UWOFA celebrates Ratcliffe’s lasting legacy of unity

Adela Talbot // Western News

Modern Languages & Literature professor Marjorie Ratcliffe, who worked to mobilize and unionize faculty in the 1990s, was recognized recently with the Allan Heinicke Memorial Service Award, instituted by the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA) to recognize outstanding contributions and achievement in financial, technical or policy development on behalf of the union.

Shortly after her arrival as a tenured professor in the late 1990s, Marjorie Ratcliffe took up the cause to unionize Western’s faculty. It was at that time the late Allan Heinicke, a Math professor and former Chair and President of the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA), told her she was making a big mistake.

“Al said to me, ‘You’re going to ruin your career. It will be held against you – the fact that you tried to organize this. Do you know what you’re doing in this atmosphere?’ I guess I was just naive. But I appreciated the care at the time,” said Ratcliffe, who teaches in Modern Languages & Literature.

Her efforts, however, eventually led to the unionization of Western’s faculty in 1998, as well as the inclusion of part-time instructors in the same bargaining unit. To date, UWOFA is among the only Canadian faculty bargaining units representing both full- and part-time professors.

And now, however unforeseen by Heinicke, Ratcliffe’s work has been recognized with an award named after the man whose warning she ignored.

At its annual general meeting last week, UWOFA awarded Ratcliffe the Allan Heinicke Memorial Service Award, instituted to recognize outstanding contributions and achievement in financial, technical or policy development on behalf of the union.

“The whole thing came as a huge surprise to me; I didn’t expect this at all. I’m an organizer. I’m not a policy person. I never even thought I would be eligible for the award. But the one policy decision – and I never thought of it as a policy decision – was to include full-time and part-time faculty in the bargaining unit,” Ratcliffe said.

“If we weren’t the first, we were maybe the second in the country to include everybody together. We went to the labour board and explained the work we do. The board decided we did, in fact, do the same work and we could be in the same union. From my point of view, the award recognizes that policy decision, one that has been so helpful to a lot of people.”

Ratcliffe is recognized on campus for organizing and participating in various union causes at the institutional and national levels, including support efforts in times of strike at universities across the country. At Western, her nominators for the Heinicke Award repeatedly stressed her tenacity.

With an administration that wasn’t ready to accept unionization – particularly joint unionization that included part-time faculty – Ratcliffe moved into the certification campaign “with vigour and determination,” according to her colleagues. She recruited volunteers, established contacts across units in the university and organized a leaflet campaign, similar to that of an election.

All this was a lot of work – even Ratcliffe will say so. During this time, she also chaired her department, one whose faculty had been “decimated,” leaving her to teach the majority of its course offerings while simultaneously running UWOFA’s certification campaign.

Looking back on it today, Ratcliffe, who first tasted university politics as an undergraduate, knows it was well worth the effort.

“Somehow, I ended up being the point person. I thought, ‘Let’s do this.’ At first, there was virtually no pushback from the administration – probably because they thought it wouldn’t work,” Ratcliffe said, noting she rallied faculty members across campus until it became clear the certification vote would pass.

“The administration found out we had it in the bag, too, probably. They went nuts that night. That was the only pushback. They burned out the phone lines and the Internet by pushing out too much stuff. All of them were telephoning people we knew were positives, and supporters who had voted,” she continued.

The certification was a big win for all instructors on campus. When the union bargained, it bargained for everyone, Ratcliffe noted.

“The contracts still are not equal. We all do the same job. But the issue of part-time faculty is still very much alive; people are still being hurt by administration decisions,” she continued, nodding to recent cuts in her department and the Faculty of Arts & Humanities, resulting in the loss of many part-time instructors whose contracts are coming to an end this year.

“We need to be firmer. UWOFA needs to be firmer when it comes to negotiating and not being afraid of going on strike. There doesn’t seem to be any will to push further for things we say are very important. I’m not at the negotiating table; I don’t know what they’re giving and what they’re getting. But I’d much rather fight it to the death and be out in the cold, walking picket lines.”

Ratcliffe, who is retiring this year, sees the Heinicke award as a nice wrap to her career.

“My (involvement) with UWOFA has put me in contact with people all over campus. The university tends to work in silos, but through UWOFA I got a broader perspective on how a university works,” she said.

“And the certification was the biggest thing. It made the biggest difference in people’s lives – especially to part-time instructors. On a personal level, it’s all meant probably too much. UWOFA has been my life, after teaching. It’s been the most positive experience.”