Alberta Politics
Athabasca University’s main building on a hill outside the town of Athabasca (Photo: Athabasca University).

Athabasca University and its faculty approach an impasse in bargaining; the province drops a hint of what might be next

Posted on December 18, 2018, 12:21 am
8 mins

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.

Athabasca University President Neil Fassina (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

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.

Alberta Minister of Advanced Education Marlin Schmidt (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

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. Dr. 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.

Athabasca University Faculty Association strike committee chair Bob Barnetson (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Writing on his personal blog, Dr. 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,” Dr. 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 Dr. 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, Mr. 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?

7 Comments to: Athabasca University and its faculty approach an impasse in bargaining; the province drops a hint of what might be next

  1. Bob

    December 18th, 2018

    What should be next is the abolition of this antiquated institution. A university in a small town? What a waste of money!

    Reply
    • Jerrymacgp

      December 19th, 2018

      To Bob: AU is a completely online university, with virtually no on-campus courses at all. It could be located anywhere in the world with a fast Internet connection, or on Mars if we ever put people there—although that might make live chats with your prof a bit stilted due to the time lag lol. Putting it in a big city would also be humongously expensive due to cost of land, etc.

      Full disclosure: I am a fairly recent Master’s grad of AU.

      Reply
      • Michael

        December 19th, 2018

        And clearly a biased individual.

        Reply
  2. Athabascan

    December 18th, 2018

    Athabasca University in trouble again. When will this institution finally be run by competent administrators?

    We lowly staff members and faculty are doing our best to deliver quality education. Alas, the president and his numerous VP’s seem to care more about filling their own pockets at everyone else’s expense.

    It’s clear to me after 20 years that it is near impossible to provide a quality education for our students. At this point I even wonder whether AU’s reputation can be damaged at all considering it’s been in the toilet for so long.

    Reply
  3. Ne Mo

    December 18th, 2018

    I don’t think putting on pressure is the reason for this regulation change. I think its purpose is to align the regulation with the changes made to PSLA 16(3)f in Bill 19.

    Reply
  4. Roger

    December 18th, 2018

    Since this is true “…membership of the board to eight public members appointed by cabinet…” then why can’t these appointments be revoked and new members appointed. As the employer, why can’t the Min of Education replace Dr. Fassina? Seems to me his position like the others is a political appointment at the pleasure of the Minister.

    Reply
  5. Farmer Dave

    December 19th, 2018

    The Athabasca University was placed in Athabasca by the Government of the day for political reason’s. No different then ALPac. The County of Athabasca was in real trouble financially back in the day. Thanks to Premier Klein and his buddy MP Mike Cardinal they approved these facilities not realizing that the county had no access to any HR, Finance or Computer resources (people) locally. ALPac as well as AU have since needed to moved that administration to Edmonton where they could obtain qualitied recourses.

    This is similar to Don Getty placing the Gaming Commission in Settler where he could win an election that he lost in Edmonton (then Gaming needed to be moved back to Edmonton). Why can’t these thick headed Conservatives place something to do with Agriculture or Energy in these districts, maybe that is why Alberta is in a problem state now.

    Reply

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