There is an odd quirk in Alberta law related to the designation of academic staff who are members of Faculty Associations. Unlike most provinces where academic staff formed unions under the provincial Labour Relations Code, the Alberta government prohibited academic staff from unionizing until the early 1980s. At that time, the Faculty Associations petitioned the International Labour Organization to condemn the Alberta Conservative government for preventing labour organization. As a result, the provincial government established the Faculty Associations as bargaining agents under the Universities Act (and similar Acts). This gave the Faculty Associations most of the rights of unions, gave us binding arbitration instead of strikes, but they gave the Boards of Governors the right to decide who was academic staff (and thus, who was in the Faculty Association). The Faculty Associations of the day felt quite betrayed by the government in creating this designation process, but there was little that could be done.
Over time and with various legal precedents about the Charter right of freedom of association, it became clear that the Alberta legislation would not withstand a charter challenge. Again, against our advice, the provincial government (this time New Democrats) changed the designation process so that there is an appeal mechanism above the Boards of Governors to the Labour Relations Board. Our Association, among others, had asked that the designation process be made subject to bargaining and arbitration at the individual institution level.
Almost since the creation of our Faculty Association as a bargaining agent in the early 1980s, we have been raising concerns about designation of academic staff. In general, we were concerned where teaching, research, academic decision making, or services normally provided by academic staff was being done by individuals who were not academic staff members. Most of the time, our concerns fell on deaf ears as the Administration did not feel compelled to respond to us. When the creation of the Labour Relations Board appeal mechanism arose, there was more pressure for the Administration to respond, but the Association remained frustrated by the long delays and lack of movement. At the time this was happening, the University of Calgary had the largest group of unrepresented staff of any provincial public organization in the province and it was the Association’s view that the Governors and Administration had an anti-union mentality. With the lack of any progress, the Association filed a complaint with the Labour Relations Board (LRB) asking that the Faculty Association represent all MaPS employees on campus.
The Administration conducted a review of all MaPS employees and found only 23 who they felt were academic staff members. They noted an additional group had research as part of their job descriptions, and were willing to discuss these, but gave no promises. We put the LRB complaint on hold while we tried to engage the Administration on these issues. The hope was that the 23 positions the Administration identified would be a first cut at the issue, and then we would proceed to discuss all of the other issues related to designation that had been on hold for years. Eventually it became clear that the Administration was not going to move on any of these cases and insisted that we proceed with the dispute at the Labour Relations Board. A mediation was held in May 2023. The Association took the position that we would be willing to agree to drop the LRB case if the Administration designated the 23 position they had themselves identified as academic staff, plus establish a non-binding mechanism whereby the Association could raise issues of designation on campus. They would have lost nothing with our proposal – all they would be committing to is to talk with us. We could always go back to the LRB, but it would have resolved the current confrontation.
In contrast, what the Administration came forward with was a position that they would designate the 23 individuals, but the Association would have to give up on all other cases and issues permanently. We could never raise any of the long list of designation issues again. This was unacceptable, but also an incredibly confrontational and tone-deaf response to the many issues we had raised over the years. Therefore, the mediation failed, and we are looking at the possibility of full hearings related to designation at the Labour Relations Board starting this fall. As the LRB may be making decisions that affect many Faculty Associations and Boards of Governors across the province, this may become legally messy.
Since the Administration does not seem inclined to engage in any meaningful discussion to resolve the designation issues, the Association has moved to file a long list of formal grievances with the Provost in addition to the Labour Relations Board process.
In general, the Association believes we have been extraordinarily patient with the Administration and generous in our willingness to engage them with discussions. But they have consistently delayed and derailed any attempts to resolve the issues, and the most recent attempt to quash future discussions ended our patience. The formal grievance realm and formal hearings at the Labour Relations Board seem to be the only route left to resolve these issues.