On Tuesday, collective bargaining between AUFA and the Board reached impasse. For reasons outlined in the bargaining update, AUFA’s bargaining team has been forced to conclude that no further progress towards a collective agreement is likely at this time.
So what now?
Here is a thumbnail sketch of what is likely to happen in the next few months as AUFA’s bargaining and work stoppage teams continue to work towards achieving a collective agreement.
Continue Bargaining: Even after impasse has been reached, it is not uncommon for parties to resume bargaining at a later date. For example, political pressure on AU may cause them to reconsider what AU’s true bottom line is. Bargaining can resume at any point and is most likely to be the way that this dispute is eventually resolved.
Negotiate an Essential Services Agreement (ESA): The parties are required to negotiate an ESA in order to maintain certain services during a work stoppage. The threshold for deciding which services would be maintained includes whether the cessation would endanger the health, safety, or life of the public.
AUFA and AU met to negotiate an ESA on January 15. AU’s position at the meeting was that (1) AUFA members do not perform essential services and that, if they do, (2) those services can be performed by non-bargaining unit staff. AUFA expects these negotiations to conclude this Friday, and we will probably need to have the matter adjudicated.
Commence Formal Mediation: When bargaining reaches impasse, either side can request formal mediation by a government-appointed mediator. At this point, negotiations continue in the presence of the mediator, in hopes that a final agreement can be reached.
If a final agreement cannot be reached in mediation, a mediator will often issue a recommended settlement that the parties are obliged to vote upon. If both parties accept the recommendation, then it becomes the new collective agreement.
If either party rejects the recommendation, then mediation is concluded, and the dispute continues. There is a 14-day cooling-off period following mediation.
Strike Vote and Lockout Poll: Once the 14-day cooling off period ends, AUFA can apply to the Labour Relations Board (LRB) to hold a strike vote. The employer can also apply to hold a lockout poll.
A successful strike vote by AUFA members is required before AUFA can go on strike. A successful lockout poll by the Board of Governors is required before AU can lock AUFA members out.
Once a strike or lockout mandate has been achieved, either side can initiate a work stoppage, with a 72-hour notice to the other side.
Proposal Vote: At any time during the bargaining process, either party can apply to the LRB for a proposal vote. As the name suggests, a proposal vote forces the other side to vote on a proposal.
For example, AU may apply to the LRB for a proposal vote of AUFA members. AUFA members would then be given an offer to examine and vote on (accept/reject). If a majority of AUFA members who vote were to accept the proposal, then the proposal would form the basis of a new collective agreement. If the majority rejected the proposal, then the bargaining process would continue.
Each side is allowed can apply for a proposal vote only once each over the entire course of bargaining. Such a vote gives each side an opportunity to do an end run around the other side’s bargaining team. The rationale is that bargaining teams may be holding onto a firmer position than the membership that they represent. The threat of an end run is intended both to discourage and to remedy hardline bargaining.
Arbitration: The Labour Relations Code allows both parties to agree at any time to have a dispute resolved via arbitration (i.e., settled by a neutral third party). There are risks associated with arbitration, the key one being the tendency of arbitrators to “split the difference” between two positions.
In our case, AU’s unwillingness to withdraw its most egregious proposals would leave AUFA vulnerable to the possibility that the arbitrator would accept some of AU’s proposals in order to “give” each side something. For this reason, the specific context of arbitration—that is, what remains in dispute—plays a significant role in whether this option is desirable or not.
So what is the timeline for a work stoppage?
It is hard to predict the process and timing of a dispute once bargaining impasse has been reached. A very rough estimate is this:
• Application to the Labour Board to settle an ESA: February-March
• Formal mediation: April-May
• Strike Vote/Lockout Poll: June at the earliest.
Once achieved, a strike or lockout mandate is valid for 120 days (i.e., the work stoppage must start with 120 days; the work stoppage can continue indefinitely).
Can AUFA win if there is a work stoppage?
Yes. The key to a successful strike is to apply enough operational and political pressure to AU to bring them back to the bargain table with an offer that is acceptable to AUFA members. For example, the current Alberta settlement pattern is two years of wage freeze offset by language improvements for the workers and a wage re-opener (i.e., further negotiations on money) in years 3 and 4.
AUFA members perform pivotal functions at AU, and the university will not be able to operate effectively without us. As one example, academic members of AUFA teach over 5,000 students at any one time. During a work stoppage, those students would see their course progress suspended. (AUFA is currently working to ensure that AU is unable to assign these students to other instructors.)
The suspension (or threat of suspension) of instruction for a significant number of students will have profound reputational and enrollment impacts upon AU (particularly given that 50% of AU’s revenue is tuition based). This sort of profound consequence suggests that AU will eventually be forced to negotiate an acceptable collective agreement.
There are similar examples available related to the work of AUFA’s professional members.
What happens if AUFA members won’t authorize a strike?
If AUFA members don’t authorize a strike, then AU will be able to impose its rollbacks on us through a short lockout.
Indeed, it may be that AU is counting on AUFA’s member to be unwilling to strike and that explains their aggressive posture at the bargaining table.
What happens next?
AUFA’s work stoppage team will continue its preparation. The immediate task is to conclude an Essential Services Agreement. This may entail applying to the LRB for adjudication by the Essential Services Commissioner.
Bob Barnetson, Chair
Work Stoppage Planning Committee