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Radicalization and Renewal:
The YUFA Grand Strike of 1997
Speech for Atkinson Alums
Teaching Excellence Award
October 17, 1997
M Louise Ripley, M.B.A., Ph.D.
Member, York University Faculty Association

Bierstadt's 1862 painting of "Picket Duty" 

When professors are hired by a University, we are told that there are three parts to our job: teaching, research, and service. But they call us teachers, and indeed, that is what we are. This is the number one reason most of us go into the profession in the first place. It is the single most important thing we do in our lives, most of us. And it is the most visible part of our jobs. This is a major reason why honours such as the Atkinson Alumni/ae Teaching Excellence Award mean so much to us. This is what we came here to do.

But in order to teach, we do other things as well. Part of our university job consists of research - reading and thinking and writing about what we believe is important in the world. And part of our job consists of service to the university and to the community - sitting on committees, speaking at convocations, working for the union that makes us strong. Before I talk specifically about the service component of my teaching job - my union and the strike, I would like to take a few minutes and read to you from the current reading, thinking, and writing that I am doing about what I believe is important in the world.

Although I am formally designated a professor of Marketing, I am still, at heart, the young liberal arts undergraduate who spent the best and most challenging academic years of her life at Shimer College, over thirty years ago, perusing physics, Plato, and poetry, comprehending chemistry, Chopin, and composition, negotiating natural science, Nietzsche, and novels, in a frantic and wonderful effort to try to uncover for myself the multiplicity of threads that constitute the interconnected web of all existence.

Although I am formally designated a professor of Marketing, I no longer write so much for the journals of my discipline; I write from my heart and for my heart, and I write in the respected form of fiction. Although I am formally designated a professor of Marketing, I add to my curiosity about business, a deep devotion to women’s issues, a fierce concern for the environment, and a life-long passion for the American Civil War. If you doubt that all of this is connected, you haven’t taken enough liberal arts courses yet!

I am going to read you a short and somewhat edited piece from my nearly-finished novel, where the young hero is preparing to stand guard duty on a cold, wet, miserable March evening. You only have to know three things about the book:

First, you need to know that the hero is a young man, 15 years old, who rides in the Southern cavalry with General J.E.B. Stuart, during the American Civil War, a terrible and awful war which, like any conflict between associates, colleagues, fellows, and family, casts asunder every notion we ever held of what it means to be together, to stand together, to work together. A war that asks us at the end, on which side did you stand? And which will continue to ask us that question for as long as we continue to ask the questions that matter in life. Second, you need to know that one of the duties of the cavalry was to stand watch at every entrance to the army’s encampment, with one single and absolute duty -- to keep the enemy from crossing their lines. And third, you need to know that the man standing such duty, back in eighteen hundred and sixty three, during that terrible and awful time, was called...a picket, and he stood picket duty, on a picket line.

It was March, an unusually cold spring, and the afternoon’s drizzle had turned to an evening’s freezing rain. I dressed for the worst. Over my drawers, I pulled on long wool underwear, sent by my grandmother, and added three pairs of wool socks, which she had knitted for me. Over this I pulled on both my pairs of trousers before getting into my boots. I added three shirts, my wool winter coat, and a gum slicker, donned my hat and my gloves, and set out to the stables. I gave my horse an extra ration of oats, and rode out to join the pickets.

It was one of the longest nights of my young life thus far, although we only stood four hours. The freezing rain dripped off the brim of my hat and down onto the toes of my boots, soaking them from the outside. Where my gum slicker stopped, just below the knee, the rain dripped down and soaked the cloth of my trousers and as they became saturated, they dripped down into my boots, soaking them from the inside. Very soon, my three pairs of wool socks were thoroughly wet, and my toes started to freeze and there remained three and a half hours on the shift.

