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Demanding the Impossible and Being Realistic: analysis of 2008-2009 CUPE 3903 strike [part 3]

This is the next part of an analysis of the Canadian Union of Public Employees [CUPE] local 3903 strike in 2008-2009.  The first part can be found here and the second part can be found here.  Although I am mainly posting this because CUPE 3903 is about to enter its next round of bargaining, and I know that my readership outside of Toronto (and maybe some within Toronto) may not be interested in the strike of a single local, as I noted before, I think the analysis is important because it examines how political line struggle manifests within unions, the limits of trade union consciousness, how to understand right and left lines in these contexts.

Anyhow, after the following section there will be only one more concluding post in this series and I can get back to ranting about other things that my readership as a whole will find more interesting.

(Again: apologies for the format.  In the first post of this series I tried to fix the formatting to resemble my usual posts and it took hours and still looked messy.  So, as with the second, I'm just going to leave this to resemble how blogspot translated it from Word.  But I have to say: blogspot's posting engine is unbelievably glitch-prone.)

3:  Coherence of the two-line struggle
In the second GMM following the strike the emerging two-line struggle became coherent.  Since events in the first strike GMM prefigured the clash that would manifest in the second, it is worth describing them in brief detail before proceeding to the analysis of the second GMM and its influence on line struggle.
            At the first strike GMM the membership passed a motion that would prevent the BT from lowering its demands without the permission of the general membership.  Although it was explained that this motion would empower them against the employer––that it would give them breathing space, the ability to not make split-second decisions they would regret later––the BT complained that it hampered their “flexibility”.  A small faction of members who wanted the strike to end as quickly as possible complained that the Strike Committee (the former Stewards Council where active rank-and-file members primarily organized during the strike) was “tying the hands” of the Chief Negotiator.  At two points in this meeting one of the Chief Stewards was shouted down by this faction, jeered at when he tried to lead the room in a picket line song to promote solidarity.  The Chief Steward, along with other members of the Executive and membership at large, complained that these interruptions were yet another manifestation of racism (he was a person of colour who, unlike other people who had spoken, was interrupted by a group of angry white men), and the membership agreed in the minutes by issuing an apology.[1] 
            It was perhaps the shaming resulting from the racist disruption that led to the passing of the motion, at the following GMM, that supposedly prevented BT flexibility.  The first GMM of the strike ended in an antagonistic manner where members yelled at one another, almost ended up in fist fights, and those responsible for the racist disruption exited feeling that they had been unfairly shamed.
            Following this GMM, the Bargaining Team, and those members who felt that “the race card” had been played to push through the motion that held the BT accountable to the membership actively organized.  BT members went to every picket line to speak with rank-and-file members about “flexibility” and how the Bargaining Team needed the “trust” of the rank-and-file so that they could bargain without impediments.  Claiming they had been victimized by the first strike GMM, they actively campaigned for a bureaucratic and top-down style of bargaining where they would not be forced to get the General Membership’s approval for changes made during bargaining.  Their argument was that bargaining was a process where the BT needed to be empowered to make split-second decisions. 
            Thus, the Bargaining Team actively embraced what Hisila Yami has characterized as a “right opportunist line… [that] creeps into the movement when in the name of creativity, flexibility, tactical maneuver one forgets [the] overall, long term and strategic goal.  This results in pragmatism… The ultimate result will be abandoning class struggle for reformist result[s].”[2]  Their political line can therefore be characterized as bureaucratic-right (which ultimately means the same thing as “right opportunist”) in that their argument for flexibility was, as I shall examine below, dependent on the abandonment of authentic rank-and-file participation, or a mass-line.  Moreover, by arguing for flexibility, the BT echoed the logic of the employer who wanted the strike to end immediately with minimum cost.  Due to the fact that the employer is in an antagonistic relationship with its workers, it wants the BT that represents these workers to flex around the rank-and-file as often as possible.
            When the membership gathered for the second GMM during the strike, the two emerging political lines starkly manifested and the bureaucratic-right line left this GMM victorious.  The Bargaining Team had been able to mobilize the frustration and exhaustion of the membership whereas the defensive Executive, overworked and demobilized since the recall mentioned above, had failed to provide a counter-radicalization.  There were also mistakes and moments of arrogance that, though emerging from exhaustion and defensiveness, were in unhelpful in combatting the bureaucratic-right position.
            Although the Executive had prepared an agenda that would debate the merits of membership-driven bargaining, and explain their reasons for holding the Bargaining Team to account, the BT-mobilized membership voted to change the agenda so that this discussion would be removed and the Bargaining Team could drive the meeting.
            Numerous members complained that the strike was not as “fun” as they had expected (as if strikes should be parties and not labour disruptions) because of the cold temperature and the angry people crossing the picket lines.  Others once again used “equity” arguments to complain that meetings were too long.  Still others used the employer’s argument of the economic recession, claiming that we needed to be “realistic” in these trying economic times.  Many Bargaining Team members spoke of how being held to account was insulting and a lack of trust in their labour, and two even cried.  Those BT members who spoke against the rest of the Bargaining Team, arguing for membership accountability, were dismissed as a minority faction.  Despite the attempts of Executive members to explain that the issue was not about trust but about the structure of bargaining, the fact that the BT had mobilized the frustration and exhaustion of the membership allowed the bureaucratic-right line to emerge victorious from this GMM.
            It was during this important GMM that several motions were passed that would determine the internal dynamics of the union local.  One of these motions gave the Bargaining Team complete flexibility to lower or drop demands.[3]  Another, tendered with the argument of “accessibility”, limited the time of General Membership Meetings to three hours.  The former cemented a top-down approach to bargaining.  The latter, in the name of equity, bureaucratized the GMM space by preventing it from being a vehicle for critical dialogue: members’ comments would be limited to a minute, two for and two against would be chosen for every motion, and general debate––which always fosters critical understanding and potential radicalization––was rejected for the pragmatism of schedule.  Thus, the left-progressive line, that would continue to argue for more membership participation, was unable to develop a mass-line since the largest membership body had been transformed into a primarily motion-passing space.
            Every successive GMM was defined by bureaucracy and led by a Bargaining Team that had taken power by casting itself as the victim of union militants.  Numerous open letters, characterized by red-baiting complaints of union militancy, were circulated on a variety of union listserves.  Reactionary members who had been against the strike from the very first day were mobilized by these letters, attended GMMs, and voted for anything that would end the strike––often speaking in support of the Bargaining Team.
            Moreover, the ultra-left factions and individuals in the union, many of whom had been active in the recall, revealed the meaning of their politics by speaking in favour of BT flexibility.  Although these members would not defend their position with bureaucratic-style arguments, they supported the same political approach with appeals to equity, accessibility, and a supposed silencing of their minority voices.  Even though the members who supported bottom-up, mass-line bargaining were the ones who were truly silenced––shouted down at meetings, muzzled by agenda changes––they were suddenly cast as the silencers who were “masculinist,” unequitable, and above all “vanguardist.”  The irony that the BT was acting according the straw-man definition of “vanguardism” often used by the ultra-left (that they were now in a position to make decisions above the General Membership with utter flexibility) was ignored.
            Here I should be clear that by ultra-left I do not necessarily mean anarchist which is often a synonym for this slur.  What I have characterized as the left-progessive line was supported by many self-defined anarchists just as the bureaucratic-right line was supported by many self-proclaimed communists.  By ultra-left I am referring to those individuals who consider themselves more left than anyone else and who effectively “wave the red flag to bring down the red flag.”  As William Hinton wrote in his analysis of the student struggles during China’s Cultural Revolution:
People find it hard to identify counter-revolution when it comes in “left” clothing… they tend to assume that… the reddest flag is, ipso facto, the most revolutionary.  If revolutionary politics were that simple no one would need to study… Ultra-left politics are disastrous because they isolate the working class and make it impossible for working-class leaders to unite all forces that can be united against the main enemy.[4]

