The timing wasn’t right when Stephen Pitel was first asked to serve as President of the University of Western Ontario Faculty Association (UWOFA). Approaching a sabbatical, he was unable to dedicate the three consecutive years the bargaining unit requires for its presidency cycle.
In retrospect, that year was just what he needed.
“I’m not sure I would have said ‘yes,’ if I didn’t have that long period to think it through,” said the Faculty of Law professor. “I do like the opportunity to serve. I’m a lawyer by training and there is this high dimension of legal ethics to the notion of service in a community, to giving back by being in a leadership role.
“I’ve always liked the idea of doing more than teaching and research. I’ve had a number of service-related jobs within the Law school. But (the year off) got me thinking. I have increasingly become concerned – on a case-by-case basis – about the ways I’ve seen individual members of the faculty treated by administration. It has, over time, led me to appreciate the importance of the role UWOFA plays.”
Having previously served on UWOFA’s grievance committee and as the union’s speaker, Pitel returned from sabbatical with a clear vision. He stepped into the role of president in July, following Ann Bigelow, a Management & Organizational Studies professor.
“Part of UWOFA’s role is as a defender of employee rights in the workplace and of academic freedom issues. As my own career developed, I found I was more and more sympathetic to the work UWOFA does,” Pitel noted.
He practised corporate and commercial litigation for three years in Toronto in the 1990s before leaving, in search of a career with a better work-life balance. After doctoral studies at the University of Cambridge, he came to Western Law in 2000. He was promoted to full professor in 2013 and has been an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto and the University of Sherbrooke.
Pitel, whose research and teaching is focused on private international law, tort law, civil procedure and legal ethics, is the co-author of numerous legal books. He is one of the founders of Western’s Tort Law Research Group and was the co-developer of Canada’s first mandatory first-year law school course in legal ethics.
This marks the last year of UWOFA’s four-year collective agreement with the university, and the first thing on Pitel’s radar is engaging faculty members to voice their concerns before the bargaining unit starts negotiations in the spring.
“Reaching out and getting input from our members is of particular importance in the collective bargaining process, so when we’re at the table, we know we are truly representing members’ needs,” he explained. “It’s a feedback cycle. It only makes sense that members are at the front and centre of the development of goals.”
On the table are usual subjects, as fair compensation and competitive benefits are always important, he explained, as is appropriate and improved protections for limited-duties and limited-term faculty members.
“It’s been a strong theme of ours to seek greater protection for people who are not on a tenure-track stream or have tenure. Our union is unusual amongst academic unions in that with many institutions, contract faculty are represented by one union while (tenured faculty) members are represented by a separate union. We are in a fortunate position because we can mobilize across our entire membership to achieve gains for our contract-faculty members,” Pitel explained.
He doesn’t anticipate significant changes or challenges over the year but does hope to see administration reach out to UWOFA more. The union is asked for its views on a wide range of matters on campus. But, more often than not, Pitel said, there isn’t enough time for proper consultation or consideration of UWOFA’s position on matters that affect its membership.
“The university has so many different administrative parts involved in developing policies or making decisions, many of which have a very direct impact on our members. A fair number of (the decisions) actually relate to issues governed by our collective agreement. The whole process would be better served by more – rather than less – and earlier – rather than later – consultation with UWOFA as part of the process,” he stressed.
He cited the Board of Governor’s earlier plans to enact a new policy on intellectual property across the university. The subject made it to the Board’s June agenda with zero UWOFA input, Pitel said.
The union wrote a letter noting it had not seen a version of the policy and reinforcing any policy would need to be consistent with the collective agreement, which has a lengthy inclusion on intellectual property. The Board removed the policy discussion from its June agenda, asked for UWOFA input and is expected to resume the discussion in November.
“UWOFA is consulting with membership to formulate our response now and we will be putting that forward with the hope it will be considered by the Board,” Pitel added.
“People might end up disagreeing on specifics but, first and foremost to us, it’s important there be an open consultation process. We are pleased that is happening. There is a process; that’s good news. But the bad news is there almost wasn’t – we had to push for that to happen.”