exceedingly generous given AU’s current financial health. Asking for modest improvements to contract language -- instead of drastic cuts -- is a predictable and reasonable move.
The Strategic Flinch
Another factor worth considering is our President’s own Academic research on “The Strategic Flinch”, linked here.
In his research, Dr. Fassina puts forward (backed up with data) the idea that there is a strategic argument to be made for turning up the heat emotionally at the table and pressuring negotiations. During bargaining, there has been no shortage of emotional outbursts towards AUFA from the Board’s team, including castigating AUFA for refusing to sign language that is clearly not in the union’s interest, and accusing the union of bad faith when we have in earnest turned down language our own members rejected through our polling.
Almost all of these outbursts have been from their legal counsel. Even when obviously wanting to take the AUFA team to task, AU staff at the table for the employer have been exceedingly reasonable. However, it is notable that passages like these seem to reflect the employer’s approach at the bargaining table:
“When people believe that they have given offence, self-regulation theory suggests that they may be motivated to try to restore the relationship to its former state by conceding to or demanding less of their counterparts than they might have otherwise (e.g., Baumeister et al. 1994, 1998; Greenberg 1988; Hassebrauck 1986). Similarly, negative emotions are negative reinforcers of behavior, thereby calling for a behavioral adjustment (Cacioppo and Gardner 1999; Fischer and Roseman 2007). In short, a flinch may affect the distribution of value because of both cognitive and emotional factors.” (Fassina 2013)
If the employers’ package and the over-the-top pressure put on the bargaining team is simply an attempt to shift the “value proposition” of the bargaining, our best response for the union membership is to call the bluff and not give in. There is a good argument for us holding our ground. Allowing the employers’ tactic to work this time would invite more aggressive behaviour in the future and encourage unreasonable approaches to bargaining. The best way to deal with a tactic we don’t like is to not allow it to be effective, and in this case its effectiveness is largely up to us anyways.
There is also a downside to this strategy for the Board of Governors, as Dr. Fassina himself puts it:
“Not all of the findings, however, were positive with respect to the utility of flinching. Negotiators on the receiving end of this tactic perceived the bargaining relationship more negatively than negotiators in the control condition, even when controlling for objective performance. The additional value claimed in the short term by those who flinch in distributive bargaining may therefore come at the expense of long term gains. Although flinching leads to enhanced value claiming, the findings suggest that this tactic may diminish the desire of others to negotiate with us in the future. If so, future opportunities to reach agreements and to create value will be lost.” (Ibid.)
According to his own research, this leads to less desire to negotiate; in a real estate deal, for example, the likely outcome is a failure to sell a house. If impasse cannot be solved by the parties in collective bargaining, the outcome is a labour disruption. Lingering resentment, divisions in a small town created over tensions in its largest employer, and more bad press for the university then become entrenched problems.
In the past, we have discussed the Athabasca University Board of Governor’s decision to appoint external legal counsel as their chief negotiator. It is worth noting what kind of labour law Chantel Kassongo practices. While there is no doubt that some employers will drive a hard bargain, there is also a line between that and outright trying to “break” the union with which you are bargaining. Typically, these are called union avoidance strategies; see Dr. Bob Barnetson’s discussions of these strategies here.
Kassongo regularly uses these strategies, and further, employer groups frequently invite her to teach employers how to keep their businesses ‘union free’. While it may seem counter-productive for a lawyer who deals with unions for a living to teach businesses how to eliminate unions, it is a very lucrative line of work for some lawyers and Human Resources practitioners.
These strategies include offering incentives to employees while bargaining is ongoing (like paid time off above and beyond what the employer otherwise usually gives), combined with punishments such as retaliating against members who file grievances, singling out union officers for different treatment, and failure to abide by timelines for the resolution processes in the collective agreement. Often a business that embarks on this path will hire a lawyer with some experience in these strategies in order to stay on the right side of the law, and to protect under legal privilege any discussions around said strategy. Generally speaking, some losses in labour board hearings and arbitrations are considered an acceptable outcome if the ends are sufficiently favourable to justify the means.