AUFA Strike and Lockout FAQ
What is the current status of collective bargaining?
Athabasca University (AU) and the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) have been in bargaining since May 10, 2018. The current collective agreement expired on June 30, 2018 and continues to operate under the bridging provisions of the Alberta Labour Relations Code. At present, bargaining continues with little progress at the table.
What are the key issues?
AU has proposed a two-year agreement with a wage freeze and significant changes to the contract language. You can view AU’s opening proposal here:
You can read about more about specific AU proposals:
• Discipline (Article 7)
• Appeals (Article 9)
• Layoffs (Articles 5 and 12)
• Professional Appointments (Article 4)
• Company Doctors (Article 16)
• Grievances (Article 8)
AUFA has proposed a three-year agreement with wage increases of 1%, 1% and 4% with improvements in the collective agreement language.
For context, most public-sector collective agreements in Alberta have settled on two years of wage freezes followed by either a wage increase or a wage re-opener (i.e., further negotiations over money) coupled with significant language improvements for the union.
What happens if AU and AUFA cannot come to an agreement?
Bargaining reaches impasse when one or both sides conclude that no further progress at the table is likely to be made. At that point:
- the parties can agree to enter voluntary mediation, where a mediator helps the parties to seek resolution, or
- either party can commence a process that may lead to a work stoppage (see below).
An additional option the employer has is to request the Labour Relations Board hold a proposal vote. A proposal vote is a way to end-run the AUFA bargaining team and have the Labour Board ask AUFA members if they would like to accept the employer’s most recent proposal. If the members vote yes, then the employer’s proposal becomes the basis of a new collective agreement.
A typical tactic is for the employer to advance an aggressive proposal, withdraw the most egregious proposals, and then hope the union members go “whew” and vote to accept other rollbacks to avoid a further fight.
What are strikes and lockouts?
A strike is a cessation of work by employees in order to pressure the employer to agree to a set of proposals. Usually, this involves not attending the workplace but can also entail a work-to-rule campaign.
A lockout is when an employer denies its workers work (usually by restricting access to the workplace) and wages in order to pressure the workers to agree to a set of proposals.
In any dispute, workers may strike, an employer may lock out, or both.
What are the steps required before a work stoppage can commence?
Prior to a work stoppage commencing, the parties must complete 5 steps:
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.
The employer can apply for an exception to the requirement for an ESA if it believes no union members provide such services or such services can be provided by excluded staff members. Disputes about ESAs are resolved by an umpire and/or the Labour Board.
Formal Mediation: Upon application of either party, the government appoints a mediator who works with the parties to try and fashion an agreeable settlement. If the mediator makes a recommendation, the parties vote on it. If accepted by both sides, then the recommendation becomes the new collective agreement.
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.
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.
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. Similarly, at any time the government can impose a Disputes Inquiry Board (DIB).
A DIB is a government-appointed panel that can inquire into a dispute and recommend a resolution (which the parties would then vote on). If a DIB is imposed before a work stoppage commences, it prevents a work stoppage from occurring until the DIB’s work is concluded. If a DIB is imposed after a work stoppage commences the work stoppage continues during the DIB’s work.
What are the chances of a work stoppage occurring?
On average, only 1% of collective bargaining in Alberta ends in a work stoppage each year. AU’s aggressive proposal (that is out of step with every other settlement in Alberta), inexperience in bargaining under strike/lockout, and the opportunity that single-table bargaining presents for AU to force major rollbacks into contract language suggests the risk of a work stoppage is higher than average at AU.
It is difficult to quantify the likelihood for a work stoppage. The work stoppage planning committee initially felt that, with a good strike plan in place, there was a 25% chance of a work stoppage after bargaining commences. As bargaining drags on with no progress, the risk of a work stoppage increases and we now assess the chance of a work stoppage as 50%.
Whether bargaining leads to a work stoppage or not is largely within the control of the employer. The longer that the employer continues to advance proposals that are unacceptable to AUFA members and out of step with every other public-sector agreement, the greater the risk of impasse and a work stoppage.
What is the most likely work stoppage scenario?
AUFA believes the most likely scenario involves a so-called 24-hour lockout of AUFA members by the Board. A 24-hour lockout works like this:
- When there is a work stoppage, the existing collective agreement is terminated. So a lockout of any duration would terminate the existing agreement.
- The employer could then tell AUFA members to come back to work under different terms of employment (typically the employer’s last offer).
- This would mean AUFA members would be working de facto under the employer’s last offer.
