Negotiating COVID-19 LOUs

This article, published in the Fall 2020 edition of The Beacon, was written by StFXAUT President Martin van Bommel.

The COVID-19 pandemic reached Nova Scotia and impacted all provincial university campuses, resulting in a sweeping mid-March shutdown. Our Members were left scrambling to move their courses, tests, and exams online. During the instructional chaos, the Executive Committee of the StFXAUT realized there were important deadlines, procedures, and protocols outlined in the StFXAUT Collective Agreement (CA) that were about to be missed. On the advice of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), a Committee was struck to prepare a Letter of Understanding (LOU) for negotiation with University’s Administration. It was soon decided to deal with imminent issues in one LOU and begin consultations with groups from each employment category to prepare amendments or a second LOU for longer-term issues.

The intention of the first LOU was to address the time-sensitive changes to the procedures of the Collective Agreement (CA), including dates, deadlines, and evaluation procedures and guidelines. The AUT team worked diligently to prepare this LOU as quickly as possible and the AUT Executive presented it to the University Administration. Negotiations began in earnest on May 13th by the Members of the Joint Committee for the Administration of the Collective Agreement: Rachel Hurst and Charlene Weaving for the StFXAUT, and Dan Belliveau and Jennifer Swinemar-Murray for the Administration. By this time, some of the content of the proposed LOU were already outdated or unnecessary, and other clauses were quickly becoming dated; however, negotiations continued. The LOU COVID-19 Emergency Measures was signed on June 17, 2020. In addition, an Addendum to the first LOU was created and signed on July 30th to deal with student course evaluations that were completed in the winter term before the COVID-19 shutdown.

Meanwhile, a second Committee was struck to consult with individuals from each of our Member categories and prepare a second LOU. The intention was to be proactive and address issues anticipated to arise during the 2020-2021 academic year. The first draft was presented to Administration on July 29th. Negotiations began on August 12th, and the LOU COVID-19 Continuing Measures was signed on September 30th, 2020. A key component of this agreement is the Appendix, which provides guidelines for evaluation committees across all Member categories.

Overall, negotiations demonstrated the difficulties in coming to an agreement on many of the items covered by the LOUs. Furthermore, there was administrative reluctance to set the timeframe covered by the second LOU to include the entire academic year, not just the fall term. The AUT representatives involved in the negotiations were extremely efficient in revising drafts and providing feedback and counterproposals; the same did not always appear to be true of the Administration. At times, it actually appeared the negotiations for the second LOU would extend well into the fall term. It was only when the deadline for the orientation session for Departmental Evaluation Committees was approaching, and the changes addressed by LOU and its Appendix were being presented, that an agreement was finally reached.

Two major sources of frustration confronted the AUT negotiators at the commencement of each round of negotiations. The first was the refusal of the Administration to engage in discussions of any clauses with financial implications. During the first meeting, the financial challenges faced by the University as a result of COVID-19 were outlined, and it was noted by the Administration negotiators that financial matters were being dealt with in separate discussions. This was reiterated at the start of the negotiations of the second LOU by the rejection of all clauses with financial implications. Most striking was the rejection of extensions to timelines for existing Travel Budgets and Professional Expense Funds, with the assumption that the unused amounts would be absorbed back into the university operating budget. Most egregious was the lack of an offer of compensation for those Members expected to attend professional development sessions and begin preparations to offer online instruction even while not under contract.

The second source of frustration was the Administration’s tactic employed at the start of each round of negotiations of responding to the AUT proposal with a rewritten draft where most of the clauses were simply removed and others modified. The AUT proposal for the first LOU was four pages long; the response was less than two. For the second LOU, the AUT proposal was seven pages long; the response was three, with an additional two pages moved to an appendix. The final signed versions of the two LOUs were respectively four pages and five pages with an eight-page appendix. It was through the outstanding efforts of our negotiating team that many of the clauses remained in the final documents. We are so grateful for Rachel and Charlene’s negotiation skills, tenacity, and hard work in reaching these agreements.

Throughout discussions, the StFXAUT team emphasized the need for empathy and compassion for Members as they navigate an extraordinary moment in their careers. Relatedly, the AUT advocated for an approach that acknowledged collective impacts of the pandemic on the work of Members, which resulted in a list of common potential impacts to research, scholarly activity, teaching, supervision, professional development, and service, as outlined in the Appendix. The individualistic perspective of Administration remains a concern, as evidenced by a “case-by-case” approach to accommodations and the requirement for the itemization of the impacts of the pandemic in annual reports, dossiers, evaluation documents, and tenure and promotion letters.

Consideration for the potential impacts of the pandemic on the health of Members remains a matter of contention. The response to requests for the extension of sick leave benefits and time limits to Members directly affected by COVID-19 were met with a response of indifference, declaring that existing sick leave benefits are sufficient. AUT negotiators stressed that not all Members are covered by adequate sick leave. As a case in point, the LOU actually extends the leave of absence afforded to Part-Time Academic Instructors from three teaching hours per course per term to six, in the event that self-isolation is required; however, the Member is expected to transition in-person classes to online instruction where possible.

In general, Member Associations across the country have noted that there appears to be a general lack of understanding and compassion by University Administrations on the following matters: the ability of Members to work from home; the volume of work already being completed in such settings; the impact of the pandemic on research and other scholarly activities, including those on sabbatical and other study leaves; and the extent of work and the technology required to move to online instruction and other virtual activities. It appears to actually come as a surprise to University Administrators that individuals are concerned about their intellectual property, specifically that their teaching materials could be made public or otherwise shared. What is most troubling; however, is most institutions fail to offer compensation to precariously employed Members for the preparation of courses for online instruction.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to our negotiators, Rachel Hurst and Charlene Weaving. Many thanks are also due to Mary Oxner, Christie Lomore, and Stephen Finbow, who not only carried the bulk of the initial work on the first LOU, but provided guidance throughout the process. Thanks also to others involved in both rounds, including Members of the LOU Advisory Committee, Executive Committee, and others for their extensive assistance and support: Patricia Cormack, Denise Delorey, Clare Fawcett, Andrew Foran, Sharon Gregory, Chris Frazer, Brad Long, Susan MacKay, Mary Oxner, Martin Sastri, Bruce Sparks, Will Sweet, Donna Trembinski, Robert van den Hoogen, Bill Walters, and many others who had a role in drafting, revising, advising, or responding to inquiries.

Overall, the process has been eye-opening in terms of the many areas in which the current CA is lacking in its protection of the rights and privileges of our Members in such unusual circumstances. It is our hope that the two LOUs have corrected some of these limitations, and we will extend and revise their terms if necessary. It is our plan to address many of these issues in the next round of negotiations of the Collective Agreement. We all hope by then this pandemic will be a memory.