Thursday, August 11, 2022

Analysis of Athabasca jobs fight

Current AU President Peter Scott

Over the past two weeks, Athabasca University’s (AU) executive and the United Conservative Government (UCP) have been embroiled in a very public fight over locating jobs in the town of Athabasca. Today, the UCP appeared to slightly soften their stance, offering to negotiate with AU instead of imposing relocation on 500 staff. So what does that actually mean?


AU was (re)located in the town of Athabasca in the mid-1980s, partly to generate jobs in that part of rural Alberta. Over the past 15ish years, the number and portion of AU employees in Athabasca has diminished. This has had a negative economic effect on the town. Community residents (including AU staff members) have repeatedly raised this legitimate issue with AU’s executive and Board and have gotten no where. Consequently, a lobby group formed and raised money to hire a lobbyist to seek intervention by the government.

In late March, Premier Jason Kenney appeared in a town meeting and promised AU jobs would be located in Athabasca. My view is that Kenney was looking for votes in his leadership review and this was an easy issue to make promises on in order to gain support. No one from AU’s Board or exec was invited to the meeting. From what I can tell, they were surprised by the news, since they were in the middle of launching their “near virtual” strategy, whereby most staff could work from home offices wherever they lived.

In early April, AU president Peter Scott told staff that the university was not changing direction. At about the same time, the then Board chair sent the Minister of Advanced Ed a chippy letter saying about the same thing. The government sacked the chair in late May, which should have been a pretty good hint the government was serious. The government also required AU to provide a plan, by June 30, to bring jobs back to town.

AU provided a plan (which staff have not seen). In late July, the government rejected the plan as inadequate. The government then provided a new funding agreement to AU’s Board and demanded a second plan to bring jobs to the community. If AU did not comply by September 30, its government grant (~35% of revenue) would be frozen.

According to the President, the new funding agreement contained a requirement for 65% of staff (about 500 more people) to work on campus by 2025 and a portion of AU’s funding was tied to meeting that performance target. Again, no documents to substantiate this claim were released. And, again, this is a pretty clear sign the government was serious.

Instead of seeking to negotiate some kind of compromise that would address the legitimate issues around jobs in the community, President Scott launched a videotaped attack on the government, calling the government’s proposal “ruinous”. This resulted internet handwringing and bad press for the UCP that pretty much petered out after five or six days. The UCP then announced it would be open to discussions about how AU could address the jobs issue, suggesting moving the executive and administrative staff back to town.


The UCP’s proposed relocation of 500 staff to a town of 2800 was never going to happen because (1) there is not enough housing, and (2) there are not enough offices. Given this, this demand is best viewed as the UCP showing its teeth to bring the Board to heel.

In bargaining, you are always thinking of the BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement). The UCP showed AU that AU’s BATNA was way worse than whatever AU might negotiate. Essentially, the government is saying, “If you won’t give us a plan we like, then you can have this, really awful plan.”

For whatever reason, the President of AU decided to go on the offensive and attack the government in public. I get this response on an emotional level. (AU pulls this exact shit on its staff all the time and it is enraging).

But picking a fight with the government doesn’t make much strategic sense. AU hit the public panic button, there was a few days of bad press for the government, and then what? Bad press is not really relevant to a government that is both vindictive and deeply down in the polls.

But what about the government’s overture to AU to re-start negotiations? Isn’t that a victory? Certainly, it is being spun as such by the executive.

But let’s look at where things are actually at. All the government said is it would be open to negotiating and its position remains that jobs (and the university executive) need to come back to the community. This is basically where things were at in June.

Except, and this is important, the government is now holding a financial gun to AU’s head. If AU doesn’t come to some deal that is acceptable to the government by September 30, it can expect the loss of government grants.

If AU’s Board gets too uppity, the government can also just replace them with an administrator under the Post-Secondary Learning Act (likely a current or former bureaucrat and conservative loyalist). The administrator can agree to whatever the government wants and can also sack any university executive types who get in the way.

So, the president has put the Board (i.e., his boss) in the position of having to decide if it wants to look constructive (and bargain) or if it wants to stonewall and look petulant and take the lumps the government is clearly threatening. Early signs are they will bargain, but we’ll see.

So, despite the theatrics of Scott’s video, he’s not improved AU’s bargaining position, he’s used his only weapon (public outrage), and, in doing so, he’s likely further damaged the university’s reputation (enrollments were in free fall even before his outburst).

I don’t really see how he survives this. Picking a fight that led to a potentially “ruinous” conflict with the government instead of either negotiating something or slow-walking until the government changed was just terrible decision-making given the political context.

Possible Resolutions

A sensible approach to this would be for the government and the university to agree to a jobs target (e.g., a number or a percentage) to be achieved by a certain date. AU can then seek to achieve it by incenting current staff to relocate and locating new hires in Athabasca. The government offered to provide resources to facilitate this. This will create a manageable growth in jobs and address local concerns. It will also allow current executive members who don’t want to move to Athabasca to exit at the end of their contracts.

-- Bob Barnetson

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