Tuesday, June 30, 2020

AU plays the victim card… again

Athabasca University (AU) is in the midst of a multi-year campaign to bust its faculty association. Its latest effort is using its power to designate who is considered an academic to propose carving out 67% of the members of the faculty association as the union heads into another difficulty round of bargaining.

AU’s de-designation efforts are going poorly. There is no plausible explanation for AU’s proposal to change bargaining unit boundaries after 35 years other than AU is seeking to strengthen its hand at the negotiating table. And AU is transparently gaslighting its staff by refusing to admit the main and obvious implications of its proposals (i.e., 67% of members will be kicked out of the union).

Not surprisingly, staff members are upset. While the results of AU’s most recent engagement survey have not yet been released, I suspect they will be much worse than last year’s, when only 43% of staff said they trusted senior administrators.

Over the past three weeks, faculty association members have been emailing Dr. Margaret Kierylo (AVP Integrated Policy and Planning) to express their concerns about de-designation. Kierylo is the main author of the policy proposal and appears to be the executive lead on the issue. While every email is a bit different, here is a typical example:

From: "Dr. Bob Barnetson" <barnetso@athabascau.ca>
Date: Thursday, June 11, 2020 at 10:22 AM
To: "Dr. Margaret Kierylo" <mkierylo@athabascau.ca>
Subject: some thoughts on your de-designation proposal


I hope this note finds you well.

I’m writing to you about AU’s present proposal to de-designate professionals, academic coordinators, and deans and associate deans. I previously wrote to [Provost] Matt [Prineas] about this in February, but he’s never bothered to respond.

What you are presently proposing will carve 67% of the members of my union out of the union. This is an unacceptable outcome and one effect will be to bust the union’s bargaining power. This is not how academics treat their colleagues.

I’m hopeful you might consider revising the proposed policy so as to maintain the status quo. The distress and anger this proposal is generating quite significant.

I imagine it is a bit hard to see how mad people are about this issue given that we’re all stuck at home for the next while. But, when we return to work, you’ll likely notice how straight up angry people are at the exec and at you (since you seem to be the face of this policy proposal).

A change in the university’s approach would likely go a long way to attenuating this anger and bringing this issue to a productive conclusion.

If you’d like to discuss this further, I’m available at either number below.

Thanks kindly

Kierylo’s response was a boilerplate email of no real consequence. What was interesting was AU’s next move.

At the June 22 consultation between AU and its unions, AU’s labour relations consultant Abey Arnaout began the meeting by claiming that Kierylo was being harassed. Here is a near-verbatim transcript:
Abey: … Before we start, I’d like to read out a statement from the university.

Over the past week members of the university’s draft designation policy committee have received emails from their union executive. The concern we raise today is not receipt of the emails. The issue in hand is harassment, bullying, and intimidation through veiled threat by these emails.

Quotes implied to be threatening:

I imagine it is a bit hard to see how mad people are about this issue. When we return to work you will notice how angry people are university exec and at you.

One can objectively assume that this was a threat of the university community of physical harm.

We want to make it clear that intimidation, threats, harassment and bullying have no place at this university or at any workplace. We understand that the topic of designation is an important one and that members of AU’s community are passionate about it. 
Because many of these emails indicate they were directed by the union, we assume that the union is complicit in this behavior. Our union partners should not deem this behavior as an acceptable labour relations tactic. 
This may lead to disciplinary action. The university takes no issue with the receipt of emails from university members. We remind our members to engage in respectful dialogue.
So, basically, the university is alleging that my email constituted a threat directed at Kierylo. Now, if that were true, the university has an obligation to take action to protect Kierylo. This might include:
  • Indicating its concern to me directly.
  • Directing me not to threaten (or even contact) Kierylo again.
  • Commencing a disciplinary investigation (perhaps suspending me with pay during that time) and imposing sanctions.
  • Re-assigning Kierylo so she is no longer in a position to be threatened.
  • Contacting the police.
AU has done none of these things. I only heard about this concern second hand when the union was trying to track down the full email to review it (AU refused to provide a copy of the email to the union). AU’s inaction suggests AU doesn’t really think Kierylo was subjected to a threat. Because, of course, she wasn’t.

What is actually going on here is that AU is losing its fight to bust the union. AU’s behaviour is threatening the interests of every member of the union and has destroyed the credibility of AU’s executive team. The result, naturally, is that the members are becoming angry and rallying around the union.

And AU doesn't know what to do about that. If AU continues with efforts to de-designate two-thirds of the union’s members, it risks additional reputational harm and a nasty legal fight as well as the possibility of job action. If AU drops its proposal, the union will claim victory and the workers will learn (once again) that resisting AU attacks pays off.

