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Late-night, last-ditch bargaining leads to tentative agreement

AU and AUFA looking over mediator's' proposal
It was a lot of back and forth with AUFA having a vote to consider holding a strike and AU filing to have permission to lock staff out, but after some eleventh hour bargaining, a tentative agreement has been reached.

ATHABASCA — It has been pretty touch-and-go from the start of the bargaining process between the local university and its unionized staff. 

Athabasca University (AU) and Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) have been trying to negotiate a new contract for over 560 days and just as things were looking like there might be a strike or lockout, a tentative agreement has now been reached. 

“After another marathon day of mediator-assisted bargaining, AU and AUFA have reached a tentative agreement,” Jason Foster said in an April 8 blog post on the union’s website. “Employer concessions contained in this new agreement no doubt reflect AUFA members’ strong rejection Monday of AU’s last ‘final’ offer. As a result, the AUFA bargaining team is recommending members vote to ratify this agreement.” 

Foster, who chairs the bargaining team, is one of five people chosen by AUFA to represent all members at the table. 

The deal sees a 3.35 per cent cost of living allowance (COLA) increase over the life of the contract, anyone who has not received the full $2,000 home office start-up allowance will get it and home-based staff with six years' experience and received a $2,000 signing bonus will receive $800. 

“All AUFA members will receive an increase to their monthly allowance for Internet and other office-related expenses from what it had been (roughly $61 per month for academics and roughly $50 per month for professionals) to $35 biweekly.” 

There were also improvements to language around academic promotion and tenure, compassionate care leave, and occupational health and safety as well AU withdrawing its concession demands. 

“The main changes in the tentative agreement relate to Research and Study Leave (RSL) benefits for Professional members,” Foster wrote. 

No RSL will be accrued going forward but approved RSL leaves will be honoured and professionals will now earn 30 days of professional development leave, up from 21. 

“For clarity: in return for giving up RSL leave going forward, professionals will earn an additional nine days of PD per year and will be able to accrue up to 21 days per year to a maximum of 6 months,” Foster said. “Current RSL accruals above six months will be retained, and others converted with a formula equivalent to receiving 100 per cent pay for RSL.” 

In an April 10 interview, Foster said the bargaining team felt the threat of AUFA members going on strike may have moved the employer to agree to some things they had refused to consider earlier.

“The things that we were finally able to settle on Thursday night, we proposed very similar things earlier in the process and got flat noes, so our team believes that the rejected report and then the strong strike mandate was able to get the employer to move,” he said. 

RSL was something AUFA was not willing to give up, as a research university it is important for professionals to have the ability to enhance their knowledge even if not every professional used the leave. 

“We know it's only a relatively small number of our professionals that ever took the full year and so that's why we mostly felt it was a priority to make sure that there was some kind of extended leave provision available to them,” said Foster. 

He added in talking to colleagues at other post-secondary institutions, they felt there was an undisclosed mandate from the government to make changes during bargaining. 

“As someone who has studied labour relations, seeing this level of detail of involvement, it really is quite rare,” he said. “It completely undermines the ability to be able to bargain at the table with the university. It just shifted the power dynamics as such, just made it very difficult for us to be able to make the kind of gains we might have been able to make.” 

The members vote April 12 to accept or reject the proposal. 

“We would have liked a better deal, but we feel this is the best deal that we can recommend to the members under the circumstances,” said AUFA president David Powell in an April 8 interview. “If the members vote no, they will be voting to strike and then that strike would be targeting the government.” 

Foster chose not to guess how members would vote though even if the recommendation from the committee is to accept the offer. 

“We very much respect this is the members decision and their collective agreement,” he said. “So, we want to give them the space to make their own decisions individually and then therefore collectively.” 

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