A number of labour contracts are set to be renegotiated this year.
The bargaining cycle is one of the rhythms of campus life but it can create a time of uncertainty in a close-knit community such as Western.
An unexpected wrinkle was added last month to the process with a call from the provincial government for universities to exercise restraint in new compensation packages.
Associate Vice-President (Communications and Public Affairs) Helen Connell discusses how information about progress in negotiations will be communicated to the wider campus community.
Q. A lot will begin happening on the labour relations front in a short period of time this spring and summer. Will the university be communicating on the progress of negotiations to the campus community?
Helen Connell: With six unions and employee groups in negotiations this year, there will be a lot of interest throughout the campus community in knowing how those talks are progressing.
In labour negotiations, as in other communications, I see the role of the team in Communications and Public Affairs as ensuring that we keep our campus community informed in a manner that reflects the values of Western, ensuring that the information we provide is fact-based, transparent, fair and respectful.
Q. What is the current status of negotiations?
HC: Each bargaining unit negotiation has its own unique timetable, based on a variety of factors. With the two largest bargaining units (UWOSA and UWOFA) the exchange of formal proposals is expected to begin in May.
Q. The provincial government has draft legislation that calls for compensation restraint. How will that impact negotiations?
HC: On March 25, the Ontario government introduced the Public Sector Compensation Restraint to Protect Public Services Act, 2010 (the “Restraint Bill”) as part of the 2010 provincial budget. The Restraint Bill contemplates salary freezes and spending restraints in the public sector to eliminate the current deficit by 2018. The government has made it clear when it introduced the bill as part of the March budget, that all publicly funded institutions, universities included, are expected to do their share.
As with any piece of legislation, the language contained in the bill, as well as statements made by the provincial government on introduction, raise a number of questions which require clarification in order to ensure that all parties have a common understanding of what may be required during the negotiation process.
By way of example, through our work with the Council of Ontario Universities, we have learned the province plans to establish a labour secretariat, but we have no information yet on what the mandate of the secretariat will be (if any) as it relates to our negotiations. A small team of senior administrators, chaired by Gitta Kulczycki, Vice-President (Resources and Operations), is working together with other Ontario universities to get clarification on this and other questions.
Q. Unions and employee groups will be communicating with their members. Why is the university sending out messages, too? Won’t that lead to confusion and/or interference with the collective bargaining process?
HC: We respect and support the right of unions and employee groups to communicate directly with their members. However, that does not remove the responsibility and right Western has to communicate with its employees. As an institution, we have an obligation to communicate accurate and timely news and information on all matters of importance to our campus community, and we are committed to doing this in ways that do not interfere with the bargaining process. Good communications enhances the collegiality within an organization and that’s important at Western.
Q. Will there be regular communications, such as a weekly announcement or newsletter? What about the web?
HC: We plan to provide updates as frequently as we have information to report. The primary means of communication will be to post updates to Western’s home page since that provides a consistent place where people already know they can turn for accurate and timely information. We use mass e-mail occasionally when there is information that needs to reach the campus community quickly. We were very proud again this year Western News was recognized as one of the best campus newspapers by the Canadian Community Newspaper Association, and I see Western News continuing to play an important role because it reports on events on campus from all perspectives. I also recognize that social media is a primary source of information for students and many other members of our campus community, so we will be making use of these tools as well.
Q. How often can we expect to hear what’s happening?
HC: We will communicate when we have new information to share. We are also committed to working cooperatively with the leadership of the unions and employee groups to help ensure accurate information is shared in a timely and consistent manner that respects the collective bargaining process.
Q. Are you concerned that as negotiations get underway the communications will turn acrimonious?
HC: It is because emotions can run high during negotiations that I believe it’s so important to ensure that Western’s communications reflect the values of this university in terms of integrity and fairness. I have been impressed since coming to Western with the collegiality and respect demonstrated in the daily interactions between faculty, staff and administration.
While we know from our personal lives that every family has its disagreements, faculty, staff and administration at Western all have the best interests of our students at heart. All employees of Western play important roles, whether that is teaching, research or the wide range of services that support our students and faculty. At the end of the day everyone is here with one objective and that’s to ensure our students have the opportunities to successfully complete their academic goals.
Q. What will your role be during the negotiation process?
HC: My responsibility during the negotiation process, as it is throughout the year, will be to ensure that the university is communicating on a regular basis with all of our audiences – students, faculty, employees and the community at large, about the great achievements of the university and the reasons why we are one of Canada’s leading research-intensive universities and provide the nation’s best student experience.
At the same time, I will be working to ensure that the Communications and Public Affairs team continues to keep our campus community informed about the negotiations in a manner that reflects the Western values of integrity and collegiality I see demonstrated on the campus every day.