Friday, March 28, 2014

Pickets can be intimidating

My last post tried to warn against what I see as a potentially "silencing" effect some the union supporters' enthusiasm might have on those members, like me, who are undecided or ambivalent about the union.  I offered that post in the spirit of constructive criticism.  Someone, even a strong supporter of the union, could theoretically say such things without undermining what the union is trying to accomplish.  It can be an aid to the union, warning it where it might stumble in the future if it's not careful.  In short, my last post was not a substantive critique, but a critique about style or tactics.  As I said a while back, I want to be careful and respectful about when and in what way I express what I consider my more substantive reservations about the union and what it is arguing for.

I may wade into those substantive weeds soon enough, but this post continues the "style or tactics" critique.  As the union continues contract negotiations and as the possibility of a second strike, perhaps of indefinite duration, remains, I urge union supporters to consider the effect of a second strike upon the students.  Or, I should say, "continue to consider." I do believe that most faculty sincerely care already about how a strike might affect their students.  But I bring up here one thing that so far I have not seen openly considered, although I suspect that behind-the-scenes discussions might have addressed this.  I am referring to a strike and picket lines can be intimidating.

The two-day strike in February illustrates the intimidating nature of pickets.  I'm not saying what the strikers did was out of bounds.  For the most part, their demeanor and decisions were exemplary of the type of reasoned and non-threatening style of protest the union was aiming for.  But there was one exception that I witnessed.  And although there are different ways to interpret the example I'm about to relate, I think it's the type of thing that the union needs to keep in mind.

On one of the days of the strike, me, another striker, and an ally stood holding signs outside the entrance to one of the lecture centers.  I don't remember much about the ally, but my understanding was that he or she came from another U of I campus and was there to express solidarity to a cause he or she supported.  This ally was, in my opinion, very aggressive.  When a student entered the lecture center, the ally stated "did you know the UIC faculty are on strike?" and handed the student the talking-points flyer we had been given to distribute to students.

There are different ways to assess this ally's tactics.  I interpreted the "did you know....?" question as being said in a confrontational tone.  The handing out of the flyer seemed to me more aggressive than merely holding out a flyer to be taken.

Perhaps I speak only for myself, but if someone hands me a flyer I don't want, didn't ask for, or have no intention of reading, then I have the following options.  I can take it anyway.  I can claim to have already been given one.  I can say no thank you.  I can walk past the flyer-hander without engaging the flyer-hander.  I can refuse and explain my reasons for refusing.  For a sometimes shy person like myself--and like, I imagine, at least a certain number of students--any of these options is difficult.  It would put me in a position of having to prevaricate or dissemble, or to defend a stance against someone I do not know.

That might seem like weak tea for illustrating the "intimidating nature of pickets."  But I think strikers need to consider that asking the "did you know....?" in my opinion insulted the students' intelligence.  There is no way that the students who crossed into the lecture center were unaware that the UIC faculty were on strike.  The lecture center was in the middle of the campus, and picketers were everywhere.  Their instructors had likely told them of the strike even if they did not cancel classes.  And most of the signs the picketers carried were clearly marked with our union name, local number, and an explanation that we were striking.  The students could see we had flyers and could have asked for one if they really wanted it.  And frankly, it's debatable whether an undecided person, who has not made up their mind, adopts a firm position upon seeing a flyer with a few one-sided talking points.

We should also keep in mind that if a student decides not to cross, he or she is facing a secondary inconvenience beyond the inconvenience occasioned by the classes that are canceled.  Students have already paid their tuition, or if they're on the university's monthly payment plan, they have at least committed to paying the tuition.   Some classes, as the union knows, are taught by TA's or adjuncts who do not belong to the bargaining unit.  The union cannot officially encourage those instructors to cancel classes.  And regardless of whether the classes are taught by people within or without the bargaining unit, important material might be covered, or there might be penalties for not attending a class session.

All this is to say that the students know what's at stake for them, at least in the short term.  And they know a strike is going on.  And they know they can ask for a flyer.

My interpretation of course is only one of other possible interpretations.  I am inclined to be skeptical about the union and am therefore probably also inclined to interpret such tactics in the most unfavorable light.

I want to say a few things about the ally who helped us.  He or she was probably not a paid organizer and probably sincerely believed that he/she was helping us.  And although I am ambivalent about the whether the union will actually help the faculty or my interests in particular, the intention was to help, and I should be grateful for that.

Handing out flyers, even if done "aggressively," is not on-the-waterfront-style bossism.  Picketing in most cases is an expression of freedom of speech, and this case is no exception.  My original title for this post was "pickets are inherently intimidating," and I believe that's true even for peaceable pickets.  And as long as the pickets are indeed peaceable--and I saw nothing at the two-day strike to suggest otherwise--then they should be permitted.

But as the possibility of a second strike approaches, we should keep in mind what effect our actions will have on the students.  The second strike, if it happens, will likely be timed to be as inconvenient as possible for the students.  It could hold little promise of being effective if it is not so timed.  Students will know that the union is striking.  If they want to know more, they can ask.  Otherwise, let them be.

Again, this is not what I consider a substantive critique of the union.  I urge my readers (if I have any) to take what I write here as a hint of how others not on the union's side might interpret the union's actions.  Union supporters might read this and in the end decide that what I consider "aggressive" strike tactics are necessary.  And as a tactical matter they might be right.  I just want to let them know part of the cost is alienating some people.

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