The Limitations of Social-Democracy in the Face of the Coronavirus

John Cartwright is the president of Toronto and York Labour District Council. According to the website of this Council:

The core belief of unions is in solidarity. We want every one of our members to feel they belong, to appreciate the gains that unions have made for working people, and to have a sense of our common purpose. For all of us, fairness matters. Winning union members to embrace those common values is one of the most important tasks we have.

It is in that context that we address the challenge of tackling systemic racism and building stronger unions.

By working together, we can nurture inclusive workplaces and strengthen our shared commitment to our union’s shared values of equality, respect, justice and dignity for all.

This sounds very radical. However, the claim that “fairness matters” and similar statements do not address the issue of whether Mr. Cartwright opposes the power of employers as a class or whether he accepts such power and merely aims to modify such power to the advantage of workers and the community.

To answer this question, we need to look at another statement made by Mr. Cartwright:

Speaking notes for CAW-CEP – A Moment of Truth Workshop

By John Cartwright, President Toronto and York Regional Labour Council

February 25, 2012

COMMUNITY POWER AND POLITICAL BARGAINING

  • Since its start, our movement has undertaken two kinds of bargaining – collective bargaining to determine terms and conditions in the workplace; and political bargaining to determine the conditions of life both inside and outside the workplace
  • The Canadian labour movement has fundamentally defined itself as a social union movement, guided by the slogan “What we wish for ourselves, we also wish for others”.
  • That has led to us taking a stance from the earliest days to speak out for public education, universal healthcare, public pensions, unemployment insurance, public transit, affordable housing and wide variety of social services
  • Those have been achieved through a combination of building mass popular movements and formal political action – the US experience serves as a sobering reminder of how narrow the political window can be without the existence of a social democratic party with labour roots, as we have with the NDP and PQ, despite their shortcomings

What are the shortcomings of the NDP (and PQ)? There is no elaboration, but at least we get a clearer idea of what Mr. Cartwright means by fairness–capitalism with a human face, or the welfare state of old.

This view is also expressed in the following:

JUST LABOUR vol. 8 (Spring 2006) [page) 92

EQUITY BARGAINING IN THE NEW ECONOMY

John Cartwright, President, Toronto and York Region Labour Council,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

When thinking about equity bargaining in the new economy we need to think about
both collective bargaining and political bargaining strategies. The gains of the union movement have been built on pursuing both of these strategies.In greater Toronto, out of the 2.3 million paid work force, over 1 million workers earn less than the
official poverty level. The vast majority of those workers are women and workers of colour. If we are going to talk about bargaining for equity, we need to address how to build power to bargain gains for these workers and how to transform
ourselves to build power.

The Labour Council is launching a major initiative – a framework for dozens of campaigns called A Million Reasons, because there are a million workers in this city below the poverty line and therefore a million reasons to raise wages, to improve labour law, and to improve standards and social programs.

In this framework we see four pieces crucial to building trade union power in today’s economy:

1. Protect good jobs in the public sector and private sector. That means that every
union needs to get involved in supporting each other’s struggles.

2. Bargain to raise standards sector by sector by establishing common bargaining. For example, we need to bargain standards for the hotel industry in the city, not just bargain with each hotel separately.

3. Mass organizing, especially with workers of colour. We need to forge ties and be
involved in the community organizing that is going on in local, ethnic communities,
asking them to tell us how to best support their struggles.

4. Use our power to protect and strengthen the social wage –all of those programs people think of as government programs. We need to reclaim these as the
programs we fought for and won politically – including workers’ compensation, health care, public education, child care, etc. The social wage is crucial, especially for low-wage workers of colour to achieve equity.

We certainly should try to increase standards for a whole industry and not just for a particular employer, and we should fight for improved community conditions, increases in the minimum wage and more social supports (the social wage).

Mr. Cartwright’s implicit standard, though, is “good jobs”–both in the private and public sectors. Good or decent jobs will not only lift those below the poverty out of poverty but will ensure that a social wage will be protected: “public education, public education, universal healthcare, public pensions, unemployment insurance, public transit, affordable housing and wide variety of social services.”

I have criticized Mr. Cartwright’s views before (Ontario Looks Right–With Some Help From the “Left”), but what inspired me to look a little closer at Mr. Cartwright’s views was an email I received from him today, March 24, 2020, related to the coronavirus crisis:

Dear Fred,

Every day, political leaders at all levels of government are making new announcements to respond to COVID-19 impacts, on both people and the economy. These have been crucial steps to ensure public safety and financial stabilization. Nobody knows how long this crisis will last, but we do know that when it finally recedes our world will look very different.

