Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Athabasca seeks 2% rollback from support staff

Last week, Local 69 of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (which represents support staff at Athabasca University) received a letter from the university’s director of HR, Charlene Polege. The letter provides some insight into how public-sector labour relations are proceeding under the Kenney government.

Some quick background: AU and AUPE are presently in the last year of a three-year deal. This contract included a two-year wage freeze plus a wage-reopener in year three. If AU and AUPE could not agree on a wage settlement, the wage issue would be referred to arbitration. Negotiations on the re-opener never got started (in part, because Bill 9 stalled the arbitration process) but things appear to be getting back on track.

Consequently, AU sent AUPE a letter last Tuesday that read (in part):
This letter is to provide you with notice that Athabasca University has been given a mandate by the Alberta Provincial Government with respect to the 2019/2020 wage re-opener, and that as a result, Athabasca University anticipates that it will be tabling a proposal of negative two percent (-2%) when negotiations resume. 
We wish to be clear that the Board of Governors of Athabasca University is responsible for setting its mandate with respect to the 2019/2020 wage re-opener. There is sufficient certainty at this time that the Board of Governors will adopt the above-noted position in negotiations. As such, and regardless of whether or not Athabasca University was required to disclose its position in the circumstances, it wishes to provide this information to AUPE in the interest of transparency.
So, the government gave the university a bargaining mandate, but did not disclose what the mandate is. But, “as a result”, the university will be tabling a 2% rollback as its opening proposal (AU had previously proposed 0%). Given that this rollback jives with statements by the Minister of Finance about seeking a 2% rollback from AUPE at other tables, I think we can safety assume that the government’s mandate was -2%.

Yet, in the next sentence, Polege states that “the Board of Governors is responsible for setting its mandate with respect to the 2019/2020 wage re-opener.” That sentence sits oddly with the meaning of the word mandate (i.e., a binding directive from the government). Hmmm.

So let’s unpack this letter:
  • there is a (apparently secret) government mandate,
  • but somehow that mandate isn’t binding on the Board,
  • but the Board (miraculously) adopted the exact same mandate,
  • and is now seeking to grind the wages of the employees in its lowest paid, mostly female, and mostly Athabasca-based bargaining unit,
  • even though AU ran a $14m (~10%) operating surplus in 2018/19 and will run a big surplus again (~$10m) in 2019/2020 despite small cuts (~$3m) in operating grants and could easily afford a small cost-of-living adjustment,
  • all while the university continues to hire more and more senior administrative staff.
That messaging probably isn’t going to help with the pitifully bad morale among AU staff or concerns about the local economy.

And the tortured “there’s a mandate, but there isn’t, but there is” dance does nothing to remedy the large and growing number of employees who don’t trust senior administrators to be honest (or even coherent).

While this AUPE wage reopener is almost certain to go to arbitration, it matters because it shows us what the next full rounds of bargaining (starting in the spring of 2020) are going to look like at AU, in PSE, and the public sector more broadly.

I think we can reasonably expect:
  • secret government mandates for salary rollbacks (which may be unconstitutional),
  • PSE executives being used as human shields by conservative politicians (meh?), when this “I gotta talk to the manager in the back” bargaining tactic goes badly,
  • PSE students seeing significant disruptions in their studies when staff engage in strikes or get locked out, and
  • the fabric of the institutions (which, despite being big bureaucracies, run only because staff are conscientious and have long-standing relationships with coworkers) further fraying as staff decide “fuck it” and start doing the just minimum.
This is a shameful way for politicians, Board members, and university administrators to treat their staff (especially support staff). About the only bright spot is that many PSE employees are recognizing that they are workers and will need to fight their employers (and the government), just like every other worker.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Budget 2019: Bad news for labour market training in Alberta

There has been much written about the Kenney government’s attack on organized labour in its 2019 budget (which include layoffs and wage freezes, as well as interfering in ongoing arbitrations and future collective bargaining). Alberta’s 2019 budget also purports to improve labour-market training opportunities in order to get Albertans back to work:
“Supporting a highly skilled labour force and a competitive business environment will make lasting contributions to Alberta’s economy. Alberta will once again become the destination of choice for investors and skilled workers.” Travis Toews, Minister of Finance
A closer examination of the labour-market training pieces of the budget suggests this is mostly smoke and mirrors. The government is reducing its funding of post-secondary institutions (which do most of the training) by 5 per cent this year. The institution-specific cuts are unevenly distributed with no suggestion that the cuts reflect anything other than capacity to absorb the cuts. 

