Solidarity Forever

The theme for GLAM blog club this month is ‘Forever’ and, while the prompts were mostly related to preservation and there’s a lot I could write about that, I’ve taken inspiration from the song Solidarity Forever instead and thought I’d write about unionism and solidarity during this time of physical distancing and hopefully offer a little hope in the dark.

Recommended listening while you read:

This pandemic has exposed some of the worst things about the higher education sector – particularly increasing casualisation and marketisation (not to mention the extremely high Vice Chancellor salaries)- but it’s also helped me see and consolidate some of the best things about it. There’s a lot of uncertainty and anxiety at the moment but one thing I’m certain about is that we need to listen to our most precarious colleagues and collectively reshape the sector. I work with academics, many of them on casual and fixed term contracts, and students across disciplines and I’ve seen the different ways academics from legal studies, criminology, history, gender, sexuality and diversity studies, creative arts, literary studies and beyond have been responding to COVID-19 and helping their students contend with the current and future implications of this crisis on their studies, lives, and careers.

I know how essential casualised workers are to the higher education sector, how hard they work, and I’ve heard from students who have said they would probably not still be enrolled if not for the support received from these workers. I have been listening to and working with many of these casualised workers and they have been saying that the Job Protection Framework deal between universities and the NTEU National executive, which is now no longer national, will not help them or many (if any) of us and kind of sells us out.

If you work in the sector, I recommend listening to this conversation about university workers, precarity and unionising, lessons from history on past deals between employers and union leadership that have excluded their most marginalised workers, and utopian ideas for the future of the sector: Uprise Radio – Episode 18 – Universities, Unions and Utopia.

I also recommend reading this response to the Jobs Protection Framework from the National Higher Education Casuals Network , this piece from the UNSW casuals network, and following the National Higher Education Casuals Network @NHECasuals.

For more lessons from history, The false promise of a national universities deal by Elizabeth Humphrys and Amy Thomas explores past deals between employers and union leadership (including very recent past) that haven’t worked out so well for workers and illustrates the power of organising in the workplace.

I’m normally more of an idealist, but this Realism for optimists: debating the university Jobs Protection Framework piece (and longer pamphlet) by Mike Beggs and Beck Pearse eloquently illustrates many of the conclusions I have come to about the framework and the power of workplace organising. I’m not completely opposed to the idea of some kind of framework and process to help keep employers accountable to their workers, but there’s sadly very little evidence that the NTEU have listened to their rank and file members, particularly their most precarious and marginalised ones, when coming up with this particular one, and in fact there’s evidence that they’re ignoring and silencing us. There appears to be a slight chance that the framework in its current form might help protect jobs and the the status quo in the short term, and therefore protect those in the sector who are most privileged and have benefited from the status quo. I’m not convinced that it will even help them very much, particularly in the long term, and want to help change the system.

During this crisis, I have had more discussions with colleagues about solidarity and collective care and wellbeing being more important than productivity and efficiency, and I’ve probably been part of more critical and collective reflective practice and acion than ever before in the sector, which gives me much hope. I have always strived to facilitate collective and critical reflective practice and support wellbeing in the workplace in various ways, partly inspired by excellent bosses and mentors in higher education sector like Jack Keating and Leesa Wheelahan who have done so too, and I’m pleased that more of these conversations and practices are happening now even while when we can’t meet and connect in the same physical space. I’ve also been looking at feminist, queer, decolonial, and slow theories and practices to explore how we can work towards creating more collective, cooperative, caring, thoughtful and reflective universities rather than the increasingly competitive and corporate ones that have led to the situation we’re in now.

I believe that library workers and our spaces have the potential to play a huge role in connecting academics and students with each other and knowledge across disciplinary and methodological divides and helping them collectively reflect and create and share new knowledges with communities, but we have many of our own silos, hierarchies, and biases to work through to ensure we do so without perpetuating discrimination and inequalities – some of them illustrated by Alissa in this excellent post on the martyr complex in our sector:

“Honestly, when all this is over, I don’t want to go back to normal. Normal was boring. Normal was unjust. Normal was killing me softly. Now is our big chance—our free space—to design a new normal, both within and beyond librarianship. Now is the perfect opportunity to deeply consider why we do things (not just the what and the how). Now is the time to imagine what kind of world we want to live in. The first step towards great change is believing that such change is possible.”

Extract from Alissa’s post on The Martyr Complex

Shortly before the pandemic hit and we started working from home, I attended NTEU delegates training and started working with some excellent fellow delegates in the library and across the university to help improve conditions for workers. Since the pandemic, many of us along with a large number of other members (including many library colleagues, have become very angry at NTEU leadership, but we’re building something great together as illustrated in this powerful and moving speech by a library unionist comrade:

“Long, intense story short, this all came to a head when an entire branch meeting was actively suppressed on Zoom like a Black Mirror techno-dystopian episode and it was transformed into yet another one-way lecture to hard sell the Framework to us. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back and triggered the entire branch into an explosive state of fury which decisively turned the tide for us. This upheaval opened the door to us organising an unprecedented mass rank-and-file meeting, which we chaired thoroughly democratically in a way that we were previously denied and built the basis for our victory today.

The achievements of our La Trobe NTEU Fightback group shows that from little things, big things grow. From humble beginnings with two or three of us, we became five, ten, then twenty determined and active campaigners.

Now our group is expanding every day and we’ve effectively formed a new rank and file caucus in our branch. It has taught me that even in desperate, defensive situations you can start building something new and breaking with the past, however difficult that past may be …

This kind of organised collective action and mutual trust is literally what unionism is. We ARE the union. The only question is how organised and active we are.”

An extract from the speech of the week shared on NTEU Fightback – No concessions page

I think becoming a delegate and working with these colleagues might be one of the most empowering things I’ve done in my work life so far and we have fun working together too with a messenger chat dedicated to sharing pictures of companion animals, puns about animals and unionism, and friendly reminders to rest and take care of ourselves (and I look forward to having a beer with them when we can safely do so):

Cheers to the Dazzling Unionists Caring for Knowledge workers (DUCKs) against cuts, Casuals and Allies Together in Strength (CATS) caucus, and Librarians Leading Activists in Marvelous Anti-Capitalism (LLAMAs).

“They have taken untold millions
That they never toiled to earn
But without our brain and muscle
Not a single wheel can turn
We can break their haughty power
Gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong

Solidarity forever
Solidarity forever
Solidarity forever
For the union makes us strong”

From the song “Solidarity Forever” written by Ralph Chaplin (1915)

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