University of Lethbridge VP accused of intimidation

The University of Lethbridge Faculty Association has filed a complaint with the Alberta Labour Relations Board, alleging that the U of L’s provost and vice-president (academic) has been trying to intimidate the union.

Earlier this week, the Alberta Labour Relations Board released their most recent New Applications Report. In the report is an application that alleges employer interference with union activity.

The application was submitted by the University of Lethbridge Faculty Association on 9 December 2022. In it, ULFA claims that Erasmus Okine, the university’s provost and vice-president (academic) “has engaged in a pattern of intimidation and interference aimed at the union and against the union president.”

Or, more specifically, that the university’s board of governors has engaged in intimidation and interference “by way of Dr. Okine’s comments and behaviour.

The new applications report doesn’t go into much more detail; however, I was able to obtain a copy of a letter sent to the ALRB by Blair Chahley Klassen, an Edmonton-based law firm hired by ULFA to manage this application.

In this letter, Cherie Klassen, who is listed in the ALRB new applications report as representing ALFA in this application, outlines several claims to back up the accusation of intimidation and interference.

As some background information, Klassen highlights how ULFA applied to the ALRB for a strike vote, after negotiations with the U of L on a new agreement broke down this past January.

The ALRB approved the request, and the strike vote occurred on 4 February and resulted in a 92% strike mandate.

The day before the strike vote took place, the U of L Board of Governors filed a complaint with the ALRB, and three days after the strike vote, the university sought a “urgent hearing and an interim order” to prevent ULFA from striking until the merits of that complaint were heard.

Below is the notice sent to ULFA regarding the filing for the urgent hearing and interim order.

According to Klassen, however, the Board of Governors withdrew this application later that same day. That was confirmed in a email newsletter sent out to ULFA members in February.

Klassen reports in her letter that the university refused to come to the table during the strike until ULFA filed a complaint with the ALRB at the end of February. The two parties then agreed to mediation.

The mediation was facilitated by David Jones and occurred between 15 and 18 March through an “enhanced” process. After the mediated settlement was ratified, ULFA and the U of L Board of Governors each withdrew the complaints they had filed with the ALRB.

Klassen’s letter alleges that “during that time period, the employer accused members of ULFA’s bargaining committee of taking positions that were self-serving”.

Also mentioned in the letter is that “ULFA suspected at the time, but did not have direct evidence, that the provost and other senior administrators of the employer were consistently blaming delays and barriers to a negotiated settlement on a small group of the ULFA executive, or specifically on one individual, the ULFA president, Dr. Dan O’Donnell.”

Apparently, the brief the Board of Governors had submitted to the mediator asserted that ULFA’s bargaining “was fuelled by a desire to obtain a successful strike vote, as opposed to any principled position held in bargaining or to address real and meaningful concerns in the workplace.”

Klassen’s letter goes on to report that following the strike, “ULFA has also become aware of several ‘hallway’ conversations overheard between the provost and members of ULFA, whereby the provost was trying to blame the job action entirely on the ULFA president, Dr. O’Donnell.”

However, all this second-hand evidence came to a head at an “informal presidents’ meeting” held earlier this month between representatives from ULFA and the university.

Representing ULFA was O’Donnell, as well as ULFA’s VP Chris Burton; Beth Gerwin, the chair of ULFA’s gender, equity, and diversity committee; Aaron Chubb, ULFA’s executive officer, and Megan Mericle, UFLA’s administrative officer.

Attending on behalf of the university was its president, Mike Mahon; Okine; and Michelle Helstein, vice-provost.

About an hour into the meeting, the conversation turned to the recent efforts by the university to restructure its faculties and schools. As part of that discussion, O’Donnell and Okine disagreed whether that restructuring process was a top down approach or a bottom up approach.

Then about 15 minutes into the restructuring discussion, according to Klassen’s letter, “Okine stated that he would ‘speak his mind’ and became increasing incensed, speaking over the other meeting participants, and began yelling at ULFA’s representatives.”

Here are 4 specific claims Klassen reports Okine made during what she called a “tirade”:

  • Repeatedly yelling “You lie! You Lie! You Lie!” at Dr. O’Donnell, stating that “[Dr. O’Donnell] has lied since 2015!”
  • Accusing Dr. O’Donnell of arguing [with the University] for his own satisfaction only, treating labour relations “as a game” and contrasting Dr. O’Donnell’s allegedly nefarious motivations with his own as “having the University’s best interests at heart”
  • Accusing Dr. O’Donnell of unilaterally and solely instigating the job actions that occurred at the University in early 2022
  • Accusing Dr. O’Donnell of a “personal vendetta” against the University as a result of his unsuccessful past attempts to enter senior administration

In her letter, Klassen mentioned that the “tirade” lasted 3–4 minutes and that the U of L president never intervened during that time.

She goes on to say that this specific incident, in connection with past behaviour, shows that he is trying to intimidate and coerce ULFA and its elected officials to discourage their exercising their labour rights.

By publicly belittling the Association, as well as personally attacking and defaming Dr. O’Donnell in front of senior administration, Dr. O’Donnell’s colleagues, and newly hired ULFA staff member Ms. Mericle; and by attempting to attribute nefarious motivations for Dr. O’Donnell’s leadership activities within ULFA, particularly with respect to his strong support of the Association’s members during the recent labour unrest and strife leading up to and after the strike/lockout, it is clear that Dr. Okine is using his position of authority (apparently unchecked by the University’s President Dr. Mike Mahon) within the University to intimidate and attempt to coerce both ULFA’s membership writ large and ULFA’s elected officials in order to discourage them from exercising their rights and obligations under the Code.

As part of this new application, Klassen told the ALRB that ULFA and O’Donnell are thus seeking “substantial” damages from the university for the actions listed above.

If the ALRB finds that the U of L Board of Governors has violated the Labour Relations Code through Okine’s actions, ULFA wants the board to have to circulate the ALRB’s decision to all U of L workers.

Since the application notice is replaced each Monday, I’ve attached a copy below for anyone who’s interested in more information.

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By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

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