Tuesday, February 11, 2020

New course at AU: Union Busting 101

This post originally appeared on the Athabasca University Faculty Association blog:

A recurring question about Athabasca University’s proposal to de-designate 67% of the AUFA membership is why AU is doing this. One explanation is that de-designation may be part of a broader union-busting strategy on the part of AU. 

Union-busting: A primer

Union busting occurs when an employer tries to undermine a union’s actual or perceived effectiveness. Typical union-busting tactics include:
  • Impeding union access to members in the workplace.
  • Refusing to respond to or meet with the union.
  • Violating the collective agreement or past settlement agreements.
  • Making unreasonable demands at the bargaining table to trigger a work stoppage.
  • Seeking to reduce the union’s membership.
These strategies are intended to make the union less effective at representing members. The hope is that, over time, union members start to lose confidence in the union because the union struggles to get members what they are due under the contract.

Employers’ long-term goal is to cause workers to become non-unionized. These tactics are generally motivated by the employer’s desire to reduce compensation costs and increase management power.
Union Busting at AU to Date

Over the past three years, a clear pattern of union-busting behaviour has emerged at AU:

  • Impeding access to members: In the autumn of 2018, AU forced AUFA to leave its offices on the main campus after 35 years. Notice was served after an acrimonious day of bargaining, with AU asserting it no longer had space on campus for the union. The former AUFA offices are now little-used photocopier and storage rooms. AUFA’s relocation to the Tim Byrne Centre means it has less physical access to its members. 
  • Refusing to respond or meet: AU continues to not meet timelines in the collective agreement. For example, AUFA recently had to file a grievance in order to get dates for the joint equity committee to even meet. In 2018 AUFA documented over 40 instances of ignored emails or missed timelines. And a recent reclassification request (with a 25-day timeline) that started last March is still not done. Meetings with HR are more difficult following AU’s decision to relocate key labour relations staff 150km away from the main campus (where AUFA’s staff are based).
  • Violating contracts: AU routinely violates the contract and/or grievance settlement agreements and refuses to remedy obvious errors. Some examples include:
  1. In 2017, AU issued a defective discipline notice. Instead of re-issuing the notice with the correct information, AU forced the matter to arbitration. At arbitration, AU admitted it knew the notice was defective. This dragged out the dispute for more than a year, causing the member great distress. 
  2. In early 2019, AU stole vacation leave from a sick member. Instead of remedying the matter, AU forced the matter to arbitration. Nine months later, after the member’s terminally ill spouse was forced to testify, AU reversed its decision on the basis of medical information that it already had. 
  3. In the summer of 2019, AU violated a 2014 settlement agreement. The agreement specified a new supervisor for the member and a process for any future supervisory changes (requiring member and AUFA consent). AU ignored the settlement agreement and re-assigned the member to a new supervisor without consent. Instead of remedying the issue, AU is forcing AUFA to grieve the violation. The slow pace of arbitration means the member will likely be stuck with the violation for more than a year. 
  1. non-therapeutic examination by company doctors at HR’s request,
  2. the immediate suspension without pay or termination before discipline appeals were heard,
  3. a 50% reduction in layoff notice,
  4. reducing recall rights for staff,
  5. the elimination of the existing probationary review process for professionals, and
  6. the power to terminate probationary professionals with no recourse.
  • Reducing membership: In December, AU presented AUFA with a draft designation policy that would remove approximately 67% of AUFA members from the bargaining unit. If implemented, this proposal will profoundly weaken the bargaining power of AUFA (bargaining starts again in March or April). It will also negatively impact the pension eligibility and bargaining power of any current members who are excluded by the policy.
These behaviours appear designed to reduce AUFA’s ability to represent its members and, thereby, reduce members’ confidence in AUFA. Taken together and using a balance of probabilities test, the pattern strongly suggests that AU is engaged in a union-busting strategy.
What’s is Next?

While it isn’t possible to know exactly what AU’s next moves will be, here are some things to watch for:

  • Gaslighting: AU is likely to deny that it is involved in union busting in order to make us question our perceptions and fight among ourselves. As we saw during last week’s restructuring meetings, HR is denying its intention is to de-designate AUFA members even though the draft policy AU advanced has that exact effect. 
  • Further instability: Last week, AU announced it will undergo a restructuring. Oddly, the specifics of this have not yet been fully worked out and won’t be implemented for some months. This announcement may be an effort by AU to change the channel (i.e., draw out attention away from the designation fight, which AU is losing). It may also be an effort to scare AUFA members, who might be concerned about their jobs. Expect more of this.
  • Job Losses: AU may roll out early retirement packages and/or layoff notices over the next few months. Based on AU’s most recent financial and enrollment reports, there is no financial need for a reduction in staff. Indeed, there has been a significant increase in executive staff over the past year. The instability typically cause by buy-outs and layoffs can be seen as another effort to cow staff.
  • Quick Move to De-designate: AU has indicated it plans to complete the first round of consultation on de-designation by the end of February (although it allows for additional consultation, at its sole discretion). This would position the Board to approve a new policy at its March 27th meeting. 
  • Aggressive bargaining: Bargaining will commence again by the end of April. The government is now able to impose secret and binding bargaining mandates on public-sector employers. This suggests that bargaining is likely to again be difficult and protracted, with a high risk of impasse and work stoppage.
While these expected next moves are disheartening, we are, as a union, able to fight back effectively.
Fighting Back

One of the ironies of AU’s increasingly aggressive approach to labour relations under the watch of President Fassina is growing solidarity between members and a significant loss of trust in Fassina. This growing solidarity is a powerful tool that we can use to oppose AU’s union-busting.

During last year’s bargaining, members actions (such as information pickets, public meetings, workplace sign campaigns, and social media posts) gave the bargaining team the power to resist the employer’s worst proposals. A similar campaign is underway against the designation policy.

It may be necessary to further intensify member actions, depending upon how AU behaves in the coming weeks. AUFA is, of course, also preparing a legal strategy to resist de-designation if member pressure is unsuccessful in thwarting de-designation.

Bob Barnetson, Member
Membership Engagement Committee

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