Monday, 6 April 2015

CUPE 3903, Hegemonic Masculinity, and the York University Strike of 2015

By Nathan Kalman-Lamb

Picketers and flag at Main Gate, York University, March 17, 2015. Credit: Paul Elias

You may have noticed that the Men's Team has been quiet for a while (I hope you have!). That's because the work I do for the Team causes me to be a member of the union CUPE 3903 and CUPE 3903 has been on strike. If you were unaware of that, I am pleased to inform you that the strike is over and we were successful in achieving all of our principal goals.

York University has a reputation as a site of social justice activism. It is a place where professors teach about politics, ethics, and equity in the classroom and where many students consider rallies, marches, and protests to be an essential part of their education. Yet, even on such a political campus, CUPE 3903 takes the cake as the most radical of the lot. This is a union that has struck three times in fifteen years -- indeed, that was willing to strike this year after a three month strike in 2008-2009 that culminated in back to work legislation. It is a union that begins every meeting with the reading of an equity statement and one that has mechanisms for interventions against bullying and sexism as part of its regular protocol. It is a union willing to challenge the logic of austerity in a historical moment that has normalized it as common sense.

For four weeks, I walked the picket lines with CUPE 3903 because I shared a belief that we could win better job security for increasingly exploited academic workers and more accessible education for graduate students. (Well, actually, I didn't walk the picket line as much as I directed traffic at Keele St. and Main Blvd. while serving as a human rage depository for the sentiments of aggrieved drivers -- but more on that later.)

Yet, even as I took satisfaction in struggling for a common goal with people who seemed to share a similar commitment to principles of equity and justice, I could not help noticing that even in this most progressive of spaces, hegemonic masculinity continually seemed to rear its ugly head. I am not writing this post because I am interested in besmirching the name of the union on the heels of one of its greatest victories -- to do so would be akin to an attempt to undercut myself, for membership in 3903 is an inextricable part of my own sense of identity. Nevertheless, no organization and no individual is completely immune to criticism and sometimes we must be willing to hold ourselves up to scrutiny in order to better fulfil the principles we aspire to. Indeed, by calling attention to the insidious forms toxic masculinity took during the strike in CUPE 3903, I hope to call intention to just how pervasive this form of identity is and how urgent is the need to combat it.

I should begin by saying that it is not at all surprising that white, hegemonic masculinity emerged to play a significant role over the course of the strike. In fact, given the history of the union movement, it would be far more surprising if the reverse were true. The reality is that since its inception, the union movement in North America has fashioned an identity predicated on a notion of rugged masculinity at the exclusion of women and non-white people. No doubt, this preoccupation is a direct consequence of a sense of emasculation at the hands of a capitalist system that seeks to degrade and exploit at every turn. The union as an institution historically provided men (and only later, for at first they were explicitly excluded in many cases, women) with an opportunity to stand up to this system and the capitalist class and fight for their dignity. Yet, it also provided a vehicle for members to position themselves as superior to other members of the working class (women, non-white people) who faced other structural barriers as well as those posed by capitalism (misogyny and racism, both institutional and otherwise). This is a legacy that continues today and is reproduced in various ways. [Author's note: I failed to mention that during the strike, members of CUPE 3903 formed a Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour Caucus and addressed many of these on-going issues and how they pertain to the local in a statement. That statement can be found here.]

The first example of this I want to touch on during the recent CUPE 3903 strike was the attitude of CUPE National (the parent union for 3903 to whom our local was beholden for strike pay after the first two weeks) to members attempting to participate in the strike. The conventional paradigm for receiving strike pay according to National was participation on the picket line every day. For many people, this was an acceptable arrangement and certainly one important to the strike (it became essential once the university attempted to re-start classes). For others, however, the picket line was not an option. This had to do with accessibility concerns of all types (disability, child care, etc.). The local referred to those members who participated in strike activities outside of the picket lines as the "8th Line" in order to acknowledge the equal significance of these strike-related endeavours to the overall cause, as well it should have.

