On Sept 8 2021, ULFA’s team met again with the Board’s team to establish an Essential Services Agreement (ESA).
Normally this is a cooperative venture since both sides have similar interests in reducing public harm from job actions. In the previous meeting the Board presented a proposal that did not contain any of ULFA’s suggestions to improve health and safety of the larger community, and, in fact removed provisions that had been agreed to mutually in our last ESA (2019).
In particular, the Board’s proposal did not identify supervisors of graduate counselling practicums as essential, even though the Board had agreed to include them in our previous ESA and the same language was being proposed. This represents an important departure and ULFA committed to working to retain this group in our new ESA, dropping all new elements included in our opening proposal.
Despite ULFA’s repeated emphasis on the importance of protecting clients and others from potential harm from an interruption of psychotherapy due to job action by clinical practicum supervision, the Board firmly rejected the idea. They were not convinced that there was potential harm and, even if there was, they asserted that they would not agree because inclusion of this group of workers would expose the Board to liability in the case of harm created by withdrawal of services provided by faculty who supervise counselling practicums. As a result, ULFA’s team indicated that it would agree to the Board’s April 7 proposal and would seek alternative ways of ensuring continued respect for the health and safety of counselling clients in the event of job action. Avoiding liability is not a sufficient reason for failing to declare essential workers essential, in our opinion, since ultimately ESAs are about ensuring the health and safety of our community.
Our agreement with the Board’s proposal generated a very surprising response. Having listened to our presentation and having made no indication that the text they had given us five months ago did not represent their actual position, the Board indicated at the end of the September 8th meeting that they no longer agreed with their own proposal. In particular, they no longer were happy with one article in their proposal that specified payment for essential services to academic staff. They were concerned that ULFA might increase the mill rate in the case of job action, thereby reducing the incentive for academic staff to perform essential duties and wanted time to find ESA language that would block ULFA from changing the mill rate in that way.
This is problematic for several reasons, including the fact that ESA orders are non-negotiable: essential workers must carry out the specified duties under an ESA as a condition of employment. It is also the case that internal union matters are not an appropriate subject for negotiations in an ESA, which is primarily a technical document designed to protect the health and safety of Albertans.
After a brief discussion, the meeting ended with ULFA indicating that it would sign the Board’s proposal. The Board responded by claiming that there was no proposal on the table.
Immediately after the September 8 meeting, ULFA signed the Board’s April 7 proposal and it was received by the Board’s ESA lead negotiator. The Board then indicated they would not accept ULFA’s agreement with the Board’s own language; it also refused to agree to the appointment of an “umpire” (a special form of mediator for ESA negotiations) at this stage.
By failing to accept its own language or agree to the appointment of an umpire, the Board is preventing the sides from reaching agreement on this essential document and preventing us from accessing tools such as formal mediation that can be used to resolve disputes at the main contract negotiations. ULFA Members have been fifteen months without a contract and access to these tools is becoming increasingly important.
ULFA holds that the Board’s position represents bargaining in bad faith and has filed a brief containing a detailed complaint to the Alberta Labour Relations Board. We are seeking either confirmation of the Board’s language to which we agreed as a valid ESA or for the appointment of an umpire to assist in reaching an agreement.