Beyond pacing in circles and pausing to huddle around the fire barrel, what we were tasked to do during our daily duty on the line was to talk to the people sitting in their cars, waiting to enter the premises. We were, after all, an information picket, and the purpose of our presence was to educate people driving onto campus about the nature of our labour action.
What was striking (ha ha) to me was the nature of the answer I so often received. That answer was "So what?"
Time and again, I heard, "I don't have job security either. No one has job security. That's just how things are these days. There's nothing you can do about it." Of course, I would suggest in return that we all deserve job security, that this was just one front in that more general struggle. They would listen, politely or not, and then they would drive off. I was not so deluded as to imagine that I had changed minds.
More disconcerting were the attitudes expressed beyond the purview of the picket line. Undergraduate students rallied against us. The Ontario government allied with the York University administration to legislate us back to work. And, across the internet, the public unleashed the worst it had to offer in the comfortable confines of anonymity. Here is a sampling of the bile on the Toronto Star story linked-to above. It is merely representative:
Pat6290: Fire them all and pay me the $35 an hour to mark. I'd be glad to
Vancouver [a York parent]: Frankly I could care less if CUPE's asses are frozen to the concrete on the picket lines. This strike is based solely on greed... go to hell CUPE MARXISTS!!
JayJayz: These people on strike should get fired, then replaced by people who do care about students and education--then they'll appreciate their jobs!
Bkeeling: Fighting to provide job security and wage increases for people who will not be here once their grad studies are over is insane. They are using us to their advantage and why not?
SOC: Grow up and do your jobs or quit. I'm sure there are plenty that would gladly take your place.
If there is a prevailing sentiment here, it is the sense that the union is victimizing students in a selfish (and, apparently, irrational) ploy to better our own already lavish quality of life. I don't think I need to dwell on why this was a misreading of the situation. Instead, I want to focus on the notion of third party (in this case undergraduate student) as victim in a labour dispute.
I highlight this because it seems to fly in the face of the conventional labour struggle dynamic: workers vs. employers. As evidenced by the above comments, public discourse around the York strike came to focus not on the hard line that the university was taking with its employees, but on how the union was holding undergraduates hostage. Due to the increasingly widespread common sense understanding that job security and decent wages are no longer something people should expect, the union was actually painted as more of a culprit than the employer (who was simply doing the best that it could in tough economic times) for demanding such anachronistic perks. Undergrads, like children in a gruesome divorce, were seen as the only real victims of this narcissistic squabbling. It was their plight that became the cause célèbre.
In this case, the owners were generally pushing to take a greater percentage of Basketball Related Income (BRI), while those of smaller market teams sought a harder salary cap that would prevent star players from coalescing in desirable cities and thus distribute talent more evenly throughout the league. While these were the main issues of the lockout, the overarching public narrative was somewhat different. Much like at York three years earlier, was a story of how a third party was being held hostage.
For the NBA, the third party in question was made up of fans. Members of the sports media, like Bill Simmons on his BS Report podcast, framed fans as the victim of the lockout. Millionaires and billionaires were squabbling over cash and the people truly getting hurt were the poor, innocent fans who would not be able to watch basketball.
In the end, the players conceded nearly 7% of BRI relative to their previous collective agreement. Owners conceded a hard cap. Nothing changed other than the fact that players (the only reason people are interested in the NBA) gave money back to the owners (who only have the privilege of owning a team because they have exploited labour in some other arena previously and thus have enough cash to control the players and act like the league is beholden to them).
It is difficult to argue that the players did not lose this labour struggle. It is also hard to frame this as anything but a defeat for fans, whose favourite players remain as likely as ever to "take [their] talents to South Beach."
This is the moral of the story, just as it is the one that should have been learned on the picket lines at York three years earlier: when the public turns against labour and anoints a third party the victim in a labour struggle, only the employer prevails.
At York, class sizes remain as large as ever. Contract faculty teach myriad courses in order to make a living, diminishing the quality of the education offered in each. Underpaid graduate students scramble to earn enough to get by. This is not a recipe for a quality post-secondary experience, particularly one that undergraduate students pay more and more dearly for.
These are not merely abstract meditations. In Toronto, teaching assistants at the University of Toronto and teaching assistants and contract faculty at York are reaching the end of another contentious round of contract negotiations. Both universities are driving a harder bargain than ever. Strikes may again ensue.
Undergraduates are the victims in this story. What the public needs to recognize, though, is that it is university administrations and the provincial government that supports and subsidizes them that are the real culprits. University teachers, like NBA players, are the reason that these institutions exist; they are the reason that tuition is paid and tickets are purchased.
It's time to learn the lessons that recent history has taught us. If students and teachers unite, there will be no victims.