Is Athabasca University's Bargaining Proposal Reasonable?

In this blog update the AUFA office would like to go over an important consideration for every AUFA member: is the Athabasca University Board of Governors’ contract offer a reasonable one?

The most important considerations in answering this question,  in the AUFA executive’s opinion, are as follows:

What does the AU offer look like compared to other parts of the public sector?

The settlements discussed below have been signed since the Government of Alberta gave a public mandate of  zero wage increases in the public sector. Most negotiators have offset this wage freeze by trading slight improvements in contract language. For example, the Alberta Teachers Association settled for two years of zeros and progress on language about classroom sizes.

The United Nurses of Alberta settled for two years of zeroes and job security language.

The Alberta Union of Public Employees Government Services Workers settled for two years of zeroes and language on job security, contracting out and hiring practices.

The Health Science Association of Alberta settled for two years at zero percent increase and improvements to workload language.

In the post-secondary sector, agreements since the government mandate have included two zeroes and modest gains for the union on terms and conditions language.

These settlements include: Grand Prairie Regional College, Keyano College, Grant MacEwen University, Concordia University College, Northern Lakes College, Portage College, NAIT and Mount Royal University among others. You can see their wage settlements listed here (any raises for 2018 and 2019 are from previous agreements prior to the salary mandate):

This pattern of no salary increases for two years and modest improvements to contract terms covers thousands of public sector staff, from nurses to IT staff to university professors, and has been uniform across the board.

Measured against these outcomes, the AU Board of Governors’ offer may be an ambitious but acceptable opening offer. With both teams having been at the table for eight months and approaching impasse, and the outcomes of any possible comparator being settled, the Athabasca University Board of Governors’ stance can be seen as exceedingly aggressive, even reckless.

If the AU Board of Governors had been hoping for a similar outcome at the close of negotiations, then their opening offer could be viewed as a reasonable starting point—somewhat aggressive, perhaps, but it gives them room to back down. At this point, however, with both teams having been at the table for eight months and the results of contract negotiations elsewhere in the province now publicly available, their refusal to budge stands out as anomalous. It can only be interpreted as unduly punitive, and it also seems almost reckless, given that outcomes elsewhere do not support it.

Does AU require these changes to the contract to remain an effective institution?

Comparisons to other institutions will only get you so far. It is also important to look at Athabasca University itself, and to ask if there are extenuating circumstances requiring the Boards’ requested changes tothe contract language. Let’s review AU’s recent surpluses and current enrollment situation.

AU had a very successful year, culminating in a 12.2% increase in enrollment.

Considerable credit goes to our talented and diligent AUFA members in University Relations, who have worked diligently to advertise Athabasca University to ever-larger audiences.  AU’s current administration up until now has managed to avoid negative media stories the previous administration was so good at attracting, which may have positively impacted enrollment as well. A reckless approach to bargaining by the Board of Governors could, however, threaten this public goodwill and morale within the institution starts to seriously suffer.  

Current projections have the budget surplus for 2019 pegged at 9.1 million dollars -- and that includes some big-ticket expenses like the current arrangement with Amazon Web Services. In previous years we have seen mostly surpluses, with only a minor deficit in 2016  

  • 2018: $9.1 million surplus (projected)

  • 2017: $3.7 million surplus

  • 2016: $530 thousand deficit

  • 2015: $1.7 million surplus

  • 2014: $3.6 million surplus

  • 2013: $752 thousand surplus

  • 2012: $409 thousand surplus

Over the last six years, Athabasca University has posted $18.7 million in surplus, half of those last year alone.

AU is a quite successful institution, and it is difficult to see how the Board of Governors’ offer will have any further positive effect in terms of enrollment and budget. There is no budget crisis driving a need for austerity; regardless,the vast majority of the Board of Governors’ demands are focused on issues that do not have a direct monetary impact.

The Board of Governors  have asked their workforce for close to a decade of belt tightening, and the workforce has largely delivered. No reasonable party would say  that significant concessions should still be expected of this workforce

Is the employer simply responding in kind to outrageous demands by the union?

To date, AUFA has signed off on 9 items from the employers’ offer , while the employer has refused to sign anything from AUFA’s package.

You can view AUFA’s bargaining update on our recent global offer here.

AUFA’s bargaining team made a point of bringing a variety of changes to the table in our opening offer; however, many of our more ambitious demands have been dropped. Our goal  is to secure an agreement that remains consistent with the pattern established in the rest of our sector, and that allows AUFA members to share in Athabasca University’s recent successes. .  

The Board of Governors team has conceded very little of their offer, and in fact has kept major changes to articles 3,4,5,7,8,9 on the table. You can see their global offer here:

The employer is being exceedingly aggressive, whereas AUFA has moved closer to the pattern set by the rest of the public sector and to the Board of Governors’ most recent offer.  There remains little room for AUFA to move, and the employer is refusing to move at all.

Conclusions:

The Athabasca University Board of Governors’ offer is out of step with both the public sector in Alberta, and with the business reality of the institution. The employer has failed to match the union by signing any items from our offer and moving closer towards us. To our initial question of whether or not the Board of Governors offer is reasonable the only answer we can give is no.

In our next blog post, we will examine and offer possible explanations for the employer’s approach to the bargaining process.

Nick Driedger, Executive Director of AUFA

How to Prepare for a Work Stoppage

The lack of progress at the bargaining table has raised the prospect of a work stoppage. A recurring question is how should AUFA members prepare for a strike or a lock out. An average strike/lockout in PSE lasts three weeks while the vast majority of strikes and lockouts are resolved within six weeks.