CUPE National did not see it the same way. How do I know? Because they did not agree to sign off on payments to 8th Line members from the National strike fund even as all other picketers were granted their pay. The message was clear: only picketing constituted legitimate strike-related labour. Or, put differently, only a hyper-masculine willingness and ability to insert one's body between a vehicle and the site of employment could justify strike pay. I don't think I need to elaborate at length on the nature of the problems here. Only a unionist ideology rooted in ableism and hegemonic masculinity could produce such a policy. Only individuals who had fully internalized it could continue to apply it even when confronted with the plight of members who had worked for the strike and yet would literally not be able to pay rent without the cheques that they earned but did not receive.

The second example of hegemonic masculinity during the strike actually pre-dated  it (barely) and was simply brought to the attention of membership during the first ratification vote which occurred after the first week of the strike. I am referring to the revelation that a member of the local was (allegedly) raped by a member of the local's executive just a month before the strike began. The survivor released a letter about what happened to her which can be found here. There is not much for me to say beyond what she herself has articulated. But, what I do feel needs to be underlined is the fact that we can never, under any circumstances, assume that a space is safe from gender-based violence, regardless of its supposed credentials as a site of social justice and equity.

My third observation, and it is less painful, but, perhaps, more symptomatic of the pervasiveness of hegemonic masculinity than the previous two, is of the behaviour of certain members of the picket line. I heard frequent reports throughout the strike, and witnessed for myself, white male picketers acting in a confrontational, aggressive, and insolent manner seemingly designed to signify their authority over the picket lines (and other members walking the lines) and their dominance over members of the community crossing those lines. This behaviour was both counter-productive (given that one of the principal purposes of the picket lines was to provide information to those entering the campus and an antagonistic approach was certain to subvert that project) and fundamentally unethical. Although the picket lines produced a type of space and dynamic that has become increasingly unusual in our society due to the paucity of such labour disruptions, there is simply no reason why basic ethical imperatives should have been abandoned (by anyone, and I will get to those crossing the lines in a moment). The choice to use the threat of physical violence to intimidate is another hallmark characteristic of hegemonic masculinity.

The fourth point I wish to make about hegemonic masculinity and the strike pertains to the behaviour of those crossing the picket line rather that of those on strike. This, of course, is not a reflection of the membership of CUPE 3903, but rather of the broader York University community. To put it quite simply -- and I will speak only of experiences at the Main Gate line -- we were confronted with some shocking demonstrations of toxic masculinity expressed as violent temper tantrum. These tantrums came in many forms. The most overt was captured on the video below and circulated widely during the strike.

This was far from the only example, however. Despite our persistent attempts to inform any motorists entering the line of their projected wait times, and to engage them always with an attitude of equanimity and patience, we were treated to all manner of abuse. I can simply catalogue some of the examples I experienced personally.

Early in the strike, as I attempted to direct traffic entering York Blvd. off of Keele (in order to ensure that drivers did not have to endure the stressful experience of feeling like their vehicle was protruding into the heavy traffic on Keele St), one driver decided to ignore my instructions (delivered verbally and through hand signals) and instead drove directly over my foot. That's right, with no provocation whatsoever, a man deliberately drove his (sports) car over my foot. Fortunately, I was wearing steel-toed boots at the time and was unharmed (or perhaps you would have heard about this sooner on a news report).

This was not the last time my body was placed at risk by aggressive men in vehicles who seemed to feel the need to assert their dominance over me (to be fair, I was causing them a mild inconvenience). On a later occasion, as I stood in the right turn lane on Keele into York Blvd., I indicated to a driver that he needed to stop and allow another vehicle to turn around out of the lane he meant to enter (again, this was a service I was providing another individual -- we could just as easily have allowed them to sort themselves out anarchically and heaven help them if we had). Instead of slowing down to honour my request, he accelerated directly at me, forcing me to leap out of the way. When I asked him what he thought he was doing and told him that he had almost hit me, his response pretty much said everything you need to know about toxic masculinity: "I wish I had."

