Do Workers Work for a Particular Employer or for the Class of Employers? Part Two: Critique of Unions and the Social-Reformist or Social-Democratic Left


This is a continuation of the previous post (see Do Workers Work for a Particular Employer or for the Class of Employers? Part One: A Limitation of Some Radical Left Critiques of Capitalist Relations of Production and Exchange (A.K.A. Capitalism)). In that post, I criticized some of the radical left for one-sidedly implying that workers only work for the class of employers; such a view is true, but it excludes the other truth, namely, that workers also work for a particular employer and indeed experience that fact immediately. Working for a particular employer is what workers are conscious of–and not that they work for the class of employers.

On the other hand, the social-reformist or social-democratic left often commit the opposite error of practically ignoring union representatives’ assumption that the relationship of workers to a particular employer by means of collective bargaining, a collective agreement, labour legislation and local union democracy, can express something fair. Such a view ignores the fact that, although workers at any particular time work for a particular employer–yet when considering, on the one hand, the whole working class, they do work for a class of employers and, on the other, when considering the whole life of an individual worker.

Dependent Local Unions Versus Unions That Are Independent of a Particular Employer

This can be seen in reference to Herman Rosenfeld, a self-declared Marxist here in Toronto and former worker in the automobile industry.  For example, he justly criticizes a clause in the collective agreement between Magna International and the Canadian Autoworkers Union (CAW) (now Unifor), but he one-sidedly idealizes CAW Local 88 and fails to analyze critically either the collective-bargaining process or the resulting collective agreement. 

Mr. Rosenfeld rightly criticized the Canadian Framework of Fairness Agreement when it first came out (see Magna Is Not CAMI):

This “Framework of Fairness” is based on Stronach’s time-tested system of anti-union structures. Rooted in the human relations practises developed in the 1920s to keep industrial unionism out of mass workplaces, Magna’s paternalistic system attempts to build-in loyalty and dependence on management. It also seeks to individualize worker concerns and issues. All of this is institutionalized in the CAW-Magna framework. [CAW was the Canadian Auto Workers union; it is now Unifor.] 

As has also been pointed out, any real effort to create an independent union presence and structure is stymied by the time frame involved in the deal and the commitments embedded in it: it would take about 10 years to organize the various plants in increments of 3 or 4 per year. If the CAW tries to subvert the process at any time, Magna could end the entire project. Besides, the agreement itself commits the union NOT to subvert the process and build an independent union structure.

Needless to say, the collective shop-floor struggles that built Local 88, culminated in the successful 1992 strike and paved the way for the strong union local they are today are not possible at Magna. Workplace struggle would be policed there (according to commitments made in the framework), rather than led by the union.

I will assume, for the sake of argument, that Mr. Rosenfeld’s comparison of (at the time) CAW Local 2009 AP and CAW Local 88’s union are accurate. In other words, I will not dispute the accuracy of Mr. Rosenfeld’s comparison of the two locals (and their collective agreements).

To understand why Mr. Rosenfeld opposes the “CAW-Magna framework,” I searched for the most recent collective agreement between Magna International and any union on the Web. Unfortunately, the most recent one I found was the collective agreement between Magna International and Unifor Local 2009 AP that has already expired:

– AND –
UNIFOR, and its Local 2009 AP

The collective agreement lasted four years:

This agreement shall remain in effect for a four-year period, from the date of ratification, November 7, 2013 until November 6, 2017 at 11:59 p.m.

The most recent collective agreement would, of course, have been preferable.

The 2007 Canadian Framework of Fairness Agreement is incorporated into the collective agreement. Some of this Framework is reproduced below to get a flavour of its nature:

A. Background and Principles

1. Introduction

Canada’s automotive assembly and parts industry is our country’s most important high-technology, value-added, export industry and employs thousands of people directly and indirectly. It makes a crucial contribution to family incomes, productivity growth, and foreign trade performance. Because of the high productivity of the industry and because of the strong linkages between assemblers, parts producers, and the thousands of companies which supply them (with everything from components to materials to services), every new job in an assembly or parts facility ultimately generates several additional jobs for Canadians. Automotive manufacturing is one of Canada’s only industrial “success stories,” and has made a crucial contribution to diversifying our economy away from an exclusive reliance on the production and export of natural resources and energy. For all of these reasons, the auto industry holds an immense economic and social importance to Canada.

