bargaining

AU in Good Financial Shape

On September 3, the Blue Ribbon Panel on Alberta’s Finances released its final report. This report moots reducing public grants to post-secondary institutions and reviewing whether all of Alberta’s 26 post-secondary institutions are financially viable. The panel, chaired by Janice MacKinnon, also suggests reducing public-sector compensation via bargaining mandates enforced by back-to-work legislation.

Some commentators have suggested that Athabasca University would be one of the post-secondary institutions targeted for review and potential closure. It’s fairly easy to see why outside observers would think this to be the case:

  • In 2012, poor fiscal management resulted in the institution declaring financial stringency and laying off (or otherwise eliminating) dozens of staff positions.

  • In 2015, Acting President Peter MacKinnon publicly declared that AU faced likely insolvency by 2017/18.

  • Over the past year, the current administration has fought with its employees at the bargaining table and profoundly damaged institutional morale and trust.

Yet, a review of AU documents suggests that, despite forecasts of doom, the institution is in a strong financial position.

AU Financial Statements

In the spring, Athabasca University very quietly posted its financial statements online for the year ending on March 31, 2019. The bottom line is that AU recorded an annual operating surplus of $14.199 million on overall expenditures of $134.253 million. This was a surprise since AU had projected no surplus in its 2019 budget.

Overall, AU’s accumulated surplus (i.e., reserves) is now $31.697 million. This reflects that AU has run a series of surpluses over time, as set out in Table 1.

Table 1. AU Operating Surpluses Over Time (000s).

Source: AU Financial Statements

The 2019 surplus of $14.199 million was driven by two main factors. First, revenue was up slightly (nearly $3 million), driven mostly by increased tuition revenue caused, in turn, by significant enrollment growth. Second, expenses were dramatically lower than projected (more than $11 million), driven by lower salary ($4 million) and employee benefit ($5.6 million) expenditures.

 While AU’s executive and Board often frame annual operating surpluses as being caused by “one-time savings that cannot be relied upon in the future”, Table 2 demonstrates that over-estimating expenses is a recurring pattern and the degree of over-estimation is increasing over time. A cynical reading of this would be that AU is over-estimating expenses to manage expectations—just like crying “insolvency” is a way to try to break worker resistance to objectionable restructuring.

Table 2. AU Budgeted and Actual Expenses by Year (000s)

Source: AU Financial Statements

Government Grants

These tables suggest AU is in good financial shape. There is the possibly of a reduction in government grants in the upcoming budget. Government grants (both operating and other grants) comprise only 35% of AU’s revenue. Tuition accounts for 50% of revenue with sales of services (~12%) being the only other big source of revenue.

The relatively small portion of AU’s revenue that comes from government grants means both that AU is already significantly “entrepreneurial” (the government’s terminology for non-grant dependent) and that AU’s vulnerability to funding cuts is significantly attenuated. For example, a 10% reduction in operating grants would only reduce overall revenue by about $4.5 million—a hit well within AU’s capacity to absorb.

The Road Ahead

The 2019 MacKinnon report suggests reducing expenditures on public-sector compensation in Alberta. This could mean reducing the number of employees or reducing their wages and benefit costs. We will likely have to wait until the provincial budget (in mid October) to see how the government plans to proceed and how Alberta’s broader labour movement (of which AUFA is a small part) responds.

It is important to be mindful that the situation of any one institution will differ from the overall picture. For example, the former New Democrat government imposed a bargaining mandate of two zeros on the public sector. Yet, AU’s 2018/19 financial statements suggest that AU could have easily afforded to provide its staff with a modest cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). As an example, a 2% COLA for all AU staff (AUFA, AUPE, CUPE and excluded) would have cost only about $1.6 million.

What We Can Do

Like the 2015 AU MacKinnon report, the 2019 provincial MacKinnon report is distressing to read. It seems to foreshadow further post-secondary cuts. For those who lived through the Klein cuts (1994-1997), the MacKinnon report may bring back difficult memories of wage rollbacks, layoffs and hiring freezes, and fears about the future of the institution.

