Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Athabasca U survey reveals lack of trust in senior executive

Earlier this spring, Athabasca University undertook an external survey of staff engagement. The results are below the industry average and entail significant skepticism about the trustworthiness of AU’s senior leadership. For those who didn’t attend the presentations in mid-July and don’t have an hour to spend watching the video, here is a quick summary.

The consultant making the presentation took pains to note that engagement differs from satisfaction. Engagement is intended to heightened workers’ emotional and intellectual connection with the employer in order to increase employees’ discretionary effort. I’m not sure openly seeking to manipulate workers’ behaviour is super motivating, but, hey, at least the consultant was honest about the intent.

The response rate was 55% (610 responses), which missed the goal of 80% and was lower than the 2014 response rate of 68%. The response rate does match the industry benchmark (public and private colleges and universities) of 54%. The consultant asserted that 45% non-response was likely not significant because the non-respondents’ answers likely mirror the respondents’ answers.

I suspect there is likely a systematic difference between those who filled out the survey and those who didn’t. And it probably centres on the respondents’ level of engagement. Surely such a difference that would be surely germane to the results of… an engagement survey. I suspect that a complete picture would add to the negative side of the ledger.

Overall, AU scored consistently below industry benchmarks on all dimensions of engagement. The bottom half of the figure below shows significant problems with communication, student focus, teamwork, and senior leadership. (Orange is bad throughout the figures.)



The consultant largely dismissed these negative scores as common issues (despite the deviation from the benchmarks) and not particularly relevant to driving engagement (key dimensions being professional growth, organizational vision and senior leadership). Setting aside the issue of whether engagement is a valid concept, from a common-sense perspective, these scores are bad news.

Questions specific to AU’s I-CARE values were asked. (Apologies for the murkiness of the screen grab.) The most interesting finding is that only 46% of respondents believe that AU executive behave in way that is consistent with the values that the executive created as part of its Imagine-ary strategic plan.


When asked about senior leadership (basically the university’s executive), only 39% of respondents believe that senior leaders act consistently (i.e., do as they say). This is 13% below the benchmark. And only 43% of staff have trust and confidence in the exec’s ability to achieve the goals of Athabasca University, 15% below benchmark.


Only half of respondents agreed the executive clearly communicates their goals, 5% below benchmark. Only 48% believed executive set ambitious but realistic goals, 10% below benchmark. The open-ended comments provided by respondents will not be shared with staff (even though historically such comments were shared). The consultant did note that a key demand expressed in the comments was for communication that was not so highly torqued by spin.

An example of this is the president’s bi-weekly email (“Neil’s Notes”), which is clich├ęd, saccharine, studiously avoids commenting on contentious (i.e., internally important) issues at the university, and sometimes borders on incomprehensible. After a year of trying to see value in it, Neil's Notes now goes directly to my junk folder.

Despite the endless communication from the university, there remain communication problems. For example, only 43% of respondents understand what needs to be done for AU to succeed in the long term. This is 10% below benchmark. 



There also appear to be issues around innovation. Only 40% of respondents agreed that there was a culture of innovation at AU, 16% below benchmark. Only 43% agreed that AU systematically adopts new and improved ways to work (17% below benchmark). 



Respondents also flagged concerns about limited professional growth opportunities. According to the consultant, low scores here often indicate disengagement (but not a 45% non-response rate?).



There are apparently significant differences between groups at AU but these differences will also not be provided to all staff. The results for the IT unit were presented to IT staff last Wednesday and were notably worse than the institutional average. This is surprising given that 20% of the unit comprises new hires who should not be jaded so soon.

The consultant confirmed that the recent and unpleasant round of faculty collective bargaining was on the minds of some respondents and likely contributed to the poor results.

Only the president and HR director get to see the written comments. The irony of telling staff to trust the senior exec to correctly interpret and act on comments collected on a survey where staff indicated they demonstrably don't trust the senior exec has not been lost on the staff I’ve spoken to about this. The father-knows-best vibe is playing poorly among workers, who are used to drawing their own conclusions about what information means.

This survey does help quantify the morale problem that is clearly evident to anyone who works inside AU. Given the effort made to improve AU’s culture by the current executive (which at this point seem to have degenerated to sloganeering about some imaginary “oneAU” and calling staff “AU team members”), this survey demonstrates the executive’s approach is not effective. 

