I’m a big Chumbawamba fan. I think they’re fantastic. One of their tunes, “I’m Not Sorry I Was Having Fun,” includes the line “I got that old time religion, where we still don’t cross the picket lines.” That’s a good religion.

Pickets are on my mind recently. The clerical workers at the university where I work and I think two other bargaining units as well may be going on strike at the beginning of the school year. I’m also supposed to be teaching. Last time there was a strike, many teachers moved their classes off campus to other locations as an act of solidarity with the strikers. I have a lot of reservations about doing that. In short, I don’t see how that differs from crossing the picket line.

Picket lines are economic, not geographic. The point is not to avoid walking past some people with signs. The point is to slow or halt production. If I teach a class across the street in a church or something, how is that any different from teaching class on campus? As I see it, that’s no different than a clerical worker sorting through applications at home instead of in the office. Production continues so, while that clerical worker wouldn’t walk across a line of people with picket signs, that clerical worker is crossing the picket line.

One thing I find unconvincing on the part of some of my coworkers is that we can make some difference by talking to our students about the strike, as in teaching about the strike as part of our job. Unless we’re talking to our students in order to convince them to participate in strike support (and succeeding in convincing them) then I don’t see this as mattering much. I mean, sure, if some people get their consciousnesses raised or whatever, well and good. But that’s a) something that could be done outside of classes and b) not something which impacts the strike whatsoever. Teaching about the strike may be good in all sorts of ways, but “it’ll help the strikers” is not one of those ways.

Another thing I find unconvincing is some idea of responsibility to the students. Of course teachers have responsibilities to students. So do the clerical workers who process their applications, and the technical worker who repair the buildings, and the librarians who handle the books, etc. Comparing the university with a hospital, say, the teachers are like the nurses (the graduate instructors and adjuncts more so, faculty are more like doctors). They have direct contact with the students and deliver the services that the institution exists to provide (ostensibly). But without the work of the others who make the place happen – janitors, cafeteria workers, shipping and receiving workers, etc etc, the institution would fail. The facility is an ensemble and produces as an ensemble. Responsibility is shared across that ensemble. If it’s okay for some units to not live up to their responsibility (that is, if the reasons for the strike can outweigh the moral obligation to those who receive the service) then it’s okay for all.

Two qualifiers here. First, I think nurses do bear a special responsibility in that if the janitors strike one day it won’t have the same impact on patient care. Put simply, a strike of nurses when there are patients in the beds could kill someone, and fast. The degree to which this is true for any unit is the degree to which that unit should be (has a responsibility to be) prudent in planning their strike. Generally the closer a unit is to providing direct care and the more medical in nature this care is, the more prudence is recommended. (The facility has more elasticity in responding to work stoppages – in terms of maintaining proper care – the further from direct medical care the work gets.) This prudent planning, however, is a matter of execution of the strike properly, not a matter of whether or not to strike. I believe it’s pretty standard that nurses going on strike give a lot of notice so the hospital begins to move patients elsewhere. That way the strike impacts the employer economically but not the patients in terms of health.

Second, I think there’s no analog to this in the university. That is, the hospital-university parallel doesn’t hold here. There is nothing as urgent in teaching as there is in medical care. So there’s not corresponding level of responsibility to be prudent in work stoppages in universities. Negative consequences of work stoppages to patients in hospitals would be pretty much the direct result of not getting medical care because the medical caregivers weren’t at work. Negative consequences of work stoppages to students in universities (like say delayed graduation) would be the result of decisions on the part of the administration, not the direct result of the work stoppage. The administration has the power to waive some requirements for students so that the strike doesn’t impact the students so negatively (in a way that hospital administrators do not have the power to waive illnesses and needs for treatment).

One of my co-workers said that under the university’s accounting system, the empty classroom with the lights on and so on will be counted by the university as an economic loss, so it’s not just symbolic to move classes. I want to be convinced by this (because I want an excuse to feel like it’s okay to not cancel my classes, because I’m very afraid of retaliation for canceling my classes) but I’m really not. It seems to me that teaching classes in another spot is continuing production in another spot, therefore it’s crossing the picket line. Maybe it’s crossing with an “I’m sorry, I do this under duress” sign or something, but big deal.

Hopefully all of this will be rendered needless because the strike and its difficulties will be averted by the university negotiating in good faith. But I’m really in knots over the thought of it happening and what to do. I want to keep my old time religion, as it were, but I want to keep my job. I need to talk it over with my wife. I’m not super happy in grad school anyway, maybe getting chucked out would provide me with the impetus to find something else to do. And then we could have a baby sooner rather than later and 15 years later we’d look at our kid(s) and say “oh, losing that third job for union related activity was the best thing that ever happened.” (My stomach lurches at the thought, I don’t want to do that again. Stupid cursed horrible bosses – vermin, filth, scum.)