The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees recently announced that workers at the University of Lethbridge ratified a new contract earlier this month.
AUPE represents over 550 workers at the university, basically everyone except for teaching staff, students workers, and administrative professional officers (such as managers and administrative staff).
The previous contract for these workers expired at the end of June in 2020, and their bargaining team had been fighting for over 2.5 years for this new contract.
Coming into negotiations, the university had initially proposed a 4% wage rollback effective 1 July 2020, followed by 3 years of wage freezes.
The previous contract, ratified during the NDP administration, had come with wage freezes in 2017 and 2018, and a wage reopener in 2019. That wage reopener began with the university proposing a 2% wage cut, but an arbitrator awarded workers a 1% increase.
So, just so we’re clear, the U of L wanted to cut back wages by a total of 6% with 3 years of wage freezes, on top of the 2 years of wage freezes the NDP administration had forced on workers.
According to this week’s announcement, the new 4-year contract will come with a 1.25% wage increase next April and a 1.5% increase a year from now. Plus, there’ll be an additional 0.5% increase if Alberta’s economy reaches a certain level.
There was no mention about wage increases in 2020, 2021, or 2022, so I assume it’s wage freezes in those years, too.
Let’s summarize this.
That means 5 out of 7 years of wage freezes, a total increase of 3.75% over those 7 years, and an average annual increase of just 0.54% during that same period.
Keep in mind that inflation between October 2021 and October 2022 alone was 6.8%.
The new increases scheduled for next year aren’t even enough to cover inflation over the last year. Heck, it’s not even enough to cover half of inflation since last October. Even if we add up all wage increases since 2017, it’s still not enough to cover this year’s inflation, let alone inflation for all 7 years.
This is functionally a wage cut. And a big one at that.
Darren Graham, vice-president of AUP, sad that “bargaining was hampered by the Alberta government imposing a tight mandate on post-secondary institutions across the province.”
According to AUPE, Alberta’s finance minister had directed the government’s Provincial Bargaining Coordination Office to set the agenda for all bargaining with public-sector workers.
“If the university had gone outside the mandate, they would’ve been penalized and had funding withdrawn”, said Graham in a phone conversation with The Alberta Worker.
However, that mandate is what hindered negotiations, with the university refusing to budge from their 4% wage rollbacks. Their insistence on putting the provincial government ahead of university workers led to the two parties having to go to mediation.
Even then, this mediation eventually fell apart, breaking down about 3 weeks ago. According to Graham, this left the union with only one choice: withdrawing their labour.
Following the breaking down of mediated negotiations, the workers’ bargaining team held several in-person meetings about next steps. The meetings during the 14-day cooling off period were well attended and discussions were centring around applying with the ALRB for a strike vote, as well as the inevitable lockout the university would likely apply for in retaliation.
However, as word of a potential strike spread, the U of L Board of Governors reached out to the AUPE bargaining team through the mediator on 1 December to say they were interested in getting back to the table. The new contract is a result of this.
Although the wage increases were severely restricted by the provincial government, the workers’ bargaining team were able to secure wins in other areas.
There’ll be new personal-leave days, improvements to the coverage of prescriptions, improved language on health and safety, and a better workload-review process.
According to Graham, “we have also got job security for workers until March 31, 2023.”
This aligns with the wage increases for next year, the first of which will occur in April. In other words, the university seems to have negotiated no layoffs over the next 4 months in exchange for a wage freeze this year and no retroactive increases for 2020 or 2021.
But, I’m not confident that this’ll be a guarantee.
The 2019–2020 increase that was awarded to the U of L workers wasn’t determined by the arbitrator until March 2021. Until then, wages for these workers were still being determined by the wage freezes in 2017 and 2019.
Despite those wage freezes, the U of L laid off over 100 AUPE workers in May 2020.
Even if they do keep to their word, March is only 4 months away. And that’s not too long to keep their trigger finger holstered.
As of the time of this writing, Graham said turnout figures from the ratification vote were unavailable.