Letter to Minister of Advanced Education

On August 16th the Ministry of Advanced Education began a comprehensive overhaul of public board positions, replacing roughly 60 public post-secondary board members before the normal expiration of their terms. This includes three board members at Athabasca University, including the Board Chair. The Athabasca University Faculty Association views this drastic change as interference in the independence of public universities in pursuit of an austerity agenda.

The attached letter was sent to Minister Nicolaides by AUFA President Jolene Armstrong on behalf of members.

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

A Deal's a Deal.... Except at AU

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Note: The AUFA member mentioned in this blog post has consented to its publication.

Last week, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) convinced a judge to grant an injunction against Bill 9 (the Public Sector Wage Arbitration Deferral Act). Bill 9 allowed the government to violate collective agreements affecting 190,000 public-sector workers.

 In his reasons for granting the injunction, Queen’s Bench Justice Eric Macklin noted:

A member of the public expects, and is entitled to expect, that an agreement reached with the government will be honoured.

Essentially, the judge asserted that a deal is a deal. A recent development in a long-standing AUFA grievance file suggests Athabasca University doesn’t agree.

Seven years ago, AUFA began representing a member who alleged harassment. Five years ago, AUFA and AU reached a contractually binding grievance settlement. In exchange for AUFA withdrawing two grievances, a privacy complaint, and a judicial review application, AU agreed (in part) to:

  1. permanently re-assign the member to a different organizational unit, and

  2. assign the member a specific supervisor.

The agreement provided that that supervisor could change but that AU, AUFA, and the member must agree on the new supervisor. A change in supervisor occurred in mid-2017 via this process.

On July 21, 2019, AU labour relations advisor Abey Arnaout sent the member notice indicating the member would be returned to the organizational unit where the alleged harassment occurred (and the alleged harassers still reside) and the member would be assigned a new supervisor. A subsequent email indicated this change was effective retroactive to July 6.

Because no negotiation of the supervisory change took place and there were no provisions for ever changing the member’s organizational unit, AUFA immediately requested AU comply with the five-year-old grievance settlement and reverse the July 21 changes. AUFA indicated it would enforce this agreement if AU did not return to compliance immediately.

AU’s reply came from labour relations specialist Anik Fehr. Fehr declined to comply with the settlement agreement. Instead, she wrote (in part):

To this end, we would like to invite both AUFA and [member] to a meeting in an attempt to reach an agreement to an alternate supervisor for [member]. Should this meeting not provide resolution, or should having a meeting not be of interest to either AUFA or [member], the University, as previously proposed on numerous occasions, would again suggest resolution through the auspices of a mediation. The University is very much in favour of resolving this issue through these non-adversarial, collaborative processes.

Bob, finalizing [member’s] supervisory relationship must be completed, and the University would like to work collaboratively with AUFA and [member] to resolve this matter. I hope you will give due consideration to our proposal rather than the adversarial process you have threatened to undertake. Furthermore, the University respectfully requests a formal response to our proposal to be received no later than August 2, 2019.  Should we not receive a formal response by this date, the University will finalize the transition to [member’s] reporting line. 

AU’s position is problematic in six ways:

  1. AU is in violation of the 2014 settlement agreement that it signed.

  2. If the member fails to comply with AU’s illegal directive, the member is at risk of discipline.

  3. AU wishes to negotiate a change to the supervisor (a permissible action) but seeks to change the terms of the 2014 agreement by demanding mediation if no agreement is reached.

  4. AU asserts that, absent a change in supervisor (and there is no compelling reason for this change), it will simply continue violating the agreement. So, essentially, AU is trying to force AUFA and the member to negotiate with a metaphorical gun to their heads.

  5. AU ignores that it has put the member back into the organizational unit that still houses the member’s alleged harassers. There are no provisions for such a change in the settlement agreement.

