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The Labour of Labour

March 30th, 2012     by Sarah Feldbloom     Comments


In February of this year, 2012, the Teaching Assistants’ union for the University of Toronto, CUPE 3902, found itself on the brink of a strike.

A few female PHD students who work as TAs, and organizers at CUPE 3902, were interested in sharing their experiences working in labour, for the purpose of contextualizing the operating structure of unions like theirs. A central element that emerged in our conversation was the role of gender and equity dynamics, and the affect they have on a healthy and productive union.

Take a listen here:

For a transcription of ‘Unpaid Labour’ read on:

Sarah Feldbloom: As some of our listeners may have noticed, we had to take this podcast down temporarily. We’d been contacted by a few listeners, people who had been or currently work on the executive of CUPE 3902 who asked us to double check some of the facts in this piece and include others. We asked them, and the other staff at the local whether anyone wanted to go on record with a response to the piece. They declined. We also gave the original interviewees an opportunity to respond to the comments made by those who contacted us. We apologize for any factual inaccuracies, and would like to make a few notes for listeners to keep in mind as they listen to the podcast that follows:

One of the interviewees mentions that the local recently hired its first racialized staff person. That’s not factually correct. The union employed a racialized women in a professional role from 2001-2010. As well, for the past year, 2 of the 5 members of the staff have been racialized, one in a professional and the other in an administrative role.

We also want to mention that the depiction of gender division within the union as discussed by Caitlin, Katie and Sarah is a snapshot of the situation as they experienced it over the 2011/2012 academic year. Of the past eight executive committees, six of them have had a majority of women, and of the past eight chairs of the union four have been women and two have been racialized. It is also a fact that 2 of the executive committees of the past eight years have not had a racialized member. The interviewees ask listeners to note that while this is true, the numbers are still not representative of the diversity within the membership.

One of the people who contacted us in response to the podcast expressed that no explicit mention was made of a history of anti-oppression work done by the local. Caitlin, Katie and Sarah confirmed that there have been gains made in the interest of equity throughout the history of the local as well as problems of inequity.

Another point that was addressed by those who responded to the podcast was that the interviewees didn’t mention the Women’s Committee and the Queer Caucus in their discussion of the lack of spaces available for bringing equity to the forefront of union discourse. In response Caitlin, Katie and Sarah noted that the Queer Caucus and Women’s committee have been relatively dormant since they have been working with the union, and that they believe there is a need to move beyond modes of organizing that understand representation as the end goal.

And with that in mind, here is ‘The Labour of Labour.’

Katie Mazer: Despite the fact that working in organized labour is very draining and always feels like you’re waging a fight… it’s also incredibly empowering, I think, to be in a position where you can act.

[Sound up on intro monologue]

SF: Hi, I’m Shameless Magazine’s Web Producer, Sarah Feldbloom. In February of this year, 2012, the Teaching Assistants’ union for the University of Toronto, CUPE 3902, found itself on the brink of a strike.

I’ve watched the TA unions at various Canadian universities operationalize several memorable strikes, one while I was studying at York University in 2008/2009, which stopped the gears of the administration and students for three months. Lots of people were angry about the disruption, and unsympathetic to the union and its attempt to negotiate better workplace standards for its members. In the lead-up to the strike that didn’t end up happening at U of T, I contacted a few PHD students who work as TAs, and organizers at CUPE 3902, to ask about their experiences in the field of labour, in the interest of helping those of us who belong to unions or are affected by their actions, better understand how they work. A central element that emerged in our conversation was gender and equity dynamics within the union, and how deeply they affect the kind of progress these organizers have been fighting for.

[Sound up on discussion with CUPE 3902 union organizers]

SF: So, I thought a good way for us to start would be to go around the room and introduce ourselves, so say your name and your age and where you’re from and if you feel comfortable, any way you identify in terms of gender, race, disability, or orientation, just so that the people who are listening to us can have a sense of who we are and what we’re experiencing. If you could, also say what you do at the union and how long you’ve worked there.

Caitlin Henry: I’m Caitlin Henry, I’m from the States, I’m 25, I’m a white woman, and I have worked with the union for 10 months now. I’m the Vice Chair for Unit 1 and get people involved, do some mobilizing and educate people about the union and how they can take advantage of it.

KM: My name is Katie Mazer and I grew up in Prince Edward Island, Canada and I’m a 28 year old white woman, and I’ve been on the executive committee of this union for about a year now, and my position is called Internal Liaison Officer so what I do is mostly work with student unions and trade unions on-campus, but primarily off-campus to build relationships and solidarity and do political organizing.

