By Benjamin J. Kapron
Originally written before Apr. 29, 2015
Recently, I realized how fitting my experience of the CUPE 3903 strike was to my semester of Popular Education II. Throughout the semester, I felt we were often talking about stories in an overly positive way that I did not connect with, seeming to suggest, at times, that we have total control over which stories influence us, and that all stories have equal relevance and value when working towards justice. Instead of controlling which stories influence us, I often feel that the stories I connect with have more control over me than I have control over them: I am held to the stories that others tell about me, and to the stories I tell about myself. These are not just personal stories, but stories of my family, my communities, my nation, my society, etc. These stories guide how I see myself, how I act, and how I understand the world. Even when I know that they are just stories, I cannot give them up easily; they are deeply part of me, and, if I wish to change them, it is significant work. That being said, working towards justice is often about changing which stories influence us and others. It is about recognizing the injustices that exist within the stories that define us, our communities, our societies, etc. and working to change the realities of those entities to make them more just, thereby creating new stories. Working towards justice is not about ignoring, neglecting or forgetting the bad stories so that we can feel better with good stories, but struggling through the bad stories to make something better. And while I feel there might be some value to hearing everyone’s stories, I do not believe that we should accept every story: some stories are just not compatible with each other; some stories are violent. I am thinking largely of racist and colonial stories that ignore peoples’ existence or suggest that certain people should not exist. In these cases and many others, I think justice demands that we give up certain stories, in order to bring light to marginalized stories, and move towards new shared stories. Therefore, I believe that dialogue is important, not in order to find harmony between everyone’s stories, but in order to unearth the injustices of our stories, which may be more apparent to others, especially those experiencing the injustice. I believe that the strike was fitting for the course because so many of my issues with how the strike occurred, and particularly how it ended, are these same issues I have regarding stories: how people can get caught up in stories without questioning them, and how stories can perpetuate injustices.
The strike was, in some ways, a conflict between stories: the university’s stories of what we were asking for and what they could give us, and our stories of the same. Within the union, we told our own stories about what we were doing: not just seeking a better deal, but changing the university and challenging the neoliberal agenda. These stories were taken up by the general membership of the union, I believe right from the start of the strike, and were often repeated in conversations on the picket lines. Then, when we were offered the deal that we ultimately accepted, we immediately got stories that “we won”, “the university capitulated”, “we got all of our demands”. What I find significant is how quickly and seemingly unanimously these stories were taken on by the general membership. Very few people seemed to question them: the stories just arose, and people accepted them and retold them. Personally, I am not sure how much I ever agreed with these stories, although I am looking back on the strike as a whole, from my current position, and am unable to trace how my perspective changed throughout the strike.
Perhaps the strike had the potential to build into something that would challenge the neoliberal university, but the actions we took, what we asked for, and what we ultimately agreed to, did little to challenge the status quo or existing power structures. The strike was a different experience than what is typically done at a university, and provided different forms of knowledge and learning, but was more of a starting point for an emancipatory consciousness than a living embodiment of the changes that need to occur in society, a perspective that I did hear on the picket lines. For people who the strike was their first time being involved in organizing and activism, I hope it was a valuable learning experience and that it will encourage them to get involved in other actions and movements. But the strike just wasn’t the ground-breaking thing that a lot of us made it out to be. At one General Membership Meeting (GMM), a union member was speaking in favour of continuing the strike, against the claim that we were asking for too much and had gone too far, and said that being on strike is not an unprecedented action but is what the labour movement does. As I remember it, the comment was met with a lot of support, and yet it goes against the dominant story we kept telling ourselves. It was, however, much more accurate and realistic than the dominant story we kept telling ourselves.
Throughout the strike, I was never very vocal about not believing that the strike was a radical action; partially because I find it difficult, and at times disrespectful, to challenge someone’s opinion, especially when, like me, you are not one to always share your opinion; partially, I thought a lot of people were seeing something meaningful in the strike that I wasn’t: that may still be true. Having had conversations with more people now that the strike has ended, I feel I was not alone in questioning different stories about the strike, with many people having issues with the strike that I never recognized. While the strike was on, however, I often felt alone with my dissent, which I think added to my keeping quiet about it: I did not want to seem like I was not supporting the strike, especially when, at times, people were rather hostile to people who did not support the strike. I was part of that as well; I was pretty harsh with what I thought of people who were not supporting the strike.
I imagine a lot of people did have issues and questions about the strike, but few people wanted to stand out, and therefore, we all kept quiet: the stories we told about the strike were not unanimously accepted, at least by individuals, but collectively we seemingly feigned acceptance of them. To make a connection to a much more serious issue, which is perhaps inappropriate, but it stems from a reading from the Popular Education course, this situation reminds me of Hannah Arendt’s discussion of Germany during the rise of Nazism: while a lot of people strongly disagreed with the Nazi party, a breakdown in social structures meant that people were not talking and were not discussing their dislike for the Nazi party; therefore, a few loud voices supporting the party seemed like unanimous support (Stone-Mediatore, 2003). What was needed then, and in our strike, were spaces for dialogue.
