AUFA and AU will commence bargaining again in the late spring of 2020. AUPE Local 69 (representing AU’s support staff) is presently negotiating with AU and its experience may usefully foreshadow what AUFA can expect.
Local 69 is presently in the last year of a three-year deal. According to an update sent to AUPE staff last week, AUPE and AU were supposed to enter negotiations for a wage re-opener, starting in early May. If no agreement was reached by June 30, the parties would then have gone to arbitration to settle the cost-of-living adjustment.
AU declined to meet with AUPE until June 25. At the June 25 meeting, AU offered a zero percent cost of living adjustment. AU’s rationale was threefold:
Zero percent was consistent with other settlements.
Alberta’s economy remained depressed.
AU is not yet out of the woods financially.
AU also emphasized that management and excluded employees have had their wages frozen for five years and that President Neil Fassina received a government-imposed pay cut. According to AU, no one should get a pay raise in order to avoid making management and excluded staff “second-class citizens”.
AU indicated that it would not be moving off of its mandate of a further wage freeze. AU then stated that “at this time, the offer is 0%, but who knows what may happen in the future – it could even be a rollback, no one knows what the situation will be next month or next year, but today it is 0%.”
As Bill 9 postponed all arbitrations until the fall, AUPE bargaining is now at a standstill. Local 69’s experience suggests four things for AUFA members:
1 . AU continues to ignore its procedural obligations. Much like it did with AUFA in 2018/19, AU stalled negotiations with Local 69. Procedural delays tend to benefit the employer because they push off any wage increase and, in the short term, delays make the union look ineffective to its members.
The effectiveness of this tactic diminishes over time as workers begin to understand delay as an employer tactic. The bad faith that this tactic represents can, indeed, damage the employer’s credibility and increase worker support for their union.
2. AU seeks continued wage freezes. This expectation is not surprising. AU (with the encouragement of both the former ND and present UCP government) is seeking to externalize the cost of the public services onto public-sector workers through wage freezes.
This expectation is not realistic. Long-term wage freezes (in the face of ~2% annual inflation) are untenable because they drive down workers’ purchasing power and pension entitlements. They also reduce the employer’s ability to hire.
AU’s rationale for further wage freezes is weak. AU is doing well. Its financial statements show a $14.3 million surplus in 2018/19. AU also has an accumulated surplus of $31.6 million, roughly what the university had before the Board and senior administration steered AU onto the rocks in 2013.
Further, it is unreasonable to expect workers to subsidize the cost of public services through substandard wages. Particularly galling is the assertion that wage freezes affect senior executives (the highest paid workers at AU) in the same way that they affect AUPE staff (among the lowest paid workers at AU). The idea that the growing number of senior executives at AU are second-class citizens is patently absurd.
3. The spectre of rollbacks is leverage for the employer. Bill 9 is widely believed to be a precursor to legislated wage freezes or rollbacks in the autumn. (The notion that Bill 9 is intended to give the government time to get a grip on the province’s finances is hard to reconcile with the government giving corporations a $4.5 billion tax cut.) AU clearly tried to use the spectre of rollbacks to buffalo AUPE into agreeing to another wage freeze.
4. Making gains in 2020 will be difficult. Despite AU’s solid financial positions and limited vulnerability to government funding cuts (grants represent only about 35% of revenue), AU seems intent on grinding its workers’ wages. Making significant wage and/or language gains at the table in 2020 will require a credible AUFA strike threat.
Bob Barnetson, Chair
AUFA Work Stoppage Committee