Friday, March 29, 2019

Athabasca Faculty picket Board of Governors' dinner

Yesterday, 15 members of the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) picketed a dinner event of the Athabasca University (AU) Board of Governors (BoG) in Edmonton. Board members were handed leaflets as they entered the dinner. To our knowledge, this was the first picketing ever at Athabasca University.

The purpose of the picket was to demonstrate that foot dragging at the bargaining table by BoG’s bargaining team is unacceptable, given the very reasonable settlement proposed by AUFA:
  • two years of a wage freeze,
  • a clear process by which long-serving term employees become permanent, and 
  • two further years of waged to be negotiated (and resolved by arbitration). 
This proposal is broadly consistent with other provincial settlements as well as the settlement recently reached between AU and its support staff.

The BoG bargaining team has stalled bargaining since last May. It delayed the exchange of proposals, it advanced unreasonable proposals (that it has since abandoned), and it has been unavailable to bargain since mid-February. It has also stalled the negotiation of an essential services agreement (which is a pre-cursor to formal mediation).

AUFA’s next information picket will be Monday, April 15 at noon in Athabasca. This picket coincides with the next (and only) bargaining date between AUFA and the BoG team.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Rejected proposal moves Athabasca closer to work stoppage

Last week, the Athabasca University (AU) Board of Governors (BoG) Human Resource Committee (HRC) voted down a proposal by the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) that would have brought four years of labour peace to AU.

The HRC’s decision suggests they think they can drive a harder bargain at the table. The sticking points seem to be the duration of the contract and AU's unwillingness to contractually address its abuse of limited-term staff over the years. 

Whether the BoG itself supports such a decision is unclear because the BoG was never given a chance to vote on the proposal. (Indeed, the Bog seems to be completely in the dark about bargaining. And, oddly, AU ratified a similar contract with its support staff recently.) This rejection moves AU and AUFA one step closer to a work stoppage that will be profoundly harmful to AU and its students.

In the short term, AUFA continues to try to get an essential services agreement (ESA) so it can move towards formal mediation (the parties are at the Labour Board on this issue on April 8). There has also been one additional date of bargaining set (April 15).

Absent a move by the employer, I would guess AUFA would be looking at a strike vote in June and (if the vote passes) a work stoppage in mid-September. AUFA will also commence information picketing in the next two (or three) weeks (presently awaiting advice on if and how the Elections Act may affect AUFA’s choice of targets).

It is a shame AUFA must attack AU’s reputation as an employer in public because talk of a work stoppage will almost certainly affect enrollments in the medium term. But that’s where the HRC’s rejection has left the union and is apparently damage they are willing to risk.

The most interesting discussion among AUFA members has been focused on the New Democrats' role in the current impasse. Many AUFA members wrote their MLAs, concerned about where AU’s behaviour was taking the institution. After a lengthy delay, they received a form-letter response form then-Minister of Advanced Education Marlin Schmidt in late February.

The gist was that the Minister has no authority to intervene in collective bargaining. This is, in a narrow sense, true. That said, it ignores a number of ways that the government has already intervened in collective bargaining on the side of the employer:

1. The government moved PSE bargaining under strike-lockout without the promised preparatory period (indeed, some bargaining was moved retroactively). This provided employers with a significant advantage that, according to one ND MLA, should result in lower wage settlements.

2. The government has given institutions a bargaining mandate. AU prevaricates about this, but there is clear evidence that other institutions received a mandate for at least a wage freeze. Government staff are monitoring bargaining closely. And, I’m told, institutions risk funding consequences if they deviate from this mandate.

So, while the government claims its hands are tied, the NDs have certainly intervened on the side of employers in order to get two years of zeros (with future wage changes to be determined through further negotiations).

It is not lost on workers that, despite improving Alberta’s labour laws, the NDs have been no friend to labour on bread-and-butter issues. Rank-and-file unionists have been grumbling about this for awhile. Recently, Alberta Union of Provincial Employees present Guy Smith told Maclean's “There’s nothing compelling [workers] to go to the ballot box with their head held high, marking an X for the NDP."

