Bargaining teams for the University of Lethbridge Faculty Association (ULFA) and the Board of Governors of the University of Lethbridge held a preliminary meeting on Friday, November 10.

The meeting was requested by ULFA to discuss changes to the bargaining process required by Bill 7, the provincial law that moved bargaining in the post-secondary sector into the provincial Labour Relations Code.

Getting to know each other while discussing some important topics

This was a preliminary meeting, intended to discover common areas of concern and begin planning for our first round of bargaining under the new rules. The topics covered included:

These all represent important changes to the collective bargaining process or the relationship of ULFA to the Board. They are discussed in more detail at the end of this post.

In addition to an opportunity to discuss some important preliminary issues with the Board, the ULFA team also saw this meeting as something of a Hudson’s Bay Start–a chance for us to try out the new team in a low stakes environment: we had a chance to prepare for a meeting, practice our in-room procedures and protocol, and get to know the other side. This was particularly important because both negotiating teams have new internal and external members, including, for the first time, external labour relations consultants.

A fruitful meeting

The meeting was very productive. The two sides turned out to have many similar questions and concerns and were able to exchange some useful ideas based on their preliminary research. They also agreed to meet at least once more before the Christmas break in order to compare notes on several of these topics including the ESA, bargaining processes and protocols, timelines, and the legislatively superseded terms and conditions.

We were also very pleased with the meeting as an opportunity to get some early experience with this year’s teams. The ULFA side worked well together and we found the Board side to be very constructive and approachable.

The Board was represented by Legal Counsel and Privacy Officer Scott Harling, Dean Ed Jurkowski, University Librarian Chris Nicol, Associate Vice President Finance, Carrie Takeyasu, and Labour and Employment Consultant Geoff Tierney, principal of Geoff Tierney Law.

ULFA was represented by Executive Director Annabree Fairweather, Faculty Members Paul Hayes and Daniel Paul O’Donnell, and Human Resources Consultant Terry Sway.

Your bargaining team welcomes questions on any aspect the negotiating process. Please contact the association or any member of the team!

Why these were important topics…

As mentioned above, this meeting was intended to discuss some important changes that have taken place in the bargaining process as a result of the introduction of Bill 7 and the movement of labour relations in the Post Secondary Sector into the Labour Relations Code. The following is a basic primer on the issues involved and why they are important.

Essential Services Agreement

Essential Services Agreements are a new feature of the Alberta Labour Relations Code (see Division 15.1 of the Code), introduced by the province in response to the Supreme Court’s 2015 Saskatchewan Federation of Labour vs. Saskatchewan recognising strike/lockout as a fundamental right (here is a pre-Bill 7 discussion of ESA legislation as it applies to emergency services and similar unions; the rules and issues in the Post Secondary sector as a little different). The legislation requires public sector unions and management to negotiate and register an ESA with the Commissioner before requesting mediation or commencing job action.

Essential Services are services carried out by union members the “interruption of which would endanger the life, personal safety or health of the public” or “are necessary to the maintenance and administration of the rule of law or public security.” They do not include services that can be carried out by non-union members (e.g. management), or that do not affect human health or safety, or would merely result in inconvenience.

Because this is a new requirement, there are few precedents we can rely on as models for what will be our first agreement. During our meeting, the two sides discussed their current research on the matter and compared notes on potential tasks and positions to be considered for inclusion.

Bargaining Processes and Protocols

Before the passage of Bill 7, collective bargaining in the past-secondary sector was governed by the Post Secondary Learning act, which largely deferred to local agreements between universities and their faculty associations. This meant, among other things, that each university had its own rules determining when negotiations must begin, the processes by which negotiations were to proceed, and the timelines that governed these negotiations.

Under the Labour Relations Code, many of these processes are now legally mandated. Most of our practices remain congruent with these new mandates and the Board and ULFA used this meeting as an opportunity to confirm our common understanding.

Timelines

One place where the Labour Relations Code differs greatly from our previous practice has to do with timelines. In our current agreement, our negotiating timeline can be described as taking place in a series of “windows”: the two sides must give notice of their willingness to bargain some time within a fixed term in the Fall Term (September 15-December 15); negotiations themselves must take place within a fixed term in the Spring Semester (February 15-April 15; both terms are defined in Article 3 and/or Schedule C of the Handbook).