These cuts hamstring institution’s ability to deliver the education and skills training alleged desired by the government. Even more concerning is analysis that suggests that additional cuts of 20 to 25% are planned by 2022/23.

These cuts are to be offset, in part, by rapid tuition increases, with institutions allowed to increase tuition by 7% per year for the next three years. Tuition increases, combined with eliminating the tuition tax credit, reducing the teen minimum wage, and closing the Summer Temporary Employment Program (STEP), will make it much harder for students to afford to enroll in post-secondary education and training.

So, if you are playing along at home, your bingo card now shows fewer training opportunities that are less accessible to future workers. Sounds promising, so far!

While governments frequently talk about addressing skills shortages, the evidence that skills shortages actually exist is weak to non-existent (there is a long line of research suggesting that a great many workers are actually under-employed). When there are skills shortages (which tend to be industry specific and geographically localized), such shortages are often difficult to predict and almost impossible for institutions to react to (because mounting and delivering training takes time and the labour tends to adjust). 

A new post-secondary funding mechanism (likely with labour market metrics) is to be introduced in the coming months. This was tried in the mid-1990s and basically didn't work. Meh.

Expected skill shortages in the skilled trades are a recurring UCP talking point. The key barrier to qualifying more trades people lies with employers’ unwillingness to offer adequate apprenticeship opportunities. The last data I saw showed that only 19% of employers that use qualified trades people participate in training apprentices. More money (or more directive finding mechanisms) for post-secondary institutions won’t alleviate that bottle neck.

The government also announced an additional $4 million to expand work experience and apprenticeship programs for elementary (!!!), junior and senior high-school students. The current Registered Apprenticeship Program (RAP) provides a useful pathway for students interested in the trades. But there are issues.

Research suggests that Alberta students sometimes struggle to find apprenticeships and the female participants struggle against long-standing gender discrimination. One in five students reports an occupational injury during a RAP apprenticeship. One in twenty RAP participants (whom we should remember, are kids) is injured so severely that they cannot work in the field.

Overall, there is little reason to believe that the Kenney government is serious about enhancing labour market training opportunities. Rather, this appears to be an elaborate rhetorical offensive to distract Albertans from the profound damage that public-sector cuts will do post-secondary education. These cuts, of course, are necessary only because the Kenney government gave away $4.5 billion in corporate tax breaks. (Which, as predicted, corporations pocketed, instead of creating jobs).

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Presentation: OHS convictions and fines in Sk and AB

Last Friday, the Alberta Workers’ Health Centre hosted a presentation by Sean Tucker (University of Regina). Tucker is in the process of examining OHS prosecutions, convictions and penalties in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Sean graciously consented to allow me to present some of his slides. This is still a work in progress, so the data and the conclusions should be considered tentative.

Both Alberta and Saskatchewan have secured about 110 OHS-related convictions between 2009 and 2019. Alberta has about four times the population of Saskatchewan. If you controlled for population, Saskatchewan would have secured twice as many convictions for fatalities and nearly 5 times as many convictions for serious injuries. Interestingly, Alberta has more than twice as many OHS prosecutors as Saskatchewan.



The median (midpoint, not average) fine associated with prosecutions of organizations is much higher in Alberta than in Saskatchewan. The same pattern holds true for prosecutions of individuals but the fines are much lower.


A compelling presentation of the data compares the average (and highest) files for OHS fatalities and serious injuries with the maximum potential fine. (One addendum to this slide: the maximum fine for a first conviction in Alberta is $500k; the $1m ceiling is for second and subsequent convictions).


What the slide above shows is that, despite general deterrence being a key purpose of fines, neither Alberta nor Saskatchewan has had much luck securing anywhere near the maximum penalty. There are a number of reasons for this (including sentencing considerations).

One of Tucker’s questions was whether increasing the maximum Saskatchewan penalty from $300k to $1.5m would result in higher fines. The answer, after 5 years, is no for fatalities but perhaps yes for serious injuries (although both fines remains well below the maximum). This analysis provides some support for criticisms that potential fines are often far higher than actual fines.