We cannot truly address the COVID-19 crisis if the responses entrench the social and economic dynamics that made us so vulnerable in the first place. Now is the time to remind our decision makers that their policies must not only seem fair for today but must also correct the growing imbalances in our society that are leaving too many of our neighbours behind.

Perhaps now more than ever, we see clearly that divestment in our public services and safety net has always been, in reality, divestment in ourselves. When any one person in Canada can’t access basic water and sanitation, medicines that they need or a fair wage, then we are all vulnerable.

This crisis hasn’t just created new disasters, it has taken root within the flaws of our existing system. Inequality in Canada has meant that now, in this time of deep need, we risk sacrificing the health and safety of vulnerable people for whom the social safety net has been weakened.

This inequality has been with us for generations, whether we consider the long-standing boil water advisories for First Nations communities or the ongoing austerity measures in our health care systems. The impact of social and political disparity puts many Canadians at increased risk because not everyone has access to basic lines of first defence such as secure housing or access to a doctor.

Governments across the country have taken quick steps to expand programs like Employment Insurance and Emergency Benefits, granting sick time, and pausing evictions or water shut-offs. Health care workers have again become heroes instead of targets for conservative politicians. Most importantly, people are re-discovering the reason why past generations decided to create strong public services that reach every community. Reinvestment in our public services and social safety net is the right thing to do – not only now, during COVID-19, but permanently in Canadian society.

Our economic system has allowed a small portion of society to gain the vast majority of benefits. Too many politicians have divested in public services and increased corporate loopholes, resulting in a reduced social safety net that sacrifices more and more people to the very real risks of unaffordable housing, lower access to health care, precarious work or, of course, to COVID-19. The climate crisis means that we will see an increase in health and extreme weather emergencies, making a just transition into jobs that bolster our environmental and social health even more pressing.

The expected bailout for the oil and gas industry is the exact opposite of this approach. That industry suffers from an unrelated and untreatable crisis of global price wars and a world that is leaving it behind for greener solutions. Instead of pouring good money after bad, our governments should create green jobs programs that reclaim land, support public health and reinvest in local communities. The loopholes that allowed these giant corporations to pay a pittance into the public sphere must be closed, along with those for the new digital commerce giants and others hiding fortunes in tax havens.

Nobody wants to see a repeat of the last financial crisis – when CEOs rewarded themselves with huge bonuses while people were losing their jobs and their homes. If any company is to be supported with public funds, ownership shares must be taken, or strong rules imposed to benefit ordinary people instead of billionaires. Why should banks be allowed to charge interest rates of over 20 per cent on credit card charges that many Canadians will have to rely on to survive? In exchange for billions in liquidity from the federal government, there should be strict limitations on gouging the public, during this time of crisis and beyond.

Government must show leadership in transforming our economy to one that works toward well-being for all of us rather than for the few. We have the momentum and opportunity to shift our systems to prioritize our care and wellbeing for the long run. While this crisis is unlike any in our lifetime, the Council of Canadian will organize to hold elected officials accountable, challenge corporate greed and fight for the common good – as we work together for a renewed vision of a better world for all.

In solidarity,

John
John Cartwright
Chairperson

Again, expansion of public provisions in health care, education, pensions and the like is better than their contraction. However, Mr. Cartwright still implies that employers are somehow necessary. In referencing “increased corporate loopholes,” he implies that if such loopholes were eliminated, then corporations would be legitimate. In other words, it is the old repetition of corporations paying their “fair share” of taxes.

/Furthermore, Mr. Cartwright’s demand for an expansion of public services and an increase in the safety net through education and health care does not even address the issue of the quality of such public education or health care. I have already criticized the Chicago Teachers Union’s assumption of the need to only expand educational “services” rather than a radical restructuring of the public education system (see, in the section Publications and Writings on the main page of this blog, “A Deweyan Review of the the Chicago Teachers’ Union Publication The Schools Chicago Students Deserve: Research-Based Proposals to Strengthen Elementary and Secondary Education in the Chicago Public Schools (2012). 

As for health care, in the first place, I have already addressed the inadequate nature of health and safety at the workplace in a series of posts (see, for example, Working for an Employer May Be Dangerous to Your Health, Part One). In the second place, see the last post for the beginnings of a critique of health care.

