Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Labour law and politics at Athabasca University

What I like most about labour relations is the interplay of law and politics. An ongoing dispute at Athabasca University (AU) provides an interesting example of this dynamic.

There are three unions that represent the employees of AU:
  • The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) represents support staff.
  • The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) represents part-time, permanent, teaching-only employees living in Alberta (colloquially called tutors).
  • The Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) represents professors and professional staff.
There is also a small group (~50) of tutors who reside outside of Alberta, Because of the operation of the Public Service Employee Relations Act (PSERA), CUPE cannot represent these out-of-province tutors (OOPTs), so the OOPTs have no union representation.

In 2017, Alberta enacted changes in its labour law that brought AUFA within the ambit of the Labour Relations Code (LRC). Some OOPTs subsequently asked AUFA to represent them (which is possible under the LRC).

AUFA got the permission of its members to suss out whether a majority of OOPTs wanted representation and commenced what amounted to an organizing campaign (getting OOPTs to sign unions cards). This was intended to establish that AUFA had the support of OOPTs to be designated into the AUFA bargaining unit. CUPE was notified of this effort by AUFA as a courtesy and were supportive.

With organizing concluded, AUFA wrote to AU several times In March and April of 2018 seeking to have the OOPTs designated into the bargaining unit. (The unique legislative provisions (colloquially called “designation”) set out in the Post-Secondary Learning Act (PSLA) give the employer the power to determine who is an academic staff member and, thus, who is in the AUFA unit. This is an unusual arrangement and, in 2017, the government created an appeal process to the Labour Board).

The employer ignored these communications. In mid April 2018, the president wrote a snippy letter claiming the university could not possibly address this issue in the short-term and it required a lengthy review and consultation process. AUFA saw this as stalling and readied its application to the Labour Board.

On May 1, the employer was wrapping up negotiations with CUPE. CUPE always asks the employer to allow it to represent the OOPTs in bargaining and the employer routinely says no. The 2005 Labour Board decision above reveals AU prefers to have these workers without union representation, as it is less costly for the employer.

According to CUPE representatives, the employer approached the union near the end of negotiations and (to CUPE’s surprise) asked (I’m paraphrasing) “what would you give us, if we gave you the OOPTs?” CUPE then made unspecified concessions and the employer agreed that CUPE could represent the OOPTs. AUFA filed its designation application with the Labour Board a few days later.

It is likely that AU will seek to use its voluntary recognition (VR) of CUPE as the bargaining agent for the OOPTs as a way to bar AUFA’s application to represent them. CUPE may also seek to intervene in the designation application to protect its VR. Three legal issues will likely result from this move.

The Board has been pretty clear that PSERA precludes CUPE from representing the OOPTs. This suggests that the VR between AU and CUPE may be null and void. Perhaps there is a sly argument to be made around the application of PSERA to a VR (or to an over-bargained certificate), but I don’t see it.

Representational Capacity
A basic principle of Canada’s labour relations is that employees, not the employer, choose their bargaining agent. When employer-friendly unions (such as the Christian Labour Association of Canada) collude with employers to thwart another union’s legitimate organizing efforts, mainstream unions typically complain the colluding union is employer-dominated.

As far as I can tell, CUPE did not have the support of any OOPTs when it agreed to the employer’s offer to represent them. In the absence of such support, CUPE does not meet the definition of a bargaining agent (“…acting on behalf of employees…”) for these workers. 

Consequently, the VR and any collective agreement flowing form it will be null and void. CUPE cannot get around this need for representational capacity by inviting the OOPTs to ratify a collective agreement because it was negotiated without any representational capacity.

Employer Interference
The Labour Relations Code prohibits employers from interfering in the formation, organization, or administration of a trade union. AU’s decision to offer CUPE a VR when in receipt of a designation application by AUFA looks like interference in the OOPTs’ choice of a bargaining agent to me. AUFA will file an(other) unfair labour practices complaint against AU over this this week. We’ll see what the Labour Board makes of AU’s behaviour.

While we don't know what was in AU’s mind, it is not unreasonable to infer that it sought to forestall AUFA’s efforts to bring the OOPTs into the AUFA bargaining unit. Basically, the employer preferred the OOPTs non-unionized. When that option was no longer viable, it preferred them in the less militant CUPE unit. About the only good here is that the OOPTs will finally have union representation one way or the other.

CUPE’s agreement is understandable: the employer offered them a long-sought plum at bargaining. But, if the VR is ruled void, CUPE may still be stuck with whatever concessions it traded AU for the OOPTs in its collective agreement. That may cause some internal problems for CUPE, as existing members will likely be POed by concessions for no gains, especially after waiting three years for a collective agreement.

In this way, AU has cleverly made something from nothing: it will either thwart AUFA’s efforts to organize the OOPTs or it will have gotten concessions from CUPE. It has also set the stage for a potentially nasty fight between CUPE and AUFA, which draws both union’s energies way from disputes with the employer. This suggests that the university received outside advice; its internal labour relations staff don't have this kind of game.

This strategy does have some risks. For example, AU and AUFA are presently in bargaining and this is the first round of bargaining under strike-lockout. AUFA has already filed an unfair labour practice complaint against AU for failing to bargain and interfering in the administration of a trade union. Further antagonizing AUFA may not be in AU’s interests.

This supposes, though, that reaching a collective agreement is AU’s goal. An alternative way to look at AU’s behaviour is that it is resisting recognizing AUFA as a legitimate representative of its members. Refusing to engage in good faith labour relations is a way to frustrate the union and undermine the union with its members.

The idea that employers must recognize unions and negotiate in good faith is one feature of the post-war labour compromise that was first struck in 1944. In exchange, workers agreed to not strike during the life of a collective agreement (which is highly disruptive to employers and, thus, a very powerful tool for workers).

If AU is (consciously or not) repudiating this arrangement and the Labour Board does not sharply correct this behaviour, workers may start asking themselves why they should abide by the rules? AU also runs the risk of annoying the government by picking a fight with workers in the run up to the 2019 election.

-- Bob Barnetson


  1. The joke, in this case, may be on AU administration. By all accounts CUPE is MORE militant than AUFA, and better organized.

    While it was probably an ill-advised move to VR CUPE just to thwart AUFA representation efforts, it certainly won't turn out the way the AU administration wants.

    My advice to AU administrators is, "Be careful what you wish for." And now they have a pissed off AUFA to deal with, and another Labour Board complaint.

    How many Labour Board complaints has AU racked up so far this year? All of which could have been avoided.

    1. There have been three unfairs filed against AU this year.

      The first was for retaliating against a union member following the filing of a grievance. This one was settled.

      The second was for interfering in the administration of a union and failure to bargain. This is ongoing.

      The third (filed yesterday) concerns interfering in the organization of a trade union.

      The only people benefitting from this style of labour relations are AU's lawyers.

  2. Replies
    1. Staff are growing tired of the "all sizzle, no steak" style of AU's leadership. I've been in several meetings where there is open mocking (from surprising quarters) of the university's executives. There is also a sharp parody of the lyrics to "Imagine" circulating that juxtapose the rhetoric of the new strategic plan ("Imagine!") with the employer's behaviour at the bargaining table.