Post-Secondary Salary Trends in Athabasca

Last week, the AUFA executive appointed the members of the 2020 AUFA bargaining team. The team presently includes Alexa DeGagne, Jason Foster, Serena Henderson, Bangaley Kaba, and Eric Strikwerda (Chair). We will be joined by a support member from the office staff.

Preparation for bargaining will begin soon with a structured consultation with the membership. As a prelude to this consultation, it may be useful to review some of the government data about salary settlements in the post-secondary sector. This data allows us to assess the effectiveness of our bargaining efforts. When compared to inflation, we can also track the purchasing power of our salaries over time.

Table 1 outlines settlements by the three bargaining units at Athabasca between 2005 and 2018. The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) represents support staff, and the Canadian Union of Public employees (CUPE) represents tutors and academic experts. All values are expressed as uncompounded percentage increases.

Inflation data is Statistic Canada’s Consumer Price Index for Alberta as provided by AUPE staff. The annual inflation was calculated by averaging monthly year-over-year (July to June) changes to create a reasonable proxy for annual inflation.

Table 1: Athabasca settlements (%) over time versus inflation, 2005 to 2018.

AUFA cost-of-living adjustments appear to have kept our salaries even with inflation, but when you compound COLA and inflation we find our salaries increased by approximately 38% while inflation increased approximately 51%.

It is also notable that since 2013, AUFA cost-of-living-adjustments (+5.75%) have lagged inflation (+10.6%). That is to say, since 2013, the employer has succeeded in grinding down AUFA members’ salaries through increases that have lagged behind inflation. All AU employee groups took another wage freeze in 2019 while inflation is running about 1.3% so far this year.

This pattern is also evident when we examine settlement patterns among faculty associations at Alberta’s four Comprehensive Academic Research Universities (CARUs). While AUFA has done well in comparison to most CARUs, since 2013 all CARUs are seeing wage increases lag behind inflation.

Table 2: University faculty settlements over time, 2005 to 2018

Table 2: University faculty settlements over time, 2005 to 2018

One of the factors affecting this pattern has been the traditional reliance on arbitration to break bargaining impasse. Arbitrators tend to establish wages with reference to other, known settlements among comparator institutions. The first few settlements in a sector often “set” the pattern. In this dynamic, a “bad” settlement by one institution would often limit the settlement that other associations could realistically expect to get.

Legislative change in 2017 means that arbitration is no longer the de facto means by which a bargaining impasse between CARUs and faculty associations is broken. While institutions will continue to cooperate in order to hold down wage settlements (often at the behest of government), faculty associations are no longer automatically constrained by the settlements at other institutions. Instead, faculty can strike in an attempt to increase their wage settlement.

As AUFA’s analysis of AU’s financial statements previously demonstrated, AU could have afforded to give all employee groups a raise last year. While it is unclear what (if any) reduction in government operating grants is planned for this year, AU is likely to continue to have a healthy operating surplus and a reasonable accumulated surplus.

Another factor that may be relevant going forward is whether the government chooses to legislate a wage freeze or wage rollback, either in the October 2019 or Spring 2020 budget. It is unclear whether the government will take such action and whether such legislation would survive a constitutional challenge.

Eric Strikwerda

Bargaining Chair