On Rhetorics of Safety and Security on the CUPE 3903 Lines

I see a lot of calls for safety on the picket lines. In particular, folks are now heavily calling on the administrators and the Senate to think about the safety of picketers who have faced certain forms of violence on the lines. They are calling for these institutional figures to end this particular violence by ending the strike. Also, when violence occurs, I also frequently see people wondering “where are the police” to address these situations.

I want nothing more than for everyone on the lines and in our union to be safe. But if there is anything that Ferguson and the post-9/11 era in general has taught us, it is that rhetorics of safety and security are fraught with complications and tensions.

First off, the safety of our members needs to be about more than the physical safety on the lines. Economic justice, being paid living wages for our work (instead of paying to teach, as many of our international colleagues now do), which is a component of our fight for indexation, is an issue of safety. Ensuring we have working and meeting spaces, within the university and within our union, that are accessible for people of all abilities is an issue of safety. Making sure that institutional racism in our union isn’t driving out and isolating our members who are people of color is an issue of safety.

How does this relate to calling on the administration/Senate or the police to address union safety concerns? Let’s put it this way… if you are someone who feels physically threatened and your first thought is, “call the police!” or “call the Senate!” you live in a very different world than many of your fellow strikers. For many, the police are a site of constant violence and harassment. For many, the racist and sexist violence and harassment they experience from their fellow union members, and which is invisible to many of their fellow union members, is just as pressing as the potential threat of some angry folks crossing the picket lines.

My point here is not to say “never call the police.” My point is that safety looks very different for people who do not have race, class, gender, and ability privilege. My point is also that, in many if not most cases, we should be focusing on adopting better strategies of dealing with violence of all kinds. So please, let’s not forget that the “safety” of ALL of our members is about far more than the issues that may be of pressing concern to white able-bodied folks on the lines.

We need to win this strike with everyone and for everyone, which means taking care of one another, as well as prioritizing listening to and addressing the concerns of marginalized members. This means, for example, fighting for those who speak up about racism from within the union and the university just as much as we fight harassment and violence from those crossing the lines.

Last but not least, winning our three core priorities with this strike is a huge matter of “safety” for all of us, but especially our most precarious current and future members, many of whom are students of color (international and domestic). Let’s try not to forget that as we strike to win!

For people interested in thinking more about this, I highly recommend Christina Hanhardt’s book Safe Spaces.

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