Working for an Employer May Be Dangerous to Your Health, Part Seven: The National Day of Mourning in Canada and the Social Causes of Injury, Disease and Death

On April 28 is the National Day of Mourning  in Canada to commemorate those workers who have suffered disease, injury or death at work. However, unions rarely if ever raise the issue of how effective such a day of mourning is for addressing the health and safety problems that  workers experience. Why do more or less 1,000 workers die every year at work and around 600,000 experience injuries or disease (Bob Barneston (2010), The Political Economy of Workplace Injury in Canada).

For example, I listened to the “Welcome to the Toronto & York Region Labour Council’s Day of Mourning ceremonies” for 2021 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zl-7e8Ta-H8&list=LL&index=14). In none of the presentations do the presenters attribute problems of health and safety to the structural situation of the persistent need to accumulate capital at the expense of workers’ health and safety.

One of the ways in which the health and safety of workers who work for an employer has been jeopardized is the administrative shift in the capitalist government’s definition of the causes of dangers to health and safety. Government or state representatives defined health and safety problems in purely technical terms, ignoring the social causes of dangers to the health and safety of workers.

From Tom Dwyer (1991), Life and Death at Work: Industrial Accidents as a Case of Socially Produced Error, page 26:

Conflict over the weakness of safety laws proceeded [in England], especially from the 1870s when workers were able to achieve greater parliamentary representation. Through an examination of the content of regulations, we can see that workers’ social demands were largely ignored as, increasingly, solutions to problems emerged in important political compromises that were channeled technically. … The vision that the state lent to the prevention of accidents was overwhelmingly based on the development of technical criteria, while social criteria were, with some notable exceptions, given little attention.

The shift from defining health and safety dangers from social causes to technical causes led to the increasingly bureaucratic or administrative definition and treatment of the problem; this in turn contributed to the fragmentation of workers’ organization and struggle of the workers in relation to the social power of the class of employers.

From Tom Dwyer, Life and Death at Work: Industrial Accidents as a Case of Socially Produced Error, page 27:

The attention of unions was increasingly channeled away from the worksite and toward legislative change to be conquered through the efforts of members of Parliament sympathetic to the workers’ cause. The power of the bureaucracy grew as industrial problems became increasingly subject to political control through their transformation into administrative questions.

This view of the shift towards governmental administration of problems and away from class organization and class struggle is consistent with the view of a more general shift towards a capitalist government that administers laws–public administration.

From Mark Neocleous (1996), Administering Civil Society: Towards a Theory of State Power, pages 106-107:

In fact, the theoretical ‘problem’ over the relationship between struggle and
structure only arises by separating them and thus being faced with the necessity of syncretically syncretic • \sincretic=characterized or brought about by a combination of different forms of belief or practice] drawing them together again, or at least positing a causal relationship. But, as Werner Bonefeld [a Marxist theoretician] writes, structures are a mode of class antagonism and thus both the result and premise of class struggle. This is true of the capitalist state generally and specific institutional developments of that state. For the other moment of the making of the English working class was the (re)making of the modern state. Far from being supine [which means: failing to act or protest as a result of moral weakness or laziness], in the process of struggle the working class forced the emergence of new state structures – of political administration- and through these a reordering, far more fundamental than that forced by the bourgeoisie in its struggle, of the relation between state and civil society [capitalist society apart from the government or state]. The British state, faced with struggling classes, pre-empted revolutionary change by subsuming class struggle under the state through the development of administrative structures and mechanisms. The development of the state can be traced to the incorporation of working-class struggle into its very structures, as increasing elements of civil society found themselves structured, restructured and submerged. With typical flexibility and a seemingly endless ability to adapt itself, the British state responded by creating a space within itself for this purpose. Thus, although the working class was constituted by the state, the state itself was constituted through class struggle. The working class was both constituted by and constitutive of the structures of political administration and state power. (To put this another way: we need a conception of the working class not only as subjected, but also as subject.) The only way to incorporate the English working class was for the state to be altered accordingly, new (administrative) forms emerging which could then be used against the working class. Political administration, then, acts as the fulcrum around which both the working class and the modern state were ordered. Just as humans ‘by their own toil keep in existence a reality which enslaves them in ever greater degree’, so the working class in its struggles produce the real structures which then enslave it. Poulantzas [a Marxist political theoretician] rightly claims that ‘struggles are inscribed in the institutional materiality of the state, even though they are not concluded in it; it is a materiality that carries the traces of these muted and multiform struggles.’

This insight can be strengthened and tightened by positing political administration as a specific form of working class struggle, by following Adorno [a Marxist critical theorist] in arguing that administration acts as a process of subsumption, a mechanism for ordering and covering over. ‘Administration’ has feudal origins referring to the management of the estates of the dead; hence ‘the administration of wills’.67 I am arguing that we think of political administration as state management of the struggles of the working class. By subsuming struggle, political administration is ‘working-class power post festum [after the fact]; working-class political victories captured and formalized at their moment of triumph.’68 In these administrative structures the state appropriates and nullifies the struggle of the working class; as such they are the fossilized remnants of class struggle; they are the subsumption [meaning: of including under another, usually something more general] of struggle – working-class struggle abolished and preserved. Born of the struggle of the working class these structures are then left with the task of administering that same class, a task performed in relation to both collective organizations of the working class and its decomposed elements known as ‘citizens’. It is therefore through the very process of struggle that the working class, and not its ‘aristocratic’ elements, now most definitely of civil society, also finds its struggles incorporated into the state, transformed into administrative structures and turned against it. Thus in its struggle to become a class of civil society, the class discovers itself also to be a class of the state.

The administration of the health and safety of workers by the capitalist government or state channeled workers’ struggles in this area into a redefinition of the nature of the causes of health and safety issues, away from social causes–such as the very nature of the power of the class of employers and how they, directly or indirectly, use workers for purposes over which workers have no control (see The Money Circuit of Capital) and which is inherently connected to the possibility of disease, injury and death.

If the capitalist government is adept or skillful at channeling worker discontent into new administrative forms, then issues must be addressed in such a way that the capitalist government cannot accommodate them (see, for instance, my argument for a generous universal basic income that erodes the market for the hiring and firing of workers, A Radical Basic Income as a Radical Reform).

In relation to health and safety issues, strong workers’ organizations at the local level (not just unions and union reps), coupled with increasing links between workers’ organizations across industries, would be a necessary step in preparing workers to resist forms of class struggle that include legislative changes that define problems as non-social and, correspondingly, shift solutions to the redefined problems by means of administrative means.

To achieve this, would it not be necessary to abandon all talk of “fair compensation,” “fair wages,” “fair contract,” “Fair labour laws save lives,” “decent work,” and so forth? Such phrases paper over the real and persistent threat of disease, injury and death that workers face.  Opposition to such phrases, of course, is hardly sufficient. Is not opposition to such cliches necessary, though, if workers are going to initiate a movement dedicated to addressing the social causes of their own sufferings.

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