Within this context, Magna and the CAW are motivated by the shared goal of not only preserving but expanding Canada’s automotive sector through high-performance work practices; investments in both capital and human resources; effective and just labour relations; world-class quality, productivity, and reliability; developing and renewing top-quality skilled trades; and continuing to support and enhance social and environmental sustainability.

As each stakeholder – companies, unions, employees, communities and government – shares in the benefits of a successful and prosperous automotive industry, each stakeholder must also contribute, in a meaningful way, to ensuring that continuing success.

This responsibility requires that all parties seek new and innovative ways to deal with the industry’s challenges, working cooperatively to achieve these goals. To this end, Magna and the CAW are committing with this Framework of Fairness Agreement (the “FFA”) to develop a new, innovative, flexible, and efficient model of labour relations. This model will combine the best features of union representation, with Magna’s established culture of workplace democracy and fair treatment (as embodied in the Magna Employee’s Charter). The model incorporates aspects of existing North American and European labour relations practices, yet will also reflect a uniquely Canadian attempt to combine industrial and financial success with principles of fairness and social responsibility.

Given the exploitative nature of the relations between workers for Magna and Magna as their employer (see  The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part One), references to “fairness” and “social responsibility” ring hollow.

Mr. Rosenfeld, from the point of view of the interests of workers, is thus right to criticize such a clause in a collective agreement. 

By contrast, according to Mr. Rosenfeld, Local 88, unlike Local 2009 AP, developed as an independent union that emphasized the opposition between the workers which it represented and

CAMI [GM assembly plant in Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada) included an elected workplace committee of union representatives, a democratic structure independent of management, to defend workers’ interests. The CAW as a whole maintained a commitment to an independent union presence in the workplace, expressing a different ideology and set of interests than that of the employer. The CAW national representative who serviced the CAMI union was an experienced working class fighter, who helped to mentor the new union reps. (That was only made possible by the existence of the elected body of union representatives, independent of management and beholden only to the members who elected them).

That was reinforced by a CAW Statement on Work Reorganization that asserted:

As we mobilize against regressive taxation, the weakening of unemployment insurance or plant closure legislation, we are reminding our members that the “team” they are on is not the same as their employer, and the ‘adversary’ is not other workers but those who are on the other side of these issues. Similarly, as we take on other collective bargaining issues – like opposing profit-sharing, or demanding indexed pensions or insisting on some movement towards reduced worktime, the message that the needs of working people are quite different from those of management is constantly articulated.

Such a union–and a corresponding collective agreement that reflects such a union–is certainly much more preferable to the union established at Magna–and its corresponding collective agreement:

As has also been pointed out, any real effort to create an independent union presence and structure is stymied by the time frame involved in the deal and the commitments embedded in it: it would take about 10 years to organize the various plants in increments of 3 or 4 per year. If the CAW tries to subvert the process at any time, Magna could end the entire project. Besides, the agreement itself commits the union NOT to subvert the process and build an independent union structure.

A union that can oppose its particular employer is certainly much more preferable to one that cannot–and hence Local 88 and its structure serves much more the immediate interests of the workers than union represented by workers at Magna International:

Needless to say, the collective shop-floor struggles that built Local 88, culminated in the successful 1992 strike and paved the way for the strong union local they are today are not possible at Magna. Workplace struggle would be policed there (according to commitments made in the framework), rather than led by the union.

The CAW President of Local 88 at the time, Cathy Austin, wrote a letter to the editor, dated  of the Toronto Star (a major newspaper in Toronto, Ontario, Canada), saying similar things: 

The first collective agreement at CAMI was negotiated before production started. It offered the barest of guidelines of how ideas such as team concept were actually to be worked out in practice in a unionized environment. The agreement represented a tactical compromise. On the one hand, the contract departed from standard agreements in the auto industry. It committed the union to the principals of the Japanese Production System including team concept, substantial management flexibility and kaizen (continuous improvement). Additionally, the union agreed to an economic package on wages and benefits that fell below the industry norm. However, despite these tactical compromises the first contract contained provisions for important union principals such as union security, recognition of union elected and independent workplace representatives, union committee persons and a true grievance procedure.

Our local wasted little time in establishing an independent presence in the plant. Over time the union began to demand changes and workers fought back. By contesting CAMI policy and practice, the members increasingly came to see the local as an independent force that championed the cause of workers’ dignity and rights.

Fighting to Make Gains Against the Class of Employers? 

