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.

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.