Friday, October 22, 2010

Students and Class Consciousness: A story from the picketline

There is currently a strike taking place at the university I attend. The workers are part of the medical school on campus, which means that many students take the position that the strike doesn't concern them at all, other than to inconvenience them by making them wait in a short lineup and accept a piece of paper before arriving on campus despite the obvious connections between the medical school and the university more generally.

I am currently a teaching assistant for an intro to sociology course. The professor decided to hold class on the picketline yesterday rather than forcing students to cross in order to write their previously scheduled midterm exam. About two thirds of the class showed up on a very cold day to take part in this class (and witness the year's first snowfall at the same time). There was a really interesting series of events that took place during the class.

Part of my job was to take attendance, and a lineup of students were waiting to sign in. Two young guys were joking around, and one said something like "Imagine if a striker got hit by a car" and they both started laughing. I responded by telling him that several strikers have been hit by vehicles, one even went to the hospital. Keep in mind that because strikers must be off university property, the person who is going up to cars to hand out information and talk to drivers is in the middle of an intersection. The two students stopped laughing, but I'm not sure if they really thought much of it.

The professor asked how many of them would be interested in walking the picketline with the workers, and less than 10 of the 60 students present raised their hands, the rest agreed to watch from the side after the mini-lecture and conduct participant observation.

About 10 minutes later, a driver refused to stop for the picketers walking across the road at the entrace to campus. As the car inched forward slowly, one young male worker stood his ground and refused to get out of the way of the vehicle. The car drove slowly into his legs and continued to drive forward, pushing the striker backwards. He turned around, presumably so that the car was on the back of his legs so they would bend instead of break, the car continued to drive forwards, pushing the striker another 2 feet forward and he was almost seated on the hood of the car from being pushed. Meanwhile, a dozen strikers on the line were yelling at the driver to stop, and another striker ran accross the street to get the police officer who was nearby. When the police officer came, he pulled the driver over and made him wait for about 10 minutes while he talked to him (and hopefully wrote a ticket).

The students watched this transpire, some looked horrified by the event, others amused, but I think it affected most of the people who saw it in some way. After the lecture, most of them spent some time walking the picketline with the strikers and very few stood on the sidelines to watch. Seeing one piece of the abuse that these striking workers face every day seemed to bring about a form of class consciousness (or at very least solidarity) that was not there previously.

Now, if only I could find a way to take this experience and bring it on campus to show other students that we need to support these workers.


  1. What a great idea!! Those students will one day, need the solidarity and respect of their co-workers and peers. Great lesson, hats off to this prof and TA that are making a difference!!

  2. Glad to hear that the professor held class on the picket-lines. When my local was on strike (now two years ago), our line always found it heartening when others came to show solidarity. Those moments of encouragement made up from hours walking in the cold, getting attacked by cars, threatened with bodily harm, and screamed at.

    It is strange how people get angry and abusive simply because they're being "inconvenienced" for fifteen or twenty minutes. Stranger still when they scream that you're "selfish" because your strike is "selfishly" standing in the way of them getting quickly from point A to point B...

  3. All of those experiences are happening on campus right now. I try to get to the picket line once or twice a week at very least, as an act of solidarity (both as a student and as part of the executive of another local on campus). I am hoping that it helps boost moral and helps the strikers realize that there are supporters on campus, although they are generally much quieter than the students that threaten and scream at them.

    In our campus solidarity coalition, as well as meetings with the president, we often discuss the difference between the real issues and inconveniences. It seems that a lot of people are annoyed about the inconveniences and are willing to try and come up with solutions for them, but they don't try to improve the cause of these inconveniences, which is simply that a new local on campus wants a collective agreement that reflects what they had last year and the university wants them to take major concessions.

  4. Life if full of inconveniences, however nothing can justify wrong acts, whether it be to hide behind the flag of your union or shielded by a vehicle. As for the insight into the labour discussions, you have no basis for any conclusions as most of the voiced 'opinions' were mixed with much deceit and untruths to poll for support on the part of the workers. They were paid well for their time on the line..violence is unacceptable and so is provoking one to unacceptable acts. I find it funny that all they asked for is what they had previously...if it wasn't so horrible, then why change it... maybe the employer found it hard to define..... respect, expecially with a group that defines it in dollars not work....respect must be earned... is that taught in class anymore?