Sarah Suliman: Hi, I’m Sarah Suliman, I’m 26, I am an African student–I’m from Sudan, now it’s North Sudan—I’m an International student trying to migrate to Canada. I’m in my 6th year of my PhD and my position in my union is Secretary Treasurer, so I’m trying to make a budget for our upcoming year but I also give financial reports to the executive every month.

KM: Okay, so this is our equity statement. It says: CUPE 3902 is committed to the elimination of discriminatory behaviour; policies or practices that prevent or undermine the full and equal participation of all who wish to join and pursue the mission of the organization.

SS: Discrimination can happen overtly, covertly, or by omission. We will take proactive steps to ensure that full and equal participation is possible.

CH: We want to work towards anti-oppression and be conscious of our privileges and create an environment where union members are respected for abilities and potential.

KM: We commit to building a union culture in which equity, diversity, and safety are fundamental. This statement serves to remind us all that diversity in our society is a strength and that we must ensure equality and equity.

SF: How would you define the feminist approach that you feel is important to establish within the union?

SS: I feel like people shouldn’t tell us what to do; that’s the main thing. I feel people who are in positions of power [can] make assumptions about what the needs of members are and that’s the part that I’m having the most trouble with because it doesn’t incorporate the agency that members have over determining what their needs are. I don’t know [laughs].

KM: Yeah, and I think that the vision we have for this union is a great one, right? A vision of a union that’s driven by the membership itself. We have a really strong equity statement that suggests this is a union where we’re collectively doing what we can to make this organization, this collectivity, as accessible and excited to include this diversity in our membership that we actually have. And I think, in theory, to me, that’s all really exciting; that’s an organization I really want to be a part of. It’s a different story what we’re seeing in practice right now, but I think the vision is actually laid out in a lot of ways already.

CH: I think at its heart the feminism that we approach working in the union with is anti-racist, democratic, strives to break down hetero-normative policies and agendas. Democracy is really at its core, but in a way that seeks to create a more successful and equitable space and opens the door to possibilities instead of silencing and putting people in silos.

SF: I’m wondering how your experiences working in the union have been affected by gender?


CH: I mean…everything. It totally…it’s the undercurrent of everything. It’s in the simple things, like you walk into the office and you see how the division of labour happens or is structured or the three positions that we are in…

SS: They’re not as glorious.

CH: Yeah, and they deal with a lot of the reproduction of the organization, and on-the-ground contact with members, yet the big showy bargaining team is mostly men.

SS: One experience to show that was a few days when we were counting the ballots for the ratification vote and the division of labour was so visible. The women were sitting down, going through the ballots one-by-one, while the men were just observing. That was my reflection of it. And it was assumed if there was a silly task that had to be done, like ‘Go and find out if so-and-so is doing this’ there’s an assertion of gender dynamics there, too. The men feel very comfortable asking us to do those things, whereas they feel those tasks are beneath them. And that’s just one example of so many.

KM: Yeah, one other dynamic that I think is quite particular, which I’ve also experienced in other progressive organizations, is the situation in which you have an organization whose purpose is inherently quite politically progressive but there are all sorts internal dynamics that are inconsistent with that. And I think often the mandate of the organization or the assumption that people who have anything to do with a union are progressive people can get used to silence concerns about the dynamics of the organization. I know it’s a sexist world; I know that you’re facing all sorts of patriarchy in the rest of your experiences as women, but don’t bring that into our relationship because that’s not what’s happening here. That’s been hard.

SF: And what is it about gender that feeds into this? Is it the type of thing where you could say, Well, maybe it’s the personalities of the people involved who create these kinds of divisions. Is there any way to make sense of that?

KM: That’s a great question! I think unions are a very particular and difficult context to understand. We have a membership that’s primarily, as they say in the labour world, “a feminized workplace” so the majority of our members are women and we’re a trade union, and the history or trade unionism is a very interesting one in terms of gender. As we were preparing for the possibility of a strike this came up a lot, in terms of the way that people envisioned what our picket lines would look like and what our strike would look like and invoking a lot of industrial and masculinist histories about what trade unionism and picket lines and strikes actually look like. Gender is a particular frame. But I do think there’s a struggle happening in our union right in which people are hungry for a feminist critique essentially, and we’re starting to hear some interest in actually doing some really active work around how to insert that into our organizing and not just the way that we do our thinking. And not that it hasn’t been happening, but I think to name it and really work on it…

SF: What does it mean in that space: A feminist critique and implementing that? In thinking about how the concept of equality applies within the union context, it’s much bigger than men and women, right? How does that apply to everyone and all kinds of inter-sectional identities?