When the strike was on, we never had good spaces for openly discussing it. Or perhaps I was just not in the good spaces―I did have some good conversations with friends, but not many. It would have been difficult to question the strike on the picket lines, running the risk of hostility when everyone there supported the strike to some extent. There is also something to appearing united to passersby and the media. You were probably more likely to face hostility by questioning the strike at the GMMs and, in my opinion, real discussion was impossible there, because of having to follow the Rules of Order. I feel the Rules of Order turn the discussion into people consecutively stating their opinions in isolation, which are met with decontextualized approval or disapproval, the same thing as what Facebook offers―Facebook being our other potential venue for discussion, or possibly Twitter, although I am not on Twitter. Without avenues for discussion, we were left with this one storyline, which we could either agree with or disagree with.
I have been trying to think through what would have actually been different, had we had these avenues for discussion. Me, and most of the people I have heard from who had issues with the strike, while having issues with the strike, did support it. For some of the more vocal groups, such as the 8th Line and the Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour caucus, while they supported the strike, they had other concerns that they did not feel were being addressed; having spaces wherein they could have shared those concerns, and collectively we could have worked to address them, may have actually made the strike stronger. For my own concerns, I think that not being honest about what one is doing can be harmful. I believe that the neoliberal university does need to be challenged and that the status quo needs to be radically altered. While I did not believe that we were meaningfully challenging the system during the strike, when other people used that rhetoric, I hoped that I was just not seeing it. With the outcomes of the strike, and that those outcomes are seen as a “win”, I think it is pretty obvious that we were never meaningfully challenging the system. But now, I am going to be skeptical of the people who used such grandiose language, and may not be eager to work with them in movements when I am not sure how far they are actually going to go. In that way, I think not being honest can be divisive. Moreover, I believe that claiming we are doing more than we are makes light of how much needs to be done to actually make these changes, and potentially belittles the work of people who are truly struggling to change the system: it makes things seem too easy, which I do not believe is helpful if we actually do want change. Having space for open dialogue could have allowed us to be more honest about what we were fighting for in this strike, recognizing the strike is potentially just one action in a larger struggle. At least it may have saved me from a lot of frustration.
I think the lack of dialogue was recognized as a problem when the strike was happening, but it was only discussed as a lack of dialogue between the union executive and the general membership. What bothered me so much about how the strike ended was the lack of dialogue amongst the membership, especially from people who had stepped into leadership roles. From the beginning, many people did not trust that the executive was committed to representing the wishes of the general membership, but I feel this division was especially cemented at the initial strike vote GMM when the executive repeatedly said that after the strike vote results were announced, we would collectively decide on next steps, i.e. striking or some other action. When instead the executive returned with the strike vote results and the announcement that we were going on strike, many people were unhappy, I do not think because they did not want to be on strike, but because they were told that we would collectively decide on next steps, i.e. that there would be dialogue and their voices could be heard, and instead the executive monologued a decision. While I agree with most of the criticisms of the executive, I feel the story that then emerged of a largely united membership and an executive that was unwilling to listen to us, was problematic because it suggested a unanimity in the union that did not exist. And while groups such as the 8th Line and Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour caucus were vocal that they had concerns distinct from the general membership, I believe the general membership thought of them as something along the lines of special interest groups within the general membership, part of us but with some other things they were concerned about. In some ways, this perspective may have helped them, such as how the general membership strongly supported the 8th Line getting paid, at least during the strike, but again, it suggests a unanimity that does not exist.
As often has to happen, even in purportedly non-hierarchical spaces, some members of the general membership took on leadership roles, serving as picket captains and being more vocal at meetings. In a lot of ways, this leadership emerged as an alternative to the executive, addressing many of the issues that people were experiencing with the executive: it is not surprising that so many of them are now running for executive positions, many with the promise that they will do more to listen to the general membership. And some of these leaders did a very good job of at least trying to include the membership in decision-making, instead of dictating decisions to the group. However, the story that we won the strike was not made in dialogue with the general membership, but was announced on Facebook by people who attended the Sunday, March 29th bargaining meeting. This time, the decision was not made and announced by the executive, but by members of this new general membership leadership. In my opinion, the general membership leadership did the same thing that the executive had been criticized for.
I need to note that this was not all of the general membership leadership; I heard strong recognition from some leaders that the way victory was announced was problematic, and I strongly support those individuals, but my trust for other leaders was shaken, and it is impacting how I understand this executive election.
