Economics for Social Democrats–but not for the Working Class, Part Four: Is There Such a Thing as a Responsible Employer in Relation to the Health of Workers?

The Toronto Star published an article in the Opinion section by the social-democratic reformer here in Toronto, Jim Stanford, on January 8, 2022, which directly relates to a previous post  (Economics for Social Democrats–but not for the Working Class, Part Three: The Health and Safety of Workers and an Economy Dominated by a Class of Employers Are at Loggerheads  )   as well as to other posts in this series critically analyzing Mr. Stanford’s economic theories and assumptions.

I am going to quote verbatim the entire article by Mr. Stanford in order for the reader to see the complete picture which Stanford paints before analyzing it. I will refer to an earlier post to show how Stanford contradicts himself.

When death is a cost of business

Strong rules needed to force employers to do right thing

Throughout COVID-19, there’s been an uncomfortable tension in how political leaders, employers and public opinion have reacted to the challenges of working during a pandemic.

On one hand, many acknowledged the courage and sacrifice of those who kept providing essential services despite the risks. We applauded health care workers and first responders. And we thanked those in more humble, undervalued roles: like grocery clerks, cleaners, and delivery drivers, whose continued labour helped us weather the crisis.

On the other hand, a deeper reflex remained in place among employers and governments. They could quickly revert to a more dollars-and-sense perspective, in which workers are just another productive input: something whose continued supply must be assured and whose cost must be minimized.

Grocery chains offered $2 an hour bonuses during the scary initial weeks of the pandemic, but snatched them away as soon as operationally (and politically) feasible. Pandemic pay was replaced by million-dollar bonuses for CEO amidst a COVID-fueled grocery boom. Premiers [heads of provincial governments in Canada] praised health care workers for their bravery, and then demanded cuts in their pay. And from the outset, the willingness of negligent employers to sacrifice the health and even lives of workers to maintain production–in slaughterhouses, corporate farms and Amazon warehouses–was a frightening reminder of the amorality of the profit motive.

Now, with Omicron out of control, it seems employers and public health officers have thrown in the towel in the fight to limit contagion, protect workers and customers, and support isolation when needed.

The cannon shot signalling this new, grim approach was the relaxation of isolation requirements for workers with COVID. This started in December when the U.S. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention cut the isolation period to just five days (for those infected and close contacts). It was lobbied hard by U.S. employers, who wanted sick workers back on the job faster.

Scientific evidence on this issue is mixed at best. Recent research suggests the average contagious period for vaccinated COVID patients is 5.5 days–and since that’s the average, it’s longer for many patients. But it wasn’t science that ruled the day: it was the complaints of employers that isolation was depriving them of needed workers.

Other jurisdictions rejected the U.S. precedent. And America’s sorry COVID record (it registered more than a million new cases last Monday alone) hardly constitutes a role model. But influenced by similar complaints from Canadian employers, our officials fell in line.

The five-day rule has now been mimicked in several provinces (including Ontario, Alberta and B.C. [British Columbia].

In Quebec, the government even requires some health workers to stay on the job with COVID. Alberta gives individual employers discretion in deciding staff shortages necessitate isolation periods of less than five days. Meanwhile, B.C.’s health officer bluntly stated she is no longer interested in “telling (employers) what to do.” Instead, each business should make its own plan to avoid shutting down because of staff shortages.

Leaving life-and-death decisions to the discretion of individual profit-seeking employers wilfully ignores the power imbalances that shape the day-to-day reality of workplaces. Without clear, strong rules, workers don’t have a chance of forcing their employers to behave responsibly.

Business leaders celebrate this turn to light-touch COVID-regulation. Workers can be forgiven for feeling differently. Now, in addition to fears of catching COVID, accessing testing and protecting loved ones, workers face an added danger: their employer can demand coworkers return to work even if contagious. Most perversely of all, almost no Canadian jurisdictions (outside of federally regulated industries and B.C.) guarantee enough sick pay to cover even this shorter isolation period.