The post-presentation discussion (which continued during a small lunch gathering) was quite interesting. A key question was whether jailing employers who kill workers might serve as a greater safety incentive than increasing fine levels.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

OHS convictions and penalties talk Friday, Edmonton

This Friday, the Alberta Workers' Health Centre will be hosting a talk by Dr. Sean Tucker (University of Regina) in Edmonton that examines OHS convictions and penalties in Alberta and Saskatchewan. This should be an interesting talk and admission is free.

An analysis of financial penalties for OHS convictions in Alberta and Saskatchewan, 2009-2019

Friday, October 25, 10 to 11:30 am

Alberta Workers' Health Centre Board Room
6th Floor, 12323 Stony Plain Road
Edmonton, Alberta

Dr. Tucker will present results of an analysis of financial penalties resulting from OHS prosecutions in Alberta and Saskatchewan between 2009 and 2019. 

The analysis will highlight differences in the size of penalties within and between these two Prairie provinces, and by type of incident (i.e., serious injury vs. worker fatality). Implications for deterrence and injury prevention will also be discussed.

-- Bob Barnetson

Sunday, October 20, 2019

CLC is struck; AUPE prepares to strike

There have been two interesting developed in Alberta’s labour scene this past week.

Last Tuesday, staff employed by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) began a strike against the CLC. The strike follows two years of bargaining. According to the union, the CLC is trying to roll back anti-harassment language, conduct a job evaluation (which is code for grinding wages by reclassifying work downward,) and a substandard wage settlement.

The workers are presently 15% behind the average wage in their field but the union is only seeking small and retroactive cost of living adjustments (1.6%, 2.3% and 3.45%). The workers also want their pension plan cap removed. This reflects that the pension plan has suffered substantial erosion since 2011 (i.e., the CLC is saving money by grinding its workers’ pensions).

The employer is offering a one-time payment of $1000 plus increases of 1.75% and 3.45% in the last two years of the agreement and one extra day off. This low-ball offer comes (of course…) after a significant bump to the salaries of the CLC President, VPs, and Secretary-Treasurer in 2017 followed by indexing to the consumer price index.

It is difficult to fathom why the CLC would want to precipitate a strike, but unions are notoriously shitty employers of their own staff. I’m not sure how credible the CLC will be going forward advocating for workers when it treats its own staff so poorly.

There is only one CLC worker employed in Alberta but she has put up an impressive picket line, bolstered by other labour activists and union officials. There have been two interesting absences from this picket line.

First, none of the elected staff at the Alberta Federation of Labour have attended the picket-line (which has been happening 12 blocks from the AFL offices). Federation of Labour officials in virtually every other province have joined CLC staff on their picket lines.

Second, no New Democrat MLAs have appeared, despite the picket line occurring next door to Edmonton centre MLA David Shepherd’s constituency office. While ND MLAs are happy to participate in photo-ops at labour events (and labour leaders have no option but to make nice), this masks a growing distance between the party and labour activists. Some of the back story can be found here.

The second story was the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) held its 43rd convention. This included a rally at the Legislature.

The expected serious public-sector cuts and legislative attacks on workers right are driving unions to cooperate in ways that they haven’t in recent memory. The presidents of the United Nnurses of Alberta, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, and the Canadian Union of Public Employees were all present at the convention and rally. These unions have had strained relations but a common enemy is a wonder salve for old wounds.

The expected cuts is also driving unions to prepare for job action (at least some of which will likely be illegal). Union leaders used war metaphors, talked about direct action against employers, and explicitly discussed illegal strikes if the government picks a fight. The budget later this week will give us a good sense of how quickly things are going to heat up.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

CAUT bargaining simulation

Fraternizing? The bargaining teams intermingling. 
Two weeks back, I spent two days in a bargaining simulation, hosted by the Canadian Association of University Teachers. This simulation was a shake-down cruise for the new Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) bargaining team as it prepares to go to the table in March or April of 2020.

Whatever the limitations of a simulation, the dynamics at the table felt real--there was stress, posturing, and implicit threats (athough it was still much politer than dealing with our actual employer!). Those of us not on the actual union bargaining team got to play the employer team in the simulation. This was a fascinating experience after seven rounds on the union side.

The post-simulation debrief identified three common experiences on the employer side of the table.