It was in seeking to protect my toes that I learned the trick of shifting my weight from one foot to the other with a consistency of rhythm, the left foot flat on the ground with the right toe raised, then the right foot flat on the ground with the left heel raised. Back and forth, back and forth, you rocked and you rocked and you rocked, until you established a cadence which served three separate aims. It kept your feet from freezing with the wetness of your boots. It kept your hips from hurting with the bearing of your weight And it kept your soul from sinking with the closing of your eyes, because the army shot sentries who fell asleep on guard.

On nights such as this, no one dared to look at his watch. Four hours would pass, this was a certainty, but you had to hold it in faith rather than proof, for it was the utmost cruelty known to a soldier standing picket duty to think it only two hours till his relief, only to look upon his watch and find it closer to three. Grown men were known to weep with fatigue on such nights. There remained among us an unwritten rule against asking or speaking the time, with one exception.

When the shift was nearly done, when a mere quarter hour remained until replacements would come, it was then possible to begin to think upon the concept of relief from your duty. Few of us, however, were brave enough to risk the glance at the watch necessary to confirm this. But on some nights, I had the good fortune to serve picket duty with a fellow soldier old enough to be father to many of us. He had raised children and he had taught logic and philosophy and he possessed a natural sense of time. He believed that if we could endure fifteen minutes, we could endure another ten, especially if the ten were announced in order to inform us of the imminent arrival of the final portion of our shift, and so he would check his watch, and he was never wrong, and the most gratifying moment of the cold and bitter night came when he would call out, "only ten minutes until the last fifteen!" Only he would we allow to break our self imposed rule against announcing the time, because from the moment he declared it, the minutes sped until our replacements arrived, and they always found us in unusually good humour, for all our soaked clothing and our dripping mounts, and no one who had failed to serve picket duty with this sentinel ever really understood the joy he brought to us on those bitter, cold, wet nights in his small game with patience and minutes.

Also most welcome on those dark watches were fellow soldiers who, not on duty themselves, rode out in the rain to bring us hot coffee and biscuits. The fires we were allowed were not sufficient to warm us, even when we could take a moment to stand beside them, and we clasped a cup of hot coffee as a true believer might embrace the Holy Grail. And we accepted with especially reverent gratitude, the gifts of food or tobacco or coffee brought to us by the people of the area whose lives and rights we were fighting for, and we remembered their faces in each battle we fought, and it made the war worthwhile.

Thus we nourished each other, and for me, raised with no one to care if I lived or died, it was a nourishment which encouraged my heart almost to tears. It was for the sake of partaking of this nourishment that I came joyfully to stand on picket duty, defying sleep, hunger, my health, and sometimes even my commanding officer’s objections, for he often accused me of being his only soldier who actually enjoyed the duty and he seemed a bit perplexed as to why I volunteered so often.

Oddly for me, a boy who usually avoided at all costs any thought whatsoever upon why anything affected me, terrified as I was of what I might discover, I found that that it did not take me long to learn why I so loved picket duty, even though it was the most physically and emotionally punishing task I had ever been set in my life.

You stood in the worst of weather, aching for sleep or food or drink or warmth or touch and having none of it. You couldn’t lie down; you couldn’t sit down; you couldn’t even stand still for long before your legs ached and your feet froze. You built small fires but there was never enough heat to truly warm you and the fires served mainly to put the smell of smoke into your hair that you carried with you until you could bathe again. But this punishing activity held its own rewards.

First of all, standing guard on picket duty enabled me to literally physically stand for something which was so important to me, so fundamental to my existence, that I was willing to sacrifice everything I had, including my life if need be, in order to stand up for it. Secondly, I stood picket duty for those four long hours in the wet and the cold and the snow, at first to prove myself to my commanding officer whom I adored, but I soon came to know that I also stood to prove to myself that I could do it. Third, it was discipline which was routine, known, and predictable. For so much of my life, punishment came frequently and violently and unfairly and without warning, until I came to see it as a natural extension of my existence. I never experienced it as something I chose, or even as something I had earned; it simply came to me by virtue of something in my nature which failed to fit in wherever I was required to be, and I never knew what I had done wrong. The punishment of picket duty, however, was something I chose, something which was known, something which served a sacred purpose, and something over which I thereby held some semblance of control.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it was punishment suffered in the company of my fellows. On picket duty, we stood together, enduring that sheer physical labour to which you would not wish to sentence a condemned criminal. In the worst of all possible conditions, we stood together. I came to realize that picket duty was one of the few times in my life that I had been allowed to be with men without worrying about who was toughest, who was smartest, who came out on top. We worked together to get through what we had to get through. And perhaps most gloriously different from any of my previous experience was the fact that, as we stood together, we complained together.

