Forum 2: Performance of Labour

Witnessing the Growth of a Collective Animal

Sebastian Samur
Elon University

I write the account below as a future member of CUPE 3902. Though the University of Toronto strike did not affect me directly, its indirect effects for me were real and omnipresent. My classes were moved off campus in support of the strike and the growing rallies in which I occasionally participated sent a message that was loud and clear. It was fascinating to watch the growth of the strike movement in spring 2015, and though its conclusion left one with mixed feelings, it also left many reasons for optimism in the future.

1 I remember an early student’s union meeting that addressed the likelihood of a strike. Many potential scenarios were discussed, and while the strike appeared likely to occur, it seemed as though it would only last a few days. The grievances expressed were relatively subdued, and the possible outcomes presented, from best to worst case, were not very encouraging. The weight and urgency of the situation had not set in, as students weren’t particularly optimistic and heavy thoughts about the months ahead were either absent or held privately.

2 This all changed when the strike was called, albeit gradually. Given the time that had passed since the last strike in January 2000, there was a huge learning curve as the collective animal the strike movement would become learned to walk on its legs. What does it mean to strike and how do you do it effectively? The first days were marked by trial-and-error experimentation, as well as the continued belief that it would not last long. As a non-member of the union, I only saw brief glimpses through email and social media of what was taking place. Focus was fragmented with the uncertainty of what was beginning to unfold. It takes group coordination to make the animal move.

3 A week or so into the strike, two things became clear. First, the strike would likely last longer than anticipated. Second, and more importantly, came the realisation that individual problems relating to graduate life were anything but individual. As students between departments and faculties collaborated, it became clear there was a common struggle. Eased by its gradual erosion, many had learned to privately accept exacerbating difficulties, and subsequently forgot their gravity and ubiquity. But the strike served as a catalyst, leading to a growth spurt in the political animal. Suddenly focus became more united, outreach increased, and collective work creating songs, signs and puppets accelerated. As students stood side-by-side, leading to a number of rallies at Queen’s Park, the size of the animal became increasingly evident, serving to strengthen everyone performing within it.

4 In the final weeks of the strike, the complexity of the creature began to emerge. Differences in priorities and desired outcomes hampered the collective performance, eventually leading to unsatisfactory binding arbitration. It’s not easy to unite thousands of people in opposition to a few in power. Division is the animal’s greatest weakness, but it must be overcome as the shared objectives far outweigh the relatively minor differences.

5 The animal lies dormant now, but very much alive. In two years’ time, it may wake up again. This time I’ll be a part of it, contributing another body to the collective performance. The animal will continue to evolve, but not from infancy. The animal has grown, it has strength, and it has learned.