Friday, June 16, 2023

AUFA executive resignations follow unusual payment to member

Last Friday, the executive of the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) held an emergency meeting. After an apparently acrimonious discussion, the executive voted 5-4 to “donate” $2500 to another member. Subsequently, five members of the executive resigned and the treasurer is unable to make the payment because of the wording of the motion. 

The remaining members of the AUFA executive finally released some information about this payment a week later, after I threatened to go directly to the members. But the executive have left out important context and the subsequent resignations. These omissions are very troubling. This information also comes only after the union’s elections have concluded.

This post compiles the information I have been able to verify about these very concerning events. I believe this decision shows very poor judgment and that the remaining members of the executive who voted in favour of this motion should resign. I understand that one of them has done so this morning.


I’ve redacted some of the details but the gist is that a member declined to comply with an employer direction (i.e., was insubordinate). After several unsuccessful attempts to gain compliance, the employer placed the member on an unpaid leave.

As much as I don’t generally like how AU behaves, placing a member on unpaid leave is permissible in these very specific circumstances (that I am carefully not discussing). This has happened periodically over the past 15 years that I’ve been active with the association and is not an unprecedented situation (what is unprecedented is the payment).

The member decided to continue not complying (and thus not be paid). While being placed on an unpaid leave can certainly create a financial emergency for a member, this is not a labour-relations emergency for the union.

Subsequently, a member of the executive sought an emergency executive meeting to authorize payment of $2500 in financial aid. AUFA does not presently have a system for providing financial aid to members. The union did create an emergency-loan system in anticipation of a strike last year. Absent a work stoppage, that system does not operate because the members have not approved expanding its parameters.

Consequently, this request was brought to the union executive as an ad hoc motion. Article 12.8 of the AUFA bylaws permits the executive to authorize unbudgeted payments of up to $5000 without seeking membership approval.

Nine (of then 13) voting members of the executive were able to attend the emergency meeting:
  • Davina Bhandar 
  • Pamela Holway
  • Jonathan Leggo,
  • Gail Leicht
  • Katie MacDonald
  • Darka Pavlovic
  • Kristin Rodier
  • Rhiannon Rutherford
  • Ching Tan
After an in camera discussion, MacDonald and Bhandar moved:

“AUFA make a one-time donation of $2500 to the member in question in support of undue hardship.”

This motion passed 5-4 with Leggo, Leicht, Pavlovic, and Rutherford opposed. A subsequent motion established an ad hoc committee to look into establishing a formal member emergency fund (which is a good idea).

While no one has been prepared to discuss all of the details of the in camera discussion, some attendees have characterized the information provided to them an incomplete. For example, they were not told that the member could have their pay restored by simply complying with the employer’s direction.

Over the next several days, Leggo and Pavlovic along with Florene Ypma and Dave Powell resigned from the executive over the motion. Leicht (who is also the treasurer) has also indicated she will be resigning as soon as the executive can put someone in place to perform financial oversight functions. In the meantime, she has declined to issue the cheque because she does not have a name and mailing address to permit the issuance of a cheque.


A number of questions jump to mind:
  1. Why it was necessary to call an emergency meeting last Friday when there was regularly scheduled meeting three working days later? An emergency meeting likely reduced the number of executive members able to attend.
  2. Why the secrecy within the executive about who the member is? How can the executive make an informed and accountable decision without recording to whom the payment was made (even if this information is shared only on a need-to-know basis)?
  3. Why was the executive not informed during the discussion that the member who received the payment could have their pay restored by ceasing their insubordination?
  4. Why was the funding provided as a donation, rather than as an interest-free loan?
  5. Has this decision established a precedent whereby other members who refuse to comply with legitimate employer directions (i.e., are insubordinate) can now seek financial support from the union?
  6. Why did the remaining executive not inform the AUFA membership of this significant departure from past practice and the subsequent resignation of five executive members in a timely manner? This question is especially salient since (1) there was an immediate member request for disclosure (within minutes of the meeting ending) and (2) the payment decision was made in the middle of union elections wherein some of the executive members who voted in favour off the payment were running for office.
  7. Does this expenditure fall within the definition of non-core expenditures under the Labour Relations Code (as amended by Bill 32 several years ago) and, therefore, does it require the executive to get the permission of members to collect and expend these dues notwithstanding the bylaws? If so, will payment open AUFA up to a complaint to the Labour Relations Board?


While the union executive can spend up to $5000 on its own initiative, this sort of expenditure (which was not an emergency) should likely have been subjected to meaningful consultation with the membership. Indeed, many of the executive members who voted for this motion ran last year on a slate that promised greater transparency.

