UWOFA celebrates 20 years since certification

Vanessa Brown

During UWOFA's certification drive, Marjorie Ratcliffe collected her colleagues' signed union cards and took them home with her to keep them safe.

Every night that spring in 1998, she added to the pile - some days it was only a few, other days she dropped a bundle on the growing stack. It soon became clear to Ratcliffe, now a retired Hispanic Studies professor who led the union's certification drive, that she had more than enough signed cards to take to the Ontario Labour Board and file an application for certification.

"It symbolized solidarity," Ratcliffe explained in a recent interview. "All of these people from all of these different departments - different interests and different disciplines - came together on this one issue. It was basically like organizing an election campaign. That's how we ran it, and it worked."

This spring marks 20 years since UWOFA certified as a union through the Ontario Labour Relations Board (librarians and archivists certified in 2004). Certification is a significant event for a union; it legally formalizes the collective bargaining relationship between the employer and employees, shifting and democratizing power relations in a workplace. UWOFA's certification is one of the most significant events in its 63-year history.

It is unquestionably a milestone to be celebrated, said Alison Hearn, UWOFA president from 2014-2015.

"We represent a lot of different types of employees, a lot of different types of faculty and librarians and archivists with a wide variety of political views," she said. "It's a very diverse membership, and that can be a challenging thing to keep everybody altogether over the long period of time. I definitely think it's something worth celebrating."

Hearn's comments raise a good question: How do you keep a diverse membership of 1,500 faculty, librarians and archivists together during significant changes to the administration of post-secondary education? There has been a concerted effort to diversify UWOFA's Board of Directors and invigorate the Faculty Representatives Council, a group of faculty stewards who help the union address any workplace issues their colleagues are facing. Also, in the past three years alone UWOFA has seen its first librarian president (Kristin Hoffmann, 2015-2016) and its first contract faculty president (Ann Bigelow, 2016-2017).

UWOFA has also positioned itself as a comprehensive community of scholars that includes contract faculty. Conversations about UWOFA's history with those who have been actively involved in the union throughout the years always seem to veer toward contract faculty issues. In fact, getting part-time and full-time faculty members into the same bargaining unit was a priority for Ratcliffe and other union organizers. Those leaders believed that the union would ultimately be stronger if everyone worked together to advance the same causes. Improved working conditions for part-time members was a priority since the very first collective agreement was negotiated in 2000. UWOFA's negotiating team, led by now retired math professor Mike Dawes, was able to secure fairer course scheduling provisions and a salary increase for contract faculty.

UWOFA is a leader among Canadian faculty associations on progressive collective agreement language, Dawes said.

"When you look through the provisions of the collective agreement, there's a lot of social justice provisions such as anti-harassment procedures and so on," Dawes said. "A lot of effort went into that right from the beginning, but in the subsequent negotiations it was enormously overhauled. If you compare the provisions that were achieved in the first collective agreement to subsequent revisions, there's considerable improvement. So things like that have given Western something of a leadership position in faculty unions."

Although everyone interviewed for this story spoke with great pride of UWOFA's achievements throughout the years, all touched on the fact that there have been many bumps along the way. This milestone would not have occurred without a significant amount of hard work, they added. While he enjoyed the negotiating process, Dawes spoke of the steep learning curve involved in familiarizing himself with the various regulations and precedents tied to the Labour Relations Act. Then came the process of learning how to write contract language, which utilizes a different approach than most academics are used to. There were also heated discussions about contract proposals, Dawes said.

As UWOFA enters its third decade since certification, unions are as crucial as ever in every aspect of the workplace. The five-week Ontario college faculty strike last fall saw instructors walk the line primarily over contract faculty issues. Hearn is convinced that unions, especially in the higher-education sector, are "the mechanism in and through which real challenges to administrative decisions and government decisions even can be mounted."

Hearn continued: "Unions are crucial because there are no other mechanisms, really, for people to come together and talk about what it is that's shaping their working environment, and what their issues are and how they'd like to see those problems resolved or improved. The union form is really the only way that that is happening, meaningfully, on campuses."

Vanessa Brown is the communications officer for UWOFA