Mr. Rosenfeld, however, then makes some assertions without explaining what he means:

Another major difference from CAMI is the larger role of the CAW. In the CAMI era, the union was clearly committed to challenging the ideology of partnership and competitiveness, fighting to make gains against employers and defending workplace rights as well as wages and benefits and embarking upon ambitious political projects that questioned the logic of competitiveness and globalization [my emphasis].

What does it mean to fight “to make gains against employers?” Since he did not elaborate, I searched further to see what he might mean. I found the following written by Mr. Rosenfeld, from Labour Notes, July 31, 2005, titled Reflections on the Birth of the Canadian Auto Workers  :

This July marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Canadian Auto Workers. The CAW was created out of a split from the U.S.-based United Auto Workers, at the beginning of a difficult era that is still with us.

The CAW split with the UAW over a series of fundamental differences. The CAW’s leaders believed that unions—and the workers they represent—have interests that are independent and different from those of their employers; that the role of a union is to fight for workers’ interests—not to sell the agenda of employers; that the competitiveness of employers is a constraint on unions and workers, not something that unions should see as their goal.

The CAW’s birth marked a major shift in the Canadian labor movement. The split was seen both as a statement that Canadian workers can build their own union movement free of U.S. tutelage and as a bold challenge to the employer offensive that sought to change the very nature of unionism.


In the early 1980s, U.S. auto companies and the UAW agreed to radically change the role of unions. Accepting the Big Three’s argument that U.S. automakers’ success against offshore competitors could only be assured by worker concessions—like replacing wage increases with lump-sums and profit sharing—UAW leaders saw their role as selling this perspective to their members.

It began in 1979, with Chrysler on the verge of bankruptcy. Both the UAW and its Canadian leadership agreed to temporary concessions. But when the U.S. Congress demanded more concessions as the price of further aid, the Canadians balked.

In subsequent negotiations, as Chrysler’s outlook improved, the Canadian UAW demanded and won back the concessions in the face of opposition from UAW leadership.

When GM and Ford followed suit, calling on the union to re-open their collective agreements in 1982 bargaining, the UAW leadership accepted. But they had to organize a campaign to “sell” concessions to their own members, and quash or marginalize any opposition.

In fact, when GM and the UAW first tested the waters amongst GM workers in the United States, the workers rejected concessions. Traditions of resistance remained in the union and it took years of effort by the leadership to try and root it out.

Again, unions that are independent of particular employers, that oppose concession bargaining, that have a democratic structure, have the ability and willingness to strike, fight for more general rights (such as easier access to unemployment insurance, improved federal pensions and similar reforms) are certainly preferable to more conservative unions.

Independent Local Unions Need Not Oppose the Class of Employers

Nonetheless, there is a qualitative difference between such unions and efforts to go beyond the class power of employers. Mr. Rosenfeld does not address this issue at all; alternatively, he implies, without evidence, that unions that aim for certain general rights (outlined in the previous paragraph) somehow fight against the class of employers consciously as a class of employers.

Independent unions at the level of the particular company or firm need not  be independent at the level of classes.

Actually, it is Ms. Austin’s letter to the editor which expresses in a compact manner, both what is right and what is wrong with Mr. Rosenfeld’s position. She specifies three aspects that are characteristic of what her and Mr. Rosenfeld would probably call progressive unions:

There are three fundamental differences between our ‘foot in the door’ collective agreement at CAMI in 1988 and the current Magna deal; first a democratically elected independent union representation directly elected by and accountable to the membership, secondly a grievance procedure, third the right to strike (which we did for 5 long weeks in 1992). The differences between the proposed Magna deal and CAMI are monumental in the lives of workers. At the October 28th membership meeting the members of Local 88 unanimously endorsed a resolution opposed to this flawed agreement. The workers at Magna need and deserve the royal blue colour of the CAW not the yellow of a company union. •

A union democratically elected by its membership may be independent of the influence of the particular employer, but the union itself, within the collective bargaining regime set up since 1944 in Canada (during the Second World War) hardly makes unions independent of the class power of employers. They operate on the basis of laws that establish their legitimacy and limits of action. Such laws and limits influence what unions do and how they act.

This limitation can be seen, for example, in how union representatives view collective agreements and how they justify them. On the Unifor Local 88 website, for instance, there is a history section, with the following (my emphasis):


The 1992 Collective Agreement was a struggle to achieve. These set of negotiations were very tough. Both the Union and the Company had many differences that could not be settled. As a result the membership of CAW Local 88 endured a five week strike against CAMI Automotive. The membership grew up very quickly and was determined to negotiate a fair and respectful collective agreement. Shortly after the October 1992 Thanksgiving weekend a collective agreement was voted upon and ratified by the membership.

