Monday, July 8, 2024

Athabasca University stalls bargaining right out of the gate

Bargaining between the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) and Athabasca University (AU) kicked off June 28th with an exchange of proposals. You can read the details here but the short version is: 
  1. AU refused to table its monetary proposal, and 
  2. AU has refused to set further bargaining dates unless AUFA agrees to meet in person (instead of bargaining via video conference). 
Since I'm no longer president of the union, I don't have to be polite about this approach to bargaining, which is stupid for many reasons, including:
  • Practical: A union can’t get an agreement (which is the goal of bargaining) when the employer refuses to say what it wants and refuses to meet. Being unreasonable serves no one’s interests, including the employer’s.
  • Strategic: While AU might have gotten away with stalling on a full proposal for a while, refusing to bargain until AUFA agrees to bargain exactly how the employer wants to bargain is contrary to the Labour Relations Code. There are good reasons to bargain online (e.g., significant travel costs, child-care issues, health issues) and AU has provided no coherent or compelling reason to refuse to bargain by unless it is face-to-face. The employer will eventually have to abandon this demand and, when it does, it will look (even more) incompetent and unreasonable than it does now.
  • Political: AU ran this same play last round and it resulted in a near strike. A repeat of this approach has dramatically raised tensions among the members for no real gain. Most AUFA members are now angry and frustrated and AU’s bargaining team just spent all of the new president’s political capital for no real gain (“meet the new boss, same as the old boss”). In less than 20 minutes, AU also drove AUFA’s bargaining team (who are mostly new) from “let’s bargain in good faith and try to get a deal” to “fuck these clowns.” For a union, there is simply no better organizing force in the world than a terrible employer.
It is hard to fathom why AU insists on meeting in person. My best guess is this is some kind of dick-measuring contest, where the employer wants to show the union that it sets the terms of bargaining.

Alternately, it could be that the employer is stalling because it is not prepared to bargain. The union hasn’t shared AU’s non-monetary proposal yet (I imagine that is coming in the next few weeks) but it is basically a rehash of stuff from the 2020-2022 round of bargaining, which provides some support for the “not ready” hypothesis.

If there is a strategy behind refusing to provide a monetary offer, I’m hard pressed to see it. The government has issued a mandate across the public sector for a four-year deal with a cost-of-living adjustment of 2%, 2%, 1.75%, and 1.75%. AU will either open with that or with something even worse (like the U of Lethbridge has). Either way, withholding the monetary just makes AU look like uncooperative dicks and AU gains nothing from the eventual reveal.

Maybe the strategy is to try and lure AUFA into settling the non-monetary stuff first (thereby giving up the opportunity to trade language for a monetary offer the employer could live with)? Since AUFA isn’t stupid, it is obviously not going to fall into that trap so delaying providing a monetary proposal is just wasting everyone’s time.

Overall, alienating the union and its members (to no real gain) is a bad way for Athabasca University to start to bargaining and raises real questions about the competence of whomever is directing AU's bargaining approach. At this point, the employer’s best pathway to a deal that doesn’t involve a work stoppage is to set dates and provide a full offer, maybe with a mea culpa to smooth things over.

Since AU is showing zero labour-relations game, I imagine we’re off to the Labour Board. In the meantime, the union will begin the process of dissecting the employer’s proposal and building resistance to it among the members as part of its strike preparations.

I’d hoped that AU changing its spokesperson signalled a desire for better labour relations. Apparently not. If I had to guess how this will play out, I'd say there will be no real progress at the table, AUFA will declare impasse in the fall, and we go to mediation where the employer will be forced to actually start bargaining. 

This is super disrespectful of the employer and heightens the risk of an  unnecessary "fuck you" strike. Glad I kept my picket sign from last time. If anyone wants in on the pool about which employer-side rep gets throw under the bus first by AU when this goes off the rails, shoot me an email.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, February 23, 2024

Research: Government interference in collective bargaining

Earlier this week, the Parkland Institute released a report that I contributed to, entitled Thumb on the scale: Alberta government interference in public-sector bargaining.

This report examines how, in a time when workers’ Charter-protected associational rights appear to be expanding, the rate at which governments interfere with collective bargaining has skyrocketed.

It specifically looks at Alberta’s ongoing use of secret bargaining mandates, which turn public-sector bargaining into a hollow and fettered process.

This report is relevant because both UNA and AUPE have exchanged opening proposals with the government in the last few weeks and will be bargaining against secret mandates. The government opener in both cases was, unsurprisingly, identical and there is a huge gap between what workers are asking for and what the government is offering.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, January 12, 2024

New research on unions' impact on wages and benefits

In November, Andrew Stevens and Angele Poirier released a report that examined the union effect on wages and benefits across Canada to 2022, with the data for Saskatchewan also broken out.

Nationally, unionized workers earned an average of 11% more than non-unionized workers. There was significant provincial, gender, age, and sectoral variation. The union advantage appeared particularly pronounced for workers aged 15 to 24 (+26%) and part-time workers (+41%).

Unionized workers were also more likely to have paid sick time (80% versus 555 for nonunionized). Unionized workers were also much more likely to have employment-related pension plans (825 versus 37%) as well as other supplementary benefits.

Interestingly, non-unionized workers experienced slightly higher wage increases between 2020 and 2022. This might reflect pressure on non-union employers to improve wages in order to attract and retain staff (i.e., is a union spill-over effect). It might also reflect that union contracts (which fix compensation for a period of time) may delay increases (e.g., inflationary bumps) or unionized workers (who are very often in the public sector) may have been subject to mandated wage freezes and rollbacks by the state.

-- Bob Barnetson