SS: I don’t know; even from the beginning of this process of bargaining—right from the beginning when we made these bargaining proposals—I feel like there was a lack of critique as to who would be affected by which proposals. One of our main priorities for example was extending funding to 6th year PhD students which we were disappointed by the outcome…it sort of addressed the problem, but not really, so I feel like the first members who would be affected by this are a) international students and b) women. And especially female international students where, depending on the cultural context where they come from, the fact that they’ve even left the country to do a PhD and now they’re on the hook for $20,000 to pay tuition poses a particular disadvantage to them.

But that analysis was not built into things and it was just assumed, Well, if the members of the bargaining team can’t see this as a priority, therefore it doesn’t exist. It almost made all the disadvantages women would go through invisible in the whole process, and when it was brought up, it was antagonistic. So, I feel like there’s almost an active effort to make particular issues invisible and when they do come up, we pretend they don’t exist or we get a really hostile response from the other side, so I feel like there was a lot of gendered dynamics but also race dynamics—privilege dynamics in general—that are pushed away or pushed to the side, so they would shove them off to different committees but not want to work with them in the central structure of the organization.

It just seemed with the International Students’ Committee specifically; it was very interesting that they recognized those power hierarchies. Every time they assigned a spokesperson within them it was a white male. So it was very interesting that there was almost an acknowledgment of defeat within those power-privilege dynamics and just being submissive to them and just…if this is what’s working, let’s work with it instead of wasting a lot emotional energy trying to fight it. It was sad.

SF: How are the principles within the equity statement, how are they used or carried out in daily practice?

SS: There was one instance when Caitlin was trying to organize a meeting and the resource person…

CH: We were looking for a chair and we couldn’t think of one, and this idea came up about a guy, about this white man to chair, and I suggested over email that that guy is lovely, I’m sure he’s a great facilitator, but we’re already going to have a ton of white men at the front of the room, and I think we need to be conscious of power dynamics. The response I got was that I needed to read the equity statement, because I was discriminating…

KM: On the basis of skin colour and gender…

CH: Against the most privileged people in our union.

KM: And it was later framed as a possible human rights violation.

SF: And then at that point how was that addressed? How did the situation…

SS: We got scolded. We were told to be cautious, because this might cause the union resources in terms of a possible human rights law suit.

KM: Yeah, the law gets tossed around a lot. So when critical conversations get attempted, the response is often to do with the law, which is very silencing. And that’s happened a few

SF: What about representation within the staff that work within the union across the board in terms of diversity and equity?

SS: So we just recently had our first racialized staff member. The two staff members that deal with office administration and I guess the technical organization of the office happen to both be women, and the two staff reps who deal with grievances and the political I guess side of the union happen to both be men. It hasn’t always been like that in terms of gender division. There was a women who was a staff rep before, but it seems like the office administration side has always been women. And only one racialized person.

CH: All able bodied.

SF: What are the gender equity policies that are being fought for within the union? And how have those needs or questions evolved?

KM: Well I guess one really simple way is that as a product of the work that members of this union have collectively done, our members have things like access to some level of funding to cover childcare costs, and maternity leave. We just won in this round of bargaining, I believe we’re the second academic union in Canada to win paid leave for gender reassignment surgery.

SF: And what are some things you see as gaps? Things you think should be prioritized in terms of policy and what you’re fighting for?

KM: Umm, there are a lot of things that are changing at the University of Toronto and universities in Ontario and across the world more broadly to make education inaccessible. For instance U of T just passed a policy that forces part time students to pay full time fees. So the students who might be parents, or low income and need to work other jobs just to pay their tuition are being pushed out of this institution or made to take on more debt. This new grant that’s supposed to be a relief for students, made by the liberal government is not accessible, again to the same demographic of students, part time students, mature students, a lot of students that probably need it most. So there are a lot of policy changes that are happening and making university education much less accessible. And I think that actually needs to be a much higher priority in terms of our political work than it currently is.

SS: Another example that just happened this last year is that there was a big push for academic restructuring in arts and sciences, which meant that a lot of critical area studies or very small programs that deal specifically with particular equity issues, for instance Africa-Caribbean studies, or Sexual-diversity studies, for them to be streamlined into a bigger platform, which would mean by default that they would be pitted against other more privileged programs (for lack of better words). That was fought right, left and centre last year, but it seems the same push is attempted again this year, and will continue to be attempted, which means these programs are gradually losing their infrastructures while they house a lot of students that would be progressive advocates for the university and for post-secondary education in general. So there is a general direction towards making this an elitist organization that deals primarily with capitalist, resource generating programs and not dealing with social structures and the society in general.

