Strike One

 The YUFA Grand Strike of 1997

A Listserv Memoir of the Business Professor Daughter
of an American Labour Union Organizer

For Stephen Ripley, my beloved dead-labor-union-organizer-father

 

Louise as Picket Captain, Sentinel Road M Louise Ripley
January 2020
Format: Online
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About the Author

Read the Foreword
  When you are in the middle of a story, it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion, a dark roaring, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood, like a house in a whirlwind, crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all, when you are telling it to yourself, or to somebody else.
     -- Margaret Atwood,
Alias Grace
 

 

FOREWORD

If you do not count being carried in my mother’s womb or held by my father’s hand on my father’s Newspaper Guild picket lines, my union activism started with a small handwritten note to the York University Faculty Association’s Negotiating Committee on July 15, 1996. It was a small filler item that I had found in my Toronto Musicians Association newsletter:

To: YUFA Negotiating Committee

I found this quote in my other union newsletter (I am also a member of the Toronto Musicians Association, American Federation of Musicians, Local 149, harp) and I thought you might find it inspiring in your on-going struggle (5 months now!) to negotiate a fair contract for us:

United we negotiate.
Divided we beg.
– Anonymous

Keep up the hard work; we appreciate you.
Louise Ripley
Atkinson College



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In March of 1997, the York University Faculty Association, representing faculty and librarians at York University, the third largest university in Canada, went on strike. There were the usual issues of governance and money, but we went on strike mostly because the Employer, back in August of 1996, and while both sides were still at the bargaining table, unilaterally stripped the Collective Agreement of its articles dealing with retirement, the most contentious item on the table that year. The strike would last for fifty-five days, during one of the coldest springs on record in Toronto, setting the record for the second longest strike in the history of Canadian educational institutions, exceeded only by the 1976 faculty strike at Université Laval in Quebec City.

In order to collect strike pay, YUFA union members were required to serve duty on the picket lines, as able, for four hours per day. Those physically unable to walk found other duties in strike Headquarters and in the many other necessary tasks that arise during a strike. York is a huge urban university comprising a main campus with seven entrances and a separate French language campus, Glendon College. This layout meant that the union had to staff eight different gates on three different shifts each day. Because some two hundred members were on sabbatical and the strike vote was only 71%, the union was sometimes hard pressed to fill all the lines on each shift.

The strike took place when e-mail was not as advanced as it is now, and when only the technologically gifted among us had experience with electronic group communications. But we hungered for a way to correspond with each other while away from the picket lines, not only to keep those eight gates and three shifts connected, but to disseminate information quickly and discuss it among ourselves. The YUFA Executive Committee requested a listserv to be set up, named YUFA-L, the York University Faculty Association Listserv. This was an unmoderated e-mail distribution list with voluntary membership. At the height of the strike, we were receiving more than four hundred e-mails per day. It was tremendously powerful in keeping up the picketers’ spirits, in providing a forum in which to discuss issues without having to physically meet, in allowing for small group discussion as well as for tossing ideas out to the whole list to get feedback, and, as the difficult days wore on into weeks, in just providing a place to reach out for a hand to hold when one was feeling low. There also arose interesting issues of freedom of speech in a new medium, of exactly what one could safely say in print, of just how private online communications were supposed to be, issues that have since been hotly debated but which, back then, were brand new to all of us as we stumbled through uncharted territory.

I originally had intended to write a book about the strike based on all the original e-mails from YUFA-L, but when I went to find the archives, apparently typically for universities, they were gone. All I had left were my own copies of my own correspondence to YUFA-L and to some individuals. And so this book is instead a view of what in the days afterwards we lovingly came to refer to as the YUFA Grand strike of 1997, as seen through the eyes of a business professor daughter of a labour union organizer.

The book presents emails to the union listserv, YUFA-L, grouped together by the eight weeks of the Strike. They are strung together with current commentary that clarifies a point, explains a position, makes an observation based on nearly twenty years at York after the strike, and sometimes sums up what follows and went before. All the emails are from me, as “Louise Ripley” and so I do not sign my name each time. Most are addressed to YUFA-L with some to individuals. Most of the characters will introduce themselves. Susan Mann was the president of the university, York’s first woman president. Michael Stevenson was the Academic Vice President.

I recently retired from York University, having taught in Marketing, Women’s Studies, and Environmental Studies for thirty-five years. I count my fifty-five days on the YUFA picket lines among the happiest and most significant in my career and in my life. They were a transformative experience in the truest sense of that word. I was active in my union at a significant level for many years after the strike, and when any problem arose in my job, my first words were always after that, “Talk to my union.”

I also would go on to serve on the Canadian Association of University Teachers’ Defense Fund Trustee Board, and particularly in their strike support visits to striking picketers, known as the “Flying Pickets”. The Defense Fund’s resources ran to some fourteen million dollars at that time and in the first week of any strike, including ours, they came to (the exterior of) the campus to hand the union a cheque in the amount of one million dollars, some six feet long and three feet high. There were always lots of press and media invited.

 



Louise at a Strike Support Visit in Sudbury

 Louise on Strike in Sudbury
About The Author

I am a retired Canadian Professor of Business and of Women’s Studies, at York University in Toronto, Professor Emeritus and Senior Scholar. Although I grew up as the daughter of an American Labour Union Organizer, Stephen Ripley, I had never been on strike with my own union before. It was a life transforming experience and the memoir here attempts to convey my steady radicalization as a union activist.

One of my favourite jobs in my work for my Union, York University Faculty Association, following our Strike in 1997,  was travelling to other Canadian universities who were on strike, as a member of the CAUT Defense Fund Flying Picket, supporting the strikers. In the picture on the left, i am at a Strike Support Visit to the University of Sudbury, Ontario.

This was early fall and the weather was gorgeous. It generally was not. Most of the strikes I have taken part in as a University professor were in the dead of winter, with blowing snow, sleet, freezing rain, and temperatures into the low -30s. 

But I've never experienced so much spirit and good will and fascinating conversation as I did visiting those picket lines.

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© 2020 M Louise Ripley