The strike at York University is now the longest running university strike in Canadian history. Of course, not all of us are ‘on strike’. The contract faculty, teaching assistants and graduate assistants who are members of the strong and militant local 3903 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE3903) voted to go on strike in early March. As a result, many tenured faculty, including myself, suspended classes, and many students refused to cross the picket lines.
At a university celebrated for its progressive students and faculty, this social unionist local sees the union as part of a broader struggle for social justice. Beyond wages and benefits, they hoped to fund a sexual assault survivor centre, breastfeeding facilities, various equity initiatives, and significantly, to maintain or increase the number of contract faculty ‘converted’ to tenure stream. Five months in, little has been achieved, – and the campus remains in suspended animation – awaiting week 8 of the winter term, but simultaneously in the midst of an epic battle.
This summer, I was supposed to teach a graduate level course in social movement theory. Most of my students are on strike; class is cancelled. So I visit the shrinking picket lines, walk in circles and attend yet another meeting. I know only a fragment of what the strikers know. Still, I ask myself, how does social movement theory help? What questions does it ask? What concepts are useful, and where does it fall short?
Can it help understand what is happening? Or how to win, (or even to survive) when an employer refuses to come to the table? The management-side lawyer argued that CUPE3903 wasn’t engaging in ‘proper bargaining’, because of its processes that emphasized openness, solidarity and accountability. As a result, the university has only bargained for one day since the strike began. It is virtually a lock-out. Before the strike even began, a savvy, and progressive staff member suggested to me – “they are going to wait them out. They will twist in the wind all summer. They are trying to break that union.”
What do we do with such an observation? It suggests that the university is betting on its superior resources. The classic social movement theory piece, “Resource Mobilization: A Partial Theory” by McCarthy and Zald (1977) might support that bet. It points out that in some ways, movement organizations are like other groups – they need people, money, skills, technologies and networks. But CUPE 3903 had the needed strike fund. They had the skilled staff and leadership, they had the members – although fewer than last time, because the university had removed 800 graduate students from the union by offering them fellowships. However, and most importantly, CUPE3903 was able to draw on a wide array of longstanding relationships with other communities, social justice groups and unions. The Ontario Federation of Labour held days of action, as has CUPE National and CUPE Ontario. Other unions have shown up on the picket line in solidarity, framing this as a strike against precarious work, against the public sector and against unions more generally. The transit workers union facilitated the picket lines, moving their bus routes. Framed as a broader attack on public sector workers, many of these unions and others made financial donations. Community organizations like Jane Finch Action Against Poverty and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty brought food, and solidarity support to the lines.
These relational resources had other effects. Effects that Marshall Ganz, ex-union organizer and theorist would recognize. Ganz (2000) had critiqued the Resource Mobilization theory for overemphasizing material resources, instead showing how groups with smaller resources, but more diverse networks have more ‘strategic capacity’, which can help them to win. This work had helped to trigger a deeper analysis of strategy within the field. What strategy should the union have used? William Gamson’s classic Strategy of Social Protest suggests that that groups that are both able to disrupt, and able maintain cohesion, are particularly likely to be successful. CUPE 3903 is more definitely disruptive than many unions. They are also innovative, an asset, according to the findings of Doug McAdam. He found that innovation keeps the opponent off balance, and the energy and attention high. 3903 incorporated influences from social movements versed in anti-oppression politics, cultural resistance, and anarchist, direct action politics, pushing beyond the strike repertoire. This innovativeness illustrated their ‘strategic capacity’, CUPE3903 sent delegations to the offices of Boards of Governors, picketed outside the home of the university president, performed theatre using the Handmaids Tale authoritarian imagery, made various forms of propaganda and cultural work and dug a community garden (Big Gay Garden! CUPE wants to Bargain!).
These tactics gave energy and hope to the union, and drew public attention to the strike in the first few months. However, Gamson’s other warning rang true. Successful organizations are those which can maintain solidarity within their group. This was a challenge. In the 2015 strike, splits occurred between the Unit 1 and Unit 3 members, who are mostly students, and the unit 2 members, the contract faculty. Francesca Polletta’s work that ties identity to strategy is useful here. Within the union, there were militants and moderates; socialists and anarchists; business unionists and social unionists; those who saw themselves as workers and those who saw themselves as scholars. There were dynamics around race, class, gender, sexuality and disability. There were the social scientists and the rest. There were new members on their first strike and the jaded veterans of many strikes. As time passed, some of the boundaries between these different identities hardened. The influence of different categories ebbed and rose as the active members kept at it, attempting to build and strengthen relationships with undergraduates, other unions, and other faculty, meanwhile, the less active became increasingly pessimistic.
To build and maintain a shared identity, the Executive, the membership and the bargaining team used open bargaining, social events, general members meetings and attractive swag. They brought food to the picket lines, and shared hopeful stories on social media. This all worked to develop a shared story of the strike, the union, the university and the larger struggle for public sector institutions. As Eric Selbin (2010) notes, such storytelling is crucial to movement capacity. Drawing on the research of Jane McAlevey (2016), they engaged in open bargaining partly in order to build trust in the union, and simultaneously put pressure on the employer to settle. However the university refused to bargain once the strike began, and the long wait exacerbated struggles for power. The distinct relationships that each unit had with the Employer and each other began to assert themselves. Last month, after a dramatic series of procedural irregularities and secret meetings, the contract faculty voted to accept government arbitration. Soon, the government will likely legislate the other units back to work.
