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Demanding the Impossible and Being Realistic: analysis of the 2008-2009 CUPE 3903 strike [Part 1]

What follows is the first part of an essay I wrote around two and a half years ago at the end of the 2008-2009 Canadian Union of Public Employees [CUPE] Local 3903 strike in which I participated.  This strike turned out to be the longest in our sector and resulted in back-to-work legislation.  One of its motivating reasons was, like so many other strikes these days, the casualization of labour and thus the lack of job security in the midst of a recession.

In any case the same local is entering its next bargaining term so I figured it was appropriate to post this essay (that was initially meant to be part of a post-strike book that failed to materialize), especially since I feel that some of the key insights many of us grasped at the conclusion of that strike, and that I tried to report in this essay, are now forgotten in this next round of bargaining–-a round which seems highly unlikely to produce a strike.

One of the problems with participating in a labour strike is that, unless it is a general strike, the aim is ultimately reformist.  That is, the end of a strike is to gain a better contract through the means of temporarily withdrawing one’s labour.  In countries like Canada, where workers have won the legal right to strike, labour laws mediate every worker struggle––laws that are usually weighted in favour of the employer.  This is why, in the case of the 2008-2009 CUPE 3903 strike, the state was able to end the labour disruption by siding with the employer (York University) and declaring the continuation of CUPE 3903’s strike illegal.

In the context of back-to-work legislation, perhaps the demands of CUPE 3903 might be considered somewhat revolutionary since the state, in actively siding with the employer, did not judge the demands properly reformist.  Even if this is correct (and I am not saying that it is), all it indicates is another problem with the reformist nature of labour unions: the internal dynamics.  The composition of CUPE 3903, like many labour unions, was such that pursuing any supposedly revolutionary demands would have been impossible.  Once back-to-work legislation was declared, the local begrudgingly returned to work; there was no possibility of a wild-cat strike.

Unlike a revolutionary party, a labour union is composed of people who are not, as a whole, united by a general ideological agreement.  Rather, a union is comprised of people who simply happen to work in the same place––this is one of the reasons why Lenin has pointed out that unions tend to develop “trade union consciousness” rather than revolutionary consciousness. When we examine an academic union like CUPE 3903, however, the schism between trade union and revolutionary consciousness becomes complex.  According to some articulations of Leninism, after all, it is the intellectuals engaged in studying revolutionary theory who are responsible for bringing revolutionary ideology to the workers.  Thus, those who ascribe to this reading of Lenin (a reading with which I personally disagree) might argue that academic unions are sites where revolutionary consciousness can be developed.  But even if this happened to be the case for some members in an academic union, it is not a general rule.

An academic union, like every union, is composed of different people from different backgrounds.  Those who study and adhere to progressive politics, though usually the most active members, do not define the overall composition of a union.  The members of an academic union will also be composed of those who teach and study reactionary politics and who are part of the same union simply because they are part of the same workplace.  Thus, an academic union, like all unions, will most likely possess people who even lack trade union consciousness, either hating unions or caring little for the possibility of union struggle.  Thus, a union can be filled with numerous factions, all of which may be further divided along sometimes disparate, sometimes similar, ideological lines.

Furthermore, and here is where I differ from the aforementioned reading of Lenin, the class position of the intelligentsia may also breed a consciousness less radical than trade union consciousness.  That is, because academic labourers sometimes like to think of themselves as privileged (whether or not this is the case), and many of their needs are satisfied by liberal capitalism, they may be less inclined to participate in labour disruptions.  One of the common refrains from the anti-strike faction in CUPE 3903, for example, was “just end this strike so we can get back to our studies.”

The combination of the CUPE 3903 strike’s reformist limitations, the ideologies of its activists, and the class position of its membership need to be examined in order to properly understand how the character and defeat of one of the longest academic strike in the history of Canada.  I want to argue that the internal dynamics of this union, rather than the external force of the state that manifested in back-to-work legislation, was what caused the eventual failure of the strike to accomplish its aims.

