Meet your heroes

On the streets of Cardiff, a week and a half ago, I actualised a long-held dream.

I was cycling in the sunshine, just past the Hilton hotel on my way through the city centre for some jumbo oats when I spotted a familiar figure – short, barrel-shaped, smartly dressed in black with round sunglasses, curly hair, and a black fedora.

Colin Linden playing guitar at Toronto PartiGras

“Colin Linden” by Kasra Ganjavi, found on flickr.com; CC BY-NC 2.0

“Colin Linden?” I said.

“Yes, yes it is,” he replied with a grin.

“Holy shit!” Continue reading

Short Reflections on the Strike: Never More Proud

There was a lot of revelry following our final day of picketing. That’s why this final diary is a day late.

Fourteen days of strike action, spread over four weeks. I honestly did not think we were going to have the effect we’ve had. Colleagues who’ve been in this racket a while say they didn’t expect members to go the distance, to in fact increase their support as the days went on. They didn’t expect they’d still be here at the end.

They said they’ve never been more proud to be union members and to be academic staff at Cardiff University.

When I resolved to write diaries on this blog for every day of striking, I scratched some ideas for themes in my notebook. I had ten – maybe nine (some were waffly). If we’re still going, I’ll cook up some more then. I’m glad I saw it through, just like I’m glad I saw the strike through.

It will be odd being back on the clock on Monday, but there’s no shortage of tasks. The task that’s at the forefront for most of us, however, is how to capitalise on the fellowship we’ve fostered. To keep the relations up and, as necessary, to keep the pressure up. Because though our strike is currently over, our dispute is not resolved. So, watch this space, I guess.

And yes, we did Bohemian Rhapsody with nowt to accompany but my meagre ukulele:

Short Reflections on the Strike: Some Wins

Crikey, these are getting ragged.

It’s late.

We had a gloriously sunny day on the picket line.

My wife made the most amazing sole meuniere with blood orange – okay, it was plaice, but it was still really good. Just before we sat down to eat, I saw word that my employer will spread out strike deductions over three months and not be a stickler on penalising action short of a strike.

After making and then fighting fires on the comms front, I have been learning the chords to Bohemian Rhapsody on the ukulele so that I can accompany my union members at our mass rally for the final day of striking tomorrow. Friends, if you thought my job was weird when I was on the clock, you should see me when I’m off it.

Yes, friends, this will be me tomorrow. Something to see, for sure.

Short Reflections on the Strike: Managing Multiple Interests

It can be difficult for a union – inherently a uniting organisation – to adequately represent the views of a diverse group of people. It is still the case that, though we might all be linked by the same industry, we have bespoke needs that can, at times, actually conflict.

I felt this keenly when I was on the CBC picket line in 2005. Then, I was a casualised broadcast journalist. Working on call, not even a regular short contract, sometimes a news reporter, sometimes a current affairs chase producer. For three weeks one summer, I arranged interview content for a classical music programme during the local chamber music festival. I had been trained in archiving scripts so that someone was capable of backfilling our usual archivist when she was ill or on holidays; this soon incorporated a bespoke set of records to keep during the federal election, documenting how much time each party received and what issues were covered.

Flexible? C’était moi.

What was an asset to our employer – and, let’s be honest, to myself, because it meant I could work more and, like, eat more – was a liability to the union. When we were locked out, union stalwarts were very concerned about having their jobs replaced by these flexible, casualised workers who could just be slotted in anywhere. It was a threat to the long-term solidity that the union stood for.

Only problem was, we flexible, casualised workers were protected by the same union and were on the same damn picket line! “Hey! Like, we can hear you, you know?”

Creative picketers during CBC lockout 2005

Photo by Hadeel Al-Shalchi

I have mentioned the creative theatricality of the picket line in previous posts. It was in many ways an awesome initiative to be a part of. But the people who were being most creative – organising costumes, recording podcasts, writing song lyrics to support the union and afflict the managers – were the very ones being cast as a lurking threat by our union reps. A difficult circle to square.

