Bargaining Update for January 18 meeting: Parties exchange complete packages that would involve significant changes

Note: An ULFA Bargaining Town Hall is scheduled for February 2nd, 2021 at 11am. Please check your email for Zoom details.

Negotiating teams from the University of Lethbridge Faculty Association (ULFA) and the Board of Governors met on Monday January 18 for the first major exchange of proposals to renegotiate the 2018-2020 Collective Agreement.

This was the teams’ fifth meeting since ULFA first served Its Notice to Bargain in April 2020 and the most recent since October 12, when negotiations broke down over the Board’s refusal to discuss monetary issues. 

As a resolution of this dispute, the two sides agreed in late November to a January exchange of “complete packages” (i.e. an exchange of complete initial offers by both sides on all items proposed for change in the Collective Agreement, including financial items and changes to terms and conditions). Prior to January 18, the two sides had exchanged no language except an ULFA proposal to remove binary-gendered pronouns throughout the collective agreement.

In reading the discussion that follows, it is important to realize that we are discussing Opening Proposals only — that is to say we are discussing proposals presented by the two sides so that negotiating can begin. By definition, such Opening Proposals are one-sided: they reflect what those making them consider to be an ideal outcome for their side. 

Negotiations are the process by which these two distinct visions of the Collective Agreement are reconciled and a common position identified. The Board is no more likely to receive its opening position than ULFA is likely to receive ours. 

It is important also to emphasize that both Parties genuinely believe that their proposals will be in the best interests of the University. Both sides are interested in continuing to build the University of Lethbridge as a high-quality institution that attracts and retains excellent staff members. It is neither unexpected nor particularly disappointing that the Board envisions these goals being achievable through financial restraint and increased power in the hands of administrators. It is equally unsurprising that ULFA has a very different view. Ideally, the process of negotiation will enable us to find common ground and compromises. 

That being said, however, several of the proposals made by the Board have far-reaching implications and a potential, we believe, to significantly harm the work and academic life on campus. Members must be aware of the stakes we are facing in this round of negotiations.

The ULFA proposal

The ULFA team’s proposal reflected its public mandate and involved a two-year agreement, focused on incremental changes to the collective agreement intended to 

  • Address pay and benefit inequities, both within the institution and relative to our comparator institutions; this includes
    • A cost of living increase of 2% in each year
    • A salary adjustment of 4% in each year to bring salaries closer to a competitive level relative to comparators
    • Corresponding increases to salary floors, ceilings, and increments
    • Improvements to benefits including dental care, vision care, and mental health
    • Establishment of a joint committee to manage benefits, to ensure that we are getting the best possible value and to provide us with some control over health benefits that are not listed in the Collective Agreement
  • Improve equity and equity awareness in relation to 
    • Calculation of merit and career progress for Members on reduced load
    • The payment of benefits for children when both parents are Members
    • Provisions for leaves of absence
    • Assignment of workload
    • Search and STP procedures
    • Performance evaluation, particularly for Indigenous Members
    • Salaries paid to Equity Seeking Groups
  • Restore professional funds for term members and create new funds for professional expenses, on a per-course basis for Sessionals;
  • Restore and improve collective governance, and reinforce the ability of the union to work effectively on behalf of members; 
  • Improve the Intellectual Property language, making it less onerous for members who wish to commercialize Intellectual Property;
  • Reorganize the collective agreement to make it easier to use by members and front-line managers; and 
  • Add service as an explicit criterion for promotion.

Beyond these largely incremental changes, ULFA proposed two changes that are more fundamental to current practice:

  • Negotiate promotion to associate professor as an automatic consequence of the award of tenure, with an associated salary increase; and 
  • Create a category of teaching professoriate, with assistant, associate, and full teaching professor ranks, which is available only through promotion to instructors with terminal degrees who show leadership in teaching and teaching research. 

The Board Proposal

The Board, for its part, is proposing a four year agreement that would include 

  • significant cuts to pay, including 
    • -4% Across the Board (ATB) in Year 1 of the agreement; 
    • -34% to Career Progress on an annual basis (with a corresponding increase to the merit pools); and 
    • a new “all-or-nothing” merit process that is likely to greatly reduce the annual increases most Members receive; 
  • weakening the definition of a “financial emergency” so it could apply to situations like the current one; and
  • a major revision of academic and employment practices and processes, including 
    • the elimination of Academic Freedom in the traditional sense, 
    • preventing members from accessing Union accompaniment in relation to most managerial processes, 
    • changes to disciplinary processes, including the introduction of suspension with pay as a non-disciplinary measure, 
    • reducing the time limit by which a grievance must be filed by a factor of three, and 
    • removing most protections and benefits from members with Term appointments.

