Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Research: Work-related fatalities 10-13 times higher than official stats

Labour/le Travail recently published an article entitled “Work-related death in Canada”. This article examines official work-related fatality statistics (from workers’ compensation board stats; WCBs accept about 950 fatality claims per year) and then tries to fill in the gaps to get a more accurate estimate. It is premised on the notion that WCB rules socially construct what we consider a work-related fatality in ways that under-represent the true death toll of work.

The article eventually comes to an estimate of between 9878 and 13,246—so 10 to 13 times the official number. The numbers break out like this (and keep in mind that, although these numbers look precise, they are estimates):
  • WCB accepted injury fatalities: 332
  • Commuting: 466
  • Agricultural: 64
  • Non-reported/reporting error: 20
  • Non-working victim: 90
  • Work-related suicide: 400-780
  • Mesothelioma: 485
  • Other cancers: 5959-8939
  • COPD: 2062
  • Total Estimate: 9878-13,246
Of note is that fatalities due to injuries are a small fraction (972) of the total fatality load. This research is broadly consistent with research in the UK and the US.

These estimates suggest that the way governments construct fatality data significantly downplays the true level of work-related death and masks that injury-prevention efforts in Canada are ineffective.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Union calls bluff, Athabasca University folds

After more than 9 months of demanding major concessions from its faculty, Athabasca University (AU) appears to have suddenly folded at the bargaining table. AU asked for two more days of bargaining after AUFA declared impasse and filed for a proposal vote of the Board of Governors (BoG).

Bargaining on February 12 was unproductive. But, on February 13, AU presented the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) with a two-year offer containing a wage freeze but dropping all of its demands for language rollbacks. AUFA countered with a four-year pattern offer of two zeros, two years of a wage re-opener, and some language improvements.

While AU has moved towards (but not yet to) a pattern deal, no agreement has yet been reached and things could still fall apart. If this latest round of bargaining fails, AUFA retains the option of putting its most recent offer directly to the employer via a proposal vote. And AU President Neil Fassina’s re-appointment review gets under way in March and represents a significant pressure point.

AU’s February 13 proposal is a radical change in AU’s hitherto unreasonable stance. It suggests the AU decided the cost of pushing major language rollbacks is too high. It isn’t clear of AU’s new tact was directed by the BoG, its Human Resource Committee, or President Fassina.

Indeed, it isn’t clear who is actually in charge of AU’s bargaining strategy. The official line seems to be that the Human Resource Committee gives the AU bargaining team a mandate and then stands back and waits for the outcome while the BoG itself is kept in the dark.

But the behaviour of AU’s bargaining team suggests they are getting interim marching orders from someone. This doesn't really accord with the “wind’em up and let’em go” narrative. I’d bet Fassina is making the decisions. I suppose, if things go badly and someone needs to take the fall (which is the AU way), who gets ceremonially garroted by the site of the old hitching post might be instructive.

One of the reasons the cost of rollbacks is so high for AU is because it threw away its best lever (AUFA members’ reluctance to strike) by being overly aggressive and alienating its workers. This was a bad strategy for two reasons.

First, AU could likely have done better at the table if it had been less aggressive. It would have been difficult for AUFA to resist mild language rollbacks if the rest of AU’s offer had been a pattern offer. With a pissed off membership, rollbacks are now out of reach for AU. Absent that, AU's only option was to try and bluff (which didn't work, because workers aren't stupid).

Second, AU’s aggressive behaviour has shattered the veneer of collegiality at AU, starkly demonstrated that university faculty are workers and AU is an employer (and a very nasty one at that). The stock of the union has risen, more members identify as pro union, and the small cadre of management apologists in the AUFA membership have gone silent.

AU’s decision to fold at the bargaining table also legitimizes the hard-line against concessions taken by the AUFA’s executive, bargaining team, and work stoppage committee and the tactics used to resist. Basically, AU just taught its faculty that resistance is necessary and effective. That lesson will pay dividends for AUFA for years to come.

Given this, if I was a Board member, I’d be looking to sack whomever gave the BoG such terrible bargaining advice. And I’d be reluctant to ever trust the judgment of whoever took the advice and acted upon it. And that's an ace you can keep.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Athabasca president weighs in on bargaining

Photo of Neil Fassina by David Climenhaga
Last week, Athabasca University (AU) President Neil Fassina sent an email to all AU staff about bargaining between AU and the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA).

This email is an attempt to normalize the breakdown in bargaining caused by AU’s unwillingness to accept a pattern settlement of a two-year wage freeze, language improvements, and a wage re-opener. Instead, AU has been demanding two zeros and substantial language rollbacks.

This breakdown isn’t in any way normal. Normal would be a pattern settlement, such as those recently achieved by workers at Bow Valley, Medicine Hat College, NorQuest and Red Deer Colleges (in addition to tens of thousands of other public-sector workers).

Fassina also takes the opportunity to characterize AUFA’s communications as “inaccurate and incomplete”. He then attached a letter that purports to clarify numerous matters about AU’s offer.

