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.

Short Reflections on the Strike: Building Solidarity

Protesters in BC at a social services rally

Photo by Tony Sprackett of Community Social Services Rally in Victoria, BC, 28 March 2009; found on flickr.com; CC BY-NC 2.0

I spent my teen years in British Columbia, Canada in the 1990s: the decade following the ‘greed is good’ 1980s, when we were all supposed to care about the environment and stuff. Well, I did. But the BC of that period seemed pretty politically apathetic. I had a hard time interesting my friends in causes beyond legalisation. Nuclear submarines from the US cruising up and down the Strait of Georgia? Ah, well. What are you gonna do? Clayoquot Sound was a brief highlight, but things seemed to fizzle and I felt out of step. I was glad to get back on the mainland, past the dispositional barrier of the Rocky Mountains, when I took off for university in Ottawa.

My mother reads this blog, so I need to be careful of what I say, but I don’t think I’m giving anything dramatic away when I say she is from a small-c conservative, East Coast Tory family. That is the foundation on which her politics were built. She raised her young family in the Calgary, Alberta of the 1980s, so there’s that, too. Then we moved to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island so my dad could open up a picture frame shop. She had a spell of employment, then unemployment – moving provinces is hard – until she landed a job with the BC Ferries.

To work for the Ferries, she had to become a member of the BC Ferries Union. I know that might read oddly for post-Thatcher British folk, but it’s how Canada’s labour scene is organised. I think it has real strengths, which I’ll write about another time, if I’m still picketing and therefore producing more of these reflections.

So that’s fine: she, like many Canadians, is ideologically pretty mild, so she would take a union job and earn union wages without feeling any necessarily committed passion of union solidarity.

Then they voted Gordon Campbell in as premier. He represented the Liberal Party – the same party of this Justin Trudeau that everyone admires so much – but in BC’s unique political landscape, that meant the right wing alternative to the ostensibly social democratic NDP. His tenure was fraught, shall we say, and I watched it from afar. I watched as it switched on my politically sleepy friends. I watched as it built solidarity in my mother.

We were talking on the phone one afternoon when she mentioned that, earlier that day, she’d gone down to the Ferries office to pick up her paycheque. On her way back home, she saw a nurse’s rally protesting cuts, so she parked the car, got out, and joined them.

“You?” I laughed. “You joined a nurse’s rally on your day off, out of solidarity?”

She had a good chuckle, too. Then she started telling me about how terrible the things he was doing were.

Short Reflections on the Strike: These Songs of Freedom

Michael Munnik playing ukulele at the UCU picket line at Cardiff University

Photo by Wouter Poortinga

I turned up at the picket line today with my ukulele case. It had gone over pretty well when I brought it on Friday, and I thought that, with the bitter cold, some music might warm up my colleagues. Opened the case, and it was empty: I had left the instrument itself on the stand at home. A colleague joked that I was like Machine Gun Kelly, only to find nothing with which to open fire.

Too bad for the line, but music is a great thing to have during a strike. I’m still learning what it is that gets British people motivated, though Billy Bragg’s “To Have and To Have Not” is a clear winner from my repertoire.

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

Photo by Hadeel Al-Shalchi

When I was out on the line on Sparks Street in 2005, I brought my guitar on Day Two. The next day, I was joined by two colleagues, and we started our own little Woodstock. Loads of protest songs, just feel-good singalong songs. With the help of other creative colleagues, we started adapting lyrics from the Beatles and the Clash to speak to our particular struggles with management. It was the kind of theatrical action you’d expect from creative producers.

Playing every day on the picket line was really important for my own self-conception as a musician. It gave me the resolve to make my own record and start gigging solo, after the Celt-punk band I was in had wrapped up, and suddenly, I was in the habit of playing music every day for people I cared about who told me they appreciated what I was doing.

Michael Munnik and Rita Celli at the Ottawa Folk Festival 2005

Besides helping with morale, the music had a political purpose. We used the carnival atmosphere of the picket line to draw wider attention from the public. And periodically, I’d take my guitar and sing one of our creations for an external audience. My first time on the main stage of the Ottawa Folk Festival was with my colleague Rita Celli, a presenter on radio and, for a time, TV. She was the name, the draw; I was the satirical lyrics about CBC management set to “When I’m Sixty-Four”. I remember Rita talking about her dad, a former miner in Sudbury, Ontario, and a veteran of several strikes himself. “He told me, ‘Rita, keep your head down!'” she quipped, putting on his Italian accent. “So much for that!”