A question that was not asked in the presentations was why the Board re-appointed the president before the Board received these results (or, indeed, even had the survey conducted)? When this was asked last fall, the answer was the president’s review had to be done quickly to meet government mandate for a new contract. Whether or not it is true, that explanation is being greeted with eye rolls and disbelief. This level of cynicism is the organizational equivalent of cancer.

Perhaps a rethink by the executive of their approach is in order over the summer? With all three unions likely in collective bargaining in the next 18 months and the slow drain of jobs from the Athabasca area continuing, morale and organizational effectiveness are unlikely to improve with a status quo approach.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Bargaining retrospective: AU Xmas Eve Massacre

Neil Fassina. Photo courtesy David Climenhaga
One of the more interesting episodes in the last round of bargaining between the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) and Athabasca University (AU) was a blow-up over AU giving its staff an extra half-day off on Christmas Eve.

This gift (putatively in recognition of staff’s hard work) violated the statutory freeze period on employers altering the terms and conditions of work that were in effect for AUFA members during collective bargaining. AU could have gotten around this bar by asking AUFA’s permission, but didn’t. (I can’t imagine AUFA rejecting a half day off, if asked.)

AUFA objected to the employer offering this sort of inducement during bargaining because this behaviour is against the law and because AUFA didn’t want to face estoppel arguments (i.e., you didn’t object last time) if the employer decided in the future to make other, less desirable amendments to the days of work. An exchange of letters followed.

In this exchange, AU threatened to withhold future time off because AUFA had complained:
Your letter has accordingly caused us to revisit the University’s practice in relation to providing this half-day to AUFA staff. We will be reconsidering whether we will be providing this time off in the future, or if we will require AUFA staff to work all of December 24th. We hope to avoid any future issues in relation to this or any similar practices.
The university’s president then sent an email to all staff (including workers represented by CUPE and AUPE) and included most (but not all) of the correspondence.

Because workers aren’t stupid, they immediately saw the president’s implicit threat of retaliation that I would summarize as “if you exercise your rights under the Labour Relations Code, we’ll make you work to the bitter end on Christmas Eve” (which has always been the practice anyhow).

This caused a small shit storm within (and between) the various unions. This was not unexpected. The reason for AUFA demanding AU not offer AUFA members inducements during bargaining without AUFA’s permission (i.e., it undercuts AUFA’s position as bargaining agent) is hard to see. By contrast, the threat of not receiving a half day off has an immediate and tangible effect on non-AUFA employees.

An explanation by AUFA partly calmed the waters. Interestingly, it also triggered a backlash against AU. The president’s email attempted to frame the issue as one of AUFA being unreasonable and uncivil:
AU is simply taken aback and disappointed by AUFA’s objection to the University closing early and enabling employees to leave work early on Christmas Eve to be with their loved ones. I am without words to describe the disappointment of being falsely accused of a union-rejection or anti-union strategy because the University closed early and sent employees home with full pay, on Christmas Eve.

In line with the University’s commitment to being open and transparent, I have attached copies of both AUFA’s formal complaint against AU and our response to that complaint.
That the president’s framing ignored the actual issue raised (i.e., AU violated the Labour Code and undermined AUFA) undercut the president’s credibility. His rather obvious misdirection also undercut his claim of being respectful and transparent.

Respect and transparency are party of the i-CARE values that the president has hung his hat on but keeps allowing his staff to violate. These values are now being openly referred to as the i-don't-CARE values (more on this in the coming weeks).

The divisive effect of his framing, the lack of an apology, and the timing of his missive (the day before bargaining and as it was about to reach impasse) was also noted.

There are a number of conclusions we can draw here:

1. Workers’ aren’t stupid. When provided with fulsome information, they draw reasonable conclusions. Half-assed attempts by an employer to “spin” problems away backfired. They helped solidify support for the bargaining team and further undermined the credibility of the employer. An earnest and fulsome apology would have been a far more effective way to resolve this issue. Maybe next time AU will follow the law?

2. Public-sector employers are touchy about negative press. A single, largely ignored blog post (referred to in the president’s email as “accusations raised in public forums”) triggered an ill-conceived over-reaction. This did nothing but confirm that bad press was a very effective lever for the union. The president has since complained he’s be subjected to cyber bullying. Given the actual bullying faced by staff on his watch, this claim has been greeted with eye rolls and faux sympathy.

