Sunday, October 20, 2019

CLC is struck; AUPE prepares to strike

There have been two interesting developed in Alberta’s labour scene this past week.

Last Tuesday, staff employed by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) began a strike against the CLC. The strike follows two years of bargaining. According to the union, the CLC is trying to roll back anti-harassment language, conduct a job evaluation (which is code for grinding wages by reclassifying work downward,) and a substandard wage settlement.

The workers are presently 15% behind the average wage in their field but the union is only seeking small and retroactive cost of living adjustments (1.6%, 2.3% and 3.45%). The workers also want their pension plan cap removed. This reflects that the pension plan has suffered substantial erosion since 2011 (i.e., the CLC is saving money by grinding its workers’ pensions).

The employer is offering a one-time payment of $1000 plus increases of 1.75% and 3.45% in the last two years of the agreement and one extra day off. This low-ball offer comes (of course…) after a significant bump to the salaries of the CLC President, VPs, and Secretary-Treasurer in 2017 followed by indexing to the consumer price index.

It is difficult to fathom why the CLC would want to precipitate a strike, but unions are notoriously shitty employers of their own staff. I’m not sure how credible the CLC will be going forward advocating for workers when it treats its own staff so poorly.

There is only one CLC worker employed in Alberta but she has put up an impressive picket line, bolstered by other labour activists and union officials. There have been two interesting absences from this picket line.

First, none of the elected staff at the Alberta Federation of Labour have attended the picket-line (which has been happening 12 blocks from the AFL offices). Federation of Labour officials in virtually every other province have joined CLC staff on their picket lines.

Second, no New Democrat MLAs have appeared, despite the picket line occurring next door to Edmonton centre MLA David Shepherd’s constituency office. While ND MLAs are happy to participate in photo-ops at labour events (and labour leaders have no option but to make nice), this masks a growing distance between the party and labour activists. Some of the back story can be found here.

The second story was the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) held its 43rd convention. This included a rally at the Legislature.

The expected serious public-sector cuts and legislative attacks on workers right are driving unions to cooperate in ways that they haven’t in recent memory. The presidents of the United Nnurses of Alberta, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, and the Canadian Union of Public Employees were all present at the convention and rally. These unions have had strained relations but a common enemy is a wonder salve for old wounds.

The expected cuts is also driving unions to prepare for job action (at least some of which will likely be illegal). Union leaders used war metaphors, talked about direct action against employers, and explicitly discussed illegal strikes if the government picks a fight. The budget later this week will give us a good sense of how quickly things are going to heat up.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

CAUT bargaining simulation

Fraternizing? The bargaining teams intermingling. 
Two weeks back, I spent two days in a bargaining simulation, hosted by the Canadian Association of University Teachers. This simulation was a shake-down cruise for the new Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) bargaining team as it prepares to go to the table in March or April of 2020.

Whatever the limitations of a simulation, the dynamics at the table felt real--there was stress, posturing, and implicit threats (athough it was still much politer than dealing with our actual employer!). Those of us not on the actual union bargaining team got to play the employer team in the simulation. This was a fascinating experience after seven rounds on the union side.

The post-simulation debrief identified three common experiences on the employer side of the table.

Unity of Goals: Unlike the union (which must mediate the interests of various subgroups), the employer had a unified mandate. This made it much easier to evaluate the other side’s proposals and game out possible responses.

Emotional Disengagement: We were all surprised how little emotional investment we had in the process or our proposals. This was largely a technical exercise for the employer team and, so long as we met our mandate, how we got there was immaterial. Further, the proposals had no personal impact on our working lives so we did not sweat the details. This was the least stressed I've ever felt at the table.

Power: The ability of the employer to refuse union proposals largely without consequence was fascinating. While the union team did have a strike threat, we judged it unlikely that they would strike on any issue but money. While we did have a mandate to get changes, if none were possible, status quo was not as harmful for the employer as it was for the union.

Overall, it was fun (and easy) to bargain on the employer side. And the experience helps explain why the employer often appears unprepared or disinterested at the table: the outcome of bargaining just doesn't matter that much unless there is a strike threat in play.

This was also a very good shakedown cruise for the union side. They got a chance to work with one another, experience the stress of making time pressured decisions, and cope with the sea of paper that is generated. I would say they are more prepared to bargain than any past AUFA team. 

