Thursday, December 1, 2022

AU and Government sign a new IMA, but what does it mean?

Yesterday, Athabasca University and the government finally agreed upon a new Investment Management Agreement (IMA). This IMA purports to address demands by residents of Athabasca (and later by the government) that AU ensure an adequate number of jobs be located in Athabasca. You can read a quick summary of this protracted and public dispute on my blog post from last week.

I have not yet seen a copy of the IMA (they are usually posted on institutional websites) but there have been announcements by the government and by AU President Peter Scott. The image below (which is apparently a copy of some of the performance-based funding metrics AU has agreed to as part of the IMA) has also been circulated on Facebook (sorry about the low quality).

Update 2022.12.14: The IMA is available here.

A few observations are helpful to understand this image:
  • Metric 4 requires AU to have 252 staff working in the Athabasca region full-time by March 2023. A few caveats are warranted. This metric does not require staff to (1) work on campus, (2) live in the area, or (3) define how “working in the Athabasca region full-time” will be assessed (this may be set out in a document to which I don’t have access). I am told 252 is the present staff count, so no action by AU is immediately required. Note that there is a tolerance of 3 in the first year, so AU can actually reduce the number of staff working in the region in year one. By March 2025, AU has to increase the number by 25 full-time staff. A net 10% increase over three years is a very modest target, representing a shift of about 2% of AU’s 1200ish workers.
  • Metric 5 requires AU to have 44% of its 9-member executive team working in Athabasca by March of 2025. The same caveats as above apply, which we can add that it is not clear (4) if these 4 can count towards the Metric 4 goal of 25, and (5) who defines a member of the executive. The university’s website list of executive members includes the presidents’ chief of staff (who already lives in town) and executive assistant but omits 3 VPs (1 in Calgary and 2 in BC). This list looks like an effort to game this metric by excluding people who perform actual executive functions and pad out the exec with people who don’t. 
  • Metric 6 requires the Board, by December 31, to direct the president to cease implementation of the near-virtual strategy and implement a new strategic plan that expands the university’s physical presence in the town of Athabasca. A couple of thoughts occur to me: (1) the near virtual plan will be fully implemented by the end of December so directing the president to “cease implementation” at that point is meaningless, and (2) expanding the physical presence doesn’t necessarily mean more jobs being located in town. AU is telegraphing some kind of research centre located in Athabasca, which would likely meet this requirement regardless if anyone ever uses it.
  • A portion of AU’s government funding (rising eventually to 40%, last I heard) is contingent upon AU meeting these metrics. The 3% in the top left corner of metrics 4, 5, and 6 is the weighting they are given in the funding calculation. Update 2022.12.14: The 3% refers to the percentage of overall government funding at risk with this metric. So, if AU gets $47m of its $160m in revenue from that government and 15% of that $47m ($7.5m) is at risk in 20223/23, missing either of location-based targets (worth 3% each) would potentially institutions the $1.41m. But, apparently, the location-based targets don't operate until 2023/24 t. So the financial incentive tied to meeting these very modest metrics is pretty weak. 
On the surface, this looks like a victory on the jobs issue and, certainly, many actors are framing it peace in our time. It certainly seems to offer some prospect of slowing the erosion of AU jobs in the community. It might even result in some small job growth. That said, having been victimized by AU and UCP gaslighting before, I’m inclined to be skeptical.

On the issue of jobs in Athabasca, we have:
  • modest, ill-defined, and easily gamed jobs targets,
  • that require no immediate action,
  • backed by modest penalties, 
  • that will not take effect until long after the next provincial election, 
  • when there will be a different minister (more on that below), and
  • likely a different government, which may re-negotiate or just dump performance-based funding and the associated metrics all together.
So, an uncharitable interpretation of the IMA is that it offers little of substance around ensuring jobs remain in town. If I were one of the local politicians who put their name to glowing comments about the deal in last night’s government press release, I might be asking some hard questions.

Specifically, I might be asking why the minister agreed to such a modest IMA. Did the minister really understand the implications of what he was signing? And, if so, why did he give AU a way to simply rag the puck on the jobs issue for another two years?

One explanation might be that the Minister got dumped into this fight by former Premier Kenney, who championed the jobs issue when we have trying to collect enough votes to keep his job last spring (and, when he didn’t, continued to fight to punish those who defied him) and the Minister (or the new Premier) just wanted a way out without losing too much face. So maybe he talks tough, signs a weak deal, declares victory, and move on? Alternately, maybe the Minister and his handpicked group of Board members got sold some snake-oil by some savvy eggheads. We’ll probably never know.

Whether the community can sustain its efforts to secure AU jobs in Athabasca in the face of an apparent (albeit possibly hollow) victory is hard to say.

Returning to the question of the Minister, one of the tidbits I’ve heard over the last few days is that some actors within the UCP are hoping to have “a better candidate” get the UCP nomination in the Minister’s riding of Calgary-Bow for the 2023 election.

I have absolutely zero insight into UCP politics. But it would be pretty funny if the ”better candidate” turned out to be current AU board chair Bryon Nelson. Nelson ran in the 2016 Progressive Conservative leadership race that was eventually won by Kenney as part of his plan to Frankenstein together a conservative party to beat the NDs.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

More on COVID and OHS

Back in September, I blogged about how Alberta’s OHS inspectors seemed unwilling to address uncontrolled aerosol hazards in a workplace. My suspicion was that they and public-sector employers were facing political pressure from the government to ignore the risk posed by COVID to workers.

In October, an Alberta court ruled that the Minister of Education’s direction to school boards banning mandatory masking was ultra vires (she would need to enact a regulation). A month later, the UCP cabinet passed a regulation banning masking mandates as well as barring schools from switching to online-only classes. 

