We are all relieved that the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association and Western reached a tentative agreement in the contract negotiations. However, as I “pick my heart up off the floor”, to quote the 1987 hit song “Faith” by George Michael, I wonder why the process had to be so gruelling.
As someone raised with no financial safety net and for whom the prospect of not having enough money triggers panic and fear, my mind travelled to some dark places as I imagined trying to make ends meet on strike pay.
But money is only part of the issue.
What hits deeper and still makes my stomach turn is that my employer willingly made decisions that left thousands of us hanging during a time of extreme precarity. Key among them was delaying the negotiations. The meetings only began after our previous contract expired and even then, it was like pulling teeth to get Western University to the table.
With little else at our disposal, myself and other faculty members sent imploring messages to Western to take a more active role in the negotiations. It felt demeaning and such messages demanded significant amounts of time and emotional energy to create. Sadly, these efforts were ignored, and the unresolved negotiations hung like an oily cloud over the fall term.
Many of us had the sinking feeling that it would be a replay of what happened four years ago, when a deal wasn’t reached until 2 a.m. on the day the strike was to begin.
Labour negotiations are complex and stressful, but they don’t have to be so dramatic or draining. Getting emails from senior officials about what a strike will mean for the Western community the evening before a potential strike was not very helpful. It stoked the already-distressed atmosphere many of us felt engulfed in as the hours passed.
Some of these messages contained incorrect information that set off a cascade of frantic emails between students and faculty members that went well into the night — yet another aspect of this situation that was stressful to deal with.
This could have been avoided if the parties had begun meaningful negotiations earlier and if we were offered clear communications about what was happening, including plain-language explanations about where the negotiations are at. Tell us, for instance, why new hires will not replace retiring faculty members. Tell us why contract hires are not paid for their preparation time when teaching a new class. Let us in.
Words like “terrifying,” “barbaric” and “cruel” were used in conversations and social media posts among faculty members and other concerned folks who watched the situation unfold. These are not comedic terms. They reflect profound fear and dismay with the way the process was managed by the university.
Like any relationship, conflicts come and go. We will be at the table again in a few years and let’s hope the proceedings are directed by more compassion next time. As George Michael said, I gotta have faith, faith, faith.
— Treena Orchard, associate professor and undergraduate chair, School of Health Studies
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