Savvy union leaders go out of their way ensuring that union decisions, particularly about spending, are transparent and above reproach. Last Friday’s decision does not demonstrate this sort of political acumen. Instead, we see executive members:
  1. Calling an unnecessary emergency meeting that only a portion of the union executive could attend.
  2. Authorizing an unprecedented payment to another member (with the support of only 5 of 13 executive members).
  3. Failing to disclose to the executive members in attendance that the member could resolve their problem on their own by complying with the employer’s direction.
  4. Not naming the member who is to receive the funding in the motion, which has resulted in the treasurer being unable process the payment.
  5. Disclosing information about the decision only after members threatened to release the information directly to the members and only after the end of the union election, in which some of the remaining executive members were candidates.
  6. Possibly created a precedent where the union is on the hook to financially support other members who are insubordinate (or, at least, having to fight off claims for such support).
This behaviour demonstrates why it is important for members to pay attention to union operations and be very choosey about who they elect to manage the affairs of their union.

Now What?

The good news is that a new executive will take control of AUFA as of September 1. Many of the key players in this decision will not be a part of that executive.

AUFA members could also call a special meeting (under Article 5.4 of the bylaws). At this meeting, they could demand an explanation from the remaining executive and/or they could advance motions. These motions could include overruling the payment, voting nonconfidence in some or all of the remaining executive members, or setting up a committee to develop an emergency loan system with meaningful oversight and sensible parameters.

Really, though, the simplest way for the remaining executive to restore membership confidence in the executive would be for the members of the existing executive who voted in favour of this motion to tender their resignations. I understand one of them has done so already (that is six resignations now, if you're keeping track). This would still leave enough executive members to get through the traditionally slower summer months and hand the organization over to the incoming executive in September.

-- Bob Barnetson


Anonymous said...

What forum, if any, does AUFA members have to discuss this online?

Anonymous said...

Essentially none. The exec turned off the old listserv and moderates the AUFA notices. There is a dormant slack channel somewhere but I can’t find it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this, Bob. The matter is, indeed, very troubling.

Anonymous said...

What a disgrace. The AUFA executive should be ashamed for not having this go to member vote, especially since it sets a bad precedent.

Colleen said...

I was the first executive director of AUFA and I can say with certainty that this situation never occured. There remain a few questions that the new executive might want to consider:

What are the parametres for calling a special meeting and who gets to make that call? There should be some process developed to avoid what happened here.
If a significant amount of money or one where the expenditure is unusual, then the bar for passing a motion should be more than 50% of the attending executives. I would suggest 60% of the entire executive should be in support.
Finally the money in the union account belongs to the membership, not the executive and every exependiture must keep that in mind.

Unfortunately many bylaws and policies are developed after the fact, but they should still be developed.

I know AUFA will come out of this strong and I hope united.

Colleen Powell

Ingo Schmidt said...

The statement from the AUFA-executive, which didn’t even mention that it was just a leftover exec, poses more questions than it answers. Without a special meeting, I can’t see how any AUFA-exec can gain trust of its membership. Sadly, members have no means to talk to each other beyond this little known slack channel. The once existing list-serve was shut down when I was on the exec (I and one other exec-member voted against this) under the pretext of creating safe spaces. The majority that voted to shut the list-serve down, promised to look into new means to facilitate communication among members but that never happened. At least, there were a number of town-halls where members could express their views. None of this happened under the outgoing exec. I’m sure the employer takes note of the falling apart of AUFA. Corruption and secrecy in union execs always play in employers’ hands. If anyone has ideas how to pull AUFA out of this rut, I’m all ears but don’t see that way out myself at this moment.

Mark Crawford said...

IMHO there may have been ostensibly "good" reasons for confidentiality in this case, but disclosure and publicity (perhaps even member ratification) is the price that the recipient and the executive ought to have been willing to pay for this extraordinary action. Accordingly, I resist the temptation to post this comment anonymously.

Anonymous said...

AU has become too much of a shithole to afford the luxury of a weak union with little membership involvement or close attention to procedure. I hope the membership can learn from this event and go forward without recriminations and division.


Anonymous said...

"The member decided to continue not complying (and thus not be paid). While being placed on an unpaid leave can certainly create a financial emergency for a member, this is not a labour-relations emergency for the union.

Subsequently, a member of the executive sought an emergency executive meeting to authorize payment of $2500 in financial aid. AUFA does not presently have a system for providing financial aid to members. The union did create an emergency-loan system in anticipation of a strike last year. Absent a work stoppage, that system does not operate because the members have not approved expanding its parameters." Exactly.