Membership Engagement Committee Established


At its September retreat, the AUFA executive appointed an ad hoc Membership Engagement Committee (MEC). The purpose of this committee is to develop an understanding of AUFA members’ priorities and persistent workplace issues as well as to increase membership engagement.

The MEC comprises:

  • Rhiannon Rutherford (Chair)

  • Dave Powell

  • Travis Burwash

  • Bangaly Kaba

  • Bob Barnetson

The immediate task of the MEC is to assist the bargaining team to identify member priorities for the 2020 round of bargaining (which commences in March or April of 2020). The MEC will do this by contacting 100 randomly-selected AUFA members by telephone and surveying them.

The survey will begin in mid-November and will include general environmental questions as well as bargaining-related questions. The results of the environmental questions will be released to the membership. Aggregated and anonymized results from the bargaining questions will be provided to the bargaining team.

This approach is designed to better align AUFA’s opening offer with the interests of the membership. In the last round of bargaining, AUFA was able to muster a strike threat to thwart employer demands for rollbacks. But AUFA has lacked a credible strike threat with which to make significant gains at the bargaining table. A member-driven opening proposal should assist AUFA in being well positioned to secure gains at the bargaining table.

As the opening proposal is developed, additional one-on-one phone calls and surveys as well as membership meetings will be held in consultation with the bargaining team. The executive appreciates the willingness of these AUFA members to serve on this committee.

Jolene Armstrong


OHS Committee Members and Training

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At its September retreat, the AUFA executive appointed members to AU’s four joint health and safety committees. These committees (which also have representatives from the employer, AUPE, and CUPE) are required by the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act. OHS committees help:

  •  employers respond to health and safety concerns of workers,

  • develop health and safety policies and safe work procedures,

  • develop and promote education and training programs,

  • participate in work site inspections and investigations,

  • investigate worker reports of dangerous work and refusal to work, and

  • with health and safety orientations for new employees.

The AUFA committee representatives are:

Athabasca: Rhiannon Rutherford and Bob Barnetson

Edmonton: Myreene Tobin and Robyn O’Neill

Calgary: Patrick Lahey

Trail: Ryan Yee

Tim Byrnes: Sherry Tebbenham

The executive appreciates the willingness of these members to serve. The executive also appreciates the long-time service of Doug Kariel, who has stepped down from the OHS committee.

These committees are important because of AU’s poor track-record of complying with the OHS Act and remedying obvious OHS hazards.

AUFA and AUPE are cooperating to host a lunch-hour OHS presentation on the Athabasca campus next week. This training is intended to remedy the poor-quality OHS training provided by the university this summer. It will focus on explaining what OHS rights workers have and how workers can meaningfully exercise those rights at AU.

The presentation will take place from 12-1 in Governing Council Chambers in Athabasca on Monday, October 21. There will NOT be a teleconference or Adobe Connect option. If there is demand, the presentation can be repeated at other AU sites.

Additional training specifically for OHS committee members will be provided through the Alberta Workers’ Health Centre over the course of the year.

Jolene Armstrong


CAUT Holds Two-Day Bargaining Training


Last week, the AUFA bargaining team (Alexa DeGagne, Bangaly Kaba, Eric Strikwerda, Jason Foster, Nick Driedger, and Serena Henderson) touched down in Athabasca for a rigorous two-day bargaining training and simulation exercise. The CAUT-organized simulation afforded the AUFA team a critical opportunity to bargain together (and against an “employer”) in anticipation of our upcoming actual bargaining round this spring.  We were joined at the table by AUFA president Jolene Armstrong.

In the end, we were able to achieve an agreement that met the union’s objective (wage increases and greater job security, particularly for precarious staff) while resisting many of the employer’s demands (it’s worth noting that the employer team also met their its core objectives).

There were several useful lessons for the bargaining team in the simulation:

  1. Caucus chair: In the past, the chief spokesperson has also chaired the internal discussions of the bargaining team. We experimented with splitting these roles to reduce the cognitive load on the chief spokesperson. This resulted in more focused internal discussions and crisper exchanges at the table with the employer.

  2. Paperwork: The simulation compressed several months of bargaining into one and a half days. The resulting paperwork quickly became difficult to manage, and underscored the importance of thorough and meticulous filing practices at the table.

  3. Tone: We continued to adopt a very measured tone in our interactions with the employer. In the spirit of “moving things along,” the employer side acted more reasonably than we have seen Athabasca University’s bargaining team act in the past (e.g., no one threatened to lay the union bargaining team off, or came to our caucus room to yell at us).