            Furthermore, other individuals belonging to this disparate group of ultra-leftists used left rhetoric to justify their actions, and promoted disunity rather than solidarity which contributed to the bureaucratic-right line’s ability to provide pragmatic order and appear more sober than the “crazy militants.”  One more left than thou group, for example, decided to form an alternative union Flying Squad because they believed that the actual Flying Squad was not radical enough.  Rather than participating with the original Flying Squad, despite repeated invitations, they scheduled contradictory and conflicting actions and spread rumours about the mainstream Flying Squad while it was just becoming active.  One individual even castigated a member of the union Executive for not being “left enough” and, after claiming to know what was “truly radical,” physically assaulted this Executive member.  Another, claiming to understand equity politics better than anyone else in the union, sent numerous and private emails aimed at harassing active and overworked union members.
            As aforementioned, we can judge someone’s politics not only by her actions but by what politics these actions call into being.  The union’s ultra-left, like the ultra-left in numerous historical struggles, by-and-large suported the bureaucratic-right line.  Many of them signed the recall petition mentioned above, thus uncritically identifying themselves with some of the most conservative elements of the membership.  One group of ultra-leftists even signed the “race card” letter, thus utilizing a traditional and reactionary discourse but disguising it in nice left-sounding rhetoric.
            Therefore, despite the participation of the ultra-left in the local’s internal dynamics, it was still a two-line struggle between the progressive and bureaucratic lines.  Lacking a coherent political line themselves, the ultra-left vacillated between the two predominant positions but ultimately backed the right either with their votes or their fractitious actions that resulted in anti-solidarity or caused more activist exhaustion.
[to be concluded...]

[1] see CUPE 3903 GMM Minutes 2008-2009.
[2] Hisila Yami, People's War and Women's Liberation, 104-105.
[3] see CUPE 3903 GMM Minutes 2008-2009.
[4] Hinton, Hundred Day War, 7-8.


  1. The saga continues... I'm looking forward to the concluding piece. I also want to hear more about this second flying squad - Maybe I will talk to you about it the next time I see you.

  2. I forgot all about the "second flying squad" until I reread this part of my old essay... It didn't last long enough to do anything but be divisive.

  3. I think you're talking about the folks who went to Osgoode classes then me and AH would get bombarded with questions from JG because of chatter on social networks?

  4. No, it was something more specific but I'm not going to name names. These people actually used the term "flying squad" when they wanted to start their own initiative but, at the same time, refused to do work with the actual flying squad.


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