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.

Advertisements

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.