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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Is Athabasca University Prepared for a Work Stoppage?

With the risk of a work stoppage ongoing, a number of AUFA members have raised important questions about how a work stoppage would work in practice.

The work stoppage planning committee pooled these questions and posed them to Alain May (head of AU’s bargaining team) and Charlene Polege (AU’s Director of HR).

The questions we asked were:

  1. Will AU be limiting or disabling AUFA members’ access to AU’s email systems during a work stoppage? This has implications for ongoing research and disciplinary service work.

  2. How will AU handle ARL, PD and vacation leaves that are underway when a work stoppage commences? Will the leaves be suspended for the duration of a work stoppage and then resumed once the work stoppage ends?

  3. AUFA members often book conference attendance months in advance. If an AUFA member is booked to attend a conference during a work stoppage, will AU reimburse expenses associated with conference attendance (which will mostly be incurred regardless of whether or not the member attends) from PD, APDF, and research grant funds?

  4. How will AU handle AUFA members on causal sick leave (of up to six months) during a work stoppage? Specifically, will AU continue their salaries or suspend such payments?

  5. How will AU handle AUFA members on Research and Study Leave (i.e., sabbatical)? Will such members (some of whom will be overseas) have their pay suspended? Will sabbatical be suspended and extended based upon the length of the dispute?

  6. How will the AU handle AUFA members on term contracts? Will their terms be suspended and extended (which may make sense if they are covering leaves that will also be extended)? Or will their contracts be terminated? Will term members who are CUPE members who are temporarily in AUFA revert back to CUPE appointments during an AUFA work stoppage?

  7. Approximately 200 AUFA members work from home offices and privately pay for telephone and internet access required for their job (for which they receive a stipend). Will AU continue to pay for these services during a work stoppage? If not and, consequently, AUFA members disconnect these services, will AU pay for reconnection fees (plus knock-on costs like new business cards, new letters to students)?

  8. Many AUFA members have possession of AU computers. Will AU ask that members return computers to AU for the duration of the work stoppage? Will AU attempt to remotely limit the operation of these computers (which, again, has significant implications for research and external service activity)?

  9. Some AU programs have practicum (or clinical) components where AUFA members teach and supervise students in a professional setting but that do not appear to meet the definition of an essential service (I’m specifically thinking about undergraduate nursing practicums). How will AU handle such practicums when notice of a work stoppage is served? Will the practicum be suspended and resumed? Or simply discontinued? I would expect that students would also want to know the answer to this question.

  10. AU has certain contractual obligations (e.g., to supply data to third parties) associated with grants. How will AU meet these requirements during a work stoppage? If AU cannot meet these requirements, will AU be alerting third parties to the disruption?

Polege’s response (in its entirety) was:

Thank you for your email. At this time in the bargaining process we are focusing our energy on finding creative solutions that will result in a collective agreement.  If and when there is a strike, we will share information that we deem appropriate within the 72 hour notice period.

 

One explanation for this unsatisfactory response is that AU hasn’t put its mind to how a work stoppage would actually work. An alternate explanation is that AU is withholding this information as a form of leverage. And, of course, both of these things could be true.

Since AU does not seem prepared to address these questions, the work stoppage committee recommends you email any questions you have to your supervisor, cc’ing Polege. cpolege@athabascau.ca

Bob Barnetson, Chair

Work Stoppage Planning Committee

Proposal Vote Update

On Tuesday, AUFA applied to the Labour Relations Board for a proposal vote by the Board of Governors (BoG) on AUFA’s most recent proposal. A few members have questions about this process and we thought sharing the answers might be helpful.

1. What is a proposal vote?

Once per round of bargaining, each side can request the other side vote on a proposal even though the other side’s bargaining team has rejected it. If the proposal is accepted, then the collective agreement is settled. If the proposal is rejected, then bargaining continues.

2. Who votes on this proposal?

The employer has the power to determine how it will handle a vote. The entire Board could cast a vote (with a majority rules arrangement) or the Board could designate a group or an individual to cast a ballot.

