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.

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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: 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: 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.

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.

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It Doesn’t Have to Be that Way

It’s been five years since I worked for CBC in Ottawa. I’m on a different path, now, swiftly approaching the viva for my doctoral thesis at the University of Edinburgh, and although my past work is a part of the work that I’m doing now, it is only in the last couple of weeks that both the “CBC” and the “Ottawa” parts of that past have been so forcefully top of mind.

The way Canada has made international headlines recently, people would be forgiven for wondering if the docility that weaves into our fundamental fabric has been rent or replaced. We watched the shooting of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo whilst on duty at the war memorial and the subsequent and bizarre attack on Parliament Hill and think, This is not the capital of Canada, surely. To those who say Canadians, Ottawans, parliamentarians were complacent, I say I think it was something more subtle than that: we always knew it was possible that Canada would be the target of an attack; we just didn’t believe it would actually happen. It’s a head and heart thing. tweet parliament attack

Anyway, I was gutted watching the news on Twitter, and fearful for my friends and colleagues. The places where I had worked were locked down, and the people I had worked with were out on the streets, unsure if there were any more angry people with guns about and transmitting what little they knew to us, the interested public.

Enough about that. The other headline–one that is perhaps less interesting globally but, like the Tragically Hip, a point of peculiar and perhaps obsessive importance in Canada–concerns former radio host Jian Ghomeshi. Continue reading

Heartsick Condolences and the Inevitable Deja-Vu

"You are the chump"

Fellow former CBC journo Dave Atkinson got the same tap on the shoulder in 2009.

Last week, I was at the inaugural conference for BRAIS – the British Association for Islamic Studies. It’s one of the initiatives assisted by the centre that’s funding me, and it brought together philosophers, historians, language scholars, political scientists, and social researchers like myself, all of whom touch on Islam and Muslims in the work that we do. I presented a paper as part of a panel on Scottish Muslim experiences organised by the Muslims in Britain Research Network; I was also busy as a volunteer support; it was a chance to “network” – crucial for a grad student on the cusp of completing the thesis and looking for “the next step;” and I took it upon myself to live-tweet Aaqil Ahmed’s keynote presentation. Ahmed is the head of religion and ethics for the BBC, and therefore a pretty important guy in the media environment in which I work and conduct my research. I’m not going to say it was the most important two days of my academic career so far, but it was exemplary of both the work I’m doing and the point I’ve arrived at.Michael Munnik presenting at BRAIS 11 April 2014

Thing is, five years ago, I would not have imagined this is where I would be. Continue reading