Thursday, June 27, 2013

Some videos for a summer break

I’ll be taking a bit of break this summer, both to have a vacation and to do some research, so posting will likely be sparse until autumn. To celebrate this break, I thought I would mix things up with today’s post.

While I normally focus on teaching and research in labour relations, I keep my hand in the field by working for the faculty association. This sometimes leads to interesting examples, particularly around how workers react to employer approaches to labour relations. This year, labour relations at Athabasca University have been rather interesting and among the worst I have seen since the retrenchment of the mid-1990s.

The year started with the abolishment of empty positions, a buyout offer and, eventually, a nasty round of layoffs (that is now entering it fourth month!). Overall, the university has dumped about 1 in 7 of its full-time positions in order to address its budgetary problems. Plans for the implementation of a call centre model of instruction will likely result in significant reductions in part-time instructional staff over the next few years, although the university is being coy about that.

At the same time, the university adopted an aggressive position in contract negotiations with the faculty bargaining unit that has resulted in impasse (“Would you like to have an increment “holiday” that would rob you of hundreds of thousands of dollars over your lifetime? No?”). Kind of like this, but without the pizza.

The support staff bargaining unit has had a similar experience. Mediation and (likely) arbitration for faculty will occur in the fall. The university has made pretty plain that, if faculty win a modest salary increase (we were asking for a 2% cost-of-living adjustment) instead of taking the employer’s huge salary rollbacks, then there will be more “bodies in the streets.” On the grievance front, there are a number of serious harassment grievances headed to arbitration or stalled in the (broken) internal complaint process. 

I’m not entirely sure how this approach to labour relations jives with the university’s statement in its Strategic Plan that “We value our employees” (p.5) and its objective to “Attract and retain excellent employees” (p.17). But I’m only a lowly professor of labour relations so perhaps I’m missing something... . 

The upshot has been declining morale and growing frustration among the workers. It is always hard to quantify morale. Mostly what I see is a checking out of staff, who feel both betrayed and vulnerable. I think this video does a nice job of hinting at, functionally, where things are at:

There has been an interesting change in class consciousness at Athabasca. For all of the hype about radical, lefty university types, most faculty members are conservative with little sense of being a part of the working class. That complacency is changing in response to the deteriorating labour relations climate—basically, the veneer that “we’re all on the same side” and "think of the students" is wearing thin. Musically, the question might be summed up as “which side are you one”?

This growing sense of the diverging interests of employers and workers has triggered a variety of actions, both within and outside of the union. The union sought to force (and continues to seek) a change in administration at the university. Other faculty are quietly organizing (likely illegal) job action. An anonymous newsletter lampooning the administration was circulated around campus. And the support staff (who are mostly located in a small, conservative town) are beginning a poster campaign aimed at the provincial government (part of a broader campaign at post-secondary institutions throughout rural Alberta).

Most concerning are the number of folks who have left and/or are looking for work elsewhere. When workers start to flee, it is disproportionately the more talented workers who can get out. All told, it is a very interesting (and rather exhausting) time. The long-term impact of the full-court press the employer is putting on will be fascinating to watch.

So as not leave things on a sour note, I thought I’d finish with one of my favourite video about temporary employment (in this case, of a deposed Emperor).

-- Bob Barnetson

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