Notes From A Picket Line

Gender Barriers

I began writing this commentary the day after York University's administration derailed bargaining talks and decided to push the Ontario Ministry of Labour for a forced ratification vote. This move came less than 24 hours after 85 per cent of more than 500 contract faculty, research assistants and graduate assistants, all members of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3903, had voted down York administration's latest offer at our general membership meeting.

A teaching assistant for York's world geography course, I walked the picket line from the first week of the strike, and soon thereafter found myself noticing barriers to participation within both the labour dispute resolution process (as highlighted, in the end, by forced ratification) and the local itself, especially with regard to gender. Through an analysis of a few issues that arose during the strike - one nearly all-female picket line, male-dominated participation in general membership meetings, and certain labour that turned invisible - I hope to spark ideas for a discussion. These are my observations and thoughts.

I edited and wrote for the "On the Picket Lines" strike bulletin, which was distributed to members twice a week. With the bulletin, we were trying to get members' perspectives and experiences out across the eight picket lines we had around York's campus. While I was working on a story about one of the lines, it became clear that not only was it a strong one, but, by coincidence, it was also nearly all female. This got me thinking: How did this happen, and how did members on that line feel about it?

Controversy arose a few weeks into the strike when it was recognized that this particular line was comprised of nearly all female members, and when, at the same time, it was widely suggested that drivers with passes - who didn't need to wait for reasons of residency, medical or childcare needs - were entering campus through this picket line in particular, and when it was suggested that this line should function as the accessibility line for members with disabilities.

The line drew members mainly from York's women's studies, psychology, and social work departments. Concerns were raised that the caregiver role traditionally associated with these departments was being reinforced, along gendered lines.

At strike mobilization and membership meetings, and over e-mail listservs, debate ensued about the existence of a female picket line, and how it was being connected to specific, caring (traditionally female) roles. One member admitted to me that while she loved being on this particular picket line, she did worry that "segregating lines by 'types' of departments can limit the debates and types of politicization that happen on those lines."

Another member told me that she had not felt any immediate distress, frustration or devaluation being part of a "gendered" picket line. Moreover, she expressed that she "found the experience (minus the typical complaints about weather and angry, aggressive drivers), to be resoundingly positive."

Several members echoed this sentiment and another member added: "'Gendering' the line is not the only issue. In my perspective, if we want to talk about issues of gender within the union, then we should focus on the broader structural issues. For instance, who feels they have space to speak and who doesn't."

A structural barrier to equitable participation during a strike by 3,300 members is participation in general membership meetings. An important thing to note is that in CUPE Local 3903, distinctly, the membership is the highest level decision-making body of the local. This is in contrast to, for instance, a local where the executive has the final say or the executive, along with other elected
representatives, come together to make decisions. Although I have found the local to be a particularly open space for the expression of different viewpoints and ideas, there remain some problems related to the ways in which our meetings are held.

General membership meetings generally last several hours, involve heated discussion of many urgent and contested issues, and provide only a limited space for some members to participate, or even attend. The length of meetings, and the fact that they take place in the evenings, often make them particularly difficult to attend, much less fully participate in, especially for members with children, members who don't live close by, or those who require interpretation. Although accessibility issues are continually brought up and worked on (and made), these issues continue to persist.

During the general membership strike meetings, I worked with a colleague to tally both women's and men's participation: not just a male-female count of who participated, but also with respect to who asked questions, who spoke over allocated time limits, who presented motions, etc. We found that men generally dominated in the number of comments made at the meetings, and they were also more likely to make a motion, which would then be discussed and subsequently voted on. Indeed, most members, particularly female members, we spoke with on the picket lines identified the general membership meeting structure as a barrier to participation in the strike. For many, the sentiment was that time was limited, and strongly assertive individuals were the ones who got to speak, while those who waited their turn were generally silenced in the process, especially during the periods of time when motions were being put forth.

As part of the communications team, I was not always present on the picket line, and was therefore often rendered invisible as an activist. Actually, members who performed alternative duties, those who had accessibility concerns (such as members with children, members with health issues, disability, etc.), and those coordinating strike duties - for instance, our spokespeople and media team - were a substantial part of the total number of active members during the strike. Still, while we referred to these members as "the ninth line" (in reference to our eight other picket lines), I cannot count the number of times I felt the need to defend myself in response to the question: "Why didn't I see you on the lines today?" The work that I and others did at home or at headquarters wasn't as visible as walking the picket lines. And since this labour was mostly invisible, it was not fully acknowledged and consequently was under-appreciated by the membership, even though it was crucial in the running and coordination of the strike.

And, as it turns out, the vast majority of this invisible labour was done by women. Not including elected positions within the local, the majority of the office and headquarters coordinators, phone-tree (messaging system) coordinators, communications committee members, and food delivery team members, were women.

How could these members be deemed invisible and yet be expected to actively engage and participate at the same time?

York University appealed to the Ontario Ministry of Labour for a forced ratification vote on January 19-20, 2009, undermining the collective bargaining process, and the union's processes more generally.

CUPE Local 3903 has three units, but, during the week of the forced ratification vote, we saw only our own unit's contract, which kept us ignorant of the offers to the other units. This was an example of how the forced ratification process imposed by the employer attempted to break down union solidarity, by not only circumventing the recommendations of our union's elected bargaining team, but also by separating members from the collective and putting them in the voting booth as individuals, one-on-one with the employer. Forced ratification cut off our vote
from all our efforts at building participatory democracy: from the 10 weeks of struggle, from our participation in meetings over an even longer period, from the work we'd done to build, shape and shift the priorities of the union - basically, the larger participatory processes that union participation is meant to facilitate. There was nothing participatory or democratic about it.

Another example of barriers to participation was the decision by York (and the Ministry of Labour) to hold the vote at a hotel that was not accessible to all our members, since the nearest subway station lacked an elevator. This oversight undermined our union's struggle to address accessibility issues. It took a letter from our union's lawyer to get the employer to commit to providing an accessible shuttle.

Our membership had worked hard at establishing democratic union processes, such as consulting with members to determine bargaining priorities, meeting to discuss questions, making information accessible to our members, electing a bargaining team to bargain on behalf of the members, and engaging in participatory processes to address accessibility concerns. By ignoring these processes, the forced ratification vote was, in effect, the largest silencing of participation in the strike. It bypassed all our democratic, participatory processes (whatever problems they may have had), decisions and debates. It was an imposed barrier to participation, and to participatory processes more generally.

After 10 weeks on strike, I felt the clash between York's workers and management had become a struggle over process as much as a struggle over our more specific demands for better working conditions, more accessible and affordable education, and job security for contract faculty.

I believe there exists room for, and the means of, improvement within our local, whether it be with regard to gendered barriers to participation internally, or other concerns. We can make changes for the better by addressing, on a regular basis, how the union can continue to better facilitate the participation of all members. Forced ratification, however, is another matter, embodying, as it does, a complete lack of equitable participation or process.

For me, this experience brings to light the need for a serious re-thinking of labour dispute resolution strategies, as well as of related legislative processes.

As many know by now, after our local rejected the forced ratification offer, the provincial government enacted back-to-work legislation. We went back to work without a new contract on February 2, 2009, after being on strike for a record 85 days. As I write this, the arbitration process is continuing. Meanwhile, the repercussions of this controversial legislation will be felt for a long time.

Vanessa Lamb is in the doctoral program in geography at York University, in Toronto, where she focusses on social movements, the environment, and development. She is a teaching assistant for York's world geography course, and a member of CUPE Local 3903.