Employers adopt this tactic to wear down worker resistance to rollbacks. The only way for workers to counter this tactic is for the union to strike as soon as there is a lockout. This allows the workers to legally remain off the job and not de facto accept the employer’s terms by returning to work.
Can the parties go to arbitration instead of having a work stoppage?
Yes, if both parties agree, items in dispute can be remitted to an arbitrator.
How would a strike work at Athabasca University?
If AUFA members authorized strike action through a strike vote, AUFA’s executive would then determine when, if, and how a strike would take place.
After consultation with the members last spring, the work stoppage planning committee recommended that a full strike should entail:
- The withdrawal of all teaching, marking, student supervision, and course coordination work by academics.
- The withdrawal of professional services by professionals.
- The withdrawal of all university service work by all AUFA members.
Depending on how the employer behaves (i.e., what kind of lockout they use), there may be options for less than a full-strike. These options include:
• work-to-rule campaigns,
• a partial strike (i.e., withdrawing the services if specific member), or
• a rotating strike (e.g., today we’re out).
The tactics cause service disruptions and reputational harm and are aimed at applying pressure to the university (through revenue interruption) to negotiate a reasonable collective agreement.
How will a work stoppage affect me?
This depends somewhat upon the employer, but you can likely expect to lose physical and digital access to the workplace for the duration of any work stoppage. You will also likely see a cessation of income and suspension of pensionable service and contributions.
In the spring, AUFA members voted to increase their dues to develop a strike fund. This strike fund allows the union to ensure the continuation all benefits (health, dental, life) during a work stoppage by paying the premiums. The strike fund also provides $85 per calendar day (tax free) in strike pay starting on the fourth day of the work stoppage.
AUFA is currently examining how to distribute strike pay and whether it will be conditioned upon participation in strike activities.
How will AUFA continue operations during a work stoppage?
AUFA has collected the personal contact information (email and telephone numbers) from members to facilitate communication in the event of a work stoppage.
What will AUFA expect of members during a work stoppage?
The withdrawal of labour is a typically key source of pressure on the employer during a work stoppage. Consequently, all members will be expected to not report for or otherwise perform the AU-related work discussed above during a work stoppage.
Picketing is a common tactic during work stoppages. Picketing is intended to discourage “customers” from patronizing the employer (i.e., interrupt revenue streams) and also to embarrass the employer (i.e., cause reputational harm).
AUFA has set up 17 geographically based pickets. AUFA’s work stoppage planning committee is currently planning various strike activities (including picketing) that are appropriate given our dispersed workforce. The committee will provide the executive with a suite of options that the executive can choose among during a work stoppage.
What happens if I choose to continue working during a work stoppage?
AUFA’s constitution allows for the suspension of membership rights by a two-thirds vote of the membership. Other typical consequences of “scabbing” include public censure and social exclusion.
How long will a work stoppage last?
The long-term data on work stoppages (N=50) in Canadian PSE suggests the mean duration of work stoppage is 22.5 days and 90% of strikes last less than 6 weeks.
How long a work stoppage lasts at AU will be determined by (1) the issues over which there remains a dispute and (2) the effectiveness of the pressure brought by each side on the other during a work stoppage.
A third factor affecting duration is whether and when the government intervenes to bring an end to the dispute. The recent Ontario college strike (12,000 workers, hundreds of thousands of students) lasted over five weeks before the workers were ordered back to work.
How would a work stoppage affect my pension?
The Universities Academic Pension Plan (UAPP) has identified two implications of a work stoppage for pensions. Both impacts are expected to be slight, based upon the historically short nature of PSE work stoppage.
First, the period of the work stoppage would not be considered pensionable service, since AUFA members would not be receiving pay and neither the member nor the employer would not be making pensionable contributions. The effect of this would be to slightly delay the point at which a member received the 80 points (age plus years of service) necessary to qualify for a full pension. This would only affect members intending to retire as soon as they have their “pension numbers”.
Second, for members within five years of retirement, the loss of income may affect their pensionable entitlement. Pensionable entitlement is based upon one’s best five years of earnings. This effect is expected to be slight and would vary based upon the duration of the work stoppage and a member’s employment history.
UAPP suggests that the period of a work stoppage could be treated as pensionable if that were negotiated as part of the settlement of the work stoppage.
The Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations is currently exploring whether UAPP could be modified to allow members to buy back pensionable service during a strike. This change would require the agreement of the employers. Such employer agreement is unlikely since it reduces the cost of job action to workers.
To whom can I direct questions or comments?
You can direct questions to the work stoppage planning committee through Bob Barnetson (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com).