At the time this regulation was passed, schools were seeing unprecedented levels of staff and student absenteeism due to illness (due to a combination of COVID, RSV, and influenza—all airborne illnesses). Barring masking and online classes removed two very effective ways employers can control the spread of these diseases and protect workers (and children) from serious (and potentially fatal) illness.

Yesterday, Premier Danielle Smith announced that MLAs are calling organizations that are in receipt of government funding and asking them to rescind mandatory vaccine mandates. (At this point, vaccination provides modest protection against contracting COVID but does a good job attenuating the consequences of getting COVID. This still makes vaccination a useful component of any hazard--control strategy.).

According to CBC, Smith said:
"For instance, the Arctic Winter Games wanted $1.2 million from us to support their effort and they were discriminating against the athletes, telling them they had to be vaccinated," Smith said at a news conference in Edmonton on Monday.

"So we asked them if they would reconsider their vaccination policy in the light of new evidence and they did."
There was no indication what “new evidence” was offered to this organization. And, while no formal policy linking receipt of funding to rescinding vaccine mandates appears to exist (yet), the implicit threat to current and future funding is pretty clear.

At this point, I think the data is clear that public-sector employers have been told to (and, in some cases, legally enjoined from) taking the steps necessary to control occupational diseases. The government is also likely interfering in the enforcement of OHS laws (although the evidence here is more anecdotal). Not surprisingly, the result is a high level of avoidable work-related illness:

The data in the table above understates COVID claims in the public-sector because teachers are, for the most part, outside of the ambit of workers’ compensation legislation in Alberta.

What can workers do? Well, worker can wear masks, although single-person masking is much less effective than group masking. Workers might also get together and agree to group masking in the absence of employer support.

Work-refusal are also an option. But, since OHS seems unwilling to engage with aerosol hazards, refusals are likely to only work if they are carried out by a group that is prepared to risk sanction for engaging in an illegal strike. I see no appetite for supporting this kind of job action in Alberta’s labour movement.

Finally, workers can remember that the UCP was happy to sacrifice their health and their lives (and the health and lives of their children) in order to cater to anti-vax voters and cast their ballot in the next election with that in mind.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, November 21, 2022

Update on Athabasca's jobs fight with the government

Earlier this summer, I wrote about a fight between Athabasca University (on the one hand) and the government and residents of the town of Athabasca (on the other). The nub of it is that AU has been moving jobs out of the town for years, to the detriment of the local economy. (AU was moved to Athabasca in the 1980s to, in part, spark regional economic development.)

After years of AU ignoring the concern of local residents, a lobby group (funded by the town, county, and individuals) formed and it convinced the government this is a problem. Subsequently, the government directed AU to develop a plan to return jobs to the town. AU has repeatedly told the government to go pound sand. This month, things seem to be coming to a head.

In roughly chronological order, here are the details:
  • June 2022: As directed, AU provided a plan to the government that, in the government’s view, does not address its expectations. No one knows what was in this plan because both sides, while fighting about the issue publicly, are keeping all the documents secret.
To be fair, this demand was impossible to achieve. There is inadequate housing and office space and there are complicated contractual issues with forced relocations. It is maybe best seen as the province staking out an aggressive bargaining position. The faculty association sent the minister a letter with several ways to address the government’s concerns. AU seems intent on ignoring its staff's idea (gasp!).
  • August 2022: As the government’s deadline for AU to sign the IMA approached, the Minister appeared at a public Board meeting and indicated (1) some willingness to compromise on outcomes but (2) limited patience with AU’s obvious stalling. The threat was that, if some version of the IMA was not signed, the government would begin withholding funds.
  • September 2022: AU failed to provide the government with detailed strategies or concrete commitments to achieve the government’s goals. This is likely AU stalling in the hope that the early October departure of former Premier Kenney (and maybe the Minister) would alter the political landscape and reduce the pressure on AU.
  • October 2022: Right before Kenney’s departure, the government replaced a number of Board members. This is likely an effort by the government to break the current impasse by (1) stacking the Board and (2) showing the remaining Board members what will happen if the Board continues to resist (i.e., crucify one and the rest will get Jesus). It may also be a bit of political payback by Kenney. In the resulting cabinet shuffle, the current Minister retained his portfolio (ruh-roh, Raggy).
  • November 2022: In early November, the Minister asked AU to convene a special Board meeting that he planned to attend in order to get the IMA signed. AU has resisted this, likely to buy time to inoculate new Board members against the Minister. Late last week, the government sent a new IMA to the Board (which has a bottom-line feeling to it) which requires 10% increases in local employment each year for the next three years and half the executive to move to and work from town. Since we haven't seen the new IMA and don't know the base number, it is hard to know how many new people would need to hired. If there is 300 people in town, that would be about 100 more over three years. 
Update 2022/11/23: Yesterday on CHED, the Minister twice said the demand was for 5% annual increases, which would reduce the local hiring. He also indicated 44% of executive will need to be based in two by 2024. Forty-four percentage suggests 4 members of a 9 member executive. Who counts is an interesting question.
I’m hearing that a Board meeting with the Minister will be scheduled late next week, ahead of (or in lieu of?) the regular December 9th meeting. It is unclear if the President will be in attendance. As someone who is potentially affected by the government’s directives, both the Conflicts of interest Act and AU’s own Board Conflict of Interest policy appear to require the President to recuse himself from this decision.

