What’s Left, Toronto? Part Five

As I indicated in an earlier post, on September 19, 2018, several leftist activists gave a talk about what was to be done in the city of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The talks were posted on the Socialist Project website on October 7, 2018 (also posted on YouTube) (What’s Left, Toronto? Radical Alternatives for the City Election). As I indicated in my earlier posts, over the next few months, I will be analyzing some or all of the talks from a Marxian perspective.

The fourth presenter is preceded by a few comments from Herman Rosenfeld, the moderator of the series. Mr. Rosenfeld made the following remarks about the next presenter, James Nugent: “James was involved in some of the struggles to try to reclaim and create decent jobs in a number of neighbourhoods in Toronto.” I had occasion to remark about a similar comment when Mr. Rosenfeld opened the series. I wrote in the first post:

He [Mr. Rosenfeld] mentions “decent, secure jobs with decent pay.” Why any self-declared socialist feels compelled to declare, at this stage of capitalism, to pair the term “decent” with “jobs” and “decent” with “pay” other than fear of alienating his social-reformist allies or due to opportunism is beyond me.”  I leave it to the reader to make her/his own judgement. (See further What’s Left, Toronto? Part One).

Now, let us proceed with an analysis of James Nugent’s presentation. Mr. Nugent refers to community benefits agreements (CBAs). They have employment equity or affirmative action conditions attached to them. Mr. Nugent refers to the Eglinton Crosstown CBA and the Woodbine Casino CBAs. A CBA imposes conditions of employment that are linked to benefiting the community or communities where a project is being built. For example, in the case of the Woodbine Casino CBA,

The agreement requires that 40 per cent of all new employees will be hired from the local area, with some of those jobs filled with the assistance of social organizations in the community. The agreement also stipulates that 10 per cent of all construction-related job hours will have to be filled using apprentices or journeypersons from the surrounding area. (Council Approves Community Benefits Agreement for Woodbine Casino)

Mr. Nugent argues that there are several problems with such agreements, ranging from trade offs between different neighbourhoods or different social groups to merely reformist efforts or even neoliberal CBAs or negotiated neoliberalism.

Nonetheless, he identifies some positive aspects to CBAs, such as bringing to the public eye in an the idea of employment equity again, which had been suppressed since the 1990s; employment equity or affirmative action has an advantage over protests of being an offensive rather than an offensive tactic. Furthermore, it also permitted grassroots social groups and unions to meet in the same room in order to discuss issues rather than going their separate ways, which is usually the case.

Despite these positive benefits, Mr. Nugent’s focus is allegedly elsewhere: he argues that the CBAs have a radical potential if the focus is not on the outcomes but rather on the potential for radical organizing. He outlines five principles for transforming CBAs into a radical movement.

The first principle is that work on a CBA should not focus on results or outcomes but rather on organizing for power and building a radical movement that is capable of forcing the government to give them what they want. There should not be a continual process of negotiations for meager reforms. The goal should be for building a powerful social movement.

The second principle is that it is necessary to raise expectations. This raising of expectations, however, needs to be done honestly. It is necessary to indicate that no positive outcomes may result but that if no one tries, then there will automatically be no positive changes. It is in the process of trying to win honestly that power structures will be created.

The third principle (it is unclear to me whether raising expectations honestly is the third principle, but I assume it forms part of the second principle) is that coalitions that lead to the creation of structures of power need to be led by grassroots groups, not by social agencies that are too tied to the state and funding.

The fourth principle is the building of a broad-based coalition for struggle. Our strength is in numbers. What is necessary is link up issues, such as the CBA with affordable housing groups, anti-poverty groups, groups working with ex-offenders and anti-privation groups.

The fifth principle is that it is necessary to engage, to organize and not focus on servicing the needs of a few (however real such needs are). Employment equity is important, but what is more important is consciousness-raising. People involved in CBAs need to understand the broader picture, understand that they are part of a social movement and themselves become leaders of such a movement.

Mr. Nugent then seems to add a sixth principle: leadership needs to emerge from the social movement itself and not from some professional individuals (such as unionists). In this way, a radical democratic and decentralized organizing structure of power will emerge.

Mr. Nugent sums up by arguing that CBAs need to become a movement building tool to build radical and lasting power.

These principles seem sound for developing some power, but what kind of power? And what does Mr. Nugent mean by radical? Like other presenters, he never gets around to discussing what that means. He never relates this to the issue of how the building of power is to be related to the power of employers at work–a daily experience for billions worldwide and millions of workers within Canada.

The idea of radical democratic organizations sounds very fair and open-minded. However, it is, in the context of lives dominated by the power of employers as a class, just rhetoric. Building structures of power that fail to have the focus of taking back control of our lives by taking back and reorganizing the property of the conditions for producing our lives (the machines, buildings and land required for us to produce our own lives) are bound to fail.

In other words, it is an issue of the kind of structures of power that are built that will decide whether they are really radical or not. Are such structures that are built designed to fight against the power of employers as a class? Or are they designed to fight within such structures? For example, what is Mr. Nugent’s position with respect to collective-bargaining structures? To unions? Such structures, if challenged by grassroots leaders, are bound to push back and fight against such grassroots leaders. He skirts the question entirely by claiming that leadership needs to arise organically and not be part of professional organizations (such as unions).