One of the most frustrating parts, for me, was that this declaration of victory came before most members even saw the offer. And I feel that by the time the offer became public, most people were too caught up in celebrating to look at it and decide whether they agreed with it or not: the story that we won was just accepted. Personally, when it was announced that “we won”, I just wanted to see the offer. And when the offer was made public, I looked at it and concluded that the LGBTQ offer was a win, increased summer funding is not the same as mandatory minimum funding and therefore, the Unit 3 demand was a loss, and I was unsure whether the tuition offset really helped international students, so I was undecided on that offer. I seriously questioned whether it was just me being a downer, as I often am, and whether I was just making up excuses to justify why I did not feel excited about the “win”, but to me, it did not look like what we were asking for. What I really wanted was discussion and dialogue: I could have easily been convinced that the offer, although not exactly what we demanded, was the best we could do for the moment, but I also wanted to hear from LGBTQ persons, international students, and Unit 3 members facing financial difficulty, to see whether this offer actually achieved what they needed. Also, similar to people at that first Strike Vote GMM, I just wanted to be part of the decision-making.
I do not think that most of the discussions that I wanted to happen ever happened, or at least I was not part of them. None of the red line demands really affected me, I was largely on strike to support other people, and I still have not heard from those people whether the final offer achieved what they needed it to achieve. Although a Unit 3, I am financially supported by my family, and so am attending York comfortably; I want to hear from people facing more financial difficulties whether the increased summer funding provides them with the additional financial support that they need, or did we need to fight for more? In my mind, paying $20,000 is paying $20,000, even if you are getting a significant amount of that back later on, and so I want to hear from international students and prospective international students, whether the tuition offset actually makes York more accessible, or whether we needed to fight to lower tuition levels, not that we explicitly spoke about that much. The most discussion I heard of this offer was at the final ratification vote GMM when, nearing the end of the meeting, after most votes had been cast, a series of international students began asking questions regarding how the offset would work. Some seemed concerned that it would cut away at other scholarship money, potentially putting them in a worse financial situation. The bargaining team and executive had few answers; it seemed like a “wait and see” situation. At a meeting the week after the strike, I heard discussion of the LGBTQ demand, the one demand I did consider a win, and how because Unit 1 hiring comes out of graduate students, what matters most regarding equity is having equity-seeking persons in graduate school. There is a significant decline in the number of equity-seeking persons in graduate school, even compared to undergraduate, not to mention the systemic issues that work against equity-seeking persons entering post-secondary school altogether. Moreover, because there is no intersectional aspect to equity-hiring processes, the new equity language will likely best support cis white queers, while maintaining more marginalized persons at a disadvantage. Overall, the LGBTQ demand may not have changed much, although I am not sure whether the changes that need to happen can happen in this type of contract negotiation.
Overall, I do not believe that the new contract changed much, although I am unsure whether any of the changes that need to happen can happen in this type of contract negotiation. While we largely framed our strike as about making the university more accessible, I believe that truly making the university more accessible requires a lot of societal change, as well as changes to existing power structures. I imagine some people would say that bonding on the picket line was part of making those societal changes, but given peoples’ experiences on the 8th Line, as well as other people who felt isolated throughout the strike, I am not sure whether the strike did more harm or good overall. Ultimately, our strike was just renegotiating a contract, and once we got a contract we could live with, we settled: it was a labour dispute, not a student strike, and even though some people are trying to build connections to the Quebec student strikes, in my mind, they are very different things. The Quebec student strikes are actions undertaken by the student movement there, to try to push for broader change; we were legally on strike, renegotiating a contract according to labour laws. I do not think I would be so frustrated with how the strike ended if we had just been honest about what the strike was; so much of my frustration comes from people one day talking about taking down the neoliberal university, and the next day, saying “we won” with a contract that changes so little. It makes me question what people were on strike for.
I am also skeptical about whether the results of the final ratification vote accurately reflect how much support there was for the final offer. I voted “no”. I believe I know of someone who voted “yes” although they were not completely happy with the deal, because they expected Unit 1 to pass their deal and did not feel that Unit 3 could be on strike alone. I know of another person who spoiled their ballot for similar reasons: they did not like the deal, but also could not vote against it in case it meant Unit 3 would be the only part of the union still on strike. I may have done the same if I thought the result would be anything other than an outstanding “yes”. Nevertheless, I am not sure if the story that “we won” is as unanimous as it appears.
I believe that most people did support the deal and are happy with it, but I feel that the decision that “we won” was made on Sunday, when it was declared on Facebook, a fair amount of time before the vote. From there, the story that “we won” took off: there was little critical discussion of it, and no real dialogue or discussion to see whether everyone truly agreed with it, or whether it was leaving anyone behind―whether it was maintaining or exacerbating any injustices. The story took on a life of its own, and took control of us. And I do not believe that it is the story we should be telling if we want to create a more just world. If this is a precedent-setting, ground-breaking win, which unsettles the neoliberal university and alters power structures, then how come so little has changed?
I could be wrong on little changing; this is just my perspective. But that’s why we need more discussion.
Stone-Mediatore, Shari. “Chapter 2: The Public Role of Storytelling.” Reading Across Borders: Storytelling and Knowledges of Resistance. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2003. 47-65.