As all of you have now plainly witnessed, I am what they call a happy drunk. I am also, now, more than slightly hungover. Predictably, there is a story behind both conditions.
The more attentive readers among you may have noticed that I have made occasional references to “the union,” which likely require further explanation. When I am not pretending to be a productive graduate student – and frankly, I’ve had difficulty lately even keeping up the pretense – I work for a TA union. Actually, I somehow allowed myself to get talked into running the joint, a turn of events that still inspires fits of bemusement.
Yesterday, the union held its annual general meeting, a lengthy and at moments nerve-wracking affair that required weeks of frantic preparation. At the best of times, the process of organizing graduate students is not unlike herding cats, except that the cats in question are simultaneously afflicted with generalized anxiety disorder, ADD, and, in certain cases, persistent delusions of grandeur. It is very much an art, not a science, and a rather strange one at that.
I should mention that, before he retired and took up internet dating full-time, my father worked in a steel factory for almost forty years. He was by no means an activist, being much too shy to speak in front of large groups of people, but he was a proud union member and faithfully attended every meeting of his local. Growing up, I learned what unions were all about and why they were important for families like ours, which otherwise could never have afforded to buy a home or travel or pay for piano lessons and the like.
On first glance, graduate students have absolutely nothing in common with my dad and his coworkers. They are highly educated, fluent in one or both of Canada’s official languages, and, as often as not, accustomed to a degree of economic privilege that my father has never known. More to the point, they see themselves not as “workers” but as professionals-in-training, which in many cases they are: future lawyers and doctors and business managers who might one day run the company my father used to work for. At best, unions and graduate students make for strange bedfellows; at worst, they would appear to be fundamentally incompatible.
However, if we shift our understanding of what it is that unions actually do just slightly, the marriage makes a little more sense. For a growing number of graduate students, particularly those of us studying in the humanities and certain of the social sciences, a “career” is far from a certain bet. We may become full professors one day, but, as previously noted, we could as easily become permanent part-time instructors, as quite a few people I know are. The former most definitely constitutes a “career”; the latter is, frankly, a “gig,” and not a very good one at that.
Similarly, we could, if we are lucky and so inclined, land highly-coveted government jobs, among the most secure known to man; or, as Atomic well knows, we might wait for months to receive short-term U.N. contracts that briefly whisk us away to full-fledged war zones before returning us to long-term unemployment. Or, we might work for years in the publishing industry, as my friend Karen did, earning an enviable salary while accruing significant professional experience, only to be replaced by an eager production assistant and suddenly grateful to find work that pays us one third of what we previously earned.
The scenarios described above have several things in common. First, they are all marked by chronic financial instability: the part-time instructor may be given three courses to teach this academic year, or she may receive one; Atomic may work for six months in 2005, or not at all. Secondly, unlike the traditional “gig,” they demand a commitment of time that is grossly disproportionate to the pay they offer: Karen, for example, works ridiculous amounts of overtime for her $20 000 per year salary, but by virtue of receiving a salary she is not entitled to overtime pay, nor can she simply “clock out” when she hits forty hours for the week. Finally, they do not provide health or pension benefits as a matter of course, which, as most factory workers keenly understand, are worth as much as if not more than wage increases.
Thus, if we place the emphasis not on how much an employee makes per hour, which in some of these cases is not unimpressive, but on how much work they can count on having on a regular basis and what they can reasonably expect to receive in return for their investment of time, unions start to make a lot more sense. It was unions, after all, that fought for the eight-hour work day, which many individuals working in the so-called “knowledge” sector (and this includes academia) routinely exceed. Unions also envisioned the “family” or “living” wage; that is, an income level with which one can reasonably and consistently support oneself and one’s family, while still having some measure of time to spend with said family. In this sense, time and stability are conceived of as basic human rights, which employers are legally obligated to respect regardless of their feared effect on profit margins.
For their part, unions have had great difficulty reorienting their own understanding of what a union member is or could be. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, the seminar room and the shop floor are vastly different cultural and discursive spaces, and unions are only beginning to recognize that they require different ideological strategies. With traditional “blue-collar” jobs such as my father’s being steadily lost to globalization, unions must learn to speak more persuasively about the labour abuses that characterize the knowledge-based economy, both to the employers that perpetrate them and to knowledge-workers themselves. Surely, it is not impossible to once again conceive of economic stability and leisure time as rights and not privileges, even if we do not necessarily conceive of ourselves as militant(e)s?
In any event, yesterday’s union meeting was a resounding success, and I was, I’m happy to report, re-elected to my position. To my mind, this called for a celebration of bacchanalian proportions, for which I am paying today. It was, without question, worth it.