An AUFA member opined last week that we’ve done better bargaining under conservative governments than we have under the NDs. Another AUFA member flagged that wage freezes allows the NDs to reduce their deficit (for political gain) without having to raise taxes—in effect, the NDs have externalized a greater portion of the cost of government onto public-sector workers.

Given how terrible the conservatives are, it’s unlikely that this will translate into public-sector workers voting conservative en masse. But pent-up demand for wage increases to match inflation does identify a likely area of contestation regardless of who forms the next government.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Indigenous gendered experiences of work in an oil-dependent, rural Alberta community

The Parkland Institute recently issued a very interesting report entitled “Indigenous gendered experiences of work in an oil-dependent, rural Alberta community.”

This case study of Wabasca “focuses on the lived experiences of Indigenous working families in the oil industry and how working conditions impact families and gender relations” (p. 1).

This study remedies the lack of attention paid by researchers to the economic, employment, or other benefits (and the tradeoffs among them) involving Indigenous communities and the gendered nature of these experiences.

The authors draw a number of conclusions and raise some very thought-provoking questions:
Interviews demonstrated that individuals working in the oil industry have experienced gender and racial discrimination at and related to work. At the same time, Indigenous companies have been able to carve out space in what has been an industry primarily dominated by non-Indigenous people. (p. 20)
The oil industry’s boom-bust cycle and the pressures of capitalism can bring significant imbalance and disruption to communities, as described here. However, through relationality in the community, specifically paid and unpaid caring work that is largely performed by women, the community works to establish balance. The industry itself may foster and exploit women’s engagement in this type of care work through its very structure and practices that create barriers and deterrents for women and ultimately reduce their participation in the higher-paying oilfield jobs. (p. 20) 
Some interviewees have internalized hegemonic racist stereotypes and narratives that Indigenous workers lack the drive to move up the labour ladder. At the same time, some workers are conscious of the stereotypes and resist them. These workers, especially Indigenous tradespeople, described the need to work harder than white workers to move up the ladder. (p. 20) 
Many Indigenous workers may end up streamed into unskilled labourer positions. The few Indigenous workers that become skilled journeymen or journeywomen sometimes end up being business owners by starting their own contracting companies. Indigenous business owners are a different class than their employees because they are wealthy enough to own some means of production. (pp. 20-21) 
Capital is a form of social and economic power that is not necessarily recognized as such. The long-term concern is that capitalist relations will get implanted in Indigenous communities, hooking them into the trans-local practices of ruling that are integral to corporate power (building stronger support for continued extractivism, as business revenue streams come to require it), and dividing the community against itself. From the perspective of miyo-pimatisiwin, how can Indigenous understandings of being relations (“all my relations”), and caring for the collective good be maintained when capitalist structures divide the community by class and individualist approaches impact community relations? (p. 21)
Overall, this is a very useful extension of the significant research done (primarily by University of Alberta scholars) on the social impacts of Alberta’s oil-dependent economy.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

On the Move: Stories of Mobile Work

One of the long-term research projects I’ve been involved with is the On the Move partnership, which examines economic-related geographic mobility (ERGM). The project is wrapping up and two new knowledge translation activities have recently rolled out.

The first is another episode of Ideas on CBC radio. This episode reports some of the findings of the series and the link includes other episodes of Ideas that have covered the project. These include the experiences of young migrant workers in Banff and live-in caregivers in Fort McMurray and the impact of the wildfire.

The second is a set of stories produced by the Alberta team which captures the stories of migrant workers in Alberta. There are stories of Indigenous, interprovincial, and international migration. My own work has mostly been with international workers and the stories (which are composites) reflect that:
  • Carlos: A Gautemalan temporary foreign worker in the meatpacking industry who transitions to permanent residency.
  • Anong: A Thai worker comes to Canada and experiencing human trafficking.
  • Eugene: A Ukrainian migrant worker who stays on after his work permit expires and becomes undocumented.
  • Gabriela: A Mexican agricultural worker struggles to assert her reproductive rights on a mushroom farm.
  • Ashok: An Indian migrant worker struggles to work and live in rural Alberta.
  • Reyna: A Filipina caregiver flees the Fort McMurray wildfire and sees her dreams of family reunification put on hold. 
These stories highlight the exploitation and vulnerability of migrant workers. It is not that they lack agency or understanding, but they are trapped within profoundly exploitative immigration regimes. These stories will be included as learning elements in a new course I'm writing, LBST 325: Mobile work and migrant workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Jobs losses in Athabasca continue

This week brings us another example of Athabasca University (AU) saying one thing to its employees and doing another. This time, the topic is AU’s mixed messages about keeping jobs in the town of Athabasca.

