Traister finds lessons for university, union and self during term

On Sept. 7, 2011, one day before he would lead the university’s first strike in a quarter century, and first-ever by an academic unit, Bryce Traister was trying to focus on something else entirely.

Heading his first Department of English meeting, the “very nervous” rookie chair wanted to be in that moment only. “This was a very big deal for me,” he said.

In the middle of that meeting, with 50 of his colleagues gathered around, his phone rang. “I had to take the call because it’s from my chief negotiator letting me know we’re going on strike,” said the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA) president.

Traister answered and told his team he would get back to them after the meeting.

Minutes later, his phone rang again. This time, it is the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Traister, an American citizen, had been attempting to figure out what an IRS crackdown on Americans living in Canada would mean to him.

Again, he answered, only this time telling the Tax Man he would get back to him.

“Few Americans tell the IRS, ‘I’ll get back to you on that,’” Traister laughed. “That was sort of a window into the type of year I was going to have.”

On June 30, Traister’s term as UWOFA president ends, closing the book on one of the most eventful runs in the association’s history. He paused last month to reflect on the lessons he found for himself, the association and even the university as a whole.

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Traister knows he’s not the most popular man on campus after 12 months at the helm of the faculty association. He admits the move did little to help his career and – “arguably” – lost him a few friends along the way. But he needed to do it anyway. If only to break a mould.

“There’s an old mythology around here that UWOFA only attracts a certain kind of member – somebody left-leaning, interested in union politics, interested in the labour movement in the world, committed to a certain kind of activist politics and social justice issues,” he said. “The thing about mythologies is that they aren’t real. But they are, in the sense that people believe them.

“So how do you answer that?”

For the last 11-plus months, he has tried.

Just look around, Traister said, and see the diversity of UWOFA membership politics today – a mix of “long-time union servants and people who didn’t know where the UWOFA office was until recently.”

He has sought a wider engagement – publicly and privately – among those dissatisfied with union politics. He points to the new blood on the board of directors featuring people who wouldn’t have been “caught dead at a UWOFA meeting or, at least, caught dead at a UWOFA meeting agreeing with anything that was said.”

From Day 1, he wanted faculty to see their interests reflected in the association.

“This is a big and roomy tent,” Traister said. “We’re not here to tell you what to think; we’re here to represent what you think.”

Starting at Western in 2002, Traister was a young man who didn’t like the language coming from senior administrators across the country at that time. That led him to a still-evolving UWOFA where he got involved as a junior faculty member serving on the first contract committee.

UWOFA was founded in 1955, but wasn’t certified as a bargaining agent for academic staff until 1998 – rather late to the game for unionized faculty across Canada.

“(In UWOFA), I found a place where I could articulate my concerns with like-minded people who, like me, felt we were becoming Corporate U.,” said the double Berkeley grad, who took part in a strike as a graduate student on the legendary activist campus. “It appealed to my sense of intellectual combativeness.”

Despite the somewhat radical pedigree of Berkeley, the self-professed “small ‘l’ liberal” is not cut from the traditional union boss mold; he is far more academic, more collaborative in his approach to dealing with his constituents as well as management. It’s an approach, even though born of his nature, which still required a bit of a curve.

“I had to learn how to talk to power in a way that wasn’t merely about resenting it or being angry at it or thinking I need to topple it and, most importantly, thinking it was my responsibility to do so,” he said.

Traister, who followed Faculty of Information and Media Studies professor James Compton as president, and will be followed by Political Science professor Don Abelson, sees numerous places where the association and senior administration can work together. He knows both parties have the same goal of Western excellence, while facing different external pressures.

But to Traister’s mind, while these competing interests may lead to occasional friction, they don’t always need to end in fire.

“Nobody running this place is trying to make life miserable for anybody,” he said. “The senior administration is not trying to wreck the lives of any individuals or the faculty association as a whole. Certainly, there are emphases that senior administration has in terms of where the university should go that I don’t agree with.”

Among those, Traister cites what he sees as the university’s redefining – perhaps revaluing – of research. Although lost in the unrest of the last 11 months, his focus remains on drawing out a stronger university commitment to curiosity-driven research.

“We need to hire smart faculty, keep them if they have proven themselves and then tell them to go out and have brilliant thoughts about what interests them and convey those thoughts to their students. All the rest of it will follow – the patents, the intellectual property, the donations from the big donors, the partnerships with businesses and government,” he said. “All of that will follow a fundamental commitment to allowing faculty to research and teach what interests them. That’s why we hired them.

“Research is research. It doesn’t really matter if it leads to a patent or a peer-reviewed book in Weldon Library.”

Traister knows those corporate-leaning pressures are not fully internal, but often are driven from outside. So, he reserves his harshest criticism for politicians who create the environment.

“All the polling that CAUT (Canadian Association of University Teachers) does shows it is not the voting public interested in turning universities into diploma mills that are conducting research on behalf of large pharmaceuticals or private interests; it is not the voters who disparage academics,” he said. “There is a real disconnect between the polling of actual people and the messaging we get whereby governments can get elected by saying ‘we’re going to crack down on all those lazy professors’ and it is not Joe or Nancy Public who find professors lazy.”

Traister knows, however, despite the gains in other areas, his tenure will be defined by ‘The Strike.’

Not that it bothers him.

“I thought that walkout was an excellent thing for that bargaining unit,” said the man who “couldn’t have felt more honoured” to be representing the librarians and archivists.

In 2004, UWOFA became the certified bargaining agent for librarians and archivists. On Sept. 8, 2011, for the first time in 24 years, picketers would line the main entrances to Western’s campus as unionized librarians and archivists walked off the job. The 51 members of the bargaining unit had been without a contract for more than two months.

It would be resolved two weeks later.

Standing in front of those banks of microphones in the early days of the strike, amid an external environment not exactly sympathetic to labour, Traister knew the stakes.

“The idea of selling a strike, in particular a strike where money is an issue in the economic context we are in now, is tough. People don’t want to hear it,” he said. “They see people who work in beautiful buildings and have nice-paying jobs and say, ‘What are you complaining about?’”

But it needed to happen as Traister saw a bargaining unit come of age on the line.

“Whatever else might be said about what we were arguing about at the table, a more inspiring group of co-workers I really couldn’t ask for,” Traister said. “They were absolutely, to a person, committed to themselves and to each other.”

So much so, he said, the faculty could learn a lot from the librarians and archivists. In the wake of the strike, the unit has come together more tightly than ever before – fully participating in general meetings, engaging in issues pertaining to their area on campus and across the country.

“Strikes are always difficult. There’s just no question. Ask anyone who has been on a strike – labour side, management side – they will all tell you it is tough. The emotions run high; the need to be right is that much higher. People’s jobs are on the line; people are walking the line. The opportunity, the occasion for bitterness is there on both sides,” he continued. “But at the end of the day, that didn’t happen here.

“There was no lasting bitterness that came back from the lines.”

In the end, be in day-to-day encounters or over a bargaining table, building a relationship with the association and, in turn, the university administration, is not unlike any other relationship. Solutions are found, he said, in a “trust-based relationship.”

“I am ready for all of us to conduct ourselves on the basis of principle, rather than on the basis of personality. I do not think one person is responsible for the bad things that happen. I do not think individuals are trying to victimize each another. I do not think any individual working at this university is committed to bad-faith politics,” Traister said.

“There’s every opportunity for us to stay angry at one other; I don’t think that’s going to get us anywhere.”