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

support me on patreon

Become a Patron!

buy me a ko-fi

send me money via paypal

send an e money transfer to the email above (if you have scruples about third party sites)

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

So You’ve Made Progress in Expanding Rights to Academic Accommodation…But Do You Really Deserve It?

It is the day of my final exam, I have figured out the location for my alternate exam space. I show up early and wait for my invigilator. It is 15 minutes before the exam. 45 minutes later, they have yet to arrive. 5 minutes after that, the invigilator finally shows up, they’ve forgotten to pick up my exam from the department. I start my exam an hour late.

At a different exam, I sit in a small conference room across from my invigilator. I am concentrating on my exam. Across the table, the invigilator opens and starts eating a bag of chips. The bag crinkles, there are audible chewing noises. I try and focus on my exam.

I am writing a geology exam with two other students in an alternate space. We are seated at the same table as we have to share a single set of mineral samples. About half an hour into the exam we realize that we are missing a needed sample. Our invigilator is M.I.A.

These are just three of my experiences taking alternate exams during my undergraduate degree. They are pretty representative of my overall experience of not taking exams with the rest of the class. Sometimes getting academic accommodation is a catch-22, particular if you are writing exams separately.

This however does not diminish the importance of being able to access academic accommodations if you need them, however the process of getting them is daunting and the delivery often spotty.

This is why the new changes around accommodations for mental health disability at York University are so important.

York University PhD student Navi Dhanota (full disclosure: she’s a friend of mine) just completed a two year human rights complaint against York’s Counseling and Disability Services to be able to access academic accommodations without having to disclose a specific DSM diagnosis.

The policy change has been getting media attention in Toronto which in turn has garnered public comment (yes I know “never read the comment”). some of the comments indicate a lack of understanding of, the policy change, what it entails and how it came about.

  1. York University is far from the only university that has policies that require students to provide a DSM diagnosis or psychiatric label to qualify for accommodations. (though hopefully the shift at York will spark change at other universities)
  2. York is not the first university Navi has experienced this policy. However, York is the only university where she sought change through the Human Rights Code.
  3. The change in policy does not mean that people can simply self-identify as having need for accommodation. They still need medical documentation of need for accommodation but the specifics of the diagnosis can be kept confidential between the student and their physician. So the people complaining that fakers will be coming out of the woodwork can shut-up already.
  4. This policy change only applies to students seeking accommodation for psychiatric diagnosis. Students seeking accommodations for physical disabilities, learning disabilities and chronic illness must still provide specific diagnosis to receive accommodation. No that isn’t fair and it remains to be seen if it will require another Human Rights complaint to fix that disparity or if York will be proactive in fixing it without outside intervention.

Now we move on to why I shared those awkward and unfortunate alternate exam stories because I’m going to address the trolls. The people who have been using this as an opportunity to rail against the existence of accommodations in general. The most common complaint being “No one likes writing exams in packed gymnasiums and everyone would probably benefit from not having to do that”.

Normally, I wouldn’t spend taking them on but their sentiments were echoed by CBC As It Happens radio host Carol Off in an interview with Navi. The interview is only 6 1/2 minutes and Off waits until the very end of the interview to throw out the “but everyone hates gymnasium exams” comment right at the end, effectively making Navi defend the entire structure of academic accommodations in less than a minute. An impossible feat, though Navi managed to remain calm under the ridiculous expectation.

By bringing up this question Carol Off legitimized (though by no means invented) the public skepticism that exists any time a disabled person gets an accommodation. By providing so little time to the discussion, she all but guaranteed that the defense would be weak and therefor actively undermined the validity of the system.

I am going to take some time now to address some of these issues. I will touch on the importance of accommodations and the varying arguments around how they are distributed but I am going to primarily look at why the question from Off and the internet trolls is harmful and reinforces prejudice against disabled people. It’s the cousin of the “but what about the fakers?” Argument that has been rampant in the online comments about this story.