AUFA responded almost immediately, refuting AU's mischaracterization of AU’s bargaining proposals. If you enjoy seeing an argument get comprehensively taken apart, read the AUFA blog post.

(As an aside, it is interesting to consider whether the employer’s letter was intentionally misleading or whether the employer simply doesn’t understand what it is proposing. Cause it kinda has to be one or the other, right?)

The post-letter comments from staff have ranged from annoyed (“I thought he was supposed to know something about HR?”) to derisive (“So is bargaining now some kind of long-form flame war between AUFA and a well coiffed millionaire?”).

I imagine this was not the reaction Fassina was hoping for. To give him his due, Fassina is doing more to radicalize faculty members than AUFA ever could. In that sense, his letter was a boon to the union.

The all-staff email and letter also represent a shift in Fassina’s strategy. As recently as late January, he was categorically refusing to discuss bargaining with staff. This change suggests his earlier strategy was not working.

Yet, by directly engaging staff about bargaining, Fassina has now tied his reputation to the outcome of this round of bargaining. That is a high-risk move, given that he has applied for an early re-appointment by the Board of Governors.

While AUFA awaits the conclusion of an Essential Services Agreement and the outcome of an employer proposal vote, its bargaining team will return to the table to allegedly hear a new proposal from AU today.

Perhaps Fassina will take the opportunity to be the hero, put a pattern deal on the table, and solve a problem of his own making. Or perhaps he will double down and force the faculty closer to a strike. The latter would be a shame for AU’s students.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Athabasca faculty apply for proposal vote

Source: Creative Commons
Last week, the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) filed with the Labour Board for a proposal vote of the Athabasca University (AU) Board of Governors (BoG).

AUFA is asking the BoG to accept AUFA’s December 5 pattern-settlement offer of a two-year wage freeze, a three-year wage re-opener, and some small language improvements.

Alberta’s Labour Relations Code allows each side one opportunity to put a proposal directly to the other side. This mechanism is designed to address the situation of where a bargaining team rejects a proposal that their principal (e.g., the employer of the union membership) might accept.

Applying for a proposal vote reflects AUFA’s efforts to reach a new collective agreement without the necessity of a work stoppage. Bargaining is currently at impasse and AU is stalling the negotiating an Essential Services agreement. A proposal vote offers the BoG a way out of the mess their bargaining team has created.

An interesting wrinkle is that it is up to the BoG to decide whether the entire BoG will vote on this proposal or whether a subgroup or an individual will vote for the BoG. If AU had sought a proposal vote for AUFA, each AUFA member would get a vote.

It is unusual for a union to demand a proposal vote of an employer (it happens, but not often). AUFA's decision to ask for a proposal vote reflects, in part, our belief that the BoG is being kept in the dark about the state of bargaining by AU's administration and, at the end of the day, might prefer to avoid further reputational and financial damage.

If the BoG votes to accept AUFA’s offer then this whole unpleasant round of bargaining comes to a close and we have five years of labour peace. If the BoG does not accept this pattern offer, then we move closer to a damaging work stoppage that will negatively affect thousands of students.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Athabasca University drives bargaining to impasse

Last week, bargaining between the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) and Athabasca University (AU) broke down. In short, AUFA determined there was no point in continuing bargaining after AU indicated was not prepared to withdraw its proposals for language rollbacks or consider any AUFA proposals for language improvements.


The provincial settlement pattern in Alberta is clear: a two-year wage freeze, a wage-re-opener in years 3 and 4, and language improvements for the workers (to off-set the wage freeze). Tens of thousands of public-sector workers have come to this agreement with their respective employers.

AUFA’s last global settlement offer mirrored this pattern. AU rejected this offer, instead insisting on a two-year wage freeze and rollbacks in language on professional staff probation, discipline, grievances and appeals. AUFA’s membership has been clear: it will not ratify any agreement with these sorts of rollbacks.


AU appears to have stopped pushing its odious company-doctor proposal. Nevertheless, the facts are that, over the course of 8 months of bargaining, AUFA has agreed to 15 of AU’s proposals and AU has agreed to none of AUFA’s proposals. There is no further room for AUFA to give.

The declaration of impasse moves AU closer to a work stoppage by its academic and professional staff. A work stoppage would entail significant operational disruptions. The single largest disruption is likely to be the cessation of instruction for approximately 5000 students directly taught by AUFA members. There will also be numerous administrative disruptions. While a timeline for a work stoppage is hard to predict, June is a good bet.

With the impact of a work stoppage in mind, AUFA and AU have been negotiating an Essential Services Agreement (ESA). An ESA is designed to ensure the continuation of services that the cessation of which would endanger the health, safety, or life of the public.

AUFA has proposed three services that it believes should continue during a work stoppage:

1. Counselling services: AU students experiencing academic and administrative difficulties can access AU counselling services. These difficulties can cause or exacerbate mental-health concerns. AU’s counsellors identify and seek to de-escalate mental-health crises while also assisting students to resolve their more practical concerns. This service should continue during a work stoppage, which will entail an increase in academic and administrative difficulties.

