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.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Athabasca University violates statutory freeze period

Canadian labour laws contain statutory freeze periods, during which employers are prohibited from changing the terms and conditions of employment. For example, employers cannot increase or decrease wages during union certification drives because doing so would destabilize and undermine employee support for the union (and thereby interfere with employee choice).

Employers are also typically enjoined from altering terms of employment during period of collective bargaining because doing so could act as an inducement to the union members and thereby undermine the union's bargaining power.

For example, Section 147(3) of Alberta’s Labour Relations Code states:
147(3) If a notice to commence collective bargaining has been served pursuant to section 59(2), no employer affected by the notice shall, except 
(a) in accordance with an established custom or practice of the employer,
(b) with the consent of the bargaining agent, or
(c) in accordance with a collective agreement in effect with respect to the bargaining agent, 
alter the rates of pay, a term or condition of employment or a right or privilege of any employee represented by the bargaining agent or of the bargaining agent itself until the right of the bargaining agent to represent the employees is terminated or a strike or lockout commences under Division 13.
Given this prohibition, I was surprised to receive an email from Athabasca University’s Director Human Resources (Charlene Polege) on December 20th that read (in part):
With only a handful of days remaining in 2018 as we look forward to enjoying the best of season with friends and family, on behalf of the Executive Team, I wanted to take a moment to thank you for your collective contributions to what has been an exciting and rewarding year for the oneAU community. 
In recognition of these efforts, the University will “officially” close for the holiday season at noon on Monday, December 24th and reopen on January 2nd.
Previously, AU was to remain open until 4:30 pm on December 24. With this email, AU’s executive essentially gave all employees an additional half day of vacation time on December 24.

This change (however welcomed) alters the terms and conditions of employment and clearly violates s.147(3) of the Code given that AU and the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) are engaged in collective bargaining. (AU did not meet any of the exceptions to the freeze).

AU could have gotten the permission of AUFA for the change (e.g., during the labour-management meeting that occurred only a week before the announcement). I expect AUFA would have agreed since the extra time off would have been appreciated.

The reason this seemingly minor violation of the Labour Relations Code matters is because it is further evidence that suggests the university is engaged in a union-rejection strategy. A union-rejection strategy typically entails trying to undermine the union with its members in various ways.

This can include impeding union access to members, refusing to meet with the union, routinely violating the contract and delaying dispute resolution, and forcing the union into a strike (all of which are occurring at Athabasca University).In this context, offering union members a non-contractual inducement (such as extra time off) is just another tactic by which AU undermines the union.

It is, of course, also possible that AU’s HR shop is just incompetent and doesn’t understand how labor law works. But, given the pattern of behaviour, it seems more likely that this violation of s.147(3) was intentional.

This raises two questions: (1) will AU’s Board of Governors take action to reign in AU’s senior executive’s union-rejection strategy before it leads to a damaging strike, and (2), if not, will the government move to stop an unnecessary conflict?

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Athabasca University fails OHS inspection

An out of order defibrillator on the 8th floor 
of AU's Peace Hills Trust location. So if you are
having a heart attack, please proceed to the (locked) 
11th or 12th floors. (photo supplied)
If Athabasca University were looking for a new year’s resolution, it might consider complying with Alberta's Occupational Health and Safety Act.

The university was subjected to a complaint-driven inspection in late November and compliance orders were placed on various campuses.

AU was ordered to remedy the following violations of the OHS Act:
  • AU could not demonstrate that the membership and contact info of the joint occupational health and safety committees were posted at the Athabasca campus (s.23(1) of the Act).
  • AU could not demonstrate workers were aware of their rights under the OHS Act, Code and regulations (s.3(1) of the Act).
  • AU could not demonstrate a new worker orientation or other safety training was provided (s.3(2) of the Act).
It was also ordered to produce hazard assessments, violence harassment plans, work refusal procedures, and contractor procedures. The one hazard assessment I saw last fall was 14 years old and did not appear to apply the hierarchy of controls to the hazards it identified.

There were other orders issued that I have not yet seen a copy of. In the last weeks of December, AU was scrambling to populate the joint workplace committees it should have formed back in June.

Overall, failing to meet rudimentary OHS requirements raises some pretty profound questions about the institution’s commitment to worker safety and the competence of its Human Resources office (which is responsible for this).

-- Bob Barnetson