It is interesting to contrast the public positions of the government and AU’s President (presumably on behalf of the Board). The government has been unwavering in its view that AU needs to commitment to significant job gains in Athabasca. AU keeps pointing to its (inadequate) June 2022 plan and has layered on the idea that jobs can be brought to the region via the creation of some kind of ill-defined research centre.

I’m skeptical of the research centre idea. It won’t likely bring permanent residents to Athabasca (which is the underlying issue), but rather transient researchers. It may also bring no one because it is basically a “build it and they will come” proposition. In the end, no one will really be responsible and accountable for ensuring its success. This seems to be another version of stalling.

In the meantime, Athabasca-based staff are being told to clean out their offices as AU pushes its near-virtual (i.e., no one on campus) strategy. AU has also opened “hotelling” (drop-in) space in Athabasca, but in a room that the locals call “the dungeon”. The rest of the buildings are a ghost town, which raises the question of why the drop-in space isn’t in a nicer location.

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, some sleuthing has turned up that at least two members of the AU executive live in BC, one in Ontario, and one in the US. The rest appear to be located in the Edmonton and Calgary regions. This may, in part, explain the executive’s reluctance to acquiesce to the government’s demands (including that they move to town).

So where do we go from here? Here are four possible end games:

  • AU acquiesces: The new Board could sign some version of the IMA and possibly direct the executive to abandon its near virtual plan (if that is in the IMA) and set hiring quotas or offering staff inducements to move. Whether the President and other executive would stick around for that, is an open question. Also, plummeting enrollments means AU’s hiring is likely to be curtailed (indeed, there is talk of layoffs) so meeting IMA quotes will be tough. Inducements are an option with additional government funding. 
  • Government buys a pig in a poke: The government may decide AU’s “status quo plus research centre” plan is as good a resolution as it can get. That will cost the UCP votes and it sits uneasily with the government’s focus on rural issues. It would also be a personal defeat for the minister. 
  • AU resists and government dithers: AU may continue to stall (hoping the UCP loses the next election) and the government may continue to let them (perhaps deciding the cost of an actual fight isn’t worth the eventual gain). Again, this would be a personal defeat for the minister, albeit a less visible one.
  • AU resists and government acts: The government basically has two cards to play. First, it can cut off some or all of AU’s government funding (which is about 35% of revenue). AU could ride this out for a year based on its present reserves but, in the end, there would have to be layoffs to cope with the revenue hit. Layoffs would mean fewer jobs, which is not the government’s goal. 
The other option is the government can sack the Board and appoint an administrator. The administrator can then sack the president and the rest of the executive and order whatever policy the government wants. This is not an easy or automatic solution. But the government just sacked the Alberta Health Services Board so it obviously isn’t afraid of the political costs.
I don’t really see how the President of AU keeps his job in any of these scenarios. He has been the face of AU’s resistance. (Interestingly, his contract explicitly requires him to live in or near Edmonton and Calgary.) A departure, perhaps framed as going down fighting for institutional autonomy, is likely and may be his best option to exit. (That is certainly a better narrative for him than “I misread the politics and got outmaneuvered by a plucky and sly bunch of townies”).

Other executive departures are also likely. In addition to the whole jobs fight, there are two issues lurking just off stage that may set up a house cleaning. Staff were surveyed about their impressions of AU and its executive last month. The quantitative indicators have not been released yet and AU will likely not release the comments (under the guise of protecting privacy). But the comments that have been shared with me have been excoriating. The last question, for example, was “what is one thing AU’s exec could do to improve things?” Almost every answer I saw was some version of “Quit”. There is almost zero faith in the executive’s abilities or its intentions.

The second issue is the implementation of AU’s new Integrated Learning Environment (ILE). The ILE was the centre-piece of AU’s current “Imagine” strategic plan. The roll out has been delayed several times and is now going to a phased roll out (which staff are calling “death by a 1000 cuts”) because major operational issues have not yet been sorted and the current (overtaxed staff) will now be maintaining our existing systems as well as rolling out the new one, possibly for years.

The root problem here seems to be that the AU executive, in speccing out the system, did not listen when staff, who actually understand how AU runs, said (repeatedly) “uhhh, have you considered X?” Now that we’re knee-deep in launching the new system, all of those things staff flagged are suddenly cropping up as (surprise!) big, big problems. This is, ultimately, a management failure and warrants a house cleaning all on its own.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Statutory law versus the collective agreement, a fun example

When we teach HR and LR students about the web of rules that regulate employment, we often focus our attention on the various sources of rules (e.g., common law, statutory law, contracts and collective agreements). This reflects that students need to (1) build a mental framework in order to understand how employment law operates and (2) develop some foundational knowledge of what the rules actually are (e.g., what are the basic rules around firing someone?).

One of the topics that gets glossed over in this sort of introduction is that, sometimes, what the law means (in practice) isn’t clear. Or, at least, an employer and worker/union might have a different interpretation of what the law required or permits. This can reflect legitimate differences of opinion, differing interests, and, sometimes, apparent conflict between rules from different sources of law. In the interests of time (and understanding that a survey course is just an introduction), we tend to wave this complexity aside with “disputes are remitted to an adjudicative body for resolution.”

Sometimes, it is worthwhile having a look at a case to see just how this adjudication works. As part of a research project, I came across an interesting arbitration decision from 2009 that is a fun read. The decision is:

Edmonton Space & Science Foundation v Civic Service Union 52, 2009 CanLII 90156 (AB GAA)

You can find the decision on by searching the CanLII number (90156). CanLii is an excellent repository of Canadian law.

