Building a Union

Although U of A non-academic employees had achieved the goal of creating their own organization, a longer term vision remained elusive. In fact, the University was not legally bound to recognize NASA as the formal bargaining agent, but did so in an apparent act of good faith towards the newly-independent group. Administration was not critical of this turn of events, quite possibly because they were familiar with those involved and did not see it changing the substantial relationship between the association and management. Negotiations commenced immediately between the University and NASA toward a collective agreement.

The first contract took nearly two years in the making, but even then, the existing provincial legislation did not make the terms binding. By the end of 1969, and into the early seventies, support staff had repeatedly demonstrated the desire for a more effective organization. They also showed their support for NASA at crucial points along the way. This was a period of activism and solidarity that brought new ideas and energies to the fore, yet more difficulties would arise because of the Association's legal stature.

When the Public Service Employee Relations Act (PSERA) was enacted in 1978, NASA -- for the first time -- could obtain legal recognition as an independent employee organization. However, the first application for certification submitted by NASA was rejected. The university had provided NASA with office space and university property -- NASA House -- thus suggesting NASA might be subject to undue influence and not an independent representative of employees.

As soon as NASA's application under PSERA was rejected the University Board of Governors took the opportunity to withdraw its earlier voluntary recognition, leaving NASA without legal status, and no employer sitting on the other side of the negotiating table. Without any representation at that time, other employee organizations began recruiting efforts on the campus.

The leadership of NASA had little choice. The lease on NASA House was given up and offices on campus vacated, and, in very short order, a new application was submitted to PSERA Board. Certification was granted on September 26, 1978. For the first time in its thirty years, the employee organization representing support staff was a legally certified independent association and bargaining agent.

Negotiations began immediately to draft a new contract, including -- for the first time -- all hourly and temporary employees. The process took one-and-a-half years with delays attributed to a position taken by the Board of Governors that this was a first contract and everything had to be negotiated from scratch. When negotiations bogged down, arbitration was used to settle the terms of this first contract.

Compulsory arbitration was a key component of the provincial labour legislation that covered provincial government employees and other public sector employee groups like NASA. It made strikes illegal for employees and, instead, brought in third party arbitrators whenever there were a serious impasse in negotiations. Where before a "sweetheart deal" would set the terms of the working conditions, now a mutually agreed upon third party would sit with two representatives -- who were each selected by NASA and the university -- and the three would decide in their majority on what the contract would and would not contain. NASA has since gone to arbitration over a contract a number of times.