1: Internal Dynamics

The two-lined struggle between the left and right of CUPE 3903 mediated the external struggle between the union and the employer.  If the employer was to be defeated by the union, then the progressive forces internal to the union needed to defeat the non-progressive factions and properly lead the struggle.  Although external pressures––such as the police, the frustrated undergraduate students who were manipulated by the employer, the anti-labour media––indeed influenced the course of the strike, the internal contradictions need to be understood if we are to properly analyze the 2008-2009 strike.  As Mao reminds us:
external causes are the condition of change and internal causes are the basis of change, and… external causes become operative through internal causes.  In a suitable temperature an egg changes into a chicken, but no temperature can change a stone into a chicken, because each has a different basis. [1]

More specifically, if the internal structure of the union was such that no one was convinced to walk the picket lines or withdraw their labour, then the rejection of the employer’s final offer would not be transformed into a proper labour disruption and the strike would be lost at the very beginning.  Furthermore, the ability to keep the rank-and-file actively involved in striking, and willing to resist the violence of line-crossers, scabbing, and police intimidation is due to the union’s internal cohesion.
Simultaneously, the overall social context dialectically influences the internal dynamics of the union.  Even if the internal structure determines the union’s “motion and development,” this motion and development is related to the social conditions in which it is embedded.  Thus, the class nature of the society at large will be reflected in the union.  The internal contradictions of the union are the same contradictions of the society within which it is enmeshed.  The transformation that emerges through overcoming these contradictions, however, will not come from external causes, though these causes will provide the climate.

For example, it is clear that, due to the much publicized economic recession, we are living in a climate that is anti-union.  Although the ideology of this anti-unionism will infect union movements so that the workers themselves will believe they do not have the “right” to go on strike (because it is selfish, because there’s no point, because everyone has to “tighten their belts”), whether or not a union goes on strike is because of the internal composition of the union itself and not because it has been puppeteered by the surrounding society.  At the same time, however, the ideology and class contradictions of the surrounding society are the very contradictions the union must deal with, even amongst its active membership, when it begins a labour disruption.

This context, where internal contradictions reflect an external climate, is what is meant by the theory of two-line struggle.  Two political lines that reflect the class contradiction of a given society will emerge within a progressive organization when that organization becomes, in whatever degree, antagonistic towards capitalism.  Historically, the two-line struggle has manifested as a struggle primarily between mass-line revolutionary politics and autocratic bureaucratic politics, both of which conceive of themselves as left or progressive.  There have been other manifestations as well: sometimes an ultra-leftist and alienating line will emerge, and in the case of anticolonial movements one usually observes a two-line struggle between the secular left and the cultural nationalists within a movement.  In any case, one line tends to best reflect the revolutionary position and the other, even though it may conceive of itself as progressive, ultimately reflects the ruling ideology of the ruling classes.

According to this theory, the failure of the Soviet Union is due, in part, to Stalin’s “monolithic outlook on the question of understanding the Party as a union of opposites… [thus] negat[ing] the correct two-line struggle within the Party” and enshrining bureaucracy.[2]  An attempt was made in the Chinese Revolution to properly engage with the two-line struggle, but these attempts also failed.  Even so, it was the experience of the Chinese Revolution that led to the theorization of the two-line struggle:

Class struggle in society inevitably has its reflection inside the Party, and it appears in a concentrated fashion in the form of the two-line struggle within the Party… The reason why there can be no doubt that class struggle in society has its reflection in the Party is that our Party does not live in a vacuum, but in a society in which classes exist, and it is possible for bourgeois ideology, the force of old habits and international revisionist trends of thought to affect and poison our Party organism.[3]

Although this theory was developed in an effort to understand why Communist Parties lapsed into bureaucratic revisionism, and often embraced capitalist or pseudo-capitalist policies, it can also be used to explain the contradictions that exist within any progressive organization, including unions.  The fact that a union is not a revolutionary organization, though, perhaps demonstrates that even if the progressive left wins the two-line struggle it will still encounter the reformist limitations of the union itself.  These limitations, however, are simply part of the union’s internal structure.  Rocks cannot hatch chickens, and unions are not revolutionary parties.

The application of the theory of two-line struggle to the CUPE 3903 strike, however, provides us with a tool for properly understanding the strike.  The internal struggle between the left and right political lines in the union, therefore, were what truly determined the nature of the strike and what truly influenced its termination.  I believe that the left’s failure to win this internal struggle determined the union’s failure to defeat the employer.  Since I plan to explain this point in more detail in the following section (where I will examine how the two-line struggle manifested and trace its history from the beginning to the end of the strike), I will only give a brief explanation here.

My main point is that the progressive political line was unable to form a hegemonic bloc within the active membership and, even before the strike began, was pushed into a defensive position by a tendency that was left in form but right in essence.  This other political line did not see itself as “anti-union” but, defined primarily by a bureaucratic and top-down approach, was willing to accept the authority of the Bargaining Team (BT) and thus the employer.  The political approach of this line also connected to those factions in the union who were already anti-union, and often fostered the most reprehensible red-baiting campaigns.  In contrast, what I take to be the proper left line (for reasons I will examine further in the following sections), was defined by a bottom-up approach, an unwillingness to be directed by the bureaucracy of the BT, a desire to hold the BT accountable to the membership, and a larger view that the strike should be connected to an international awareness of neo-liberalism.  There are, of course, multiplicities within each political line––and a vacillation between both lines by some members––but it was these two distinct positions that formed the two-line struggle of the active union membership.