    The result was a more productive round of bargaining than we have seen in the past because we were able to establish a degree of trust with the employer. This change highlighted for the AUFA team just how poorly AU has behaved at the table during recent rounds and how this behaviour negatively affects progress.

  4.  Power: While the union side’s simulation materials made clear it had a strike mandate, it was not a strong one. This meant that the employer’s side was able to easily dismiss many of the union side’s proposals outright. In the end, the union was successful in achieving only those proposals where we could either arrange a trade with the employer or where we had a legitimate strike threat.

This experience reinforces AUFA’s experience at the table last round. During the last round, we were able to resist the employer’s aggressive demands because we were able to mobilize a strike threat. (Ironically, it was the employer’s outsized demands that caused the development of a credible strike threat in the first place). The key takeaway, both from the simulation exercise and our actual experience at the table last bargaining round, is this: a credible and clear strike threat in support of AUFA proposals is crucial to AUFA’s ability to make progress at the table.

Developing a proposal with strong member buy-in, then, is central to bargaining preparation. In the coming weeks and months, the AUFA membership engagement committee will reach out to our membership to formulate our proposals in anticipation of our next bargaining round. The current labour relations climate in Alberta, as you know, is not a warm one. It may well be necessary to take job action in order to reach a mutually acceptable settlement during the upcoming round.

The bargaining team extends thanks to Jeff McKeil (CAUT) for facilitating the session, and Brenda Skayman (AUFA) for organizing the logistics of the day. We’d also like to thank the “employer” team (Bob Barnetson, Dave Powell, Florene Ympa, Gail Leicht, and Myreene Tobin) for playing hard, but politely.

Eric Strikwerda, Chair

AUFA bargaining team


Post-Secondary Salary Trends in Athabasca

Last week, the AUFA executive appointed the members of the 2020 AUFA bargaining team. The team presently includes Alexa DeGagne, Jason Foster, Serena Henderson, Bangaley Kaba, and Eric Strikwerda (Chair). We will be joined by a support member from the office staff.

Preparation for bargaining will begin soon with a structured consultation with the membership. As a prelude to this consultation, it may be useful to review some of the government data about salary settlements in the post-secondary sector. This data allows us to assess the effectiveness of our bargaining efforts. When compared to inflation, we can also track the purchasing power of our salaries over time.

Table 1 outlines settlements by the three bargaining units at Athabasca between 2005 and 2018. The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) represents support staff, and the Canadian Union of Public employees (CUPE) represents tutors and academic experts. All values are expressed as uncompounded percentage increases.

Inflation data is Statistic Canada’s Consumer Price Index for Alberta as provided by AUPE staff. The annual inflation was calculated by averaging monthly year-over-year (July to June) changes to create a reasonable proxy for annual inflation.

Table 1: Athabasca settlements (%) over time versus inflation, 2005 to 2018.

AUFA cost-of-living adjustments appear to have kept our salaries even with inflation, but when you compound COLA and inflation we find our salaries increased by approximately 38% while inflation increased approximately 51%.

It is also notable that since 2013, AUFA cost-of-living-adjustments (+5.75%) have lagged inflation (+10.6%). That is to say, since 2013, the employer has succeeded in grinding down AUFA members’ salaries through increases that have lagged behind inflation. All AU employee groups took another wage freeze in 2019 while inflation is running about 1.3% so far this year.

This pattern is also evident when we examine settlement patterns among faculty associations at Alberta’s four Comprehensive Academic Research Universities (CARUs). While AUFA has done well in comparison to most CARUs, since 2013 all CARUs are seeing wage increases lag behind inflation.

Table 2: University faculty settlements over time, 2005 to 2018

Table 2: University faculty settlements over time, 2005 to 2018

One of the factors affecting this pattern has been the traditional reliance on arbitration to break bargaining impasse. Arbitrators tend to establish wages with reference to other, known settlements among comparator institutions. The first few settlements in a sector often “set” the pattern. In this dynamic, a “bad” settlement by one institution would often limit the settlement that other associations could realistically expect to get.

Legislative change in 2017 means that arbitration is no longer the de facto means by which a bargaining impasse between CARUs and faculty associations is broken. While institutions will continue to cooperate in order to hold down wage settlements (often at the behest of government), faculty associations are no longer automatically constrained by the settlements at other institutions. Instead, faculty can strike in an attempt to increase their wage settlement.

As AUFA’s analysis of AU’s financial statements previously demonstrated, AU could have afforded to give all employee groups a raise last year. While it is unclear what (if any) reduction in government operating grants is planned for this year, AU is likely to continue to have a healthy operating surplus and a reasonable accumulated surplus.