2. Instruction in the GCAP program: Graduate students in AU’s counselling program provide counselling services to about 1000 clients. A work stoppage would result in the cessation of these student practicums, thereby severing the counselor-client relationship (likely on short notice). This has the potential to profoundly harm the clients serviced by these graduate students.

3. Operation of the Research Ethics Board (REB): The REB protects the health and safety of human research subjects by evaluating research protocols and re-evaluating them when adverse effects occur. A work stoppage would mean 9 of 10 REB members would be unavailable and the REB would stop functioning. This would also imperil AU’s ability to administer and receive Tri-Council grants.

AU has rejected AUFA’s proposal, asserting (1) these are not essential services and, if they are, (2) they can be continued with non-bargaining unit staff. While negotiations may continue, AUFA has applied to the Essential Services Commissioner for a ruling on whether an ESA is required and, if so, what duties should it apply to.

It is a strange turn of events that a union is forced to try and protect the public interest by demanding some of its members be exempt from a work stoppage. Typically, it is the employer that wants to exempt services (to weaken a strike) and the union that wants to narrow or avoid an ESA.

But the whole round of bargaining has been bizarre, with the employer acting super aggressively when (1) it is flush with cash and (2) the union is amenable to a wage freeze. About the only group benefiting from AU’s current approach is AU’s lawyer. It would be interesting to know how much cash AU has spent on its recent union-busting efforts?

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Momentum shifting to AUFA in AU bargaining

The Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) spent another week preparing for what looks like an inevitable work stoppage. AUFA and AU met this week to both collectively bargain and negotiate an essential services agreement (which is a pre-requisite to formal mediation and an eventual strike vote).

Collective bargaining saw AUFA agree to a small number of AU’s housekeeping items and the employer appears to have stopped pushing its odious company-doctor proposal. This shift represents a victory—likely brought about by (1) member pressure and (2) the untenable nature of the proposal. And it tells workers that resisting the employer’s demands is effective.


That said, the parties remain far apart and impasse is looming. AU continues to push four other rollbacks that are deal breakers (affecting professional staff, appeals, discipline, and grievances).


Further, AU continues to demand a wage freeze but refuses to agree to any AUFA proposals. Accepting AUFA proposals will be necessary to gain AUFA’s agreement on a wage freeze (which is effectively an inflationary cut given that the cost of living went up 2% last year). Bargaining continues today.


Given the trajectory of bargaining, AUFA hosted its second picket-sign luncheon last Friday (examples interspersed). The most interesting development is the increasingly open mockery of the multiple strategic plans that the AU’s executive has produced over the past two years. Specifically, we see the hijacking of the vacuous Imagine plan’s slogan as well mockery of the “rocketship” imagery associated with the strategic IT plan.

Open mockery is a sign that AU’s behaviour is both alienating its employees and radicalizing AUFA’s membership. This strengthens the union’s hand and makes a strike mandate much easier to achieve.


The president’s charm offensive earlier in the week (e.g., “working” in the cafeteria, chatting up staff on the main campus) clearly was not effective (pro tip: alienation tends to snowball quickly in labour disputes and you can’t grip-and-grin your way out of it). It will be interesting to hear how the suddenly scheduled “Conversations with the President” go, over the next few weeks.

A further concern for AU is that the growing risk of a work stoppage is starting to come to the attention of students. The best thing that has happened at AU in the past few years has been a huge surge in enrolments (up >12% this year), which has resulted in a projected surplus of at least $9 million. This growth is a big deal, because 50% of AU’s revenue is from tuition.

AU’s executive has claimed credit for this growth. However dubious this claim is (it essentially argues that students factor the quality of an institution’s strategic plan into their registration decision, lol), it is something the executive can crow about. (The actual reason is likely hard work by AUFA members in University Relations.)

The longer AU prolongs bargaining, the more likely we are to see an effect on registrations. Who would enroll if a strike is looming? What this means is that the intransigence of AU’s executive at the bargaining table is imperiling AU’s financial security.

If I were a Board member or the government, I would be asking some hard questions about why AU’s executive would risk the institution’s reputation and finances in order to get unnecessary rollbacks that are profoundly out of step with the provincial settlement pattern. 

Personally, I can’t imagine why. It appears irrational and short-sighted.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Athabasca Faculty Prepare for Work Stoppage

Last Friday, the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) held the first of three picket-sign making luncheons. Twenty faculty members came together to prepare signs against the growing possibility of a work stoppage triggered by Athabasca University's demand for huge concessions.

The conversation was fascinating, as people expressed disappointment contrasting the lofty ambitions of President Fassina's "Imagine" strategic plan (now widely referred to as the "Imaginary" plan) and his "OneAU" rhetoric with his administration's increasingly shoddy treatment of staff.

Others were confused by why President Fassina would be pushing staff towards a damaging strike just when the university's enrolments are soaring and its financial woes are dissipating. Here are some examples of the signs made:

Bargaining continues on January 16th and another AUFA sign-making luncheon is schedule in Athabasca for Friday, January 18th.