PICKETING BRAINS: A "GlaTAtor's" story

Introduction -- Some 200 teaching assistants and part-time faculty, members of Canadian Union of Publioc Employees Local 3912, have been out on strike at the Main ("Studley") and TUNS ("Sexton") campuses of Dalhousie University in Halifax since late April.

On May 19, as the followoing article about this struggle was being readied for publication, the local bargaining committee was presenting the university’s last contract offer – an 18 per cent increase – to the membership, and recommending ratification on the grounds that the university seemed unprepared to go any further. A vigorous discussion broke out over the fact that acceptance would leave Dalhousie’s TAs still trailing far behind the Canadian national average wage-rate for this position. Reflecting this was the strong show of support for the sentiment expressed in a quotation, cited in the meeting, from the late African-American rights activist Malcolm X: “Don’t stick a knife in me ten inches, pull it out six, and then tell me: ‘we’ve made progress’ ”.

The bargaining committee has extended balloting on the offer until Friday May 21. However, after going out of their way for the last month not to mention much if anything about why the university’s negotiations with its teaching assistants and part-time faculty went so badly that a strike had broken out in the first place, certain media were “Johnny on the Spot” the morning after this meeting when it came to prematurely declaring the strike all over and done with. The Halifax-area local news at 7:30 on the CBC ended with the announcement that “Dalhousie teaching assistants have ratified a new agreement”, giving the TAs an 18% increase in their hourly wage rate. At 8:00, as the national news was about to roll, the local announcer intoned: “The Dalhousie TAs' strike isn't over quite yet. Apparently the ratification vote will be extended until Friday” – without any acknowledgment that exactly the opposite had been announced less than half an hour earlier. “We will have all the local news coming up at 8:30”, the presenter smoothly continued – and perhaps all the rumours as well ...

A large number of the TAs and part-time faculty, coming from Africa, Asia or Latin America, are relative newcomers to this country. The shunpiking reader who contributed the following report has been walking his first picket-line ever in Canada.


HALIFAX (12 May 2004) -- A picture speaks a myriad of words, but each honking of the cars that I heard in the last few days probably speaks more. The city knows Dalhousie University teaching assistants (TA) and part-time faculty members are on strike. Since April 23rd, all through the day, almost two hundred members of CUPE Local 3912 are picketing in shifts.

Why are the members on the street? Realising the difference between the national standard and Dalhousie standard of a TA's salary was frustratingly higher than Mount Everest, and that the university wasn't going to make the changes needed to scale this obstacle, the union felt there was only one choice -- to be the sherpas. The national average pay rate for university TAs exceeds 24 dollars an hour; some Dal TAs receive less than sixteen. But the cost of living in Halifax is no cheaper than any other in the country, so -- ever erect is my head!

The birth of picketing groups was followed by assignment of names to each, initially according to alphabetical order. However, some have adopted their own nicknames. Group "L', for which I picket, has a beautiful name, "The GlaTAtors'. Although it still feels sometimes like combats in the arena in front of the Emperor, these glaTAtors contend not like the gladiators bought as slaves in chains and forced to fight in order to achieve personal freedom, but more like those ancient freemen who volunteered their participation in combat in order to professionalise their ability to handle "lions" of all kinds.

We are walking, waving, stopping, singing and informing the passers-by. Most of the time, we walk in a circle or rectangle, moving clock-wise and anti-clockwise. This has symmetry not only in space, but we are moving also in equal time intervals. For example, if we move clockwise for an hour, the next hour will be in an anti-clockwise rotation. This peaceful walk with an apparent geometrical balance in time and space could look like some lunatic flying insect searching for sweets. However, in spirit, it has a highly symbolic appeal. The balance stands for an equal wage for an equal amount of effort expended at work, measured in terms of time, and applicable to all. Sometimes the glaTAors become tired. However, speaking from personal experience as a sometime guinea-pig volunteer at the experimental psychology labs in the Life Sciences Building, this is far less boring than playing some 3-D virtual maze computer game. Besides: the maze confuses, whereas picketing unites. If the maze tires your eyes, the picket opens them. If the effort to escape the maze heightens the individual's anomie, from picketing I heighten my solidarity with my fellow TAs. If the centre of picketing is peaceful, along its periphery is plenty of turbulence, reminiscent of a recent hurricane.

During our picketing hours at the Morris Street entrance to Dalhousie University Sexton Campus (formerly known as Dal Tech and before that as TUNS), we have experienced all kinds of reactions. I personally was hit by a car a couple of weeks ago and pushed back from the sidewalk to the road. This apparent gentleman (if being well-dressed and driving a good car is accepted as the measure of gentlemanliness) was informed by the picket leader that this was a legal strike and picket. Nevertheless, he continued to drive through the picket, striking me. Probably he was confusing human souls with something you might pick up for a few dollars at a drive-through pickup. But he forgot "man can be destroyed but not defeated' and solidarity is not some "burger that you consume". The incident was reported to police, who condemned the driver's act and have been following up the complaint.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin, we have seen at the picket line how passionately many faculty members have aligned their emotions and sympathies in our direction. We have seen a former Dal TA (from the 1980s) stand quietly stood for a minute in our support, maybe seeking a solace through the next generation. We have experienced many employees at the university sharing their untold pain and dreams with us. We have seen how the working class is continuously honking and talking to us from their heart. The police and security personnel have been friendly, wishing us good luck. In the quest for a fair wage, besides picketers and picket leaders, all the union members who are on the road, either physically or mentally, also deserve appreciation. This is really amazing!

The stopping-for-a-moment phenomenon has become something of a trend, giving rise to the wishing-you-well in rush-hour traffic outbound for the weekend. I remember during Friday afternoon many cars just stopping in this way, although not stopped. In several cases, drivers volunteered to stop for a minute (one car stopped 2 minutes).

Many of the picketers are graduate and undergraduate students. Soon or later they will be receiving degrees and will be measured in the way they contribute to the society. However, after these picketing experiences, when I go back to work, I feel I have an added duty to the society: we really owe the public -- who have been such a source of support, encouragement, sympathy and love -- quite a bit. I know all of us eagerly await the conclusion of this struggle. Nevertheless, for me, it has been the intention and effort that mattered most. I know we are out on the street for a cause. We are sweating to establish something just. It may take years -- when perhaps some other future glaTAtors will be out on the street -- but they will hear the footsteps we are painting today on this sidewalk-canvas. We shall overcome!

We are
We are
We are the DAL TAs.

We do
We do
Deserve a decent wage.

Give fair pay
Give fair pay

So, come on out with us
For we won't give in
To any admin
That won't be fair to us!

(This is the song, contributed by our acting team leader, that Group "L" has been singing to uphold the strike mandate. We think it's beautiful)

*SHABBIR MUSTAFIZ is a Killam Scholar, PhD candidate in Civil Engineering and a teaching assistant. He wrote this article for Shunpiking Online.

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