A work stoppage will affect your salary and benefits. During any work stoppage, AUFA will maintain your health, dental, vision and life insurance benefits. AUFA has also arranged strike pay of $85 per calendar day (tax free) starting on the fourth day of any work stoppage.

For most AUFA members, $595 per week in pay represents a loss of net income. Depending upon your personal financial situation, it may be important to examine how to reduce or otherwise defray/delay expenditures. AUFA will be contacting all members closer to the date of any work stoppage to finalize direct deposit arrangements for your strike pay.

During a work stoppage, the university will likely curtail your access to AU facilities. It may also limit your access to your email and other electronic files. Consequently, you may wish to ensure you have access to any research or professional materials you will need to access during a work stoppage.

Once 72-hour strike or lockout notice has been served, you should set out-of-office notices on your voice mail and email, indicating you will be out of the office for an unknown period of time due to a work stoppage and that you will contact them once you return to work.

For workers in home offices, it is presently unclear how the university wishes to proceed regarding telephone and internet access during a work stoppage (i.e., will AU pay for the continuation of the service or should you cancel it? If you cancel it, will AU pay for reconnection?). As we get closer to a work stoppage, AUFA expects to raise these questions with the employer.

During a work stoppage, AUFA will be activating an email communication system based upon the non-AU emails we collected in early 2018. If your home email has changed, you are a new employee, or you have changed your mind about providing such an email, please feel free to contact the AUFA office (aufahq@aufa.ca). Note that in the days immediately preceding a work stoppage, the AUFA office will be extremely busy and may not have time to immediately process your email address changes.

The work stoppage committee welcomes questions, comments and the identification of issues we have not addressed above, please email Bob Barnetson (barnetso@athabascau.ca).

Bob Barnetson, Chair

Work Stoppage Planning Committee

What Happens When Bargaining Reaches Impasse?

At AUFA’s AGM on November 29, there was discussion about the possibility that the current round of collective bargaining will reach an impasse, due to AU’s insistence on concessions. A recurring question concerns what will happen if AU and AUFA cannot come to an agreement at the bargaining table.

If one or both sides conclude that no further progress at the table is likely to be made, there are several options:

1.   Both parties can agree to enter voluntary mediation, where a mediator helps the parties to seek resolution.

2.   Both parties can agree to send the dispute to arbitration to have it resolved by a neutral third party. It is worth noting that AU declined to do this in their current negotiations with AUPE.

3.   Either party can request that the Labour Board hold a proposal vote. If the employer sought a proposal vote, AUFA’s members would be polled by the Labour Board to determine whether they wish to accept AU’s current proposal.

4.   Either party can commence a process that may lead to a work stoppage.

This process consists of five steps, which must be completed prior to a work stoppage:

1.   Essential services agreement (ESA): The parties must agree which union members will continue to provide services essential to ensuring the life, health and safety of others and public order. This agreement precludes the employer from hiring replacement workers. On November 29, AUFA formally notified AU that we wish to commence negotiating an ESA.

2.   Formal Mediation: Upon application of either party, the government appoints a mediator who works with the parties to try to fashion an agreeable settlement. If the mediator makes a recommendation, the parties vote on it. If both sides accept the recommendation, then it becomes the new collective agreement.

3.   Cooling-Off Period: If no agreement is reached during mediation, there is a mandatory cooling-off period of at least 14 days. During this time, the parties can continue negotiations.

4.   Strike Vote/Lockout Poll: After the cooling-off period, the union may apply to the Labour Board for a supervised vote to authorize strike action. Similarly, the employer may apply to the Labour Board for a supervised lockout poll to authorize lockout action.

5.   Notice of Strike or Lockout: Once one (or both) party has secured authorization (i.e., a majority vote) to strike or lockout, it may serve 72-hours notice on the other party that a work stoppage will commence.

At any time during this process, the parties can conclude a new collective agreement.

 Bob Barnetson

 

Athabasca University's Proposals Heighten Risk of Work Stoppage

Athabasca University (AU) and the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) have been in collective bargaining since April 6, 2018. As of today, there has been no meaningful progress towards reaching a new collective agreement.

The key issue is that AU continues to advance a two-year wage freeze and an aggressive set of language rollbacks. For context, every other public-sector agreement in Alberta has settled for two zeros, a wage re-opener (or an increase) in year three, and language improvements for the union.

AUFA has recently polled its members on AU’s proposed language rollbacks. The questions asked whether members supported giving AU the power to:

These results indicate AUFA members will not ratify any agreement that contains these proposals. In short, the only way AU may (or may not) be able to achieve these rollbacks is by locking out AUFA members.

A work stoppage is in no one’s interest and AUFA remains hopeful that a new collective agreement can be negotiated. But, AU insisting on unnecessary rollbacks when it is flush with cash is unacceptable and will eventually result in work stoppage. As of this week, AUFA has completed its preparations for a work stoppage.

The costs of AU locking out AUFA will be substantial and include operational disruptions, lost revenue, and profound reputational damage with students, donors, and the government.

A way to avoid an entirely unnecessary work stoppage is for AU to drop its unreasonable demands and propose a collective agreement more in keeping with the public-sector pattern.

 Now would be the time for AU’s Board to re-evaluate the approach taken by its bargaining team and make a realistic proposal for settlement.

 -- Bob Barnetson, AUFA Work Stoppage Planning Committee

Introducing the New AUFA Blog

We are updating our website and moving away from the old newsletter format of publications. The new AUFA Blog will feature a variety of articles on any subjects relevant to AUFA and will include news, commentary and analysis, links to third party sources of interest, book reviews, events, and more. We will publish at a varying schedule with a minimum blog post of once per month.

Please send feedback, comments, and questions to aufahq@athabascau.ca