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On Poor Reviews of the 2015 CUPE 3903 Strike

Since it's over a year since the 2015 CUPE 3903 strike in Toronto you would think that any Marxist analysis of its vicissitudes would, having the benefit of perspective, be somewhat thorough. Unfortunately Kyle Bailey's recent article for The Bullet is about as thorough and rigorous as think-piece for a student newspaper. It's written from the perspective of a vacuum, with no real recognition of the legacy of the local's contentious history and as if the 2015 strike was somehow sequestered from previous strikes; it obliterates, and I'm unsure if this intentional or simply ignorant, key moments of rank-and-file "extra-parliamentary" action in 2015, culminating in the largest and longest march/demonstration in the local's history on March 27, 2015. Indeed, although the author can be partially forgiven for a failure to recognize the strike history of the local––since the local's reality is such that it often promotes a short term perspective and deletes its contentious history––the fact that he was a participant of the strike and acted as if the sequence leading up to the March 27th event was inexistent is inexcusable.

But let's begin with his possibly excusable ignorance… Bailey writes as if the 2015 strike was an unprecedented "landmark" within the local that uniquely revealed the legal limits of traditional unionism. The problem with this narrative is that it deletes the previous strike of 2008/2009 that possessed a much more radical dimension due to a leadership that was not thoroughly opportunistic, that was far more of a "landmark" event because it was longer and more attritious, and that arguably possessed more radical demands (rather than a fight to defend concessions against a leadership that was willing to concede in 2015) but still demonstrated the limits of union legalism. [I wrote about this event in a series that starts here, so I won't expend too much time explaining.]

In fact the leadership's dedication to a radicalism that went far and beyond the leadership of 2015 really did demonstrate the real lesson of union legalism, one that Bailey misses because he assumes it can be found in some recapture of social unionism: the limits were revealed to be economism, which is also the problem of unionism in the first world, and a more radical leadership that pushed a radical sensibility was in fact resisted by that faction of the rank-and-file that wanted to concede and get off the picket lines. We could of course go back further to the round of bargaining preceding the 2008/2009 strike (that organized all the structures for that strike, structures drawn upon in a cynical manner in 2015), or two rounds of bargaining earlier with another radical strike that far exceeded the limits of the 2015 disruption.

All of Bailey's thoughts on the 2015 strike, by failing to take into account the history of strikes in the local, are banal and atomized reflections that disconnect one instance of union struggle from its politically contentious past. Indeed, the fact that reactionaries in the local were successful in pushing a particular perspective about the previous strike, and that well-meaning activists similar to Bailey accepted this perspective, demonstrates the very problem of union legalism that Bailey sees as a limit but does not truly critique: political struggle within a union local, particularly a local composed of university workers, is not going to be affected by invectives to a return to union democracy. Something beyond economism is needed, and this was already demonstrated in 2008/2009, due to the concrete facts that determine what such a union local is.

Which brings us to the unforgivable aspect of Bailey's analysis, his complete deletion of the "extra-parliamentary" experience of the 2015 strike which was in fact an attempted solution to the problems of the 2008/2009 strike. Why this lacuna in his analysis is particularly egregious is because, aside from the fact that it demonstrates he apparently doesn't care about the most radical aspect of the 2015 strike, it speaks precisely to his complaint about union democracy and supersedes it. That is, while Bailey complains that the problem of the 2015 strike was that it was contained within the limits of union democracy, he omits the most radical rank-and-file experience of union democracy in this sequence that was simultaneously opposed to his doctrinaire demand to a return to social unionism but was in fact opposed to even this containment due to its willingness to organize even outside of General Membership Meetings and connect economic struggle to a political line. This was in fact the only unique and interesting aspect the 2015 strike because all of the aspects Bailey otherwise described were already encountered in the 2008/2009 strike, with a better union leadership devoted to social unionism, and without this perspective and a failure to grasp what was happening around him in 2015 his analysis is simply a pathetic echo of the limits already prescribed and struggled against with the kind of union democracy he recognized that was lacking by 2015. Indeed the failures of radical union democracy in 2008/2009 led to the enshrinement of a rightist leadership that, by 2015, had become so defiant and opportunistic that the membership could not help that they were being sold out.

In this context, the experience that Bailey strangely deletes emerged from a perspective guided by some long term 3903 militants who had been through the ringer of previous strike and bargaining periods, learned from them, adopted a broader political perspective, and connected with groups like the Revolutionary Student Movement by 2015. The guiding thought of this perspective, learned from the failures of the 2008/2009 strike was organize the rank-and-file outside of official union structures with a political perspective broader than any kind of unionism. And in the context of the overlapping strike of the University of Toronto workers of CUPE 3902 (something else Bailey oddly neglects to mention, which was a pretty historical simultaneity), this kind of "extra-parliamentary" organization was also determined by the perspective of uniting the strikes and forming a space where militant rank-and-file of both locals could meet and organize according to another singularity, driven by more political concerns that united the struggle against management austerity, outside of general membership structures: the Joint Strike Committee [JSC].

