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

This is the fourth and final instalment of my analysis of the 2008-2009 Canadian Union of Public Employees [CUPE], local 3903's strike.  (The first part can be found here, the second here, and the third here.)  Again, I have posted this essay because the local (which is also my local) is in its next round of bargaining and hopefully this analysis will remind those involved (some of whom still read my blog) of the problems that disrupted the last round of bargaining.  Since history repeats itself sometimes as farce, this essay series is especially relevant due to the last GMM I attended: the usual suspects, many of whom openly embraced the "right-opportunist" political line of the last strike, attempted to disrupt the bargaining process (again with the same left-sounding language) by arguing for a dubious split in the executive body.

I have delayed posting this final part because (surprise, surprise) most of my readers don't know or care about the labour struggle of a Toronto union local––I know this because my readership has gone down, according to the blog statistics, every time the parts of this essay are posted.  At the same time, many of my union comrades have been bugging me to get this final part up on the blog and, really, I should finish what I started.

For those readers unfamiliar with this strike (which was one of the longest strikes in the history of Canadian public employees), or who are generally disinterested in reading about an old strike in Toronto, I'll point out (as I have in the previous points) that there is some pertinence to this essay.  First of all, the strike was concerned with what was considered an "impossible" demand: it was aimed at attacking the casualization of labour by demanding the end of contract work––and this demand was made during the onslaught of the crisis where the prevailing discourse was that there "was not enough money" for "greedy workers" to go out on strike.  This was probably the first post-crisis strike in Canada that attempted to attack the pernicious practice of casualizing workers.  And it was the very first strike in the academic worker sector in North America that was openly placing itself, despite all the confusions caused by the rightist elements in the union, against the neo-liberalization of universities and what this meant for university workers.

 More importantly, however, this essay uses the 3903 strike to interrogate the gap between "trade union" and "revolutionary" consciousness: a gap that became all too clear in the vicissitudes of this event.  In 2009 ended this essay by writing: "If anything, the experience of the CUPE 3903 strike should remind us of the importance of building structures and spaces where members are united by ideology and not because they happen to share the same workplace."  I stand by this statement, and I think it was probably the most important political lesson revealed by the strike, and I wish that others would take it to heart as well.

(Also, yet again, I apologize for the format that cut-and-pasting from Word to Blogger causes.  But, as ugly as it looks, it is probably more readable than the cramped paragraphs of my other posts!)

