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.