Why Picket

On the picket
On the picket with my mom and sister.

Hey all,

As we get toward the end of our first week on the picket line, I wanted to take the opportunity to invite the discussion of how we might share ideas to maximize our efforts in what could be a crucial week of negotiations between teachers and the government.

I realize that some of you may not be enthused about the prospect of being pilloried in a sandwich sign while you’re asked to pace in front of your job site for a few hours every day, and know that not everyone is the sort of extravert that is able to jump into these sorts of things easily, even when they agree with the cause. But I would point out that the purpose we are serving on the picket line is twofold:

  • We are refusing / preventing work normally done on our work site to apply pressure on management / government at the negotiating table;
  • We are building public awareness of key issues which greatly undercut the government’s steadfast narrative of greedy teachers demanding more free massages and “more than twice the raise any other union got.”

*cough* despite not coming off two years’ of zeros as teachers are. 

To these two purposes, I would argue that our attention while on strike is much better utilized if we focus on the second of these two goals. In most industries, a union withholding its labour penalized the owners financially as capital is prevented from moving and thus accumulating value. To most employers, this financial pressure can create an immediate effect; we saw this in action when the truckers’ union at the Port of Vancouver went on strike earlier this year, effectively shutting down a major port of trade, and were granted a deal in less than a week. But as the withholding of our labour actually saves the government millions of dollars a week, we can see that merely closing our work site created minimal (in fact opposite) leverage for our union in its negotiations. If we stick to this course of action, the government would have little incentive to not let the strike drag on until October until we’re broke enough to accept a deal that would negate all of the work, sacrifice and difficult choices we have made to get us to this point.

What matters, it seems to me, and could help us greatly in our cause as our walkout goes into a second week before summer vacation takes the public eye away from our negotiations, is the raising of public support for our struggle for a fair deal in this round of bargaining. Part of the way we do this is by positively representing ourselves and our intentions while on the line. How we interact with traffic, pedestrians and other working people in our communities goes a long way in establishing a public perception of our union and its efforts that many of us have long-wished was more a part of the face of the BCTF. For better or worse, while we are ‘on the line’ in front of our schools, we are who our neighbours are seeing as the union they keep hearing about on the news these days. They could drive by and see a bunch of folks socializing in lawn chairs with their signs propped up against the tent-les; or they could see an enthusiastic team of teachers actively courting their support and solidarity.

By all means, take some time to get warmed up. Bring a lawn chair to rest your feet or back, and catch up with your colleagues. Play a guitar. But each shift should be making a concerted effort to connect with the people driving and walking through our neighbourhood. You’d be surprised the effect of an engaging smile and a wave from a passing stranger, let alone fifteen.

Eye contact creates empathy and respect between people, even when they disagree. Pour on the kindness to those with stern glances, birds or words. Reasonable people can disagree, and these interactions allow people to take a stance on the issue of our negotiations. For my part I can say that in our weeks on the picket so far, these have been many, many more honks, waves, thumbs-ups, solidarity-fists, and smiles than there have been their negative counterparts. And as the government continues to stonewall progress on a labour-disruption that – for the moment – impacts every corner of the province, the imbalance has only grown. This groundswell of support is our only means of influencing government’s posture at the bargaining table, and we should actively continue to court it across our lines this week.

To this end I compel you to demonstrate resolve to stand together as a school against an imposed contract that would not only perpetuate the injustices of the past, but would further degrade the conditions of our province’s schools.

Not everyone feels as passionately as I do, perhaps, and I think that’s fine. A union is intended to be an expression of democracy, and the differences in our opinions make us stronger, not weaker. But at the moment we are on strike, the result of just such a democratic expression of the membership, even if you voted (or would have preferred to vote) no. If you are disconcerted by the hope of having ‘gone out,’ I would further add that the duration, not to mention the end results, of our current job action could depend on us maximizing our efforts to engage the public while out picketing.

If you are unconvinced, try driving by a school with a handful of teachers picketing from lawn chairs. Then drive by Charles Best as their entire staff is marching the length of Como Lake Avenue with their signs asking the province for A Fair Deal. Drive by Gleneagle during any shift many of our recall teachers are out there, and I would bet that it becomes a little harder to dismiss our union as an unreasonable party to an eternal gridlock in BC education.

Our energy line has pioneered a few new picket moves this week, and will be exploring more original material next week. Mike and others have supplied new and creative signs for our zone on Landsdowne. And there is talk of a ‘costume’ day on the line next week.

As the kids in my neighbourhood keep asking me in their scrawled hop-scotch courts marking the days of their newfound summer vacation, to boot: why don’t we have any sidewalk chalk out there? 

We aren’t on strike because we’ve lost or are losing. We’re on strike because we still might win. But what there’s left for us to win might have to be won this week.

So let’s make it count.

See you out there,

Bryan