Masculine violence comes in many forms, not simply the threat of vehicular manslaughter that we came to so dearly know and love. It also comes in the form of verbal abuse, sometimes strangely coded through the threatening spectre of an exotic bogeyman. I will explain. First, I was told by a man that the fact that I was forcing him to wait in a line in order to enter the university was "highway robbery." Don't worry, I didn't follow this logic either. That wasn't all, though. For this atrocity, I apparently warranted the harshest of punishments: "If we were in Syria, you would be executed for this." Yes, a death threat. In a similar vein, I was informed by another man that "If we were in Russia, they would punch you in the fucking face for this every single day."

Despite all of this abusive masculine posturing, I am proud to say that I never once raised my voice at a person attempting to cross the picket line. Well, not until the very last day. At that point, the strike was effectively over and we were simply holding a symbolic picket while waiting to vote for ratification. We were holding all cars in the line for a total of less than one minute at a time maximum. A man in a Porsche drove up to the gate, approximately two metres away from it, revving ominously. I was disconcerted. A member of our picket line had her back to him, her body between the car and the gate. Suddenly, he revved again and accelerated forward.

That was it for me. A month of toxic masculinity culminated in that moment and I screamed at him, asking him to account for what he had done, the harm he had nearly inflicted. He told me that I sounded like his wife. No doubt, for a man invested in hegemonic masculinity, this was the worst insult he could conjure. It was a windy day, tears streamed down his face. He rushed to assure me (and others who had gathered) that he wasn't crying.

If only he had been. It would have been the most human thing about him (as one of my fellow picketers pointed out).

Solidarity on the Main Gate picket line (often in the face of hyper-masculine violence and abuse). Credit: Paul Elias


  1. Nathan - thank you for such a well articulated piece on the hegemonic masculinity we faced daily on the picket line. It was me that last day, who had turned around to let others know we had a "pineapple" (code word for potential aggression) when the man in the sports car accelerated towards me, sure my knees were going to be taken out from me any moment.
    It was the one and only time I EVER saw you raise your voice. And this was after a month of what I am positive included numerous threats, abusive comments, and confrontational behaviour. While I was a vocal person on non-antagonistic responses on the line - I have to admit I was grateful for your presence as I was shaking too much to really know what to do.
    I appreciate your reflection, and your willingness to confront what is so very ingrained in our society today. Thanks for standing up for me, and thanks for standing for a world where we can recognize and remove hegemonic Masculinity.

  2. Why must this violence be characterized as 'masculine'? As somebody on the picket line myself, I can attest to the fact that threats of violence, fowl language, and boisterous and aggressive behavior were certainly not limited to male drivers. Indeed, I find that labeling these behaviors as evidence of "toxic masculinity" is bordering on sexist. Why must aggression be solely a male trait? It clearly wasn't across the board. And what did whiteness even have to do with his? Was it only white males projecting these negative behaviors and attitudes? No.

    Furthermore, do not forget that the "hyper-masculine" picket lines were arguably the most significant form of pressure we put on the employer and these manifestations of "toxic masculinity" were a significant component of the strike's influence (second to the act of withdrawing labour). I agree that CUPE National should have offered paid alternative duties from the onset, but your criticism of our toxic, masculine reliance on picketing still comes across as a tad ironic.

    1. I certainly agree that picket lines were vital to the strike -- that is why I was out there at 7:30 every day. However, I did not claim that picket lines are inherently hyper-masculine. I was simply critiquing the particular behaviour that was.

      More importantly, though, you seem to be confusing "masculinity" with "men" or "males." I am not claiming that all people who identify as men are aggressive. I am not claiming that aggression is an essentially male trait. I am saying the masculinity (the way that men are expected to act) as it has been socially and historically constructed in its hegemonic form in North America is linked to aggression and the notion that one can use violence instrumentally to get what one wants. Masculinity, because it is a way of acting, can be internalized and employed by women as well as men. This is something that is very commonly seen, for instance, in the world of sport.