It is hardly sufficient to reinvest “in our public services and social safety net.” Like the private sector, such public services have been characterized by the dictatorship of employers (see The Money Circuit of Capital  and the series of posts  Employers as Dictators, Part One etc.).

Mr. Cartwright, as part of the social-democratic left, uses the period before neoliberalism as his standard. He wants to return to the ideal world of welfare capitalism. This standard is wholly inadequate for the creation of a fair society. Before neoliberalism, there was still the treatment of human beings at work as things to be used for the benefit of employers. There was, certainly, a more robust safety net than now, but even then such a robust safety net was always under threat by sections of the class of employers.

Even if we assumed that there existed a robust safety net, as long as a class of employers exists, such a safety net will always be threatened.

It is better to think about starting a movement towards the abolition of the power of the class of employers in order to create a society that can respond in a humane and timely fashion to threats to our common lives on this planet. Trying to recreate the social-democratic ideal of the past (the 1950s-1970s)–the social-democratic ideal of welfare capitalism– is utopian; if we are to meet adequately our common problems, we need to go beyond the rhetoric of improvements in the safety net. Such solutions are band-aid solutions that do not meet the challenges to our lives that we face in the 21st century. What we do not need is more social-democratic rhetoric.

It is better to think about how to create a movement towards a socialist society–a society without a class of employers.

 

Health Care: Socialist versus Capitalist Nationalization

Since the coronavirus and health care are undoubtedly on the minds of many people throughout the world, I thought it appropriate to do a bit of research on socialist health care versus present capitalist health-care systems.

Health care even in a nationalized context can easily be an expression of oppression and exploitation. The idealization of nationalization often goes hand in hand with an argument  that we need to extend public services in health and education (as Sam Gindin has argued). However, nationalized health care can easily become an oppressive experience for workers (as well as patients). From Barbara Briggs (1984), “Abolishing a Medical Hierarchy: The Struggle for Socialist Primary Health Care,” pages 83-88, in the journal Critical Social Policy, volume 4, issue #12, page 87:

GPs AND SOCIALISM

Socialists have traditionally argued for state control of key areas of the economy and of the provision of welfare services such as health and education. Socialist health workers have argued for general practitioners to become salaried employees of the Area Health Authorities, along with the ’ancillary workers’, instead of continuing to enjoy the independent self-employed status that they insisted on to protect their status when the NHS [National Health Service of the United Kingdom] was set up.

But the NHS, the largest employer in the country, has shared with nationalised industries the failure to demonstrate any evidence of ’belonging to the people’: because of the backing of the state it has proved a ruthless and powerful employer, keeping the wages of unskilled and many skilled workers also at uniquely low levels; time and again, union members seeking improvements in pay and amelioration of very poor working conditions have been defeated. Nor has the NHS shown any kind of effective accountability to its users. Public spending constraints have hit the NHS not only by causing a decline in working conditions and in the services provided, but also by imposing even more centralised planning priorities based on the need to save money whatever the cost.

This situation likely characterizes the Canadian public health-care system as well.

A word about the Canadian health-care system. One inadequate view on the Canadian health-care system is the social-democratic or social-reformist perspective, which certainly exists in Canada. One definitely inadequate view considers the Canadian health-care system to be socialist (Mary E. Wiktorowicz, pages 264-262, “Health Care Systems in Evolution,” in Staying Alive:  Critical Perspectives on Health,
Illness, and Health Care (2006), page 243):

In many ways, national health insurance symbolizes the great divide between:
liberalism and socialism; the free market and the planned economy (see Box 10.1).

Nationalized health care in no way represents the great divide between liberalism and socialism. An apparently critical form of the analysis of health care–but in reality a variant form of social democracy or social reformism–looks at the inequality in access to health care, according to level of income. Thus, in the edited work Health Promotion in Canada: Critical Perspectives (2007), Denis Raphael, in his article (pages 106-122) “Addressing Health Inequalities in Canada: Little Attention, Inadequate Action, Limited Success,” refers to levels of income as the major social determinant of the level of health. Since income inequalities in Canada are increasing, it follows that health inequalities are also increasing. However, this view defines a social determinant purely in terms of level of income–a typical social-democratic or social reformist method (I will deal with this issue in another post). As Glenn Rikowski (2001) points out (“After the Manuscript Breaks Off: Thoughts on Marx, Social Class and Education”, though, level of income is used instead of social class, or rather level of income is often used as a substitute by the social-democratic left:

… we witness the virtual abandonment of the notion of the working class…. Most people who analyse social class today do no such thing; rather, they have social inequality and stratification in view.