Perhaps more than any recent history, COVID-19 has highlighted the callous logic of capitalism. Bosses need workers to keep working, no matter what: after all, that’s what produces the value added. And if workers must die in the process, so be it. We must keep the wheels of commerce turning–and keep profits (which perversely rose during the pandemic) flowing.

No wonder workers are angry. No wonder there are more strikes, more union drives and more individual acts of resistance (like resignations). When you suddenly realize your boss will tolerate your death as a cost of doing business, your attitude toward them (and your job) changes considerably.

Let us list several facts pointed out in the article:

  1. “Throughout COVID-19, there’s been an uncomfortable tension in how political leaders, employers and public opinion have reacted to the challenges of working during a pandemic.” (It is unclear who the “public” is. Does it include mainly workers? Mainly workers but, in addition, the unemployed (challenges of not working and trying to find a job), children and adolescents in school (children of parents surely “react” to the challenges their parents often have faced during the pandemic), seniors who are not working for an employer, self-employed (they work), and so forth. Probably, but it would have been helpful to have differentiated public opinion somewhat; of course, in a newspaper, there is a limited amount of space for elaboration. In any case, there has been some tension between three “groups.”
  2. This tension was expressed, on the one hand, in the recognition of the heroic sacrifice of essential workers who produced what we needed to both survive and have access at least to some of our normal comforts (such as agricultural workers producing food; factory workers producing toilet paper, hand sanitizer and masks; grocery workers processing the exchange relations that permitted the transfer of property from capitalist corporations to consumers) and health workers who attended to the sick from COVID-19 and, on the other hand, in the priority of the pursuit of profit by employers and reinforced by governments by treating workers as mere inputs to the production and exchange process, an input whose costs need to be minimized in order to maximize profits.Why would anyone who understands even the basic nature of the relations characterized by the class power of employers be surprised by this? If I remember correctly, John Dewey, a philosopher of education, objected to teaching children the fantasy that lions do not kill and eat their prey–teaching children in effect that the nature of lions is other than what it is and that the natural world needs to be interpreted in human terms. (I learned just how lions do really act when I was an adolescent (or younger–I do not really remember how old I was). My mother and I went to the zoo. We were looking at the lions in a cage. A boy was throwing pebbles at the male lion. Suddenly, the male lion jumped towards me–I froze. It was evident that had the cage not been there, the lion would have attacked me. There was no hesitancy in his act–unlike those who let their morals influence their acts to the detriment of acting at all (as the German philosopher Hegel recounted in his account of the “beautiful soul” who is afraid of tainting the moral soul by engaging in any act).Of course, there have been tensions between the well-being of workers and the class interests of employers and governments that, ultimately, represent their interests.Does Stanford think that, all of a sudden, the nature and interests of employers and a  government that, among other reasons, depends on the flow of tax revenues  from the “private economy” for its continued power and existence, would change? Why would anyone who understands the nature of capitalism be surprised by this?One explanation is that Stanford believes that there is such a thing as the “real economy” that is disconnected from the pursuit of profit (the pursuit of ever more money). His theory of money as “purchasing power,” disconnected from production and the nature of the labour that occurs in capitalist workplaces, then enables him to refer to such a world as the “real economy”–under present class power.

    In an earlier post mentioned above, I quoted Stanford: “The economy is not a thing in and of itself. The economy is what we refer to as the work that people do to produce goods and services and then how those goods and services are distributed and used.”