And yet this picture from the 10k JSC march is what the 3903 website is promoting for the anniversary of the strike.

Obviously Bailey was not a part of the JSC because otherwise he would have mentioned it in his short analysis, and maybe his failure to be part of a grouping that was comprised of the most militant elements of both 3903 and 3902 explains why he intentionally ignored this aspect of the strike. Yes I say "intentionally" because there is no possible way the experience of the JSC can be deleted by any analysis of the 2015 strike unless it was intentional; this is because the JSC succeeded in organizing the largest and most recognized event of both strikes in 2015: a ten kilometre march from York's Glendon Campus to UofT's St. George campus that the leadership of both locals were forced to endorse and that was comprised of thousands of members. The fact that this event, and the politics of this event that challenged traditional union perspectives, was not even mentioned in Bailey's analysis should demonstrate that his analysis is entirely suspect.

The JSC was a space accorded by militants in both locals, coordinated by the RSM and PRAC (initiatives of the PCR-RCP), that eventually became large enough to force decisions in both locals that culminated in the March 27th day of action. Despite the fact that the JSC was opposed by more traditional radical unionists, even of the "social unionist" kind who wanted more union democracy, it still succeeded in making its will accepted in both locals and pulled of a ten kilometre march where the slogans and speeches were not about traditional social unionism, and the demand for a return to union democracy, but about overthrowing the society as it currently exists. So if we must trace the failure of the 2015 strike it should not be in its inability to affect traditional union democracy (a perspective already encountered in 3903's previous strike despite all attempts at building such a democracy) but in its inability, for whatever reason, to produce a sustainable movement beyond these bounds. And this is precisely what Bailey cannot recognize because he deletes the most democratic, the most rank-and-file, the most militant, and the largest experience of the 2015 strike from his narrative.

It makes you wonder what the qualifications are for getting published in the Bullet…


  1. I unfortunately disagree with most of this article. I too was centrally involved in the JSC: a) we never regarded ourselves to be the most militant group, we saw ourselves as another member-led initiative and besides a few people close to the RCP who were also rank-and-file members, most people involved were rank-and-file members with no affiliation to any RCP initiative; b) we were always clear that our goal was to help win the strikes, but also to try to inject a particular kind of politics into them, hence our emphasis on joint strike action against a sectoral issue. In this respect we definitely offered a slightly different politics than others inasmuch that we tried to raise the question of the state's role in education more than other similar initiatives. And we eschewed the kind of pro-union bureaucrat politics that typically sees CUPE Ontario leadership parachuting in at the last minute to give some speech. This was all intended to demonstrate a non-economistic trade unionism; c) we never saw ourselves in opposition to other trade union militants, and worked towards responding to concerns that they raised about the march, like the question of police involvement. Whilst this could be sometimes frustrating, it is called working with others; and d) we never regarded as the march as having won the strike. A few people who marched tried to say that the march won the strike and I always said, and will always say, we played a small part in a larger effort. We complimented other tactics with this one, and I am very proud of the fact that we pulled it off. Thats all. Finally, I would like to say that the experience of the JSC was very positive for me, but also resulted in my departure from RCP circles. 2008-2009 brought me close to the RCP, 2015 took me away from them. Unfortunately, I think your summation, which seems to reflect the lessons that comrades close to the RCP seem to have drawn from the strike, is further evidence of the palatable differences between our respective approaches.

    1. Not sure how you disagree with "most of this article" when in fact your disagreement is in the last two sentences where points a-c are not at all in disagreement with what I said above, just less polemical. Where precisely did I say we were in opposition to other trade union militants? Rather I indicated that some decided they were against us, and this is indeed a fact but one we didn't embrace.

    2. 1. Well I don't agree at all with the tone that you take with respect to Kyle. He supported the march and walked the entire length. Kyle was not writing a dissertation on the two strikes. He was trying to write a short and concise article about the 2015 strike. He in my opinion succeeds in this and it is a very good article. Furthermore, Kyle has consistently defended the left position during the 2008-2009 strike, even if it has put him at odds with people in his own circles. So to say that he doesn't care about the more progressive or left aspect of the 2008-2009 or the 2015 strike is just off base.

      2. The RSM was a tiny organisation during the strike. It was never able to mobilise very many people. Something that it's last congress regarded as the outcome of the ridiculous charge of "Toronto-centrism", instead of looking more deeply at why it was a more significant force, unlike other student organising that occurred. Indeed, in this respect, and something several people have noted on Facebook, it sounds like you have sour grapes about him not giving the RCP and its initiatives enough space.

