How can labour organize in a pandemic? This is the question that Sylvia Nickerson, Chief Steward for Unit 2 and Member Mobilizer for CUPE 3906 set out to answer with artist and union Local 3906 member Simon Orpana. Sylvia and Simon collaborated on the series of comics seen today in the gallery.
In the fall of 2020, the comics were shared with CUPE 3906’s contract academic workers, or Sessional Faculty, at McMaster University through a weekly newsletter and social media. The goal was to raise awareness about key issues related to contract negotiations and to encourage workers to organize virtually despite precarious working conditions. The comics caught the attention of the employer’s negotiating committee during bargaining, and one comic also won an award from the Canadian Association of Labour Media! Using humour to address everything from the underpaid labour of university sessional instructors, to the complexities of working from home in the middle of a global pandemic, Simon and Sylvia used art as a powerful tool for mobilization.
Simon Orpana is an artist and writer whose work explores the political, historical and social dimensions of culture. His book Gasoline Dreams: Waking Up from Petroculture (2021) uses comics to confront the habits, narratives and cultures that support our dependence on fossil fuels. He is also co-author of Showdown! Making Modern Unions (with Rob Kristofferson, 2016), a graphic history of the role Hamilton workers played in establishing industrial unionism with the Stelco strike of 1946. His graphic activism includes work on gentrification, housing struggles, the history of May Day, and academic precarity. He is also lead organizer of the Brightside Neighbourhood Project that assembled artists, historians and community members to map and chronicle one of Hamilton’s most iconic 20th century neighbourhoods of workers and immigrants.
Sylvia Nickerson is a comics artist, writer and illustrator who lives in Hamilton, Canada. In 2020 she won the Doug Wright Award for emerging talent for her book Creation (2019, Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95). Creation is a graphic novel about gentrification, parenthood, and the stratification of life in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. One of the best books of 2019 according to the CBC and Panel Patter, Wired called it “dreamy, sprawling, meditative”. Her work was included in the exhibition This Is Serious: Canadian Indie Comics at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, where she was artist-in-residence throughout the global pandemic. Her comic writing has examined parenthood, gender identity, social class and religion.
For over 40 years, CUPE 3906 has consistently improved the working conditions of its members, all of whom are contract academic workers at McMaster University. The union has been dedicated to upholding high standards of education at McMaster University by ensuring its members are well-equipped to perform their duties, and compensated fairly for their hard work. At the present time, CUPE 3906 represents around 3,500 workers at McMaster, making it one of the largest unions in Hamilton. The local is dedicated to the principles of social unionism, and we recognize that our goal of securing better wages and working conditions cannot be separated from the struggle for a better world beyond the workplace.