This use of the level of income to evaluate access to adequate health care is useful to a certain extent, but if it is the prime definition of class and inequality, it is far from adequate. It ignores entirely the source of income and exaggerates differences within the working class rather than a shared economic and social situation of being employees (or unemployed or temporary employees) and subject to a hierarchy of power at work (of course, managers are also subject to control from above, but in general it can be safe to assume that they form part of the middle class if not subordinate members of the ruling class).

The situation of the British NHS is typical of what happens when so-called socialist principles are realized in a capitalist context. Two socialist principles in particular fall by the wayside. From Bob Brecher (1997), (pages 217-225), “What Would a Socialist Health Service Look Like?,” in the journal Health Care Analysis,  volume 5, issue #3, page 219:

These principles are: (a) that there by a reasonable degree of equity in respect of outcome concerning the distribution of basic resources, and (b) that people treat each other as ends and not merely as means. The first may perhaps be understood as a political and economic dimension of socialism, while the second constitutes a moral and social element.

The first principle considers that social equity is itself a good in itself or an end at which we should aim. The second principle considers that people deserve to be treated as people in all circumstances and not just outside work or as “consumers.” This second principle, of course, can never be realized in a capitalist society since human beings are necessarily treated as things or objects to be used as means by a class of employers (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

Health care would be just that: health care–not health service. From Brecher, page 221:

‘Service’ implies server and served; consultant and client; provider and consumer. But none of these describes the sort of relationship between carer and person carefd for that the two principles outlined suggest. To take the example of the NHS again: despite the intentions of its founders, it was the connotations of service–by turn beneficently providing for patients and ‘servicing’ them as though they were objects–which helped provide amply justified dissatisfactions with the resultant shortcomings of the NHS treatment: and these have been used to undermine its founding principles. The combination of professional paternalism, especially in respect of senior doctors; an inability or unwillingness to treat people rather than their symptoms; and an attitude of ‘servicing’ and being ‘serviced’ all helped alienate people from what was supposed to be ‘our’ NHS, enabling successive conservative governments to turn what was at its inception at least a ‘social’ health service into an expliictly anti-socialist one. … these are not accidents of the British context: such terms and the attitudes and mores they describe are inimical to a socialist structure, based as that must be on considerations of equity and respect.

It is important to emphasize, as Brecher points out, that the assumption that nationalization is somehow socialist without further ado itself contributes to the Conservative backlash and the emergence of neoliberalism. By indulging the social-democratic or social-reformist left, with their talk of “decent work,” “fair contracts,” “fair share of taxes,” “$15 Minimum Wage and Fairness,” and the like, the so-called radicals have in reality contributed to the neoliberal backlash. What is needed is not indulgence of such talk, but continuous critique of such talk. What is needed is a critical attitude towards the so-called “left” and its associated idealized institutions.

What is needed is critical and hence democratic analysis and discussion of health-care systems. What is absolutely unnecessary is the defense of flaws in various social systems. If we are going to create a socialist society worthy of human beings, we need to be honest about the inadequacies of current social structures and systems.

The Canadian Labour Congress’s Idealization of the Collective-Bargaining Process

Relatively recently,  Hassan Yussuff, the president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), wrote an article praising collective bargaining:

Collective bargaining is good for everyone

December 23, 2019

By Hassan Yussuff, as published in the Globe and Mail.  

The holidays aren’t solely about gift-giving and spreading good cheer. Many workers find themselves having to walk a picket line around this time of year.

Everywhere you look these days, teachers, public transit workers, railway and refinery workers seem to be involved in some kind of job action as contracts expire and end-of-year negotiations fail.

It can be frustrating for those affected and may even seem unfair that workers disadvantage the public in pursuit of better working conditions and better wages.

But make no mistake, collective bargaining is a fundamental right that helps ensure workers are getting their fair share. This is especially true when we consistently see certain governments, shareholders and corporate CEOs squeezing workers in order to improve their own bottom lines. “Without the right to pursue workplace goals collectively, workers may be left essentially powerless in dealing with their employer or influencing their employment conditions,” reads a 2015 Supreme Court of Canada ruling upholding the right of RCMP officers to unionize.