The basics facts are these:
  • A worker was employed at the Edmonton Space and Science Centre and was a part of a union.
  • The collective agreement permitted the employer to terminate a worker only when the employer had just cause. This is much more restrictive than the termination provisions set out in the Alberta Employment Standards Code (wherein workers can be sacked for no reason so long as notice is provided).
  • The worker resigned, giving a month’s notice. The employer doubted how diligent she would be in performing her duties during the resignation notice period and purported to terminate her with one week’s notice under the Employment Standards Code.
  • The worker grieved that the employer had no right to do so, given the collective agreement limited terminations to just-cause scenarios.
So, we have here basically a fight over whether the collective agreement trumps the Employment Standards Code or vice versa. After listening to the evidence and arguments of the parties (including refereeing a preliminary bun fight, where the employer wanted (among other things) to force the worker to narc out which member of the management team leaked that the worker was getting the sack), the arbitrator distilled the matter down into two questions (he listed three slightly different questions, but they are more granular than we care about):
  1. Was the griever terminated without just cause by the employer?
  2. Can the employer rely upon the Employment Standards Code to override its obligations under the collective agreement?
I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that (1) the employer’s argument was more inventive that I would have guessed (at the beginning of the decision, I laughed aloud at the employer’s position), and (2) the arbitrator does a good job of walking everyone through his thinking about how these two different sources of rights operate in this particular fact situation and how their seeming conflict can be resolved.

This decision is a good example of how employment-law sausage is actually made when the parties can’t agree and when there are multiple sources of rights that may conflict.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, November 7, 2022

Research: Grievance arbitration in Alberta project

I’m presently coding data for a research project examining grievance arbitrations in Alberta. There are some 1000+ arbitration decisions (2006 to present) to read and code before a colleague and I can start the actual analysis. We are presently about 20% of the way through the coding. While we can't tell whether our hypotheses are correct or not (we need a much larger dataset), we do have some initial descriptive data on the 2006-2008 decisions (n=203) to share, for what it is worth.


Not surprisingly, the majority of grievance arbitration decisions come from the public sector, with the public-service, health care, and education being the most common industries. In the private sector, manufacturing, retail (grocery mostly), construction, and forestry are the industries most frequently represented.


Most arbitrations are decided by men. Grievers are about equally split between men and women, but the most numerous kind of grievances (typically policy/group grievances) tend to have mixed-gender griever groups.

Type of grievance

The three most common types of decisions about grievances address termination/discipline (30.5%), salary and benefits (22.7%), and procedural wrangling ahead of the substantive issue (15.3%). Disentangling procedural decisions from more substantive ones poses some interesting coding challenges because of how they are inconsistently reported.

Outcomes overall

Overall, employers tend to “win” most grievances (in that they achieve the outcome that they wanted). The pattern (so far) is broadly consistent with the literature.

Looking just at termination/discipline outcomes (the largest category of grievance awards), we see a similar pattern. 

This is a bit surprising, because in most of these cases, the employer bears the initial onus to prove discipline/termination was warranted. This is different from most other grievances (where the union bears the initial onus). Early days though—we may see a shift as more decisions are coded.

--Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 28, 2022

Alberta KB decision on government edicts prohibiting mandatory masking in workplaces

Recently, I blogged about how the UCP’s changes to joint health and safety committees has basically rendered them ineffective. I used the elimination of masking mandates at Athabasca University (and other PSEs) as an example of how the internal responsibility system and the external responsibility system were failing workers.

Of note was the direction given PSE institutions by the Minister of Advanced Education to drop masking requirements. My position was that the Minister did not have the authority to order institutions to not comply with the OHS Act (which obligates them to take all reasonably practicable steps to protect workers from occupational hazards, such as COVID).

Yesterday, a Court of King’s Bench decision dropped that is relevant. In it, the judge notes that the Minister of Education, who prohibited school boards from requiring mandatory masking, had overstepped her authority. The nub of it was that the Minister needed to issue such direction in the form of a regulation, rather than just make a statement. Absent a regulation, the Education Act empowers school boards to make their own policies.

Presumably, PSE boards of governors would be in the same situation as school boards since section 59 of the Post-Secondary Learning Act (which addresses the power of PSE boards) is very similar to the language in the Education Act. That is to say, boards are not enjoined from implementing mandatory masking (or vaccination) policies simply because the Minister of Advanced Education said so.

If cabinet enacts a regulation (under the Regulations Act) enjoining boards from implementing masking policies, we them to consider whether such a regulation trumps the requirement set out in section 3 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act that boards, as employers, must take all reasonably practicable steps to protect the health and safety of workers. This includes an obligation, under section 9 of the OHS Code to control hazards.

This is all mostly an academic matter for two reasons. 

First, COVID-related policies in Alberta PSEs seem to fall clearly into the “minimizer” camp and decisions about protections are simply left to individuals. Basically, there is no political will among campus administrators to protect workers or students from COVID. 

Individualizing OHS issues (e.g., “you can wear a mask if you like”) ignore that masking is most effective when it is uniformly adopted. This makes intuitive sense: if everyone masks, we have two layers of protection against aerosol transmission versus one layer under the current "wild west" policy approach. This approach also ignores that ventilation (something only an employer can address) can reduce transmission.

Second, as I wrote about in September, Alberta’s OHS officers seem unwilling to engage with the hazard of aerosol transmission. This seems like an enormous dereliction of duty given Alberta’s workplace COVID stats (the screen cap below is from October 28, 2022--note the sectoral distribution of COVID claims...). Clearly COVID is a serious workplace hazard in Alberta. The only sector that seems to still recognize that is health care.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 21, 2022

Research: Where did AU's HR director go?

