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My kingdom for intelligent activism

I’ve mentioned before briefly that back in the Spring of ‘03, the TA union at my grad school went on strike. It was a fascinating experience, and I learned more about labour law in that one month than I learned about algebraic stacks during that entire year, which isn’t to say much, but it actually was. I stand by a statement I made back then: going on strike is an experience that everyone should have exactly once.

I learned a lot from it, but the experience was emotionally draining, and it didn’t take long for me to grow weary of the continuous assumption that we stood in solidarity with every group whose members had ever joined a union. We were legislated back to work three days after the first bombs fell on Iraq; the subsequent union meeting featured some grad student flailing his arms wildly in a manic proposal that we design banners “opposing the facism of [the university’s president] and George W. Bush”.

This was back in Vancouver, where a few months earlier, another group had successfully run the Women Against War And [BC Premier] Gordon Campbell Rally (because, and I quote, “Women are suffering…from Kabul to Kitsilano”), so Flailing Arm Boy was met with an enthusiastic round of applause. I argued that Vancouver already had dozens of antiwar groups, and only one TA union, so perhaps it behooved us to stay focused.

I was outnumbered. For those of you wondering: Kitsilano women had to arrange alternate means of childcare (or possibly employment) in the wake of Campbell’s cuts to provincial childcare services, and Kabul women risked getting killed if they let any flesh show from beneath their burkas.

I was reminded of all of this today, when I opened my work email to read that my union is fighting for social justice where it counts – on the front lines of internet polls:

Friends: Please take the time to respond to this poll. I think the federal Liberals will take any opportunity they can to renege on their promise, Ken Dryden notwithstanding.

—–Original Message—–
Sent: Friday, February 04, 2005 9:23 AM
Subject: Support for a National Childcare program!

Hi All!

Go right now to the Globe and Mail online frontpage and vote in favour of the [national] childcare program!

So far the anti-childcare voters are winning. We are losing badly.

Vote and get the vote out. — Past it on.

Onward, cheers & solidarity

The naive, nonunionized reader may be under the impression that when membership in an organization is a condition of employment, the only political ideology that can be reasonably assumed to be shared among the organization’s members is a commitment to collecting paycheques for their work. Not so: “solidarity” means that it’s a given that every member of the Island U Faculty Union is on board with the proposed national daycare program. All that shit about critical thinking and drawing conclusions only after careful consideration of data is just something that we teach our students to do, and you know what they say about leaving work at the office!

There’s so much that I want to say in response to this email – to the person who sent it to the entire faculty of Island U – but the email is so phenomenally stultifying that I can’t for the life of me think of a way to phrase a reply that’s anything less than contemptuous in tone.

There’s no way to gently point out that the federal Liberals have campaigned on the promise of a national day care program for the last twelve years, and it hasn’t happened yet. And why would it have? They’ve got a winning formula (”we promise the same stuff we didn’t make good on last time; you vote for us anyway”), and that’s a better excuse to renege on the childcare program than any damned internet poll.

Speaking of which: three weeks ago, my stats class was covering the unit on sampling and bias. Based on their performance on their most recent test, I can comfortably claim to have succeeded in driving home the lesson that self-selected surveys are, without exception, completely worthless.

A few weeks ago I gave an open-ended question asking students to give an example of one, and explain why it was unlikely to be representative of a general population. Fully half of my students cited internet polls, and many gave the humourous example I’d mentioned in passing during the previous class of the Globe and Mail poll, “Do you respond to online polls?” (81% of respondants answered in the affirmative.)

My students get this, and they know that no vaguely reputable organization is going to make decisions based on internet polls. Too bad the organization that represents their instructors hasn’t figured it out yet.

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