UWOFA Voices: ‘A better choice is to get up and do my part, however small that might be’

Ann Bigelow

I will do almost anything for UWOFA. After 17 years, it’s about time I figured out why.

Why do UWOFA members give their time to the union, or speak up in a meeting when they oppose something?

When I stand up in the face of injustice, I know that I will be supported by my union, and for that I am very grateful. When I’m talking to my students I frequently tell them that the problems of this world are so big that they often seem unresolvable, and therefore it might feel that the best thing to do is roll over in the morning and go back to sleep, or spend hours watching Netflix. But, in my opinion, a better choice is to get up and do my part, however small that might be. I think that while it might be possible for me to make a big splash, what is more important is that I make little splashes every day.

When I came to work at Western (first as a part-time lecturer in Political Science and eventually as a full-time lecturer in what is now the DAN Department of Management and Organizational Studies), I was naïve about my employment situation. As a chartered professional accountant, I had always held regular positions with my previous employers, but I was struggling being in a management position and very unhappy. My employers were happy with my work - I always passed my probationary periods with no difficulty - but I was not at all satisfied with what I was doing all day. When I started working at Western, I felt like I had found my spot in the work world, and I was thrilled when I landed a full-time position. Little did I know that I had just given up job security for years of insecurity and uncertainty in a position where I loved what I was doing. I quickly realized that my commitment to Western was not reciprocated by Western being committed to me.

Before starting at Western, I worked for a time for various government and non-profit bodies as an accountant. Essentially, I was moving up the corporate ladder, but I found managerial work very discouraging. Even though I felt I was working for organizations that were doing things that were good for the world (except for my time working for the Mike Harris government), I was very uncomfortable with how these organizations often treated the people who worked for them, or who they served. I already knew that organizations that are on the front lines of serving people in need needed to be caring, needed the resources to fight for the people they served, people without a voice, but often they focused on being bigger, getting more money, doing things that only the CEO thought was a good idea, cutting costs, etc. I found this demoralizing and uninteresting. I couldn’t do much to make my small part of the world better when I didn’t have any power.

Just before I came to Western I had been working for the provincial government, and I had two deeply disturbing experiences that changed my focus from being a manger and climbing the corporate ladder to a focus on putting my energy into ensuring justice at work. The first of these experiences pushed me to ask to be demoted into a unionized position, and the second saw a colleague of mine go to jail for something completely insignificant, which was followed by her being unsupported by her union and needing to go beyond the local union to get the support she needed.

These two experiences led me to get involved with the union here at Western as soon as I became a full-time faculty member. I see so much unfairness here. I have failed to understand many of the choices made by the university administration, and I have fought those choices every day I’ve been here. I have never understood why a wealthy organization like this one cannot make a commitment to people like me – full-time faculty members who teach hundreds of undergraduate students. It seems like the only reason is my educational shortcoming – I don’t have a PhD.

I wasn’t always like this. My mother, Jane Bigelow, was the first female mayor of London. Having your socialist mother become mayor of a conservative city while you are just starting high school is probably something I would avoid if I had another chance at being a teenager. I was bullied and had a very difficult time in high school. Shortly after my mother became mayor my parents separated and eventually divorced. This was also unusual in the early 1970s. I was pretty quiet and kept to myself, tried very hard not to be noticed as my mother made it clear to me that I was to do everything possible to avoid appearing on the front page of the Globe and Mail. It was as an adult that I developed the skills necessary to speak up in the face of injustice.

Essentially, management makes me angry. Injustice makes me angry. Putting the cutting of deficits, or maintaining a surplus, ahead of the education, health and safety of ordinary citizens sends me into a rage. But I don’t want to be a cynical person, so there has to be a healthy way to redirect my anger.  That is what the safety of being involved in UWOFA has given me: a safe outlet and a place to fight decisions that I probably cannot change, but may be able to influence. I have been on five negotiating teams, developing skills I never knew I wanted. It was only during this past round (2018-2022 Faculty Collective Agreement) that I could sit across from our employer and know that I was no longer afraid. 

A lot of people just like me have fought to get me the rights I have today, and in today’s world, we need to be fighting to keep what we’ve already got, not just trying to get more fairness. If generations of workers had not given their time to improve our working conditions; if Rosa Parks had not resisted bus segregation; if the Famous Five had not stood up for the rights of women and children, society would not have progressed. I just want to make a small contribution, and by doing so, I am fighting for what I believe in.

Ann Bigelow is a lecturer in the DAN Department of Management & Organizational Studies