Thursday, June 15, 2017

Faculty association wins again. What up with that?

Earlier today, Athabasca Faculty Association members got word that we’d won our salary arbitration for bargaining that began in February of 2016. This means salaries will increase 2% per year retroactively to July 1, 2016 in order to keep pace with inflation (this is pretty consistent with other settlements).

Arbitration is decided largely by looking at settlements obtained at comparable institutions (because this provides a good guide to what would have been achieved through negotiation or a work stoppage). This is the third win in a row for the faculty association at arbitration. According to the arbitrator:
[108] Having examined the components of the University’s final offer individually, the totality of its offer is also not in line with any of the comparables at other Alberta universities and colleges.
Ouch. That the employer keeps advancing unrealistic offers at arbitration that propose big rollbacks and lead to impasse warrants some scrutiny. In the words of SNL’s DeAndre, what up with that?

Well, it could be that the employer is just bad at collective bargaining and unknowingly chooses to advance unrealistic offers. There is some truth to this—they have repeatedly failed to make a timely opening offer in bargaining despite hiring expensive lawyers to bargain for them.

More likely, though, the university is intentionally making low-ball offers, hoping to trigger impasse, and then get lucky at arbitration. If they win, then labour costs rise more slowly. If they lose, they can at least say they tried to cut salaries, blaming the arbitrator and the greedy employees.

This tight-fisted approach is also consistent with the “death spiral” narrative the institution has been spinning to its staff for the last five years. Basically, the institution pleads poverty, threatens layoffs or closure, and hopes terrified employees take wage freezes or cuts. The arbitrator notes an important difficulty with this narrative:
[102] …Its history of projecting successive deficits is undercut by the reality of actual surpluses at the end of its financial years.
Basically the university always projects deficits that (magically) disappear. I’ll have more to say about the effects of the university crying wolf and the death-spiral narrative on Tuesday.

The interesting bargaining question is how will the university behave next spring when (1) the institution finally has an obligation to bargain in good faith under the Labour Relations Code and (2) bargaining impasse is (for the first time) resolved by strike-lockout?

The faculty association has already established a strike fund and commenced planning for a work stoppage. The university has not. (When I bring strike-lockout up with admin types, they mostly look confused and slightly panicked.)

If the university’s plan is to once again not engage in meaningful bargaining, it will find itself in front of the Labour Board (and in the press). And, if it drives bargaining impasse, it may well find itself weathering a strike. Such a strike will (I promise) be profoundly damaging to the university’s already tattered reputation.

Perhaps, this is an opportunity for the university to strike (cough, cough) a new tone in bargaining. And perhaps it is time to clean out the staff and contractors who have been responsible for the current antagonistic approach to bargaining?

-- Bob Barnetson

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