Students are typically taught research methods as a very formal process. Basically, the literature yields hypotheses that we then test to confirm or reject. This is a pedagogically sound approach to teaching methods, but it often obscures the kinds of research that most students will do in their jobs. In the workplace, research is often triggered by running across something curious. We then look for other information that we can use to substantiate and explain whatever it is that we found. 

For example, every June 30, public-sector employers in Alberta are required to disclose the compensation of any workers who makes over a certain amount ($141,183 in 2022). The resulting administrative data can be a rich source of information, including information incidental to the actual purpose of the disclosure (which, one supposes, is transparency).

If you look at Athabasca University’s disclosure list for 2021, one of the things you can find is that the Director of HR was on the disclosure list in 2018, 2019, and 2020, but is no longer on the list in 2021. That’s weird, because she is still (in late 2022) the Director of HR.

So, how might we explain that (i.e., what are the possible hypotheses)? There are a couple of potential explanations. The most likely explanation is simple error. Regulatory disclosures require manipulating a lot of data and, from hard experience, I know it is pretty easy to lose a row of data.

We could test this explanation by asking if this is an oversight (which is what I did). Even if we get very politely told to mind our own business (lol), if it is an oversight, flagging it should result in a correction. Absent a correction, we can likely discount the oversight explanation.

Some other potential explanations include:
  • Name change: A change in name may create the appearance the data is missing by moving the location of the data. Sorting the data by job title reveals this explanation is not correct. 
  • Salary reduction: A 37% reduction in salary would result in the Director’s salary data being excluded from the disclosure. That is a possible explanation (that is difficult to further test), but it seems unlikely so I'm going to set it aside for now.
  • Personal safety: Data can be excluded if inclusion would create a threat to someone’s personal safety (e.g., someone has a stalker). Since the Director appears on externally facing websites, we can likely discount this explanation.
  • Change in status: Disclosure is only required for employees; if the Director somehow negotiated a change in her status from employee to a contractor, she would be excluded from the disclosure.
Looking at these explanations, the last one is the most likely. So, can we find other data that supports this explanation? Surprisingly, yes. A quick google search turns up this in incorporation document from Ohio.

Basically, someone with the same (and rather unique) name as the HR Director incorporated a company in early 2021. Additional googling (that I won't share) suggests this person moved to Ohio in the autumn of 2020 and is about the same age as the current Director. The firm that initially filed these documents is a firm that deals with cross border (i.e., US and Canadian) tax files.

Although these facts don't conclusively prove anything, they do create some compelling circumstantial support for the premise that the Director’s disappearance from the salary disclosure is the result of a change in status. This explanation also has an internal consistency to it: converting a senior employee to a contractor would be a highly unusual step. Such a conversion might make sense, though, if the person was working from another country.

If we wanted to further substantiate this potential explanation through triangulation, we could either look for an administrative record that the university has some kind of contractual relationship with Caerus Consulting LLC or tap into our social network to find out if anyone knows if the Director relocated to Ohio.

This sort of research is relevant because it may help us understand, in part, the resistance by members of the university executive to the demand by the Government of Alberta that executive members live in the community of Athabasca. (My understanding is that some other executive members also live out of province).

This sort of real-world research is pretty common for HR and LR practitioners and uses many of the same skills and techniques as the more formal approach to research that is taught in such courses as SOSC 366: Research Methods in the Social Sciences. But the application and the conclusions tend to be a bit looser and less exacting.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Blue-collar work and the Kenney government

CBC recently ran a very interesting first-person account from a Calgary welder about his experiences in the oil-and-gas sector. You can read the piece here. The nub of the account is that working conditions for welders in the sector are poor and are driving workers away. It is an interesting and well-written piece.

I flag it for a couple of reasons. One of the more tedious talking points of the Kenney government is that there is some kind of esteem gap between white-collar and blue-collar occupations. The gist of the narrative is that people (e.g., students, parents, teachers, and workers) think they are too good to do a blue-collar job (so basically it is a worker-blaming narrative, not all that different than equally ridiculous assertion that people no longer want to work).

Like most things Jason Kenney said as premier, there isn’t really any evidence that this esteem gap exists. (The two people I have been happiest to see in my life are an ER doc and a plumber, and not necessarily in that order.) Rather, this putative esteem-gap is just a dog-whistle pretext designed to justify increasing investment in skilled trades training and reduced investment in university education. Why would Kenney do that?

Well, Kenney’s actions as a federal minister suggest he often assists employers to minimize labour costs buy flooding the labour market with workers (think back to the temporary foreign worker deluge of 2008-12). Increasing the number of skilled trades people allows employers to suppress demands for better wages and working conditions because there is always a surplus of workers.

The first-person account of working in a welding shop in the oil-and-gas industry unintentionally highlights a number of structural reasons that workers may be reluctant to engage in blue-collar work (that have nothing to do with people thinking they are too good for that work):
  • Job demands: The author flags that the work is difficult, dangerous, and often entails working in unpleasant conditions at odd times. Workers are often unwilling or unable to work in these conditions. This has historically constrained the labour force and driven up wages. Corporations have responded in many ways to reduce labour costs, such as automation, off-shoring, and subcontracting work.
  • Insecurity: The oil-and-gas sector has organized work in ways that externalizes risk onto workers (in the form of layoffs and wage cuts) to maximize corporate profitability. The author notes that one new and very skilled worker had soured on the industry after three layoffs in five years. (This insecurity also a key barrier to apprentices completing their training, but note that Kenney’s training announcements never engage with this issue.)
  • Restructuring: The author notes that austerity, tax cuts, and rising energy prices had made him hopeful that his job would have more security. This didn’t happen because trickle-down economics (which is what he’s talking about) doesn’t work. Very crudely speaking, if you give wealthy individuals and corporations additional income (through tax cuts), they don’t create jobs with it: they just horde it. By contrast, policies that raise wages for low-income workers do create new jobs because low-income workers spend the money and that creates demand (and new jobs).
In the end, the author acknowledges that working in the industry used to provide a stable living but no longer does. Not surprisingly, he leaves the industry to teach high-school kids welding skills and all but two members of his original crew either quit or were laid off.

