Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Resisting company doctors through moral suasion

Unionized workers can make gains and stave off concessions by attaching costs to employer behaviour in the hope that the employer will decide to behave differently.

Most often, we think about strikes. Strikes attach primarily financial costs to employer intransigence at the bargaining table by disrupting production. If the strike causes the employer enough pain, the employer tends to compromise.

Moral suasion is a different way to attach costs to employer behaviour. Athabasca University’s (AU’s) unsuccessful efforts to impose company doctors on its academic staff provides a useful example of this tactic and its limitations.

AthabascaU’s demand for company docs

In 2018, AU pushed its workers to agree to new contract language around company doctors. Essentially, the employer wanted to be able to send a worker for a so-called independent medical examination (IME) if:
  • the worker used sick leave frequently or for a prolonged period,
  • the employer believed the worker was unable to do their duties due to illness or disability, or
  • the employer believed a worker was mis-using their sick leave.
This proposal would give the employer a largely unfettered ability to impose and IME upon pain of discipline and/or loss of sick leave. Such a power would:
  • interfere with workers being able to choose their own health-care providers,
  • open the door to illegitimate employer demands for non-therapeutic medical examinations, and
  • would end-run the requirement for the employer to get an arbitrator’s order to require an IME. 
Seventy-seven percent of union members were opposed to this proposal. Of particular concern to the union’s members were the possibilities of:
  • worker fear of being sent to an IME might cause them to not use their sick leave when its use was medically required,
  • when workplace harassment had caused a worker’s performance to deteriorate or the worker to go off sick, the employer might weaponize the IME process to further harass the sick member, and
  • the medical opinion of a company-paid doctor may result in a refusal of sick leave or the alteration of work restrictions set out by the worker’s treating physician.
The employer’s rationale for this proposal was cost-savings (i.e., no arbitration hearing required). In fact, the proposal shifted costs from the university (lower financial costs) to the worker and their families (less privacy and greater stress).

There was, of course, no evidence of any meaningful level of sick leave abuse. A review of 15 years of union files (with a membership of more than 400 workers) identified one case where the university officially raised concerns about the accuracy of medical information provided to the employer. This was conern was resolved.

Pushing back on company docs

Resisting company doctors could certainly form part of the basis for a strike mandate. But there is always the risk that members might be willing to accept company-doctor language as part of a package deal (i.e., if the employer offered something good in exchange) or to avoid a strike (if company doctors was the only major issue). Given this risk, the union opted to explore a different approach first.

The company-doctor proposal was obviously repugnant. The union also suspected it was being driven by the desires of the HR shop, rather than being a core mandate from the university’s Board of Governors (which was the ultimate decision maker). These factors opened the door to applying moral pressure on Board members to abandon the proposal.

Activists identified 15 members who (1) were secure in their jobs, (2) had experience with ill-health that required medical leave, and (3) had a reasonable degree of political acumen. The union then used its membership map to divide them into five three-person groups based on pre-existing relationships.

Each team was tasked to write a five-paragraph letter to individual Board members (the union provided contact details). The first and last paragraphs were boilerplate, respectively introducing the issue and asking the Board to drop its proposal.

Each team member wrote one of the middle three paragraphs, disclosing their personal experience with medical leave and explaining how the company-doctor proposal would have affected and harmed them. The letters were heart wrenching and drove home the odious nature of the Board’s proposal.

The union coordinated the members sending their letters such that Board members received a new letter every week. The Board members eventually concluded that their negotiating team’s proposal truly was not worth pursuing because, shortly thereafter, the employer’s chief negotiator said “company doctors (suddenly!) wasn’t a hill to die on” and the proposal fell away.


This example illustrates one (of myriad) ways that workers can attach costs to employer behaviour and, thereby, possibly change it. The costs attached by the letters were mostly emotional. Few people (even employers!) enjoy being shown how their behaviour will profoundly and personally harm others.

The Board members may also have been concerned about being publicly and personally associated with such a disgusting and harmful proposal. That threat was not contained in the letters, but was an obvious next step and was part of the union’s overall escalation strategy.

Having workers write about their very personal experiences of ill-health appeared more effective at driving home to the employer how awful the proposal was than were the union’s broader communications about the proposal. The pressure exerted by the letters was applied discretely enough that there was no real loss of face for the employer in doing so.

The union members, both those directly involved and those who simply heard about the tactic, got to see how they could take effective action to protect their own interests. This built confidence among the members in their ability to resist employer demands and advocate for themselves.

A weakness of this tactic is that it creates the possibility of a rapid reversal by the employer. For example, if the employer catches even one worker malingering or faking sick in the future, it is likely to bring this proposal back to the table. And, because the employer will feel like it got emotionally manipulated into withdrawing the earlier proposal, the employer will likely pursue the renewed proposal vigorously. In this way, both the employer and the union now have a shared interest in ensuring no workers malinger.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Reflections on Unifor's strategy during Regina's Refinery strike

Andrew Stevens and Doug Nesbitt recently published an article entitled “Refinery town in the petrostate: organized labour confronts the oil patch in Western Canada" (this article does not yet appear to be open access). This piece examines the lengthy strike and lockout at the Co-op refinery in Regina in 2019 and explores three main themes.

First, it examines how the union’s long-term approach to bargaining (which the authors term conciliatory and cooperative) left the union unprepared to cope with an aggressive employer intent upon driving major concessions into the union’s agreement (this is likely an important finding or many unions…). This included taking significant steps (e.g., building a camp to house a scab workforce) to ensure that a lockout of workers would be successful.