I had worries of the same ruptures when this current strike was imminent. I had an individualised gasp when I heard we’d be out for 14 days; it was part of a collective gasp, that is certain. And some of the very articulate precarious workers in academia were expressing their ambivalence in very public ways. Twitter and blog posts became forums for describing the income insecurity: when you don’t have a steady guarantee of a paycheque, how can you afford to sacrifice 14 days of the small certain offerings you have? People worried that strike action would embitter their superiors to them – those with the power to renew contracts or write reference letters for future jobs. Student evaluations of our teaching would suffer, and these are a form of currency in job applications.

Some of those who expressed such views were then attacked by union loyalists as undermining the effort before it had even begun. This was unfortunate, though perhaps to be expected with the way debate happens on social media.

Fortunately, the union took notice. And although the direct issue before us is that of pensions, the union has opened a front on casualisation. Other initiatives are also afoot, so that even as we resolve this dispute, we press for change in the whole operation of higher education.

As I’ve said before, if it was just about pensions, we wouldn’t be doing this. Especially in light of yesterday’s rejection of the offer, I must emphasise that this is about honest and transparent information, dignity and respect in communication and relations, and protection of the values we believe the university stands for.

In these things, we can be and surely are united.

Short Reflections on the Strike: Reject

This will be a very short reflection. It’s been a long day, and I need to rest.

It was just last night, while I was reading bedtime stories to the kids, that news came down the wire that our employers, Universities UK, and our union, UCU, had worked out a proposed deal. I must emphasise “proposed”, though they used the term “agreement”. This was also the spirit in the news story at breakfast today on BBC Radio 4.

This is unfortunate, because it was not a good enough offer for the majority of the membership. But of course, we’re not consulted until it has already been put out in public as “an agreement”, which we are then put in the position of rejecting. “Proposal” gives it what it is: a foray by the negotiators, and a pretty poor one considering the depth of feeling.

Put simply: the assumptions that were used to say our pension was “in deficit” or “in crisis” have been answered and refuted already. We’re academics: reading and interpreting numbers like these is our job. Their numbers didn’t work.

Moreover, they had not done their consultations in an entirely fulsome manner. Some responding institutions gave the opinion of just a single person. Colleges at Cambridge and Oxford were counted as institutions in their own right. This was not broad and meaningful.

Despite that, they offered a proposal that tried some sort of half-way measure, as though these flaws which had been recognised as flaws were nonetheless given reality by their making it so. And to rub salt in the wounds, they wanted the union to encourage teaching staff to make up lectures missed during the strike despite the fact that we would be docked pay for those missed strike days.

Striking Cardiff UCU members at the Senedd

Photo from Jonathan Marsh

Our message was to reject. That was our message in Cardiff, and we sent our representative to London to relay that message to the national committee. So did at least 46 others, though I think that number might be even higher. In a way, it doesn’t matter: it was “overwhelming”. The members reject it. This is not the deal to pull us off the streets.

Now it gets hard: we have to describe not only why we’re striking but why we rejected this chance to get back to work. But we got great support from politicians that we met at the Senedd. And we affirmed each other. This afternoon, I met with students at a teach-out session where we talked about communication, about isolation through individualisation and the inequalities present in our system. They support us, but we need to communicate with them, and work (when we’re back at our desks; probably Monday) to protect and support them.

This still matters. So we continue.

Short Reflections on the Strike: It’s like Thunder! Lightning!

Lyrics to UCU strike version of Jolene

Lyrics adapted from Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” by Carina Girvan

I do mean “our”. More people have been coming forward with lyrics they’ve adapted. I’ve had calls to learn “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Shout”.  At our rally on Thursday, I heard some folk behind me singing new words to Cher’s “Believe”, and though I had no form to give to the verses, once I figured out what key they were singing in, I could back them up on the chorus. Today, a few of us jumped in on a rewritten “Jolene”, and we all got organised for that British pub classic, “Wonderwall”.
Lyrics to UCU strike version of Wonderwall

Lyrics adapted from Noel Gallagher’s “Wonderwall” by Nicky Priaulx and Steve Davies