So, what can we learn from this:
  • Employers care about profit and treat workers instrumentally. If there is a way to increase profit and the effect is to make workers’ lives worse, employers will do so. This is particularly the case when there is a surplus of workers so the workers have little labour market power to exert.
  • Governments, especially conservatives ones, are typically happy to help employers create a loose labour market that worsens wages and working conditions. To stifle dissent about policies that are actually screwing the workers who comprise the bulk of the electorate, governments will happily invent or manipulate facts. No one wants to work. People think they are too good for blue-collar work. And so forth. 
  • Workers are often unable or unwilling to incorporate this dynamics into their analysis of how the world works. Instead, they will cheer-lead policies that harm their interests (e.g., tax cuts and austerity that destroy the public services they depend upon) in the hope they will see greater stability or a modest wage increase. They will also adopt explanatory narratives that blame workers (people look down in the trades) while ignoring that workers may well be making rational and well-informed choices about what job options are best for them.
Even a modest amount of critical thinking raises some pretty profound questions about these narratives. Why, for example, might workers not be keen to take certain jobs? Is it because they are innately lazy or think too highly of themselves or are misinformed? Or is it because the jobs are organized in ways that make them, relatively speaking, difficult, unstable, and poorly paid, and thus workers don’t see them as a good choice? Are there impediments (such a childcare availability and shift work) that make it impossible or uneconomical for workers to take these jobs?

This kind of questioning is typically taught in the liberal arts, which is the exact kind of education that the Kenney government has aggressively defunded. That is probably not a coincidence.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, September 9, 2022

Should I take a job at Athabasca University?

Every year, I receive phone calls from a couple of dozen candidates considering taking a job at Athabasca University (AU). Usually, these folks find me through this blog or word of mouth.

So, as the academic job-hunting season begins, I thought I’d take the opportunity to write down the pros and cons of taking a job at AU. These comments are mostly directed at folks considering a professorial job.


Working from home:
Pre-pandemic, the vast majority of academic staff worked from home offices). Although the majority of staff live in Alberta, recently staff have been permitted to work anywhere in Canada. This means you can stay in your home community. 

At the time of writing, the university’s Board is engaged in an ill-chosen bun fight with the provincial government over the ongoing loss of jobs in the town of Athabasca (where the university’s headquarters is located). The government wanted, at one point, 65% of staff to work from there (despite there being inadequate housing stocks and office space). It is unclear how this dispute is going to play out or how it will affect where academic staff can live. You’ll definitely want to ask about this in your interview.

Setting your own schedule: For the most part, instruction at AU is asynchronous and text mediated. Since you don’t have to appear at a fixed time each week to lecture, you can largely set your own schedule. Start early or late. Work in the middle of the night. Take your kids to school or you mom to the doctor. As long as you get your work done and show up for the small number of fixed meetings, you basically can organize your life however you want.

Good benefits and pension plans: The benefits plan for faculty is pretty good, particularly in terms of vision, eyecare, and drug coverage (although costs are reimbursed, not pre-paid).

The pension plan is also pretty good, although you’ll pay about 11% of your salary into the plan. You can collect a full pension when (1) you are at least 55, and (2) your age and years of services equal 80. A full pension is 70% of your average salary during your five best consecutive years of employment. You can take a reduced pension any time after 55 if you have not yet met the 80 factor.

Tenure and promotion is the norm: The vast majority of hires (>99%) can expect to get tenure and promotion. Based on my 18 years of experience, I’d go so far as to say you have to actively and repeatedly fuck-up not to get tenured. That is not to say you don’t have to work—just that the bar is set at a very manageable level.

Faculty are typically hired with a four-year probationary appointment. After a successful review, you receive tenure. You can choose when to apply for promotion in rank. If you apply for and receive promotion before your tenure review, then you also automatically get tenure. Promotion is also rarely denied although the process is more rigorous than just tenure.

Financial stability: AU is financially stable (despite a history of the administration crying insolvency). In 2021/22, AU posted a surplus of $10.4m on expenses of $150.6m. This was the sixth straight surplus and ninth surplus in 10 years. AU has an accrued surplus (i.e., cash in the bank) of $46.9m.

Government funding of AU has been stable over the past few years. Only about 35% of institutional revenue comes from grants (the largest chunk is tuition based). Enrollments have been falling (about 9% per year for last two years) but the nature of AU’s business model is that the costs of revenue losses due to declining enrollment are borne mostly by the tutor pool (i.e., permanent, part-time academics with variable teaching loads).


Poor wages: Overall, wages are low and have fallen significantly behind inflation. The table below compares the compounded cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) to faculty wages and Alberta inflation from 2013 to 2022. Basically, the purchasing power of staff wages at AU has dropped by ~20% over 10 years.

Going forward, the COLA for adjustment for 2023 will total between 2.75% and 3.25%. Unfortunately, inflation is presently running about 8%, so expect another big loss in purchasing power.

Compounding the erosion of purchasing power is that starting salaries in nominal dollars are roughly the same as they were in 2007. There is also evidence of a gender wage gap (but zero interest by the institution in addressing it). While the institution will often say that salaries are negotiable, in practice that is not the case.

