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DI: Strike at UI to have long-lasting effects

November 19, 2009

It’s been a crazy week on campus, but ultimately one that offered an unprecedented experience for University of Illinois students. Regardless of the many different opinions expressed by students, faculty, and staff, one of the most important things to take away from the GEO strike is understanding—understanding of what a strike means, its protocol, its causes, and its effects.

Like many students, especially American ones, I had never experienced or even really seen a strike prior to Monday. I can only remember that when I was much younger, the teachers at my elementary school went on strike.

Being somewhere between four and eight years old, I was more curious than upset. I liked not having any class for days on end. I had no idea what was at stake for my instructors or what was even happening.

Since then, strikes continued to remain only on the periphery of my life, just stories on the news. That is, until recently, as the possibility of a GEO strike loomed large while the University continued to act as though ignoring the problem they created would make it disappear.

As my TAs discussed strike and picket procedures last week, the whole idea was suddenly both wild and real.

Walking out at 7:45 Monday morning to rally in the rain threw off my sense of time, as if I’d stepped into an effort to stop it. In a way it was, as graduate employees marched, shouted, carried signs and played makeshift instruments on the main quad, halting their respective classes. When Tuesday afternoon rolled around I felt like I was in an endless Saturday and had to remind myself of my normal schedule.

The sounds of chanting and homemade noisemakers drifted around the edges of the quad, easy to hear as I passed its south side on my way to a relocated class. It was exciting and disconcerting.

The noise was a very distant cousin to the din of extreme political action, like rioting. It was the softest murmur of violence potential within any opinionated activity. Demonstrations like this, harmless as they may seem, are where struggles—both physical and political—begin.

And yet it’s an impressive feat, equal to the swift, peaceful trade-out of one elected official for another, standard practice in the U.S. but sometimes notoriously difficult to enact elsewhere. A strike is democracy in action.

And that’s cause for excitement—people working hard to organize and spread information, forcing others to think critically about their own opinions.

With some of that thinking came support from a variety of places—from faculty here and across the nation; from graduate employee unions at other institutions; from other local unions; from undergraduate students and university staff and from people in the community. Classes were cancelled, relocated, and voluntarily not attended.

In the hours of picketing Monday and Tuesday, it was impressive to see a community mobilized on so many fronts.

While a strike is never a desirable outcome, witnessing our thankfully very brief one isn’t something I’ll forget anytime soon. Its execution and the factors leading up to it (as well as its still-unfolding aftermath) offer a huge opportunity for learning about the nature of contractual labor agreements, community organization and what a strike can be.

In addition, this strike is extreme encouragement for students to be aware of what’s going on around them. It’s easy to ignore things on this campus and in this community, and the strike fought our tendencies toward ignorance and apathy. Sometimes it’s the things that seem small that can have the greatest and most direct impact not only our education, but our lives.

Most importantly, at the heart of a strike regarding tuition waivers is the ongoing battle over the affordability and privatization of college education. This is only the beginning of that war, and a signal that we need to do more than simply pay attention. We must act.

Chelsea is a senior in LAS.

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