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