GROWING THE LABOUR MOVEMENT
Briarpatch|January/February 2020
How unions are using community gardens to engage members, nourish communities, and help strikers weather the picket line
HANS ROLLMAN

Two months into CUPE 3903’s 2018 strike at York University in Toronto, there was no sign of movement from the employer and the picket line spirit was flagging. But in the wake of a series of May Day strike actions, a new idea was born.

On May 7, in the middle of the night, a group of activists returned to their picket line armed with a Rototiller, and under the cover of darkness, they dug up a 525-square-foot plot at the main entrance to campus. Their idea: plant a community strike garden.

“Everybody’s feeling tired and burnt out and exhausted from picket duty,” recalls 3903 member Susannah Mulvale. “We were on this picket line every day, we had this huge space full of grass right in front of us, and we started thinking: what could it be?”

The next day they returned with an array of gardening supplies, “and in 24 hours we had a full garden up and running with flowers, vegetables, all kinds of things,” explains Mulvale.

Initially they were worried the employer would tear up the garden, so for the first week shifts of volunteers camped out at the picket line. Once it became clear the employer wasn’t interested in tampering with it, they focused their energy on making the garden thrive. Watering was a challenge. They collected several enormous tubs and found a building near the picket lines with an outdoor water faucet. Each day they drove there, collected gallons of water, and returned to water the garden. When their water source was discovered and cut off after a few months, they resorted to filling the tubs with gallons of water daily from the bathroom of strike headquarters – an even more arduous process.

Laborious as it was, the garden also energized the members involved. “It was nice as a space for people to come together in a healing way, through planting flowers and vegetables there and having this tent set up, this community space,” says Mulvale. “We had ideas of holding events there, having workshops there, making it a space for community organizing and connecting, and just trying to breathe some life into the strike and into each other because we were all so exhausted and burnt out.”

“A lot of members would come and weed, or just visit the garden,” recalls Annelies Cooper, a doctoral student in political science.

For her, the garden was also important in “making sure there is a culture of care and basic needs are being met, and that we are looking out for each other and nurturing each other. I think that is a very necessary tool for a prolonged struggle, whether it’s a strike or something else. At this point we had been on the lines for about three months, and we were tired. The picket line is tiring. It’s hard on your body, and the food can suck, and it’s soul-sucking, and you’re battling against angry drivers every day, and you’re fearing for your life. So I think a lot of us also needed to do the politics of the strike in a way that could also be good for our mental health and our well-being in a broad sense. […] Because you just get so worn down on a picket line.”

HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW?

“We grew everything!” recalls Mulvale with enthusiasm. “You name it, we had it. All different kinds of lettuce, tomatoes, root vegetables, flowers, herbs, corn, we had everything there. We put mulch down, and we made the anarcho-communist flag – it was half black, half red – so it was a very aesthetic project. There were a lot of creative activities happening around it.”

“We would go back now and then […] and all camp there. We used it as a space to be together, and have some respite from all the politics going on. We did karaoke there once in the middle of the night, at 2 or 3 a.m., sat around a fire. We had dinners there – the first night that we camped out there, people brought up home-cooked food and we had a beautiful feast.”

The garden space precipitated other events as well.

“We had an anti-rainbow-washing Pride action,” recalls Cooper. Rainbow-washing, which refers to corporations and states co-opting the Pride flag for promotional and marketing purposes that do not directly benefit queer people or communities and which sometimes obscure and conceal ongoing oppression, has been the focus of counter-protests during Pride Weeks in recent years. “People gathered at the garden to make the signs and it was a garden-led anti-rainbow-washing of York Pride, which was really awesome.”

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