Under the Labour Relations Code, timelines are established by counting backwards (and, in the event of impasse, forwards) from the end-date of the contract. Letters indicating a desire to negotiate must be issued between 120 and 60 days before the end of the contract. Negotiations must then begin within 30 days of this notice. In the case of the “Faculty Handbook,” which expires on June 30, 2018, this means the initial notice must be provided between the beginning of March and the beginning of May, 2018. The “Sessional Lecturers’ Handbook” has an expiry date of April 30th, creating a notification window extending from the beginning of January through the beginning of March.

Bargaining Timelines

The two sides discussed the pros and cons of various broad dates for starting the negotiating process under the new rules without reaching a final conclusion or agreement.

“Tables”

Traditionally under our Handbook, ULFA and the Board have negotiated Terms and Conditions and Economic Benefits separately (by “Terms and Conditions” we mean the material in the Handbook except for Schedules A and B; Schedules A and B contain our core financial agreement and are known as “economic benefits”). In negotiating terminology, these separate negotiations are known as “tables.” Because we also negotiated Terms and Conditions and Economic Benefits for Sessional Instructors separately as well, this means that our past practice has been to hold parallel negotiations at as many as four “tables.”

We did this because, under the old system, negotiations concerning Terms and Conditions and negotiations concerning Economic Benefits were fairly distinct processes. They had different beginning processes (cf Article 3 vs. Schedule C) and requirements and they involved different methods of resolution in the case of impasse. If an impasse was reached in Terms and Conditions negotiations, for example, then the status quo prevailed–i.e. a proposal that was not accepted by both sides was simply abandoned and the existing language of the Handbook remained in force. In the case of economic benefits, on the other hand, impasse was resolved through a process in which each side prepared a “final offer” for an arbitrator’s decision.

Under the Labour Relations Code, all aspects of a collective agreement begin with the same notification process, are associated with the same Essential Services Agreement, and are subject to the same resolution mechanism in the case of impasse (i.e. mediation and, if that fails, ultimately lockout/strike). This means that it makes little sense to negotiate Terms and Conditions separately from Economic Benefits, since an impasse in one results in the entire agreement being presented to a mediator and, if mediation fails, the entire agreement being subject to potential job action. When ratification occurs, similarly, it is for the whole agreement.

The two sides discussed this change in process and agreed that combining negotiations for economic benefits and terms and conditions at a single “table” made the most sense under the code.

Communications protocols

Communication during collective bargaining is an important issue.

On the one hand, it is important, especially on the union side, that membership are aware of how negotiations are progressing and the major issues under discussion. The conditions under negotiation affect every member of the bargaining unit and, in the end, members will be asked to accept or reject the provisions of any agreement that is reached. In the unlikely event that negotiations result in an impasse, members may ultimately either face employer-instituted job action (e.g. a lockout or similar action) or be asked to decide whether they want to engage in employee-instituted action (e.g. a strike or similar action). All of these decisions require a good knowledge of the issues involved and the reasons why the agreement (or impasse) in question has been reached.

But while it is important that the membership be informed about the issues at stake in and the progress of negotiations, it is also important that efforts to keep members informed do not actually harm the negotiations as they progress.

During negotiations, both sides frequently make proposals “without prejudice”–that is to say, for which the proposer reserves the right to modify in response to counter proposals and other exigencies of negotiation.

When negotiations are progressing constructively, it is important to protect the provisional nature of proposals made “without prejudice.” If too much detail is reported, one or the other side may feel trapped by their preliminary position or start formulating proposals for public relations purposes rather than as a way of reaching agreement. This can hurt the progress of negotiations and result in a poorer agreement or damaged labour relations.

But it is also counter-productive to wait until an agreement or impasse is reached before members are informed about the issues at stake. Solidarity requires that union members understand what is going on, how the negotiations are progressing, and what is at stake in the issues under discussion.

The two sides agreed in this meeting on the importance of achieving this balance and will take steps to ensure that public communication on both sides is conducted in a constructive manner. We may discuss this further during the opening stages of our negotiations.

Superseded terms and conditions

The last topic of discussion involved the general question of terms and conditions from our current Handbook that have been replaced or rendered moot by the movement of labour relations into the Labour Relations Code. In addition to the new timelines and processes for negotiation discussed above, the Code also governs other aspects of the relationship between the Board and Association in ways that may contradict or replace current Handbook language. The two sides agreed to investigate this question further and meet again in December to compare notes.