AU is the largest employer in the town of Athabasca. AU also operates campuses in Edmonton (2) and Calgary (1) and about half of its 1100 employees (mostly the instructional staff) work from home offices.

A long-standing issue is the degree to which AU is shifting operations out of Athabasca. This issue came to a head after a 2015 report mooted AU leaving town, a 2016 report that AU was planning on a new campus in St. Albert, and another 2016 report that IT jobs would shift there.

In 2016, political backlash saw Minister of Advanced Education Marlin Schmidt direct AU to develop a plan to keep AU in Athabasca. Not surprisingly, a 2017 report on AU’s future suggested maintaining (and perhaps expanding) the size of its operations in Athabasca. Then-new AU President Neil Fassina told the Edmonton Journal that
…the university was “100 per cent committed to our presence in Athabasca” and that it needed to “take advantage of the immense opportunity that is inherent in the town.”
Yet, AU’s behaviour since then has not really lived up to the hype. None of AU’s senior executives live in Athabasca anymore. Most live in Edmonton or Calgary and visit Athabasca one day per week or less. AU’s new strategic plan, spearheaded by Fassina, says essentially nothing about the town of Athabasca and planning for a new Edmonton-area campus is underway.

This approach to the location issue sits uncomfortably with continued messaging by the government that “Athabasca University… is an important part of the Town of Athabasca.”

There is data to support continued concerns about jobs slowly leaving the town of Athabasca. Analysis of AU staffing suggests that there has been a steady loss of jobs over the past five years, with jobs shifting to Edmonton and Calgary. Here are some examples.

Professional staff (e.g., IT workers, editors, other unionized professional staff) saw an overall reduction in numbers (from 247 in 2013 to 201 in late 2018). The biggest losses have been in Athabasca (net loss of 29) and the majority of professionals now work elsewhere.
There is a similar story among excluded management jobs. The overall decline (from 23 in 2014 to 17 in 2018 ) includes a large shift in positions away from Athabasca. This data also masks a very high level of turnover among directors and executives.

On February 6, a staff member asked Fassina why job postings no longer say nice things about living in Athabasca. Fassina responded that all job postings state, “all else being equal, preference will be given to the individual who is willing to live or relocate to Athabasca. All of our job postings have got that now.”

Staff fact-checked him as he was speaking and found that wasn’t true. Fassina said he would take that away. A month later, this language is still missing from all job postings (including those where no location is specified).

The job postings do, once again, say nice things about living in Athabasca:
The vibrant town of Athabasca is located in the heart of Alberta's boreal forest on the banks of the Athabasca River. The community offers modern services, affordable housing, excellent public schools, and a variety of recreational activities to suit everyone's lifestyle. 
Athabasca University offers an interest-free loan for new employees who relocate within Athabasca County or the Town of Athabasca.
When queried, HR’s explanation for the re-introduction of Athabasca-booster statements was that they have to be included after the last connect with the President session.

That makes little sense because (1) that isn't what the president said would be in the job ads, (2) saying nice things about Athabasca is way less effective at bringing workers to town than would giving preference to Athabasca candidates, and (3) the Athabasca booster statements occur in jobs posted as Edmonton-only!

Further, that AU continues to insist jobs be located in Edmonton (when those jobs can clearly be done at any location) reveals the underlying problem: despite its purported commitment to keeping operations in Athabasca, AU doesn't make hiring to Athabasca a priority.

Further, requiring jobs be located in Edmonton (when there is no operational reason for the requirement) blocks Athabasca residents from acquiring these good jobs unless they leave town.

Saying one thing and doing another on the Athabasca job is issue does not help an administration beset by credibility problems due to its other labour relations practices. And the evidence clearly shows ongoing job losses in Athabasca.

I wonder what the government thinks about AU’s lack of compliance with Minister Schmidt’s direction about keeping AU in Athabasca?

-- Bob Barnetson