Q&A with Johanna Weststar and Kristin Hoffmann

Librarians and archivists at the University of Western Ontario are to begin collective bargaining this month. As UWOFA gears up for its next round of negotiations, Johanna Weststar and Kristin Hoffmann, chief negotiator and deputy chief negotiator, sat down to discuss what librarians and archivists hope to achieve in the next Collective Agreement.

Q: A lot has happened in the last few months leading up to negotiations: the provincial government cut tuition by 10% which will affect the university’s budget; Western Libraries administration announced it will not fill current job vacancies; and it is anticipated that the province will introduce public sector wage restraint legislation. How has this affected bargaining?

Johanna: Yes, the librarians and archivists have been dealt some very heavy blows due to the choices Western administration has made. This is a small bargaining unit and it is unreasonable to expect that Western would make up the shortfall in the  budget on the backs of just over 40 people. Yet, the chief librarian has announced that four unfilled vacancies will remain permanently unfilled. This represents 10 per cent of the current librarian and archivist complement at Western and will have an immediate impact on workload and the ability to maintain library services. Then the employer refused to even look at a proposal from us which would have ensured a fair compensation deal for librarians and archivists and avoided the anticipated government intervention and wage restraint. The employer has delivered a double whammy – and this on the heels of a massive re-organization which turned the libraries upside down. Everyone on this campus knows that Western has considerable reserves and once again we see our employer choosing to stockpile rather than maintain fair working conditions and adequate staffing. Financially, librarians and archivists will now fall behind the other employee groups on this campus and they will fall further behind their comparators at other universities. In this environment it is only fair for librarians and archivists to make progress on other key priorities.

Q: Speaking of other key priorities, what are some concerns members have following the Western Libraries re-organization last year that could be addressed in collective bargaining?

Johanna: Librarians and archivists have given a lot. They’ve been very accommodating and willing in the re-organization process to meet the university’s operational mission and goals. However, there are some core issues to address. In addition to the insufficient staffing levels, there are other topics around workload that we are discussing, and around the transition from one kind of work to a different kind of work. Some people had quite a shift in their job duties post re-org. We should be clear to note that not all of it is negative. A lot of librarians and archivists are excited about the opportunities that the re-org presents and some of them are in roles now that weren’t really conceivable prior. So that’s fine, but when you move into a new job you need time to adjust, you need time to engage in professional development and retraining that you need so you feel like you’re well supported. We’re still in a transition zone and we want to engage with that in bargaining to strengthen and recognize that professional development, retraining, and time is all part of the package when you’re going through such a big organizational change. Right now the Collective Agreement isn’t as robust as we might like it to be in some of those areas.

The other thing I would point out is the connections between librarians and faculty. We used to have a system organized by subject areas, so there was a clear connection that if you worked in a certain library you were connected to particular faculty members and disciplines. So many librarians and archivists are feeling that, now that they are reporting into more of a task-based structure – you’re in collections or you’re in research and scholarly communication or you’re in teaching and learning – you’re not connected to a discipline, per se, you’re doing teaching and learning for the whole space. So now who is an expert on any given subject matter? Where is your faculty connection? And I think some faculty might be saying, ‘I used to call so and so. Where are they now? Who do I call now?’ And so, in the re-org we feel that there needs to be more done in terms of rebuilding, and frankly prioritizing the connections between faculty and librarians because we are all on this team. You can’t run a university system where you’ve spirited your librarians and archivists off into a space that no one can find them in anymore. We need to reforge those roles, and that’s not something that individual librarians should have to do on their own. There needs to be a structural support, and that’s the job of Western Libraries administration, to make sure those connections are there.

Kristin: We’re more removed. It’s just built into the structure of the reorganized units, which are around functions and tasks that are done within the libraries. Whereas the previous structure mirrored the academic structure of the university much more closely, this is looking more like the administrative structure of the university. So it’s severing some connections we had, connections that were really important both to the librarians and archivists and to the faculty and students. So it’s wanting to try and rebuild some of that, or preserve whatever of that that we can.

Q: Professional autonomy and governance are two themes this time around. What are librarians and archivists specifically looking to achieve related to these goals?

Kristin: I think it’s a really important theme because Western Libraries, and academic libraries in general, tend to work very hierarchically, so information and decisions flow down from senior administrators to librarians and archivists. They don’t tend to come as often from the members who are doing the daily work and then go up the hierarchy. I think what Faculty Associations try to do is give members more of a voice, and so this is a really important way for our members to have a stronger voice within the hierarchical administrative structures of the university.