By contrast, if AU applies for a proposal vote of AUFA members, each AUFA member would be entitled to vote and the majority would rule. (This is one of those asymmetries that exist in labour law.)

3. Why did AUFA choose to apply for a proposal vote now?

There are a couple of reasons the executive decided to authorize a proposal vote now:

  • We believe that the BoG bargaining team is taking a more aggressive stance than the BoG itself would approve. A proposal vote after impasse has been reached forces the BoG to recognize that their bargaining team’s strategy is not working. It also gives the BoG a way out (e.g., sign this pattern proposal and get 5 years of labour peace) before things escalate further.  

  •  Bargaining coming to impasse is a disheartening event. Filing a proposal vote demonstrates that we are not passive victims and we still have power in this dispute. It also demonstrates that AUFA is doing everything it can to avoid an actual work stoppage (which is unnecessary, but for the employer’s intransigence).

  •  We could think of no good reason to save this tactic for a later time. If it is successful this dispute is over (so big potential reward). If it fails, it cost us nothing (so low risk). If it fails, it also demonstrates to everyone (e.g., our members, the government, students) that the barrier to resolution is the BoG.

 4. What is AUFA’s proposal?

  •  AUFA advanced its December 5 proposal. The nub of it is:

  • A five-year contract (July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2023).

  • A wage freeze in years 1 and 2.

  • A wage re-opener (i.e., further negotiations) in years 3-5 with impasse resolved by arbitration.

  • Four language improvements addressing on-call pay, spousal hiring, converting term positions to regular positions after a fixed period of time, and provisions addressing intellectual property.

  • Numerous housekeeping proposals made by the employer. Some of these were included in the December 5 offer,and some were agreed to in January (and which AUFA would honour if AU accepts the December 5 proposal).

5. Can I see AUFA’s December 5 proposal?

Yes, absolutely.

The proposal itself can be a bit hard to read, so we have posted a detailed summary here. The summary includes the entirety of the new language AUFA has proposed. We have also summarized the house-keeping items to reduce the length and complexity of the document.

For example, AUFA has agreed to get rid of much of Article 6.3 (which governed collective bargaining) because moving under the Labour Relations Code makes these provisions irrelevant. So we’ve summarized that as “6.3: Deleted; replaced by bargaining language in Labour Relations Code.”

The actual proposal includes all of the language that is being struck out and makes for hard reading. If you really, really want to grind through the whole thing, we can send you several pdfs as well as the existing collective agreement (which you will need to read side-by-side with the changes).

6. When will the results of the vote be known?

At this point, no date has been established. At present, we’re hearing probably 2.5 weeks, but it depends on whether AU objects to the vote of not. Obviously we’ll report the results as soon as we know them.

—Bob Barnetson, Chair

Work Stoppage Committee

 

 

Why is the Employer Acting This Way?

This is a question we get a lot from members at the Athabasca University Faculty Association office. While we want to caution people against too much speculation, we do want to offer some insight into the employer’s actions, and some insight into what is driving the bargaining process when we can base these insights on facts. Below, we will lay out the major factors influencing the Board of Governors' aggressive approach to bargaining:

Money

The administration sees AU making substantial surpluses, and they want to earmark that money for their own pet projects, rather than staff compensation. Administration also sees current staff agreements as a source of funds that could go towards other items. Such items may include raises for senior staff, more personal assistants for executives and senior University officials, or money for projects and programs they are personally invested in.

A previous Vice President Finance once remarked in a Board of Governors meeting that a raise in the AUFA bargaining unit of 1% would cost the institution about $400,000 per year. Based on our numbers, using the median income of the AUFA unit of approximately $100,000/year, that number is an accurate rough estimate. By these numbers, AU could afford a substantial raise for the AUFA unit while still putting money into reserves and other projects. Our current projected surplus is $9.1 million for this year, on top of multiple surpluses in past years.

While we have mostly done an analysis of contract language in these blog updates, it’s worth commenting that so far AU has not even entertained a wage re-opener beyond years one and two (the years we are told the government has mandated zeroes). By offering a wage freeze in line with the rest of the public sector, AUFA is being exceedingly generous given AU’s current financial health. Asking for modest improvements to contract language -- instead of drastic cuts -- is a predictable and reasonable move.

