Do Collective Agreements Convert Working for an Employer into Decent Work?

Tracy McMaster is a union steward for Local 561 of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU); she was also vice-president of the local union at one point. However, she prides herself most on her activity of organizing part-time college workers (she works at a college as a library technician). . On March 25, 2019, in a short video (Stewards Assembly 2019), she refers to the need to organize part-time college workers (where she works). She also refers to “a full-time decent unionized job.” This implies that as long as it is full-time and unionized, the job is decent.

Of course, organizing part-time workers so that they obtain increased wages or salary and better benefits (or receive benefits in the first place since many part-time workers do not receive benefits at all) is something to be praised. However, the standard of evaluation for what constitutes a decent job is whether there is a collective agreement that protects a certain level of wages and working conditions.

Such a standard is never questioned. Ms. McMaster never questions that standard throughout the video. Indeed, right after the quoted reference “full-time decent unionized jobs,” she ends with the rhetorical question: Right? Exactly. She believes that a full-time, unionized jobs are by definition decent. To question such a view does not form part of her union activity.

She argues that part-time workers were working under “unjust, awful condition…takes away the dignity of everybody’s job.” Since employers (presumably, or perhaps also students and others–she leaves it unspecified what she means by “people treating others with disrespect”) treat part-time workers with little respect, then full-time unionized workers find that others do not treat them with respect.

She points out that she received solidarity from both the local union presidents in 24 different colleges as well as various labour councils throughout Ontario and especially the labour council in Toronto.

She then claims that it was “an amazing, amazing accomplishment” that the part-time workers “just last week have their first collective agreement.” She is “so proud” that she “was involved in this project.”

Of course, she should feel that she, along with others, has accomplished something. The question is: Is it enough? She herself claims that the job of the labour movement is to find workers who need a union and to organize them. The standard or definition of what constitutes decent work is, then: organized workers who belong to a union.

When I questioned this definition when Ms. McMaster called for solidarity for striking brewery workers here in Toronto because all the striking workers wanted were “decent jobs” and “fair wages,” , the “labour movement” reacted to my questioning with hostility (For example, Wayne Dealy, executive director for Local 3902 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), called me a “condescending prick.”)

Let us take a look at the collective agreement–“an amazing, amazing accomplishment” according to Tracy McMaster.

The memorandum of agreement contains typical clauses in a collective agreement: union representation, rights of union representatives, within limits, to take time off for union business (with compensation in some cases); work hours and scheduling, wages, rate of increase of wages and when that will take affect, period of paying the wages, shift premium, reimbursement of tuition and maintenance of salary if time off is required for courses approved by the employer, kilometrage allowance, developmental leave for furthering academic or technical skills that will enhance their work for the College, holidays, vacations, personal leave without pay, bereavement leave, jury/witness duty, citizenship leave, pregnancy leave, parental leave, health and safety (provision of clothing, work stations, safety devices, environmental conditions, seniority and its loss, layoff and recall, waiver of rights/severance, job postings/promotions, excluded positions, complaints/grievances, duration (until January 31, 2021).

This set of clauses is certainly likely better than wages and working conditions for part-time workers in many industries. As a consequence, as I have indicated in various posts, unions are much more preferable than non-unionized settings for many workers (although wages and working conditions for other industries should also be compared to gain a more accurate picture of workers’ situations in various non-unionized and unionized settings. Fear of unionization by some employers may motivate them to enhance wages and working conditions in non-unionized industries.)

Granted that, should we still not ask whether such jobs are decent?

How does the above change the general power of employers to treat workers as things that do not participate in the formulation of the goals of the organization to which they belong? Thus, the management rights clause states, in “Memorandum of Settlement:
The College Employer Council for the College of Applied Arts and Technology and Ontario Public Service Employees Union on behalf of the College Support Staff Part-Time”:

5 MANAGEMENT FUNCTIONS

Union Acknowledgements

The Union acknowledges that it is the exclusive function of the Colleges to:
•maintain order, discipline and efficiency;
•hire, discharge, transfer, classify, assign, appoint, promote, demote, lay off, recall and suspend or otherwise discipline employees subject to the right to lodge a grievance as provided for in this Agreement;
•generally to manage the College and without restricting the generality of the foregoing, the right to plan, direct and control operations, facilities, programs, courses, systems and procedures, direct its personnel, determine complement, organization, methods and the number, location and positions required from time to time, the number and location of campuses and facilities, services to be performed, the scheduling of assignments and work, the extension, limitation, curtailment or cessation of operations and all other rights and responsibilities not specifically modified elsewhere in this Agreement.

The Colleges agree that these functions will be exercised in a manner consistent with the provisions of this Agreement.

Ms. McMaster does not even bother to explore whether her characterization of inclusion of such part-time workers under the rule of managerial power–despite the existence of a collective agreement–actually expresses something decent. She ignores completely the management-rights clause and idealizes the collective agreement. This is typical of the social-democratic, reformist left.

Despite Ms. McMaster’s rhetoric to the contrary, the collective agreement cannot be characterized as amazing–unless you have a low standard of what amazing means. Part-time workers now have some protection from arbitrary treatment by employers (subject to a grievance process) and some control over their working lives. However, the collective agreement only limits management rights–like all collective agreements. It does not prevent workers at the various colleges from being used, day after day, for purposes over which they have no control (see The Money Circuit of Capital). To call this “dignity” is rhetoric. It is undignified and humiliating. All workers deserve to control their lives collectively–and that does not mean by limiting such control via management rights.

There is, of course, little point in trying to convince Ms. McMaster and other trade unionists of their lack of critical distance from collective agreements and collective bargaining. They wholeheartedly identify with the process and consider any questioning of such a process and its results to be tantamount to insanity.

It is better to practice the politics of exposure–showing the limitations of their own point of view and the limitations of what their own standards of evaluation for justice and fairness (in the video, Ms. McMaster wears a t-shirt with the inscription “We Stand For Fairness!”). Behind her, there is a poster with what appears to be the inscription “The Future Needs Good Jobs.”

The future certainly does not good jobs–but jobs controlled by workers and their community–without employers.

The future of good jobs for the social-democratic left, however, is just more of the same–collective agreements and the daily grind of working under the dictatorship of employers, limiting their power but not struggling to abolish it.

What if a worker works in a unionized setting but does not find that the work reflects being a decent job? For unionists, the worker should try to change working conditions through the next round of bargaining. However, if the worker finds working for any employer to be objectionable, unionists having nothing to say–except “Suck it up.” Or, alternatively, they will express the rhetoric of “decent work” and so forth and ignore the reality of managerial power and how degrading it is for a majority of workers to be dictated by a minority of representatives of employers.

Ms. McMaster, like her social-democratic colleagues, have a lot to answer for when they idealize collective agreements. They ultimately justify the dictatorship of employers over workers despite their rhetoric to the contrary.

It is, of course, ultimately up to workers themselves whether they wish to organize for purposes of remaining within the limits of the power of the class of employers or whether they wish to organize for going beyond that power. The attempt to go beyond that power is both much more difficult and much more risky. On the other hand, given the emergence of right-wing movements and political parties, it is also risky organizing only to limit the power of employers.

To sum up: Evidently, it it has been argued that the answer to the question whether collective agreements convert working for employers into decent work depends on the level of your standard for deciding what decent work is. The level of many unionists is the collective agreement itself. I have argued, in this and other posts, that level is wholly inadequate. Workers deserve a much higher standard, but to achieve such a standard requires going beyond limitations to employer power and to the power of their representatives via management; it requires questioning any agreement between employers and workers as embodying decent work.

We deserve much better than just collective agreements. We deserve to control our own lives collectively.

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