Tuesday, March 13, 2018

PSE bargaining conference reveals interesting dynamics

I spent last Friday in Calgary at a post-secondary labour relations conference that was organized by the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations. While the conference covered a wide range of topics flowing from last spring’s decision to move PSE bargaining under the Labour Relations Code, the sessions with the most engagement addressed work stoppages.

Of particular interest was the session on the University of Manitoba’s 2016 work stoppage, which contained a significant amount of practical “how-to” advice. The side conversations—which were mostly about strike-lockout—were also quite interesting.

For example, just before the conference began, the University of Lethbridge Faculty Association posted a bargaining update. It included a high-level summary of February 26 meetings the faculty association had with (unnamed) government representatives. The key take-aways were:
  • The government is committed to stable and predictable funding for the Post-Secondary sector, in keeping with its election promises and previous actions: “Past behaviour is the best predictor of future action” one official said.
  • The government provides operating funds to the University, we were told, but does not instruct management as to how those funds should be spent or how to bargain with its employees.
  • The provincial government would look very unfavourably on any attempt by employers to force employees into concession through job action.
On the first point, we’ll have to wait to see what the budget brings on March 22.

The second point is probably correct in a narrow sense: Boards of Governors are charged with making due with whatever funds they get. Yet, the point about not telling Boards how to spend funds or bargain rings a touch hollow. The government has made it clear to its agencies, boards and commissions that it expects wage freezes.

For example, in November, the Minister of Finance spoke approvingly of wage freezes in the most recent Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) collective agreements in a press conference (while denying he wanted to negotiate in the press):
"That's what my hope is ... that people will see the benefit of long-term job stability and the fact that there are no raises, they'll have their ongoing jobs," he said. "That's what I hope will occur in negotiations throughout the other contracts."
Subsequently, the unions representing nurses and health-science workers have taken zeros as well. Non-unionized government employees have also seen a wage-freeze.

Given this, it is not surprising that at least one PSE institution has disclosed to its faculty association that the government (in a letter dated February 8, 2018) has notified the institution of the government’s expectations for the monetary outcome of the upcoming round of negotiations. The institution declined to provide the letter or summarize its contents, but I think it is fair to assume the crux was “get a wage freeze”.

Indeed, lowering PSE wage settlements was one of the explicit goals of the legislation moving PSE bargaining under the Labour Relations Code, according to government MLA David Shepherd. The evidence suggests Shepherd’s assertion that arbitration leads to higher settlements is largely untrue. For example, from 2012 to 2017, most universities saw (non-compounded) wage settlements totaling between 8.0% and 9.5% (so 1.33% to 1.58% annually). Average annual inflation in Alberta during this period was about 1.3%.

More interesting was the key high-side outlier: the Mount Royal University Faculty Association negotiated (non-compounded) increases totaling 14.2%. It is notable that MRU is the only university to have had strike-lockout in its contract and to have taken a strike vote (although, there were other factors at play).

The final point made by the government officials was that “the government would look very unfavourably on any attempt by employers to force employees into concession through job action.” I would imagine this is true, politically speaking: alienating a key base of electoral support in the year leading up to an election is likely something the NDs want to avoid.

Whether this has any practical meaning once negotiations start is a difficult question to answer. On the one hand, the officials asserted that the government does not tell PSE Boards how to bargain. So, presumably, an institution can do what it believes necessary (including locking faculty out) during bargaining to achieve whatever goals its has.

On the other hand, the government clearly is directing bargaining outcomes (by setting wage expectations) and has given institutions a way to achieve them (via the power to lock its workers out). Perhaps the government would look dimly on a lockout, but might allow it to happen anyhow.

To be fair, government is large and not monolithic. The government officials the U of L faculty association met with on February 26 may have had no idea about the letter that (presumably) other government officials sent to institutions on February 8 specifying bargaining outcomes.

That said, this whole “who’s on first” routine (wherein the government is not at the table but seems to be calling the shots) is very reminiscent of the problems faced by Alberta’s teachers over the years. Specifically, teachers were forced to officially negotiate with school boards, but (since school boards relied on the province for money) the teachers were really bargaining with the Conservative government.

This very dynamic was discussed explicitly in one of the conference presentations. The similarity between the ATA’s past problems and the current dynamics in PSE bargaining was the topic of significant post-conference discussion.

-- Bob Barnetson

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