Unsurprising that some employers, private interest groups and opinion shapers insist on back-to-work legislation whenever a group of workers flexes collective muscle. But the reality is that work stoppages are a rarity—with almost all collective agreements in Canada reached and renewed without a strike or lockout.

In fact, strikes and lockouts happen far less frequently today than in the past. Days lost to work stoppages in federal private-sector, where CN Rail workers recently struck for several days, are well below levels reached earlier this decade. For instance, in 2019, monthly work stoppages recently dipped to a low of 13 for the entire country. This is well below 2017 and 2018 averages.

Collective bargaining is functioning exactly as intended. Workers leverage their collective strength in order to influence the terms and conditions of their employment. Their efforts to stand up for themselves will often have a ripple effect, improving conditions for non-unionized workers in related industries as well as for the people they serve. When teachers oppose larger class sizes and rail engineers insist on safety improvements, the public directly benefits, too.

The significantly low unemployment rate is also contributing to renewed confidence among workers. More discouraged workers and those overcoming barriers to employment have been able to find work. The number of underemployed workers, like part-timers who prefer but can’t find full-time hours, have ebbed.

This is long overdue. For a decade, young people have been graduating into a high unemployment job market with limited prospects. Women and newcomers to Canada have struggled with a shortage of decent jobs.  While joblessness remains far too high in oil-producing provinces and the Atlantic region (in Alberta, it hovers at a shocking 20% for males under the age of 25), there are gains elsewhere. In Ontario, Quebec and BC, the improving job market has allowed wages to tick up – finally. Since mid-year, wage growth has begun to pick up, averaging over 4%.

During the last ten years of sluggish growth, high unemployment and weak wage gains, typical workers in Canada have seen very little improvement in their wages, adjusted for inflation. Flat earnings are partly responsible for the fact that debt as a share of household disposable income has doubled in the past 25 years. Furthermore, fewer workers even belong to a union at all which often translates in lower earnings and fewer benefits and little recourse to improve matters. Compounded with the rise of the gig economy and with more companies outsourcing work, it’s that much harder for workers to unionize as we are seeing at corporations like IBM and Amazon.

In the meantime, Canada’s top corporate CEOs were paid nearly 200 times what the average worker made in 2017. In 2018, quarterly operating profits reached a post-recession high. Workers have spent the ‘recovery’ simply fighting to hold onto what they have.

It’s not just unions that welcome a stronger labour market and decent wage gains. The Bank of Canada also thinks it’s a good idea. Because inflation remains well under control, it has hesitated to raise interest rates. That’s a good strategy because it helps reduce inequality and strengthens the ability of households to cope with debt, food and shelter costs.

We must all recognize that even when work stoppages do happen, they are simply evidence that the collective bargaining process is working. Despite occasional work-to-rule and walk-outs, this is actually a very good thing because it ensures workers still have a say – as they should.

To be sure, it is generally preferable for workers and their representatives to participate in collective bargaining in order to obtain a collective agreement, but the idealization of the process and the resulting collective agreement, as well as the exaggeration of the fairness of the process and the resulting collective agreement, simply ignores the reality of the power of employers and their representatives (management).

In the article, Mr. Yussuff implies that, through the collective-bargaining process and the resulting collective agreement, workers can obtain their “fair share.” Mr. Yussuff provides no evidence of this. A fair share is presented only in terms of shaping the collective working conditions and wages of workers but not in actually controlling those collective working conditions by those who actually do the work–economic democracy or socialism (see the series of posts on what socialism would like on this blog). Mr. Yussuff ignores the implicit or explicit management rights’ clauses in collective agreements (see numerous examples of explicit management rights’ clauses in collective agreements on this blog, for example, Management Rights, Part Two: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario).

There is obviously a pattern that often shows up in social-democratic rhetoric–how marvelous collective bargaining and collective agreements are (see my criticism of Jane McAlevey’s idealization of the collective bargaining process and the resulting collective agreement on this blog) as well as my review of her book in the Publications and Writings Section of this blog) .

It is interesting that Mr. Yussuff also tries to “sell” collective bargaining and collective agreements by implying that the proper functioning of collective bargaining and collective agreements results in fewer strikes:

In fact, strikes and lockouts happen far less frequently today than in the past. Days lost to work stoppages in federal private-sector, where CN Rail workers recently struck for several days, are well below levels reached earlier this decade. For instance, in 2019, monthly work stoppages recently dipped to a low of 13 for the entire country. This is well below 2017 and 2018 averages.

