Unions and the Coronavirus Pandemic: A Critique of a Social-Democratic View, Part Two

This is a continuation of commentary on an article written by Professor Tufs (geography professor, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada) (see https://socialistproject.ca/2020/05/covid19-and-actually-existing-unions/).

In my last post, I pointed out that Professor Tuft’s reference to Sam Gindin’s call for restructured and more radical unions is inadequate. Rather than addressing directly the issue of the inadequacy of modern-day unions in addressing the problems which workers face, Professor Tuft shuffles off the issue to Mr. Gindin. This shift permits Professor Tuft to focus almost exclusively on the creation of stop-gap measures to address the possible crisis in unions as a result of the pandemic.

Let us now turn to his discussion of reformed unions. He points out that many unions are not created by the members themselves in any real sense of the workers organizing themselves into  a fighting unit that functions to protect the common interests of its members I take it that that is what he means by the following:

There is also the reality that the current structures of the labour movement are limited. Rank-and-file members are not mobilized to self-organize.

Such a criticism needs elaboration, but Professor Tuft fails to do so. The very nature of modern unions (at least in Canada and the United States) as organizations whose primary function is to negotiate collective agreements, sets limits to the self-organizing capacity of unions–as long as they accept the model of “free collective bargaining” as somehow beyond criticism. Unions could develop the capacity to see collective bargaining and collective agreements as merely contracts forced upon them due to the inevitable power imbalance between the working class and the class of employers rather than somehow being “fair,” and they could also come to see such expressions as “decent work” as ideological in the bad sense of the word–of covering up the reality of the exploitation and oppression of workers.

By being vague, Professor Tuft fails to specify what he means by self-organize, and he thereby permits himself the luxury of not confronting the general limitations of unions, of collective bargaining and collective agreements. To openly call into question the center around which modern unions revolve–collective bargaining and collective agreements–would threaten the interests of many representatives of modern unions and thereby expose Professor Tuft to insults and ridicule by the social-reformist left.

Professor Tuft mentions another limitation of unions–they address mainly only the interests of their immediate employed members and not the unemployed. He mentions the construction trades as an exception:

 But there is the larger problem that labour organizations are simply not oriented toward the unemployed. Some unions such as the building trades maintain relationships with unemployed workers through hiring-hall ‘lists’. But this is an exception.

Professor Tuft fails to show how the lack of orientation towards the unemployed by unions is a larger problem. Rather, the lack of orientation towards the unemployed is interrelated with the focus on collective bargaining and the collective agreement.  Since unions focus on collective bargaining and collective agreements, and since unemployed workers have limited or no rights under such agreements (such as call-back rights), workers covered by a collective agreement who lose their job generally “vanish” or cease to exist as far as unions are practically concerned. The issue of unions not being oriented towards the unemployed is thus linked to the issue of their focus being collective bargaining and the collective agreement.

To be sure, workers in construction unions do not vanish from the union; they form part of a list to be hired. Professor Tufts does not explore this exception at all to determine whether it overcomes the limitations of traditional unions. (My brother, by the way, worked as a construction labourer in Calgary and a few other places in Alberta, Canada, when he was younger, and he evidently found the work not only difficult but exhausting.)

The construction industry is seasonal , and therefore many workers have only temporary jobs. Once their work for a particular employed has ended, they form part of a list to be hired by a pool of employers in the construction industry. The reason why the relation of the laid off member to the union is maintained, therefore, is because the worker is potentially employable by many different employers.

The hiring-hall list converts unions in the construction industry into, in some ways, a temporary job agency. From Michael Duke, Luke Bergmann, Genevieve Ames (2010), “Competition and the Limits of Solidarity among Unionized Construction Workers,” in Anthropology of Work Review, Volume 31, Number 2, page 85:

…the union serves as a job broker between workers and employers. In this capacity, union representatives from a given Local receive notice of job openings at particular job sites, and are tasked with providing those employers with workers from the union’s membership roster. The duration of these jobs varies widely, from 1 or 2 days to more or less permanent employment, resulting in many workers facing a continual struggle to receive a steady paycheck, and a continuous jockeying among members for jobs.

