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?”
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.