The Strategic Flinch

Another factor worth considering is our President’s own Academic research on “The Strategic Flinch”, linked here.

In his research, Dr. Fassina puts forward (backed up with data) the idea that there is a strategic argument to be made for turning up the heat emotionally at the table and pressuring negotiations. During bargaining, there has been no shortage of emotional outbursts towards AUFA from the Board’s team, including castigating AUFA for refusing to sign language that is clearly not in the union’s interest, and accusing the union of bad faith when we have in earnest turned down language our own members rejected through our polling.

Almost all of these outbursts have been from their legal counsel. Even when obviously wanting to take the AUFA team to task, AU staff at the table for the employer have been exceedingly reasonable. However, it is notable that passages like these seem to reflect the employer’s approach at the bargaining table:


“When people believe that they have given offence, self-regulation theory suggests that they may be motivated to try to restore the relationship to its former state by conceding to or demanding less of their counterparts than they might have otherwise (e.g., Baumeister et al. 1994, 1998; Greenberg 1988; Hassebrauck 1986). Similarly, negative emotions are negative reinforcers of behavior, thereby calling for a behavioral adjustment (Cacioppo and Gardner 1999; Fischer and Roseman 2007). In short, a flinch may affect the distribution of value because of both cognitive and emotional factors.” (Fassina 2013)

If the employers’ package and the over-the-top pressure put on the bargaining team is simply an attempt to shift the “value proposition” of the bargaining, our best response for the union membership is to call the bluff and not give in. There is a good argument for us holding our ground. Allowing the employers’ tactic to work this time would invite more aggressive behaviour in the future and encourage unreasonable approaches to bargaining. The best way to deal with a tactic we don’t like is to not allow it to be effective, and in this case its effectiveness is largely up to us anyways.

There is also a downside to this strategy for the Board of Governors, as Dr. Fassina himself puts it:


“Not all of the findings, however, were positive with respect to the utility of flinching. Negotiators on the receiving end of this tactic perceived the bargaining relationship more negatively than negotiators in the control condition, even when controlling for objective performance. The additional value claimed in the short term by those who flinch in distributive bargaining may therefore come at the expense of long term gains. Although flinching leads to enhanced value claiming, the findings suggest that this tactic may diminish the desire of others to negotiate with us in the future. If so, future opportunities to reach agreements and to create value will be lost.” (Ibid.)

According to his own research, this leads to less desire to negotiate; in a real estate deal, for example, the likely outcome is a failure to sell a house. If impasse cannot be solved by the parties in collective bargaining, the outcome is a labour disruption. Lingering resentment, divisions in a small town created over tensions in its largest employer, and more bad press for the university then become entrenched problems.

UNION AVOIDANCE

In the past, we have discussed the Athabasca University Board of Governor’s decision to appoint external legal counsel as their chief negotiator. It is worth noting what kind of labour law Chantel Kassongo practices. While there is no doubt that some employers will drive a hard bargain, there is also a line between that and outright trying to “break” the union with which you are bargaining. Typically, these are called union avoidance strategies; see Dr. Bob Barnetson’s discussions of these strategies here.

Kassongo regularly uses these strategies, and further, employer groups frequently invite her to teach employers how to keep their businesses ‘union free’. While it may seem counter-productive for a lawyer who deals with unions for a living to teach businesses how to eliminate unions, it is a very lucrative line of work for some lawyers and Human Resources practitioners.

These strategies include offering incentives to employees while bargaining is ongoing (like paid time off above and beyond what the employer otherwise usually gives), combined with punishments such as retaliating against members who file grievances, singling out union officers for different treatment, and failure to abide by timelines for the resolution processes in the collective agreement. Often a business that embarks on this path will hire a lawyer with some experience in these strategies in order to stay on the right side of the law, and to protect under legal privilege any discussions around said strategy. Generally speaking, some losses in labour board hearings and arbitrations are considered an acceptable outcome if the ends are sufficiently favourable to justify the means.