Instead of trying to resolve this self-inflicted strategic dilemma, AU has decided continue to press ahead with de-designation while trying to delegitimize the behaviours that faculty association members are using to resist AU’s union busting. A powerful person or organization false claiming to be the victim of harassment is a form of emotional manipulation.

This tactic is, however, not going to work. AU already played the victim card just last summer after it got beat up during the last round of bargaining. And, last week, it claimed that any criticism of the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) efforts was bullying. The effectiveness of claiming to be the victim declines quickly with repetition.

Further, AU’s overall credibility with staff is so low that staff disbelieve much of what AU says. This is especially the case when the facts underlying the claim don't support it. No reasonable person would find the email threatening. This is likely why AU hasn't taken any meaningful steps to “protect” Kierylo—they would face another embarrassing and expensive loss in a discipline hearing.

One result of falsely claiming to be the victim is that AU is signalling that direct pressure on senior executives causes them discomfort (i.e., is an effective tactic). If a series of very mild emails generated this kind of intemperate response, what kind of response might the union get if it amped up the pressure even slightly (e.g., flyering Kierylo’s neighbourhood)?

At this point, AU’s best out is to revise its proposed policy such that the policy that does not affect the boundaries of the bargaining unit. (AU will lose face doing that, but that’s a sunk cost at this point.) Walking away from de-designation will reduce the support the union has because its members will no longer be under immediate threat.

If AU’s executives can’t see that (or let their egos get in the way of doing that), it be up to the Board of Governors to prevent this issue from causing the institution to spin out of control. Because that is pretty clearly where things are headed.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Research: COVID anxiety and cannabis use at work

The Institute for Work and Health (IWH) does some really excellent research. They also do an excellent job of making that research accessible to the public. The IWH’s Spring 2020 issue of At Work is just out and contains a bunch of interesting pieces.
  • Anxiety among heath care workers: Nearly 60% of health care workers surveyed in April reported levels of anxiety surpassing an accepted threshold level of clinical report. A key factor contributing to this anxiety is the unavailability of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the workplace. Nearly half of respondents indicated that fewer than half of their PPE needs were being met.
  • Cannabis use at work stable: The legalization of cannabis in 2018 has not resulted in higher reporting of use in the workplace. Usage rates in the two hours before work, at work, during work breaks, or at the workplace at the end of a work shift, remained at 8%. Interestingly, 16% of respondents who used cannabis indicated they used it to manage a work-related injury or illness. Employer who were reported as having policies on substance use increased from 63% to 79%
The IWH also provides issue briefings. The most recent examines what Ontario employers spend on health and safety. On average, expenditures were $1303 per worker per year. There was wide variation between sectors, with good sectors spending much more than service sectors. Spending was heavily weighted to organizational management and supervision functions (58%) and staff training (22%)

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

COVID and PSE: Do as I say, not as I do

Watching bricks-and-mortar post-secondary institutions cope the suspension of the winter 2020 semester has been very humbling. Many of my colleagues worked very hard (often with little institutional support) to ensure their students could finish out the semester during lockdown.

Going forward, many institutions are (sensibly) planning for an online autumn 2020 semester. This means that online education (previously the purview of a small number of PSEs) will now become the norm. For some long-time distance educators, its validating to see traditional institutions recognize that they can provide a solid online education.

I was struck, though, by some comments attributed to the president of Athabasca University at the end of May in the Globe and Mail:
The virtual programs put together on an emergency basis by schools in the spring is not really online learning, said Neil Fassina, president of Athabasca University, the first postsecondary institution in Canada to focus solely on distance education. High-quality online education includes opportunities for student-to-student and student-to-professor interaction, along with significant tools for social engagement. It typically takes months to build a proper online course, he added.
It is a bit arrogant to judge other institutions as not providing “high-quality online learning” when Athabasca University (which provides almost exclusively online education) doesn’t really provide “opportunities for student-to-student and student-to-professor interaction, along with significant tools for social engagement.” In truth, most of AU’s undergrad programming (I’d guess >90%) is basically delivered on a “correspondence with computers” model, with very limited contact between teachers and students and no peer-to-peer contact whatsoever.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach. Many students learn quite well in this model and makes a university education accessible to many students who couldn’t otherwise go. It’s just kind of weird for the president to assert (by implication), that his university isn’t really offering high-quality online education.

Indeed, if you watch the video (start at about 8.50), he asserts that AU can “create environments where there is huge interaction between professor and learner if it is designed specifically for the online space. We can create great interaction among and between learners” (from about 10.00).