Significant Cuts to Pay

The Board proposes a four year agreement with the following cuts to compensation:

  • -4% Across the Board (ATB) in Year 1 of the agreement and no ATB increases in years two through four;
  • A permanent -34% cut to Career Progress Increments for Faculty/Professional Librarians, from the current $2,600/annum to $1,700/annum.
  • A completely new “all or nothing” merit system that would 
    • Reduce the available performance scores to 0, 1, or 2 (from the current 0, 0.5, 1.0, 1.25, 1.50, 1.75, and 2.0);
    • Increase the merit funding available;
    • Require a score of 2.0 in at least one category for the award of merit;
    • Likely harm efforts to promote EDI by greatly increasing the share of pay increases captured by members of societally privileged demographics while reducing that received by women and members of Equity Seeking Groups, generally creating a pay scale that is impacted far more significantly by perceived “merit” than by career progress.
  • A new (but separate and lower-value) Career Progress/Merit system for Instructors/Academic Assistants based on the Faculty/Professional Librarian model

These cuts to compensation are inconsistent with ULFA’s mandate to address the erosion in pay and benefits, particularly as these pertain to cost of living and our comparator institutions. Provincially mandated 0% ATB across the sector in the last round of negotiations cut faculty income by at least 3.7% and ULFA members have also lost relative to their colleagues at peer institutions. Uniquely among the faculty of the province’s Comprehensive Academic and Research Universities (CARUs), U of L faculty took a 1% wage rollback to assist the University during the last Conservative government budget cutbacks in 2013. The result is that the U of L consistently underperforms its main comparators in terms of faculty compensation at all ranks.

Pay for Academic Staff is already lower at the University of Lethbridge than all of our comparator institutions and the combination of a 4% ATB cut and a 34% cut to annual Career Progress promises to make this situation significantly worse. 

The all-or-nothing merit system

Equally concerning, however, is the proposal to change to an “all-or-nothing” merit system, which may result in a significant amplification of structural pay-equity issues. 

Under the current system, Faculty Members are assessed on three criteria (Teaching, Service, and Research) using a 7 point scale in each (0, 0.5, 1.0, 1.25, 1.5, 1.75, 2.0). A weighted average of the three criteria is calculated and Members are awarded one merit point (to a maximum of five) for each 0.1 their overall score is at or above the average for the faculty. This means that (relatively small) amounts of merit are distributed relatively widely, with some members receiving the value of one merit point, others two, three, or more. The system for Professional Librarians is similar, but with different criteria, and the system for Instructors involves a single overall score on the same scale.

The Board’s proposed system reduces the intervals to three (0, 1.0, and 2.0), uses weighting only to compare outcomes relative to the time involved, and awards a single merit point for each score of 2.0 a member receives in any criterion. Where the current system recognises gradations of meritorious performance, under the Board’s proposed new system members’ will either receive merit or they will not. Those whose performance in any one criterion is judged to be outstanding (2.0) will receive “full merit” for that criterion; those whose performance is anything less than 2.0 will receive no merit under that criterion. 

Such “all or nothing” merit systems often have a regressive effect on pay equity. While it is possible that all or most members evaluated under this system will have their scores increased to 2.0 in one or more criteria, the more likely outcome is that a few members will continue to receive the highest score while all other members — including those who under the current system receive partial merit awards — will see their performance scores reduced to 1.0. For Instructors, there will only be three possible levels of pay increments: full merit, half of that, or nothing. This will amplify structural inequities that commonly cause women and members of Equity-Seeking Groups to lose ground in terms of pay and promotion when compared to men and members of other intersectionally privileged groups.

In the specific case of the Board proposal, however, the potential for this process to amplify rather than reduce structural inequity for Faculty Members and Professional Librarians is increased by the proposed 34% reduction in annual Career Progress Increments. In their opening offer, the Board proposes transferring the entire value of this Career Progress cut to the Merit pool, converting, in effect, one third of Career Progress into a zero-sum, at-risk pay scheme in which members of structurally privileged groups will not only be eligible to capture a larger share of the merit pool, but also receive merit that is being subsidised by lower Career Progress payments to everybody else.

The Board proposal also eliminates Career Progress for anyone who scores less than 1.0 in any category. The existing scheme allows Members to earn half of a Career Progress Increment, or even a full increment if their weighted performance score remains at 1.0 or higher.

Major Revision of Academic and Employment Practices

In addition to seeking reductions in compensation, the Board also proposes a significant revision of Academic and Employment processes including:

  • Eliminating Academic Freedom in the traditional sense, by making it subject to “the responsibility of the Board to meet its academic mission and mandate”;
  • Greatly reducing the ability of the Union to represent its members in matters “unrelated to corrective or disciplinary action”;
  • Additional assertion of Board ownership over intellectual property;
  • Reducing Inactive Members dues by 75%;
  • Changing Grievance procedures, reducing the time limit by which a grievance must be filed by a factor of three while allowing management to continue grieved behavior until resolution is reached; 
  • Reducing the amount of information provided to the Union about Members’ status;
  • Asserting management rights, including allowing members to be suspended with pay as a non-disciplinary measure;
  • Requiring service to Department, Faculty, and University committees for Probationary, Continuing and Tenured members;
  • Weakening the professional expectations for appointment as a Librarian by converting the qualifications for appointment as Librarian II to same as those for the award of tenure;
  • Moving all Term appointments to a new “Limited Term Appointment” category who are treated like Sessional Lecturers for almost all purposes, with the only distinction being that Limited Term Members may have duties other than teaching.