Unity of Goals: Unlike the union (which must mediate the interests of various subgroups), the employer had a unified mandate. This made it much easier to evaluate the other side’s proposals and game out possible responses.

Emotional Disengagement: We were all surprised how little emotional investment we had in the process or our proposals. This was largely a technical exercise for the employer team and, so long as we met our mandate, how we got there was immaterial. Further, the proposals had no personal impact on our working lives so we did not sweat the details. This was the least stressed I've ever felt at the table.

Power: The ability of the employer to refuse union proposals largely without consequence was fascinating. While the union team did have a strike threat, we judged it unlikely that they would strike on any issue but money. While we did have a mandate to get changes, if none were possible, status quo was not as harmful for the employer as it was for the union.

Overall, it was fun (and easy) to bargain on the employer side. And the experience helps explain why the employer often appears unprepared or disinterested at the table: the outcome of bargaining just doesn't matter that much unless there is a strike threat in play.

This was also a very good shakedown cruise for the union side. They got a chance to work with one another, experience the stress of making time pressured decisions, and cope with the sea of paper that is generated. I would say they are more prepared to bargain than any past AUFA team. 

Thanks to AUFA for hosting and CAUT for facilitating the session.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Bizarre survey reignites "jobs in Athabasca" issue

A recurring issue at Athabasca University is the slow loss of university jobs from the town, mainly to the Edmonton area. While there was some recognition that this was a problem by former New Democrat government, the government took no action to resolve it and the entire senior leadership of the university decamped to Edmonton, St. Albert, and Calgary.

Recognizing that job loss at the town’s largest employer was potentially politically problematic, the university struck a committee (that included residents of the town) to discuss the issue and held an open-house in June. The open house infographic claims a 71% increase in Athabasca-based staff between 1985 and 2019. While probably true, using two data points 34 years apart disingenuously obscures the rise and fall of employees in intervening years. The university was also invited to join Athabasca County’s Tourism/Economic Development Committee.

There has been little concrete progress on this issue for several years beyond some sporadic language in job postings about giving preference to candidates who will live in Athabasca. In mid-September, a group of prominent Athabasca residents (mostly Conservative business people and politicians) arranged a meeting with the new Minister of Advanced Education to discuss this issue (and, specifically, the departure of senior university leaders). While this meeting was postponed (possibly at the request of the university), it suggests this issue is not going away.

This week, Athabasca-based AU employees received an invitation from the university to complete a survey designed “to help develop strategies to drive discussions on building a sustainable local community.” The survey appears intended to feed into the work of the Athabasca County’s Tourism/Economic Development Committee (although this is unclear). The survey itself is, to say the least, bizarre and appears to be hosted by 13ways.ca, a consulting company run by former Conservative MLA Doug Griffiths.

The survey asks a variety of yes/no questions about respondents’ perceptions of the community’s trajectory, drinking water (?), local spending, municipal flower plantings, various questions about strategies and partnerships (that respondents almost certainly can’t answer), seniors housing, and in-migration. A “bonus question” asks respondents to choose a community slogan from a list of negative options (at the bottom you can select none of the above). I have reprised the list of slogans below—it is quite shocking.



Presumably, this survey and the bonus question (which appears based on Griffiths’ book “13 ways to kill your community”) is designed to identify problem areas that Griffith’s consulting firm would be poised to help remedy. Whether this survey is valid or reliable (even in the most casual sense of the word) is a very, very open question (if this was student project, I’d give it a D).

Why the university would be sending this out to their employees to fill out is a good question. The survey suggests that there is something wrong with the Athabasca community that must be remedied (which is not true). This framing allows the university to shrug, say “no one wants to live there”, and absolve itself from any responsibility for the loss of jobs in Athabasca.

In fact, what has happened is that the university has been voluntarily transferring jobs out of the community for years. This job loss could be stopped literally overnight if the university simply started hiring more positions to Athabasca. There is no impediment to this: there is space and there are candidates who will move there.

That the university won’t do that and, instead, sends out silly info graphics and surveys, tells Athabasca community members pretty much all they need to know about Athabasca University’s actual commitment to the community. It would be pretty funny if all of AU’s ducking and weaving on this issue resulted in the government directing all senior executives to live and work in town.

-- Bob Barnetson