Poor Treatment and Low Morale: The treatment of staff by the university is, in a word, awful. I’ve been on the union grievance committee for a decade. While I can’t tell you everything I’ve seen, here are a few illustrative examples of how individual staff have been treated:
Over the past five years, the employer has twice driven collective bargaining to impasse and the verge of a strike by demanding huge concessions. In between those rounds of bargaining, the employer also tried union busting with an effort to carve two-thirds of the union’s members out of the bargaining unit (and thus out of the pension plan).

The most recent survey of staff (Spring 2022) by the faculty association finds only 20% of staff trust the senior executive and only 39% agree with the statement that “my morale is high.” The employer no longer does staff surveys because the results were so consistently bad.

Workloads have also gone up, particularly for administrative staff, due to COVID. More subjectively, I’m seeing a widespread withdrawal of citizenship behaviours and effort by my colleagues. Essentially, they are realizing AU doesn’t care for them and are (understandably) reciprocating in kind. The upside is the union is tenacious, fights hard, and has strong member support.

Isolation: Working from home with essentially no in-person contact with co-workers or students is extremely isolating and may not be for everyone. Further, AU has no functional orientation process for new staff and most of the institution’s processes do not operate in the way that the various policies and procedures (often decades old) say that they do.

COVID has limited the opportunity for staff to meet socially (which is how we used to cope with the isolation and get our questions answered). In theory, more experienced colleagues in your area should provide you with an orientation and social introductions. In practice, the experiences of new hires is very uneven.

So, with those thoughts and the poor state of the academic job market in mind, one approach to a job offer might be:
  • if you have no other option, take the AU job but stay on the market, and
  • if you have other options, give the pros and cons of AU very careful thought.
-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, September 2, 2022

Reflections on the efficacy of joint committees during COVID

 As Labour Day rolls around, I’ve been giving some thought to the two-and-half years I spent as a worker rep on Athabasca University’s joint health and safety committee (JHSC). While the employer had long had a JHSC, it was effectively non-functional until the government changed the rules to make JHSCs mandatory (which better empowered the worker reps). 

I say non-functional because workplaces hadn’t been inspected for years, there were dozens and dozens of unidentified and uncontrolled hazards, and staff did not receive basic OHS training (among other deficiencies) The single biggest OHS issue during my time on the committee was, not surprisingly, COVID. 

Early COVID response

When I raised the issue of COVID with the committee in early 2020 (before the pandemic arrived in Alberta), I basically got laughed out of the room by the employer reps and no action was taken. Some worker reps had their union pressure the employer to act (including transitioning to working from home, suspending travel and eliminating the sick note requirement). It also published a blog to alert workers to things they could do in the absence of an institutional response. 

This approach is pretty in keeping with what we know about the most effective tactics worker reps can adopt to get achieve change through JHSCs (which can only make recommendations). The employer basically adopted the union’s recommendations a week later and AU transitioned to working from home.

Transitioning to Working from Home

This transition to working from home was not without its difficulties, including several OHS issues. These included serious ergonomic issues as staff were now working from wherever they could find space in their homes and many were using small laptop computers, sometimes with inadequate internet service. These issues lingered unattended for months. 

There was also a significant workload issue as certain institutional processes were not easily adaptable to online delivery coupled with a huge surge in enrollments. These issues were essentially left to individual staff members to sort out and numerous staff reported very high working hours and rapid burnout.

Workload problems were compounded by the departure of 53 staff (5% or so) who had taken a buyout option, overall heightened stress due to the pandemic disruption (including school and daycare closures), and social isolation. All of these issues were left unattended for long periods of time.

The union continued to work with its members to identify issues the university would need to address when it re-opened. As it happens, AU did not ever return to in-person working and the university used the two-years to slowly advance its plan to eliminate on-site work entirely (including closing two of its course campuses and classifying most of its staff at home-based workers). 

Aerosol spread and hazard protocols

During COVID it became clear that the main method of transmission of the virus was through aerosol spread (although transmission by touching and droplets was also possible). Very loosely speaking, aerosol spread basically means the virus hitches a ride from an infected person to others on water molecules that an infected person exhales. The molecules with the virus can then be inhaled by people in the surrounding area. If you inhale enough of the virus, you too can become infected. This is a bigger issue in enclosed spaces than outdoors because virus-laden molecules typically dissipate faster and further outdoors.

The easiest way to understand aerosol spread is to think of it as farting. When you fart, the smelly particles are initially concentrated near the “farter”. But, overtime, the particles spread throughout the room and everyone can smell it. Simply being 6 feet apart (a common COVID protocol to prevent droplet spread from a sneeze or cough) does not protect from aerosol spread. If Travis “farts” and Stacey is 8 feet away across the room, Stacey is eventually going to smell it, right? Same idea with aerosol spread of COVID. The longer you are in close proximity to someone “farting” COVID, the higher the concentration of the virus-laden molecules, and the greater the risk of contracting COVID.

For this reason, effective hazard-control protocols for COVID include not working in enclosed spaces with other people. No exposure means no risk of transmission. If you are sharing spaces, other controls include enhanced ventilation (to reduce the concentration of the virus in the air) and masking. Masking prevents the virus from getting into the air (concentration is lower). And it also prevents someone from inhaling as many particles (which reduces the risk of catching COVID). Vaccination does not seem to control spread very much with Omnicron (so it is not really an effective control strategy); its primary value seems to be reduced severity of the disease.

Re-opening and COVID protocols

In September of 2021, government changes that gutted the effectiveness of JHSCs came into effect. You could literally see the energy go out of the JHSC as the tools the worker members used to keep the employer attentive to its OHS obligations effectively disappeared (e.g., there is no longer any requirement for workplace inspections).

