Voices from the Picket Line

Striking CUPE 3903 Workers, in their own Words

Hi, my name is Joshua and I’m a PhD student in FES and a TA in Environmental Writing.

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A few unedited and brief thoughts on my/our situation:

This story of striking coincides with so many other stories — stories with themes of dedication, frustration, confusion, hope, joy, fear, and countless other emotions in no particular order.  At this time in my life I am a student (confusion/frustration/joy!), teaching assistant (dedication/confusion/frustration!), educator (hope/confusion/fear!), and barista (none of the above!), writer (joy/fear/dedication/confusion/etc etc etc etc!) — all in a country I was not born in (hope/frustration!) and…  not that you would notice or that you need to know or even that you could possibly care…  but amidst the first long-term relationship of my life (fear/hope/joy/love/bliss/confusion/frustration/mostly joy and love/sorry/no, its my fault/no, I’m sorry/no, you are…  no, YOU are!).

To say there is a lot going on inside of my head is an understatement.

For the past 3 weeks I have been “picketeering”.  I smell of smoke from huddling up next to the oil barrel that contains a rather slap-dash fire pit.  I have a sore back and sore shoulders, from what I do not know — perhaps from carrying the weight of all my growing stories (see above) in my body rather than putting them on paper or unloading them with my voice.  At one point I thought that I would fall into the middle of our counter-clockwise walking circle because the treads on my shoes are becoming too uneven.  Books are sitting on my desk at home unread, and words are not quite being written, because every time I sit down in silence I think and worry about money.  I hope I can pay rent next month.

And yet, I have some fun.  I meet people I otherwise would not have met — including people in my own department!  I watch countless cars pull up to the gate that I lift every 2 minutes, displaying a wide range of human emotions from unflinching support to eye-popping rage (not to mention stone-cold apathy).  I also notice a large variety of rear-view-mirror decorations; the Hawaiian lei, the soccer ball-in-net, rosaries, chains, dice, dice with poppies, tassels, flags…  and there are custom license plates!  Plus, we make up songs — and in the making lies humility, for some people simply are not amused by my lyrics or wooed by my vocalizing.

And yet, when I stop enough to remember why we are on those lines, I return to my confused and often overwhelmed state of mind.

I ask my students every class to find their voice — to represent their unique place in the world, and to sing their lungs out into the machinery of our consumer-based world with the hopes of shattering a few glasses like an opera singer would (okay, I don’t say all that, but I mean it).  I do encourage them to challenge what they already know or expect out of themselves.  Now that I do not have the opportunity to continue our dialogues and share that time that I value so much, I have only been able to reflect upon the meaning of all of my work — specifically my work as a TA, student, writer, and thinker in an under-appreciative, lonely, and challenging environment.

Overly dramatic?  Not at all.

My experience as an undergraduate in the U.S. was unsatisfying; I never had a TA — professors were overworked, lecturers not paid enough and busy with other jobs…  there was no personal connection to help me understand the course material or even help guide the questions that arose in my studies and work.  When I arrived in Canada to start my PhD, I was amazed that so many people were even further into the front-lines of education than I had experienced in my past — there are hundreds of TA’s helping the faceless masses of paying students find a sense of belonging and community despite the isolation that university experience can provide. That work is vital to the name and reputation of York University as well as to the success and growth of both the undergraduate students and the TA’s themselves — the future lecturers and professors, academics and consultants, and policy-makers and researchers who need to recognize and remember that there is a patchwork of human beings (and their stories) behind our paychecks.

And yet…

And yet, we TA’s/students work with limited help from that very same University that owes us so much.  Personally, I find it difficult to understand how my limited access to University resources requires me to pay $12000 a year in tuition. International students like myself greatly increase the diversity in thinking and in style within our teaching and learning communities (or so I imagine); Canada itself is a nation of immigrants!  And YET, what is more unwelcoming than a funding package that is only a few thousand dollars more than the tuition that you must pay?  A stagnant benefits package and ways and means funds that you compete for with an ever-increasing number of students with their own needs and hopes and dreams?  increasing pressure to finish your program without similarly increasing assistance?  a vitally important teaching position that gives you no security or ability to plan for your future?  and… a likely future as a contract faculty that will not be secure even THEN…  a future without retirement benefits or job security or fair wages?

York University has at times shown no interest in bargaining with our union, and our union has reacted at times with patience and at times without the diligence or unity necessary to get the ball rolling…  and yet, I support our rights as workers to withdraw our labor until a fair settlement is achieved.  I do not and cannot support an employer that uses psychological tactics and lockouts to force an upper hand.  The bargaining team and the university must come to a settlement.  I already need financial help.  I already am off-track in my studies.  I already miss spending time with my students.  I already feel an increasing physical and emotional stress as I spend even more time working on the picket lines as well as part-time off campus — all of it talking about or thinking about the mess into which my peers and I continually fall.

And yet… I am willing to do what it takes to make sure that we will all sing to our classrooms with booming voices that stand on a fair and equitable foundation — rooted in respect, care, and dedication to our greater causes in teaching and learning.  Until then…  I march in solidarity.

Written by Gavan Watson

November 28, 2008 at 10:06 am

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