Tuesday, April 7, 2020

PSE Bargaining in Alberta: Some initial thoughts

The vast majority of collective agreements in Alberta’s post-secondary system will be up for renewal by July 1. The bargaining context is not great and includes:
  • two cuts to government grants in six months, which have triggering massive layoffs in at some institutions,
  • a recently announced expenditure reduction mandate (possibly in the range of 20%), which will likely result in further layoffs (although it may be on hold until May),
  • a tanking economy, 
  • a government intent on rolling back public-sector wages, and
  • legislation (Bill 21) last fall that allows the government to impose binding and secret bargaining mandates on PSE Boards of Governors.
While employer bargaining mandates are secret, the early pattern that is emerging is for one-year deals with a wage rollback.

Although every bargaining relationship is a bit different, PSE employers basically have two levers to get what they want in bargaining:
  1. Layoffs threat: An employer could use the spectre of layoffs to pressurize a union to accept wage and language rollbacks (e.g., “agree to a 10% wage cut within 14 days or we’ll sack 10% of your members”). This “pick-your-poison” strategy is designed to trigger internal dissent within the union. 
  2. 24-Hour Lockout: Employers may push bargaining to impasse in order to impose a short lockout, followed by a return to work under the employer’s last offer. This would allow employers to impose rollbacks, unless the union can mount a strike. 
While these levers look powerful, they aren't overwhelmingly so.

Layoffs threats at the bargaining table are very provocative. An employer that makes such threats runs the risk of radicalizing the members of the union (essentially creating a viable strike threat where none existed). The leverage generated by a layoff threat can also be reduced by the union inoculating its members (“The employer is going to do X, our response is Y.”).

Further, layoff threats (while real) are not easy for institutions to implement. In my faculty association, it costs the employer approximately 18 months of salary to lay off association members. So, a layoff imposes an immediate financial penalty on the employer.

Further, the work done by a laid-off staff member (which contributes to revenue generation) must be either forgone or done by someone else. My experience with past rounds of layoffs is that the survivors are often unwilling and unable to pick up the extra work caused by layoffs, In fact, the survivors often stop working as hard as they previously were because of the sense of betrayal caused by the layoffs.

Now, the government and senior PSE administrators probably couldn’t care less about the fate of individual workers or organizational morale. But they don't have any interest in seeing institutions obviously failing because of layoffs they imposed. So, while layoff threats are real and can be powerful, they are not as powerful as everyone imagines.

Similarly, the threat of a 24-hour lockout is easily overblown. A credible strike threat by a union means a 24-hour lockout is not an effective employer strategy: the union can just strike to avoid going back under the employer’s terms. Further, triggering a work stoppage (thus compromising students’ access to education) will look bad on the employer if the union chooses to weaponize such behaviour in the realm of public opinion.

Developing the processes and membership buy-in necessary to have a credible strike threat will be a challenge from some faculty associations. Sophisticated administrators (and unsophisticated faculty association leaders) have worked hard to frame PSE labour relations as a technical exercise, rather than as a political struggle, over the years.

An aggressive government egging on PSE employers is an opportunity for these faculty association to engage in some rapid re-framing of labour relations. And the bargaining delays caused by COVID-19 give these associations the time to lay the political and practical ground work necessary for them to have a credible strike threat.

A credible strike threat also ups the cost to government of imposing cuts on post-secondary institutions. This can, in turn, blunt or redirect government policy. For example, if the public-sector is rocked by strikes and service disruptions and government approval is plummeting because its budgeting assumptions were obviously ludicrous and are not generating the jobs that were promised, a low-tax strategy may suddenly look less attractive than, say, developing an adequate tax-base to afford the public services voters desire.

-- Bob Barnetson

No comments: