I’ve been listening to a lot of Leonard Cohen lately, Pete Seegar too. There’s something in the air at the moment. A whiff of revolution. It almost feels like a sea change but it’s too early to tell.
I usually write a post for International Women’s Day and that’s what I’m sitting here trying to write but what I’m thinking about this year is solidarity. Solidarity has been a theme of the #Metoo campaign and may yet see it change the way things are. Frances McDormand’s Best Actress speech at the Oscars this week paid tribute to every female nominee and called for “inclusion riders” to be negotiated into contracts to ensure more diverse casts and crew in films from now on. The Atlantic picked up on the fact that the Oscars began as a response to the threat of unionisation in the studios. This little factoid seems particularly apt in today’s climate. It really does feel as if something’s changed.
At the moment my university is one of over 60 striking as part of the University and College Union’s (UCU’s) campaign against pension cuts for its members. I’ll leave them to explain further but what’s really struck me about it is the push for solidarity and the widening of the debate. There has been talk of a staff and student manifesto, of changing the way the college is run in fundamental ways, of standing together and arguing with one voice. While you would expect to hear stirring rhetoric on the picket line it really does feel as if the conversation is going deeper this time.
I’ve worked in professions most of my adult life where being in a union was rather life and death, where it was proof of your bona fides and often the only friend you would have when times were hard. When I was still in my teens and wanting to follow my mum onto the stage she would tell me about tactics to get the five professional contracts I needed to get into Equity, the actors’ union. My mum was not a hard-line union activist, she voted for Margaret Thatcher back in the day, but, as an actress, she understood that working in a profession where the normal way of working was a precarious, hand to mouth existence of feast and famine, being in the union was essential.
When I stood on my own two feet and decided to become a journalist, once again union membership was a badge of professional identity. With the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), it is literally your passport to do your job. The press pass issued by the union will open more doors (usually) than your business card. At least that’s how it used to be. I entered journalism in the early 1990s. Back then it was expected that we would join the union. I applied for my blue student NUJ card almost as soon as I started college. It was a huge deal to realise that I was finally working a large enough percentage of my income from journalism to warrant a yellow professional NUJ card. These were accepted marks of passage in the job. I still have that blue card, it’s framed in my study reminding me about new beginnings.
But over the years I watched union numbers dwindle as more and more places seemed to operate without a house chapel (as NUJ branches are called). I noticed that when I went to talk to journalism students and mentioned union membership (press cards are important in the courts, sometimes you need that skeleton key), I would be met with blank looks and shrugs. In a cutthroat profession perhaps that’s not surprising but when I started it was different. Everyone talked about the union and found a way to join. We knew that we couldn’t work safely without it. The NUJ provided the codes of conduct we worked under, protection of our wages and working conditions. We understood that, no matter how well we got on with our bosses, management were not our friends. They had to deal with the profitability of the company and it was the union who fought against that profitability being at the cost of our workers’ rights.
But over the years, as the workforce got more casualised, as more and more journalists were hired on a freelance basis rather than contract, that power was eroded. The balance of power shifted. I drifted too. I can’t say what happened but it’s a trend that’s happened everywhere as this article from last year in The Guardian examines.
That’s why February’s UCU strikes are so important. I want to lecture when I get my PhD, I want to be able to do further research within a university environment. As a self-funded part-time PhD researcher, I would like to know that once I have done this part, things will get easier, that I will no longer have to live hand to mouth, that freelancing could be a choice rather than an imposition. At the moment the future that I see described in the timelines of the early career researchers (ECRs) I follow on Twitter follows the same depressing trend that I left in journalism. Short-term contracts and zero hours are pervasive through the sector as this article from the Conversation shows and it’s suffering. That much is clear from the determination with which university workers have shown in this strike.
The Vice-Chancellor, Prof, Adam Tickell, lampooned by a Mr Man at the beginning of this piece, has not weighed in on the strike to date. While he has pointed out that he is the only VC to be taking part of the ACAS talks between Universities UK (UUK) and the UCU it still feels ironic to strikers that an academic who wrote on Activism and the Academy arguing that “capitalism emphatically is an inherently unjust system” should now be so much on the other side of the debate, visually at least.
But today is International Women’s Day and I was writing about solidarity and a change in the wind. It may just be wishful thinking but I would have thought I’m beyond youthful optimism these days. I’ve watched the world change over the past 20 years and, while there is so much left to fight for, I’m heartened by what I see. Ireland is finally having a referendum on the 8th Amendment to the Constitution (the one on abortion) and politics is ruling the dress code on the red carpet and the universities are striking. These three things may have nothing to do with one another but it feels like they do, it feels like finally, someone’s listening. It feels like apathy is finally falling away and something is stirring. Most of all it all feels like solidarity and a feeling that if we all come together we can change things for the better – because that’s always been the way even if we forget sometimes.
In closing, I will leave you with a song from the picket line.