I think of that advice, too. But I don’t mind being visible for my colleagues, playing and singing and adding the skills that I have to the cause. I hope that it helps, in small ways if not in big ones.

Short Reflections on the Strike: Dude’s Gotta Eat

This university strike both is and isn’t about pensions.

If it were just a matter of pay, you wouldn’t have so many going to the wall like this. Fourteen days is a lot of pay to miss, and it’s a lot of teaching that we’re not doing. Students might not believe us, but it’s true: we don’t want to hurt them. It doesn’t feel good to withhold our lectures and supervision.

The narrow issue that we balloted on is the way our pensions will work. I am someone who’s been working in higher education for just under three years, who has only been paying into a pension for that long, and who sees his retirement age disappearing in the running distance of years with no sure belief pensions will even work the way they currently do when he gets there. I’m not even sure of where or if I will be working at the end of this contract. So the rhetoric of “We’ve got to defend our pensions” is not compelling for me.

I remember back in Grade 11 at Dover Bay Secondary School, when Mr. Tam gave us a maths lesson on compound interest. He put a chart up on the overhead projector: we had Anna, who puts away $1000 from the age of 18 to the age of 25 and then stops, and we had Brenda, who puts away $1000 from the age of 25 to the age of 65 and then stops. Assuming a static and even rate of interest, who ends up with more when they retire?

I can’t remember the sums. I can’t remember the size of the gap between Anna’s pot and Brenda’s. I just remember that it was significantly bigger and that Anna had put in a hell of a lot less of her own money in the process. That’s for me, I thought.

I worked delivering newspapers all through my high school days, and then I took a year off after high school to work. Between my immediate expenses and savings for uni, I put $500 away in an RRSP – one of those accounts where you can save to a tax-free threshold so long as you don’t touch it til you retire. It starts here, I thought.

My parents did not have the money to send me to university, but I was bright, and I got scholarships. My first year was covered, but after that, I would have to work part time to cover the sums. I had to apply for a student loan. That first summer back home, sitting at my parents’ dining room table and working it all out, I could also see that I was going to have to cash in my RRSP. This small amount – my first step towards Anna’s $7000 capital investment – couldn’t sit there, earning its keep. It would not be joined by another $500, by $1000 next year and the year after that.

I was in tears.

My father was sympathetic, but he said, “It’s no good sacrificing and putting money aside if you need it now. You don’t want to starve. You want to pay your tuition fees.” It was a hard message, but he was right. You can plan as best you can, but in the end, dude’s gotta eat.

This message was back on my mind once the strike ballot was announced. Was I prepared to sacrifice my wages now on the prospect of protecting a pension years in the future that I may or may not be able to collect anyway? Those wages don’t just feed, house, and clothe me: my whole family rely on my income.

In the end, after conversations with my wife, the answer was yes. Because this is not just about the pension. This is about protecting the industry I am invested in.

Short Reflections on the Strike: Many Departments, One Unit

Sharp day to be out on the picket line at Cardiff University, but at least we had the sunshine. And each other, to keep us warm like. The groupness is what makes strikes tolerable.

A colleague from the Heath Park Campus spoke to our 11 am gathering at Main Building, noting how great it was to meet colleagues from other departments, away from corridors and official meetings. We can learn a lot from these different ways of meeting – what people like to do, where they’re from, what ideas they have for the future and when we’re back inside. It creates a group feeling among otherwise far-flung co-workers.

He’s quite right. When I worked with CBC Ottawa, we had a great feeling of togetherness among colleagues in regional English radio. It wasn’t always thus: our executive producer, Andy Clarke, remembered when there were silos between news and current affairs; when  the morning show, on learning of a good story, would hold on to it til next day rather than informing colleagues who worked on the afternoon show. Andy worked hard to make it the place it was by the time I started working there.

We occupied one wing of the seventh and eighth floors of the Chateau Laurier. French regional radio were on the other wing, and we were on nodding terms with them – sharing the elevator and whatnot. I had occasionally spent time on the phone talking with a producer from the Parliamentary bureau, but they were elsewhere, on Sparks Street. Once I had to head to Westboro to liaise with people in TV. I had little idea where I was or who these people were.

