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In my opinion

I Survived the York Strike(s)!

BY BRETT ZIMMERMAN | FEB 09 2009

Boy, do I feel silly recalling how, in the autumn of 2000, I assured my students at York University that there wouldn’t be a strike. “We don’t have the guts to go out. We always have a positive strike vote then cave in at the eleventh hour and accept whatever York’s negotiators offer us. My union hasn’t struck since 1984.” I remember walking the picket lines as a graduate student: “Even if we do strike, it won’t last more than a week or two.” Little did I know that we were about to experience an 11-week walkout, the longest strike at an English-speaking university in Canadian history – until now.

I feel even sillier recalling my prediction on November 5th, 2008, the last time I met with my students before the recent ordeal. “Yeah, that really long strike eight years ago was an anomaly. There’s no way that’s going to happen again.” At the end of the class that day, I quipped, thoroughly tongue-in-cheek, “Well, I don’t know when I’m going to see you again so I’ll say it now while I have the chance: Merry Christmas, Happy New Year!” Most students laughed but one groaned, “Oh, that’s not funny! Don’t even say that!” How inadvertently prescient I was.

* * *

The last time we struck, I was one of those angry contractual professors on the picket lines. This time, however, I’m a full-time assistant professor trying hard to avoid complacency for the sake of my friends and colleagues who occupied the space on the line that I once filled. Two years ago, after 19 years of working as a contractual professor at York, I became one of the lucky faculty members who was converted to a tenure-track position. The number of these conversion positions has been one of the stumbling blocks in the current labour negotiations between CUPE 3903 and the university.

On one hand, this time I felt the understandable annoyance anyone feels when a work stoppage occurs, added to the frustration of knowing my fall-term course was only weeks away from finishing and my Visa student had to return to Shanghai before she could write my final exam. On the other hand, it was easy to feel a great deal of sympathy and empathy for my striking colleagues in whose shoes I walked not long ago.

Weird things happen to you when you walk in a circle on a union picket line for many consecutive hours. Because of the constant circular motion, you soon begin to feel something like seasickness. I found it impossible to read a union bulletin making its rounds because suddenly my eyes had to focus on something that was stationary. And, after walking for four hours in a tight circle — every now and then some wise guy would pipe up with, “Are we there yet?” — it’s an odd sensation walking home again in a straight line. I had to fight the physical inclination toward circularity. As seen from above, my peregrination home must have looked like I was tracing out a giant corkscrew. I’d go to bed at night still feeling the motion.

In order to get full strike pay, however, we had to walk our quota of hours Monday to Friday in all kinds of weather. Never before had I truly known how Shakespeare’s Macbeth feels when he complains, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow/ Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,/ Till the last syllable of recorded time.”

Most of my fellow picketers were 20-something graduate students while I, at 42, was one of the few more “seasoned” contract professors. It was all I could do to keep up with those young-uns.

While we suffered physical hardships, we endured emotional hardships as well. Although most of the drivers lining up to wait their turn to pass the pickets were sympathetic and patient, in the early days of the strike it seemed that we encountered more hostility, typically from car-mad young bucks who gave us the middle-finger wave rather than the five-finger wave, and who regaled us with every grammatical form of the venerable f-word. But the picketers did feast upon the frozen donuts, and the CAW sandwiches, and the stale Halloween candy, and the soggy Timbits. And the coffee truck did come. And there was much rejoicing.

* * *

This time, however, I wanted to show my support to CUPE by staying off campus. The administration made that easy by canceling all classes, even those taught by full-timers. I was therefore spared the moral dilemma of having to choose to cross or not to cross the pickets. I wouldn’t have, but I feared that a pre-tenured professor might be in greater jeopardy than a tenured colleague by so honouring the strikers.

I am, perhaps, guilty of one indiscretion during the latest strike. A concerned colleague in the humanities department arranged a petition to send to CUPE 3903 urging them to accept the administration’s latest offer. As I see it, the petition, signed by nearly 300 full-timers, wasn’t an attempt to bully the strikers but to urge them to protect their best interests. A prolonged strike, while certainly hurting the university’s reputation, could also hurt the contractual instructors – through canceled summer classes, for example (many of them normally taught by contractuals).

With the proverbial best intentions, I signed, and a few days later was chastised by an old friend for doing so. How often, in years past, had I lamented the callousness of certain former CUPE colleagues who had been promoted to full-time status: “How could they so easily forget where they came from, and who they once were?” Were my former CUPE colleagues now saying the same about me?

And that is the danger for those of us who have been lucky enough to move on to a more stable vocational status. We must not forget who we once were and what those on the current picket lines are going through. We must avoid complacency. Sometimes the most painful memories are those we should work hardest to retain.

* * *

So CUPE members all over the province carry on, in the blinding snow, insisting on vocational dignity. So they carry on, in the pouring rain, fighting for accessible education for present and future students. So they carry on, amid verbal abuse and physical threats from motorists, pleading for the right to live, learn, share, teach, research, and publish in a reasonable degree of vocational comfort.

“Are we there yet?”

I remember. Eight years ago, at the end of the day’s final shift, my brothers and sisters and I would clear the road, cheer the cars on through, gather up the pylons, stack them on the curbside, dowse the fire in the fire-barrel, hoist our nap sacks, and say “See ya tomorrow.” And I would head across the frosty field, feet frozen, corkscrewing all the way home.

Dr. Zimmerman is an assistant professor of English at York University. You can read his January, 2006 piece “The plight of Canada’s contractual professors.”

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