A comrade retires

This post is adapted from a speech I gave for my close colleague Cathy Rytmeister at her National Tertiary Education Union farewell. If you have worked with the NTEU in any capacity, then I expect you know Cathy. If you have taken parental leave from an Australian university, then you have benefitted from her advocacy. It was honour to give a speech to celebrate Cathy’s work for the NTEU and her retirement from Macquarie University, where she has worked to improve working conditions for over thirty years.

Cathy Rytmeister on a bicycle with NTEU flag

I have known Cathy for a long time. I encountered her at Macquarie University over twenty years ago soon after I started work as a research assistant at the then Centre for Professional Development. Cathy had recently moved from teaching and researching in statistics to academic development.

We were in the tea room — the Centre was well known for its generous morning teas. So much so, that as a casual staff member,  I asked whether I should omit the time from my timesheet. The director of the centre, Stephen Marshall, and my manager, Lyn Hammett, said no. Morning tea was the most important part of the working day. It was an opportunity for conceptualising research, developing teaching capabilities, and building relationships. We also laughed a great deal and ate a lot of cake.

So, twenty odd years ago, we were in the tea room of a cottage on campus that has since been knocked down. (Cathy asked if I had any photos of the cottage last week, and I said yes, before realising the only ones I had were of the bulldozer demolishing it.) This morning tea — a vast spread of cakes, biscuits and tea in front of us — I was sitting next to Cathy Rytmeister. Staring at my profile, she said ‘I know you’ and asked whether I had attended lessons at a local art centre with my brothers in the 1980s. I had.

Cathy had been my art teacher as a child. Here I am:

a sepia-tinted photograph of a child with paint-covered clothes

Cathy then asked whether I was a member of the NTEU. I was, and said my father had told me it was important to join the union. ‘I knew I liked your parents’, she declared.

There are so many ways in which I could describe Cathy — authentic, humorous, spontaneous, loyal, ‘not entirely whinge-free’ as her partner Roy has said. But I shall pick just three words and share some examples of how she has contributed to the NTEU and inspired me and others: integrity, generosity and passion.

First, her integrity

Cathy speaks truth to power, and has described her role as being “the little voice that annoys”. Like me, Cathy grew up pro-union, and her strong sense of social justice was honed in her childhood. Workplaces, notably the post office, and universities have played an important role in radicalising Cathy — she describes her time as a student at the Institute of Technology (now UTS) as a “hotbed of radicals” and a turbulent time that gave her a taste for campaigning, strikes and picket lines.  Studying maths at Macquarie and being a Student Rep in Academic Senate prompted a lifelong interest in academic governance and leadership, and the politics of higher education. She was active in the students’ political movements and worked with members of the Macquarie University Staff Association (MUSA), a branch of the Federated Australian University Staff Association (FAUSA) – a predecessor of the NTEU (thank you to Nikki Balnave for those details.)

Cathy has a long history with the NTEU, starting as a casual staff member at Macquarie in 1989, and joining the union as soon as she could as an academic a few years later. She has been active at all levels of the union, as a member of Branch Committee, NSW Division, National Councillor, Education Committee member, Women’s Action Committee, state Assistant Secretary, Bargaining Committee member over several rounds, Macquarie Branch Vice President (for both academics and general staff) and six years as Branch President. She has participated in four rounds of Enterprise Bargaining. It may have been faster to list the positions she has not held! A highlight of her union work is successfully campaigning for paid parental leave – and, like many, I and my children thank her for this.

We can celebrate Cathy’s successes, and recognise there is still plenty of work for us to do. Everyone here will be familiar with Cathy’s integrity and principles in the ongoing struggle — let me check my notes from conversations with her — against rampant individualism, unrestrained commercialisation and passive complicity with the neoliberal agenda.

Second word: her generosity

I am sure you have all been recipients of Cathy’s generosity. It has had a powerful influence on my professional and personal life — I can’t disconnect the two because there’s an intimacy to working with Cathy. We’ve been through challenges — multiple rounds of change management, parental leave, break-ups, illness, the deaths of colleagues and friends — and celebrations of birthdays, degrees, jobs and family. Cathy and I have worked closely in the NTEU, in politics for The Greens, and as co-teachers, co-authors, researchers and committee members. I have interviewed her several times for different projects — her knowledge keeps on giving — and she has not let me forget putting [snort] into one of the transcripts.

Cathy nourishes people — sometimes with food (pancakes in the tearoom), sometimes with hard liquor, or by knitting socks and baby blankets. (This photo, over sixteen years ago, shows her exquisite knitting.)

a baby in a snuggle bed with a green knitted blanket

She supports and celebrates people — in song (her farewell songs are legendary, including Knock knock knocking on Kevin’s door for Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic Kevin Jameson), with advice, and by sharing quality time.  Cathy feels deeply and her emotions are big. It’s a wonder that someone so sensitive can be so tough at the same time. We’re lucky that Cathy feels the world the way she does, and that she is generous with her vulnerabilities. Cathy is generous by disagreeing with people and challenging them. Her relationships, including with those she disagrees with, are enriched by her generosity.

She is also generous with her opinions. You won’t leave a meeting wondering what Cathy really thinks about something or someone. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, what would Cathy say? A discussion with Cathy, or witnessing her in enterprise bargaining or on academic governance committees, leaves you in no doubt about her principles: equity, transparency, fairness, solidarity and activism.

Cathy shows that the revolution begins with care. Warm feet, a full belly and a song.

But don’t let being comfortable fool you. Cathy will challenge you. ‘Your warm feet feel good in those knitted socks, don’t they, your belly is full with the food I cooked, your ears are full of song, but what’s good for your world? What’s good for your neighbour? What’s good for the society as a whole? What’s good for people you never see? How will you pay the debt of your privilege, and share what you have?’

Finally, her passion.

Cathy is passionate about higher education. She is passionate about activism and politics within and beyond the university. Quality learning and teaching, education as a public good, effective leadership, the student experience, staff rights and conditions…

And she is passionate about life outside of work. Singing in two activist choirs, travelling, caring for her grandkids, loving Roy. That is inspiring. Let it be an example to you that your life at work does not define you. Cathy is leaving Macquarie, but she has songs to write, gigs to perform, socks to knit, campaigns to join, and a rich and loving circle of family and friends. May you have the same.

I have talked about Cathy’s generosity, her love and care. Part of her passion is also anger. Many of you will have seen Cathy being the ‘crankiest woman in the room’. She reminds us that anger is necessary and valuable. I am looking forward to the publication of her email drafts folder so we can finally see all the messages that were deemed too saucy to send after the heat of the moment had cooled!

Cathy’s integrity, generosity and passion come together in her work for the NTEU, and her life’s work.

Her office offers something of an archive as she cleans it out and uncovers gems of her history at Macquarie and with the NTEU. Treasures will include: bawdy and possibly defamatory song lyrics that she has written, a facsimile of an olive branch sent to former Vice-Chancellor Di Yerbury, learning and teaching awards, and union t-shirts and posters, including those inviting former Vice-Chancellor Steven Schwartz to come to the party.

A toast to Cathy. To what she has given us, to what she leaves us and to what comes next. Thank you comrade.

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