Then in 2005 they moved us all into one big building – 181 Queen Street. It was tough at first. Our unit felt a little diffuse, as reporters were grouped with reporters from TV and Current Affairs were on a mezzanine. Our exec producer was in a central “command centre” with his counterparts in TV, and we were encouraged to report to any of them. It all felt a little weird.

Just a few months after we were assembled, we were locked out, and for over two months, we were on the picket line together. Since we were all in one big building, picketing was really easy: some at the front door, some at the back. We got to know everybody, including folk in HR that we’d never met before. (They live, it would seem, on the third floor.) We went out as a group of fractured units, but we came back in as a united cohort, grouped by our experiences. I’ll admit, it’s a hard way to get to know your colleagues. We all wished for better conditions. But it was one hell of a silver lining, and it probably wouldn’t have happened at all if not for the lockout.

Short Reflections on the Strike: Here Again

UCU Cardiff sign at picket lineOrdinarily, today would be a teaching day. Qualitative Research Methods with a small group of MA students. Instead, I’ve been standing outside the entrance to my building, picketing with my university colleagues.

I won’t belabour the details of why: it’s been written about in thorough detail, with helpful videos to explain the issue. I also won’t spend a lot of time in this post explaining why I’m a part of it, though this blog post puts things very well.

What gurns me, and what I will talk about here, is how shitty it is to be here again.

The tl;dr version of events is that the universities are worried about the value of the pension. They do not believe they have sufficient funds in the kitty to honour their commitments to workers in the worst case scenario – the one where everything folds up shop tomorrow and no one is paying any more contributions into the scheme.

I don’t believe this is an appropriate measure, however, as the likelihood of all these universities suddenly stopping all activity is low to the point of being laughable. In the real, business as usual case, the scheme is healthy and everyone’s contributing as they should.

And I’ve been here before. Pension valuations were one of the big pressures that forced the CBC to cut 800 jobs in 2009. As I’ve written before, I was one of them. It’s what led me into academia.

It’s therefore galling to be arguing against the universities’ plans to rearrange pensions and hurt relations with their employees. I’ve already been here. But, having been here, in a different sector and a different country, I’m under no illusions about the exceptional quality of academic lecturers. We’re workers, like any other, providing a service with our skills that is partly paid for now, with our monthly paycheques, and partly compensated in the future, with a pension to secure our living when we have gotten too old to offer those skills anymore.

Having uprooted my family, changed my life trajectory, invested time and money in retraining, and now gotten only a precarious foothold in this industry, it’s rotten to be defending my corner once again. And yet, here I am.

On the change we are becoming: New Year’s Eve 2017

Quotation from Malouf's An Imaginary Life It’s been a struggle of a year – personally as well as corporately. And now, at the bitter end of 2017, I am where I desperately hoped I would not be: approaching the end of my contract (NB: I’m okay til the end of August. Don’t panic. It’s just that, in higher ed, the hiring cycles churn well before the actual transition happens. Planning ahead is essential.)

So, instead of relaxing over the holidays, I’ve been spending the time between Christmas and New Year’s tailoring applications. And worrying. And telling myself not to worry.

We turn to old friends when we’re in need of ballast, and I’ve returned to three novels for the month of December that please me perhaps more than any other writing I’ve ever read.

First was Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead – a profound, honest, and utterly real narrative of a life by one man living at the end of it in the place he is rooted: Gilead, Iowa.

Then was Last Orders by Graham Swift – a profound, honest, and utterly real narrative of a life by a close group of people at the end of one man’s life in the place they all are rooted: Bermondsey, South London.

The last I just finished before turning out the light last night. It is an absolute gift and the best thing I read during my undergraduate degree. It is David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life – a profound, honest, and utterly imagined narrative of a life by one man living at the end of it in the place to which he has been uprooted: Tomis, on the shores of the Black Sea in what is now Constanta, Romania, south of the mouth of the Danube and the furthest limits of the Roman Empire.

It is the imagined metamorphosis of the poet Ovid in exile, from the slick cosmopolitan poet to one awake, aware, and untethered from his life and his world. If you need a book recommendation for 2018, all of these are good, but this is perhaps the best of all.