      Hegemonic masculinity is connected to race, especially in the union context. As I explained, unions have historically been spaces dominated by white men at the exclusion of others (women, non-white, queer, disabled people, etc.). Whiteness is connected to a sense of domination and entitlement. The various forms of aggression and violence I described are linked to whiteness, even when they are not performed by white people (because, again, race is a social construction and non-white people also seek the privileges conferred by race).

      I am not saying anyone is inherently 'bad' or "toxic." I am saying that when people act in certain ways they are performing hegemonic masculinity and we need to move away from that sort of behaviour.

      - Nathan

  3. I agree that the label and willingness of some active in the research of gender violence were a little quick to jump the gun on accusing particular lines of inappropriate activity based on hearsay and taking events grossly out of context. I've been on lines where this has been an issue in other strikes and I must say CUPE 3903ers where the most considerate when it came to awareness of their roles within the strike and the membership and consideration of the issue. Furthermore the strike is by its very nature, while legal, is a violent act. Just as hegemony neo-liberal austerity is itself violent. It is no reason to accuse picketers of violence based on no evidence. We were disrupting the operation of the employer we were striking against. While violent this is our legal right as strikers experiencing the mutual pressure of a strike. Furthermore this is the only union i've ever seen where a discrimination policy is not read at the beginning of every meeting where complaints can be brought to particular union members in order for them to be investigated and resolved. Consequently people accuse each other of discrimination during the meeting, seemingly whenever it suits their particular political purposes, and often consistent with their particular research interests. This is damaging both to union solidarity but also to the causes seemingly advocated by these complaints. A policy clearly needs to be implemented where complaints can be submitted, investigated, and resolved. Anything less is meaningless and will only perpetuate an environment where discrimination is not only possible, but advantageous, and this is intolerable. Every other union does this why is our local like this.

    1. If your critique is of my particular arguments, I would appreciate it if you could articulate it that way. Am I taking rape "grossly out of context?" Am I taking a refusal to pay 8th line wages "grossly out of context?" The picket line is not inherently violent. It is possible to respond to violence in different ways. For instance, the choice to absorb the abuse of people crossing the picket line without responding in kind is a fundamentally courageous and tactically effective. But it is not violent and, for that reason, offers an alternative to the "hegemony of neo-liberal austerity."

      - Nathan

    2. My Critique was not of your particular argument, I do not condone rape or physical violence on the line, it is of 3903 membership broadening the definition and incidents of these issues to the point where people feel they cannot participate in fair or equal footing within the meetings without being castrated for it as any action including just speaking is considered white patriarchal domination. I see white members in the meetings using women as a mouthpiece just because they know they are not practically allowed to speak. As for the violence on the line my comments were simply that a strike is violent in the sense that we are disrupting the operations of our employer physically in the mutual pressure of a strike. This is a goal. Physical violence is not the goal, physical disruption is, and this disruption is inherently violent. I do not condone physically violent escallation or male domination of female picketers, and I belive our membership managed themselves well when it comes to these concerns. This post was made because I have seen very many posts accusing white male members of inappropriate action when from what I witnissed (not heard trough the telephone) 3903ers conducted themselves with great concern to these issues during the strike on the lines. More so than in any other strike I have ever been a part of. I believe it is important to acknowledge this so that when a specific incident of inappropriate action does occur, such as the sexual assault I made no refference to but you accuse me of supporting, it can be investigated and dealt with as appropriate to the accusation without such an investigation being comprimised.

  4. While your piece is and appreciated, I want to point out that a lot of the critiques you are making have also been made by the 3903 BIPOC caucus in their statement - . I don't know if you were aware of this statement. It was very widely shared on Facebook and email lists. If you were, I would have hoped that you would have shown your solidarity by mentioning the statement and the caucus.

    - a BIPOC caucus member.

    1. My sincere apologies for that omission. I was aware of the statement and had initially intended to link to it, but, to be honest, it slipped my mind as I was writing. Thank you for providing the link.

      - Nathan

    2. I have updated the post to include a link. Thank you again for bringing that to my attention.

      - Nathan

  5. smash white supremacy and patriarchy