Students are trapped behind the lines of a battle

I feel like a dirty, low-down scabby-scab crosser of picket lines, and I don’t like it.

by John Hoff

How, exactly, do I find myself crossing picket lines? I am asking myself this every day, but I suspect that only makes me like the vast majority of students who are good, decent people.

Who is listening to students? President Bruininks, are you listening?

I did not sign up for crossing picket lines when I registered for classes, accepted student aid or took my job as a TA. And, from where I stand, crossing picket lines is a very big deal. I personally know people on those picket lines and they are decent, rational people. I am more inclined to believe their side.

The intransigence of the University administration has put me and all the other students in this awful position. I feel as though I was already inside when a picket line sprang up behind me, in effect trapping me behind the battle lines of a conflict.

Admittedly, when I was a little punk in middle school, I deliberately crossed a picket line, once, just to see what it felt like. At that time I had not developed my own strong opinions about unions, I was merely a reflection of the somewhat ambivalent views of my parents. So when I hear anti-union rhetoric from the mouths of a tiny faction of students, I can’t help but suspect they are only spouting off the secondhand opinions of mummy and poppy that they inherited along with a big, fat trust fund.

Later in my life, joining the union was a requirement for a fantastic job I had in Seattle. When the old shop steward was fired, I pretty much stepped over his bleeding corpse to take a position nobody else wanted, fearing they would be the next to lose their job.

As a shop steward and a member political organizer, there came a time I was so pro-union that I noticed something odd. My blood was no longer army green, but the purple and gold colors of the union shirts worn by Service Employees International Union.

I fought for better wages, for maternity leave, once even demanding a room where a female employee could breastfeed her child. I was on the contract negotiating committee, heck, I was in the Battle of Seattle, wearing SEIU purple and gold. But now I am forced to cross picket lines daily or give up my job, my classes and my social contacts. This burden is not mine alone, but shared by thousands of students at this University.

I feel like a dirty, lowdown scabby-scab crosser of picket lines, and I do not like it. I strongly resent it, in fact.

One of my instructors, state Rep. Nora Slawik, was prepared to teach class at the State Office Building, but backed down when told it was a violation of policy to move classes off campus. But I was looking forward to the off-campus classes. I thought it would be a fun disruption of the normal routine, like fire drills are fun in grade school. I am jealous of students who have off-campus classes, like those taught by English professor Paula Rabinowitz.

If only my instructors would present me with a waiver of liability I could sign, saying I am willing to take classes off campus, even if I have to ride the No. 16 bus through Frogtown. Instead, I must grasp at tiny moral straws, like constantly giving a thumbs-up to strikers, or riding my bike to Harvard Market to buy a toothbrush rather than buying one at Boynton Health Service.

Really, I wonder, what would be the consequences for instructors who hold classes off campus? Would they have to face a disciplinary committee, probably made up of equally liberal professors? Would a letter be placed in their personnel file saying, in effect, “You are naughty because you refused to cross a picket line”? Oh, stop, it hurts when I laugh hard like that, trying to picture the reaction of professor Rabinowitz.

Funnier still are the long-term consequences of this strike. Almost a year prior to the Republican National Convention, this picketing is helping to stir up the emotions of local labor unions. On the streets, idealistic students and worldly, experienced union members are meeting and greeting, exchanging points of view, much like the Teamsters and students in sea turtle costumes whose unlikely alliance played such a valuable role in Seattle in 1999.

When the history of RNC 2008 is written, it might very well say, “One year prior to the convention, the refusal of the University to meet relatively minor demands for wage increases helped to radicalize and mobilize local labor forces.”

But in the meantime, students are forced into this unwelcome role. Being one of the rare students with the luxury of a weekly opinion column, I feel I have no choice but to raise my voice and make the record. Students who should be reveling in the first weeks of exciting classes are instead confronted with an impossible moral test, like a true-or-false quiz written by the devil. Cross the line and feel awful. Don’t cross the line, and lose everything.

Who is listening to students? End the conflict, I say, by giving strikers the small gains they deserve and demand.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]