Skip to main content

Demanding the Impossible and Being Realistic: analysis of the 2008-2009 CUPE 3903 strike [Part 2]

Here follows the second part of my analysis of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3903's [CUPE 3903] strike in 2008-2009.  In the first part I discussed the general context of the strike as well as the internal dynamics, but here I focus primarily on how the two-line struggle that would define the vicissitudes of the strike, eventually leading to the triumph of the bureaucratic-right line, emerged in the months leading up to the Strike Mandate Vote.

Although this might seem to be a boring history of a tiny local for most of my readers (those of us who spend a lot of time active within a local often start to imagine that our struggles are not as significant as we imagined), and I'm mainly reproducing this document because of the failure of the book to materialize and 3903 is about to enter bargaining again, I think the analysis is useful for a variety of reasons: 1) it demonstrates the need for something larger than trade union organizing; 2) it represents the limits of trade union organizing within the centres of imperialism (unionized workers are not the core of the proletariat); 3) it demonstrates, in the context of academic labour, how people can use left-centric and progressive rhetoric to veil opportunist and sometimes even reactionary positions.

In any case, here is the next part… apologies for the formatting - blogspot has a significant problem when it comes to importing word processing files.

2: Emergence of the two-line struggle [or raising the red flag to bring down the red flag]

At the first General Membership Meeting (GMM) of the 2008 school year, months before CUPE 3903 began its strike, the outgoing chair of the local read aloud her complaint letter that accused the rest of the Executive of neglecting their duties.  Despite the fact that some of these assertions would later be proved incorrect (i.e. during the special Recall GMM, discussed below, it would be revealed that this outgoing chair, and not the executive as a whole, was involved in sabotaging the process dealing with staff grievances),[1]  and despite the fact that her letter advocated tailism rather than member mobilization,[2] the rightist and “left” factions were mobilized to scapegoat and red-bait the rest of the executive. 
            The result was a racialized meeting space wherein a predominantly non-white executive was attacked by a predominantly white membership.  When those scapegoated complained about racism, the union’s self-appointed equity experts (and self-proclaimed “authentic left”) either scoffed or pretended the complaint was baseless.  Later, another group of members who were not at this GMM wrote an open letter that dismissed complaints of racism as being an example of “playing the race card.”  Although the discourse that dismisses equity complaints as the playing of “cards” is typically used by the right (including the tokenization of racialized minorities to say that there is no racism), in this case it was considered “progressive” by those working to destabilize the 3903 Executive.
            The result of this GMM, and the one on the following week where this behaviour continued, was the resignation of active Executive members who felt attacked, devalued, and overworked.  Some were even victims of slander campaigns.  A vote of non-confidence was passed at a GMM where many other members were not present.  A special Recall GMM was planned and this group, which at that time represented a minority of active and semi-active members, set about mobilizing to remove the Executive.
            Arguing that the recall was potentially “mobilizing”, those behind it disrupted the activities of those involved in bargaining mobilization and distracted the general membership’s attention.  With the Executive hobbled by empty seats, and bad-jacketed by the spectre of a show trial, the crucial September period of bargaining was a write-off.  Demoralized and thus lacking the energy to work properly (for how can one work in this vocation when one is constantly defending herself against baseless accusations and conspiracy threats?), the Executive was unable to perform its function in leading the mobilization process in the following key areas: the understanding of the bargaining process, the substantial demands and why they were important, the upcoming strike vote, and the possibility of a strike.
            As a side and ironic note, if the tailist politics advocated by the outgoing chair actually worked, then why did the membership not spontaneously mobilize against the employer during this month?  Instead, the demobilization of the executive resulted in a process of membership demobilization that, regardless of the membership’s ability to walk-out in November, contributed to the local’s inability to win the strike.
            The majority of those who argued that the recall would be mobilizing were largely unwilling to perform any mobilization work themselves, aside from mobilizing a circus Recall GMM where the Executive would be attacked.  Most were quite happy to spend hours mailing out information for this recall, tendering a petition, and postering for their show trials, but they were tellingly absent from meetings devoted to actual bargaining mobilization.  Meanwhile, the executive lost two Chief Stewards, a Trans-Feminist Action Caucus (TFAC) co-chair, and a Communications Officer––all targeted by the initial recall and all crucial for bargaining.
            Thus, if the attempted and essentially rightist coup was “mobilizing” why did all of the actual bargaining mobilization not happen during this period of potential recall?  Furthermore, when it was revealed that there were no significant charges, barely any of those who had mobilized for the Recall GMM appeared at the bargaining mobilization meetings in the week leading up to the Strike Mandate Vote.  So much for mobilizing through scapegoating and red-baiting.  Instead, those who arrived at the Recall GMM to participate in a circus and pronounce their historical complaints with the union (one member was absurd enough to justify his assault on the current executive by claiming that he was angry with the executive of three years previous for calling him a “bureaucrat”) departed without agreeing to do anything for union solidarity.  The already exhausted and active members were left to clean up the mess caused by this derailing faction.
            It is unclear what would have happened had the Executive been recalled.  Would a group that had pushed this Recall agenda actually do the work of filling the empty positions?  If so, how would this be accomplished?  Two weeks at the very least are required to hold Executive elections; to do this in the midst of bargaining––and one week before the strike vote––would derail the bargaining and mobilization process even further.  If the Executive had been removed, it is also unclear as to whether there would have been a strike.
            In any case, the faction that pushed for the Executive’s recall in September 2008 would form the core group of activists behind what I have labelled the bureaucratic-right line.  Although not all of them shared the same politics––and some were even (self-defined) ultra-leftist––they would by-and-large support the same political line throughout the strike.
            A question that needs to be answered here, however, is what makes a political line either progressive or reactionary.  The only way to gauge whether a line is properly “left” or “right” is not based on what adherents to this line might personally claim, but by what the line achieves in practice.  Any other way of analyzing politics leads to nebulous theories of intentionality, psychology, and ideal political forms that exist outside of space and time.  For example, if someone is deceived into working for a racist group, the anti-racist does not judge this person’s politics radical because s/he had another intention.
            Thus, at the beginning of the two-line struggle, it is important to examine the politics mobilized in practice by the group that pushed the recall:
1) they were responsible for mobilizing racism to demobilize a GMM space;
2) they were responsible for red-baiting active members by using the classic agent-provocateur tactic of “raising the red flag to bring down the red flag” (i.e. acting more left in order to criticize the active left);
3) they were responsible for killing a crucial month of bargaining mobilization;
4) they were responsible for alienating and slandering active members who have sacrificed much of their time and energy in building union solidarity;
5) they were responsible for almost losing the autonomy of our local.[3]

