The Radical Left Needs to Call into Question Existing Social Institutions at Every Opportunity, Part Seven

In the last post in this series, I pointed out that before I obtained a so-called permanent teaching position , I worked for a number of years as a substitute teacher (with short periods of term teaching positions). I became an executive member of the Winnipeg Teachers’ Association (WTA) (in the province of Manitoba, Canada), representing substitute teachers.

The WTA had an education fund for the executive, where each member, if approved by the executive, could access up to $3,000 for educational purposes. A condition for obtaining such funds was a summary of the educational experience and its publication in the WTA newsletter.

I used this situation as an opportunity to criticize the limitations of the educational experience.

Below is a copy of the critical summary of my educational experience (written in 2008):

A Philosophical (Critical) Commentary on the Mel Myers Labour Conference, March 12-13, 2008

A third speaker, Professor Guard, provided a welcome contrast to the one-sided emphasis on legal relations. She outlined how the rights of workers and of others depended on the labour movement becoming involved in wider struggles for social justice. From such struggles, the right to universal medicare, unemployment insurance, pensions and various other basic rights (which have been attacked during the past three decades) emerged through struggle—both legal and illegal. Indeed, the modern collective bargaining regime emerged in part on the basis of illegal strikes, forcing employers to recognize the union of the employees’ choice.

As Professor Guard noted, the way in which workers will expand their rights is not mainly through legal provisions but through organizing themselves effectively and through struggle. Legal provisions are mainly a consequence of such struggles and not their presupposition; such provisions can reinforce organizational forms and struggles already taking place. They cannot replace them.

Although Professor Guard did not address the issue, all legislation implicitly presupposes the legal right of employers to control employees or to use human beings for the ends of the group called employers—contrary to the ethical categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, to treat all human beings as ends in themselves. Even human rights legislation presupposes the legitimacy of treating human beings as means to the ends of employers.

Given the limitations of legal relations, it is curious that a conference that was advertised as “management free” had as its keynote speaker at lunch on March 12 Gail Asper, who spoke on the importance of the Canadian Muesum for Human Rights, located in Winnipeg. According to the 2005 Annual Report of CanWest Global Communications Corp., of which Gail Asper is a director and corporate secretary, total assets of that employer exceeded 5 billion dollars. To what extent Ms. Asper could be considered sympathetic to the daily concerns and needs of employees, including those of teachers, should be queried. Furthermore, by profession, she is a lawyer. Given these two facts, it is unlikely that she would engage in critical thinking about the legal system or the economic structure of society, which is largely characterized by the economic dependence of most who work on employers.

Despite these major limitations of the Conference, it was useful to gain technical knowledge of problems associated with collective bargaining since they are indeed problems that employees, including teachers, face or will face.

I chose three sessions for March 12: Mistakes to Avoid, Pension Update and Trends in Retirement. The session on Mistakes to Avoid involved some tips on how labour representatives can avoid problems in grievance handling. For example, they should play the devil’s advocate and question thoroughly the potential griever or witness to ensure that all relevant facts are elicited before deciding whether to proceed to arbitration.

The bottom line of the Pension Update was that if benefits are to remain constant, then contributions will have to increase since the rate of interest has decreased substantially and the longevity has increased. Alternatively, benefits will have to decrease if contributions remain constant.

The Trends in Retirement session pointed out that income-tax law has recently changed to allow a person to work, draw a pension and still contribute to the pension.

The morning session for all participants on March 13 dealt with safety in the context of emergency situations, such as a gun-toting person at a university campus or at a high school. A model was presented, emphasizing the need for a comprehensive and active inclusion of all relevant persons involved in a possible crisis situation.

I chose two independent sessions for the day: selection grievances and duty of fair representation. In the first session, it was emphasized that selection of employees for specific positions is one of the most difficult areas for unions to win a grievance since arbitrators are loathe to interfere in managerial power to select.

In the second session, most unions have been found guilty of breaching the duty of fair representation of members when they have not properly investigated a grievance. As long as they do so, it is unlikely that the Labour Relations Board will find a union to have breached its duty—even when it is wrong.

The final session for all participants referred to the top ten cases of 2007. In one case, an employee with ten years seniority posted an award of $500 to pie the CEO. The employee persistently attempted to excuse the act through subterfuge. The employee did not apologize, and the arbitrator found the employee dishonest. The termination was upheld.

This case gives one pause to thought. The employee, it was implied, should have immediately apologized and admitted guilt since arbitrators recognize remorse as a mitigating factor in determining the level of discipline. However, there is a difference between suggesting that the employee, out of prudence, should have outwardly acted remorsefully and actually feeling remorse. There was no discussion of why an employee would want to pie the CEO or whether many other employees in many work places would want to—secretly—pie the CEO or at least some of the supervisors and managerial staff.
This case exemplifies the limitations of the Conference.

Fred Harris, executive member