For the first time in 24 years, picketers line the main entrances at The University of Western Ontario campus.
Unionized librarians and archivists walked off the job on Thursday, Sept. 8, the first day of classes on campus. Represented by the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA), the 51 members of the bargaining unit have been without a contract since June 30. The group is seeking its second contract.
Picketers lined the sidewalks outside university gates at the Richmond Street and Western Road entrances for the past week.
Bryce Traister, UWOFA president, cites outstanding issues at the bargaining table as the 20 per cent pay gap between Western librarians and archivists and their colleagues at other Ontario universities, as well as concerns about gender equity. Other issues also include staff complement and workload.
“We are all in new territory. Up here at Western, this is the first time an academic unit has gone out on strike. Obviously it is not a place any of us wanted to be,” Traister says. “They should not be paying second-rate salaries to first-rate librarians at an excellent school. … One of the things the librarians are fighting for is recognition.”
Western is committed to the practice of pay equity, says Helen Connell, Western’s associate vice-president (communications and public affairs). The university has offered to work with the union to establish a pay equity process, she notes, adding Western believes its offer is reasonable and responsible, in keeping with agreements reached with other employee groups at the institution.
“The librarians and archivists play an important role at Western and the university would like to see talks resume as quickly as possible,” Connell says.
As of Western News’ press time, no formal talks have been scheduled, but the university is prepared to return to the negotiations table whenever the union is ready to resume talks, Connell says.
The libraries remain open and most services are available, including borrowing and accessing books and other print and electronic materials. There are also directional services and reference source assistance, however some highly subject specific, in-depth reference services may not be available.
Traister was surprised by the outpouring of support by colleagues and associations across the country.
Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan joined the picket line at the Richmond Street gates Wednesday, Sept. 12 in support the striking librarians and archivists. On Friday, Sept. 9, academic colleagues from across Canada rallied at the university gates. The Canadian Association of University Teachers presented the group with a cheque for $1 million to support strike efforts, such as strike pay, equipment and transportation.
In addition to Western supporters, representatives from Carleton, McMaster, Saint Paul, Manitoba, Concordia, Mount Saint Vincent, Memorial, Laurier, Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations and others stood in solidarity with their associates.
The new age of technology has brought another dimension into the mix. UWOFA-LA has taken to Facebook and Twitter, encouraging people to support Western librarians and archivists and the university is using its own Facebook and Twitter accounts to post updates to the campus community.
The university maintains its own labour information site.
The last strike by Western employees occurred in September 1987 with more than 500 Physical Plant and Food Services workers, Canadian Union of Public Employees Locals 2361 and 2692. The strike lasted more than a month, involving employees in the areas of trades, caretaking, grounds and arena maintenance, as well as food services. In March 2007, members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union Local 144, representing 20 food service employees at Huron University College, went on strike. However, these workers were employed by an outside contractor, Compass Group Canada, which operates the Huron dining hall.
In addition to the librarians and archivists, several other contract negotiations are on the horizon at Western.
The contracts for CUPE Food Services (CUPE Local 2692), which represents 314 members, Operating Engineers (IUOE Local 772), which represents 10 members, and UWO Police Association, which represents 12 members, all expired June 30. Postdoctoral Associates (PSAC Local 611) are currently negotiating their first contract.
Talks will be held in the future for a first contract for approximately 280 ‘Group C’ employees in Western’s Hospitality Services. The part-time workers voted in March in favour of joining CUPE.
Western’s librarians and archivists are not the only London employees on the picket lines. Across town, Fanshawe College’s Support Staff Union is on strike, joining Ontario Public Service Employees Union across the province.
Western students enrolled in the nursing program and the media, technology and production course in the Faculty of Information & Media Studies – both partnered with Fanshawe College – have not been affected despite the strike now entering its third week.
The uncertainty of a potential strike was likely on the minds of many students across the country as they prepared to hit the books just as several bargaining groups were sitting down to the negotiating table.
A last-minute deal was reached at the University of Guelph, averting a potential strike of 900 administrative and technical staff, United Steelworkers Local 4120. Similarly, Queen’s University faced two potential strikes in August – the faculty association and the employees represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees – but they were able to negotiate agreements in both cases.
Last week, the Windsor University Faculty Association voted in support of a strike mandate, likely placing them in a striking position in early October.