In addition to the seasonal nature of construction work, there is the additional but related fact that workers in the construction industry often work for a number of employers during a year and not just one employer. Construction workers go from periods of employment with one employer to periods of unemployment and then periods of employment with, possibly, a different employer.

There is, however, a major difference between this function as performed by construction unions and temporary agencies. Construction unions try to smooth out the distribution of work so as to make the system fairer as a whole for the construction workers in the union. Page 89:

There is little doubt that the hiring list benefits job seekers by reducing the influence of
favoritism, connections, and other influences that privilege some workers over others, and by spreading the risk of joblessness more or less equally among those on its roles.

Like most features of worker organizations in a capitalist society, though, the hiring-hall list is a double-edged sword. Being on the list is an expression of being unemployed, and in particular being at the bottom of the list expresses the likelihood of being unemployed for a longer period of time than many workers can afford. Page 89:

At the same time, the list represents a potent symbol of this alienation for these workers, in
that it provides a constant reminder of the temporary nature of their employment, and of the ephemeral quality of relationships on the job site.More centrally, the list represents for members the limits of union solidarity, the loss of a common stake in work and job security, and, ultimately, the alienation of laborers from the work they produce and the relationships that develop through that work.

A hiring-hall list does indeed maintain a relationship between workers and the union even when there is no specific employment relationship–but because the union functions in part as a temporary work agency, it also functions in part as an oppressive mechanism. A union that overcomes one of the limitations of collective bargaining–being connected to the union only by being connected to an employer (or set of employers in the case of more centralized bargaining)–often involves contradictions in other areas (such as the oppressive function of a temporary hiring agent).

Therefore, even when unions expand their functions to those beyond collective bargaining and collective agreements, they become involved in further contradictions that they cannot resolve. They are limited institutions for the self-organization of the working class. These limitations should be admitted and addressed.

Nevertheless, the issue of the unemployed not being organized by unions is certainly important. Employed and unemployed workers form, in general, part of one and the same working class.

Employed workers are united (temporally, during the working day) with the means of their work (buildings, machines, tables, floors, raw material, computers, and so forth). After work, they too , like their unemployed counterparts, become separated not only physically but also socially from those means (they do not own and control them).

The unemployed are separated physically and socially from all means of production for a shorter or longer period of time. Of course, some who work for employers may become unemployed, and some who are unemployed may become employed again. There is a often a change of who is employed and who is unemployed, due in great part to the changing needs of employers and, to some extent, the changing needs of workers (workers are not tied to a specific employer but can quit and try to find another employer to hire them).

Both groups of workers form part of the working class as class. As members of a class, those who work for a particular employer also are working for the class of employers.  No particular worker can work at any particular activity for any length of time without other workers producing both the means of production (machines, computers, phones, raw material, pens, pencils, tables and so forth) with which the worker works. In other words, there is a division of labour, where other workers are working for other employers in a system of interdependence. (Such interdependence has recently been experienced by some workers because of the coronavirus epidemic–as some workers stopped working, so too did others since they depended on other workers for the resources or means of production required to produce in their particular sphere). Or, as Thomas Hodgskin (1825), in his Labour Defended Against the Claims of Capital, remarked (page 45):

If we push our inquiries still further, all that we can learn is, that there are other men in existence who are preparing those things we need, while we are preparing those which they need.

The source of the active army of labour, at least in Canada, is the continued births of children within Canadian borders, on the one hand, and immigrants on the other.

The workers themselves, or the active army of workers of the class of employers, however, are subject to various levels of precariousness, some more and some less since changes in technology, rates of accumulation, taxes, state expenditures and its composition, intensity of work and so forth  can change employment levels. The precise composition of the active army of workers can of course also vary according to kinds and degrees of racism, sexism and so forth prevalent in and outside work.

In the world, there are “around 1.65 billion in the active labor army” (R. Jamil Jonna and John Bellamy Foster (April, 2016), “Marx’s Theory of Working-Class Precariousness – And Its Relevance Today,” in Monthly Review, page 38). 

The active army of labour is always subject to more or less unstable working conditions since the workers do not control the machines, buildings, resources, raw materials and so forth that they use, but are rather subject to the immediate control of particular managers and employers and, ultimately, to the control of the pressures of the world market.

The same could be said of the unemployed: they too are subject to varying levels of precariousness and subject to varying connections to particular employers and to the class of employers in general.

