Disrupt your industries, if that is what you are in business to do, but do not disrupt the bonds that tie employees, however loose or unspoken they may be.
Isabel Berwick, ‘Workplace communities matter–now more than ever“
I’m standing in line, and someone sends me something to read. Distracted and unprepared I open an article about Annie Werner, who was in breast cancer treatment in 2014, like me. But there’s more. She’s an academic like me. Like me, she was a mum of young children. Cancer would have crashed into her family like a meteorite, at the same time that it did into ours.
Chemo is a deep body memory you don’t get out of your mouth. Here’s how Emily Drabinski describes the third round.
Today is Friday. The steroids that give me a semblance of my ordinary self have worn off, I am a remnant. And I know it will pass because all things do with time but that does not mean the present is not also what it is, a bit cloudier and weaker, both hungry and not, moving, but not very fast. And here come a string of days I will be glad to see behind me.
I’ve rarely seen it put better. Chemo has a precise temporality, measured in the days it takes from infusion to run out of energy. You sink down as it takes over, and then you slowly come up again. At the low point of each cycle, I was a remnant too, a rag. I couldn’t read or think. I learned to wait it out, while chemo circled me from the inside.
So I’m standing in line reading the story of Annie who went through this at the same time as me, and here’s the punchline.
The mother of two young children and her partner both work casual jobs.
“If I wasn’t in that classroom, my family’s income fell to $300 per week,” she said.
“That’s why four days after my second mastectomy, I was in the classroom. I had to get one of my students to write on the whiteboard for me because I couldn’t lift my arm.”
She has worked for the university on a casual basis for the past 13 years.
When the oncologist was talking me through my treatment plan, I asked if I would be able to keep working. She was blunt: better not. So I went through surgery and chemo on full-time paid sick leave, and was offered a caring and well-supported part-time return to work while I had radiation treatment.
My colleague went back to work within four days because she couldn’t afford to stop, and her student had to write on the whiteboard for her because she couldn’t lift her arms.
But that’s not actually the punchline. Here it is: we have the same employer.
A thing once happened between my two older daughters that has to do with how we understand this whole mess. They were quite young, and having things was important to each of them. Unexpectedly needing a pair of shoes for an event, C simply helped herself to her sister’s. But she was spotted on her way out. Her sister was wild.
D had anger and justice on her side, but the opportunist’s grip on opportunity was too tight.
“Not my problem,” she said. “Not my shoes.” And out she went.
She was right. When you’ve helped yourself to someone’s shoes, you don’t have a problem, you have a solution. The one with the problem is the one whose shoes you’ve taken.
This is what higher education is currently saying to its long-term casual staff. While universities are underfunded for teaching and expected to compete globally on the basis of research, then the revenue from teaching will be diverted into research. This isn’t a blip, and there won’t be a correction. This is how universities are solving their funding problems with a solution that involves keeping labour costs (and associated overheads like paid sick leave) as low as possible. It’s a business model for bad times, and the only thing that makes it sustainable is not thinking about where the human consequences are being felt.
And it’s not about one university, but all of them. Australian government data shows that our best universities are running on staffing fumes, precisely because research funding success expands the casualisation of both teaching and research. And the majority of casual academic workers, consistently, are women.
Not our problem, not our shoes.
I’m teaching a class of communication students how to use narrative methods of self-reflection as they prepare to transition into the future of work. They’re not transitioning into work itself, because they’re already workers, and have been for years. Here’s one story:
I first discovered gainful employment at the age of fourteen, down amongst the pots, pans and plates at the bottom of a filthy café sink. I’d get off the bus from school in the official all-black attire of the hospitality industry, and from 2-5pm every afternoon I’d scour that dingy kitchen and everything within it like my life depended on it.
And to me it did. In the eight years since, I’ve worked as a dishie, glassy, pizza boy, kitchen-hand, cellar-man, waiter, commercial cook, caterer, bartender, barista and courtesy bus driver. I’ve devoted countless hours to an array of roles in the hospitality industry, some as part-time jobs while studying and others as 60-hour, 7-day working weeks at the end of which I’d drag myself to the closest flat surface and drift out of consciousness only until the next alarm. But they’ve all got one thing in common – I was always classified as a ‘casual’.
Casual work is their normal. They’re not unionised; their experience of solidarity comes only from the kindness of strangers.
This week, we all stood in a circle and told small stories about workplace community, having read Isabel Berwick’s article. We think that scarcity of resources leads to neglect of social bonds, but it turns out these young workers have all experienced moments where someone at work said: I see you. Someone stood up for them, shared a sympathetic glance, made space, appreciated effort, forgave mistakes, and gave them a break. It’s encouraging.
The flip side is that they have also experienced bullying and discrimination, they’ve been overwhelmed and undermined (and underpaid), they know already what the gig economy feels like. The future of work isn’t all blond wood co-working space and Friday drinks. It’s bonds of loyalty and care being stretched thin by the business of doing business. It’s treating someone else’s wellbeing, someone’s lost job, someone’s public dressing-down, someone’s stolen idea as somehow not your problem, not your shoes.
In this future, we’re all being asked to accept that the sticker price of our success is indifference to how things turn out for others. Of course, this isn’t a novelty, and it’s barely a disruption; this is how the demands of profit have needed work to be managed for a long time.
But universities’ core proposition when recruiting students is that these workplace things are not as they are. It’s as though we’re afraid to let them know that we know. When we do this, we underestimate their experience, their insightful capacity for compassion, how invested they are in change.
We also underestimate our own capacity to collaborate with them in finding just and practicable solutions to the problem of work, when we accept the idea that we should cover up the functional problems in our own.
Here’s what Annie Werner says:
“This culture of insecure work needs to stop. We deserve better, and our students deserve better.”
I’m with her.
For Annie and Emily, and the writers of BCM313.