First let’s look at accommodations and the differing views around them. They range from the current and most common system (I’ve personally navigated accommodation bureaucracies at three Canadian universities). This system involves offering the bare minimum legally required with as many safeguards (extensive documentation and medical practitioner involvement) possible. The fear of the faker or system abuser is so high that many universities require a physician to sign off on each and every accommodation even when the condition or diagnosis has been disclosed and medically confirmed. Even if the accommodation is extremely common or universally needed by people with that condition. There is no good faith. The assumption is always that people are lying about their needs unless it is corroborated by a doctor.

Some disability activists advocate for a radical shift in the disbursement of services which addresses the mentality of “but we all hate gymnasium exams”. They argue that everyone should have access to accommodations regardless of disability status. Functionally this is untenable in a lot of ways particularly in terms of offering everyone alternate exam spaces. It also ignores that not everyone would benefit from certain accommodations and may actually find them detrimental.

Consider the accommodation of having a note taker. While people’s reaction to my utilizing a note taker during my undergraduate degree generally boiled down to “well everyone would do better if they didn’t have to take notes”. In reality this is more a knee jerk reaction to someone getting different treatment rather than better treatment. Studies actually show that when students take notes they tend to do better than if they don’t, even if notes are provided to them. So no, not everyone actually benefits from a note taker. It might actually harm academic outcomes for most people. My inability to take notes puts me at a disadvantage which is partially rectified by being able to have them provided for me. I will never be able to benefit from the academic advantage of taking my own notes.

There are accommodations that I would love to see universalized like access to speech to text software and good text to speech software. As it stands, the first is not an accommodation, it can be used by everyone at their own expense. In the case of the latter, universities might provide textbooks in alternate formats (something copyright law will bar the universal distribution of) but access to screenreading software is not provided. This software is very expensive so students who require it have to wither pay out of pocket or navigate the maze that is technology grant applications.

Many more people than those who require these programs for reasons of disability and expanding demand an access would likely bring the cost down to more manageable levels.

When people, particularly people with a public platform like Carol Off voice opinions (even in the forms of questions) that boil down to “everyone’s life is hard, why do you deserve different treatment?” it fundamentally erases the reality of disability.

Are there fundamental problems with how universities are run that hurt all students? Yes. But that is a separate issue from the systemic disadvantage experienced by disabled people. The two things should not be conflated. Doing so only further marginalizes disabled students.

At a university level, issues like crowded exams and the large class sizes that contribute to them are issues of under staffing. They can and should be addressed. The thing is even if they were, students with disabilities would still be disadvantaged in universities. Alternate exams exist not only for students who can’t write in gymnasium environments. Even a small exams can be to much for some students.

Accommodations aren’t about catering to a student’s preferences. They exist to rectify actual measurable disadvantages not experienced by other students. Constantly framing the conversation around nondisabled people and what they’re not getting ignores the fact that even though the delivery of post-secondary education is flawed, it was set up with them in mind. Accommodations aren’t perks or extras. They exist to level the playing field. To alleviate a structural imbalance.

Getting people to this understanding is crucial to help start alleviating some of the frankly overwhelming discrimination and prejudice, disabled students experience from their nondisabled peers and the university as a whole.

If the sheer rage that some people express when accommodations for disability are mentioned is any indication, people seem to view accommodations as this Utopian land of privilege. It is in reality far more often a quagmire of hurdles and stigma.

My general experience with accessing accommodations has been one where the response often feels like “ugh, I guess I’ll do this, if I have to”, that is if a professor doesn’t ignore you outright (see here for more information on that).

Add to that, the fact that accessing accommodations beyond the complex bureaucratic requirements for extensive documentation is deeply stigmatized. It is shrouded in secrecy and students are often made to feel guilty or ashamed for utilizing them.

After a classmate discovered I had a note taker (a service that is supposed to be confidential but is often not), I was told that I shouldn’t be allowed in university.

Without giving the full story about academic accommodations and their function, it is irresponsible to then question their validity more so when the respondent isn’t given adequate time to respond and has their argument be artificially weakened by the circumstances of the question. This legitimizes the already existing stigma.

As mentioned above, academic accommodations are often delivered in a piecemeal and less than respectful manner. The system is already flawed enough without adding to the existing skepticism we recipients face not only from the universities that deliver those services but from our peers as well.