      3. You explicitly say that the JSC "was comprised of the most militant elements of both 3903 and 3902". This is simply wrong. The majority of people in the JSC were rank-and-file members who were interested in organising a joint action between the two campuses, and took the form of organising a march. You then make a bad faith argument about him when you suggest that he ignored it because he wasn't part of it and impugn that he wasn't militant enough.

      4. This entire sentence is wrong: "Despite the fact that the JSC was opposed by more traditional radical unionists, even of the "social unionist" kind who wanted more union democracy, it still succeeded in making its will accepted in both locals and pulled of a ten kilometre march where the slogans and speeches were not about traditional social unionism, and the demand for a return to union democracy, but about overthrowing the society as it currently exists." The JSC's slogans were completely within the ambit of "social unionism". As the slogan on the banner said: "Unite the Fight". And to be honest, no one remembers the speeches and they were hardly that far from social unionism either. So unless you regard the entire JSC to be an economistic exercise then I am not really sure what you mean by the JSC as some escape from social unionism. Also, in both strikes a lot of organising occurred outside of the GMM's. Thus, this strike according to you had nothing "unique and interesting" about it, which for me, doesn't even matter. It was a strike. The so-called traditional trade unionists did not oppose the JSC. They just chose to be involved in other committees and I am glad that they did because that was absolutely vital work. Were they skeptical about it? Sure. I would be skeptical too and that is why carrying out the march properly was vital. Furthermore, the work that they did like organising strike committee meetings was of fundamental importance for the strike as a whole, but also our march. The fact that they attended bargaining meetings and kept the bargaining team honest is equally important. And because they did it, we didn't have to, and we could organise the JSC and the march.

      5. You conclusion: "And this is precisely what Bailey cannot recognize because he deletes the most democratic, the most rank-and-file, the most militant, and the largest experience of the 2015 strike from his narrative." Every emphasis on "most" overstates the fact that all we did was successfully carry out a tactic within a strike, and created an appropriate media spectacle.

      I truly hope that this is not the summation of the strike and its lessons that the RSM, PRAC etc have drawn.

    3. No, it's not an official assessment it's a polemic. Really, I don't have time and energy to answer you right now. But very briefly because I really don't care about your assessment vis-a-vis where it put you post-strike, as you know:

      1. Fair enough about the tone but there is nothing in Bailey's piece that recognizes the history that led up to 2015 and in fact it is written as if this history does not exist. If I have to look into the writer's mind to know this that's a serious problem.

      2. I never said the RSM was large nor am I being sour grapes about something RCP related that wasn't mentioned. I in fact do not care if that event was mentioned in relation to the RCP; I am annoyed that it wasn't mentioned in a theoretical context that talks about thinking outside of union legalism. As for your comment about the RSM's decision being "ridiculous" I tend to think your complaint about the RSM is equally "ridiculous" but that is neither here nor there. Stop projecting.

      3. Fair enough about being in bad faith about whether the author was involved with the JSC; that was a polemical barb, pure rhetoric. But I will not take back that it was comprised of militant members of both locals having been involved on the lines agitating for people to go to it with the Striking Partisan that is an assessment I think it is worth making, though I would have to be clear what I meant by "militant".

      4. A number of other slogans in the march and the speeches that were made placed it in the context of austerity and broader anti worker issues that, by the way, were not the slogans on the official lines AT ALL. I know this because I marched nearly everyday on the lines and held the slogans. I was not arguing that the slogans were about pushing some super revolutionary line only that they were arguing for something more than fixing union democracy within a framework completely locked down by economism. More accurately I would say they spilled over the framework of social unionism, but again polemical and rhetorical pieces written very quickly, that do not pretend to be full assessments, have a certain amount of slippage and for this I apologize.

      5. No, not just the march but the work that went up to building it. A lot of people involved in the JSC still talk about it as a very democratic experience for them, more than anything else they experienced during the strike, and I think this is worth caring about.

      Again, this was not an official summation and the lessons that the RSM/PRAC have drawn are in fact not precisely identical and will not be discussed here.

  2. Oh and very very few militant trade unionists opposed the march. The ratio was 10 in favour of the march to 1 against. In fact, I can count the latter on my 2 hands. Whereas, the former made sure we had a sound system, security folks etc.

    1. What does this point even mean? My comment about this is that there was some opposition, but I never claimed it was major nor really discussed any opposition. I only brought that up in the context of you implying that I was claiming the JSC was in opposition to trade-union militants and did not want to work with others, which is precisely the bad faith reading you charge me of making of the Bailey piece. But oh well…


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