What seems particularly useful to understand the strike, is the extent to which the context matters. Questions of identity, strategy and solidarity are crucial but the concepts of political opportunity helps to consider why this strike was so challenging. Sidney Tarrow (1998), with Charles Tilly (2006), David Meyer and others point at what is sometimes called, “political opportunities”, the “consistent but not necessarily formal, permanent, or national signals to social or political actors which either encourage or discourage them to use their internal resources to form social movements” (Tarrow 1996: 54). Indeed, this is where relying on the lessons learned from past strikes hits some difficulty. When such structures are “open”, they offer opportunities for social movements who can play authorities against one another, increasing the likelihood of a successful challenge from below. The two relevant regimes here were the university administration, and the provincial government. The university administration was uninterested in bargaining with CUPE3903. In 2018, the university administration centralized power in the Board of Governors and the President’s office – limiting movement and potential pressure points. The administration was clearly minimizing the leverage of the union. Indeed, it argued that the union was overly militant and not a ‘real’ union to the provincially-appointed industrial inquiry.
In contrast, on the eve of an election, the provincial government itself was in flux and vulnerable. In the first few months of the strike, the union was able to stop the Liberal government from legislating them back to work. They were able to use the competition between the Liberals and the NDP for the votes of liberals and leftists to avoid being legislated back until the Parliament closed. But university workers are not seen as easy pickings for a right wing government. After the Province elected a Conservative majority, back to work legislation appears inevitable.
To overcome the stubbornness of the university administration and use the openness of the provincial election, the union tried to mobilize its networks. Although the undergraduates were divided about the strike, the union built alliances with sympathetic undergraduate students, who refused to cross picket lines, argued with their counterparts on social media and most dramatically, reclaimed the Senate Chambers for months under the #ReclaimYork hashtag. In the Senate Chamber they held town halls, and teach-ins. These students had their own demands – pressuring the university for a tuition rebate. Other student organizations joined in, seeking the legitimacy and voice that the #Reclaimers achieved, joined in and the York Federation of Students, representing over 50,000 undergraduates declared ‘non confidence’ in the senior administration.
CUPE 3903 also drew on their relationships with tenured faculty, partly through its union, the York University Faculty Association. Even before the strike began, department after department in the social sciences and humanities released statements suspending classes. While the university refused to accept these statements as policy, a high proportion of faculty succeeded in arguing that they could not, in such a context, offer classes with academic integrity. Although most of the teaching in the university is done by those on strike, students have the right not to cross the picket lines without penalty. Sympathetic tenured faculty tried to get the Senate to suspend all classes, as had occurred in previous strikes, but failed because of the centralization discussed earlier. The faculties representing the majority of the departments in the university voted ‘non-confidence’ in the President and the head of the Board of Governors. Many faculty showed up to the picket line, departments held fundraisers, ‘picket parties’ and raised money for the occupying undergraduate students and for the union’s hardship fund.
Despite this solidarity – the university knew that the longer the strike went on, the divisions between units would increase. They exacerbated these tensions by undercutting the union leadership as unreasonable, and by suggesting that if Unit 2 settled, they would get more work. Playing the long game, the university had the resources to win the fight. The union used its past knowledge to anticipate the Employer’s next move. Normally, when such strikes begin to cut into numbers of enrollment, tuition dollars and reputation, the university would move to end the disruption. Not this time. Even if it wounded itself, a multi-million dollar institution would survive. It seemed as if those in charge believed that it was worth sacrificing all these resources in the short term, if it succeeded in crushing the union. If it did that, the next strike would not occur, and the university would rebuild. Those in charge bet that collective memory is short.
The social movement literature I would have taught this summer can help to understand many of the pieces of this mobilization – how identity and strategy were constructed and challenged; how resources played out; and why the structure of the university matters, and how it interacted with the election dynamics. There are other smaller questions that more research could help with – how the length of the strike mattered? How the timing affected strategy and identity, and how recent movements around anti-Black racism, gender, immigration and international struggles that members were familiar with influenced the strike. I also would love clearer insight into how temporal dynamics played out in these relational dynamics, how the new subway line weakened the power of the picket lines, and how social media affected the involvement of undergraduates, faculty and members. These questions could be explored. Social movement theory can help. But we need to build on and go beyond social movement theory to figure out what could have been different. How the union might have won, and how it could win next time. How the economic moment mattered. How power can be understood; how culture operates; of interaction, and of emotion. We know so little, and that, my friends is a collective project I want to be part of.
Lesley Wood, York University, July 14, 2018
Gamson, William. 1975. The Strategy of Social Protest. Dorsey Press
Ganz, Marshall. 2000. “Resources and Resourcefulness: Strategic Capacity in the Unionization of California Agriculture, 1959-1966.” American Journal of Sociology Vol. 105, No. 4 (Jan., 2000), pp. 1003-1062
McAdam, Doug. 1977. “Tactical Innovation and the Pace of Insurgency,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 48, No. 6 (Dec., 1983), pp. 735-754
McAlevey, Jane 2016. NO SHORTCUTS: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age. Oxford University Press.
McCarthy, John D. and Mayer N, Zald. 1977. Resource Mobilization and Social Movements: A Partial Theory. American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 82, No. 6 (May, 1977), pp. 1212-1241
Meyer, D. 2004. “Protest and Political Opportunities”. Annual Review of Sociology 30: 125–45
Polletta, Francesca. 2002. Freedom is an Endless Meeting. University of Chicago Press
Selbin, Eric. 2010. Revolution, Rebellion, Resistance: The Power of Story. University of Chicago Press
Tarrow, Sidney (1998 ). Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Tilly, C., and S. Tarrow (2006). Contentious Politics. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.