How can any collective agreement express “a fair and respectful agreement?” Since workers are exploited at work (see, for example, The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part One)  how can any union “negotiate a fair and respectful collective agreement?” Unions, by persistently referring to the negotiating process and the resulting collective agreement as somehow fair, are not independent of the class of employers.  They become ideologues of  the class of employers objectively even if they are unconscious of doing so.

Therefore, Ms. Austin’s three criteria for an effective union (and Mr. Rosenfeld’s likely agreement with such criteria)–an independent and democratically structured union, a grievance procedure and the right to strike–by no means necessarily make unions independent of the class of employers (although may well make the union independent of the particular employer they face during negotiations).

Either Mr. Rosenfeld, like many unionists and leftists, simply ignores the issue of the class power of employers and the need to consciously aim for the abolition of the power of such a class, or he falsely assumes that unions that fight for general rights of workers somehow also aim to abolish the class power of employers. 

The Chairperson of the Organizing Committee of Local 88, Barry Smith, also expresses the limitations of the union point of view. Admittedly, the following quote is in the context of consultation by the Ontario government of employment-law reform, but there is no evidence that what he wrote was merely a tactical move:

“Changing Workplaces Review”
London Consultation
July 8, 2015

Dan Borthwick, President
Colleen Wake, Chairperson Union In Politics Committee
Barry Smith, Chairperson Organizing Committee
Ingersoll, Ontario
July 8, 2015

I believe that if those hard won protections were afforded to all, through improvements in the language of both these Acts, employers would have a stronger, more dedicated workforce that would improve the situation for all parties. It wasn’t until September 17/2013 after completing contract negotiations that the S.W.E.s [Supplement Workforce Employees] got the advantages we needed. Thanks to strong contract language, we got vacation, better benefits, a pension plan and almost equal treatment as any long term employee at CAMI and gained Full Time status.

I truly believe that if it wasn’t for Unifor and General Motors coming to a fair agreement at the Bargaining Table, I would still be a S.W.E. and having to worry on a daily basis about how I will be supporting my family next week. [my emphasis]

Indeed, a document by Unifor, submitted on September 2015, to the Ontario Changing Workplaces Consultation, was itself titled Building Balance, Fairness, and Opportunity in Ontario’s Labour Market. This document in its very title expresses the ideology that somehow the labour market can be fair–whereas the existence of a labour market is itself an expression of the unfair situation in which workers who work for an employer find themselves (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

This document, furthermore, implies that workers who work for employers cannot, somehow, be exploited–as if employment law (governing non-unionized workers), labour law (governing unionized workers) and collective bargaining legislation and collective-bargaining structures, along with unions, can somehow eliminate exploitation and oppression at work. From page 6 (my emphasis):

Yet the institutional bulwarks which are essential for working people to attain better outcomes from the labour market (such as ambitious and actively-enforced employment standards, strong and widespread collective bargaining structures, and even a positive common-sense understanding of fair practice in the world of work) have become less capable of moderating these trends, instead of being strengthened to meet these challenges. The result is a labour market marked by pervasive inequality, underemployment, and all too often hopelessness. [my emphasis]

What is this “positive common-sense understanding of fair practice in the world of work?” I guess I lack this “positive common-sense understanding of fair practice.” On page 104, they ask:

The Changing Workplaces Review must address a fundamental challenge for the future of labour market policy: what measures can effectively provide Ontario workers the dignity, security, and fair treatment they deserve, while maintaining the efficiency and success of Ontario’s economy?

An honest answer to that question–given the context of an economy structured according to the demands of a class of employers–is that only measures that aim to eliminate the power of the class of employers can achieve those twin goals. The dishonest answer is that the twin goals can both be achieved within the structure of the employer-employee relation.

Mr. Rosenfeld is therefore right when he affirms that unions, such as the original CAW Local 88. as a union that was independent of its particular employer, are much better than the union that represented Magna workers.