3. The employer was also struggling to negotiate within the then-new rules of bargaining (such as being subject to the Labour Code). That the labour-relations staff in HR did not identify the half-day off as a prohibited practice is disappointing. That they responded to a complaint with a threat of retaliation is even more so. Neither of these things is surprising, however.

It will be interesting to see if AU has learned any of these lessons in the next round of collective bargaining, which will start (likely) in April).

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Why might Co-ops treat workers poorly?

One of the most consistently interesting blogs about work is Organizing Work. Over the past few months, they have posted a couple of related articles about co-ops and unions. Co-operatives (i.e., member-owned operations) often have a lot of street cred with progressives.

Historically, co-ops featured prominently in the Antigonish Movement and on the prairies, where workers sought to break the monopolies they faced as producers and consumers. Modern versions (e.g., Mountain Equipment Co-op, various credit unions) keep this model alive.

Yet not everything is peachy-keen in the co-op movement. For example, UFCW 1400 members engaged in a protracted strike with the Saskatoon Co-op over the winter to push back against two-tier wage scales (i.e., lower wages for new workers). After six months, UFCW members narrowly accepted a deal that includes a two-tier wage system.

Organizing Work undertook some analysis of the track record of grocery co-ops in the US and Canada to see if the Saskatoon dispute was an aberration or was symptomatic of a broader pattern of union busting and worker exploitation.

The article is a worth a read but the upshot is that coops often treat workers poorly and engage in union busting. In part, this reflects that co-ops are intended to benefit their consumer members, not their workers.

Grinding workers wages is one strategy to keep prices down. There is also some interesting analysis in the article of how three inter-related entities seem to be pushing a more corporate form of co-op management.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Unions & Sci-fi: Hunger Makes the Wolf

I recently finished two sci-fi westerns by Alex Wells in which a union made an appearance. Hunger Makes the Wolf (2017) and Blood Binds the Pack (2018) follow the adventures of Hob Ravani as she leads a group of outlaws (the Ghost Wolves) on the bone-dry corporate planet of Tenegewa.

Tenegewa is dominated by the TransRift Corporation (which controls interstellar travel). TransRift has established a number of corporate towns (both mining and farming), which harken back to Appalachia in the 1930s (or 1970s!).

The heavy-handed tactics of TransRift are sometimes collectively resisted by the miners, who might call a day of rest and thereby reduce production. Over the course of the two novels, the situation faced by the miners deteriorates and they become more militant.

While I don’t think they ever refer to themselves as a union, the miners employer a number of traditional labour tactics, including striking. They are also subjected to numerous traditional employer tactics, include infiltration, starvation, and violence.

Ravani’s bandits eventually work in collaboration with the miners to undermine TransRift and give the distant government a pretext for more involvement (there is a power struggle between the government and TransRift over space-travel technology).

Overall, the books do a decent job of portraying the process of organizing workers. I found the books a touch long but hung on to the end.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Superstore: Unions and Undocumented Workers

In late May, the TV show Superstore wrapped up another season. I’ve written about Superstore before because they had a very interesting union storyline a few years back as well as some hilarious staff training videos.

This finale had a three-episode story arc. Cloud 9’s corporate office grinds workers’ hours which leads store management to publish photos of the gross effects on store cleanliness in order to get more hours. This leads to a disciplinary investigation and the firing of a worker (meek weirdo Sandra). Sandra then becomes a union stalwart and starts organizing. Cloud 9 then targets the store for closure.



There are three really interesting moments in the final two episodes:

1. There is a depiction of a union organizing meeting. Although the meeting is played for laughs, this is the first mainstream depiction of a union organizing meeting that I can recall on TV.

2. During the meeting, one employee argues against organizing by highlighting how vulnerable the workers are and maybe they should just be happy with the pittance they have. This part of the meeting is played straight and it has the effect you would expect on the union drive.



3. A part of its union-busting, Cloud 9 contacts ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to raid its own store. This is expected to be disruptive to the workers’ solidarity as well as terrify them. This is where the episode takes a dark, dark turn for undocumented worker Mateo.



Interestingly, the ICE raid seems to solidify support for the union. We’ll have to wait until the fall to see how this plotline plays out. But this story line returns Superstore towards the kind of critical comedy that we saw in shows like Archie Bunker.

-- Bob Barnetson