Of these, perhaps the most significant and disruptive proposals involve the changes to academic freedom and the reduction in the ability of the Faculty Association to represent members in their interaction with management.

Elimination of Traditional Academic Freedom

In their opening proposal, the Board proposes ending traditional academic freedom by adding a new article to the Collective Agreement, limiting academic freedom by “the responsibility of the Board to meet its academic mission and mandate… including the Board’s responsibility to make organizational arrangements for the conduct of academic activities, according to institutional needs.”

The origins of this proposal may lie in a particularly expansive interpretation of a clause in the Association of Universities and Colleges Canada (now Universities Canada) controversial 2011 statement on Academic Freedom:

[a]cademic freedom is constrained by the professional standards of the relevant discipline and the responsibility of the institution to organize its academic mission.

The important thing in the AUCC/University’s Canada statement, however, is the idea that Academic Freedom is constrained by both professional standards and the responsibility of the institution to organize its academic mission — a responsibility that AUCC’s then President and Chair  further defined in a subsequent letter to CAUT as involving low-level managerial functions: “For example, a university’s responsibility to schedule classes and exams and prepare the academic calendar.” 

Indeed, as the statement argues, even in carrying out these low-level functions,

[i]t is a major responsibility of university governing bodies and senior officers to protect and promote academic freedom. This includes ensuring that funding and other partnerships do not interfere with autonomy in deciding what is studied and how.

In addition to ethical issues of potentially subordinating the academic freedom of research and teaching to managerial preference, the Board’s position would place the University of Lethbridge far outside the norm in Canada for research-intensive institutions.

Reducing Union Protections

A second significant revision of current academic and employment practices involves reducing members’ ability to access the support and protection of their union during interactions with senior management.

Currently, Members have the right to be accompanied by another Member or Union staff “in all procedures specified in the Collective Agreement.” That means that they have the right to be (and commonly are) accompanied by a union staff member or a colleague in meetings with their deans or other members of the senior administration on any topic. The accompanying person can act as a witness, a source of advice, or a source of institutional memory. Until now this right has been seen as protecting both sides in such encounters: it means that Members understand their rights and Deans and other senior administrators have a witness to the degree that they have been carrying out their duties in congruence with the Collective Agreement. 

The Board’s proposal is to restrict this right solely to matters of discipline, promotion, and tenure. In particular, it proposes explicitly forbidding accompaniment during supervisory meetings and meetings involving the discussion of confidential information about other employees — presumably, for example, during meetings involving the assignment of duties, discussion of salary increases, or retirement packages.

Accompaniment does not provide members with additional rights or privileges over and above the Collective Agreement; it does provide members with the help and support they need to understand those rights and make sure they are respected when they meet with their employer. Removing this right is poor management practice and leaves Members at a considerable disadvantage when it comes to understanding their rights under the Collective Agreement and only encourages disagreement and misunderstandings.

Next steps

As mentioned above, the Board and ULFA proposals represented Opening Positions. While ULFA is disappointed by the perspective embodied in many of the Board’s proposals, the purpose of negotiations is to reach a mutually acceptable compromise. The two negotiating teams have committed to further discussions and, while it should be clear to everyone that the two sides are very far apart on many key issues, both have expressed a willingness to ensure that substantive negotiations continue. 

Progress may be slow. While the ULFA team had freed our schedules to allow for weekly negotiation meetings, the Board team indicated that they do not expect to be able to meet with ULFA more often than every other week at this point. The next negotiation session has been scheduled for January 28.

When positions are far apart, as they are here, negotiations tend to be tougher and take longer than when they are closer together. An important aspect of such negotiations is maintaining and demonstrating solidarity: Unions are better able to resist unreasonable demands from management the more they are able to demonstrate that their position is supported by their membership — through attendance at town halls; participation in events such as information pickets, publicity campaigns, and so on; and, should they become necessary, a willingness to vote for and participate in work-to-rule campaigns or Job Action.

To the degree that ULFA members believe that the Board’s Opening Position will bring harm to the university and fundamentally change the way we work, we must be prepared to stand together to insist on a just final agreement.

With hard work and support from our Membership we can expect to find a path forward in the end that is mutually beneficial and ensures the University remains an exciting and productive place to research and teach.