It’s great fun, even if “UUK” doesn’t scan so well most of the time (though watch this space: I’ve been tinkering with Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”…) It’s grim to be away from our classes and our research. It sucks not to reply to student e-mails. We’ve had sharp cold, mild snow, and drippy rain. And we’re losing money on the days we’re out. So it’s not a party.
But we can find spots of joy nonetheless. A good fiery speech gets us going. A visit from a politician plugs us in to the wider conversations, by which our dispute will eventually be resolved. But singing together – that is what gladdens our hearts and gives us something to remember at the end of the day.
I’ve always wanted to properly work out a cover of “Knock on Wood”, the disco classic. The music, on the ukulele, is a doddle. But I’ve never quite committed the time. Marching at the Thursday rally, I absently strummed out the chords. A colleague from the journalism school hummed, “I don’t want to lose the pension…” We could see there was something there, but we had to get on to the fiery speeches and politician visits, so we left it.
Over the weekend, I picked it up again. In fact, the lyrics fit over extremely well. Except for the title and landing line in the chorus, of course. The person in the song feels really lucky, whereas we don’t. Maybe lucky to have the pension we have, but it is in the process of being taken away. I tried “Strike for Good”, which I liked in the sense of a positive message (for the good) but couldn’t really use because it sounds like we want to keep on striking forever. Unambiguously not the case. “Strike to Win” is a compromise. Doesn’t rhyme, but then, “wood” doesn’t rhyme with anything else in the original lyric. Still a bit weak, a bit hard to sing forcefully. But it went over well all the same.
 
Strike To Win
I don’t want to lose the pension that I got
Cause if I did, I would surely lose a lot 
Cause our pension is better than any stocks I know 
It’s like thunder, lightning 
The way you treat us is frightening 
Think we better strike to win
 
I ain’t superstitious about ’em – don’t wanna take no chance 
Your defined contributions don’t lead me to romance 
Cause our pension is better than any stocks I know 
It’s like thunder, lightning 
The way you treat us is frightening 
Think we better strike to win
 
It’s no secret about it – we’re experts on this stuff 
So see to it (see to it) that we retire with enough 
If we had a decent pension, it would mean so much 
It’s like thunder, lightning 
The way you treat us is frightening 
Think we better strike to win

 

Short Reflections on the Strike: Strong Women

It’s a short post today: I’m going to see Belle and Sebastian at the Welsh Millennium Centre tonight – fab to have a date with my wife in the midst of this more tiresome business. So I’m fitting this in between comms work, a shower and shave, and feeding the bairns.

Crocuses in Alexandra Garden during our UCU rally on International Women's Day

Crocuses in Alexandra Garden during our UCU rally on International Women’s Day. Photo by Jenny Kitzinger.

Fortunately, the message I wanted to share is simple. Today is International Women’s Day, and there have been some clever analyses of both the pension issue and the precarity issue from a women-focused lens. It was great, then, to have strong women speaking at our Cardiff UCU rally today.

We had female politicians, female academics, and female union organisers address us with strong messages. The men who spoke also highlighted the courageous example of women who have fought in the past and present for justice.

All of this was great, and right. It was also not exceptional, and that is what gives me cheer.

We’ve had strong voices from women all through our pickets and rallies. They have been outspoken and outstanding on committees, on leadership, as picket supervisors, and as the stalwarts who just turn up, hoist a placard, and hand out leaflets.

I would not make a blithe “post-feminist” argument. There is so much work still to be done. I’m just glad that women are here and are doing that work, and I will stand beside them throughout and argue for fairness.

Short Reflections on the Strike: Paying it Backward and Forward

I’ve been a unionised employee since before I got my first degree.

I took journalism at Carleton – a professionally minded sort of degree, to be sure, but one that prepares you for a sceptical viewpoint, a certain allergy to rhetoric, and a disposition not to join things. Not the most promising qualities for union folk.

I wasn’t, however, averse to unions. As I said in a previous reflection, my mother’s background was more Diefenbaker-style conservatism; my father was a generally lefty immigrant from that most liberal of European nations, the Netherlands. We had interesting discussions around the dinner table. The greatest gift I received from those parenting conditions was the example of talking things through and not assuming there was only one right side to an issue. That two people who loved each other could nonetheless disagree on things and it wasn’t fatal.

Anyway, in the third year of my undergrad, I landed an internship with the local CBC radio station. The two-week placements weren’t paid, but if we did anything that got to air – a news story, or booking guests and writing the script for a current affairs interview – we got paid the standard freelance rate. This I managed, and soon after got my very first CBC pay stub… including a deduction for union dues.

