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

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