ATHABASCA — For almost 600 days the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) and Athabasca University (AU) have been in a deadlock at the bargaining table, but finally have a breakthrough.
The two groups entered formal mediation after they went 570 days without being able to agree on terms for a new contract and AUFA filed a complaint with the Alberta Labour Board claiming AU was bargaining in bad faith.
“Mediation means that the government appoints a mediator, who then has a job of getting us to get a deal,” said AUFA president David Powell March 2. “This is the last major step before a strike.”
One of AUFA’s concerns was the lack of a monetary offer and once AU presented one after mediation started the complaint was withdrawn.
“We just entered formal mediation for the first time on Monday (Feb. 28) and we just completed a half day today,” said Powell. "So, that's the current state of affairs. And we're now, I would say, in a state where the bargaining has begun in earnest.”
AU’s initial monetary offer was zero per cent over four years and now it is zero per cent for each of the first two years then, 1.25 per cent in the third year, and 1.5 per cent in the fourth year.
“So, this is a similar deal to what we saw at Mount Royal University when staff were on the verge of a strike and then found a deal within mediation,” he said.
Powell said some of the early offers to the nearly 450 members included what AUFA described as “draconian” measures.
“The point of negotiations is a deal, and it has to be a deal our members would vote for, and we anticipate that our members would not vote for a deal where it is a poor wage increase and then draconian cuts,” he said. “There has to be something in it for them.”
He added before mediation bargaining days were rare, now there are multiple days per month and if some progress is made it can stave off a strike.
“As it currently stands, unless the university can change their approach of bargaining and really go for a fair deal, there's almost certainly going to be a strike and we'll be the world's first online strike as far as I can tell,” said Powell. “I don't think anyone's ever done this before.”
For its part, AU is hopeful an agreement can be reached according to Kristine Williamson, AU’s vice president of university relations.
“AU has been engaged in negotiations with its Faculty Association since March 2021,” she said in a Mar. 4 e-mail. “While the parties have made some progress, many proposals remain outstanding. We look forward to continuing to work with the Faculty Association in mediation and expect to achieve a balanced agreement that benefits AU, Faculty Association members and our learners now and for the future.”
Powell said AUFA will know over the next couple of weeks if there will be anything of substance, and if not, they will call for an end to formal mediation which triggers a mandatory 14-day cooling off period before a strike vote can be called.
“We do not want to strike but we are prepared for one in order to get a fair deal if AU refuses to negotiate,” he said. “(However) we're happy that AU began negotiating thanks to formal mediation. There has been a change for the employer and we're happy to see it. We hope it will lead to a deal.“
In a March 9 blog post, AUFA said the mediation had failed and AU was making a mockery of the process, however Williamson responded to that allegation in a March 13 e-mail saying otherwise.
“I can confirm that at no point has AU’s bargaining team ever indicated that it had tabled its last proposal,” she said. “In fact, the parties met for further discussions with the assistance of a new mediator this past Friday (March 11).”
She added the parties agreed to meet this week and AU is looking forward to making additional progress.
“Both parties also agreed to a request made by the newly appointed mediator, to not publicly comment on what is discussed at mediation,” Williamson said. “As such, there is little additional information that I can provide at this time.”