            The main argument made to defend this behaviour was that it was conducive to bargaining and that––because its goal was “transparency” and “equity”––the Recall GMM was a process of mobilizing the membership.  What actually happened, however, was that the bad politics noted above were mobilized.  That those responsible for the recall could uncritically defend their position demonstrates that they were either deluded or willfully deceitful regarding what actually happened.  Indeed, they would further argue that any demobilization after their actions was the result of their failure to achieve their supposedly progressive goals.  This argument would be used throughout the entire strike.
            At the beginning of the two-line struggle, the factions that began the bureaucratic-right line did the employer’s job by causing massive demobilization.  Thus, their politics amounted to employer collaboration regardless of their arguments.  The fact that most were incapable of understanding what political line they were mobilizing––again blaming the activists and perhaps lamenting that the left is “falling apart”––demonstrated, even before the strike, that those who would embrace the bureaucratic-right line were incapable of self-criticism and lacked an understanding of the history of the left.  In the past, movements have fallen apart precisely because of the bureaucratic-right in the movement, along with uncritical “left” individuals who believe they are experts in radicalism, demonstrating their expertise by attacking other activists and acting as if they are beyond reproach. 
            Another and frightening pattern that emerged from the beginning of the two-line struggle was the mobilization of equity language to mask unequitable goals.  The self-proclaimed radicals behind the recall claimed that they were fighting against an “equity backlash” while they themselves promoted racism, slandered and isolated union activists, and gave the employer the actual means to produce a real backlash.  Neither was this group able to comprehend why the union’s rightist elements were so willing to unite with them.  Lacking an understanding of left history, or what solidarity actually means, they were left in form and right in essence––the perfect partners of the bureaucratic-right.
            At this point, however, the two political lines that formed the internal contradiction of the union were only beginning to emerge.  Since it is in the midst of political struggle “where… contradictions manifest faster than in other fields,”[4] it was during the strike that these emergent lines cohered into the principle contradiction of the union’s internal dynamics.
[to be continued...]

[1] Contained in GMM minutes, September/October 2008.
[2] That is, she thought that members should mobilize themselves, and that they would spontaneously develop a radical consciousness, and was opposed the practice of intentional radicalizing practiced by the Chief Stewards of that time.
[3] Due to the recall happening at a crucial period, CUPE Ontario was threatening to step in and place the local under its direct control.
[4] Hisila Yami, Peoples War and Womens Liberation, 88.


