University unions battle over membership

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Alberta Labour Relations Board dismisses faculty association complaints

The Alberta Labour Relations Board dismissed complaints by the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) regarding negotiations with out-of-province tutors (OOPTs) in a July 5 ruling.

AUFA alleged both Athabasca University (AU) and the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3911 engaged in various unfair labour practices under the Labour Relations Code and the Public Service Employee Relations Act (PSERA). The complaints stemmed from the university recognizing CUPE as the bargaining agent for OOPTs, but were summarily dismissed in the board’s ruling.

AUFA president Jolene Armstrong said the union was initially disappointed in the ruling.

“We felt we had fairly compelling reasons for making the complaint and obviously our interest in trying to represent out-of-province tutors,” Armstrong said in an interview.

The ruling states AUFA claimed the AU had breached the labour code and PSERA by collectively bargaining and wrongfully selecting CUPE as the bargaining agent for the unrepresented OOPTs. To AUFA, this represented a denial of the tutors right to select the trade union of their choice and a failure to acknowledge the majority of tutors preferred AUFA.

AUFA also asserted CUPE supported the university’s action and bargained terms for OOPTs without their knowledge of support, constituting a violation of the OOPTs rights to decide their own bargaining agent.

However, the ruling focuses on AUFA’s filings under the Labour Relations Code on PSERA. AUFA’s complaints against CUPE discussed labour code clauses against unions bargaining with employees under another trade union.

The ruling notes AUFA represents academic staff members and the ruling notes that OOPTs had not been designated as academic staff members by AU. The ruling adds AUFA effectively did not have representational bargaining rights for OOPTs, with the university coming to recognize CUPE as the tutors bargaining agent.

“We agree with the argument of CUPE that these provisions essentially amount to an employer right to not have to bargain with a union that lacks representational rights. As is apparent from the pleadings, CUPE has certified representational rights and was bargaining in the normal course with the University for the employees it represents when a proposal was made to include the OOPTs into the collective agreement,” the ruling said.

Subsequently, OOPTs were given an opportunity to vote and ratify their inclusion in CUPE’s agreement, according to the ruling. Armstrong said the agreement was ratified by OOPTs.

“The really positive outcome was a group of workers how were previously unorganized now have union membership and we feel that was a result of our efforts,” Armstrong said in an interview.

The rulings similarly dismissed AUFA’s complaints against AU, noting there was nothing in pleadings to suggest AU directly interfered with AUFA’s work as a union or was improperly negotiating over OOPTs. The ruling also said AU’s recognition of CUPE as the OOPT bargaining agent came about from the normal bargaining process.

“CUPE has historically sought to represent the OOPTs in previous rounds of bargaining; and CUPE made concessions in this round of bargaining to reach a deal. While we find such circumstances sufficient on their own to support summary dismissal of this allegation, we further note it is uncontested the University’s willingness to recognize CUPE as the bargaining agent of the OOPTs is subject to CUPE demonstrating it has the requisite support of the OOPTs,” the ruling states.

Concern over designation

In a communication with AUFA members dated July 3, Armstrong said AU had refused to designate OOPTs as academic staff April 18. AUFA subsequently filed a request for the Alberta Labour Relations Board to overrule the decision.

But the communication notes CUPE and AU had subsequently signed a voluntarily recognition of CUPE as the OOPT bargaining agent.

Armstrong said the hearing was a learning experience for AUFA. She notes although Bill 7: An Act to Enhance Post-secondary Academic Bargaining  gave post-secondary school unions the right to strike, it also maintained the ability for employees to designate academy staff. Armstrong said this amounts to a restriction on freedom of association, as OOPTs were not able to freely choose their union without university designation.

“What we’re really turning our attention on now at this point is on the issue of designation itself, the constitutionality of the right of an employer to still have the ability to designate. It really means we don’t have the right to association,” Armstrong said.

The designation issue may not be over yet, as Armstrong said labour relations hearings on designation between AUFA and AU are scheduled for Sept. 17 and Sept. 28.

AU, CUPE response

In an emailed statement from Athabasca University communications and community relations Angie Zander, the university said it did not have anything to add with respect to the ruling.

Zander further said the university believes it has reached a good collective bargaining agreement with CUPE

“The University believes that the deal reached through the hard-work and diligence of the bargaining committees is good for the members of CUPE, the University as a whole, and most importantly, our students,” the statement said.

CUPE 3911 did not respond to a quest for comment before publish time.

CUPE 3911 addressed the OOPT matter through a blog on its website. A June 21 blog post by CUPE 3911 co-chair Dougal MacDonald addressing AUFA’s complaint said CUPE has been attempting to have OOPTs in its bargaining arrangement since 2006, but was blocked by PSERA until recently.

“While AUFA has openly admitted on several occasions that the OOPs do exactly the same jobs as our equivalent in-province members and logically belong in CUPE 3911, AUFA still wanted to organize the OOPs simply in order to increase its memberships,” McDonald said in the post, in which he also referred to AUFA as a “so-called labour ally.”

Armstrong said the agreement CUPE made with AU on OOPTs caught her off guard, but AUFA and CUPE have generally had a good working relationship. She added there need not necessarily be friction over this matter.

“In the long run, I’m really happy a group of workers is organized,” Armstrong said. “My only regret was there wasn’t more conversation. That AUFA wasn’t brought into the loop when the employer and CUPE decided to work out this agreement.”

Negotiations continue

AU and AUFA are still negotiating over their own collective bargaining agreement (CBA), with the latest round of negotiations being held Aug. 1 and Aug. 2.

AUFA filed a complaint to the Alberta Labour Relations Board April 11 alleging AU had engaged in unfair labour practices with respect to negotiations over their own CBA.

A hearing for that is scheduled for January 2019, but Armstrong said the two sides might be able to work something out to make the hearing unnecessary.

“We’re really working hard to resolve those issues so we can withdraw that complaint. That would be our best case scenario,” Armstrong said.

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Joseph Quigley