One Step Closer—A Strike About to Break?

An Interview with the AUSU President

If you haven’t already heard, the Athabasca University Faculty Association recently voted to reject the mediator’s proposed agreement between the faculty and AU management.  This isn’t the end of negotiations however, as the AUFA has indicated they’d be willing to postpone a strike vote if AU agrees to not use lockout powers in the near future, and wishes to return to the bargaining table and provide assurances against a lock-out, the AUFA will delay the proposed strike vote.

Barring that, however, the vote will go forward on April 4, 2022.  Even that does not mean that a strike is inevitable, though, as the AUFA has said that they hope having the mandate from the membership to strike will serve as additional pressure for the university to provide a better deal than that which the mediator has prepared.

AUFA has a notice about why this is happening on their website, in particular noting that “AUFA wants AU to succeed so we would not propose something that AU would not be able to afford.  In the past 10 years, AU has had a surplus nine times, and is on track to reach a surplus this year as well!”

On their side, AU notes, “We approached all bargaining tables with clear intentions around changes to collective bargaining contracts that are balanced and better align with our vision.  We want to avoid a labour disruption.  We remain committed to negotiations, and keeping the university open to those who want to learn.”  They also provide a lot of information about the possible effects on students in their Athabasca University Bargaining: Student FAQ page.  But most importantly for undergraduate students, they noted “we anticipate being able to provide the majority of our students with the resources and support they need to continue with courses that have been started.”

But there’s more than just the administration and the faculty association at work here, as AUSU is keenly aware of how the people who will undoubtedly be the most affected by this are the students.  To that end, I approached the current AUSU President, Karen Fletcher, and asked her a few questions.

So, who’s at fault for this thing?  That is, which side do you think might be being more unreasonable?

President Fletcher: This has been framed as an AU vs AUFA problem, but there’s a third major actor here which is the provincial government.  AU is required, by law, to present a balanced budget, [and] they have to do that before knowing what their major grant will be for the year.  They are also trying to update the back-end of their systems to make a number of situations better for students, this is an expensive multi-year project that has tied up a lot of resources at a time when post-secondary funding isn’t great.  At the same time AUFA, reasonably, wants cost-of-living raises for their members so their pay doesn’t functionally decrease.  The major source of the problem is the provincial funding process and amount of funding universities across Alberta get.

AU says they have a plan to allow most undergraduates to be able to continue without noticing much of a difference.  Does AUSU feel that’s the case, or are they underestimating the level of support students will require or their ability to gain more contract instructors that will be able to handle the concerns of students who are already in courses?

President Fletcher: AU has tutors and faculty (professors); the union that is going on strike is the faculty one, which also includes IT people and some support staff.  Tutors aren’t going on strike.  I’m in two courses right now, one with a tutor (course A) and the other with a faculty member (course B) , in the event of a strike I would continue to get support for course A, and  in course B I would be able to work through things on my own but wouldn’t have office hours or email  to ask questions.  Most of AU courses are taught primarily by tutors, when AU says most of the undergraduate courses will continue without much of a difference what they mean is that most students’ primary contacts will still be working as normal.  A student with a number of smaller, upper-year niche courses (which are more likely to be taught by faculty) would have a very different strike than a student who is taking more popular AU courses (mostly taught by tutors).

The most important take aways here are that different students will be impacted in different ways depending on what they’re taking, and that it’s some of the behind the scenes processes that might be more of a concern.  An online university with an IT department on strike could become unpredictable.

On that note, as a precaution I would suggest all students download any e-texts they need and assignments and course material (if it’s not in a PDF already you use file>print>print to PDF to save the sections of moodle to work offline).  In the event of a strike AU will find external IT people to hire, but unexpected outages will likely take longer to resolve since it will be by people unfamiliar with the current systems.

Has AUSU set aside any resources (staff time, funding) to deal with a possible increase in student complaints if a strike happens?

Good advocacy means anticipating problems before they happen and speaking up to make sure that there are ways to prevent a crisis rather than just reacting, so I’ve already spent a lot of time speaking with the university about specifically how students might be impacted and working to figure out what workarounds we can use to help students in the event of a strike.  I’ve spoken to the senior administration of the university, but also financial aid, accessibility services, and Nukskahtowin, about how students interacting with their departments would need, and have tentative meetings with the university that will happen in case of a strike so we can connect with them weekly, and our commitment to ensuring students get through this means we’ll make sure we have enough dedicated time to advocate for our students.

Obviously AUSU’s concern is going to be first with the students, so how does that look?

President Fletcher: If AUFA strikes I see it like AU is a ship going through the storm, the student union doesn’t get to take the wheel but it’s our job to make sure no one goes overboard.  So we’ve been spending a lot of time asking questions like  “If someone’s grades aren’t in but they’re in financial aid, how to we make sure they get their next semester’s funding?”  “Will students who use accessibility services still be able to write exams?”  “What happens if you need faculty to approve your paper topic… do you just write the paper and hope for the best?”  We’re students which means we understand what it’s like to navigate being a student at AU and what parts could break, and how that impacts students, we’ve been able to bring up a numbe rof important scenarios AU hadn’t thought of.  So far we’ve had a number of conversations with both AUFA and AU about very specific groups of students we’re most concerned with and what sort of possible solutions could be used in the event of a strike to make sure those students don’t get left behind.

Advocacy during a potential strike would look like meetings with AU administrators to find solutions for particular groups of students who have run into a problem.  That might mean we need to talk to one group about students who are ending a semester on a particular date and are full time students with OSAP (Ontario financial aid), and another set of meetings with another part of the AU team about how to help a student that cannot progress through a particular course without some academic support from a faculty member that’s not there.  We would also have ongoing communication with AUFA.  The fact that different students are going to be having different experiences of a strike would mean that how we advocate for different students will vary by what their needs are.

Is there anything else you think important for students to know about the situation right now?

President Fletcher: Here’s an infuriating fact: AU is the only university in Alberta that doesn’t have an Essential Services Agreement.  AUFA applied for an exemption, AU didn’t contest it.  They appear to agree that counselling services, including the crisis counselling, isn’t essential for anyone’s health or safety.  They say use Homewood Health.  AUSU has been vocal about this, and this is very much one of the things I’m focused on.

Here’s the link where they say “we’re here when you need us.”:

https://www.athabascau.ca/support-services/mental-health-and-wellness/getting-help.html

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