Bargaining FAQ

This is the first time Athabasca University and all of the university’s union partners will bargain under Alberta’s new labour legislation at the same time. The new legislation brings with it a number of changes, including that all members of our union partners are now able to strike.

The following FAQs have been prepared to answer questions that have arisen about the basics of bargaining under the new legislation.

What is a collective agreement?

A collective agreement is a written contract between the employer and a union that outlines many of the terms and conditions of employment for employees in a bargaining unit.

What is collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining is a process in which a union and an employer negotiate a collective agreement.

How do negotiations for a collective agreement begin?

Either the employer or the union may give notice to bargain between 120 and 60 days before the current agreement is due to expire, or during any other time period specifically set out in a collective agreement.

What is the usual outcome of collective bargaining?

Collective bargaining usually results in an agreement acceptable to the union and employer that is reached through negotiations at the bargaining table. If, during negotiations, the employer and the union cannot reach agreement, either the employer or union may ask the Alberta Government’s Mediation Services to appoint a mediator.

What is mediation?

A third-party independent mediator appointed by Mediation Services will attempt to facilitate the resolution of any issues that could not be resolved in bargaining. Legislation requires that mediation take place before parties can legally strike or lock out.

One of the other prerequisites to mediation may be the conclusion of an “Essential Services Agreement” by the union and the employer.

How does mediation work?

Either side in bargaining can request that a mediator be appointed.  The request is reviewed by Mediation Services to ensure the criteria are met for the appointment of a mediator. A mediator is then appointed from the Designated Mediator Roster, usually within three business days.

Once an appointment is made, the mediator arranges meetings with the parties to deal with the issues in dispute. The mediator works with the parties to help them reach a collective agreement.  The mediator can also issue a recommendation for settlement which, if accepted by the parties, forms the basis of a collective agreement.

What if the employer and the union cannot reach an agreement in mediation?

If one or both parties reject the mediator’s recommendations or the mediator is not able to resolve differences between the parties, the parties can continue negotiations, with or without the assistance of the mediator.

At this point, the legislation also provides for a 14 day “cooling off period” which can start from the date of the mediator “writes out” (i.e. indicates that he/she is not going to make a written recommendation) or from the date that a party rejects a mediator’s recommendations. After the cooling off period a strike vote or lockout vote can be taken. If the vote passes with majority support and upon 72 hours’ notice, either party will be in a legal strike or lockout position.

Must there be a strike vote before a strike can take place?

Yes. After the 14-day cooling off period, a strike vote by secret ballot can occur and if the majority of those who vote support a strike, the union must then serve the employer and mediator with notice to strike at least 72 hours in advance of any proposed action. The strike vote is effective for 120 days.

An application must be made to the Alberta Labour Relations Board at least 7 days before the planned voting date. The strike vote can be taken at any time after the collective agreement expires. In either case, a majority (50% +1) of those voting by secret ballot must vote in favour of strike action in order for the union to be able to call a strike on or after the strike deadline date.

A strike vote must be by secret ballot and all members of the bargaining unit must have ample opportunity to cast a ballot at a reasonably convenient time and place.

This is a vote that is conducted entirely by the union; it is supervised by the Labour Board, and it is entirely up to the union as to whether it will release the specific vote results.

The outcome of this vote will tell the union whether the employees in the bargaining unit are for or against going on strike.

What is a strike?

The Labour Relations Code defines a strike as “a cessation of work, a refusal to work or a refusal to continue work by 2 or more employees acting in combination or in concert or in accordance with a common understanding for the purpose of compelling their employer … to agree to terms or conditions of employment” or to aid other employees to do the same. This definition contains three basic elements:

  1. a refusal to work;
  2. concerted action; and
  3. the purposive or subjective element of intent.

When is a union in a legal strike position?

After the parties have met with a mediator, if they have not been able to settle all outstanding matters, a 14-day cooling off period follows. After this 14-day cooling off period, the union can apply for a strike vote with the Alberta Labour Relations Board and if a strike vote passes, the union serves the employer and the mediator with notice to strike at least 72 hours in advance of any proposed action.