We did not always complain. We shared good times, and we exchanged wonderful exciting secrets, and we discovered among ourselves, each of us previously alone, that we had comrades now, who shared our feelings and our emotions and our loves and our dislikes and our hopes and our dreams and our silly everyday worries and our petty squabbles and our embarrassments and our pride in our small accomplishments such as surviving a battle by the skin of our teeth, or finding a few potatoes in a root cellar when our regiment thought it would starve.

But above all, it was wonderful to complain together. Standing sentinel duty, we complained of the weather, we complained of the lack of food, we complained of the length of the duty, we complained of the lack of warm drink on cold nights, and of the lack of cold drink on warm days, we complained of the officers in their distant warm and comfortable tents, we complained of our aches and pains, and we complained most vociferously of all, about the bloody Yankees who had caused us all this pain. But it was in this complaining, in this wonderful camaraderie of the litanies of our shared endurance, that I began to understand the real reason I so loved picket duty. For the first time ever in my life, my anger was acceptable. It earned me praise instead of condemnation; it earned me a friendly arm about the shoulder instead of a blow, and it earned me a place among my fellows, a place where I belonged, for the first time ever in my life.

If you knew me, it would not take you long to piece together out of this, the story of a business professor with a labour union heart, the story of a graduate of the University of Toronto’s Management Ph.D. programme with a history professor’s passion.

If you knew me well, it would not take you long to piece together out of this, the story of a woman who fought for ten unsuccessful years to fit into the men’s world of Finance in Chicago.

If you knew me really well, you would recognize the story of someone for whom punishment did indeed come frequently and violently and unfairly and without warning, simply because I had chosen to enter a field in which I did not fit the mold, a field where I was different, a field where I daily found myself challenging the accepted view of the world.

I am a business professor at Atkinson College. But I am a deep believer in many socialist principles such as universal medical care, safety nets for the less fortunate than most of us, and protection from the corporate agendas that currently threaten our entire society. AND, I am the daughter of a labour union leader, born and bred to the belief that alone we beg, together we negotiate.

But what did I need with a union? I haven’t always worked for my union. I pretty much took it for granted until this past spring. After all, I’m a teacher, right? Why would I need a labour union? Why would I ever think of going out on strike? I don’t work at the Chrysler plant, where, when the workers go on strike, they hurt the wealthy owners by costing them $11 million dollars a day. If I were to go on strike as a teacher, I would hurt only my students, right?

Well, for eighteen long years at York, I was an excellent teacher, a capable researcher, and an astoundingly superbly "good girl," in terms of my service to the University -- a professor who did everything she was asked to do, without ever a word of complaint, even when it deeply affected what she cared most in the world about, her teaching.

When they raised my class sizes, from 30 in a third year class to 120, from 15 in a fourth year honours seminar to 80, from tutorials of 12 to tutorials of 50, I did not complain. I accepted their wisdom that budgets were being cut and we all had to work harder. When they decided to close the libraries at night before my Atkinson students could get there to use them, I did not complain. I accepted their wisdom that they knew what was best for all of us. When they fiddled with the budgets, that they would never share with us, to such an extreme extent that I was told I could not put on an additional section of Marketing, even though I had two hundred tuition-paying students waiting to take the course, I did not complain. I accepted that they knew about registration and fees and costs.