Another factor that may be relevant going forward is whether the government chooses to legislate a wage freeze or wage rollback, either in the October 2019 or Spring 2020 budget. It is unclear whether the government will take such action and whether such legislation would survive a constitutional challenge.

Eric Strikwerda

Bargaining Chair

Letter to Minister of Advanced Education

On August 16th the Ministry of Advanced Education began a comprehensive overhaul of public board positions, replacing roughly 60 public post-secondary board members before the normal expiration of their terms. This includes three board members at Athabasca University, including the Board Chair. The Athabasca University Faculty Association views this drastic change as interference in the independence of public universities in pursuit of an austerity agenda.

The attached letter was sent to Minister Nicolaides by AUFA President Jolene Armstrong on behalf of members.

AU in Good Financial Shape

On September 3, the Blue Ribbon Panel on Alberta’s Finances released its final report. This report moots reducing public grants to post-secondary institutions and reviewing whether all of Alberta’s 26 post-secondary institutions are financially viable. The panel, chaired by Janice MacKinnon, also suggests reducing public-sector compensation via bargaining mandates enforced by back-to-work legislation.

Some commentators have suggested that Athabasca University would be one of the post-secondary institutions targeted for review and potential closure. It’s fairly easy to see why outside observers would think this to be the case:

  • In 2012, poor fiscal management resulted in the institution declaring financial stringency and laying off (or otherwise eliminating) dozens of staff positions.

  • In 2015, Acting President Peter MacKinnon publicly declared that AU faced likely insolvency by 2017/18.

  • Over the past year, the current administration has fought with its employees at the bargaining table and profoundly damaged institutional morale and trust.

Yet, a review of AU documents suggests that, despite forecasts of doom, the institution is in a strong financial position.

AU Financial Statements

In the spring, Athabasca University very quietly posted its financial statements online for the year ending on March 31, 2019. The bottom line is that AU recorded an annual operating surplus of $14.199 million on overall expenditures of $134.253 million. This was a surprise since AU had projected no surplus in its 2019 budget.

Overall, AU’s accumulated surplus (i.e., reserves) is now $31.697 million. This reflects that AU has run a series of surpluses over time, as set out in Table 1.

Table 1. AU Operating Surpluses Over Time (000s).

Source: AU Financial Statements

The 2019 surplus of $14.199 million was driven by two main factors. First, revenue was up slightly (nearly $3 million), driven mostly by increased tuition revenue caused, in turn, by significant enrollment growth. Second, expenses were dramatically lower than projected (more than $11 million), driven by lower salary ($4 million) and employee benefit ($5.6 million) expenditures.

 While AU’s executive and Board often frame annual operating surpluses as being caused by “one-time savings that cannot be relied upon in the future”, Table 2 demonstrates that over-estimating expenses is a recurring pattern and the degree of over-estimation is increasing over time. A cynical reading of this would be that AU is over-estimating expenses to manage expectations—just like crying “insolvency” is a way to try to break worker resistance to objectionable restructuring.

Table 2. AU Budgeted and Actual Expenses by Year (000s)

Source: AU Financial Statements

Government Grants

These tables suggest AU is in good financial shape. There is the possibly of a reduction in government grants in the upcoming budget. Government grants (both operating and other grants) comprise only 35% of AU’s revenue. Tuition accounts for 50% of revenue with sales of services (~12%) being the only other big source of revenue.

The relatively small portion of AU’s revenue that comes from government grants means both that AU is already significantly “entrepreneurial” (the government’s terminology for non-grant dependent) and that AU’s vulnerability to funding cuts is significantly attenuated. For example, a 10% reduction in operating grants would only reduce overall revenue by about $4.5 million—a hit well within AU’s capacity to absorb.

The Road Ahead

The 2019 MacKinnon report suggests reducing expenditures on public-sector compensation in Alberta. This could mean reducing the number of employees or reducing their wages and benefit costs. We will likely have to wait until the provincial budget (in mid October) to see how the government plans to proceed and how Alberta’s broader labour movement (of which AUFA is a small part) responds.

It is important to be mindful that the situation of any one institution will differ from the overall picture. For example, the former New Democrat government imposed a bargaining mandate of two zeros on the public sector. Yet, AU’s 2018/19 financial statements suggest that AU could have easily afforded to provide its staff with a modest cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). As an example, a 2% COLA for all AU staff (AUFA, AUPE, CUPE and excluded) would have cost only about $1.6 million.