It was paltry – like, $2.25 or something. But I queried it with my radio lecturer, who happened also to be a network producer at CBC and an absolute whip of a journalism instructor.

“The union in years past has fought to get that standard freelance rate that you and everyone else gets paid,” she told me. “So you honour that by paying into the union so it can keep fighting on everyone’s behalf.”

CBC employees locked out in Winnipeg, MB, 15 August 2005

“day one: walking in circles” by Agent Magenta, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, found on flickr.com

Well, that made sense. Of course it did. The union isn’t just a relic of the industrial revolution. It has continued to work to improve things, and so we honour the past by paying in the present to keep an advocate for our future.

It’s why my mother didn’t rankle much about joining the BC Ferries Union. It was a trade-off everyone knew about, at least in BC: union jobs meant better wages, but from time to time, you might have to go on strike or something.

This is why I’m so surprised at the voluntary nature of union subscription at the university. This may sound strange to post-Thatcher British ears, but I see a real wisdom in it. I know the independent-minded tradition of Britain is a strong one, and university lecturers are particularly keen on exerting their independence. Again, not a profession of joiners.

I will just close by noting, however, that such independence only goes so far. Everyone is collectively organised in the pension scheme for which we are currently striking. If our union efforts fail, everyone loses out. If we succeed, everyone wins. But only some of us have given up our wages and risked embittering ourselves to management and students alike. Looked at that way, the independence of thought and action looks a little more like timidity.

Short Reflections on the Strike: It’s Because of You

Had my little chance to shine at our main union rally today at 11. I’ve been strumming outside our building on and off. Fingers were freezing last week, but it seemed nonetheless to be appreciated. Nice to bring some Robbie Robertson to the whole group, with some nice ad hoc amplification to boot.

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I will have another chance to shine this evening. I’m playing a short set at a monthly folk circle in Riverside. This is a low-key, humble gathering in the best folk tradition: just people getting together in a church hall with tea lights, homemade cake and cups of tea at the mid-point, and a very informal mix of regulars and invited guests.

I haven’t made a big splash about it on my web page or anything, but it is the first time I will have properly performed in quite a while. Other things can so easily take priority: I have a full-time job of the creative, engaging sort that often leaches time away outside of traditional working hours. I also have three growing kids and a nicely established tradition of reading a chapter or two from a novel with them at bedtime. (Right now, we’re on Arthur Ransome’s Pigeon Post from the Swallows and Amazons books. Second time through for the elder two, and such a good book.) And I have the feeling of arrested development that comes with employment precarity: on a fixed-term contract, how much can I legitimately invest in a community I might have to leave when autumn comes? And shouldn’t my main extra-curricular pursuit be finding that next job?

Anyway, great to be playing again.

Michael Munnik and colleagues playing music on the line in Ottawa, 2005

Photo by Hadeel Al-Shalchi

I’ve got a set list in mind, but I might add on one that I wrote twelve years ago, the last time I walked a picket line. It was early days of our lockout – maybe even the first day, ‘cause I didn’t have an instrument with me. It started with the first line, Spent my last dollar on union dues. Okay, a bit grim, but accurate to the feeling of the casualised unionised worker (hey, wait…) I tossed it about in my head some, then sat under a tree by the Rideau Canal that afternoon to write a first draft of the lyrics. Put some music behind it when I got home.

I had a chance to perform it shortly afterwards, when the Ottawa Folk Festival got started. A friend of mine was organising the late-night open mic at a nearby hotel where the performers were stationed, and she made space for me to debut it and make a little speech about our CBC troubles, thanking everyone for their support. (C’mon – it was a folk festival. We were the public broadcaster. OF COURSE everyone supported us.)

The lyric in the third verse, I am the dynamite and you are the fuse, was a reference to a great programme two of my excellent colleagues, Bill Stunt and Amanda Putz, had produced earlier that summer called Fuse. Given the target of our ire, I was pretty proud of that line, though you could also read it more straightforwardly as a “troubled romance” kind of song, if that’s your bent. The grim tone continues throughout, and I am especially pleased with the raw honesty of the final verse. I think it shows the blend of fatalism and existentialism that marked a lot of my writing then.