But last fall, the Administration of this University stripped the retirement options out of what was supposed to be a mutually agreed upon "Collective Agreement," our union contract. It wasn’t the stripping of the retirement clause that changed my mind about my need to work for my union. It was the fact that, with this final straw, I woke up and realized that, over the prior fifteen years, the Administration that was supposed to serve the students and faculty of this University had been slowly and steadily taking over every single decision in this University, including those which most deeply affected our teaching - class size, library hours, course offerings, use of computers, teaching by technology, and bringing with that, a profound degradation of our jobs, and of the sacred calling of teaching.

So, when my union asked me in March, will you go on strike? I thought about all the times that I had been a good and quiet and compliant girl and had said yes to whatever the Administration asked me, and this time, I said YES to my union. And on March 20, we went out on strike.

Those days on the picket lines were without a single doubt, the absolutely most terrifying days of my life and I have lived for fifty years now, some of it in the Southern U.S. during the days of the Black civil rights movement where we had our house burned down by someone who said my parents were "nigger lovers." But this strike was my own personal battle, a battle which challenged my basic beliefs about my own profession, and a battle which put at risk that profession, my health, my income, my family, occasionally even my life.

We were funny, really, and as Atkinson graduates you will appreciate this. You remember how you felt when you first came back to school? You didn’t know anyone, you didn’t know what you were doing, you had never done this before, you didn’t know the rules, you didn’t know how the system worked, you didn’t even know what to wear, you just came to the campus and you learned as you went along? And finally, somewhere, in some class or other, you met someone a little like you, to whom you could confide that you were scared and ignorant, and they admitted that they were the same way, and after that you took every class together that you could, and then you found a few more similar friends, and by the time you graduated, you realized that probably most of Atkinson’s traditional students came to university feeling ignorant, unsure, and scared, and you taught each other, how to pick the best class, how to prepare an "A" essay, how to survive. And maybe you are still friends with those fellow students now.

Well, that’s how we learned on the picket lines. That’s how we learned how to go on strike. Few, if any of us, on any particular line, had actually been on strike before. I had walked many picket lines with my father when I was young, but I didn’t have to know what was going on then. I just held my daddy’s hand and I walked. And I remember how much the men and women on those lines loved to see him, because he was the guy from union headquarters, out there in the cold and wet along with the working people, he was the guy who laboured on their behalf, the guy who had been doing all the hard slogging work of union headquarters to try to ensure that they would not have to walk the lines. Because a strike is ALWAYS a last resort. You do anything in your power to do, before you go out on strike. But when you have to go, you go, and best of all, you go together.

And so, together, ignorant, unskilled, unsure of ourselves, frozen cold, hungry, and scared to death, small groups of university professors huddled together at the eight gates of York, and as we stood together, in our ignorance and our terror, we began to do what we came to this university to do -- we taught each other. We taught by sharing, and we shared everything. We shared our songs, and our food, and our extra pairs of dry gloves. I remember asking a fellow Atkinson professor one rainy day -- every day was a rainy day if it wasn’t actually snowing, I asked him why he wasn’t wearing his gloves. He took them from his pocket and wrung the water out of them in front of me, a big grin on his face. After that, as Picket Captain, I always carried extra gloves in the trunk of my car.

Life came down to the basics of survival. We shared those awful little portable toilets - men and women. Mostly we learned how to wait for four hours rather than have to use them! We learned by gut feel to know when the truck was due with coffee and donuts. And sometimes when it had not come for a long time, someone else would come. When I am one hundred and twenty years old, I am still going to remember the day that Angelo arrived on my picket line. You all know Angelo - he runs the Atkinson Cafeteria. One bitter cold day of freezing rain when we really wondered how we would possibly make it through the next fifteen minutes, let alone any longer, Angelo drove up in the pouring freezing rain on Sentinel Road, to bring us a huge vat of coffee and a pile of donuts. You don’t forget kindness like that. And I haven’t. I don’t eat anywhere else on campus now but at Michaelangelo’s in the basement of Atkinson College.

