The Emperor Wore Jorts: An Autopsy of the CUPE 3903 2018 Strike from the Perspective of a Disabled Union Member

Image description: Geese blocking traffic as though they are a picket line
Image description: Geese blocking traffic as though they are a picket line

The CUPE 3903 York University strike is not a topic on which I am an expert. I was an active local member throughout the strike that lasted from March 5- July 25 2018. It was a surreal experience not least of all because no one expected the strike to go on that long and yet the fact that we hold the record for longest post-secondary strike in Canada happened with almost no external notice. I myself was in Ireland attending a Summer Law Institute the day we broke the record. My return to Canada in late June was a return to the picket line that I had left.

Image description: Me in Ireland My hair is also on vacation and is trying to get to know my glasses better by being shoved forward in a blond triangle
Image description: Me in Ireland My hair is also on vacation and is trying to get to know my glasses better by being shoved forward in a blond triangle

This is not going to be an in depth autopsy of the strike but rather the recollections of a single member who was keen to actively participate but who like many rank and file members of the local were isolated from those making decisions which often led to a distorted understanding of what was going on at any given time. Even in hindsight, I can’t put all of the pieces together on how we could achieve a moment in Canadian history (that admittedly no one but us cares about) considering all of the incompetence that has been revealed since the strike ended. I can’t help but believe that the local executive’s incompetence and  unwillingness to reconsider tactics is precisely why the strike dragged on as long as it did while we union members have few if any gains to show for our months of picketing.

From an individual standpoint, the strike is best understood through the rumours that ran through the picket lines and how we all got hyped up on small political wins we didn’t really understand. There is no single individual who can be blamed for the disastrous outcome of the 2018 CUPE 3903 York University Strike. I think it can be said however, that our local chairperson was the emperor with no clothes and yet he was treated as though he was draped in Armani (he has since been accused of sexual misconduct. Both the local and CUPE National are subject to HRTO complaints).

I showed up to picket on the first Monday of the strike. That first week I lasted three days before my body rebelled. Three days a week of picketing was the maximum my body could handle. I was already trying with little success to get what were called 8th line accommodations (there were 7 physical picket lines on campus). The union local equity officer didn’t think my doctors note was specific enough. After a strongly worded response explaining how medical notes are secret codes that mean more than what they say, my accommodations were approved.

I was sent a nonsensical quiz to see what 8th line work I’d be interested in. Nothing made it clear what kind of work you would be doing. My first job assignment that I turned town in a genuine panic was a managerial position. I can’t even remember for what anymore. I just knew I should not be overseeing people in such a chaotic situation.

At the time I just thought it was just people getting their bearings at the beginning of the strike but things never improved. Weird things started happening like a member of the local executive unilaterally decided to hire the graduate/faculty café to provide food for the strikers at an astonishing cost of about $10,000/week. The food was frequently inedible.

Image description: My smiling wearing a blue hat ,sweater and sunglasses/ I'm smiling while cuddling a husky. Strike dogs made the strike more bearable
Image description: My smiling wearing a blue hat ,sweater and sunglasses/ I’m smiling while cuddling a husky. Strike dogs made the strike more bearable

This wasn’t a day one decision. For a while the Sikh Temple provided our meals. It was a lovely arrangement of solidarity. It is also understandable that they could not reasonably be expected to keep feeding us for five months. The $10,000/week alternative was definitely bad though.

As for my 8th line accommodation, I briefly ran the CUPE 3903 Strike blog. An endeavor I created myself because of my discomfort with the way the communications team seemed to have no policies for content or quality control. They asked people to use their own social media accounts. There was no cohesive message. Embarrassing gaffes were made. At least with my little strike blog, I could keep things to union releases only and feel relatively confident that I wasn’t accidentally undermining the strike.

I was a passionate union member. For the first half of the strike I don’t think I forfeited a single picketing hour. Eventually the hits start getting to you or the wins turn out not to be the wind you thought they were.

We had the misfortune of going on strike during a provincial election. This fact alone is a big reason the strike lasted as long as it did. Initially the outgoing premier said she would not be legislating us back to work but as the election loomed large, one of her last acts in provincial parliament was to try to legislate us back so that we would not be on strike throughout the campaign season. Through a technicality I don’t understand where the New Democrats blocked the move, we were not legislated back to work. However, due to both the union’s and employers bargaining styles (employer says no, union has no actual functional strategy, just my personal theory) the fact that the strike would last through the election was almost assured.

Image Description: My epic strike fashion of a hat, sunglasses, plaid shirt and khaki pants and for some reason Christmas themed painted nails
Image Description: My epic strike fashion of a hat, sunglasses, plaid shirt and khaki pants and for some reason Christmas themed painted nails

In Ontario, the employer can bypass membership once to force a vote on a contract. We called it the Rat Vote and we defeated it handily. Both the Rat and Wynn failing to legislate us back felt like wins at the time. It felt like we were truly denouncing the employers offensive offer but these things really just delayed the end of the strike further. The longevity of the strike created cracks within the membership that had been simmering. Conspiracy theories flew fast and furious. Actual conversations were had round what kind of Marxists the various cliques were and if they were the “evil” kind of Marxists (there may have been rumours of a Maoist cult).