It is important that we not panic. Despite a history of terrible administration, AU is in good financial shape and offers a relatively low-cost way to deliver post-secondary education.

And despite the government rhetoric, its desire to impose change is limited by its willingness to accept the political costs of those changes. Alberta’s labour movement has successfully resisted attacks on our pensions (Bill 10 in 2012) and on our bargaining rights (Bills 45 and 46 in 2014/15). We will doubtlessly also resist attacks on our jobs and income.

Further, the legal landscape has changed significantly since the Klein years, with the Supreme Court ruling that workers are entitled to a meaningful process of collective bargaining. If the government seeks to drive austerity via a bargaining mandate enforced with back-to-work legislation, it will almost certainly face a Charter challenge (just as it has with Bill 9).

In the meantime, we have jobs to do. Those jobs include enforcing our existing collective agreement and preparing for the next round of bargaining in 2020. We expect an AUFA bargaining team will be appointed by late September and AUFA will be hosting a CAUT collective bargaining training session in Athabasca on October 2-3.

Jolene Armstrong, President

Discipline and Dry-snitching at AU

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Article 7 of the collective agreement sets out the process by which Athabasca University can discipline AUFA members. The discipline process starts with a disciplinary investigation. Most investigations do not result in discipline.

If grounds for discipline are found, the employer can then impose sanctions (ranging from a reprimand to termination). AUFA members can appeal any discipline.

Since President Fassina’s arrival in late 2017, there has been a sharp increase in the number of discipline investigations. Over the past 3 years, AUFA has seen three times as many discipline investigations as in the preceding 10 years. Interestingly, the number of cases where sanctions have been imposed remains the same (i.e., the rate of sanctioning has declined).

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Discipline Cases by Year

Note: 2017-2019 data based on records review. 2007-2016 data based on records review supplemented by interviews with grievance officers.

The origins of most disciplinary complaints typically become apparent during the disciplinary investigation. Most recent discipline cases stem from complaints by a supervisor or a co-worker about performance or workplace behaviour.

Three of the recent investigations, however, have unclear origins. That is to say, while the issues under investigation in each case are clear (e.g., alleged bigamy of employment or misrepresentation), what (and who) triggered the investigation is not.

A close examination of these mystery cases suggests the root cause was idle (and often incorrect) gossip among AUFA members. While there does not appear to have been any intention to trigger a disciplinary investigation, the gossip eventually reached the ears of supervisors and/or HR and away we go.

This dynamic is often referred to as “dry snitching” in the labour movement. Essentially, workers sharing information about one another inadvertently trigger the disciplinary process. That 17% of recent discipline cases are the result of dry snitching suggests three things:

  1. While office gossip is inevitable, it is important to be mindful of who hears gossip, especially when that gossip could potentially result in discipline. The flat and informal organizational structure of AU means that co-workers with whom we socialize can also have managerial responsibilities. Sharing gossip with these co-workers can jeopardize the jobs of other AUFA members. More bluntly, not everyone with whom we’re friendly is necessarily someone who is safe to confide in.

  2.  AU is increasingly investigating potential disciplinary issues. We have gone from 1 case every 2 years to 13 cases in 2019 so far. It is unclear why the number of investigations has increased.

    A charitable explanation is that AU is trying to protect AUFA members’ procedural rights by following the collective agreement. That explanation is hard to reconcile with AU’s violation of other provisions of the collective agreement.

    An alternate explanation is that AU is trying to intimidate AUFA members in order to dampen overt discontent, and perhaps as part of a broader union-rejection strategy. The stress caused by being under investigation represents a significant penalty to a member even if no discipline is enacted.

  3. AU’s increasing interest in disciplinary investigations suggests that the protections set out in Article 7 of the collective agreement (including union representation and the delay of severe penalties until an appeal is heard) are provisions worth fighting to retain.