We shared the skills we learned. We learned how to know whether a car would try to break through the picket line. Usually the red and the black ones were the worst. No gender bias, by the way. Women were just as vicious as men. We learned how to stop those cars from running the lines. I learned how to stand in front of a car that was bumping his front end against my legs, holding up my STOP sign, keeping my knees flexed so he wouldn’t break my legs, keeping myself ready to fall onto the hood if he really took off, which they never did, not on my line.

We shared our knowledge of what clothing worked best for what kind of days -- always at least two layers of wool in any wet weather. Sun protection soon. At a union meeting off campus in April, in the basement of a local library, walking in without knowing who we were, you would have assumed we were all just back from vacation in Cuba. We all had these lovely tanned faces and hands! Not me, though. My hard hat kept the sun out as well as protecting me from the violence I came to live with every day on the picket lines. Nice tan on the hands, though. With long sleeves this summer, you’d have taken me for a Florida vacationer.

We shared our money. Many professors who had spouses with full incomes donated their strike pay to a fund to help those who were the sole support of families. We learned how to ask for what we needed, and we learned how to share.

Of all the scary things we faced on the lines, however, the scariest was the prospect of what our students would think of us. We didn’t know if we would have jobs when we returned, we didn’t know if we could pay our mortgages and feed our children. But most crucially to these striking teachers, we worried about what our students would think of us. But in this too, we shared. We discovered that the majority of our students stood with us. Some of them literally. On Sentinel Road, we were joined daily by students who stopped for a while, grabbed a picket sign, and walked the circle with us, sometimes to chat with a favourite professor, sometimes just to show solidarity.

Some students were forced to cross our lines because a scabbing professor insisted they had to or would fail the course, and these students used to stop at the line and give us bags of candy and little treats and say how badly they felt having to cross the lines. We assured them that we knew where their hearts were and each time after that, we waved friendly greetings as they crossed. And this was the most gratifying response of all, because after all, you are going to ask, as everyone asks about the YUFA Strike, why did you go out? We went out on strike because we care about our teaching conditions. Bear in memory, Keep this watchword in your mind: Teaching conditions of the faculty are the learning conditions of the students.

It was an important strike, and an historical one. At 55 days, it was the longest strike in the history of English Canadian university strikes. It earned us the respect of the guys in the big unions. Even the Canadian Auto Workers came out to help us. We are often asked, "What did you win in the strike?" Money? If we’d gone out for money, we’d still be walking. No, for most of us, the one percent raise in the third year of the coming contract will come nowhere near to covering the loss of thousands of dollars in pay.

We won a number of things, including specific rights in the new contract with respect to control over our classrooms in both size, and use of technology. We won a small amount of money to start dealing with pay inequities. The average female professor at York earns $13,500 less than her male counterpart. But the main thing we won, after walking the lines for those eight long weeks, was a strong union. And because we have a strong union, this University will be strong. Many of the faculty and librarians of York University had become so demoralized, so disgusted, so depressed by the university’s administrative policies that we had given up caring about anything but our teaching and our writing. When it came to committee work, Senate, any form of governance, most of us had sunk to the depths of hiding in our offices hoping the Administration would not notice us. The strike gave us back our recognition of the importance of our role in the governance of this university. And it gave us back the knowledge that if we stand together, we can change anything!

The YUFA Strike was for me, was for most of your faculty, a life transforming experience. And it will transform the life of this University. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to be fun doing it, because we have taught each other how to do it, and because we will stand together, with our students, to do it.

I started out tonight by saying that our university jobs as professors consist of three parts - teaching, research, and service. What the strike taught us was that those three parts are inseparable, absolutely inseparable. You found me a good teacher, partly because of my performance in the classroom, partly because I keep my research up to date so that we are always studying new ideas in the field, but also because you knew I cared about you, and treasured you as my students. At no time ever, in my twenty years at Atkinson College, have you been more important to me, more visible to me, or more a reminder to me of what my professional life is all about, than during the YUFA Grand Strike of 1997.

I thank you for this award from the depths of my heart.


York University, Toronto
M Louise Ripley, M.B.A., Ph.D.