One of the specific requirements that librarians and archivists have is to submit what’s called a Planned Activities and Contributions document, which faculty members are not required to submit. I think in practice, in a lot of cases, we recognize that the Planned Activities and Contributions document is just a plan, and other things come up during the year that take precedence over things that you planned to do many months before. Removing that requirement would be a formal recognition that we’re already taking responsibility for our day-to-day work. This is already happening; our members are able to plan their work and adjust those plans as needed. We all have really well-thought-out goals and intentions for what we’ll do in our daily work and how we’ll contribute to the university. This just removes a reporting requirement, and acknowledges that this work is already happening and it doesn’t need to be documented in order for it to be going on.

Johanna: And some of the changes might seem very small, like not having to submit a form that they used to have to submit. That seems like quite a minor change but actually allows much more space in terms of the librarian and the archivist being able to decide more freely or have more flexibility in how they govern their day-to-day work, their work week to week, etcetera. And that’s something around the autonomy piece that’s important. As Kristin says, we’re trying to get the voice of the people doing the frontline work to the administration and be more involved in those important decisions. So we have some goals around bigger changes like that. We’ve also been talking about Library Council and structures that allow for more involvement between librarians and archivists and the senior administration to talk about those big issues.

But then again, some of the goals we’re looking for are just little changes that give more breathing room, placing more judgment around the day-to-day work of what needs to get done and how should it get done into the hands of the librarians on a day-to-day basis so that becomes more a part of the culture of how the place works.

Q: Creating a Library Council is an interesting goal. What is a Library Council and how common are they at other universities?

Kristin: Many universities have library councils. When I worked at the University of Victoria, it had a library council also.

Johanna: Western used to have one. There was a library council here in the past. For faculty members, the idea of a council won’t be a surprise. We have faculty councils all over campus that encourage a somewhat regular space for debate, information sharing and asking questions, and again, having more of that voice into what’s going on. So instead of getting an email and hearing about a new library policy, or having your direct supervisor announce that, you will have had an opportunity through Library Council to hear about things that are coming up, to ask questions and to contribute, which hopefully feeds into the shaping of policy down the road.

Kristin: And as employees with professional credentials who are academic staff expected to be contributing to the academic life of the university, this would give us a voice into policies and practices that affect the academic life of the university in a way that we don’t have right now.

Johanna: It’s collegial self-governance. Any faculty member on campus, if collegial self-governance were threatened, they would be very unhappy with that. It’s a cornerstone of the university; it’s what makes our work here very different than other jobs, and very amazing because you do have that sense and it’s not being granted in the same way to Western librarians and archivists. And for us it’s very important to recognize that there’s a group of academic staff here, and they consist of faculty, and they consist of librarians and they consist of archivists. We need to treat everyone the same in terms of making those contributions to the academic mission.

Q: How long have members of the Collective Bargaining Committee been working together? How is that work going?

Kristin: We’ve been meeting regularly since September. I think everybody’s contributed a lot of work; we did focus groups as well as a really focused and comprehensive survey to gather feedback from members.

Johanna: We’ve had very robust conversations at the CBC, and I think it’s important because a lot of our conversations at the CBC expand to really think about what is best for the functioning of the library? What is best for how the Western Libraries function on this campus? What is their role and how can people carry that out the most? Which is really how we’ve landed on those governance and autonomy pieces because it was through conversation and the pieces about the connection between faculty and the librarians that I don’t know if we would have had that going into bargaining otherwise. It was through really detailed conversation at the CBC that we all kind of went, ‘That’s what’s missing! That’s what we’re feeling.’ So I think it’s been a really important exercise for the unit in general, because the CBC members will take that back to other members, as well, and it’s a very valuable experience to begin with outside of bargaining. There’s been a real awareness about the role and what is important about being a librarian and being an archivist on this campus. And I think that’s been fabulous already.

Going into bargaining can sometimes feel very defensive, particularly from a union’s perspective. You’re trying to make some small gains in certain areas and protect what you have. But I think a lot of our goals are visionary. We’re asking, ‘What would we like this to look like? How could this be so much better?’ And many of our goals are coming from that place, which I think is actually a very positive space for building a really robust library system here at Western, and we’re hoping the employer is interested in having these conversations with us.