Answering the Call to Serve

Vanessa Brown

It seems like they have been working together for years.

In fact, barely 10 minutes into a conversation about negotiations last fall, I had already forgotten that Jeff Tennant and Johanna Weststar are about to enter just their first round of negotiations for UWOFA working together as chief negotiator and deputy chief negotiator, respectively.

Both Tennant and Weststar fluidly pick up where the other ends, and they speak with ease and conviction about deeply held principles including collegial governance, grassroots mobilizing, and academic freedom.

Both also see themselves as a proxy for their faculty colleagues during collective bargaining.

“When the opportunity to serve as chief negotiator came up in 2013-2014 I thought of it first as a daunting task, but one that I took on willingly. It is a good bit of hard work, but it’s very engaging work,” said Tennant, who will enter his second round of faculty negotiations as chief negotiator. “It’s work that is very worthwhile. I never doubt the importance of it, and it’s fulfilling work in the sense that you feel you’re doing important service to your colleagues.”

Weststar, an associate professor in the DAN Department of Management and Organizational Studies, says what fuels her union work is a need to speak out for others if something isn’t quite right or fair.

“This work needs to happen and I’m really inspired when I see other people taking up that action, to be careful and considerate and thoughtful about what’s going on around them,” she said. “And not when it’s just for themselves, as Jeff was saying. Lots of times it’s not my personal issue; it might affect someone else, but if I’m in a position to speak up for that person or if I can raise an issue that then helps another group or another individual, I find it very difficult in my day-to-day activity not to step forward.”

Weststar’s life has been steeped in the labour movement. The daughter of two union members, she proudly tells the story of her father’s involvement in a postal worker strike in 1981 largely fought over parental leave rights. It was a marginal issue for many in the workplace at the time, she said, but the strike “put in motion a cascade where parental leave became normal in the public service, and then it became normal elsewhere, and now it’s something that’s completely taken for granted.” She shares this story with her industrial relations students and shows a photo of workers on the picket line. Her father, Gerry Gustar, is in the picture beside his striking colleagues.

 

Tennant, on the other hand, grew up in North Bay in a more conservative household. The French Studies associate professor sought out socially conscious literature at the public library as a teen. Later, when he came to Toronto for undergraduate studies, he found an intellectual and social home among progressive students. He plugged into the peace movement and did work with Amnesty International and other organizations. Tennant approaches his union work cooperatively, looking to sit down in a room with administrators and engage in a dialogue with the aim to find common ground.

“That’s challenging. It’s not without its frustrations, but it requires you to think about labour rights activism in a broader way, and ultimately you benefit from a deeper, more thorough understanding of how things work, and how to go about seeking solutions to workplace rights and, broadly, political problems,” Tennant explained. “So what I get from it is quite a bit of learning, as well, which of course I bring back and I apply to it.”

Based on surveys conducted in the fall and winter, and through the Collective Bargaining Committee’s consideration of the national, provincial, and local bargaining landscape, the following themes emerged for this round of negotiations: job security for contract faculty; appropriate teaching evaluation; fair compensation; benefits for part-time faculty; improved benefits for full-time faculty; improved retirement provisions; and expanded leave provisions for special circumstances.

Tennant and Weststar agree that meaningful consultation with the membership is critical. Preparations for negotiations begin with feedback from faculty colleagues, and it is weaved throughout the entire process with faculty bargaining unit meetings occurring along the way. Once the two sides reach a tentative collective agreement, UWOFA members must ratify it, along with the university Board of Governors, before it becomes an official document.

“Consultation is really critical because we all have to end up living and working in this space,” Weststar said, “and if we don’t have input from everybody in this space then we’re not going to be able to come up with an appropriate agreement.”