The labour movement might be based on Marxist ideals but I’m pretty sure you can plan and execute a strike without even knowing that there is more than one school of Marxism. The real issue of the longevity of the strike is that from a bargaining standpoint we were stuck and from a financial standpoint we were broke (that whole $10,000/week for good thing was a really bad idea). The union had made a number of financial missteps but the election wasn’t over so neither was the strike.

The strike dragging on this long had pretty obvious consequences. We lost a lot of the early vocal support and strike fatigue made it hard to get people to even show up to the picket lines. The decision was made to consolidate the existing seven picketing locations to two. One of the immediate results of that was the unintentional culling of several more local members from regular picketing because they couldn’t navigate the new social dynamics created by picketing with different people after months and for half those people doing it in a different place.

Picketing locations had originally been organized by academic program, so all the critical disability studies students (many of whom are disabled) who did not do permanent 8th line work had spent the first portion of the strike with the same people who had adapted our picketing strategy and space around accessibility. While we were lucky to bring our merry band of chaotic accessibility with us, not everyone at the new location was as committed to making sure the disabled members of the local got to participate in picketing.

One of the earliest accommodations for disabled picketers who were actually walking the line was the provision of chairs. Each picket line was provided with chairs but they were largely an accommodation for disabled members. I got in a confrontation about my right to sit down with a man who had been monopolizing a chair. He questioned my disability status. He questioned the disability status of the other people sitting in chairs (can confirm I knew them all to be disabled). He, ultimately, let me have the chair but he felt he had been wronged. He was eventually asked to leave the picketing area for making a scene. He returned the next day and tried to get public support for the “harm I did him” I really don’t know. It escalated onto one of the union listservs (not one I had access to).

It was decided that this incident needed to be brought to the membership at an SGMM (special general membership meeting, they happen weekly during strikes). That week’s SGMM was to be held at OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) at the U of T. I had designated a friend to speak on my behalf because, I no longer felt safe on the picket line. We sat through the usual SGMM filler, we went through the minutes. I can’t remember what exactly made the SGMM drag on (there was always something dragging those out) but just as it was about time for my friend to advocate on my behalf, several disgruntled members of the local’s unit 2 (contract faculty) decided to start a shoving match of the hallway at OISE at the University of Toronto. The local Chair had to immediately end the session to try and put a stop to the drama in hallway.

I ended up needing to be escorted to the subway by a friend.

My presence on the picket line was spotty after that. We tried again to bring up ableism on the picket line at the next SGMM but by then the hallway fight from the previous week had changed the tone of the meeting and it didn’t feel like anything was accomplished. I never really felt comfortable on the picket line going forward. I’d show up more to visit with friends I knew would be there than out of real fervor for the cause.

The strike was finally ended on July 25, 2018 by Doug Ford’s conservative government. The union is fighting the constitutionality of that back to work legislation. If they win, I hope they have a better strategy for the next time they are sitting across the table from our employer.

How to Support My Work

So now for the very in depth appeal for support for mu PhD. Please read through there are so many ways to help, including just sharing this blog post on social media.

Kindle ebooks read on my iPad are the easiest way for me to read and take notes unfortunately Amazon does not allow people to buy ebooks for others through their wishlist system. I have an amazon wishlist anyway as some of the books can only be purchased in print or from third party sellers because they are out of print. If you could buy me one of the books that can only be had in print, I would greatly appreciate it. If you want to help fund the ebooks I’ll need you can buy me a gift card and send it to the following email address

The email is kimberleyjanephd@gmail.com

I will not be answering queries about my research through this email. It is solely a way for people who want to support my work to be able to do so. (this is a safety boundary). If you want to talk to me, find me on Twitter.

My research and supporting myself will get past the reading phase and there will be field work in my future. If you would like to help me fund my PhD in the long term you can

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I also have a generic disability wish list of things that would just improve my quality of life

Thank you for your ongoing support. and just an FYI I’m changing my name socially to Kimberley Jane Erin. You can call me Kim or Jane but I prefer Jane. I am however, not the least uncomfortable with Kim so don’t worry about messing up.

It’s time I really leaned into my identity as a scholar. I hope you’ll support me

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Racism isn’t a Mental Illness, Stop Pretending that it is!

In the wake to the horrific shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, I and I’m sure most people are in shock. Unfortunately mass murders committed by white men are becoming all to common and we are justifiably frustrated by the lack of response that they get. I mean the news media is in overdrive churning out stories about the victims, the alleged perpetrator, the public response and the responses from politicians but in terms of a response that might actually stop events like this from happening there is little or no movement.

