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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