Fear and Loathing on the pickets
Disclaimer: this article makes no claims of objectivity.
When we arrived, the sun was still peeking its head over the Sydney skyline, and the streets glistened with rain from the night before. The air, thick with humidity, made our shirts stick to our skin as we staggered down Parramatta Road, bright-eyed but half-asleep.
I’d never been on a picket. Nobody in our group had either, so we didn’t know what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t what lay before us at Ross Street. Everyone from every walk of life, from every corner of the Left, seemed to be there; iron-willed anarchists sang union songs with Laborites as the rival Trotskyist factions put their blood feud aside to stand hand in hand. With banners and flags raised, staff and students cheered as passing cars honked their horns in solidarity, the kaleidoscopic carnival of activity spilling into campus and onto the street.
We handed out flyers to passers-by and would-be scabs, explaining what a strike was, and how they could help. If we failed, we had a brigade of puppies owned by various picketers who would mercilessly stare down those who crossed the picket line with their Bambi eyes.
We turned away BMW after BMW and recruited students to our cause. We were fighting the good fight – and it felt good. This, I told myself, was real power. We weren’t just students; we were democracy manifest, triumphant over the forces of fear and loathing. Why hadn’t we been using collective action to solve all our problems?
We were dashing down a deserted Eastern Avenue when the sky began spitting rain. The roaming picket committee – a hastily strung together group chat – informed us of a scab class on the fourth floor of Carslaw. We darted through its halls like Bolsheviks storming the Winter Palace, except Tsar Scott wasn’t our target. We were after dissidents, people who either didn’t know what the strike was, or simply didn’t care. There were ten of us in total, with more on the way. We reached the door of the class and clung to the wall, armed with flyers and NTEU issued infographics. The time had come to enter the pit of pain.
The tutor welcomed us as we entered, turning off the projector and instructing the class to listen to what we had to say. We spoke to the power of collective action, the importance of supporting staff, and the solidarity we experienced on the picket line. Students started to nod their heads and smile; the tutor took off his glasses and wept, inspired by the eloquence of our arguments. The two of us embraced and he kissed me on the forehead – like a son – and joined the NTEU on the spot. The students stood up and carried us on their shoulders, as we celebrated our common humanity by singing ‘Solidarity Forever.’
Well, if only that had happened. Rather, the tutor saw it fit to verbally abuse us, badmouth staff who were “too lazy” to do their work and called security. The class simply sat there in bored silence, a Tommy Hilfiger-clad Ken doll in the front row instructing us to channel our anger toward the federal government instead. Ah yes, of course. Why hadn’t we thought of that?
The roaming picket chat fired back up. The others can’t get in. What do they mean, they can’t get in? The conversation unfolded through notifications on my lock screen. Go up the stairs; how do we get there?; isn’t it open?; nope, i guess security locked it after u.
One of our comrades – the closest thing we had to a leader – tried to help the others up. Her texts dribbled through, becoming increasingly twisted as the seconds passed by. Let me see if i can come; yep no fuck; they’ve locked down the building; I’m stuck in a stairwell; I can’t get out; help.
We began to stagger out, motioning for the others to follow. It was fight or flight, and we had chosen the latter. We eventually did find a way out, but they needed us back at Ross Street; something was happening.
We sprinted through the campus streets, the rain lashing against our faces. We reached the picket and there was a roar of an engine followed by a scream, before a great white ute burst through the crowd, spraying water everywhere. Nobody was hurt, but the air was tense. A wild-eyed Trot called out my name and motioned me towards the picket. We braced together, arm in arm, Macedonians in a phalanx, awaiting the entrance of our Alexander the Great – oh wait, there he was!
Sweeping through on a bicycle – his steel Bucephalus – Nick Riemer, the NTEU Branch President had arrived. But the euphoria didn’t last long. Soon, a pack of beefy, no-necked gym bros waddled in from around the corner. One of them was more meat than man, a hulking beast with beady eyes and leathery skin. Behind them was a squadron of police officers, the stormtroopers of the status quo.
“Can’t you just arrest them?” the beast snarled toward the police. The stormtroopers joined in to help the scabs cross the picket line, so the tempo ratcheted up again, and we linked arms as the full force of the crowd crashed into us, sending us staggering backwards. The hydra-headed herd lashed at us from every direction, piling on top of each other, growing more ravenous and enraged. We remained linked together, sweating and sliding and skidding in the rain, locked in a Manichean struggle between good and evil.
A steaming cup of coffee was hurled and a shriek pierced the crowd as the scabs burst through into the campus. The picket had broken, but the speed of things only accelerated, as student strikers started arguing with each other. “I don’t feel safe here anymore, I want to go, I just want to go,” the coffee-stained girl cried.
“Oh, grow a spine, it’s a fucking picket line,” another striker snapped. So much for solidarity forever. The coffee-stained student stared at the striker in stunned stupor, before she picked up her bag, grabbed her umbrella and trudged off into the distance, only to be swallowed up by the wind and the rain, the fear and the loathing.
Things had gotten too tense. I wanted to leave. I felt guilty – I didn’t have the stomach for confrontation. I had become a professional coward. That was until Nick Riemer stood up before us. “Universities,” he began, “shouldn’t be about profits. They should be about creating and democratising knowledge!”
We began to huddle in. He motioned to a lanky professor by the gate, who, with a smile, unpacked a glistening French horn. I turned to the striker next to me, who handed down a stapled sheet of music. On the top in fancy serif letters it read: “The Internationale: The Anthem of the Global Socialist Movement.”
Smiles flickered throughout the crowd. Voices lowered, tension dissipated, and suddenly we were standing shoulder to shoulder. The rich melody of the French horn floated through the air as more people joined our circle – staff, students, puppies, even the coffee girl, who had come back.
When we did sing, we were off-pitch and out of time, but it didn’t matter. We had battled against the forces of fear and loathing, and for now, we had won. The rain beat on, but so did we – basking in the love of that single spectacular moment we shared.