President Profile: ‘Everybody can benefit by being supported by a strong union’ during coronavirus pandemic

Vanessa Frank

Beth MacDougall-Shackleton was speaking at the University of Illinois Urbana when the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. Luckily she made it back home to London without trouble and, as UWOFA vice-president, soon met with then-president John Ciriello. They figured the pandemic would be short-lived, lasting maybe two or three months, but it quickly became clear that it could force a restructuring of higher education, and that UWOFA would have an important role to play ensuring its members have fair working conditions and are treated equitably in this new reality.

“What’s particularly concerning and cruel about COVID is that it’s having bad effects on everyone, but these effects are not evenly distributed. So there are big equity issues associated with caregiving and people that are precariously employed versus stably employed,” said MacDougall-Shackleton, noting members caring for young children and elderly family members have been particularly hard hit. “That will be a big issue for UWOFA in the months to come.”

A biology professor, MacDougall-Shackleton became UWOFA president this month and is eager to help steer the Association through its response to the pandemic. She is no stranger to UWOFA, having served on the Board of Directors, Salary Committee, Nominating Committee, as chair of the Policy and Governance Committee,and as a member of the most recent faculty negotiating team.

First and foremost, MacDougall-Shackleton stresses that faculty and librarian members’ concerns will guide UWOFA’s work as the union negotiates Letters of Understanding with the administration to ensure fair and safe working conditions throughout the pandemic. Member surveys and clear lines of communication through the Representatives Council and Librarian and Archivist Stewards’ Council will aid UWOFA in that work, she noted. Proactively, UWOFA has negotiated an agreement that gives probationary faculty members the option to extend the tenure clock by one year, and is approaching agreement on several Letters of Understanding regarding changes to working conditions. In particular, MacDougall-Shackleton noted that members have raised concerns about increased workload associated with the transition to emergency remote teaching so UWOFA has a big role to play on that file as well.

Also top of mind for MacDougall-Shackleton is UWOFA’s contribution to anti-racism. In particular, she’s thinking about how faculty members can reconcile their academic freedom with the duty to conduct research responsibly and the obligation to speak up against racist and discriminatory ideology.

Speaking of equity, the Association will continue its work realizing gains made during the most recent round of faculty collective bargaining. Specifically, UWOFA will hold the administration to its commitment to create 12 new limited-term appointments by converting limited-duties appointments held by eligible part-time faculty. Western’s first teaching scholar appointments will also be made during the life of the current faculty collective agreement, through internal recruitment of at least 12 current faculty members. UWOFA is also standing by to ensure that the gains made in last year’s librarian and archivist collective bargaining are realized.

Throughout all of this work MacDougall-Shackleton's goal is for UWOFA to emerge from the pandemic unified and energized, which will place the Association in a strong position for the next round of faculty bargaining in 2022.

“If there’s a silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that it’s illustrating for everyone how important strong labour unions are, and how everybody can benefit by being supported by a strong union,” she said. “So I hope to get the membership more mobilized and make sure that everybody feels represented.”