Open Letter

By David James Karrel

The CUPE 3902 Unit 1 strike at the University of Toronto last spring was divisive and laborious at all levels. Many departments experienced psychic conflict, torn between their duties to the institution, the union, and the undergraduate students they aim to serve. These conflicts ran through every issue of the strike, and it wasn’t always clear how one might strike a balance between general considerations of justice and what is owed to those we have direct contact with. In my case, I felt a strong pull to serve my students as best as I could, but ultimately decided that everyone at U of T would benefit from a fair working contract for Unit 1 – undergraduates included.

Still, I felt rather confused at times when picketing for CUPE 3902. It was my first time as a member of a union, and consequently, the first time I had been on strike. (I’m one for one!) I didn’t have a clear understanding of what a picket line was, how it worked, or what it represented. I knew the picket line was a literal line of workers marching, and that crossing that line to go to work was bad, but I had no real sense of what that would look like in a university context.

My first picketing assignment was at the Mississauga campus, and I was surprised by how much of the practice of picketing was symbolic. UTM has three driveway entrances. We decided to consolidate our resources (humans) at the main entrance, where we would be most visible. We, the Picketeers™, would walk in a circle on the edges of the crosswalk while the light was green. We were not preventing anything with the picket line; we were simply postponing right and left turns into the driveway, hindering a few drivers (and infinitesimally so). Of course, the line helped to raise awareness for our cause, but that seemed to be beside the point of the line itself, and there were other ways to raise awareness. So, I thought to myself, what are we doing here?

It occurred to me that at least part of what we were doing was imitating the norms that constitute a union strike. The image of a picket line elicits ideas and feelings that may (hopefully) create allies out of strangers; it is a sign of Worker’s protest. But the picket line itself, of which I was a small part, was really only a simulation of ‘the picket line’ of old. When I realized how ineffective our particular line was in forcing a choice about whether to participate in the institution of UTM, the whole thing became a bit odd. It did not seem strange that we were out there spreading our message, building solidarity, or disseminating information to those affected by the strike. Still, walking back and forth through the crosswalk became slightly absurd. In retrospect, I feel like we ran a simulation of a picket line, as if we were practicing for the real thing when the real thing would never come – something like reenactors at an old fortress practicing how to practice for war in front of glazy-eyed tourists.

Similar feelings surfaced when my line captain encouraged me to chant while picketing. As I mentioned earlier, I have never been part of a union. However, I found myself singing Woody Guthrie songs and chanting that “the union makes us strong”. I was mimicking – imitating the good striker. There was no personal, historical substance behind my words, whether said or sung. Again, it built solidarity and made the picketing a bit more enjoyable, but I felt that I was imitating something that I had never really touched. It was not at all real for me.

I don’t want to downplay all of the positive aspects of striking. I felt pride at times on the picket line or in meetings with my union. But, in the end, my time on the line feels like running a simulation, that the real thing is yet to come, lingering just out of reach.

Credit photo: Lennart Maschmeyer