4: Results of the two-line struggle
Due to the bureaucratic-right line’s victory at the GMM mentioned above, the left-progressive line was pushed into a defensive position for the remainder of the strike.  Attempts at building mass-line politics, involving and radicalizing more members, and holding the BT to account were consistently ham-strung by a membership rendered uncritical, and depoliticized, by a bureaucratized GMM space.  In these meetings, vocal supporters of the bureaucratic-right position would attempt to pass motions that would allow the Bargaining Team even more flexibility.  For example, although CUPE 3903 has a long-standing tradition of allowing rank-and-file members into every union space, the BT would complain that its meetings were disrupted by those members who wanted to watch the bargaining process and voice their concerns.  Therefore, it was not surprising when, at one GMM, a motion was put forward to ban members from BT meetings, giving the Bargaining Team the “flexibility” to hold secret meetings.  Thankfully, a member of the Bargaining Team argued against this motion and it was defeated.  In any case, motions of this style were tendered, often passing, at every General Membership Meeting so that the space’s critical potential was eclipsed by pragmatic instrumentality.
            Despite the left’s failure to form a hegemonic bloc, however, near the end of the strike they were beginning to gain more power and clout amongst the membership as a whole.  At one of the final strike GMMs, for example, when it was discovered that the Bargaining Team had dropped every single demand of one of the local’s units, the rank-and-file began to realize the dangers of complete BT flexibility.  Motions demanding that the BT put these demands back on the table were passed successfully, despite angry protests from the most vocal supports of top-down bargaining.
            Finally, on the day when the back-to-work legislation passed and four union activists were beaten and arrested by the Toronto police, the character of the final strike GMM was antagonistic toward many of the union’s rightist elements.  When one rightist faction attempted to pass a motion that would condemn the illegality, and deny support, to the activities of certain rank-and-file members (this faction feared a wild-cat), the membership present reacted with offended anger and the motion was defeated.[1]   The end result was that this faction (which happened to be the same faction that, at the very first strike GMM discussed above [in one of the previous posts], shouted down the Chief Steward in a racist manner) angrily walked out of the meeting, claiming self-righteously that the local was doomed.
            The possibility of the left line to reverse GMM bureaucratization, however, was limited by the realities of back-to-work legislation.  It was too late to win the line struggle and, since the bureaucratic-right line still held sway, the left was unable to organize the union against state repression.  Moreover, the reactionary political elements mobilized by the bureaucratic-right line would become active in union activities post-strike and the former progressive character of  CUPE 3903 would degenerate until a post-strike Executive body comprised by the most pro-bureaucratic elements of the strike would invite CUPE National to remove local autonomy from CUPE 3903.[2] 
            In the end the progressive-left line failed to win the two-line struggle, and this failure was partially determined by the pre-strike activities that demobilized the Executive, pushing it into a defensive position, during a crucial period of bargaining and strike mobilization.  Since those supporting the bureaucratic-right line did not over extend themselves during the months of September to November, and used their extra time to mobilize newly active members (as well as anti-union elements) to their side, they were able to determine the internal dynamics of the local and thus prevent mass-line membership empowerment.  Most importantly, however, the victory of the bureaucratic-right line supported the victory of the employer because, regardless of the lofty pronouncements of some BT members,[3] the membership was not adequately prepared to deal with this eventuality.  Trained to punch in and out at GMMs, to uncritically fight for the flexibility of the Bargaining Team to end the strike, there had been no time or space for the rank-and-file to engage in the larger debate about strategy vis-a-vis the state.  While it is true that at the final GMM such a debate began, it was far too late.
            At the same time, however, the left’s failure to win the line struggle cannot be blamed solely on the opposing political line.  Pushed into a defensive position during the period leading up to the strike, those activists supporting the progressive-left line continued to act defensively and projected their frustrations inwards.  Rather than finding an alternative to the bureaucratized GMM space, the left spent most of its energy fighting on this level thus dooming itself to repeated failure.  Moreover, since the strike’s most popular spokespeople were predominantly male, some of the ultra-left’s critiques were not baseless.  Although the maleness of the spokespeople was more a product of institutional sexism rather than an intentional decision, efforts to reverse this trend, and thus defend the left from ultra-left criticism, were almost non-existent.  While it is true that the women of colour spokespeople were driven into obscurity and exhausted by a racist sexism that manifested during the events of the September 2008 GMM and the recall, there were few efforts to reverse this trend.
            In retrospect, however, it is hard to imagine how those activists grouped around the left line could succeed considering the state of their demobilization at the beginning of the strike, a state that only worsened due to their intensive work during the strike and multiple disheartening defeats.
            Finally, it is worth recalling the point with which this essay began: labour disruptions are ultimately reformist.  Thus it is possible that the political line that best reflected a reformist trade union consciousness had a better chance of winning the two-line struggle.  Since the union was composed of members who represented a variety of class backgrounds and ideologies, perhaps the only possible ideological consensus was through a political line that muted these differences in the name of pragmatism, flexibility, and the end of the strike.  If anything, the experience of the CUPE 3903 strike should remind us of the importance of building structures and spaces where members are united by ideology and not because they happen to share the same workplace.

[1] contained in the 2008-2009 CUPE 3903 GMM minutes.
[2] The CUPE 3903 Executive of 2009-2010 was comprised primarily of the most vocal Bargaining Team members of 2008-2009 and their supporters.  On a side note, we should wonder why many of those union activists who argued for top-down bargaining eventually blamed the “left radicals” of the union for the loss of local autonomy––especially considering that the entrance of CUPE National is the ultimate manifestation of top-down union practice that these people argued for during the strike.
[3] The chief negotiator once said, near the beginning of the strike, that if the local was mandated back to work he would wild-cat.  When back-to-work legislation actually happened, however, he wasn’t interested in the possibility of wild-catting in the real world.


  1. Jordy (tying the hands)June 23, 2011 at 12:29 PM

    Thanks for posting this, Josh! Lifts my spirits to know that I was a part of this turnaround, as the organizer of the unit 3 petition. I think its worth noting that when all of our demands were dropped, suddenly the right (some surpsing people) spoke on behalf of us, and even at the bargaining table (I'm thinking at the Montecasino after the forced rat) tried to curry favour, desperate as they were to not lose their hegemnoy, while the ultra-left continued to attack us, and blamed some people - like me - for how the strike ended - I was physically attacked on my picketline, and then trying to push me out of my department, with Problematique and so on. It should also be noted that with the except of SH, KmC and TS, at first the Unit 3 initiative that swung the pendulum around was all new members mobilizing around it. Some of our comrades were skeptical until the motion passed...

  2. Disappointing that your readership did not particularly care for this series of essays--I personally found it very interesting and educational, given that it was grounded in a series of practical experiences.

    1. Thanks. The more distance between me and these essays, though, the more I realize that there is a lot missing. Not that I disagree with the analysis but that I think it requires more, particularly a more concrete examination of economism. Of course, I was just becoming MLM at the time I wrote this, the experience of the strike pushing me more coherently into this position.


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