1 February 2012

Why I will be urging Welsh speakers in UCU to vote for Mark Campbell

This is a guest posting by Liza van Zyl, candidate for NEC (UCU Cymru vice president)

I work as a Welsh tutor on zero-hour contracts in both the higher and further education sectors in Wales, and represent Welsh speakers as a workplace union rep.  I’d like to make the case for why UCU Left should make campaign material available in Welsh.

But first I’d like to thank Mark Campbell and UCU Left for listening to the UCU members I represent, and for taking seriously the concerns of Welsh speakers.  And for the support UCU Left has given us to progress Welsh-language issues in UCU, in particular for enabling me to progress a matter of importance to my members, namely the implementation of a Congress motion, passed by UCU Congress last year, to provide materials in Welsh.

So, why does UCU Left need to go to the expense of providing campaign material in Welsh?

As everyone in UCU knows, there are three key facts about Welsh speakers, and the Welsh language, in the higher and further education sectors:

1. Almost nobody speaks Welsh (except in a few isolated pockets of North Wales).

2. Welsh-speakers are affluent and middle-class, and get preferential treatment in the job market.

3. Welsh speakers are right wing.

But actually, the fact that hardly anyone speaks Welsh is news to the 40,000 Welsh-speakers in Cardiff. And to the several hundred of my colleagues in both Cardiff University and Coleg Gwent who live and work in the medium of Welsh every day and have very little need or reason to speak English in their daily work and lives.

The fact that Welsh speakers are affluent and middle-class is news to Welsh-speaking university students. They are disproportionately more likely to come from Communities First postcodes and from the bottom end of the Index of Multiple Deprivation.

It’s certainly news to me and my colleagues, who are on zero-hour contracts and who are experiencing severe economic hardship because of the public sector funding cuts. It was news to me that Welsh-speakers get preferential treatment in the job market – I was recently unemployed for eleven months and am now earning only slightly more than a quarter of what I previously earned on a full-time lecturer’s salary.

The reason people perceive that Welsh speakers get preferential treatment in the jobs market is the same reason people perceive that asylum seekers get all the council houses: it is because some of us on the left are doing a rather rubbish job of explaining that everyone is suffering because of the lack of jobs and housing, and that the real culprits are not Welsh-speakers, asylum seekers, etc – it’s because the bankers have trashed the economy.

And the fact that Welsh-speakers are right wing is news to the many Welsh-speakers who are at the forefront of the anti-cuts and Occupy movements, who are working shoulder to shoulder with those of us in the Trades Councils to protect our public services, the NHS, and the most vulnerable in society from this wholesale unprecedented destruction of everything working people in Britain have fought for over the last several generations.

The fact that Welsh-speakers are right wing is also news to the many Welsh-speakers whose grand-parents and great-grand-parents fought in the Spanish Civil War and who were active in the anti-slavery movement.  And to those who made such a profound impact in the anti-Apartheid movement and the miners’ strike.
It’s also news to those of my colleagues (including senior managers) and students who have criminal records (including prison time) for services to the Welsh language and working-class Welsh communities through direct-action campaigns.

I was once told by a Welsh-speaking faculty dean in a Pre-92 university in England that, many years previously, his brother had received a prison sentence for Welsh-language activism in service to their desperately poor working-class community in the same week that the dean had been offered a place to study at Oxford. Their father, and the congregation of the chapel of which their father was a minister, was much prouder of his brother than of himself.  Yep, you don’t get much more right wing than that.

For years, UCU’s Welsh speakers and those of us who are trying to recruit and involve our Welsh-speaking colleagues in the union have made very little real progress persuading UCU to provide materials in Welsh. We’re told that Welsh-speakers are quite capable of reading and speaking English, and so it is silly to spend our members’ subs translating and printing stuff in Welsh.

This is an entirely reasonable argument.  After all it is entirely reasonable to expect Sikhs and Muslims to remove their turbans or headscarves if they want employment.  Just as it’s entirely reasonable for the Home Office to deport gay and lesbian asylum seekers on grounds that they’re perfectly capable of passing for straight by getting married and not flaunting their homosexuality.

As we all know, matters of language identity are just like religion or belief, or sexual orientation: they’re lifestyle choices. Not matters profoundly important to identity. Not like proper equality issues.

All of us who are union organisers and community campaigners know how very effective a recruiting tool it is to be dismissive of what people consider to be fundamental aspects of their identity. We all know how very helpful it is, in terms of increasing engagement in unions or campaigns, when we require that people give up important issues of identity and principle in order to participate.

In Wales there is a saying in response to receiving a communication or seeing a poster or leaflet in English only:

bilingualism offends nobody, but monolingualism offends thousands of people every day

So folks, we need campaign material in Welsh. I was delighted to hear that Mark Campbell wants to learn to say a few things in Welsh, that he can say when he comes to a hustings in Wales next month. I’ve certainly experienced Mark to be genuinely committed to progressing the interests of Welsh-speaking UCU members, just as he is genuinely committed to progressing the interests of all UCU members.
I’m sure there will be some who’ll say Mark’s support for Welsh-language issues is pure opportunism, that Mark has suddenly discovered within himself a burning passion for the Welsh language as a cynical vote-winning ploy.

But this is not an issue of Welsh nationalism, nor of Welsh-language campaigning. Mark, like me, is not Welsh.  I am a migrant worker in the UK to whom Welsh and English are both foreign languages, who just happens to work as a Welsh tutor. But I am a workplace union rep. And Mark, like me, believes that means you take up the issues that are important to those you represent.

This is simply an issue of effective trade union organizing. You recruit and engage folks in your workplace more effectively if you listen to them, take their concerns seriously, and don’t alienate them by requiring them to compromise something profoundly important to their self-identity. It’s about representing members, and listening to them, and progressing the issues they ask their elected reps to take up.

Mark is standing for UCU general secretary not because he wants to be a ‘union baron’, or wants loads of power, or a seat in the House of Lords one day. Or because he wants Sally Hunt’s £100,000 a year salary (he has committed to drawing the same salary if he’s elected that he gets now as a university lecturer). He is standing for UCU general secretary simply because he believes the union should fight for the interests of all its members, and progress the issues they want the union to take up.

Is Mark the person we so desperately need at the helm of UCU? Based on what I’ve seen of him in action as a workplace rep at London Metropolitan University, and based on how he’s been prepared to listen to me and my members, and take us seriously, I believe he is.  But it’s not for me to decide whether he should be UCU general secretary.  I will explain to my members why I believe they should vote for him, but it is ultimately a decision each UCU member needs to make themselves.

Therefore I will urge all UCU members in Wales to come to the Wales hustings in Cardiff next month, and urge them to grill Mark robustly until he’s well done on all sides, so they can decide for themselves if he’s the candidate they should vote for.
That is why we need UCU Left to produce campaign materials in Welsh.  So we can more effectively encourage folks in Wales to come to the hustings and decide for themselves who they want at the helm of their union.  And so that we can alert folks to an un-missable opportunity to hear a bit of Welsh spoken in a strong Newcastle accent.

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