A finger points upwards. Balanced on top of the pointing finger is a cut-out of an eye. Stacked on top of the eye is an image of a femme person, sans eyes. The background for the image is white with a black circle positioned in the middle of the image, behind the stack.

On Strike Actions, Structure Tests, and the 2024 gathering of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences (or “Congress”)

I wish to reflect further on the situation that is unfolding at this moment in time (May 15, 2024) at McGill university—mainly, that the Association of McGill Professors of Law (AMPL) at McGill is on strike and expects to still be on strike by the time the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences annual gathering (often referred to simply as “Congress”) descends upon the university for ten days this June. Congress bills itself as the largest academic gathering in Canada, possibly even worldwide, and one of the scholarly associations I am a member of is trying to figure out whether to relocate their conference (or not).

I know this because I am a former member of this association’s executive board, and I was invited to participate in the conversations surrounding and leading up to this decision. In addition to receiving and responding to emails intended for board members and attending two emergency board meetings, I also received all correspondence sent to conference registrants.

Before I can explore what is transpiring, I feel I need to first share my own stance on the matter. As a strong supporter of workers, worker collectives, and unions, I already headed into the situation with an inclination towards supporting the strikers by refusing to cross the picket line. Unlike some of my colleagues, who found the timing of the strike to be distasteful, I recognized the tactic as legitimate and fair. It’s not uncommon for organizers of social movements to escalate pressure over the course of their campaigns in order to gain the attention of dominant decision makers who appear to either be ignoring the movement (and its collection of claims and demands) or refusing to take it seriously (Alinsky, 1989). By no means is the escalation of pressure a tactic employed solely by social movements or unions (read about how oil industry and lobby groups used a version of this tactic here).

Interestingly, I don’t believe members of AMPL want a strike that overlaps with Congress. Why? Simply put, it’s risky. First, AMPL is small and local to the university. Unlike other national, provincial, and territorial unions, they do not have the support that is more or less guaranteed with a broader membership. Certainly, they may (and should) hope for the sympathy and solidarity of others, but it is not guaranteed. For this reason and others, I believe they wish to avoid drawing out their labour action so that it coincides with Congress. It seems to me that it would not take much for the media and public opinion to become sympathetic to accounts that side with views of the striking union that are less than favourable. It’s not difficult to imagine how this sympathy could be swayed into support for McGill and, thereby, the Employer, or used to stoke anti-union sentiment (see: Black & Silver, 2012 and Smith & Stevens, 2019; see also Thompson, 2023).

As a result, I think it is McGill that benefits from the timing of this action—not AMPL. I think McGill is betting on the strike being viewed as an irritation and inconvenience by associations who planned to participate in Congress. By stoking the irritation and discontent of their scholarly colleagues, McGill can undermine the collective confidence of AMPL’s members who have otherwise maintained a unified front in their decision-making. It’s quite smart, really, although I suppose I should expect nothing less from McGill.

While this is concerning, what concerns me more is the broader picture and the implications this has as a ‘structure test’ moment for labour and worker collectives in Canadian postsecondary institutions. As Jane McAlevey (2019) writes, in order to be successful “ordinary workers are forced to do two things: build unbreakable solidarity by overcoming the many divisions perfected and deployed by the bosses, and develop what organizers call a tight, effective workplace structure” (para 6). McAlevey, who is a  prominent union organizer, author, and Senior Policy Fellow at the University of California, describes structure tests as moments where the strength of a collective is tested in order to better understand the collective’s weaker spots—what they are, where they lie, and how they might be strengthened or further weakened.

Although structure tests may be used mostly by labour organizers, there is nothing stopping employers and dominant decision makers from co-opting the strategy as a way to undermine the power and momentum of a movement. In this way, I beg others to consider the following: What message or messages are broadcasted if Congress association members decide to carry on as if unbothered by the strike? Or by associations whose members talk only of the strike as a nuisance?

Personally, I’m deeply vexed by the idea that those watching the events unfold will see a group of disgruntled academics who are overpaid instead of a group of public employees experiencing increasing employment precarity, further threats to cut funding, and a growing sentiment that public institutions should be privatized. The wise way out—that I see right now, at least for me—is to join in, which is why you’ll see me travelling to Montreal as planned in order to participate in the AMPL picket line. That’s why I also plan to fold this moment into my praxis, where I’ll continue to reflect on and learn from it and others.

References

Alinsky, S. D. (1989). Rules for radicals: A practical primer for realistic radicals (Vintage Books ed., reprint). Vintage Books.

Black, E., & Silver, J. (2012). The Challenges Facing Labour. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. https://policyalternatives.ca/publications/commentary/challenges-facing-labour

Davis, P. (2019, April 4). Jane McAlevey on how to organize for power [Podcast]. Current Affairs. Retrieved May 15, 2024, from https://www.patreon.com/posts/in-conversation-25848915

McAlevey, J. (2019, January). The Strike as the ultimate structure test. Jacobin. https://jacobin.com/2019/01/strike-strategy-john-steuben-review-organizing

North, H. (2024, April 24). McGill law professors launch unlimited strike. The Montreal Gazette. https://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/mcgill-law-professors-launch-unlimited-strike

Smith, C., & Stevens, A. (2019). The architecture of modern anti-unionism in Canada: Class struggle and the erosion of workers’ collective freedoms. Capital & Class, 43(3), 459–481. https://doi.org/10.1177/0309816818815262

Thompson, M. (2023, September 11). Busting the union-busters. Briarpatch. https://briarpatchmagazine.com/articles/view/busting-the-union-busters

Woodside, N. B., John. (2023, December 13). The oily backroom campaign to sink the federal emissions cap. Canada’s National Observer. https://www.nationalobserver.com/2023/12/13/news/oily-campaign-sink-federal-emissions-cap

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