Field Notes from the Irvine Picket Line
by Flynn Mixdorf
“It doesn’t have to be like this.”
You get up at six o’clock in the morning and have a shower in your on-campus apartment that costs you $995 a month, about half your paycheck. You play music from your phone but not too loud because your roommate is still asleep, because your roommate is not part of the Union, because your roommate is still on fellowship, because your roommate has been misclassified through some legal loophole and only gets paid about half as much as you do, which means he’s paying more than his whole paycheck to the $995-a-month on-campus apartment and has had to wrangle a second job just to keep his head above water. So you keep your music down so your roommate who is not part of the Union can sleep, because he’s still going to classes, because he cannot afford to have the University withhold pay from him for going on strike. But you’ve ginned yourself up enough by now to allow yourself to believe that if the University withholds your pay you’ll be okay, probably, maybe, hopefully, even though if they do you know you’ll be utterly fucked.
You’re not hungry at six o’clock in the morning but you force yourself to eat some breakfast because even though on the picket line some saintly undergraduates have been waking up as early as you’ve been for the last week and a half to make pancakes, you don’t know how many more pancakes — as good as they are — you can stomach at this point, and other than pancakes on the picket line there’s usually nothing but donuts and fruit snacks and cough drops and coffee,
lots of coffee, all donated by friends and sympathizers devoted to The Cause.
So you have a shower and you keep the music down and you force down a few bowls of Trader Joe’s knock-off Cheerios and you stare out through your window at the sun coming up over the parking garage that yawns down at you in the misty morning air. As you drink the milk out of the bottom of the bowl, you make peace with the fact that you have had fewer than six hours of sleep in the last three days, that you have already been doing this for what feels like longer than you were ever actually doing grad school, that you will be on your feet for the next twelve hours.
After you rinse the bowl out in the sink you go and throw on a couple more layers over you union-red t-shirt because mornings, you are discovering, are weirdly cold in Southern California.
You walk out of your apartment and past the doors in the hall behind which sleep hundreds of other grad students paying $995+ a month out of their $11,000 or $23,000 annual University stipends, grad students from abroad, grad students with kids, grad students with aging parents, grad students with visas, grad students with down payments, grad students with debts. You go through the hallway, down the stairs, out the door, and into the air that is colder than you ever would have believed. It is quiet in the morning as you cross the street and pass the other sleeping buildings in the grad housing compound, across Adobe Circle, then East Peltason, Pereira, and up the stairs toward Ring Road. You hang a right around the social sciences buildings because you are a Humanities student, and the Union leadership has decided to counteract the anti-protest architecture of the master-planned University of California, Irvine campus — a direct reaction to the student protests of the 1960s — by splitting the Union’s forces between three separate picketing locations: Humanities, Engineering, Sciences.
Splitting one’s forces is never usually advisable, but when the objective is disruption, sometimes a split force is the most effective. And, of course, a split enables a regrouping. You arrive at the top of the stairs outside Aldrich Hall — central nervous system of UCI administration — and you help get the materials carried up from the curb to the picket location.
You set up the tables, pitch the tent, expand the chairs, arrange the check-in QR codes, display the water bottles, futz with the speakers, plug the extension cords.
If you’re lucky, around this time your Crush will show up and throw a look your way that could plausibly mean anything you want it to mean, and you can stand around shivering in the cold cracking jokes with them and wondering quietly to yourself why mass movements seem to awaken romantic feelings in their participants at such a high rate. And then before you finish that thought, one of the Higher Ups will show up and give you an update about what cantankerous
asininities were committed last night at the bargaining table by the University, and you will squint, and nod, and try to take it all in so that later you can answer the questions posed by cohort colleagues who will ask you later today, “What happened in bargaining,” because for some strange confluence of circumstances, you have become something of a leader among your peers in this strike you knew nothing about a mere nine weeks ago. So you squint and you nod and you conceptualize and you stamp your feet and you try to wake up as you pour yourself another cup of coffee.