Second, it explores how the state and employers colluded to limit the union’s ability to effectively apply pressure on the employer through traditional and legal means (e.g., striking, picketing) through court injunctions and demands that workers’ picketing behaviour be treated as criminal. Allied employers also began demanding further legal constraint of picketing activity.

Third, the paper examines the effectiveness of civil disobedience and building solidarity networks to apply pressure to the employer in the face of collusion between the state and the employer and profound anti-union sentiment. The state’s response to union tactics that infringed upon the employer’s property rights included imprisoning union leaders and demonizing the union as an outsider. Of particular interest in the article is the analysis of how community support for the oil and gas industry benefitted the employer’s efforts to grind the compensation of workers.

The authors suggest that a more thoughtful approach to community engagement an the deployment of civil disobedience tactics by the union might shift the terrain of future disputes and increase the union’s leverage.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

UCP's record on labour issues


Alberta Views recent published an article I wrote about the UCP's record on labour issues. The article reprises and extends a chapter I wrote with Susan Cake and Jason Foster in a new book entitled Anger and Angst: Jason Kenney's Legacy and Alberta's Right (which is also worth a look).

The nub is basically that UCP labour policy can be best understood as an effort to shift the cost of labour from employers to workers by grinding wages and working conditions. The effect, particularly on and in Alberta's public-sector has been significant. Since the Alberta View's article is open access, I'll leave it for you to read more if you like.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Concordia University of Edmonton strike triggers hard-line response

A meme from the 2022 CUE strike.
Strikes and lockouts can have profound effects on workers, managers, organizations, and their relationships. The research suggests a strike or lockout can result in:
  • decreased worker job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and psychological well-being,
  • strained relations with other organizational members (e.g., students),
  • increased class awareness and solidarity among workers, and
  • deteriorating relationships between workers and managers as well as between managers and owners
An interesting Canadian analysis can be found this 2008 article by Chaulk and Brown.

Concordia Faculty Strike

The fallout from Alberta’s first post-secondary strike at Concordia University of Edmonton (CUE) in January of 2022 appears to offer an example of a strike resulting in a heightened level of organizational conflict. The CUE strike centered on wage and workload demands, with the small faculty association (about 80 members) being among the worst paid (68th out of 70) in Canada.

In the year prior to the strike, CUE recorded an operating surplus of 33% and had significant savings. Instead of offering faculty a reasonable wage increase or addressing workload issues, the Board decided to off a 3% increase over five years and buy the nearby century-old Magrath Mansion. The mansion was putatively intended to serve as a campus but was neither zoned nor architecturally suitable for instructional space, so draw your own conclusions there.

CUE also pushed new disciplinary language that would allow it to fire faculty without just cause. CUE then offered to withdraw its disciplinary proposals if faculty handed over their intellectual property rights to the employer. This led to an 11-day strike in January of 2022 that, apparently, was some kind of surprise to CUE’s Board.

In the end, the employer dropped its discipline demands. The faculty association’s wage demands (which amounted to $350,000 or, if you prefer, 0.18 mansions) were mostly met and the strike wrapped up. CUE’s reputation in the community and with students took quite a hit. Subsequently, CUE’s sessional instructors filed to unionize with CUPE, in part because the employer refused to pay them during the strike, even though there were not in the faculty association and were not on strike (they were eventually paid).

Concordia Strike Fall Out

In the 14 months since the strike settled, the CUE faculty association has documented a number of concerning trends, including:
  • Enrollment is down (I’m hearing 10%) and there are "budget shortfalls". Past accrued surpluses have apparently been transferred to a capital fund to build more buildings and buy more land. CUE is providing no real information about its finances to the community.
  • Twelve staff were laid off this year.
  • Four programs do not meet quality council faculty complement criteria and five more were identified by external reviewers as being understaffed but there is no indication of any institutional response. This is very bad news for a university.
  • Approximately 10% of the CUE membership has been subjected to disciplinary investigations since the strike (the provincial average is about 2% per year) by expensive external investigators using inconsistent processes. Almost all of the discipline is being grieved, but CUE has not really engaged in resolution efforts, so off the grievances go to arbitration.
  • Elected faculty representatives have resigned from the Board after being disciplined for raising concerns about deteriorating staff relations and faculty representatives are now to be chosen by the Board.
  • General Faculties Council meetings have become hollow exercises in rubber stamping. Some faculty councils have also become inactive and/or are routinely end-run by deans, and other administrators are acting outside of policy.
The result is an organizational climate characterized, according to faculty, by fear and uncertainty. The Board of Governors has refused to meet with faculty to discussion these issues.

This outcome is not particularly surprising. Sometimes, the experience of weathering a strike can cause an employer to seek to improve its relationship with staff. Other times, the employer can double down on the behaviours that triggered the strike and even engage in retaliation (which is what faculty are saying is going on).

Doubling down can sometimes reflect a desire to punish workers and break their will to resist. Employers, especially those with religious origins, often resist any challenge to the organization's authority. This approach may also reflect a cost-benefit analysis by the employer (i.e., treating workers poorly is worthwhile in some way). Or it may just reflect the absence of any idea by administrators about how to move forward productively.

Maybe CUE will decide to change course. More likely, though, the conflict will continue until there is a change in the institution’s leadership.

-- Bob Barnetson