Thanks to AUFA for hosting and CAUT for facilitating the session.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Bizarre survey reignites "jobs in Athabasca" issue

A recurring issue at Athabasca University is the slow loss of university jobs from the town, mainly to the Edmonton area. While there was some recognition that this was a problem by former New Democrat government, the government took no action to resolve it and the entire senior leadership of the university decamped to Edmonton, St. Albert, and Calgary.

Recognizing that job loss at the town’s largest employer was potentially politically problematic, the university struck a committee (that included residents of the town) to discuss the issue and held an open-house in June. The open house infographic claims a 71% increase in Athabasca-based staff between 1985 and 2019. While probably true, using two data points 34 years apart disingenuously obscures the rise and fall of employees in intervening years. The university was also invited to join Athabasca County’s Tourism/Economic Development Committee.

There has been little concrete progress on this issue for several years beyond some sporadic language in job postings about giving preference to candidates who will live in Athabasca. In mid-September, a group of prominent Athabasca residents (mostly Conservative business people and politicians) arranged a meeting with the new Minister of Advanced Education to discuss this issue (and, specifically, the departure of senior university leaders). While this meeting was postponed (possibly at the request of the university), it suggests this issue is not going away.

This week, Athabasca-based AU employees received an invitation from the university to complete a survey designed “to help develop strategies to drive discussions on building a sustainable local community.” The survey appears intended to feed into the work of the Athabasca County’s Tourism/Economic Development Committee (although this is unclear). The survey itself is, to say the least, bizarre and appears to be hosted by 13ways.ca, a consulting company run by former Conservative MLA Doug Griffiths.

The survey asks a variety of yes/no questions about respondents’ perceptions of the community’s trajectory, drinking water (?), local spending, municipal flower plantings, various questions about strategies and partnerships (that respondents almost certainly can’t answer), seniors housing, and in-migration. A “bonus question” asks respondents to choose a community slogan from a list of negative options (at the bottom you can select none of the above). I have reprised the list of slogans below—it is quite shocking.



Presumably, this survey and the bonus question (which appears based on Griffiths’ book “13 ways to kill your community”) is designed to identify problem areas that Griffith’s consulting firm would be poised to help remedy. Whether this survey is valid or reliable (even in the most casual sense of the word) is a very, very open question (if this was student project, I’d give it a D).

Why the university would be sending this out to their employees to fill out is a good question. The survey suggests that there is something wrong with the Athabasca community that must be remedied (which is not true). This framing allows the university to shrug, say “no one wants to live there”, and absolve itself from any responsibility for the loss of jobs in Athabasca.

In fact, what has happened is that the university has been voluntarily transferring jobs out of the community for years. This job loss could be stopped literally overnight if the university simply started hiring more positions to Athabasca. There is no impediment to this: there is space and there are candidates who will move there.

That the university won’t do that and, instead, sends out silly info graphics and surveys, tells Athabasca community members pretty much all they need to know about Athabasca University’s actual commitment to the community. It would be pretty funny if all of AU’s ducking and weaving on this issue resulted in the government directing all senior executives to live and work in town.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Workplace injuries and leading indicators in Alberta

This summer, researchers with the Institute for Work & Health released a study looking at occupational health and safety vulnerability in Alberta (apologies that I can't find a link to the report- I received it by email). Essentially, they surveyed workers in Alberta (n=1026) about their OHS experiences and circumstances and then did some analysis and comparisons to BC and Ontario.

Some basic descriptive stats about Alberta workers:
  • 58% were exposed to workplace hazards on a weekly basis
  • 42% had inadequate workplace OHS policies and procedures
  • 37% had inadequate OHS empowerment
  • 23% had inadequate OHS awareness
  • 36% of Alberta workers were deemed vulnerable because of exposure to hazards with inadequate protections on one of more dimensions.
Workers were also asked about their experiences of OHS outcomes
  • 28% agreed they worried about getting injured or ill from work
  • 19% reported a physical work-related injury in the past year
  • 18% reported a mental work-related injury in the past year.
  • 55% of injuries required time off from work
  • 19% of injuries were reported to the WCB 
The study also found (not surprisingly) that workers with the highest level of OHS vulnerability were the most likely to worry about and experience an injury (see screen cap below).


This study broadly confirms prior studies of worker self-report of injury in Alberta (e..g., roughly 1 in 5 experience physical injury; time off due to injury is often required but goes unreported to the WCB). It useful helps identify some leading indicators of workplace safety: workers who report adequate protections appear to be at a lower risk of injury.

-- Bob Barnetson