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: 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: 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: 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.