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 womens 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 havent 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 armys 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.
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 Torontos Management Ph.D. programme with a history professors 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 mens 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 havent always worked for my union. I pretty much took it for granted until this past spring. After all, Im a teacher, right? Why would I need a labour union? Why would I ever think of going out on strike? I dont 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 wasnt 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 didnt know anyone, you didnt know what you were doing, you had never done this before, you didnt know the rules, you didnt know how the system worked, you didnt 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 Atkinsons 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, thats how we learned on the picket lines. Thats 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 didnt have to know what was going on then. I just held my daddys 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 wasnt actually snowing, I asked him why he wasnt 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 dont forget kindness like that. And I havent. I dont eat anywhere else on campus now but at Michaelangelos 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 wouldnt 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, youd 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 didnt know if we would have jobs when we returned, we didnt 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 wed gone out for money, wed 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 universitys 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. Its not going to be easy, but its 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.