He also skirts the question by claiming that traditional work in CBAs is valuable in itself; he probably fears alienating union leadership directly. Thus, John Cartwright, president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, indirectly endorses traditional CBAs; in the fall 2016 Toronto & York Region Labour Council newsletter, Labour Action, Mr. Cartwright, in his “Message from the President,” refers to such agreements; he is also a member of the Community Benefits Ontario network.

Employment equity or affirmative action as a goal need not of course be opposed and can be beneficial to certain groups, but if they are framed entirely within the general social relation of employer-employee relations, then they will inevitably have limits imposed on them not just externally but internally. The participants will subjectively consider employment equity without considering how to frame such a policy in such a way that it questions the class of employers.

Where is there evidence that Mr. Cartright questions the legitimacy of the power of employers as a class? As I wrote in another post:

Consider the rhetoric of John Cartwright, president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, in his open letter of January 30, 2018, wrote the following: “We need to fight for labour law reform including broader based bargaining so that precarious workers can have a vehicle in which to achieve dignity and economic justice.”

What does Mr. Cartwright mean by economic justice? Collective agreements? Since he does not explain what he means (a characteristic of rhetoric), we will assume that he means collective agreements between employers and unions.

Collective agreements, as I have persistently argued, are generally better than just relying only on employment law, but to imply that they somehow embody economic justice as Mr. Cartwright does justifies the continued treatment of human beings as things, as means to ends defined by dictators called employers (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

Mr. Nugent, perhaps, believes, like Mr. Rosenfeld, that the goal should be “decent jobs.” That is to say, the goal is to create unionized jobs for all. For anyone who has read some of the posts on this blog, it is obvious that the concept of “decent jobs,” with their associated collective agreement (and collective bargaining), are generally better than jobs without unions, without collective bargaining and without collective agreements.

Collective agreements, however, as this blog constantly stresses, are holding agreements that continue to express exploitation and oppression. A few privileged sets of workers (such as tenured university professors) may seem to have decent jobs, but even that situation has eroded over time. Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that such relatively privileged workers exist in a sea of workers, whether unionized or not, who are things to be used by employers systematically and legally. University professors cannot engage in research, teaching and administrative activities unless there are other workers who produce their food, clothing, cars and so forth.

This division of labour is implied in a poem by one of the most famous poets of Gutemala, Otto Rene Castillo (from   Apolitical Intellectuals):

Apolitical Intellectuals

One day
the apolitical
intellectuals
of my country
will be interrogated
by the simplest
of our people.

They will be asked
what they did
when their nation died out
slowly,
like a sweet fire
small and alone.

No one will ask them
about their dress,
their long siestas
after lunch,
no one will want to know
about their sterile combats
with “the idea
of the nothing”
no one will care about
their higher financial learning.

They won’t be questioned
on Greek mythology,
or regarding their self-disgust
when someone within them
begins to die
the coward’s death.

They’ll be asked nothing
about their absurd
justifications,
born in the shadow
of the total lie.

On that day
the simple men will come.

Those who had no place
in the books and poems
of the apolitical intellectuals,
but daily delivered
their bread and milk,
their tortillas and eggs,
those who drove their cars,
who cared for their dogs and gardens
and worked for them,
and they’ll ask:

“What did you do when the poor
suffered, when tenderness
and life
burned out of them?”

Apolitical intellectuals
of my sweet country,
you will not be able to answer.

A vulture of silence
will eat your gut.

Your own misery
will pick at your soul.

And you will be mute in your shame.

Collective agreements do not exist in a vacuum but form part of interrelated social relations; to exclude such relations when considering the nature and legitimacy of collective agreements is to empty collective agreements of the background conditions which give them meaning in the first place.

In relation to Mr. Nugent’s presentation, the vagueness of the concept of what is radical permits Mr. Nugent to propose what he calls radical without really detailing what he means–a very unfortunate characteristic of these presentations so far. Vagueness of meaning permits individuals to evade intellectual (and, ultimately, practical) responsibility for their beliefs, as John Dewey, the American philosopher of education noted long ago (from How We Think, 1910/2011, How We Think, pages 129-130):

A being that cannot understand at all is at least protected from mis-understandings. But beings that get knowledge by means of inferring and interpreting, by judging what things signify in relation to one another, are constantly exposed to the danger of mis-apprehension, mis-understanding, mis-taking—taking a thing amiss. A constant source of misunderstanding and mistake is indefiniteness of meaning. Through vagueness of meaning we misunderstand other people, things, and ourselves; through its ambiguity we distort and pervert. Conscious distortion of meaning may be enjoyed as nonsense; erroneous meanings, if clear-cut, may be followed up and got rid of. But vague meanings are too gelatinous to offer matter for analysis, and too pulpy to afford support to other beliefs. They evade testing and responsibility. Vagueness disguises the unconscious mixing together of different meanings, and facilitates the substitution of one meaning for another, and covers up the failure to have any precise meaning at all. It is the aboriginal logical sin—the source from which flow most bad intellectual consequences. Totally to eliminate indefiniteness is impossible; to reduce it in extent and in force requires sincerity and vigor. To be clear or perspicuous a meaning must be detached, single, self-contained, homogeneous as it were, throughout.

Mr. Nugent is certainly correct to emphasize the need for focusing on having individuals and groups start to look at the bigger picture, but he fails to delve into the nature of that bigger picture.

My prediction is that, in say three years, the issue of the power of employers as a class will not be addressed by Mr. Nugent; his radicalism probably will extend only within the limits defined by such power.

What’s Left, Toronto? Certainly not a radical agenda–so far.

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