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It is easy to simply focus on the person providing these services, but responsibility for using these strategies rests with the Board of Governors. Why would the Board of Governors work so hard to antagonise the largest bargaining unit in their workforce? Why would the Board employ such a consistent and far-reaching union-avoidance strategy?

Power

Many comments made both at and away from the bargaining table indicate that the employer desires a greater degree of control over the workforce.This is generally known as Managerialism. As it stands, the employer has said they feel the protections for academic freedom at AU are too strong and have signalled that this may be a place they want to seek concessions from the union in future. They intend to start with professional freedom and then roll academic freedoms back from there. Most of the employer’s demands are to do with hiring, determination of duties, promotion, severance, the grievance procedure, and discipline. All of these exist as important protections against an employer’s ability to curtail the career prospects of its critics and its ability to target union activists.

While many AUFA members are likely happy with their jobs at AU, we don’t have to look too far into our past to a time when most people felt extremely insecure. That kind of environment is not conducive to academic excellence, and it is not a coincidence that those years of insecurity and layoffs at AU were also years during which AU’s enrollments struggled and our budget was tight.

Our members want to defend their rights because they have seen what a blank cheque in the hands of the Board of Governors to lay people off has looked like. Those years were not great for AU staff, for our students, or for AU’s institutional reputation.

Moving Forward

Athabasca University should be a workplace where employees are hired and assessed reasonably by their peers. Where discipline is not arbitrary. Where dissident voices are not easily silenced by those who have power inside the institution, and who in turn can be pressured by those who have power in society at large. Where work is assessed and distributed equitably, and where people who are experts in their field can appeal management decisions to their peers. These are basic questions of job security, of dignity, and of respect for the work our members perform.

The Athabasca University Faculty Association believes that those who carry out the day-to-day work at AU have the best interests of the University at heart and should retain their ability to participate in AU fully in the way that they have until now. Athabasca University is currently a success story, and AUFA members deserve a lot of credit for that success. AUFA believe that the AUFA contract, and the rights that AUFA members enjoy through that contract, is essential for our continued success. Athabasca University clearly believes that AUFA members enjoy too much freedom, and that AU suffers from too much collegiality.

It is absolutely baffling that an employer who is doing so well would jeopardize all of this progress simply to “fix” something that is clearly not broken. That said, we are confident that AUFA’s members are not buying it, and we are certain they have what it takes to stand together and defend their hard-earned rights. Not for ourselves, but for the good of AU and the many communities it serves.

—Nick Driedger, AUFA Executive Director

Bargaining Reaches Impasse - What Next?

On Tuesday, collective bargaining between AUFA and the Board reached impasse. For reasons outlined in the bargaining update, AUFA’s bargaining team has been forced to conclude that no further progress towards a collective agreement is likely at this time.

So what now?

Here is a thumbnail sketch of what is likely to happen in the next few months as AUFA’s bargaining and work stoppage teams continue to work towards achieving a collective agreement.

  1. Continue Bargaining: Even after impasse has been reached, it is not uncommon for parties to resume bargaining at a later date. For example, political pressure on AU may cause them to reconsider what AU’s true bottom line is. Bargaining can resume at any point and is most likely to be the way that this dispute is eventually resolved.

  2. Negotiate an Essential Services Agreement (ESA): The parties are required to negotiate an ESA in order to maintain certain services during a work stoppage. The threshold for deciding which services would be maintained includes whether the cessation would endanger the health, safety, or life of the public.

    AUFA and AU met to negotiate an ESA on January 15. AU’s position at the meeting was that (1) AUFA members do not perform essential services and that, if they do, (2) those services can be performed by non-bargaining unit staff. AUFA expects these negotiations to conclude this Friday, and we will probably need to have the matter adjudicated.

  3. Commence Formal Mediation: When bargaining reaches impasse, either side can request formal mediation by a government-appointed mediator. At this point, negotiations continue in the presence of the mediator, in hopes that a final agreement can be reached.