Will the university close if there is a strike?

The university will make every effort to ensure that operations and classes continue.

What does as “tentative agreement” mean?

This means that an employer and a union have agreed to the terms of a collective agreement, but that the terms have not yet been agreed to (“ratified”) by the bargaining unit members or the employer’s governing body.

What is ratification? How does this work?

Ratification by the union is the process by which members of the bargaining unit vote to accept or reject the terms of the collective agreement that the parties have negotiated. The ratification vote happens at the end of collective bargaining, after the parties have reached a tentative agreement.

At the university, a collective agreement is ratified when the tentative agreement is approved by the Board of Governors.

Once both parties have ratified the tentative collective agreement, it is finalized and implemented.

What happens to students if there is a work stoppage?

First and foremost, we remain optimistic that a deal can be reached at the bargaining table.

Athabasca University is a learner-first institution. This will continue to be true, even in the event of a work stoppage. Every effort will be made to ensure that impacts on students are minimized, and where we cannot avoid impacts, we will set out a plan to mitigate these impacts. We also commit to communicating with you about any potential impacts as soon as possible if needed.

Will I be able to graduate?

It’s studies as usual and when requirements are met, students can apply to graduate. Athabasca University approves and awards credentials every month. To be considered for graduation, you must submit an Application for Graduation form to the Office of the Registrar.

Plans are already underway for AU’s convocation ceremonies held every year in Athabasca, Alberta during the second weekend in June. To qualify, applications for graduation must be submitted by April 30, and all requirements must be met by the end of the first week in May. For information regarding your application status please contact the Office of the Registrar by emailing grad-app@athabascau.ca or at 1-800-788-9041 ext. 6382.

For information regarding Convocation please contact the Events Office, at 1-800-788-9041, extension 6234 or go to Convocation.

Will I be able to access student services if there is a work stoppage, including financial and mental health services?

AU will continue to communicate with students and work to mitigate any impacts if there is a work stoppage. If any changes to services available to students are necessary, we will let you know as soon as possible.

What is the bargaining process?

Collective bargaining is a process in which a union and an employer negotiate a collective agreement. A collective agreement is a written contract between the employer and a union that outlines many of the terms and conditions of employment for employees in a bargaining unit.

Collective bargaining usually results in an agreement acceptable to the union and employer that is reached through negotiations at the bargaining table. If, during negotiations, the employer and the union cannot reach agreement, either the employer or union may ask the Alberta Government’s Mediation Services to appoint a mediator.

The mediator works with the parties to help them reach a collective agreement.  The mediator can also issue a recommendation for settlement which, if accepted by the parties, forms the basis of a collective agreement. If not accepted, the parties can continue negotiations. The legislation at this point also provides for a 14-day cooling off period. After the 14-day cooling off period, a strike vote can occur and if the majority of those who vote support a strike, the union must then serve the employer and mediator with notice to strike at least 72 hours in advance of any proposed action. The strike vote is effective for 120 days.

What is an Essential Service?

The Labour Relations Code identifies certain public services as being “essential”. Essential services are those public services that would endanger the life, personal safety or health of the public if interrupted. Essential services may also be those services that are necessary to the maintenance and administration of the rule of law and public security.

The legislation identifies areas where services may be essential, including the Provincial Public Service; provincial agencies, boards, and commissions; public health care (including ground ambulance); continuing care, medical laboratories, and blood services; and post-secondary faculty and support staff. In each of these areas, the organization and the relevant union need to determine under what circumstances and for what services an interruption would endanger lives or the rule of law and public safety. This generally involves the negotiation of an agreement called an “Essential Services Agreement”.

As the university falls into the essential services regime, the university and the applicable union can only have a mediator appointed to assist with bargaining if one of the following requirements is met:

  • The parties have an essential services agreement that has been accepted for filing;
  • The parties have been granted an exemption;
  • The Essential Services Commissioner has made a declaration that the provision of essential services during a strike or lockout will substantially interfere with meaningful collecting bargaining; or
  • The Essential Services Commissioner has consented to a mediator being appointed without a filed essential services agreement.