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.

 

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