What We Can Do

Like the 2015 AU MacKinnon report, the 2019 provincial MacKinnon report is distressing to read. It seems to foreshadow further post-secondary cuts. For those who lived through the Klein cuts (1994-1997), the MacKinnon report may bring back difficult memories of wage rollbacks, layoffs and hiring freezes, and fears about the future of the institution.

It is important that we not panic. Despite a history of terrible administration, AU is in good financial shape and offers a relatively low-cost way to deliver post-secondary education.

And despite the government rhetoric, its desire to impose change is limited by its willingness to accept the political costs of those changes. Alberta’s labour movement has successfully resisted attacks on our pensions (Bill 10 in 2012) and on our bargaining rights (Bills 45 and 46 in 2014/15). We will doubtlessly also resist attacks on our jobs and income.

Further, the legal landscape has changed significantly since the Klein years, with the Supreme Court ruling that workers are entitled to a meaningful process of collective bargaining. If the government seeks to drive austerity via a bargaining mandate enforced with back-to-work legislation, it will almost certainly face a Charter challenge (just as it has with Bill 9).

In the meantime, we have jobs to do. Those jobs include enforcing our existing collective agreement and preparing for the next round of bargaining in 2020. We expect an AUFA bargaining team will be appointed by late September and AUFA will be hosting a CAUT collective bargaining training session in Athabasca on October 2-3.

Jolene Armstrong, President

Discipline and Dry-snitching at AU

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Article 7 of the collective agreement sets out the process by which Athabasca University can discipline AUFA members. The discipline process starts with a disciplinary investigation. Most investigations do not result in discipline.

If grounds for discipline are found, the employer can then impose sanctions (ranging from a reprimand to termination). AUFA members can appeal any discipline.

Since President Fassina’s arrival in late 2017, there has been a sharp increase in the number of discipline investigations. Over the past 3 years, AUFA has seen three times as many discipline investigations as in the preceding 10 years. Interestingly, the number of cases where sanctions have been imposed remains the same (i.e., the rate of sanctioning has declined).

Table for Post.PNG

Discipline Cases by Year

Note: 2017-2019 data based on records review. 2007-2016 data based on records review supplemented by interviews with grievance officers.

The origins of most disciplinary complaints typically become apparent during the disciplinary investigation. Most recent discipline cases stem from complaints by a supervisor or a co-worker about performance or workplace behaviour.

Three of the recent investigations, however, have unclear origins. That is to say, while the issues under investigation in each case are clear (e.g., alleged bigamy of employment or misrepresentation), what (and who) triggered the investigation is not.

A close examination of these mystery cases suggests the root cause was idle (and often incorrect) gossip among AUFA members. While there does not appear to have been any intention to trigger a disciplinary investigation, the gossip eventually reached the ears of supervisors and/or HR and away we go.

This dynamic is often referred to as “dry snitching” in the labour movement. Essentially, workers sharing information about one another inadvertently trigger the disciplinary process. That 17% of recent discipline cases are the result of dry snitching suggests three things:

  1. While office gossip is inevitable, it is important to be mindful of who hears gossip, especially when that gossip could potentially result in discipline. The flat and informal organizational structure of AU means that co-workers with whom we socialize can also have managerial responsibilities. Sharing gossip with these co-workers can jeopardize the jobs of other AUFA members. More bluntly, not everyone with whom we’re friendly is necessarily someone who is safe to confide in.

  2.  AU is increasingly investigating potential disciplinary issues. We have gone from 1 case every 2 years to 13 cases in 2019 so far. It is unclear why the number of investigations has increased.

    A charitable explanation is that AU is trying to protect AUFA members’ procedural rights by following the collective agreement. That explanation is hard to reconcile with AU’s violation of other provisions of the collective agreement.

    An alternate explanation is that AU is trying to intimidate AUFA members in order to dampen overt discontent, and perhaps as part of a broader union-rejection strategy. The stress caused by being under investigation represents a significant penalty to a member even if no discipline is enacted.

  3. AU’s increasing interest in disciplinary investigations suggests that the protections set out in Article 7 of the collective agreement (including union representation and the delay of severe penalties until an appeal is heard) are provisions worth fighting to retain.

During the 2018/19 round of bargaining, AU (unsuccessfully) sought to make it easier and cheaper to discipline AUFA members. It may be necessary to push back against similar proposals in the 2020 round of bargaining.

Bob Barnetson

Chair, Work Stoppage Committee

A Deal's a Deal.... Except at AU


Note: The AUFA member mentioned in this blog post has consented to its publication.