However, both sets of workers were exploited and oppressed locally at work due to their class situation, and their unions were not independent of the class of employers even in the case of the original CAW Local 88–unless Mr. Rosenfeld can show evidence to the contrary by showing that the local not only tried to become independent from its particular employer but from the class of employers (by, for instance, showing the limitations of the collective-bargaining process and the resulting collective agreement–and even then such a situation is only the beginning of a process towards becoming independent of the class of employers through the elimination of all classes). I doubt that he can. This is where Mr. Rosenfeld is wrong–a union independent of a particular employer does not mean that such a union is independent of the class of employers.

Finally, let us look at the collective agreement between CAMI Automotive and CAW Local 88. I could not find the 1992-1995 collective agreement (which would have been the most relevant since there is reference to the 1992 strike above), but I did find the collective agreement for 1995-1998, which has the following:


The Union recognizes the right of CAMI to hire, promote, transfer, demote and lay off employees and to suspend, discharge or otherwise discipline employees for just cause subject to the right of any employee to lodge a grievance in the manner and to
the extent as herein provided.

The Union further recognizes the right of CAMI to operate and manage its business in all respects, to maintain order and efficiency in its plant, and to determine the location of its plant, the products to be manufactured, the scheduling of its production and its methods, processes, and means of manufacturing. The Union further acknowledges that CAMI has the right to make and alter, from time to time, rules and regulations to be observed by employees, which rules and regulations shall not be inconsistent with the provisions of this agreement.

The Union recognizes the right of CAMI to formulate, revise and publish Personnel policies, which shall be administered in a fair, impartial and consistent manner to all members of the bargaining unit [bold in the original–although I am uncertain if that was intentional.]

Of course, unions may be forced to include such clauses in the collective agreement. If, however, they were really independent of the class of employers, they would question the legitimacy of such a clause openly to their members and promote discussion of the clause whenever they could. Does Mr. Rosenfeld have any evidence that CAW Local 88 did that? If not, his idea that CAW Local 88 was an independent union, though true in relation to its particular employer, was false in relation to the class of employers.

I predict that Mr. Rosenfeld will not provide any evidence to show that CAW Local 88 was an independent union at the level of the class of employers. 

Social democrats like Mr. Rosenfeld do the opposite of what some Marxists and radical leftists do: social democrats correctly emphasize the need for unions do be independent of the particular employer, but they neglect how unions, at the level class, are not independent of employers.

Some Marxists and other radicals, on the other hand, neglect the importance of the independence of unions from particular employers by referring merely to workers working for the class of employers–as I tried to show in my previous post). 

A Little Theory

To round off this post, I will refer to a book by a German author that may not appear to have much relevance to the issue of the independence of the working class, but nevertheless does address the issue indirectly (theoretically). 

The quote is a very rough translation from the German of Maxi Berger (2012), Labour, Self-consciousness and Self-determination in Hegel: Towards the Interdependence of Theory and Praxis, page 23 (I include the German after the quote for those who read German):

In order to be able to understand that the individual cannot escape from economic coercion, it is crucial to emphasize the total social character of the capitalist mode of production. This total social character is manifest in social organization, that is to say, that the legal foundations and administrative institutions as well as the organization of the economic sphere as a whole are appropriate in the sense of accumulation for the sake of accumulation–not however in the sense of a reasonable organization of human life. As a result of this the action of the members is placed under constraint: Whoever wants to obtain his means of life, whoever therefore who wants to live, must accommodate themselves to the conditions of commodity and labour markets, not the opposite.

(Um verstehen zu können, daß sich Einzelne den ökonomischen Zwängen nicht entziehen
können, ist es entscheidend, den gesamtgesellschaftlichen Charakter der kapitalistischen
Produktionsweise zu betonen. Dieser gesamtgesellschaftliche Charakter ist in der
gesellschaftlichen Organisation manifest. D. h. daß die juristischen Grundlagen und verwalterischen
Institutionen ebenso wie die Organisation der ökonomischen Sphäre insgesamt
zweckmäßig im Sinne der Akkumulation um der Akkumulation willen sind – nicht
aber im Sinne einer vernünftigen Organisation menschlichen Lebens. Dadurch wird das
Handeln der Mitglieder unter Sachzwang gestellt: Wer sich seine Lebensmittel beschaffen
will, wer also leben will, muß sich den Bedingungen des Waren- und Arbeitsmarktes anpassen,
nicht umgekehrt.)

Unions and the social-reformist or social-democratic left that fail to take into account the fact that the freedom of the worker to shift from one employer to another does not prevent economic coercion need to be criticized. Independent unions at the level of a particular employer go hand in hand with such economic coercion.

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