KM: Yeah, so this is another thing: our union could play a really important role in having a critical analysis of that. I was having a conversation with some people yesterday where we were talking about undertaking a project to make an alternative budget for the University of Toronto which reveals the kinds of class disparities that are emerging stronger and stronger every year in this public institution, in which people at the top are making three-hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and we’re fighting over the possibility of having wage increases consistent with inflation.

SF: At this point, how do you move forward knowing that it’s such a labour intensive and exhausting process? What do you recommend to other people in order to move this process forward in some ways? What does that look like?

KM: One thing is this idea of the role of disillusionment, the really centre role of it in a space like organized labour. If you lose that disillusionment, if there aren’t always a group of people who are actively announcing that disillusionment and making waves with that disillusionment, you’re in trouble. And this is one of the ways that I feel duped: it’s not always about individual people and their personalities and convictions. Sometimes it’s actually about the structure, right? That’s where the role of disillusionment comes in. People need to be kept on notice, even if you’re like those people agree with me politically, when they get into a position of power they need to be kept on notice, they need to be challenged.

So I think we need to create the structures to allow that disillusionment to constantly have a voice and constantly have the organizing capacity to keep those people on notice, whoever they are. We’re now starting to think of, we’ve got a group of people who are really excited to start a feminist caucus in our union for example. And those are the kinds of spaces that I think can be really generative of this productive disillusionment in a way that I think will make our union stronger.

CH: I think the disillusionment is really exciting.

KM: Yeah.

CH: I think it’s really helpful, realizing that it’s just us. If you hold onto that disillusionment it prevents you from getting too invested in what organized labour could be or should be or expecting too much. It prevents you from letting all of us off the hook for shaping the direction of the union and what we do. And the disillusionment, I think, opens the door to a lot of creativity, because it’s a resisting of this structure that you can just rely on. And say that is useless, I’m not messing with that, I will use the resources that it can provide me to do what really needs to be done, and what’s exciting and creative and interesting and useful and productive.

SF: What impact has the experience of working in a field where your job is literally to struggle and fight had on you emotionally and intellectually?

CH: Emotionally it has affected me in a lot of ways that have made me a lot tougher of a person, a lot stronger, more assertive. In some ways I feel weaker, but, maybe not. I think that’s just a product of being so tired. And intellectually I think I’ve learned more in the past ten months about how the world works, and how power works, and relationships between people, than I have ever learned in a classroom.

SF: What questions are you left with after having gone through this complicated experience?

CH: So now it seems so clear to me, this whole bargaining process. We had these romantic visions of 40,000 workers out on the streets protesting and striking to defend the public sector and defend good working jobs, and quality of education, and to defend secure livelihoods. And it seemed like everything was lining up so perfectly and we were going to have this really political strike, and then it all just disappeared. Our bargaining team brought a contract and the membership accepted it, and it wasn’t a good enough contract.

And I think we were at this moment where we were so mobilized and organized in our union. So many people were right on the edge of that cliff; they could have a contract that was just enough not even good, just enough to avoid going out on strike and avoid dealing with something hard. Or they could be pushed a little bit, and go out on strike, and have this moment where they got it, and became more politicized, and fought for something, instead of just taking the easy way out. But we got the easy way out, which is not even easy, it isn’t easy at all, it’s worse for us. And it seems, thinking back that the way the whole process is structured it’s set up for us not to fight for what we have to fight for. It’s not set up for us to go out on strike, it’s not set up for us to struggle for all the things we as people deserve.

SS: Umm, I feel like having the solidarity with other people who can all agree that something has gone wrong and being able to challenge it was a very fulfilling experience. Even though the overall outcome in the end was not favourable we had those moments where we were able to assert ourselves, and I felt that that was empowering to me as a person. But there is also the sentiment of disappointment, and feeling that this place that was supposed to fight for me is fighting against me. And it almost made me feel like we need to create alternative structures to these alternative structures to challenge that they can sometimes reproduce the things that they claim to fight against.

[Sound up on extro monologue]

SF: You’ve been listening to the Labour of Labour – a discussion about gender and equity dynamics in union life. I’m Shameless Magazine’s Web Producer, Sarah Feldbloom. For more critical evaluation of labour issues check out the latest edition of Shameless Magazine. Or if you’d like to share your voice visit our blog at www.shamelessmag.com. Thanks for joining us!


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