Management Rights and the Crisis in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada: Limitations of the Reformist Left, Part One

The Socialist Project Steering Committee wrote the following on its website (Taking on the GM Shutdown: Unifor, Oshawa and Community Control) :

General Motor’s plan to end production at its Oshawa plant at the end of 2019 is a callous, cynical act by the U.S.-based multinational auto giant that needs to be challenged. After accepting $13.7-billion bailout offered by the Canadian public to the big automakers back in 2008 to keep GM and Chrysler alive (one third of which will never be recovered), the company plans will leave 2500 workers at the plant out of work, with perhaps further spinoff losses of jobs and taxes. This is a brutal blow for the home of industrial unionism in Canada and one of the long-time centres of Canadian auto production.

This view implies that GM’s decision to close the plant is somehow unfair. Why else would such a decision be called callous and cynical?

Why is it unfair? There seem to be several reasons for providing such a judgement. Firstly, GM, like many other capitalist employers, were bailed out by the so-called Canadian public (actually, the Canadian government–hardly the same thing). Secondly, “one third” of the bailout “will never be recovered.” So, you lend someone a hand–and they not only fail to appreciate your aid but bite the hand that helps him. These are two the moral objections to the closing of the Oshawa plant provided by the Socialist Project Steering Committee.

The negative consequences of the closure seem to be a further objection, but that would only be so if there was an argument against closing plants by employers in general. If the Canadian government had not bailed out GM and no funds had been lost, then GM could legitimately “leave 2500 workers at the plant out of work, with perhaps further spinoff losses of jobs and taxes.” (Just as an aside–there is little doubt that there would be substantial spinoff losses of jobs and taxes. Why the Socialist Project Steering Committee decided to add the qualifier “perhaps” is a mystery. For one description of what happens, at an experiential level, to workers’ lives when coal mines and steel plants close down, see Simon J. Charlesworth, A Phenomenology of Working-class Experience).

The article, however, does not limit itself to only two reasons for considering the decision to be unfair:

From the point of view of the workers and communities surrounding Oshawa and, indeed, the needs and concerns of the working class across the country, there is no understanding why a place so productive can be shut down. Besides directly attacking the livelihoods and economic futures of workers, the shutdown would eliminate a key component of productive capacities in Canada.

Two further reasons are thus provided: the Oshawa plant is productive, and its closing would result in a reduction in the productive capacities in Canada.

Presumably what the Committee means by productive is in terms of material production. It may also mean value added as a whole. However, as the Committee undoubtedly understands, what is productive in those terms need not transfer to productivity for capital since the issue for capital is aggregate profit, and that usually in relation to total investment (rate of profit). What is productive materially and value added need not necessarily translate into higher profits and a higher rate of profit. For example, the same value added can be distributed differently between profits and wages. And the same level of profits, if related to different aggregate costs, will result in a different rate of profit.

It seems that the Committee is using a different definition of what constitute productivity from what GM considers productivity; why else would GM decide to close the Oshawa plant? It has decided, according to its own definition of productivity, what is productive–profitability and the rate of profit.

That the Committee and GM are using different definitions of productivity becomes clearer in what follows:

There is no reason to close down the facility in Oshawa which has consistently ranked as one of the top plants in the world (and similar doubts could be raised for the four U.S. plants also slated for closure). GM could easily retool these plants, and produce both new electric and hybrid vehicles, as well as the SUVs that are dominating current markets. These plants have rested on the community and labour resources of their communities; if GM doesn’t use this productive capacity, it should be seized as community property and put to other uses.

Brutal Corporate Strategy

From the point of view of GM, and the financial markets that back GM up, the closures are part of a brutal corporate strategy to: cut overall costs; to concentrate production in hot selling profit-making trucks and SUVs; and to finance later moves to offshore production of electric vehicles (quite possibly in China as the key growth market for e-vehicles).

In what way has Oshawa consistently “ranked as one of the top plants in the world?” Perhaps it has done so in terms of level of material productivity, value added, profitability and rate of profit–or perhaps it has not. Without a further explanation of what the standards are that are being used to make such a judgement, it is impossible to say what is being claimed here. However, in the above quotation, the Committee itself recognizes that its standards and those of GM are not the same. GM has decided to close certain plants “to cut overall costs.” If overall costs are cut, with profit remaining the same, then the rate of profit increases. “From the point of view of GM,” the productivity of capital will have increased. Furthermore, a shift from production in Oshawa and other plants to “hot-selling profit-making trucks and SUVs.” Not only did GM makes its decision based on the input sides (costs), but it also made its decision on the output side (level of demand). Furthermore, there is implied an already proven profit-making market, with relatively secure profits since demand is apparently quite high for output.
Is this not what capitalist employers do? How is GM any different from other employers in this regard?

The unfairness arises from an implied critique of capitalism as such as unfair without explicitly making it so; it is couched in terms of a bailout and non-recoverable funds. However, the article confuses the two issues and does not argue against GM as such as unfair.

