The Globe and Mail, 2 February 2009

On the CUPE 3903 Strike

Picket Lines Mean Don’t Cross!

On 8 April, Fightback, Canadian section of the International Marxist Tendency, held a public forum to discuss the recent 85-day strike at Toronto’s York University by education workers organized by Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3903. One of the panelists was Tyler Shipley, the local’s chief spokesperson. The other speaker was Alex Grant, editor of Fightback magazine and former president of CUPE 2278, which successfully defied back-to-work legislation during a teaching assistants’ strike at the University of British Columbia in 2003.

When the Ontario government legislated an end to CUPE 3903’s strike, the local leadership decided to fold rather than defy the authorities. Despite the rhetorical militancy and leftist politics of some of the union’s leaders, the CUPE 3903 executive pursued a timid, legalistic strategy from the beginning. Rather than seeking to shut down the campus, they instructed pickets to merely delay cars attempting to cross the lines for two minutes.

During the discussion period, an International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) supporter who had been on the picket line commented:

“I’d like to talk about why the strike was defeated. I agree with some of what Alex was saying about context—inter-union solidarity is certainly important.

“The most immediate cause of the strike’s defeat was capitalist state repression: the back-to-work legislation. But the impact of ‘external’ factors (if you want to call them that) is always conditioned by ‘internal’ weaknesses; and it is important to be frank and even blunt about that.

“The most serious weakness was the union leadership’s collective opposition to conducting an ‘illegal’ strike. That was evident not just in the refusal to even consider defying the back-to-work legislation but also, and from the very beginning of the strike, in the refusal to put up real picket lines—‘don’t cross’ picket lines.

“Classes may have been cancelled [by the administration], but we had the power to make sure that no one got into the university, that no business whatsoever was conducted on campus. That would have significantly increased pressure on the university administration and sent a clear signal that we were playing hard ball.

“It wasn’t just supporters of my group— I’m with the International Bolshevik Tendency—who were advocating that; others on the picket line were also arguing to turn them into real picket lines.

“Now, maybe we still would have lost. We’ll never know, because we never went beyond what were essentially ‘informational’ pickets. And that was because of this fear of angering ‘the public,’ the employer, the cops and the courts.

“The result was that the strike was dragged out and much of the rank and file grew tired and even demoralized. This played into the hands of the more conservative and backward elements in the union. The picket lines went from ineffective to non-existent.

“If you’re going to strike to win, you don’t begin by asking what is acceptable to the bosses, but by asking what is necessary to achieve victory for our side. I think that is one of the most important lessons to take away from this experience.”

Grant replied that the proposal to completely shut down the worksite “misses the point,” as classes had been cancelled and the strike lasted almost three months despite the “informational” picket strategy. He praised the idea of militant strike tactics, including workplace occupations, but suggested that these are more suited to traditional industrial settings than a university. Noting that union members must be prepared politically before any “illegal” strike activity is undertaken, he ridiculed the idea that the pickets should have attempted to shut down the campus as “ultra-left phraseology.”

A second IBT supporter who had actively participated on the picket lines noted that this was the longest university strike in English-Canadian history. He agreed with Grant that this reflected the resolve of union members, but rejected his claim that the “informational” picket lines were sufficient to prevent classes from being held. The university administration had suspended classes as soon as the strike vote was taken in order to avoid the chaos that ensued in 2000-01, when the employer tried to hold scab classes behind lines of CUPE 3903 teaching assistants and contract faculty. This time, after a few weeks of porous picket lines, the administration began to restart classes in late November, beginning with international students at the business school. Next, the law school reopened, then all business school undergraduates were invited to return along with nursing and other faculties.

Our comrade pointed out that the weak picket lines allowed the employer to conduct other “business as usual” with relatively little interruption. The administration’s strategy was to wait the union out, anticipating that the strikers would become demoralized—as many eventually did near the end—and then, if necessary, seek back-to-work legislation. A more serious picket line strategy might not have guaranteed victory, but shutting down the campus would have put a great deal more pressure on the employer to settle quickly, which would have tended to favor the union.

Fightback claims to be a “Marxist” organization, but it shrank from advocating elementary class-struggle tactics in order to avoid criticizing the dead-end, legalistic strategy pursued by CUPE 3903’s leadership. Despite Fightback’s occasional “revolutionary” flourishes and references to Leon Trotsky’s Transitional Program, its deeply opportunist political character is evident.



The CUPE 3903 strike was also the subject of a 20 February letter an IBT supporter addressed to the Trotskyist League, Canadian affiliate of the Spartacist League/U.S.:

On 7 February, I attended the Trotskyist League (TL) forum in Toronto on “The Bankruptcy of Capitalism.” Following the presentation, discussion naturally turned to the political implications of the sharpening of class struggle as the capitalists try to saddle working people with the costs of the current economic crisis.

A supporter of the Spartacus Youth Club (SYC) pointed to the importance of the recent 12-week strike of education workers at York University who are organized in Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3903. Certainly the ruling class considered it to be significant: “there are concerns that the strike is just the beginning of more labour strife to come at universities and public elementary schools in Ontario” (Globe and Mail, 2 February).

Yet your recognition of the importance of backing CUPE 3903 appears somewhat belated, coming as it did only after the strike was broken by government back-to-work legislation. To my knowledge, no TL/SYC supporters were ever spotted on the picket line during the strike. We certainly never saw any of you there. You also missed every CUPE 3903 solidarity rally during the strike. [One of the] last of these took place on Sunday 25 January, when Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals were introducing their strike-breaking Bill 145. Hundreds of union members and other militants (including supporters of various left groups) braved the cold outside the legislature to protest this outrage. Yet no one from the TL/SYC participated. You did manage, however, to spare two of your comrades for a Socialist Project meeting on “Working Class Fightback” which took place at the same time a couple of kilometres away.

As I pointed out at your forum, given your inactivity during the strike, it was a bit much to hear you talk about the importance of supporting it weeks after it was all over. I suggest that next time you decide to take a pass on such a struggle, if you cannot muster the humility and honesty to openly acknowledge your mistake, you should at least try to refrain from giving the impression that you were among those who offered active support.

While the TL has not formally replied to our letter, its supporters have verbally advised us that their failure to participate in, or offer any active support to, this important three-month strike on a campus where they have conducted political activities for many years was a matter of “priorities.” This is true enough, as throughout the struggle TLers continued to staff literature tables at the University of Toronto and attend various small leftist events. The failure to actively back CUPE 3903 while the strike was actually taking place contrasts sharply with their hypothetical support after the fact.

Posted: 13 April 2009