  6. AU claims to want to resolve the matter “through these non-adversarial, collaborative processes”, but AU’s own behaviour in the matter is clearly illegal, aggressive, and unethical.

This behaviour by AU (and specifically HR) tells us several things:

  1. AU doesn’t keep its word. The 2014 grievance settlement is very clear. AU has decided to simply ignore its legal obligations.

  2. AU is hypocritical. AU’s putative desire for a non-adversarial, collaborative process sits at odds with its actual behaviour.

  3. AU doesn’t care about its employees. Telling a member late on a Sunday night that they must suddenly work in proximity with their alleged harassers and, subsequently, using this change as leverage to force a change in supervisor are deeply unethical behaviours.

As Justice Macklin wrote about Bill 9, “it is generally in the public interest that parties to otherwise valid agreements, freely negotiated, honor their obligations under those agreements.” AU’s decision to welch on the 2014 settlement that it signed means AU workers must now question whether they can trust any statement made or agreement entered into by AU.

This behaviour by HR is neither respectful nor an act of integrity, which you’ll recall are two of the five I-CARE values promulgated in the Imagine plan. HR’s deceit will doubtless reinforce the growing skepticism in AU’s senior executive that is evident in the recent engagement survey.

AUFA has filed a grievance and is exploring other enforcement options to ensure the member’s rights are protected.

Bob Barnetson, Member

AUFA Grievance 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

What Bill 9 Means for AUFA Members

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Last week, the government introduced the Public Sector Wage Arbitration Deferral Act (Bill 9) in the legislature. If passed, Bill 9 will not directly affect AUFA or its members. Bill 9 will, however, affect the collective agreement presently in effect between AUPE Local 69 and Athabasca University as well as other faculty associations. Bill 9 will also indirectly affect AUFA members.

The crux of Bill 9 is this:

  • Many of Alberta’s public-sector unions negotiated multi-year collective agreements under the New Democrat government. These agreements typically saw two years of wage freezes.

  • Part of the quid pro quo for these wage freezes was language allowing for additional negotiations about wages (i.e., a wage-re-opener) in the final years(s) of these agreements.

  • If these negotiations did not result in agreements between the parties, the disputes could be referred to a neutral third party (an arbitrator) to determine what (if any) wage increase would take place. Most of these agreements have hard deadlines for the resolution any dispute.

  • Bill 9 postpones any hearings on wage re-openers until the end of October (or later, in some cases). Presently, Bill 9 affects 24 collective agreements covering 180,000 workers, including the AUPE members employed by Athabasca University.

  • Bill 9 does not directly affect AUFA members because (1) we have not concluded a collective agreement yet, (2) AU appears unwilling to conclude an agreement with a wage-re-opener in it, and (3) any wage-reopener we negotiate would fall outside of the timelines set out in Bill 9.

Bill 9 does indirectly affect AUFA members in three ways.

First, Bill 9 changes the terms of contracts after they have been negotiated by the government (either directly as the employer or indirectly through government-appointed agencies, boards, and commissions). Changing agreements after the fact is a significant act of bad faith, and suggests that unions cannot trust public-sector employers to do what they agree to do. While Bill 9 may be subject to a legal challenge, the speed of court proceedings will render any victory moot.

Second, the purpose of Bill 9 is to delay any wage increase until the government has had time to receive the advice of its panel on Alberta’s finances in August. This panel is widely expected to recommend that the government freeze or roll back public-sector wages. Preventing wage increases until after this point makes it somewhat easier for the government to force (perhaps through further legislation) such freezes or rollbacks on public-sector workers. Such legislation may affect AUFA members (it is not possible to know how at this point).

Third, the labour movement is outraged by this violation of collective agreements. While it isn’t clear if union leaders are prepared to stage illegal strikes (which would be the most effective response, but would entail significant financial penalties), many members and activists are openly discussing the possibility of doing so. This creates the possibility of significant social disruption.

Bob Barnetson, Chair

Work Stoppage Committee