This statement is narrowly true: AU could do that. But, we mostly don’t. What is happening here is a blurring between prescription and description. Outsiders can't see this difference and this sets learners up for a pretty big surprise when they arrive and basically get a website and an etext.

Later on (about 12.30), Fassina extolls the importance of supporting the academy in making the transition to online delivery. That’s a nice talking point. But it belies what is actually happening inside AU. The issue of moving to digital exams has basically been dumped in the laps of professors without adequate (or any support).

Quick background: Many AU courses have invigilated final exams. Exams can be written at an AU exam centre or some other exam centre. Some courses’ exams can also be delivered through online invigilation services, such as ProctorU. Other courses retain paper-based exams that must be written in-person. COVID has foreclosed in-person exams and the institution has moved to online only exams.

For many disciplines, online exams don’t work. I’ve heard from other profs that language, math, and science courses could not be quickly transitioned (or transitioned at all) onto online platforms because these platforms don't support the punctuation, graphics, calculations, or symbols required for assessing student comprehension.

This has been a long-term issue and is why these exams were still paper-based exams. Instead of addressing this (and other pressing operational issues, the institution has spent three years navel-gazing, writing strategic plans, and patting itself on the back.)

Along comes COVID and profs with paper-only exams were basically told “figure it out”. The Faculty of Science appears to be have been particularly hard hit, because of the number of affected courses and the size of the enrollments in the courses. Professors were left to fashion substitute exams (often unique to each student) and schedule and administer them with no additional support. This VASTLY increases the work associated with examinations. Consequently, other tasks (marking, research, sleep) have been pushed aside.

(There are COVID-related workload issues in other areas of the university, but exams is the easiest story to tell.)

The point of this story is that, for all of Fassina’s nice words, AU is basically doing the same things as every other PSE in COVID and dumping the hard work associated with managing COVID onto the staff and it’s not going well. Given that, it is pretty galling for AU’s executive to position themselves as leaders in online education and purport to dispense advice.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Race, immigration status and COVID risk

There have been some really good posts about the disproportionate impact of COVID 19 on racialized and migrant workers recently.

In a post entitled Canada’s COVID-19 blind spots on race, immigration and labour, Aimee-Angelique Bouka and Yolanda Bouka flag the disproportionate number of women, recent immigrants, migrant workers and racialize Canadians who work in industries considered essential during the pandemic. These workers are at greater risk of contracting COVID in the workplace, in part, because of the exploitative employment practices common in these industries, including long-term care and meat packing.

One of their pointed questions is why do Canadians (and particularly Canadian policy makers) turn a blind eye to the employment practices that make these workers more vulnerable? They question whether part of the explanation may centre on who is at risk.

In a post entitled Coronoavirus: Canada stigmatizes, jeopardizes essential migrant workers, Jenna Hennebry, Susana Caxaj, Janet McLaughlin, and Stephanie Mayell examine the factors that have contributed to serious outbreaks among migrant farm workers in Ontario. They also explore how the workers are being stigmatized as a result, even though it is structural issues (under the control of employers (e.g., over crowded and unsanitary working and living conditions) that seem to be driving these outbreaks.

The factors contributing to these outbreaks are long-term issues with Canada’s migrant worker programs. In my view, governments’ responses have not been particularly effective. I expect the likely issue here is that there is simply no political will to impose additional costs on farmers in order to make better the lives of racialized non-citizens with effectively no labour mobility.

At present, the rate of post-arrival infection among these workers is very worrisome and the agricultural season has only just begun. Whether the federal and provincial governments will take effective action is an open question. A list of recommended actions is available here.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

COVID and mobile work

A few years ago, I was a bit player in a pan-Canadian study of mobile work. One of the researchers in the study was Sara Dorow (University of Alberta). Dorow’s research included looking at the experiences of camp workers, including fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers in Fort McMurray.

Dorow has revisited some that work in light of COVID-19 and the outbreak that started at the Kearl Lake worker camp. More than 100 cases have been traced back to this camp. About a quarter of the cases are in other provinces.

Her recent blog post makes a number of interesting points, including:
  • COVID is just one of the hazards associated with FIFO work.
  • The structure of camp life plays a significant role in how serious these hazards are.
  • The close contact of camp life is a factor in outbreaks in others industries, such as meat packing and long-term care.
More broadly, Dorow notes that some workers' mobility results in immobility for other workers, These include those who must remain at home to manage in the mobile workers’ absences and the camp staff, who are often temporary foreign workers.

-- Bob Barnetson