Collective bargaining is functioning exactly as intended.

At least Ms. McAlevey considers strike activity to often be necessary to back up the collective bargaining process whereas Mr. Yussuff’s more conservative stance considers strikes to be a last-ditch effort to be avoided if at all possible. On the other hand, both her and Mr. Yussuff consider the collective-bargaining process to be somehow capable of realizing fairness at the workplace. How this is in fact the case no trade unionist has ever explained to me in the face of the power of the class of employers.

Mr. Yussuff’s idea that workers should have a say minimizes the need for workers to have the say in their work lives–in conjunction with local communities–and not “a say”–as if they were condemned forever as a junior “partner” in the capitalist corporation.

The conservatism of the Canadian labour movement is astounding–but the left here in Toronto (and probably elsewhere) remain silent about such conservatism–since they share the same assumption of the legitimacy of the collective-bargaining process and collective agreements.

 

Review of Jane McAlevey’s “A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy”: Two Steps Backward and One Step Forward, Part Two

This is the continuation of a post that reviews Jane McAlevey’s latest book entitled A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy. 

In the last post, I showed that Ms. McAlevey exaggerates the extent to which strikes and collective bargaining can offset the power imbalance between the class of employers and the working class. In this post, I will show that Ms. McAlevey’s point of view is definitely social democratic or social reformist.

She writes the following in her book:

There’s nothing neutral about suicide nets; there’s nothing inevitable about creating a greater climate crisis by offshoring jobs so ships bigger than small towns cross oceans, killing the ecosystem and creating a need for more fuel; there’s nothing comforting about creating millions of close-to-slavery working conditions in faraway lands that Americans can’t see when they happily upgrade to the latest phone. We don’t need robots to care for the aging population. We need the rich to pay their taxes. We need unions to level the power of corporations.

This call for corporations to pay taxes–certainly, corporations should be forced to pay more taxes, but the implication here is that if corporations did pay more taxes, there would be a fair system. I will criticize this social-democratic view in another post, where I will criticize the Canadian social-democratic call for corporations to pay their “fair share” of taxes? Corporations need to be taken over by workers if they are to control their own lives since corporations form part of the economic structure that expresses a kind of economy where workers are controlled by their own products rather than the workers controlling their own products.

In the quotation above,there is a further problem that illustrates Ms. McAlevey’s social-democratic approach. She refers to the need for “unions [in order] to level the power of corporations.” How does the existence of unions “level the power of corporations?” To conclude this is to exaggerate the capacity of unions to challenge the employers as a class. The unions in the 1930s did not “level the power of corporations.” Ms. McAlevey provides no evidence that they did. They limited the power of corporations, but it is bullshit to say that unions have or can level the power of corporations. Such a view ignores the power of employers to dictate what to produce, how to produce, when to produce and so forth. I worked in several unionized environments, both private and public, and I failed each time to see how unions even approached the power necessary to “level the power of corporations.

As I showed in my review of Ms. McAlevey,’s  earlier book, No Short Cuts: Prganizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (found in the Publications and Writings section of this blog), Ms. McAlevey claims incorrectly that, when workers organize at the firm level, there is no difference between structural power and the power of agents. She confuses the micro level of organizing with the macro level of the capitalist economy as a whole. In her most recent book, she ignores altogether the difference and merely assumes what she needs to prove: that organized workers at the level of the firm or corporation somehow magically control their own lives and are equal in power to corporations.

Ms. McAlevey’s view concerning unions and their supposed power to level the playing field merely echos Canadian liberal sentiments, such as expressed in the work Reconcilable Differences: New Directions in Canadian Labour Law, by Paul Weiler (1980).

Furthermore, as a number of posts have shown (see for example Management Rights, Part One: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia), the management rights clause in collective agreements provides management, as the representatives of employers, with wide powers; collective agreements do not question such power but only limit it. Even when a collective agreement does not have an explicit management rights clause, arbitration boards have indicated that there is an implicit management rights clause. Ms. McAlevey conveniently ignores such facts and thereby idealizes the power of unions, the power of collective bargaining and the power of collective agreements.

In another post, I pointed out how, in the context of health and safety, one union representative admitted the limited power of unions (see Confessions of a Union Representative Concerning the Real Power of Employers).

