Interview: Jeff Tennant & Johanna Weststar

Vanessa Brown

In the early morning hours of November 9, 2018, UWOFA’s negotiating team and the employer reached an agreement that ended a down-to-the-wire round of faculty contract negotiations on the day of the strike deadline.

The amount of time spent negotiating is significant; UWOFA’s negotiating team met with the employer 25 times since bargaining began in June, totaling about 150 hours. Negotiating team members spent countless more hours in meetings and consulting colleagues across the faculties and departments throughout bargaining.

In mid-December, Jeff Tennant and Johanna Weststar, UWOFA’s chief negotiator and deputy chief negotiator, sat down for an interview to reflect on the latest round of contract negotiations.

Q: What went right during this round of negotiations?

Jeff: What went right was particularly the mobilization within UWOFA. We had a strong Strike Action Committee, and a strong communications strategy; the Board and Executive worked closely with the negotiating team, and we were able to build in our strike preparations when it became evident that we needed to follow that route in order to get an agreement, and we succeeded at the point where a strike deadline was looming because we were ready. That readiness that was the key to our success at the table.

Q: What impact did that strike preparedness have on day-to-day negotiations with the employer?

Jeff: We felt supported, and it gave us credibility with the employer across the table. I should add the 94% yes strike vote was part of that successful mobilization. We could speak convincingly at the table on behalf of our members and there was no way the employer could credibly call into question the fact that we were speaking on behalf of our members and the mandate we were bringing to the table, the contract demands that we were presenting at the table. We were doing those on behalf of our members and our members were ready to take action in order to achieve our goals.

Johanna: The mission of the Strike Action Committee was really to make sure that the negotiating team had the freedom to make whatever decision we needed to make to get the best deal. And ultimately that is incredibly important to the team at the table because you need to be focused on the issues. If we were at the table worrying about whether we were supported, whether the membership was behind us or not, whether we were ready for the strike or not, that would have really been impacting our ability to decide whether we were meeting our goals or not meeting our goals because we would be then making decisions that were based on an external environment. But we never had that concern, ever, at the table. And on the final evening, as a matter of fact, the Board was called in, the Strike Action Committee was called in to meet with the negotiating team, and it was an incredible meeting. It was an incredible show of support, of readiness, of being there that really eased our minds  because it meant that we could just stick to the facts and make our determination about whether the goals were met or not met, and everything else would be there, whatever it was we needed, it would be there.

Q: What was particularly challenging this round?

Johanna: You always want to get it done in a quick and efficient manner. And I think that remains a challenge; I think the membership would love to have a deal much sooner in the summer and not have a process that’s quite so long. And I think our team was very ready; we were very prepared, we had all of our language right away when we went to the table, we knew what our goals were. But it still took a very long time. It took more time than we liked for the administration to really come to the table and start getting serious and really talking deeply about the core issues. So that was a challenge that we faced.

Jeff: And I could add on that that this time we had good reason to expect that we would finish up in less time than in previous rounds. The employer, in our pre-bargaining meetings, proposed that we have early mediation to take place in July, with the understanding that that would move us, if not to an agreement then very close to an agreement. And we agreed to that early mediation with that goal in mind of achieving an agreement earlier than in previous times. But, to our disappointment, as Johanna said, the employer did not come to the table ready to engage with our core issues, and in particular the substance of our core proposals of dealing with job security for contract faculty. They simply did not engage with the substance of those proposals until very late in the bargaining process. And that made it difficult; the fact that we were not progressing in achieving our goals in that area, and in the area of some of our other priority goals, was frustrating to us. We would have hoped to have gotten to an agreement sooner. So we found that the employer kind of led us onto a longer timeline in bargaining. It was frustrating, but in the end, ok, we had to deal with that if that was the time it was going to take then we had to plan our strategy and mobilize our members in accordance with that bargaining timeline.

Q: Did the employer make any problematic proposals?

Johanna: Yeah, there was one, from the beginning really, that was in Alternative Workload, that would have allowed the deans to essentially unilaterally impose a workload on a member. We saw that as very problematic from the very beginning. It goes against the structure of collegial governance. We also saw it as a very high possibility that it really was only going to be used in a punitive fashion; the administration attempted to propose it in a way that was more neutral, but anytime you have something that’s unilateral, there’s real fear that it’s going to be used to punish people who were not fulfilling their research to the dean’s standard, and impose extra teaching on them. We can’t have a system where teaching is used as a stick for someone who is perceived to not be researching enough. We value those things equally here at Western and it’s just not appropriate to be using more of one as punishment for a perception that you’re doing less of another.

