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Athabasca University and its faculty approach impasse in bargaining

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Athabasca University campus. Photo: daryl_mitchell/Flickr

Is Alberta's NDP government getting ready to bring some serious pressure to bear if that's what it takes to get a contract agreement between Athabasca University's administration and its faculty association?

If I'm right about the meaning of changes to the Athabasca University Regulation ordered by the provincial cabinet last week, it would be a smart move by the NDP -- giving the government the power to nip in the bud a nasty and divisive strike with the potential to break out right in the middle of a provincial election campaign.

First, though, some backstory.

After several years of chronic financial crisis, things have really been looking up for the distance-learning institution based in the town of Athabasca, about 150 kilometres north of Edmonton, since the NDP came to power in 2015.

But AU and the Athabasca University Faculty Association have been bargaining since the start of April without getting anywhere at all. In negotiations, the employer has stuck to demands for a two-year contract without any pay increases, made more painful by a significant number of rollbacks to contract language.

AUFA polled its members in mid-November and found them overwhelmingly opposed to many of the proposed takeaways, things like the employer being allowed to terminate faculty members before a hearing has taken place, eliminating the existing review process for probationary employees, and reducing recall rights for laid-off faculty. The thing that sparked the most outrage, though, was an administration proposal that would let it force sick employees to see an employer physician.

At the start of December, the faculty association tabled a proposal similar to the pattern set in recent Alberta public sector collective agreements: a five-year contract with zeros in the first two years followed by wage-reopener negotiations for the final three years, plus some contract-language improvements. The compromise that froze pay in most public sector contract settlements in Alberta this year was agreement there would be few or no rollbacks.

The AU administration countered the AUFA proposal with a microscopically modified version of its original offer, which included two years of zeroes and approximately 40 pages of concessions. Employer negotiators removed one of the concessions from the list.

The effect of this was to persuade faculty members the administration headed by President Neil Fassina has a plan to push them into a corner where they have no alternative but to strike -- a strike, presumably, the administration is confident it can win.

Concerned that the AU Board of Governors doesn't have a clear idea of what's been happening in negotiations, the faculty association asked to make a three-minute presentation at the board's December meeting. Fassina said no.

AUFA then sent a letter to the board, arguing that the administration's strategy makes a strike more likely, and warning that a faculty work stoppage would result in reputational damage to AU and bitterness that could persist for years.

"We have previously polled our members and they will not accept the concessions AU is offering: these concessions are profoundly harmful to our members, they don't solve actual institutional problems, and they are unnecessary because AU currently has a healthy surplus," wrote Prof. Bob Barnetson, chair of the association's strike committee.

Writing on his personal blog, Barnetson accused AU's administrators of pursuing a broader "union-rejection strategy," including impeding workplace access by the association to its members, refusing to meet with the union, and delaying the resolution of disputes, in addition to the long list of rollback demands presented by the employer in bargaining.

"It puzzles us that the board's bargaining team is being so aggressive," Barnetson wrote in the letter to the board. "There is an obvious settlement available and the faculty association has instructed its bargaining team to negotiate towards it. We're hoping the board will direct its bargaining team to negotiate towards the provincial pattern in order to avoid a work stoppage."

By the sound of it, this letter didn't please Fassina, who was recruited from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology to run AU in August 2016.

Which brings us back to last week's changes by the cabinet to the AU Regulations. Section 2 of the Order in Council (as cabinet orders are known in our Canadian system of government) amends Section 3.1 of the regulations to say membership of the board can be augmented with "additional persons appointed by (cabinet) on the recommendation of the minister."

Now, I admit, I may be reaching a bit here. Still, this seems like a significant change from the previous language, which limited the membership of the board to eight public members appointed by cabinet on the recommendation of the minister. Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt now has the ability to appoint as many board members as he needs if that's what it takes to cut the Gordian Knot in negotiations. (Those of you who don't know what a Gordian Knot is may click here.)

Just by possessing this new power, Schmidt can put meaningful pressure on the administration to come to its senses and settle with its faculty without requiring the province to put the university in trusteeship under the Post-Secondary Learning Act.

That kind of pressure might infuriate the administration by upsetting its bargaining applecart. But so what, if the employer's strategy almost guarantees serious collateral damage to the university, its students and the government?

Somehow forcing Athabasca University's administrators to reach a contract their faculty can live with would serve the public interest and government's political interest at the same time. From the perspective of cabinet, what's not to like about that?

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo: daryl_mitchell/Flickr

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