There are, in general, four kinds of groups that constitute the unemployed or the reserve army of labour: floating, latent, stagnant and pauperized. From R. Jamil Jonna and John Bellamy Foster, page 26:

… the floating population consisted of workers who had a connection – if a precarious one – to the active labor army, with a recent history of employment; they constituted those who would likely be the first to be re-hired in an expansion.

A section of the unemployed that has more precarious roots in the working class is the latent surplus population. From page 26:

The next layer of the reserve army, in Marx’s description, is the latent surplus population. For the most part this refers to the (self-sustaining) segments of the agricultural (or rural) population. This population served as a vast source of potential labor for capitalist industry (hence, “latent”).

In Canada, one of the sources for this form of unemployment is probably overseas in the form of the The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). From the Canadian government’s website:

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) allows Canadian employers to hire foreign nationals to fill temporary labour and skill shortages when qualified Canadian citizens or permanent residents are not available.

In other countries, similarly, the temporary immigrant population also form part of the latent reserve army of labour. Many students can now be considered to form part of the latent reserve army of labour.

In earlier times, women also formed part of the latent part of the reserve army of labour; employers eventually hired women, for example, for weapons factories during the Second World War. (My mother worked in a weapons factory in Toronto during  part of the War.)

The third form of the unemployed or the reserve army of labour is the stagnant group: it is a very precarious section of the reserve army of labour, characterized by very low wages and superexploitation. Some workers in short-term positions, some workers for temporary agencies, day workers, workers in the informal economy and the like constitute this layer of the reserve army of labour, which is subject to very irregular work. Even some substitute teachers may form part of this group since they are effectively shut out of obtaining a permanent position as teachers and often have no hiring rights at all (as is (or was) the case for substitute teachers as members of the Winnipeg Teachers’ Association, or WTA).

Finally, the pauperized layer of the reserve army of labour constitutes the lowest layer of the reserve army of labour, which includes those incapable of working for an employer, those who live from social assistance (and who, occasionally, can be obliged to work if they are to continue to receive social assistance), those who live from petty thefts and the like. Part of those workers in the informal economy (including children) form part of this layer, including those who try to sell small amounts of commodities at an individual level.

The distribution of the active and reserve army of labour (with their various layers) can be seen from the following (page 38):

In 2013, according to International Labour Organization (ILO, 2015b) figures, the global reserve army consisted of some 2.3 billion people, compared to around 1.65 billion in the active labor army, many of whom are precariously unemployed. The number of officially unemployed at that time (corresponding roughly to Marx’s floating population) was 200 million workers. Some 1.5 billion workers were classified as “vulnerably employed” (related to Marx’s stagnant population), made up of workers working “on their own account” (informal workers and rural subsistence workers) and “contributing family workers” (domestic labor). Another 600 million individuals between the prime working ages of 25-54 were classified as economically inactive. This is a heterogeneous category but undoubtedly consists preponderantly of those of prime working age who are a part of the pauperized population.

Unions, indeed, are limited since their focus is mainly on the organized sections of the active army–although we should not forget that unions have, in various ways, fought, indirectly if not directly, for the interests of various layers of the unemployed at specific periods in their history in the form of a national pension system, part of a pension system based on the duration of residence in Canada (Old Age Security), rather than on length of employment and level of contribution, medicare and so forth.

Professor Tuft’s  reference to the need for an organization dedicated to addressing the needs of the unemployed in the face of a possible decrease in the power of organized unions makes some sense–but it made sense even before the pandemic since unions often tooted the mere organization of workers into a union (and the effective enforcement of a collective agreement) as sufficient for ensuring “decent work,” a “fair contract,” “fairness” and the like.

With the emergence of the pandemic and the likely decrease in the working effectiveness of unions to protect the immediate interests of their members, on the one hand, and the increase in the need for stop-gap measures as more workers remain unemployed for a longer period of time, a gap arises that can be filled by former union representatives who also may well lose their jobs. According to Professor Tufts:

Most important, union representatives know the workers that will require a range of labour market adjustment services such as: assessment of the mental and physical health impacts of COVID-19; help with navigating emergency assistance, the CERB, and EI bureaucracies; assistance with resume writing; ensuring licenses and certifications are maintained during unemployment; counsel for workers considering early retirement; and guidance for workers considering re-training options. If the pandemic reoccurs in waves, as some have predicted, workers will shift in and out of employment and require training in COVID-19 health and safety measures. Who is going to do this work?