Q: What was the outcome of that proposal?

Johanna: That proposal was on the table for most of the time. We just kept maintaining, ‘This is not in. This is not in the package,’ and it ended up being dropped on the final day as part of the packaging up of the remaining issues. But in that way it became an item that we had to deal with in a trading fashion. What it meant was that we may not have been able to fight for something else that we wanted because we had to push back against that item. So, when you get these problematic proposals from the employer, you may end up achieving less because one of your successes was actually fighting something bad. And that doesn’t always come out because you see what’s new in the Collective Agreement; you don’t always see the terrible things that could have been added.

Jeff: There were also some other concessionary proposals – one of them was to force distribution of the annual performance evaluation ratings so that a certain prescribed proportion of members would be pushed to the bottom of the scale and would not receive any merit pay, performance linked compensation. We pushed back on that while negotiating some modifications to annual performance evaluation.

But what was particularly egregious was very late in the bargaining stages, like in the last few days when we were in mediation and a strike deadline was looming, the employer brought in some brand new concessionary proposals about benefits. They were going to cap a couple categories of benefits. The employer previously brought in their whole package related to benefits and there was nothing that was going to pull away benefits. Well they brought this late in the game, and we were flabbergasted by it and we had to communicate to our members that this is what we’re up against. These are the tactics that the employer is playing at the table. It’s late in the game and they’re taking things away, so we had to tell that to our members. We can’t, for the life of us, figure out why the employer brought those proposals to the table – we can speculate – but it certainly galvanized our resolve.

Johanna: Yeah, so late in the game it took up a lot of time to then deal with those issues and get them off the table. And, with only two days left before a strike, every minute counts to be working in a forward direction. And this really moved us sideways, if not back.

Q: How did you deal with the uncertainty throughout the bargaining process?

Johanna: There’s a lot of uncertainty in the process, and it’s a lot for each individual to shoulder. That’s why you have a team. There were lots of moments across the months, but many in the last two weeks, where we were literally every day in a room together where team members would get down or get frustrated and you worry, ‘Is this enough?’ Or you’re second-guessing yourself. And that takes a very strong emotional toll, and as the strike deadline looms, the thought in your mind of ‘Am I going to be the person responsible for everyone being on the picket line tomorrow?’ That’s a really big thought, and there is room for a lot of uncertainty in that thinking. And I think that’s where having a team that you’ve really put your faith in is really important. And we had a lot of really hilarious moments, and silly moments, that were just cathartic and kept our spirits up. We encouraged each other when someone was worried. We knew what the members wanted, and we knew what we needed to achieve, and what really helped, I think, was that we would always encourage each other to come back to those places. ‘What do we need? What do we need? Looking at this piece of paper: is this what we need? No, it’s not yet what we need.’ So it was about encouraging each other to stay strong in the face of a kind of slow, whittling-down process where the administration passes something that’s closer to what you need, but is it what you need? And you really do need a team to be able to look at that and say, ‘No, it’s not quite there yet.’ Because as an individual, the uncertainty would be higher.

Jeff: Johanna really put her finger on it. There’s the uncertainty and there’s the weight of responsibility that we have as a team. It can be overwhelming and scary if you let your mind tell you it’s all on your shoulders. The way you get through that is, first of all, the collective effort of working with our team. We worked by consensus and checked in with each other to ascertain that the decisions we’re making are collective ones, and that we’re working with the rest of the organization as well. We report to the UWOFA Board of Directors, we checked in with the Board directly within a few hours of the strike deadline to get direction of where to go. The president, Dan Belliveau, is an ex-officio member of the team and was often at the table and in caucus with us. He was there to help us ensure that the decisions we’re making are in the best interests of our Association as a whole, so that we can feel reassured that we’re working in a way that’s accountable, that we’re achieving the mission that’s been given to us.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Johanna: The only other thing I would say is I think that it’s important to stay practical. We would all like to fundamentally change a lot of things at the university. But we bargain in a certain space. And we come in very idealistic and hopeful. But we also need to remember that we aren’t going to get everything. And that was a learning experience for me. Even many days after reaching a deal, I had to reconcile my most idealized goals with what we achieved. And that also is something you learn and get better at, and your team helps you with that – knowing that you’ve covered good ground in that space and managing the achievable with the ideal.

Jeff: I fully concur. We had to get what we needed at the table, and I think we got what we needed.

Johanna: There’s always something left for next time!