In February of 2022, Minister of Advanced Education Demetrios Nicolaides directed all PSEs to end masking and vaccination protections. Directing post-secondary institutions to end mandatory masking eliminated one of the most effective controls on COVID transmission and placed post-secondary workers at risk of COVID. It also forced institutions to violate the OHS Act because they were no longer controlling workers’ exposure to COVID to the degree reasonably practicable. The Minister of Advanced Education has no authority to direct PSEs to act in this way or to waive the OHS obligations.

In May of 2022, Athabasca University altered its COVID protocols (presumably in response to the Minister’s direction). While most staff were expected to continue working from home due to the danger of infection, those staff who were on campus were no longer required to wear masks. This announcement basically says “it is too dangerous for you to come to work but, if you are onsite, don’t worry about wearing a mask”. This contradiction was so stark and evident that staff openly mocked it. It also dramatically increased the risk of aerosol transmission of COVID in the workplace.

The university’s Joint Health and Safety Committee was not consulted about this change. A review of Athabasca University’s hazard assessment revealed no consideration of aerosol transmission or controls. When this was brought to the university’s attention with a request to reinstate masking on campus, these concerns were dismissed and COVID control were further relaxed!

OHS Complaint and Inaction

Canada’s OHS system makes workers and employers jointly responsible for identifying and controlling hazards (the internal responsibility system). When this system fails, workers can file a complaint with government OHS inspectors (the external responsibility system). The existence of government oversight reflects that disputes about hazard identification and control can arise, sometimes via an innocent error and sometimes via a deliberate decision by the employer.

As worker co-chair, I filed an OHS complaint about the lack of controls around the aerosol spread of COVID (this is is how the system works). OHS investigated (without any discussion with workers) and declined to take action. 

When I finally got to speak with the officer to find out what she’d decided (because there is no report-back system and you have to say certain magical words to get the officer to call you back), her explanation of inaction was:
  1. The employer did not identify aerosol spread on its hazard assessment and she could not force them to add it on, and
  2. She could not direct the employer to implement masking (which was explicitly noted in my complaint was NOT my request—I just wanted direction to the employer to develop a control strategy) in the absence of direction by the Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH). 
She also noted that she did not see many workers sharing spaces and that they were seated six feet apart. The OHS officer’s explanation for her inaction was defective in a number of ways:
  1. An employer cannot evade controlling a hazard simply by leaving it off a hazard assessment. Allowing this kind of evasion opens the door to employers ignoring all hazards by simply leaving them off the hazard assessment (like come on!). The OHS officer could well have identified the hazard the employer missed and directed the employer to develop a control strategy (which was my explicit request).
  2. The presence or absence of masking guidelines by the CMOH does not limit the ability of OHS officers to direct employer to develop a control strategy for a hazard. Masking is the obvious control, but the employer could also have improved ventilation or prohibited shared spaces. What is likely going on here is that OHS officers have been directed (or perceive themselves to be directed) not to require employers to implement control for the aerosol spread of COVID because of the government’s decision to let’er rip.
  3. The assertion that being six feet apart was an adequate control confuses controls for droplet spread with controls for aerosol spread. I could not have been clearer about this in my complaint. This raises questions about competence in my view.
  4. The absence of many workers working in close proximity is basically saying “well, not too many workers are at risk…”. The OHS Act and Code does not contain a threshold of injury or death that is required before an employer must take action.
The upshot is that both the internal and external enforcement system failed. There is no appeal of the OHS decisions available because workers can only appeal an order, not the absence of an order. About the only bright spot here was that AU was intent on keeping staff off campus while it completed its transition to a near virtual working environment (i.e., 95% of staff working from home full time).

Surprise Re-opening
Over the summer of 2022, AU embroiled itself in a stupid and public fight with the provincial government of AU’s long-pterm efforts to reduce the number of jobs in the local community. As a part of AU’s efforts to resolve this dispute (which imperiled institutional funding), AU announced on August 30 that the remaining two campuses would be open effective September 6. 

As part of the surprise re-opening announcement, new COVID protocols were announced. Basically, they amount to extra cleaning (to address touch spread) and staying home when sick, which is ineffective since (1) COVID carriers are contagious before being symptomatic, and (2) many COVID carriers are asymptomatic. There are no controls for droplet or aerosol spread. Staff are allowed to voluntarily wear masks if they want:
AU no longer mandates wearing masks unless a hazard assessment dictates one is needed; however, we support you wearing a mask if you want to.
This approach individualizes responsibility for preventing the spread of COVID. It is just straight-up negligent because of the lack of droplet and aerosol controls. But the absence of any will by the government to enforce the OHS law means the employer can basically do whatever it wants.

Staff have little recourse except to (1) wear their own mask (the efficacy of which will be reduced because masking works best when everyone does it) or (2) try to avoid working on site if possible. Work refusals are unlikely to be effective since OHS has already refused to address aerosol spread and workers can choose to wear their own mask.

The only real option is for one of AU’s unions to file a grievance that AU is failing to address its obligation to provide a safe and healthy workplace under the OHS Act. That will take literally years to reach resolution and AU will likely use the OHS officer’s decision not to issue an order and a defence. Another option is for the unions to organize some kind of illegal walk out (an outcome that I judge to be unlikely).


The recent changes to the OHS Act and Code have rendered JHSCs largely useless (which was likely the intent). The government’s political decision to eliminate COVID protections have also rendered the external OHS system ineffective. Together, these factors will create a significant amount of unnecessary ill health (potentially with lifelong consequences). As an OHS researcher and practitioner, I gotta say, this just makes me despair and very happy that I'm close to retirement.

-- Bob Barnetson