Athabasca Collective Agreement Bargaining Reaches Impasse

The Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) announced on January 23 that bargaining had officially reached impasse.

What is impasse and why is it happening at Athabasca?

Impasse occurs when one or both sides conclude that no further progress in negotiations is possible at the bargaining table. You can read more about this in the case of AUFA here.

The threat of impasse at Athabasca University (AU) has been looming for several months (you can follow the progress of bargaining at AU here; Bob Barnetson’s Labour and Employment in Alberta Blog is also a useful source of current information). The norm in public settlements during this round of bargaining in Alberta has involved tradeoffs between “language”  and “money”: that is to say unions have generally been willing to accept lower wage increases in exchange for improvements in job conditions, job security, and other working conditions and benefits. While some large provincial unions have accepted “0s” on the monetary side in exchange for significant management concessions on language, it is important to realise that there is no formula. The City of Lethbridge, for example, recently settled with its employees for modest pay increases with “give and take” on language.

The administration at Athabasca University has been much more aggressive than the provincial norm in its approach in this round of bargaining by seeking significant concessions on both language and money. In common with many (but not all) public sector employers, they have been offering no across-the-board salary increase. But in contrast to most provincial public sector employers, they have also been seeking significant concessions on language, focussing particularly on achieving gains in “management rights” with regard to issues like sick leave, discipline, and so on.

In addition to being an outlier in its demands at the table, the Athabasca University administration has also been an outlier in its approach to the bargaining process. It has pursued a “hard bargaining” or highly positional approach which leaves little room for seeking creative compromise. While hard bargaining can be effective for single issue negotiations and when there is a large disparity in power between the two sides at a bargaining table (see for example, this study of EU financial negotiations), studies suggest that it is less effective when there are multiple issues on the table or when it causes parties to adopt entrenched positions. It is also less effective when the “hard” side is in vulnerable to job action by a well-prepared union, which may be the case across the Comprehensive Academic and Research Universities, including Athabasca, Alberta, Calgary, and the University of Lethbridge (for an interesting study of how a vulnerable party can engage in counter-productive hard-bargaining, see this study of Britain’s negotiating stance in Brexit negotiations). Regardless of its short-term effectiveness, hard bargaining also has a negative impact in the long term on future labour relations as it tends to create ill will.

What are the next steps?

The AUFA addressed the possibility of impasse in a December 4th blog. It has since called attention to some of the more unreasonable demands presented by the AU administration, such as language requiring employees to be seen by a Board-selected doctor as part of the basic sick leave process. This type of blanket approach to sick leave has been consistently rejected in arbitral jurisprudence, and represents a considerable and unnecessary invasion of employee privacy. In recent blogs, The AUFA work stoppage committee has begun preparing for job action–arranging supplies, preparing protocols, and making signs. The next steps now that an impasse has been declared involve:

  • finalising an Essential Services Agreement (required before the sides can engage in job action or enter into formal mediation);
  • beginning formal mediation;
  • conducting strike and/or lockout votes
  • beginning job action (lockout or strike)

During this process the two sides may also (and usually do) return to the table to seek ways of breaking the impasse. Indeed in the Canadian post-secondary sector, strike votes more often lead to negotiated settlements than they do to work stoppage. In 2018, for example, eight members of the CAUT defense fund held strike votes; all eight contracts were subsequently settled at the table without job action.

In such cases, a strike vote demonstrates that the union’s membership stands behind its negotiating team and is prepared to support it by job action if necessary. Especially when employers engage in hard bargaining as at AU, it can be necessary to demonstrate this support before the employer will engage in the kind of creative consensus-building negotiations that are required to reach a successful agreement. Of course unions should never bluff when it comes to job action. Members who vote for a strike must also be prepared to go on strike should a resolution prove impossible to find at the table.

ULFA supports AUFA’s members as they face these difficult decisions.