If the only actions that are unfair is the bailout and nonrecoverable funds, then the solution would be to seize the Oshawa plant and have GM pay back the lost funds, after which GM would be free to close down the plant.

If, on the other hand, an economy dominated by a class of employers is unfair as such, then GM’s actions are unfair and seizing the plant without compensation would be only a prelude to seizing other plants since the ownership of such plants by employers would be illegitimate.

Since the Steering Committee fails to criticize explicitly the power of employers as a class to decide what to produce where and when it wants, its criticism of GM’s “brutal corporate strategy” rings hollow.

Why, for example, did it not criticize the following?:

MASTER AGREEMENT
BETWEEN
GENERAL MOTORS OF CANADA COMPANY
AND
UNIFOR
Local No. 199 St. Catharines Local No. 222 Oshawa Local No. 636 Woodstock
Dated
September 20, 2016
(Effective: September 26, 2016)
Page 5:
SECTION IV
MANAGEMENT
(4) The Union recognizes the right of the Company to hire, promote, transfer, demote and lay off employees and to suspend, discharge or otherwise discipline employees for just cause subject to the right of any employee to lodge a grievance in the manner and to the extent as herein provided.

The Union further recognizes the right of the Company to operate and manage its business in all respects, to maintain order and efficiency in its plants, and to determine the location of its plants, the products to be manufactured, the scheduling of its production and its methods, processes, and means of manufacturing. The
Union further acknowledges that the Company has the right to make and alter, from time to time, rules and regulations to be observed by employees, which rules and regulations shall not be inconsistent with the provisions of this Agreement.

(This blog has criticized management rights on principle on a number of occasions. See    (Management Rights, Part One: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia, Management Rights, Part Two: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario,  Management (Employer) Rights, Part Three: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Manitoba,   Management Rights, Part Four: Private Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario).

The limitation of the social-reformist left are further exposed in the following:

Workers in Canada, the USA or Mexico for that matter, have no democratic control over what is being produced in our countries, or the fate of the productive facilities that produce them. Current governments of all stripes accept the free movement of capital and the domination of large investors in making key economic decisions. Trudeau, Ford and NDP governments are so committed to free trade and the wisdom of the private marketplace, that it is breathtaking to see how they fall over themselves to accept the right of GM to close down Oshawa, and limit themselves to providing Employment Insurance (EI), retraining and such.

This call for democratic control comes from out of the blue. Such a call is pure rhetoric and is not at all linked with the critique of concrete social structures that workers and community members experience on a daily basis. It is “breathtaking to see how they fall over themselves” in failing to criticize the various social structures that support the power of employers in general. Seizing the plant and managing it on democratic principles hardly need to coincide. Seizing the plant may be just an immediate reaction to the perceived threat to jobs–jobs that are hardly decent since they involve treating human beings as things (see The Money Circuit of Capital) but, nonetheless, are needed by workers if they are going to live in a society dominated by a class of employers.

A call for democratic control requires preparation. Why is there no definite critique of management rights? Why is there no definite critique of the right of employers to use workers as things legally? Why is there no definite critique of the economic dependence which characterizes so much of the lives of the working class? A critique of these structures is a necessary prelude to real democratic control by workers over the economic conditions of their own lives.

Actually, what they probably mean by “democratic control” is the regulations of employers and not the actual democratic control by workers over their own lives. Why else do they use the term “no democratic control.” They seem to object, not to the power of employers to dictate to workers in general, but to a particular form of that dictatorship–neoliberalism, where the welfare state is reduced in scope for the benefit of the class of employers.

The Committee then proceeds to criticize the weakness of Unifor’s response in the face of the announced closure of the Oshawa plant. The criticism is accurate as far as it goes, but the Committee does not bother to look at the weakness of the left and its role in feeding into that response. As already mentioned, the left does not generally criticize management rights as such. Quite to the contrary. It uses rhetoric and euphemisms, such as “decent work,” “fair wages,” (Tracy McMaster), “a fair contract” (Wayne Dealy). It fails to criticize the pairing of the Fight for $15 with the concept of “fairness,” implying that fairness can be achieved within the employer-employee relation. It fails to criticize the rhetoric of “Fair Labour Laws Save Lives.” It fails to criticize the rhetoric of “economic justice” (John Cartwright).

Were the jobs at the Oshawa plant before the announcement “decent jobs?” Was the collective agreement a “fair contract” and the wages a “fair wage?” But then magically, after the announcement, they are no longer “decent jobs?” There is no longer a “fair contract?” There is no longer a “fair wage?”

Were the labour laws fair before the announcement of the closure of the Oshawa plant fair? If so, how did they remain fair afterwards? Or did they magically become unfair?

So many questions, but the article by the Steering Committee fails to provide any answers.

A later post will look in more detail at the proposed solutions by the Steering Committee.

 

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