  3. He then implied that this “real economy” was somehow operating independently of the class of employers–an illegitimate assumption. The economy in the kind of society cannot be separated from the pursuit of more money–because that is the nature of the beast (just like a lion’s hunting and killing its prey (when it succeeds) is the nature of lions). The economy is a capitalist economy, and this economy is not the same as “the work that people do to produce goods and services and then how those goods and services are distributed and used”–as if the goal were the mere production of socially useful things and their distribution to others so that they can use them. When I worked at the capitalist brewery, our production of beer was necessarily united with our oppression and exploitation.
  4. In the initial phase of the pandemic, grocery stores increased wages by $2 an hour, but then they eliminated them. Stanford’s reference to snatching away this $2 an hour “as soon as operationally (and politically) feasible” does not explain anything. An increase in $2 an hour was probably tied to two typical reasons in an employer-dominated economy for increasing wages: danger pay and a shortage of workers, as an article by Sylvain Charlebois implies (https://retail-insider.com/retail-insider/2020/06/the-end-of-hero-pay-for-grocery-workers-in-canada-an-operational-necessity-expert/): The economics of pay increases at retail are always weak, especially in food retailing. With such low margins, these stipends were offered simply to keep enough staff around and not have operations affected by higher absenteeism rates. It worked for a while, but COVID-19 fears are slowly fading away. But so is the need to incentivize employees to show up for work. The COVID-19 fear factor is diminishing. The money will instead be spent on PPEs and other protective shields, which are likely to remain in place for a while. This seems to be where things are going. Disappointing for employees, but not surprising.
  5. Increases in CEO pay. This is nothing new; it has been going on as the class power of employers has assumed a neoliberal form, with shareholder value and short-term profits taking precedence. (But we should never forget that before neoliberalism, even longer-term profit seeking led to economic crises and necessarily involved daily exploitation and oppression of workers.)
  6. Premiers [heads of provincial governments in Canada] praised health care workers for their bravery, and then demanded cuts in their pay.

    Did all premiers advocate cuts in pay? In Alberta and Ontario they certainly did. But for factually accuracy (I am not a fan of the NDP government as anyone who has read certain posts on this blog will know), in British Columbia the NDP government did not. From https://news.gov.bc.ca/releases/2021HLTH0157-001703

    Beginning this fall, the Province will serve notice under the terms of 21 commercial service contracts and start a phased approach to repatriating housekeeping and food-service contracts. The move will improve wages, working conditions, job security and stability for approximately 4,000 workers who rely on their jobs, and the countless patients that they help each day. By promoting a stable and effective workforce, government will be better positioned to offer attractive jobs options to people interested in joining the workforce.

    “Health-care workers rely on a committed and stable workforce to help them with their jobs, and this move also better protects support service workers in their positions,” said Premier John Horgan. “Previous government actions cut health-care wages, took away the jobs they relied on, and created a chain reaction of layoffs that saw women disproportionately affected – the largest such layoffs in Canada’s history. Nearly 20 years later, we are still living with the aftermath of those choices, with workers paid less to do the same work as their colleagues in the public system. It’s time to put a stop to it.”

    This move started with Bill 47 (Health Sector Statutes Repeal Act), which was brought into force through regulation on July 1, 2019. Bill 47 repealed two existing pieces of legislation – the Health and Social Services Delivery Improvement Act (Bill 29) and the Health Sector Partnerships Agreement Act (Bill 94), which facilitated contracting out in the health sector and caused significant labour impacts.

  7. And from the outset, the willingness of negligent employers to sacrifice the health and even lives of workers to maintain production–in slaughterhouses, corporate farms and Amazon warehouses–was a frightening reminder of the amorality of the profit motive.

If the profit motive is amoral, would it not be logical to advocate for the elimination of the class power of employers and the economic, political and social structures that serve to produce that power and that permits the existence and dominance of the priority of the profit motive over the health of workers?

Stanford contradicts himself. If the profit motive is amoral, why does he say the following:

Without clear, strong rules, workers don’t have a chance of forcing their employers to behave responsibly.

However, Stanford nowhere explicitly or even implicitly advocates the abolition of the class power of employers. Why is that? I will let the reader infer the reasons for Mr. Stanford’s silence over the issue. 

 Conclusion

Mr. Stanford published a book in 2008 titled Economics for Everyone: A Short Guide to the Economics of Capitalism. It is not really a good guide since it fails to characterize a basic fact of capitalism: the sacrifice of the health of workers for the good of–an economy dominated by a class of employers. If rules were really strong enough to force employers to act responsbly, the rules would involve the self-abolition of the class power of employers.

Rather than waiting for that utopian vision, it would be better for workers to organize to abolish the class power of employers themselves.

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