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