Ms. McAlevey’s confusion of the micro and the macro extends to her exaggerated claims concerning the extent to which workers gain from strikes directed against a particular employer. She often uses the term “big” when referring to wins by workers and unions. From the introduction:

Chapter 1 discusses three such examples of women winning big.

To win big, we have to follow the methods of spending very little time engaging with people who already agree, and devote most of our time to the harder work of helping people who do not agree come to understand who is really to blame for the pain in their lives. Pulling off a big, successful strike means talking to everyone, working through hard conversations, over and over, until everyone agrees. All-out strikes then produce something else desperately needed today: clarity about the two sides of any issue. Big strikes are political education, bigly.

It is certainly an innovation to focus on winning over those who disagree with us–the left often are a clique that simply address themselves. However, this constant reference to winning big hides the fact that even more important and wider successes are considered big wins rather than skirmishes that should lead towards the overthrow of corporate power. Divorced from such a movement, they can hardly be considered “big wins.” Only those who have faith in the legitimacy of the collective bargaining system to produce fair results could use such a term as “big.”

Nowhere does Ms. McAlevey question corporate power as such but assumes its legitimacy.

Just as Ms. McAlevey confuses power at the micro level with power at the macro level in relation to unions, collective bargaining and collective agreements, she confuses the levels of power when it comes to identifying problems related to the environment. She writes:

There’s plenty of money to make a Green New Deal happen. Investigative journalist Christian Parenti has recently pointed out that corporations are currently sitting on $4.8 trillion in cash—a subset of $22.1 trillion they hoard. That money could be used to quickly transition the economy to a robust unionized green economy, one that can reproduce a dignified quality of life for workers of the future and end the destructive jobs-versus-the-environment debate. But to access that money, it takes real power and know-how—the kind of authority that unions in New York still have, along with a few other major states. To rebuild union power elsewhere, the environmental movement will have to stand up and fight alongside them—really fight, not just talk about green jobs. That means actively throwing their support behind workers’ right to strike and actively backing workers. That kind of organizing and the power it builds will be necessary to raise taxes on the rich (versus just talking about it) [my emphasis] and make progress on shifting federal subsidies away from fossil fuels and toward a safe, resilient economy that works for humans and our planet.

Just as the British Labour Party, in its Manifesto It’s Time for Real Change, jumps on the bandwagon of climate change, so too does Ms. McAlevey. The view that climate change will be solved on the continued basis of the existence of a class of employers–a capitalist basis–by only making the rich pay more taxes is typical of social democrats these days (for my criticism of such a view, see The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One).

Ms. McAlvey’s social-democratic position finds expression as well in her idealization of other capitalist countries:

There is a third option: the kind of income supports that come with the social democratic policies found throughout much of Western Europe. This would allow greater labor-force participation by both parents, but it would require radical changes to the fabric of our economy. In Sweden, people have generous paid parental leave—two back-to-back years, one for each parent—so that each baby born has a parent as its primary full-time caregiver for the first two years of life. When this parental leave is exhausted, Swedish toddlers enter a nationalized child-care system that is essentially free: paid for with a fairer taxation system that levels the playing field for children’s opportunity and success from birth forward.

The idealization of Sweden and other Scandinavian countries is another ploy used by social democrats to prop up their own reformist tendencies.

Let us look for a moment at Sweden. The consensus between employers and unions started to break down in the 1980s, and accelerated during the 1990s, when there was an economic crisis. (From “Education and Inequality in Sweden: A Literature Review,”
Carl le Grand, Ryszard Szulkin and Michael Tåhlin; in Editors: Rita Asplund and Erling Barth, Education and Wage Inequality in Europe: A Literature Review, 2005, page 355):

However, since the beginning of the 1980s, the consensus around the
solidarity wage policy has been undermined. The national federation of
employers has adopted new policies aiming at wage determination at the
firm level, while the attitudes among the trade unions have been mixed.
This new situation has resulted in a decentralisation of wage negotiations, giving more space for local agreements. Hence, the scope for variation in earnings, both between and within groups, has increased markedly in Sweden during the last decades.

