by Brenda Austin-Smith
My association, the University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA), went on strike for the second time in five years in November. The issues were the provincial government’s imposition (for the third time in five years) of a salary mandate, and the administration’s fixation on dictating the mode of teaching—even as the University’s fundamental autonomy from government interference was threatened. Talk about bizarre administrative priorities.
But it’s the execution of the job action I want to write about here. Until November 2, none of us had walked out during the pandemic. As agreements expired in the first year of COVID, several associations rolled over their contracts, wary of how health restrictions would shape negotiations—never mind how rallies and strikes would be affected by social distancing requirements. Would it be safe for us to chant and sing if we wore masks? The reality of COVID limitations certainly put UMFA members’ imaginations to the test. The result was a strike that channelled creativity and sophistication into both real-world and online actions in keeping with the organizing model of unionism.
The organizing model approved by CAUT Council sets a premium on personal contact with all members of the association as the key to mobilizing. The model also urges us to activate links with communities and groups who share our values. Like other associations, UMFA had built relationships with other unions and provincial labour affiliates, our members sitting on committees and supporting various campaigns and job actions. These established points of connection gave the lead-up to bargaining breadth and depth, since the entire public sector is under attack. As teachers and advisors, we also had strong ties to undergrad and grad student groups, who issued statements of support, spoke at our rallies, and organized online teachins. Our messaging was clear, compelling, and widely resonant.
Members’ workplace issues were at the centre of this campaign, and they engaged however they felt comfortable. Many trained as picket captains or held outdoor “standing” lobby meetings in their local parks in the autumn, where they met other members in the same constituency. Others met in safely distanced (and masked) groups at Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) offices in front of TV cameras, while other teams leafletted the neighbourhood or picketed the street with colourful signs made by School of Art students. To keep everyone safe at our big rallies, members stayed with their assigned lines and captains, walking, singing, and dancing in what looked like synchronized picketing circles. Captains issued pink arm ribbons to everyone as their vax status was checked. A huge puppet on sticks combining the faces of the University of Manitoba President and the Manitoba Premier stole each show, held aloft by librarians, art profs, and students. There were doughnut, coffee, pizza, BBQ and samosa deliveries to the lines, and ukulele sing-alongs.
The pandemic made us weave social media more effectively into our strike than ever before. Posting and sharing let us communicate and extend the reach of real-world action and became an outlet for humour and irreverence. There were online pickets for those who preferred virtual duties, which put inclusivity into practice. Virtual picketers phoned MLAs, wrote letters and blog posts. They organized phone zaps. Other members filmed our rallies for online streaming, and clips were shared across platforms. We posted clips of budget consultations happening around the province, with UMFA members joining phone-in town halls and driving to Pinawa to stand up and ask MLAs for accountability.
Then the memes showed up. Those attending CAUT Council in November might remember the outstanding meme game brought by UMFA and the group Students Supporting UMFA to this fight. Twitter and Facebook were filled with humorous images and GIFs that challenged the messaging of the University administration. The proverbial cake was taken by the Instagram account UofM Strike Memes, featuring doctored promotional videos of the UM campus photo-bombed by the grooving “jam cat,” and by animated parodies of pop songs performed by School of Music faculty. The most jaw-dropping was a rendition of the UM’s new logo that showed the stylized bison abandoning the frame because of lousy treatment and low pay: “I’ll be on the plains if anyone wants to hang out,” says the departing mascot.
Righteous anger at threats to research, teaching, and service often drives our job actions. Strikes are stressful, hard things to endure, and the companionship of the line—whether virtual or physical—is the key outcome, whatever else we have won. What the UMFA strike did was mix that necessary fury with creativity and joy, reminding us that we also find solidarity in laughter.