I read the sentence scrawled out in the photo above and felt it encaptured the sensation of precarity and openness I somewhat have and very much need right now. Here it is, more legibly.

What else should our lives be but a continual series of beginnings, of painful settings out into the mystery of what we have not yet become, except in dreams that blow in from out there bearing the fragrance of islands we have not yet sighted in our waking hours, as in voyaging sometimes the first blossoming branches of our next landfall come bumping against the keel, even in the dark, whole days before the real land rises to meet us.

-David Malouf
An Imaginary Life

Make mine a double-double

Waiting for Tim Hortons to open

We took the kids to Tim Hortons this weekend. Put them in touch with their Canadian heritage again. It’s a new experience – the shop only opened Tuesday, and it’s just the second stand-alone Tim Hortons shop in the UK (first was in Glasgow a few months ago). I had heard rumours of Tim Hortons material available in Southampton several years ago. And about three years ago, I was in Belfast doing some fieldwork and happened upon Tim Hortons coffee canisters and sell0-wrapped baked goods in a corner of the Spar. It seemed hidden, abortive, and not necessarily very good.

The opening of the Cardiff Timmies, by contrast, was full of hoopla. It was advertised at its storefront for a couple of months beforehand (picture above is us back in September, sad not to already be eating donuts). When we told the kids, they were surprisingly sophisticated in their response. Having just been to Canada in August, my middle child reflected that if the things that are special over there are available over here, they don’t become as special, somehow. Globalisation summarised by my nine-year-old.Coffee date à deux

They got over any reticence by this weekend and were just happy to go have a donut. The boys put on their Toronto Blue Jays ball caps (I know), and my daughter swapped her Canada 150 lapel pin from her backpack to her jumper so she could prove her national bona fides. They were a litle miffed that we got the jump on them, having made time in the mid-afternoon for a coffee-donut date à deux.

The irony in all of this is, of course, that Tim Hortons is not my favourite coffee. Nothing like. (And if Macleans’s highly unscientific poll is to be believed, that holds true for many Canadians.) When Cardiffians ask me if it’s as good as their Canadian contacts make it out to be, I have to let them down gently. They answer that, by the standards of British coffee, even bog-standard is a cut above. Fair point. Continue reading

What drove and drives you drove and drives me too

Gord Downie in Cleveland, Ohio 2015

The Tragically Hip – House of Blues – Cleveland, OH – Jan 16, 2015, by The Tragically Hip; found on flickr.com; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

At the risk of turning this blog into nothing more than a moan at dead musicians (farewell, Tom Petty), I need to write about Gord Downie. I wrote last year when he shared his diagnosis with us all. I stayed up til 2am local time to watch the webcast of the final concert in Kingston. (Canadians abroad – it’s what we do.) And I grieved when word came down last week that he had died. I was just heading out my office door to catch a series of trains to Cambridge, and I was pleased that the usually sluggish wifi on the train perked up, allowing me to dip in and out of Twitter and all the obits and personal memories.

The best resource that’s come out of it (external to Gord himself, of course; we’ll grab his new solo album and learn once more what an artist can teach us about how to die) appeared on YouTube a few days ago. Fifteen videos from Canadian musicians, recorded at George Stroumboulopoulos’s place for CBC – initially for New Year’s Day as part of a four-hour indulgence of our not-so-latent passion for The Tragically Hip.

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I think it’s great, and overdue. It strikes me that, for such a massive band, few definitive covers have surfaced. Short of Sarah Polley’s brilliant and understated “Courage” (recorded, let’s note, by someone who’s primarily associated with film), there’s been pretty much nothing. (Nothing, I should say, in a recorded and shareable way; bar bands from Tofino to Tuktoyaktuk and Sarnia to St. John’s have pulled out “New Orleans Is Sinking” and “Grace, Too” at the flip of a coaster, but that’s a different thing.) Justin Rutledge had to carry the can almost singlehandedly, though by inviting Jenn Grant to guest vocal “Fiddler’s Green”, I guess we diversified a little more. Covers seem to draw either from  classics of the past or wry renditions of Top 40 pablum. Covers of The Hip were neither iconic nor ironic, it would seem.

Then we learned that Downie’s days were numbered. And out came the hastily produced covers, the phone-videoed versions from the front row of the first gig various artists played after they heard the news.

Continue reading