Then the picketers begin arriving en masse. You stand behind the check-in table and you make sure they scan the codes with their phone cameras. You remind them you can sign their analog strike cards while they’re doing this. You squiggle your initials on a hundred or so
index cards with today’s date and circle AM to signify for future reference the morning shift that is now just beginning. You respond to the questions people pose that you know the answers to; you go and find a Higher Up to answer the questions you don’t.
Now it’s nine o’clock and there are enough people standing around to go ahead and get something going.
Unplug the bullhorn battery from the power strip, shunt it down the slot, clip it up, flick it on. Go out into the center of the gathering crowd. Clear your throat. Breathe.
“Good mooorning, Irviiine.”
Momentarily feel like a failure, a fool. Then, hating yourself only for a beat, remember what
“When I say ‘Union,’ you say ‘Power.’ — ‘Union!’”
“When I say ‘Power,’ you say ‘Union.’ — ‘Power!’”
“What do we want?”
“When do we want ‘em?”
“And if we don’t get ‘em?”
“SHUT IT DOWN.”
“And if we don’t get ‘em?”
“SHUT IT DOWN.”
“AND IF — WE DON’T — GET THEM?”
“SHUT — IT — DOWN.”
What you’re yelling through the bullhorn would be totally lame if a hundred or so people weren’t responding to you in unison, at the tops of their lungs, but they are, because they want what they’re saying, they believe in the words, they mean them, they need them, and even if it doesn’t look sexy on the page, not asking nicely feels pretty sexy in person.
The morning floats by. The air heats up. The birds come out.
A hundred. A hundred and fifty. Two hundred picketers. Marching in a circle. Chanting.
Holding signs. Wearing sunglasses. Guzzling coffee and bottled water.
Noon comes around and the other two picket locations move in unison to the Aldrich flagpoles. The crowd suddenly triples in size. Six hundred strong. Everyone congregates on the stairs. We leave a gap for people to pass. A speaker steps up to a microphone that some other picket shift leaders have put in place while you were off doing something else, leading the chant.
The speakers are professors, lecturers. They’re not protected by the Union. You don’t get any of their names nor would you write them here lest the University retaliate against them. You do however get the gist of what the speakers say.
“We see you.”
“We stand in solidarity with you.”
“You deserve a living wage.”
“Fuck anyone who says otherwise.”
And okay so maybe nobody actually says, “Fuck anyone who says otherwise,” but that’s the gist, the flavor of the crowd, the energy in the air. A prominent sign that glints in the noontime sun reads, “F[UC]K YOU PAY ME,” and you begin to feel that maybe soon they will. That maybe soon you won’t have to worry about how much you’re eating, how much
gas you're buying, wondering if you’ll make it home for winter break, for summer break, whether you’ll make it through the summer or you’ll have to say “fuck it” to the reason you came here and drive for Uber, tend bar, instead of writing your thesis, maybe soon you won’t have to feel confusedand put upon and guilty about the fact your roommate and yourself have the exact same title but he only gets paid half of what you do for what can only be described as malicious misclassification, maybe soon you won’t have to yell through a bullhorn for eight hours a day, maybe soon you’ll get to go back to your students, reengage with them, teach them, maybe soon you won’t have to listen to stories of international students who have not seen home in five years, maybe soon you won’t have to hear from grads with kids who are working two additional jobs, maybe soon you won’t have to hear any more stories about the brilliant being bullied and
harassed out of their careers with no recourse to justice, maybe you won’t have to hear any more about the near total psychic exhaustion of your peers, your colleagues, your friends, whose passion for research has been hamstrung by poverty, maybe soon the University will get its shit together enough to not have forty-eight thousand workers cancelling classes and banding together in the largest academic workers strike in US fucking history. That’s the gist anyway.