  1. I love your analysis, but reading that made old feelings of stress hit my stomach! Now I remember why I self-medicated at GMMs those months leading up to the strike.

    While I don't find your analysis lacking, I do think it's worthwhile to add that this executive that was scapegoated and attacked into resigning was one of the most racially diverse executives that the local has had (for awhile anyways, as I don't know the local's history too far back).

    And the use of equity language to derail things is bang on - Like the time members of TFAC tried to have me barred from TFAC (a space that is supposed to be "safe" and "welcoming").

    Anyways, looking forward to the next part! (Even though my stomach isn't).

  2. Yes, well you would have felt that stress more than many of us. Good point about that executive being the most racially diverse, and I'm not sure if I make this point later on. I do expand on these things in the next part (or parts depending on how I continue to break it up). I should edit this to add, maybe, a "to be continued" line.

    I think it is important to ask ourselves, though, and this is a theme that I bring out in this essay's later parts (still to come!), why we as radicals have devoted, and continue to devote, so much stress to this union space. This was a feeling many of us had at the end of the strike, and reminded me of the need to involve myself in an organizing space that was not limited by trade-union consciousness... Though some people have forgotten that insight, which is troublesome, and are drowning again in a stress that does not lead to anything but fighting to make precarious employment less precarious and acting as if this is the limits of the organizational universe.

  3. JMP:

    I too have "moved on" but I think that without radicals in our local "devote so much stress to this union space....fighting to make precarious emplyoment less precarious.." I don't think our comrades who do this think that these are the limits of the organizational universe - in fact, this is objectively incorrect. To wit, given the potential restructuring of our local that will affect esp. unit 2 employment, that now is a morei mportant time than ever to intervene in these struggles. So while I no longer mythologize 3903, I think that its damned important - no one in our sector has t6 years of funding, practically (re PhDs), no one in our sector has a lot of what we have. I think you deserve praise for helping build that, and those who are engaged deserve praise for carrying it on.

  4. I think if anything has changed (to add to my last comment) is that people who are engaged now see the limits of 3903, but also see how important it is within the sector, nothing more and nothing less.

  5. Jordy, I agree it is an important time... and speaking as someone who has been involved with the local for a very, very long time, I am speaking more from a longer perspective: my reasons for first involving myself with 3903 were not the same reasons that kept me involved.

    And speaking as a low seniority Unit 2 member, I am directly affected by the potential restructuring and am glad that there are people involved. Nor do I think less of the people carrying on... What does irk me, however, is that we are not producing a new generation of rank and file members to do this work, as was done in the past, becoming too hung up with the union, even when some of us are not and might not be members, and spending all our organizational time with the union. Maybe this bugs me more than you because I have spent far more time and energy in this space... And maybe your generation really needed to step up and replace ours.

    As for seeing "how important" 3903 is within the sector, we always saw that. At least those of us who have been working for 3903 for over eight years have seen that.

  6. Of course, and thats my point...I don't mean to sound polemical....and you're probably right - I don't have the history you do. And yeah, my "generation" really needs to step up. A lot of folks who came in my year stepped up at the time and for a good time afterwords. I personally can't this round, but probably will in a future round. I think though that maybe some of this comes from a mythology - I wasn't there to see it - of "rank and file networks" - when it has always been a rotating radical-left informal leadership tendency (of a hundred people or so, give or take a year) that comprise the left to whom we both are affilated with in the union. I don't know but I'm more and more skeptical that 3903 has ever been that "member driven" on a mass scale (as opposed to hundreds of activists that always occupy key positions). And in turn, following from people like Bill Fletcher and Fernando Gapasin, I'd argue that this is the way it should be, but that network needs to be replenished. I think a lot of solid people came in, as I said, my year, and we missed a year - but now there are new folks coming in, doing committee work, stewards' council, etc. - I'm sure a new leadership cadre will to speak..

    If I had time I'd be more involved but feel to responsible to projects I work on now to allocate time to both, beyond GMMs. (which I need to skip this week as I have a comp. on wednesday)

  7. But the GMMs this week are the essential ones! At least the wednesday one, I think, where that restructuring demand by those reactionary anti-worker workers is being tendered...

