The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Two: Collective Bargaining and the Interests of the Working Class

Professor Jeff Noonan, as contained in a reference to his work in a previous post( The Poverty of Academic Marxism, Part One), claimed that historical materialism must evolve. This seems to imply that his form of historical materialism, under present conditions, is superior to the historical materialism proposed by Marx.

Professor Noonan claims the following (from Thinkings 4Collected Interventions, Readings, Evocations, 2014-2015, page 8:

A glaring example of the dangers of striking occurred in February of 2012, when workers in London, Ontario were taught a brutal object lesson in the reality of global capitalism. Then Canadian Auto Workers on strike against the locomotive maker Electro-motive were given an impossible choice. The company (a subsidiary of Caterpillar) demanded that the union agree to cut their existing wages in half, or face the closure of the plant. Seeing that what was at stake was not just their plant, but the future of the union movement in the Ontario manufacturing sector, these workers heroically sacrificed themselves, went on strike, and watched their livelihood move to Muncie, Indiana. Had they not stood up to the brutish tactics of Electro-motive, every manufacturer in the country would have been encouraged to make the same demands. What boss wouldn’t want to cut her or his workers’ wages in half? While the jobs were lost, the massive public outcry against legalized extortion preserved the possibility of meaningful collective bargaining in other plants, at least for the time being.

What does “meaningful collective bargaining” mean for Professor Noonan? It is difficult to know since he does not explicitly provide an answer, but the following may what he means (page 12):

v) The University will cease collecting union dues from members and forwarding those dues to WUFA (Article 4:01 and 4:02).”

Now, on one level, these changes are not alarming, for they are changes that would occur in the case of a lockout. What is most disconcerting is that they were unexpectedly thrown into the room when it appeared that both sides were making progress by negotiating and not threatening. Both teams bargained past the lockout deadline and had scheduled meetings for the next day. The assumption amongst members– naïve, as it turned out– was that both sides had found common ground and were splitting the differences that get split for the sake of reaching an agreement with which everyone can live.

Meaningful bargaining is where the parties engage in negotiations in order to achieve a common ground “for the sake of reaching an agreement with which everyone can live.”

Now, in typical collective bargaining, any member of a negotiating team knows that all items on the table will not be achieved. There will be items that are considered more important. The relative strength of the parties to the negotiations in the particular conditions will affect what can be realistically be achieved in the short term (and this includes the possible resources used in lockouts and strikes).

But why refer to the idea of an “agreement with which everyone can live?” Does Mr. Noonan mean by that an attitude by workers that, given the balance of class forces, this is the best that can be achieved, but otherwise it is not something that “everyone can live with”–but have to do so for the time being? That is to say, that the collective agreement is something that does not express fairness but rather expresses the weakness of workers collectively until such time as they no longer need to negotiate agreements that entail their subordination to the power of employers (and managers as their representatives)? Do the various management rights clauses that have so far been posted on this blog express “an agreement with which everyone can live?” Or do they express the asymmetrical power relations between unionized workers and the class power of employers?

What would Professor Noonan say to a worker who works under the collective agreement at the university where he works (see Management Rights, Part Five: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario) if that worker did not find not only the particular collective agreement unfair but all collective agreements unfair since they presuppose the subordination of the will of workers to the power of an employer (and his or her representatives)?

There is a world of difference between understanding that a collective agreement may be the best that can be hoped for under existing conditions of class power and the view that a collective agreement is something that people can live with. In the first case, there is a smoldering presence of a feeling of unfairness, which can surface when conditions change. In the second case, there is a feeling of fairness, and workers who breach a collective agreement can legitimately be reprimanded. Professor Noonan’s failure to specify any difference between the two probably expresses his own working conditions, which are undoubtedly superior to most workers who are employees.

Imagine a situation where a group of thugs decide to set up a process of collective bargaining between themselves and people whom they have sexually abused. Representatives of the sexually abused engage in negotiations with representatives of the thugs. Under given circumstances, the thugs have much more power than those who are sexually abused. If they come to an agreement over the extent of sexual abuse (with both parties bargaining in good faith), would professor Noonan call the resulting agreement an agreement “with which everyone can agree with?”

Yes, workers are not sexually abused, but as employees they are used as things for purposes over which they lack control (see The Money Circuit of Capital). Why should anyone who is an employee feel that they can live with such an agreement except for the recognition that they have to do so, given the necessarily unequal power relations between them and the class of employers?

Despite Professor Noonan’s radical rhetoric, his hidden assumption is that working for an employer is not really all that bad. How else could he refer to an agreement “with which everyone can agree with?”

In the movie Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee is fighting against several people, and he runs into a chamber where the walls suddenly close on all sides. He cannot escape, realistically. He sits down and accepts the situation–not because it is fair but, presumably, because he lacks the power to oppose the situation. This is what the collective-bargaining process should express and not such social-reformist rhetoric as accepting a contract “with which everyone can agree.”

Professor Noonan reminds seems to forget–or perhaps he never learned–the lesson of Bob Dylan’s song, Like a Rolling Stone. In that song, Dylan sings the following:

You never turned around to see the frowns
on the jugglers and the clowns
when they all did tricks for you.

Although I can never be sure, the hidden resentment that people feel in the face of those in power is probably well expressed in the expression of a Guatemalan (perhaps a peasant) sitting on a roadside when the military was there. (See at around 2:30, Guatemala–Pete Sears) Guatemalan peasants had to live with the extreme oppression characteristic of Guatemala in the later 1970s and especially in the early 1980s, but they need not “learn to live with it.”

Professor Noonan may argue that he merely needed to qualify his reference to collective agreements “with which everyone can agree,” as I have done above, but since he failed to qualify such an assertion, it can be inferred that Professor Noonan does not really come to grips with the daily oppression and the daily grind that most workers face at his own workplace, let alone in the wider city of Windsor and, indeed, in the province of Ontario, in Canada and in the world.

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