Since the bureaucratic-right line dominated the internal composition of the union, and the progressive-left line was always on the defensive (and also made serious errors), the rank-and-file could not be properly radicalized.  Due to the fact that this two-line struggle began just before many members became active, the contributing history was mystified  (and sometimes actively mystified), thus resulting in a general confusion.  The left line failed to develop the mass-line of its political position, and thus CUPE 3903 was unable to properly respond to back-to-work legislation.  A potential wild-cat strike, for example, was immediately dismissed as too radical.[4]  In any case, by the time the province of Ontario ordered 3903 off the picket lines––and some activists were even beaten and arrested by the Toronto police during a labour march––there was nothing the membership could do except obey with exhausted and angry docility.
The defeatist response to the back-to-work legislation is unsurprising when judged against the internal dynamics of the two-line struggle: the failure of the left to develop a proper mass-line produced a tendency amongst the rank-and-file to surrender their autonomy to the bureaucratic decision-making of the BT.  When the membership is already trained to uncritically accept the union bureaucracy’s will, they will demonstrate the same docility in their interactions with the state.

It is important to highlight the existence of two-line struggle in the context of CUPE 3903 because there have been some who, while uncritically siding with the line I have characterized as bureaucratic-right, have claimed that the two predominant positions were a product of the politics of friendship.  This idealist analysis assumes that people choose their political positions because of their friends––because of who they drink with––rather than their practice, and that the political lines were mainly a dispute over competing personalities.  Since the Executive in general was the most visible representation of one political line and the BT in general was the most visible representation of another, it was easy to characterize their clashes as the product of competing egos.  Furthermore, by using the politics of friendship analysis, it becomes easy to dismiss a person’s political position as nothing more than the result of associating with one side of the competing personalities.  The fact that people lost friends and made friends because of their politics is ignored by this theory.  “Rather than looking into the objective root cause of the split, the different [political] tendencies emanating from such cause,” those who do not understand the two-line struggle “start blaming subjective factors and individual persons, thus mistaking political differences for personal differences.”[5]
The theory of two-line struggle highlights the fact that internal contradictions are due to contradictory political approaches rather than contradictory personalities.  For “where has there ever been a struggle for political power between personalities unconnected with deeper issues of politics?  Positions of influence and power are sought for class reasons, to promote the interests of one class against another, one section of a class against another section, one vested interest against another.  There is no such thing as abstract ‘struggle for power,’ struggle between personalities in a social and political vacuum.”[6]  

Historically, the vicissitudes of every progressive organization (from revolutionary parties to trade unions) has been defined by a two-line struggle, and the inability to properly understand or engage with this struggle “increases bureaucratic, sectarian, mechanical and dogmatic tendencies.”[7] 

[to be continued in a later post]

[1] Mao, Selected Works, 89.
[2] Hisila Yami, Peoples War and Women's Liberation, 95.
[3] A Basic Understanding of the Communist Party of China, 51
[4] Of course, this speaks again to the ultimate limits of labour unions.  The end result of a 3903 wild-cat would either be victory in the form of reformist demands or, due to the isolation that comes with being a single local on illegal strike, defeat by a violent state crack-down.
[5] Hisila Yami, 96.
[6] Hinton, Turning Point in China, 15.
[7] Hisila Yami, 95.


  1. Thanks for posting this, Josh - I sent it to some folks who are new and are leaping into the fray...sober analysis.

    Would you say, however, that the two lines are the same now that the primary contradiction is between A) The left plus right from the strike on one side (within which there are surely contradictions that will manifest themselves) and B) The high seniority unit 2s...? I would say that this is now the two line struggle, but once we're in bargaining, things may drastically change....too soon to tell

  2. Well they change in different contexts: this is mainly about the lines that cohered during the last strike... Wait for the next parts, lol!

  3. This is really great, JMP. I had been looking forward to reading this for awhile. I can't wait to read the subsequent parts!

  4. Thanks! I have the next part ready to go, but I'll wait until tomorrow to put it up to give the interim post time to breath since, probably and unfortunately, only those of us involved with 3903 might find this analysis interesting.


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