The federal government has allocated $350-million to help keep afloat the not-for-profit agencies providing needed services. These funds should be expanded and target labour organizations to deliver labour market adjustment services to unemployed workers. Economically, it makes sense as union communications infrastructure and staff can be efficiently deployed to assist workers. The social benefit of providing successful labour market adjustment and support is self-evident as it reduces hardship and the period of unemployment.

This solution seems to be reasonable  in the face of the likely increased instability of both the active army of workers and the reserve army of labour in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, on the one hand, and the likely decreased power of unions on the other. This situation will, of course, vary between sectors of the economy and over time; in other words, some groups of the active working class will be more subject to increased precariousness as will some groups of the reserve army when compared to their situation before the pandemic and when compared to other groups of workers in the active army or in the reserve army.

Professor Tuft’s solution is to call for Workers’ Resource Centres  to address the problem of the unemployed. Such centres would link active workers with unemployed workers and the community:

Politically and practically, resource centres make sense. ‘Actually existing’ unions have been in decline for decades. Serving all working people and entire communities rather than just employed members is fundamental to making unions relevant during the crisis. It also gives union staff work to do during a slow recovery that might preserve some institutional integrity that will be needed to fight inevitable workplace restructuring and austerity. As sectors recover, unions will be crucial in advocating for sufficient staffing levels and new COVID-19 related health and safety protocols.

This solution is certainly worthy of consideration–but of course it is hardly sufficient. The present-day workers’ action centres are entirely reformist and aim to address the immediate needs of workers without taking into consideration their long-term needs.

Professor Tuft then shifts to wishful thinking: such resource centres might serve as transitional organizations for a “green economy”:

A workers’ resource centre approach is admittedly full of contradictions and compromises. But we need realistic options for presently insufficient unions to survive in the short-term and meet workers material needs. Indeed, such efforts should be seen as part of building capacities for more transformative demands and actions. This may very well include expanding resource centre mandates in the future to administrate ‘just-transition’ supports for workers as economies adapt to green production. COVID-19 is a potentially transformative event for organized labour, but a sober analysis of what is possible to meet the needs of unemployed workers at this moment is required alongside aspirational calls.

He pays lip service to the “contradictions and compromises” that such workers’ resource centres would experience since funding for such centres would likely come from government coffers by way of funding community organizations and other non-governmental organizations:

It would not cost the government a great deal as these services will, in any case, need to be delivered by community organizations.

Professor Tuft implies that such organizations could somehow be self-organizations of the working class. What is more likely is that they will become at best reformist organizations like their trade union counterparts or, worse, even more restricted in their functions because of their dependence on the government for their continued functioning. Such a situation is hardly an expression of self-organization. Professor Tufts, like his social-reformist comrades, fails to address the limitations that workers’ resource centres would likely face that would prevent them from being institutions of self-organization. Professor Tufts, then, like his social-democratic or social reformist comrades, fails to address the limitations of such institutions.

Furthermore, the idea that such centres could be the stepping stone to “green production” is wishful thinking since a really green economy could only arise through the abolition of a society characterized by the class power of employers and the infinite increase of money–at the expense of human beings and this planet (see  The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One).

Professor Tuft’s proposal for workers’ resource centres, from his point of view, then, undoubtedly express a “realistic option” for the self-organization of workers.

From my point of view, by contrast, his proposal will foster illusions of the self-organization of the working class while, in reality, perpetuating the exploitation and oppression of the working class by employers. His proposal is only realistic for social reformers and not for workers who reject the legitimacy of working for any employer.

It is necessary to link the interests of the unemployed and the employed by creating a common goal of controlling their life process through controlling the conditions of that life process–which is currently owned and controlled by the class of employers and protected by a government responsive to the need to reproduce itself in and through the protection of such forms of property and control. That common goal cannot arise without critiquing workers’ organizations that may have some independence from the class of employers locally or at the micro level but that operate at the macro level to confine the class struggle to limits set by the structural economic, political and social conditions characteristic of a society dominated by a class of employers.

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