CAUT Holds Two-Day Bargaining Training


Last week, the AUFA bargaining team (Alexa DeGagne, Bangaly Kaba, Eric Strikwerda, Jason Foster, Nick Driedger, and Serena Henderson) touched down in Athabasca for a rigorous two-day bargaining training and simulation exercise. The CAUT-organized simulation afforded the AUFA team a critical opportunity to bargain together (and against an “employer”) in anticipation of our upcoming actual bargaining round this spring.  We were joined at the table by AUFA president Jolene Armstrong.

In the end, we were able to achieve an agreement that met the union’s objective (wage increases and greater job security, particularly for precarious staff) while resisting many of the employer’s demands (it’s worth noting that the employer team also met their its core objectives).

There were several useful lessons for the bargaining team in the simulation:

  1. Caucus chair: In the past, the chief spokesperson has also chaired the internal discussions of the bargaining team. We experimented with splitting these roles to reduce the cognitive load on the chief spokesperson. This resulted in more focused internal discussions and crisper exchanges at the table with the employer.

  2. Paperwork: The simulation compressed several months of bargaining into one and a half days. The resulting paperwork quickly became difficult to manage, and underscored the importance of thorough and meticulous filing practices at the table.

  3. Tone: We continued to adopt a very measured tone in our interactions with the employer. In the spirit of “moving things along,” the employer side acted more reasonably than we have seen Athabasca University’s bargaining team act in the past (e.g., no one threatened to lay the union bargaining team off, or came to our caucus room to yell at us).

    The result was a more productive round of bargaining than we have seen in the past because we were able to establish a degree of trust with the employer. This change highlighted for the AUFA team just how poorly AU has behaved at the table during recent rounds and how this behaviour negatively affects progress.

  4.  Power: While the union side’s simulation materials made clear it had a strike mandate, it was not a strong one. This meant that the employer’s side was able to easily dismiss many of the union side’s proposals outright. In the end, the union was successful in achieving only those proposals where we could either arrange a trade with the employer or where we had a legitimate strike threat.

This experience reinforces AUFA’s experience at the table last round. During the last round, we were able to resist the employer’s aggressive demands because we were able to mobilize a strike threat. (Ironically, it was the employer’s outsized demands that caused the development of a credible strike threat in the first place). The key takeaway, both from the simulation exercise and our actual experience at the table last bargaining round, is this: a credible and clear strike threat in support of AUFA proposals is crucial to AUFA’s ability to make progress at the table.

Developing a proposal with strong member buy-in, then, is central to bargaining preparation. In the coming weeks and months, the AUFA membership engagement committee will reach out to our membership to formulate our proposals in anticipation of our next bargaining round. The current labour relations climate in Alberta, as you know, is not a warm one. It may well be necessary to take job action in order to reach a mutually acceptable settlement during the upcoming round.

The bargaining team extends thanks to Jeff McKeil (CAUT) for facilitating the session, and Brenda Skayman (AUFA) for organizing the logistics of the day. We’d also like to thank the “employer” team (Bob Barnetson, Dave Powell, Florene Ympa, Gail Leicht, and Myreene Tobin) for playing hard, but politely.

Eric Strikwerda, Chair

AUFA bargaining team


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

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

discipline copy.jpeg

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


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.

executive salaries.png

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


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


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 ( and ask him to conclude an agreement to avoid a strike.

Bob Barnetson, Chair

AUFA Work Stoppage Committee