This is because atrocities committed by white people are all to often blamed on mental illness regardless of actual psychiatric diagnosis.

We know many things for sure about the nine murders at the Emanuel AME Church. We know that the alleged shooter Dylann Storm attended a prayer meeting there before making a statement, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go”. He then killed nine people.

The Emanuel AME Church is historically black and has ties to the civil right movement. It has been targeted by racist violence in the past. It is a recognizable symbol for black people in the United States. This in conjunction with Roof’s words should lead anyone to the conclusion that the motive behind the shooting was racism.

Yet, there are many who want to label Roof as mentally ill, they do this to erase the racist motives of the crime. Presidential candidate Jeb Bush said “I don’t know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes”. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said “we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.”

This is ridiculous, the motive was white supremacy and racism but they get away with claims of ignorance because the suggestion is that the shooter was insane. Mental illness in this context exists in isolation and is completely unknowable. This is false from two perspectives. The first being the automatic assumption that white perpetrators of mass violence are mentally ill at all. Secondly from the assumption that mental illness exists in a vacuum without social involvement.

The first issue is the assumption that actions that are widely viewed as horrific must be the result of mental illness, unless of course the perpetrator is not white (then they’re a terrorist or their entire race is somehow uncivilized). The idea that rational people can decide to do horrific things is really hard for people to grasp but it is true.

The second is that racism as my post title suggests isn’t a form of mental illness. People who are mentally ill can be racist, misogynist or other kinds of bigot but rest assured it’s because of society not because they’re ill.

There is also the issue of criminal culpability. Simply having a mental illness does not automatically keep someone from being held criminally responsible. A person has to either be unaware of their actions at the time of the crime or to have been incapable of knowing that their actions were wrong. That does not mean simply disagreeing with the standard public mores. Which is why Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik was able to be found both sane and responsible for the 77 lives he took, despite his lack of remorse and personal belief in his actions. People who can rationalize can unfortunately use that rationality to make horrific decisions based on virulent racist ideologies.

So why then is it so common for people to focus on the sanity of white perpetrators? A couple of days ago, I asked this hypothetical question on twitter “How can mental illness be used to humanize white perpetrators of mass violence but dehumanize peaceful people with an actual diagnosis?” It was rhetorical, I know the answer. The answer is racism and white supremacy.

White people who commit mass violence are in an interesting position in that, their crimes are softened by the excuse of insanity. In situations where the perpretrator is not white, outsiders demand accountability from the entire group. Muslims must decry acts of terror that they have no personal connection to. Black people are constantly told to look inward as a community to solve problems whether they are the perpetrator or the victims of crime. Yet here with white perpetrators they are both humanized and made other all at once. The full force of personal responsibility is removed by the label of insanity, but it is also this label that serves to shield white people from being collectively scrutinized in the way that we actively scrutinize others.

People with mental illness are deeply stigmatized (I am not going to look at that to closely here because the focus needs to be on racism right now but you can read more about how blaming crime on mental illness unfairly stigmatizes the mentally ill here). It is just another category by which white people can use to separate a person from the white male ideal. So even though the skin colour is the same, white perpetrators are still made separate from the rest of white people. This absolves white people from having to address the issues of white supremacy and how they lead to violence. The issue of violent white supremacy isn’t really just about individuals who choose violence but about the culture that fosters racist ideals and refuses to take responsibility for them.

This idea isn’t just a problem for white people who are unwilling to acknowledge the racist motivations of this crime. Even progressive allies fall into the trap of labeling racism as insane, he says “the roads that black people drive on are named for confederate generals, who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road. That’s…that’s insanity” (emphasis mine).

The video has been viewed over a million times. It has appeared in my Facebook feed over and over. The problem is that systemic racism isn’t some form of diagnosible mass hysteria. The following things were not the result of widespread mental illness.

The Holocaust

Apartheid South Africa

Rhodesia

British Colonialism

American slavery and subsequent segregation.

Canadian residential school system

The list could really continue. Equating systemic racism and white supremacy to insanity is a cop out, one that has been used to excuse white violence on both the individual and group level. It is not only false but actually fosters that idea that these incidents can’t be avoided. Which I know wasn’t Stewart’s intent, it just shows how far the rhetoric around denying white culpability is. Racism isn’t a mental illness and the evidence of systemic racism should not be explained in those terms because in the end it just excuses it.

As a result of this shooting, if the rhetoric of mental health continues, you can be sure its connection to racism will also be lost. We won’t see calls to treat and pathologize those who participate on websites like Stormfront. No one really believes that expressions of racism are inherently insane, it is just a convenient excuse to avoid forcing us to look within. WE can continue to claim that these kinds of actions have nothing to do with white people as a whole. Our white privilege and supremacy intact even if we recognize the true motives of the Charleston shooting as racist.

More often than not mental illness is not the reason for a crime or tragedy but it is the excuse most often given to excuse the wider reality of white supremacy and white culpability