During the 2018/19 round of bargaining, AU (unsuccessfully) sought to make it easier and cheaper to discipline AUFA members. It may be necessary to push back against similar proposals in the 2020 round of bargaining.

Bob Barnetson

Chair, Work Stoppage Committee

AUPE wage re-opener foreshadows next round of AUFA bargaining

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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:

  1. Zero percent was consistent with other settlements.

  2. Alberta’s economy remained depressed.

  3. 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.

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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

Memorandum of Settlement Between AUFA and AU Board of Governors

A ratification vote has been sent to AUFA members which will remain active until end of day Friday July 5th. Once the Memorandum of Settlement (MoS) has been ratified by AUFA members and the Board of Governors our new contract will be in force.

If you have any questions about the MoS or its language please contact Bargaining Chair Erik Strikwerda or AUFA Vice President David Powell.

Click the below link to download the MoS. AUFA members may log in to vote here. The vote will remain open until 4:30pm on Friday, July 5th.

AUFA Reaches Agreement with Athabasca University

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Yesterday afternoon the AUFA bargaining team signed off on a contract agreement with the employer. Should this agreement be ratified by the AUFA members and AU Board of Governors it will complete this round of bargaining. The agreement is for all language signed to date, a 0% wage increase for two years, and language which will convert term staff to permanent status after five years of employment. If ratified the new contract will expire on June 30, 2020.

AUFA would like to thank our its tireless bargaining team Eric Strikwerda, Nick Driedger, Rachel Conroy, Bangaly Kaba, Serena Henderson, and Geoff Loken. As well, thanks to Bob Barnetson and the work stoppage committee, our sister unions for their solidarity, and most importantly the AUFA members for resisting a punitive management strategy and proving that we are strong and stand together.

Below is the bargaining update sent to our members last night from bargaining chair Eric Strikwerda.

Bargaining Update, 18 June 2019

This afternoon, following a two-day mediated bargaining session and more than a year of negotiations, the AUFA bargaining team signed off on a contract agreement with the employer. Effective dates for the agreement are 1 July 2018 through 30 June 2020. The deal, of course, remains subject to ratification by both AUFA’s membership and the Board of Governors. Ratification details will follow shortly.

The agreement includes two years of 0% wage increases (which, as you know, has been pattern across the post-secondary sector), language changes already agreed to, and additional language improvements to our Collective Agreement for our Article 5 members (term appointments). Term appointees will now automatically convert to regular employees following five years of service.

As you know from previous updates, the employer came at us hard from the outset, forcing the bargaining team to answer the employer’s opening proposals in equal measure (and then some). Successfully pushing back against these proposals represents no small gain at the table. Even still, today’s agreement remains the least favorable among recent agreements struck at other CARIs across the province, and speaks to the employer’s aggressive posture and disrespect for staff.

Certainly, the bargaining team would have liked to secure more in terms of language improvements. That said, in the bargaining team’s estimation, the deal over all was the best available without a strike, and positions AUFA well for the next round of bargaining (beginning sometime in spring of next year). Many thanks to the bargaining team for landing this deal.

Throughout this entire process, the bargaining team has drawn strength both from the members’ support, as well as the work stoppage committee’s work. Continued support from both will be crucial when the next round of bargaining begins.

Eric Strikwerda, AUFA Bargaining Chair

Conference Talking Points on AUFA Bargaining

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Bargaining between AUFA and AU has reached a standstill. This raises the spectre of a strike or a lockout within the next year.

Some faculty members have asked how they might talk about this situation if it comes up during the upcoming conference season. The talking points below may be of use:

The Situation

  • AUFA and AU have been in bargaining for more than a year, and without a contract, since July 1, 2018.

  • AU is demanding a wage freeze despite a $9m surplus and >12% enrollment growth.

  • AU is unprepared to offer any quid pro quo for the wage freeze.

