Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Is Athabasca University employing a union-rejection strategy?

Many employers engage in union-avoidance strategies, such as being respectful, providing above-industry pay and benefits as well as developing internal dispute-resolution processes. This idea is to address the issues that typically result in union drives and, thereby, prevent them.

Less common are union-rejection strategies. A union-rejection strategy is designed to undermine the effectiveness of a union in a workplace where the union is already established. Typical indicia of such a strategy include:
  1. impeding union access to members in the workplace,
  2. refusing to meet with the union,
  3. delaying informal and formal resolution of disputes, and
  4. making unreasonable demands at the bargaining table to force a strike.
Union-rejection strategies yield both short-term gains for the employer (such as constraining compensation costs and increasing management power) and long-term gains (for example, setting up a decertification drive by anti-union workers).

These strategies are relatively uncommon in Canada because they run contrary to the requirement that employers recognize certified unions and act in good faith (which is what unions got in exchange for not striking during the life of a collective agreement). Labour Boards can (at least notionally) regulate such bad-faith employer conduct.

Typically, we see union-rejection strategies during first contract negotiations, when an employer may sense a union is weak and tries to refight the certification drive during the first round of collective bargaining. For this reason, many jurisdictions have included first-contract arbitration provisions to prevent the employer from stalling out bargaining to boot strap a decertification drive.

Interestingly, Athabasca University (AU) appears to be implementing in a union-rejection strategy with the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA). The pattern looks like this:
1. AU frequently does not respond to communication from the union about contract violations and routinely blows grievance timelines (>40 instances have been documented).

2. AU delays internal appeal processes, thereby de facto denying workers their rights under the contract (e.g., a 25-day timeline for a classification appeal is going into month six). 
3. AU has forcibly relocated AUFA’s offices off-site for the first time in 35 years. The official reason was “lack of space” but notice was served following a particularly acrimonious day of collective bargaining. 
4. AU relocated key labour relations staff to a city 150km away from the main campus (where AUFA’s staff are based). 
5. Weekly meetings between AUFA and HR have been routinely cancelled at the last minute. Last week, AU announced that it would no longer be attending these meetings at all. 
6. AU unnecessarily forces simple issues to grievance hearing, constantly seeks to stall grievance hearings, and refuses to engage in meaningful discussions of remedies when it loses grievances. 
7. AU failed to meet within the specified time period after notice to bargain had been served and, when it eventually did provide an opening proposal, the proposal was a two-year wage freeze and 43 pages of language rollbacks. (The public-sector pattern is a two-year freeze, a wage re-opener in year 3, and better language for the union.) After 6 months of bargaining, there has been essentially no progress and my assessment is that AU is trying to force bargaining to impasse.
All of these behaviours make AUFA appear ineffective to its membership and also radically increase both AUFA’s and AU’s legal bills. Taken together, the pattern pretty clearly demonstrates AU is engaged in a union-rejection strategy. Presumably the belief is that AUFA will fold up if enough pressure is applied.

AUFA has filed a complaint about some of AU’s behaviour with the Labour board. So far, the Section 11 investigation the Labour Board is undertaking has yielded no tangible result or change in employer behaviour.

An interesting question is how long the government will let this go on? AU is spending a huge amount of public money on needless legal bills instead of, you know, educating students. And the government likely does not want a strike during the upcoming provincial election—which is where things are heading.

Morale is sinking, I’m seeing staff reduce their efforts. And students will suffer for that. Literally the only person who is benefitting from this approach is the university’s lawyer. Now might be the time for the Board of Governors to change gears and horses (if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor).

-- Bob Barnetson

1 comment:

  1. You forgot to add #8 - the offensive and intimidating communique aimed at AUFA that was signed by the VPA a few months back. In the view of many staff at AU it was a blatant attempt at interfering with the union business, and therefore an unfair labour practice.

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