Last week, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) convinced a judge to grant an injunction against Bill 9 (the Public Sector Wage Arbitration Deferral Act). Bill 9 allowed the government to violate collective agreements affecting 190,000 public-sector workers.

 In his reasons for granting the injunction, Queen’s Bench Justice Eric Macklin noted:

A member of the public expects, and is entitled to expect, that an agreement reached with the government will be honoured.

Essentially, the judge asserted that a deal is a deal. A recent development in a long-standing AUFA grievance file suggests Athabasca University doesn’t agree.

Seven years ago, AUFA began representing a member who alleged harassment. Five years ago, AUFA and AU reached a contractually binding grievance settlement. In exchange for AUFA withdrawing two grievances, a privacy complaint, and a judicial review application, AU agreed (in part) to:

  1. permanently re-assign the member to a different organizational unit, and

  2. assign the member a specific supervisor.

The agreement provided that that supervisor could change but that AU, AUFA, and the member must agree on the new supervisor. A change in supervisor occurred in mid-2017 via this process.

On July 21, 2019, AU labour relations advisor Abey Arnaout sent the member notice indicating the member would be returned to the organizational unit where the alleged harassment occurred (and the alleged harassers still reside) and the member would be assigned a new supervisor. A subsequent email indicated this change was effective retroactive to July 6.

Because no negotiation of the supervisory change took place and there were no provisions for ever changing the member’s organizational unit, AUFA immediately requested AU comply with the five-year-old grievance settlement and reverse the July 21 changes. AUFA indicated it would enforce this agreement if AU did not return to compliance immediately.

AU’s reply came from labour relations specialist Anik Fehr. Fehr declined to comply with the settlement agreement. Instead, she wrote (in part):

To this end, we would like to invite both AUFA and [member] to a meeting in an attempt to reach an agreement to an alternate supervisor for [member]. Should this meeting not provide resolution, or should having a meeting not be of interest to either AUFA or [member], the University, as previously proposed on numerous occasions, would again suggest resolution through the auspices of a mediation. The University is very much in favour of resolving this issue through these non-adversarial, collaborative processes.

Bob, finalizing [member’s] supervisory relationship must be completed, and the University would like to work collaboratively with AUFA and [member] to resolve this matter. I hope you will give due consideration to our proposal rather than the adversarial process you have threatened to undertake. Furthermore, the University respectfully requests a formal response to our proposal to be received no later than August 2, 2019.  Should we not receive a formal response by this date, the University will finalize the transition to [member’s] reporting line. 

AU’s position is problematic in six ways:

  1. AU is in violation of the 2014 settlement agreement that it signed.

  2. If the member fails to comply with AU’s illegal directive, the member is at risk of discipline.

  3. AU wishes to negotiate a change to the supervisor (a permissible action) but seeks to change the terms of the 2014 agreement by demanding mediation if no agreement is reached.

  4. AU asserts that, absent a change in supervisor (and there is no compelling reason for this change), it will simply continue violating the agreement. So, essentially, AU is trying to force AUFA and the member to negotiate with a metaphorical gun to their heads.

  5. AU ignores that it has put the member back into the organizational unit that still houses the member’s alleged harassers. There are no provisions for such a change in the settlement agreement.

  6. AU claims to want to resolve the matter “through these non-adversarial, collaborative processes”, but AU’s own behaviour in the matter is clearly illegal, aggressive, and unethical.

This behaviour by AU (and specifically HR) tells us several things:

  1. AU doesn’t keep its word. The 2014 grievance settlement is very clear. AU has decided to simply ignore its legal obligations.

  2. AU is hypocritical. AU’s putative desire for a non-adversarial, collaborative process sits at odds with its actual behaviour.

  3. AU doesn’t care about its employees. Telling a member late on a Sunday night that they must suddenly work in proximity with their alleged harassers and, subsequently, using this change as leverage to force a change in supervisor are deeply unethical behaviours.

As Justice Macklin wrote about Bill 9, “it is generally in the public interest that parties to otherwise valid agreements, freely negotiated, honor their obligations under those agreements.” AU’s decision to welch on the 2014 settlement that it signed means AU workers must now question whether they can trust any statement made or agreement entered into by AU.

This behaviour by HR is neither respectful nor an act of integrity, which you’ll recall are two of the five I-CARE values promulgated in the Imagine plan. HR’s deceit will doubtless reinforce the growing skepticism in AU’s senior executive that is evident in the recent engagement survey.

AUFA has filed a grievance and is exploring other enforcement options to ensure the member’s rights are protected.

Bob Barnetson, Member

AUFA Grievance Committee