It’s Because of You

Spent my last dollar on union dues
Now my feet are restless, and I’m living in my shoes
Just don’t ask me why I sing the blues
It’s because of you

Ain’t no mystery why I’m so confused
The one day you’re happy and the next you’re misused
Just don’t ask me why I sing the blues
It’s because of you

Joys, they come singly, and troubles by twos
I am the dynamite and you are the fuse
Just don’t ask me why I sing the blues
It’s because of you

I know you’re stronger, and I expect that I’ll lose
You can hand it to me, but I’d rather choose
Just don’t ask me why I sing the blues
It’s because of you

The song got an extra lease on life some years later at an event called Chrysalis. This was a grassroots showcase night, organised by regulars at the Wednesday open mic at Rasputin’s on Bronson Avenue… conveniently downstairs from my apartment for three years of my undergraduate degree and a hotspot for original folk until a kitchen fire burned it down in 2008. Performers would sign up to sing two songs written by other Ottawa writers. It was a chance to learn and interpret people who might otherwise not hear a cover version of their own stuff.

Rick Hayes chose this one. I must say, it’s not one I perform too often, and I don’t think it’s my best. I stuck a bunch of complicated chord changes in it mostly to contrast the simplicity of the lyrics, but Rick stripped it right down. He’s from Newfoundland, with his untempered accent cutting through with a rich, strong baritone voice. He sang the hell out of it, and I’m really grateful.

Short Reflections on the Strike: Crossing Lines

Our strike last week ended Wednesday 28 February. The plan was to return to work, be as productive as we could be over two 7-hour contracted work days Thursday and Friday, then return to the picket line today.

Snow overnight on Wednesday threatened things: we’d received messages from all three kids’ schools saying classes were cancelled, but at 8 am, my university was still open. A proper Canadian, I suited up in well-treaded boots and stomped in. Arrived in time to turn on my computer, make a cup of tea, and have a brief chat with the only other colleague on the floor (another Canadian – no joke). Then back to my computer to see the urgent e-mail that the university buildings would close at 10 and we were all to leave and go home. Buildings would remain closed Friday, too.

Ah. *That* productivity.

Michael Munnik doesn't think it's really very snowy in Cardiff on Thursday 1 March

All that snow on the way back from work…

It meant some complications for me. I knew that the library had recalled I book I had out to serve another student’s request. They needed it by Monday. In ordinary conditions, I would have had plenty of time to return it. Only, by the time I left my office, the main doors were locked, so I couldn’t get the book in the return box. To return it today would mean crossing the picket line, however briefly and uncontroversially. To retain it would start to cost me overdue fines.

Meanwhile, one task I apparently had been able to accomplish during the 20 minutes I spent at my desk was to unpack my lunch and stick it in the desk by my computer. I only registered this once back home and discussing lunch with my all-snow-dayed family. “I made a really great-looking sandwich; let me just get it from my…” Hmm. Buildings closed Thursday, Friday. Also Saturday, Sunday for the weekend. Then it’s Monday, and I’m on strike til… Thursday. Most unpleasant.

So amidst my solidarity with union colleagues who are out on strike, I’m also grateful for solidarity with admin staff who fetched my inedible lunch and disposed of it, who visited me on the line to return a book before it started costing me. We’re all in this together!


Staff at the Question Time session with Colin Riordan and Rob Williams

Staff at the Question Time session with Colin Riordan and Rob Williams. Photo c/o @CardiffUCU

Speaking of crossing lines, just a brief note that the big buzz on Cardiff campus today was an hour’s meeting with our vice chancellor, Colin Riordan, and the chief financial officer, Rob Williams. You can check live tweets from me and others, but I’ll say it was brave of them to come down and good of everyone to keep tempers in check. We don’t need heated rhetoric to argue our case – we have expertise right on our picket line about the faulty calculations that the regulator and the universities organisation is insisting on for valuating our pension. (If you want an excellent and understandable analogy, check out this short video from colleagues:)


What was most compelling was the invitation for him to work with us, not against us, and advocate for our best interests at the top table. The university is not a collection of buildings: it is staff and students who come to learn and teach. It is the people.