When the speakers finish up, you go back to the check-in tables and sign in some more people for the afternoon shift. You are getting a little antsy. You know what is coming in the afternoon and it is making you a little nervous. Marches always make you a little nervous. You can remember being in Chicago in the fall of 2016 when Donald Trump was elected. You can remember joining a crowd on the night of November 9 th . You can remember crossing north over
the Wabash Avenue Bridge and surrounding the Trump Tower, chanting “Not My President” with a few thousand fellow Chicagoans. You can remember sitting down on Michigan Avenue in the cold. You can remember heading back south toward the river. You can remember reaching a wall of police. You can remember the emotional shift as the crowd was kettled. You can remember the shields, the horses, the vans.
And then before you believe it it’s three o’clock and you are in Irvine, California and you are not protesting a fascist president but are striking for fair wages from a University that treats itself more like a business than a bastion of education.
It is three o’clock and the crowd has swelled to its largest. You are back on the stairs, banners at the front, bullhorn on point, chants rolling like thunder over the crowd, yellow vests flanking the mass. You are in one of those yellow vests and it is your job this afternoon to keep people safe. You will be part of the line that marks the barrier between the police and the picketers. You have never done this before.
The bullhorn riles up the crowd. There is an energy now like there has not been before. The crowd is ready to move. It descends the stairs and crosses the sidewalk to follow the curve of Pereira Drive, down the hill past the Student Health Center and toward East Peltason.
Pereira is really nothing more than an access road, a warm-up, but even so, for the undergraduates and the staff and the professors and lecturers and visiting parents and prospective students who are on campus at the time, you can see the energy change behind their eyes as they realize collectively what they are seeing, as they stop in their tracks, as they pull out their phones, as some of them step in and join the crowd. As you walk alongside the moving mass of
picketers, hand raised with its thumb in the air to signify to your yellow-jacketed partner on the opposite side of the crowd that everything is OK, you chance to look into a few of those faces that are stopped along the periphery of the marching mass and realize: This is not something that happens often in Irvine; This is not something many of these people have seen. And suddenly you feel, even though the crowd might not be as large or as loud as the one you walked with in Chicago, this is something New. This is something Real.
How many feckless marches were made in the face of that fascist? What did it mean to say “Not My President,” really? It was cathartic as hell — but what did it do? Now, in 2022, you have the chance to do something. The ballot box might directly correspond with the bread box, but each added body on the picket line corresponds with a further increment of dissatisfaction, of desperation, of rage within a populous of workers and their allies who have the power to do. Each body that continues to show up, to withhold labor, to march, means one more voice the University can no longer afford to ignore. And so, as you round the corner from Pereira onto East Peltason, as you hold your arms wide to halt the cars, as you file the roaring mass down the hill toward the line of flashing police lights, as you give your breath to the collective bellow, “SHUT IT DOWN,” you feel, for the first time in your life, the real power of Democracy.
Democracy is not just elections, it is not just politicians, it is not just armchair punditry. Democracy is what happens when forty-eight thousand workers at one of the most world-renowned educational institutions decide to halt all labor until their needs are met. Democracy is what happens when elected Bargainers meet with University representatives and do not stop until they have reached the best possible contract for their Union’s membership. Democracy is what
happens when a few shy of a thousand refuse to turn around when they reach the police barricade, when they chant and clap and smile and sing until the police step aside, until the mass moves onto Campus Drive, until the banners reading “Fair UC Now” are dropped from Watson Bridge, until the mass sits down at the intersection of West Peltason, Bridge, and Campus, until the sun drops low over the San Joaquin Marsh, until we get what we demand.
“And if we don’t get it?”
“SHUT — IT — DOWN.”
Flynn Mixdorf is a first-year fiction writer in the MFA Programs in Writing at the University of California, Irvine. He earned his BFA in Creative Writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His arts journalism and creative nonfiction work have been published in F Newsmagazine. He hails from Indianapolis, Indiana, from which a building-sized mural of Kurt Vonnegut looms large in his psyche.