    If a final agreement cannot be reached in mediation, a mediator will often issue a recommended settlement that the parties are obliged to vote upon. If both parties accept the recommendation, then it becomes the new collective agreement.

    If either party rejects the recommendation, then mediation is concluded, and the dispute continues. There is a 14-day cooling-off period following mediation.

  4. Strike Vote and Lockout Poll: Once the 14-day cooling off period ends, AUFA can apply to the Labour Relations Board (LRB) to hold a strike vote. The employer can also apply to hold a lockout poll.

    A successful strike vote by AUFA members is required before AUFA can go on strike. A successful lockout poll by the Board of Governors is required before AU can lock AUFA members out.

    Once a strike or lockout mandate has been achieved, either side can initiate a work stoppage, with a 72-hour notice to the other side.

  5. Proposal Vote: At any time during the bargaining process, either party can apply to the LRB for a proposal vote. As the name suggests, a proposal vote forces the other side to vote on a proposal.

    For example, AU may apply to the LRB for a proposal vote of AUFA members. AUFA members would then be given an offer to examine and vote on (accept/reject). If a majority of AUFA members who vote were to accept the proposal, then the proposal would form the basis of a new collective agreement. If the majority rejected the proposal, then the bargaining process would continue.

    Each side is allowed can apply for a proposal vote only once each over the entire course of bargaining. Such a vote gives each side an opportunity to do an end run around the other side’s bargaining team. The rationale is that bargaining teams may be holding onto a firmer position than the membership that they represent. The threat of an end run is intended both to discourage and to remedy hardline bargaining.

  6. Arbitration: The Labour Relations Code allows both parties to agree at any time to have a dispute resolved via arbitration (i.e., settled by a neutral third party). There are risks associated with arbitration, the key one being the tendency of arbitrators to “split the difference” between two positions.

    In our case, AU’s unwillingness to withdraw its most egregious proposals would leave AUFA vulnerable to the possibility that the arbitrator would accept some of AU’s proposals in order to “give” each side something. For this reason, the specific context of arbitration—that is, what remains in dispute—plays a significant role in whether this option is desirable or not.

So what is the timeline for a work stoppage?

It is hard to predict the process and timing of a dispute once bargaining impasse has been reached. A very rough estimate is this:

• Application to the Labour Board to settle an ESA: February-March

• Formal mediation: April-May

• Strike Vote/Lockout Poll: June at the earliest.

Once achieved, a strike or lockout mandate is valid for 120 days (i.e., the work stoppage must start with 120 days; the work stoppage can continue indefinitely).

Can AUFA win if there is a work stoppage?

Yes. The key to a successful strike is to apply enough operational and political pressure to AU to bring them back to the bargain table with an offer that is acceptable to AUFA members. For example, the current Alberta settlement pattern is two years of wage freeze offset by language improvements for the workers and a wage re-opener (i.e., further negotiations on money) in years 3 and 4.

AUFA members perform pivotal functions at AU, and the university will not be able to operate effectively without us. As one example, academic members of AUFA teach over 5,000 students at any one time. During a work stoppage, those students would see their course progress suspended. (AUFA is currently working to ensure that AU is unable to assign these students to other instructors.)

The suspension (or threat of suspension) of instruction for a significant number of students will have profound reputational and enrollment impacts upon AU (particularly given that 50% of AU’s revenue is tuition based). This sort of profound consequence suggests that AU will eventually be forced to negotiate an acceptable collective agreement.

There are similar examples available related to the work of AUFA’s professional members.

What happens if AUFA members won’t authorize a strike?

If AUFA members don’t authorize a strike, then AU will be able to impose its rollbacks on us through a short lockout.

Indeed, it may be that AU is counting on AUFA’s member to be unwilling to strike and that explains their aggressive posture at the bargaining table.

What happens next?

AUFA’s work stoppage team will continue its preparation. The immediate task is to conclude an Essential Services Agreement. This may entail applying to the LRB for adjudication by the Essential Services Commissioner.

Bob Barnetson, Chair

Work Stoppage Planning Committee

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