President's Column: We're stronger together

Dan Belliveau

Almost 100 years ago on May 15, 1919 over 30,000 public and private sector employees left their jobs as part of a general strike in Winnipeg[i]. Considered the largest general strike in Canadian history, the workers elected job action to defend the principles of collective bargaining, fair wages and better working conditions[ii]. Sound familiar? Unions today continue to defend workers’ rights to fair and equitable wages and safe workplaces free of discrimination and harassment. Organized labour not only protects those who are members of a union but positively influences the working conditions for all employees in a society. However, the success of a union is inherently linked to its definition: “something that is made one: something formed by a combining or coalition of parts or members”[iii]. The University of Western Ontario Faculty Association has secured important gains throughout the years because of our shared conviction that the workplace can be better for all faculty members who contribute to the educational mission of the university.

It was a most satisfying example of shared resolve on Nov. 9 when I wrote to you at 2:02 AM saying, “I am very pleased to announce that a tentative faculty collective agreement has been reached with the university administration”. We were two hours into a legal strike position. The negotiating team had met with the administration on 25 separate occasions before that agreement was signed. Yet, how could the negotiating team take the negotiations to the precipice? Simple – they had the support of their colleagues and peers, their union, to achieve the best deal possible. Later in this issue of Faculty Times in an interview with Jeff Tennant, our chief negotiator and Johanna Weststar, deputy chief negotiator, they reflect upon our most recent round of negotiations (this is a good opportunity to interject with my personal thanks to Jeff and Johanna for their leadership during this round of negotiations).

As Jeff describes, “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.” I’ve had the privilege of participating on three negotiating teams (2010, 2014 and 2018 [in my ex officio capacity as president]) and have come to fully appreciate the incredible strength in solidarity. In each case, our members overwhelmingly voted to support our mandate, giving the negotiating team the confidence to aggressively defend our demands, to strive for our goals. The negotiating team cannot do it alone. This is the work of many, and every individual who has participated in one aspect or another is a building block to being stronger together. The Collective Bargaining Committee, supported by the work of the Committee for Contract Faculty, Pensions & Benefits Committee and Salary Committee, develops the negotiation goals. In preparation for negotiation and during key periods during negotiations, our Communications Committee works to develop key messages that narrow in on important issues. Other forms of mobilization such as information picketing around campus are key to messaging and that requires an ability to distribute broadly across the university; our Faculty Representatives Council contributes to UWOFA’s reach within units. As negotiations intensify, the Strike Action Committee gears up. This committee is responsible for all preparations necessary in the event UWOFA goes on strike. It is not necessarily glamorous work, but it is essential work. Furnishing the strike head-quarters, organizing transportation and food, ensuring there are portable toilets at the picket stations and organizing hundreds of volunteers for picket duties takes a tremendous amount of human resource and organization. The sheer number of members who signed up to participate for picket duty in preparation for potential labour action was incredible and a bit overwhelming. I am in awe and very thankful to every one of you who were prepared to stand together in unity to support our negotiating team.

As David Heap, co-chair of the Strike Action Committee, said, “Our union only makes real gains with the support of a membership, united despite many differences, willing to get their feet in the street to back our collective goals. Our negotiating team, Board and Strike Action Committee can only do so much: our real strength lies in an informed and engaged membership.” 

“When we as UWO employees show we are prepared to strike, to picket the Western campus to press our demands for better quality education, we find we have the support of students, other labour groups and the broader London community. As we learn to use that power, we further educate our members and others about bargaining issues, we can achieve even more for UWO faculty and students."

Students understood that faculty working conditions are their learning conditions and shared their concern regarding the precarity of contract faculty[iv] and expressed their support[v] for the goals UWOFA had prioritized during negotiations. As Alison Hearn, chair of the Communications Committee said, “The Gazette Nov. 6 editorial entitled ‘Faculty Strike is reasonable’ expressed support for UWOFA’s goals, signalling that we had done a good job explaining our issues to our campus allies.”  Indeed, our clear solidarity alleviated some of the concerns students had as the strike deadline approached.

I called this piece We’re Stronger Together. I realize that is not a particularly novel title, but I believe it captures the essence of what took place during negotiations this past fall and in each of our previous rounds. Working together, united in our resolve to see positive change that a union can bring into the workplace, we have shown we are prepared to exert our power to ensure the wellbeing of Western’s employees today and into the future.

Dan Belliveau is UWOFA president and an associate professor in the School of Health Studies