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" <email@example.com>Kierylo’s response was a boilerplate email of no real consequence. What was interesting was AU’s next move.
Date: Thursday, June 11, 2020 at 10:22 AM
To: "Dr. Margaret Kierylo" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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.
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.
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