  • After 19 days of bargaining, it appears AUFA and AU have reached impasse.

Pathway to a Strike

  • AUFA has requested informal mediation on June 17 and 18

  • If this informal and formal mediation fails, AUFA will proceed towards a strike vote.

  • AUFA expects a strike vote will be held in the early autumn.

  • Once a strike mandate is in place, AUFA can strike with 72 hours of notice.

Impact of a Strike

  • Approximately 5000 students will be without instruction (i.e., teaching or marking) for the duration of a strike.

  • AU’s administrative functions (e.g., Registrar, IT, Library) will also be impeded.

What You Can Do to Help

  • Students: Advise any students considering taking an AU course of the risk of a work stoppage, so that they may make an informed decision about enrolling.

  • Faculty: Contact AU President Neil Fassina (neil.fassina@athabascau.ca) and ask him to conclude an agreement to avoid a strike.

Bob Barnetson, Chair

AUFA Work Stoppage Committee

barnetso@athabascau.ca

Update: AUFA Bargaining and Strike Preparation

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Collective Bargaining

AUFA has been bargaining with the employer for 12 months and we have been without a contract for the past 10 months. After 19 days of bargaining, here is where we are:

  • AUFA has agreed to about 15 small contract changes;

  • AU is insisting upon a two-year agreement (ending June 30, 2020); and,

  • AUFA is prepared to accept a two-year wage freeze but seeks something in exchange for the wage-freeze.

AUFA has offered a variety of items it would accept in exchange for a wage freeze. These include contract language improvements (including creating a meaningful path to regularization for term employees), one-time payments, and a wage-re-opener.

So far, AU has not accepted these options, and indeed has ruled many of them out. AU has also not proposed any meaningful quid pro quos itself.

Informal Mediation

AUFA and AU will be meeting with a government-appointed mediator (Mia Norrie) on June 17 and 18. Informal mediation was recommended by the Labour Board and essentially is a form of facilitated bargaining.

Essential Services Agreement (ESA)

The Labour Relations Code requires that public-sector employers have an ESA in place (or have the requirement waived) before the union and employer can proceed for formal mediation and onwards to a work stoppage.

AUFA proposed a draft ESA in November to ensure counselling services and practicum instruction in the GCAP program continue to function during a work stoppage. AUFA asserts the cessation of these functions creates risk to the health, safety, and/or life of the public.

AU disputes this characterization. AU’s reluctance to agree to an ESA may reflect that the existence of an ESA bars AU from hiring replacement workers (i.e., scabs) during a work stoppage.

An umpire (Deborah Howes) has been appointed by the Labour Board to determine if an ESA is necessary and, if so, which functions would be covered by it. AUFA and AU will be making submissions to the umpire in May and June (respectively) with a hearing date tentatively set for mid-July.

Formal Mediation

Assuming informal mediation does not bring about an agreement, once the ESA question has been decided, AUFA and/or AU can apply for formal mediation. Completion of formal mediation is required before a union can take a strike vote or an employer can take a lockout poll.

Formal mediation operates much like informal mediation. The difference is in the end point. At the end of formal mediation, a mediator may make a recommendation for a settlement that both sides are required to vote upon.

If both sides accept the recommendation, than the recommendation forms a new collective agreement. If one or both sides reject the recommendation, then mediation has failed and the parties proceed towards strike/lockout.

It is difficult to know what a mediator might recommend, but looking at provincial patterns suggests most agreements entail a two-year freeze, language improvements for the union, and a wage-re-opener for at least one year. This is the deal AU signed with AUPE just recently.

Strike Vote/Lockout Poll

If formal mediation does not result in a new collective agreement, then the union can apply to hold a strike vote to seek a strike mandate. A mandate requires greater than 50% support from the members who vote. A successful strike vote is required for a union to strike.

The employer can also apply to hold a lockout poll of the Board in order to lock workers out. A successful strike vote or a lockout poll is valid for 120 days.

