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

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