  8. Monday I may make - but the Wed one is at the same time as my comp. I may make the last hour.

  9. Interesting to read. Although I was a second year TA going into the strike, an fairly left in an abstract way, I hadn't been involved in union politics at all. I spent the entire first half of the strike totally confused and not understanding anything that was happening politically at all, then alienated completely walking around in a circle staring at the ground. Somehow i ended up getting politicized at the end and the 3903 radical crew were the first reds i ever worked with- but i remember my feelings of confusion and alienation at the beginning- i wanted to organize somehow but it was such a political quagmire that i didn't even know where to start. who was left? who was being racists? who will get us a better contract? i just had no idea, and there were so many rumours and crazyness going around and it was impossible for a new rank and file person to figure it out.

  10. Thanks Morgan... Yes, due to the quagmire resulting from the events leading up to the strike I can understand how all of these questions became extremely difficult. One of the problems at the time, in those days leading up to the strike vote and the first months of the strike, was the fact that the internal derailment resulted in an inability to communicate with new members about what was going on. The executive, which was supposed to be united in order to perform this task, was in complete disarray. The Bargaining Team, which should be historically held to account by the Executive, was severely empowered, and this all led to the alienation you describe. Especially since those of us who had been involved with the local for years, and who watched this unfold with horror from the beginning, were fractured across various picket lines and burnt out from the fall-out.

    I think the left failed to form a strong hegemony within the local in these crucial months - a fact that this old analysis will address in upcoming sections - but also that the context of a union local, and the consciousness it produces, is such that forming a real left hegemony in these spaces is always very difficult. The situation also contributed, as I'm sure you're aware (and bet you experienced) to a context of red-baiting that severely hampered solidarity.

  11. I couldn't even figure out who was the left. some of the supposed right had communist party membership cards, which i thought was crazy, i'd only ever met one communist before in my life. So to me the whole red-baiting thing was bizarre because pretty much every major player (with the exception of zionists) was farther left than anyone i'd ever met. And i had no idea who to support with the 'tying the hands of the bargaining team' vs 'union democracy' rhetoric. I did know that as a rank and file i had no clue what was happening, why we were even on strike (specifically), what our demands were, how we intended to get them. I stayed on the line for two reasons- i remembered the 2001 strike because i lived in toronto at the time, and i knew that the wages which allowed me even attend grad school were a result of that strike. And i was totally broke and supporting my family and needed the money despite having SSHRC funding. That was pretty much it. I spent large portions of the strike manning the exit gate because it meant that i didn't have to talk with people and take some side that i didn't understand and had basically no way to untangle various claims and counter claims. I got mobilized as an active over the forced rat because it was something that was for the union in general, not for a specific faction, and that was something i could get active over, which was the first activist organizing i did. Taking a side within the union wasn't something i could do given the lack of information for someone with no background in sectarian leftist politics.

  12. Understandable... In one of the later sections of this essay (which I'll have to get up here soon), I talk about how those of us representing the left line also didn't do a good job of communicating that line.

    Also, just to be accurate, the line struggle I'm describing is within bodies that are already nominally left so, yes, everyone begins by accepting a certain commitment to "leftism." So the left and right lines within these spaces shouldn't be understood as a war between communists/anarchists and utter reactionaries, but rather between people who see themselves as left but that one side takes on a rightist position - or something that is left in form and right in essence. Or a struggle between conservative and progressive wings of a leftwing body. And since we often assume that once we commit ourselves to a leftwing politics we are somehow above the ideology of everyday society, we tend to fall into patterns that are part of the ruling ideas of the ruling class.

    Returning, though, to your point about not knowing what side to take, I would again reinforce the fact that those of us who had worked in 3903 for a long period of time, and who had experienced these struggles over and over again, should have done a lot more (even though we were burnt out due to the events leading up to the strike vote) to fight against the Bargaining Team's sabotage near the beginning.

    And this has nothing to do with sectarian leftist politics, despite how some of us always put it in those terms, but just a fact of union organizing: the struggle between top-down and bottom-up approaches. My line got it, and most of them would never called themselves "communist" or "anarchist" because they were a bunch of philosophy grad students who, until that moment on that line at Pond Road, saw themselves as apolitical. But we were a small line, and most of the philosophy department was openly right-wing and anti-union, so they were under the attack of angry drivers with barely enough people to hold the gate, and being red-baited by their colleagues. So when they saw that the Bargaining Team acted, and saw them mobilizing the same discourse as the open reactionaries who were attacking them in the department, we spent a lot of time talking about union structure and discussing our demands, and what the role of the BT was, etc., etc. And almost all of them came to see the BT as a conservative force, and took a left position in the line struggle, even though none of them would have (and most of them still won't) identified as a communist/anarchist until that point.


Post a Comment