While a successful strike vote can precipitate a work stoppage, it  often forces the employer back to the bargaining table. For example, the University of Regina had a successful vote, issued strike notice, and had a deal within 3 days.

Strike/Lock Out

Once a strike or lockout has been authorized, either party can give 72 hours of notice of a work stoppage.

A common employer tactic is to issue notice of a lockout and then bring workers back almost immediately. A lockout (or a strike) ends the existing collective agreement. This allows the employer to bring workers back to work under the employer’s terms (commonly the employer’s last offer).

The union’s only response to such a tactic is to issue strike notice (which allows its members to not return to work under the employer’s terms). For this reason, unions often hold a strike vote so that they can respond immediately to a lockout notice.

Is a Strike or Lockout Likely?

AU’s most recent communication (March 23) asserted that “AU believes that AUFA and AU remain close to an agreement.” On the surface, this appears to be true: only small compromises by AU would be required for an agreement.

Link to AU’s assertion.

Looking more deeply, two things suggest this statement is untrue:

  1. AU is stalling bargaining. AU was unavailable to negotiate between February 13 and April 15,and it is again unable to negotiate between April 22 and June 17. No agreement is likely if the parties aren't talking. And AUFA and AU can't talk if AU won't come to the table.

  2. AU is refusing to compromise. On April 22, AU categorically ruled out an agreement longer that two years or any financial payments to AUFA to offset the two zeros that AU is demanding. AU also did not advance any new positions about regularizing term staff (Article 5). No agreement is likely if AU demands two zeros but offers no offsetting improvements for AUFA members. AU’s position is particularly unreasonable in light of AU’s >$9m surplus and soaring enrolments.

What are the Next Steps?

  • Information picket in Edmonton: May 21 at noon.

  • Informal mediation: June 17 and 18.

  • Information picket: June 17/18 (location TBD).

  • ESA hearing: Tentatively June 19

  • ESA decision: Date unknown (autumn)

  • Formal mediation: Date unknown (autumn).

  • Strike vote: Date unknown (autumn).

  • Strike: Date unknown.

Who Can I Contact?

Information about bargaining: Eric Strikwerda, Chair, AUFA bargaining committee

Information about work stoppage: Bob Barnetson, Chair, AUFA work stoppage committee

Register concern about AU’s behaviour: Neil Fassina, President, AU

Bob Barnetson, Chair

AUFA Work Stoppage Committee

barnetso@athabascau.ca

Information Picket Held in Edmonton

AUFA Picketers outside of the Board of Governors Meeting

AUFA Picketers outside of the Board of Governors Meeting

On March 28, Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) members picketed the Athabasca University Board of Governors Dinner in Edmonton to express their dismay with a lack of progress in negotiation for a new collective agreement. A second picket is scheduled for April 15 in the town of Athabasca.

AUFA is presently offering a four-year deal that includes:

  • A two-year wage freeze,

  • Language to prevent further abuse of precariously employed term staff, and

  • Additional negotiations about cost of living increases in the final two years of the agreement.

This agreement broadly mirrors settlements across Alberta’s public sector as well as the settlement Athabasca University just ratified with its support staff. It also addresses the University’s long-term mistreatment of term employees(an arbitration settlement last fall has forced the University to offer permanent appointments or make monetary settlements to numerous term employees).

The University’s Board of Governors turned down AUFA’s proposed deal during a Labour-Board-supervised vote on March 21. The University and AUFA have met 18 times since bargaining began in May of 2018. One additional bargaining date is scheduled for April 15.

The University and AUFA will be before the Labour Board to continue sorting out an essential services agreement on April 8. An essential services agreement is a prerequisite to formal mediation and a strike vote.

If a new collective agreement in not reached, 40,000 students from across Canada could be affected by a work stoppage in the early autumn. Faculty have been without a contract since June 30, 2018.

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