AASUA’s new Lead Negotiator jumped at the opportunity to put her years of negotiating experience toward supporting the working rights of researchers and educators at the University of Alberta.
“I really believe in the value of expertise and the work of the post-secondary education sector,” Cherie Klassen, AASUA’s newly-hired Lead Negotiator, said. “[Academic staff] really are unsung heroes.”
With the current Collective Agreement expiring June 2024, AASUA has begun bargaining planning, which includes assembling a negotiations team. On AASUA Executive’s recommendation, Council has approved Klassen to lead the team, which will provide the Bargaining Planning Committee with input in 2023, with negotiations commencing in January 2024.
A practicing lawyer, Klassen has focused her legal career on working for unions and associations within the field of labour law. This includes over a decade of work in negotiations and labour disputes for organizations such as the United Nurses of Alberta (UNA), the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE), the Alberta Medical Association (AMA), and the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA).
“I just went where my interests are,” Klassen said, adding that she initially discovered her passion for justice advocacy through volunteering while completing a Master of Science in Pharmacology at the U of A. Wanting to bridge her newfound passion into a long-term career, Klassen later returned to university at the age of 31 to study law.
Now working as a partner at Blair Chahley Klassen Lawyers, Klassen has provided legal counsel to AASUA for the past few years, giving her an in-depth understanding of AASUA’s Collective Agreement. She has also gained additional experience in the post-secondary sector, for example when she assisted the University of Lethbridge Faculty Association (ULFA) in settling their collective agreement amid their 2022 job action.
While each workplace is unique, Klassen noted academic staff contracts are “incredibly complex” for a few key reasons.
First, academic staff are “autonomous, highly trained, highly educated experts in their field,” and therefore their Collective Agreement must make provisions for these qualities, including collegial governance.
Klassen said the working context is further shaped by the university’s status as a public institution backed in part by taxpayer funding.
“There’s that ongoing dialogue that you don’t have in the private sector.” Klassen said. “Where’s that balance with the fiduciary duties of government, and the necessity of training our future Albertans to be meaningful contributors to society? And what is the role of the university in the creation of our civil society? These are all factors at play.”
The nature of academic work means Collective Agreement negotiations have high stakes, Klassen said, from winning protections for academic freedom to fighting against corporatization to preserve academic autonomy, which Klassen noted is one of the “core values that academics need in order to thrive and be competitive globally.”
Now that Klassen is on board as Lead Negotiator, AASUA members can apply to serve on the negotiations team. Alongside the Bargaining Planning Committee, the negotiations team will provide input towards developing the Association's bargaining priorities that will be approved by Council.
Klassen noted member engagement doesn’t end once bargaining priorities are formed, and instead continues throughout the negotiations process, and is an “ongoing dialogue.” Ultimately, Klassen said she is looking forward to being a part of that dialogue through her work in the upcoming round of bargaining.
“[AASUA is] a bargaining unit that I admire on a daily basis,” Klassen said. “I really look forward to listening, engaging, and reflecting with the association’s members.”