The increase in within-group inequality is connected to two developments
in the Swedish labour market that have important policy implications. First,
the gender wage gap has been stable in the last two decades although the
gender differences in years of experience have diminished markedly. This
lack of improvements in the gender wage differentials is closely related to the
fact that the returns to education have decreased for women in relation to
those for men. Thus, the trend towards increased within-group wage inequality
seems to be to the disadvantage of women in Sweden. …

Second, the relative wages for public sector employees have fallen drastically
in the last decades. This development is closely related to a decrease
in the returns to education for public sector employees in relation to those
for private sector workers. This trend is, of course, related to the first
trend, as women dominate strongly in the public sector. Reasonably, the
main explanation for the rise of earnings inequality between public and
private sector employees is the increasing financial problem of the public
sector, as well as the decentralisation of the wage-setting processes that has
taken place in Sweden since the first half of the 1980s.

Changes in the labour market were followed by changed in education in the 1990s, characterized by a shift in governmental policy towards management by objectives–including education. (From Anne Berg  and Samuel Edquist, 2017, The Capitalist State and the Construction of Civil Society: Public Funding and the Regulation of Popular Education in Sweden, 1870–1991 , page 173):

However, as a consequence of the turmoil surrounding the oil crisis in 1973, the digital revolution, and the rise of finance capitalism and global outsourcing, many classic Swedish industries, such as shipbuilding and clothing manufacturing, started to go out of business. Unemployment rates rose and consumption stagnated. Sweden
managed to hold off the worst consequences of the crisis, but the path towards a change in policy and governance had been set. The reform of 1991 was part of a general shift in government policy from traditional rule by guidelines and directives to management by objectives. It followed a broader trend of reforms inspired by neo-liberalism, which called for decentralisation and marketisation of welfare services: education, health care and social security. The neo-liberal ideology had gathered strength in the 1980s, encompassing all the major political parties including the Social Democrats. The neo-liberal programme was set out to solve the problem of how to manage society and the bureaucratic system of government while saving resources. The market, not government, was to handle issues such as social security and education.13 In 1988, there was a decision in principle to implement management by objectives and results throughout the Swedish government apparatus. Soon, such a reform was decided on for the compulsory and upper secondary school system, combined with a move to decentralisation, both of which were to be particularly important for the subsequent changes in popular education policy.14 Interestingly, this policy change, mainly intended to make public administration more efficient, was also suggested for the administration of popular
education and its grant system. Goal-oriented management was seen at the government level as a way of safeguarding and strengthening the independence of popular education.

According to management by objectives, education can be taught according to discrete objectives that are then somehow magically integrated. I will critique in a future post management by objectives (outcome-based education, or OBE) via a critique of several articles of a former professor of mine (Robert Renaud) concerning Bloom’s taxonomy, which forms a ground for outcome-based education. (From Qin Liu (2015), Outcomes Based Education Initiatives in Ontario Postsecondary Education: Case Studies, page 7):

OBE’s precursors can be found in the earlier objectives movement, as represented by Tyler’s (1949) Basic Principles of Curriculum and Design, Bloom’s (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, and Mager’s 1962) Preparing Instructional Objectives, as well as in mastery learning (Block, 1971; Gusky, 1985), criterionbased assessment (Masters & Evans, 1986) and competency-based education (France, 1978). From these sources, it becomes apparent that OBE stemmed from and is rooted in efforts to address pedagogical concerns.

The idea that Sweden “levels the playing field for children’s opportunity and success from birth forward” is a myth.

Furthermore, I will, in a future post, criticize the idea that there is such a thing as “a fairer taxation system that levels the playing field for children’s opportunity and success from birth forward” in relation to schools. This idea of “leveling the playing field” is pure rhetoric, and presents a completely false picture of the decidedly uneven playing field characteristic of a society dominated by a class of employers–whether unionized or not.

I will also further argue that even if equal opportunity did exist, it would not change the hierarchical nature of the division of labour and the class structure since competition between workers, inheritance laws and the hierarchical ownership of the conditions of lives would be recreated as workers competed (with some losing and others gaining in the process–thereby merely mirroring the present class structure).

I started out, in the first post, by quoting Sam Gindin, with Mr. Gindin pointing out how popular Ms. McAlevey is these days. Her popularity is undoubtedly due in part to her own innovations in organizing. It is, however, also due to her exaggerated claims concerning the efficacy of her own approach to collective bargaining in eliminating power, wealth and income differentials between the class of employers and the working class.

In the next post, I will refer to how the president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC)–a social-democratic organization of unions federated to it and representing more than three millions Canadian workers– idealizes collective bargaining–like Ms. McAlevey.