The Case of the Possible General Strike of Ontario Unionized Workers: Critique of Conservative Radicalism or Radical Conservatism

Introduction 

The recent wildcat strike by 55,000 Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) members, represented by the Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU, who work in schools in Ontario, Canada, was stimulated by the Conservative Ford government’s Bill 28, which not only legislated workers back to work, but also used the notwithstanding clause of the Charter and Rights to Freedom to prevent any legal challenge–essentially stripping away collective-bargaining rights–including the right to strike.

The wildcat strike has resulted in two distinct political positions on what should have been done: push forward to aim for a general strike, or limit the movement to the aim of defeating the Conservative Ford government’s Bill 28 and of obtaining a collective agreement.

The two distinct political positions are expresssed in the largely Canadian social-democratic journal Canadian Dimension, with Martin Schoots-McAlpine arguing for a general strike (see https://canadiandimension.com/articles/view/the-general-strike-that-could-have-been) and Herman Rosenfeld aguing that a call for a general strike was premature and, he implies, ultra-leftist (see https://canadiandimension.com/articles/view/a-first-post-pandemic-political-victoryhardly-a-general-strike-that-could-have-been ).

I will argue that Schoots-McAlpine’s political position, at least with respect to his advocacy of a general strike before the repeal of Bill 28, is the more reasonable radical position and that Rosenfeld’s position reflects a conservative radical’s political position–or rather a social-democratic or social-reformist political position.

I will not enter into detail into Schoots-McAlpine’s article since it is more important to address the inadequacies of Rosenfeld’s social-reformist position since that position has ultimately been practically realized.

The Conservative Radical’s Political Position

The Aim of the Movement Should Be Limited to the Repeal of Bill 28

Rosenfeld paints the restriction of the victory (and it was a victory in the negative sense of forcing the Conservative Doug Ford’s government to agree to abolish Bill 28) in a very positive light: 

A determined, organized and mobilized local union, the Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU), closed down most of the main school boards in a “political protest” which doubled as a contract strike. The Ford government withdrew its Bill 28, a constitutional attack and challenge at the OLRB, and was forced to go back to the bargaining table. CUPE maintained its right to strike if an agreement was not reached.

This was a big victory for CUPE, public sector workers, and the labour movement writ large, even though, like all such wins, it is temporary, conditional, and is only one moment in an ongoing class struggle which takes both economic and political forms. It was recognized as such by most working people, union members, officials, and critics from the left and socialists across the board.

Rosenfeld obviously considered it emintently realistic to aim only at the repeal of Bill 28: 

And, of course, the main issue was not to change the Ford government’s larger political agenda all in one go, but to defend the right of the CUPE local to bargain, build support amongst the larger working class for their demands and opposition to the government, and force Ford to back off. That was the initial step in this ongoing war and workers mobilized around it and won.

Rosenfeld’s Characterization of Schoots-McAlpine’s Position as Naive, Mechanistic, Abstract Ultra-leftism–and Inconsistent to Boot 

He then turns to what he considers the dark side (the Darth Vaderian side)–what he considers to be an ultra-leftist position. He characterizes this position in negative terms: 

Yet, in a naïve, mechanistic, and abstract intellectual exercise, this wasn’t good enough for Martin Schoots-McAlpine. For him, in his article published yesterday in Canadian Dimension (and there are other activists and comrades who clearly feel the same way), getting Ford to back down on this battle didn’t matter. The promise of a larger general strike—to be led by the dreaded labour bureaucrats he so roundly attacks—developing into a greater political movement (led by whom?) targeting many of the key elements of the capitalist agenda in the city and province was in the wind and was ended unilaterally, and wrongly, by calling off the CUPE strike and the movement towards a general strike.

And, further, even though this was to be led by the dreaded bureaucrats, Schoots-McAlpine writes, it seems that the working class, and the members of the union movement were chomping at the bit to build this movement. He writes, “for a brief moment we as workers in Ontario had an opportunity to really change the direction of this province for the better…workers across the province were willing to fight.”

Rosenfeld can hardly hide his contempt for any position that is more radical than his own. I have already pointed out in a previous post how he unjustifiably characterized a more radical position than his own as “sloppy thinking” and that his own views reflect “sloppy thinking” (see Reform or Abolition of the Police, Part One)  Now he accues Schoots-McAlpine of engaging “in a naïve, mechanistic, and abstract intellectual exercise.” 

Rosenfeld further engages in character assassination with the title of one of his subsections: 

Delusions and wishes can’t substitute for materialist analysis of reality

Rosenfeld’s Justification For Limiting the Labour and Social Movements to Repealing Bill 28

How does Rosenfeld justify such a negative characterization? Apparently, by providing “a materialist analysis of reality.” What is this “materialist analysis?” Rosenfeld seems to argue under the above section title that workers and union leaders generally did not aim for anything more than the repeal of Bill 28; they were not prevented from pursuing a general strike since that was never really on the agenda. The following two sections are titled “Of leadership, bureaucracy and rank-and-file workers,” and “A word on general strikes.”

The section on union bureaucracy and rank-and-file workers seems to deny that the Rand formula of automatic dues deduction interfered with the relationship between union leaders and rank-and-file members. He also argues that although there has historically been a gap between union bureaucracy and the rank-and-file, leading to constraints on what the rank-and-file can do, this is not written in stone. Socialists in particular can challenge such constraints and this is what is needed. Rosenfeld admits that there is a tendency for union leaders to be co-opted, but he denies its inevitability. On the other hand, Schoots-McAlpine’s assumption that the rank-and-file are automatically militant is questionable. Workers have contradictory views since at a bare minimum they depend economically on their employer. If workers were so militant, they would have themselves called for a general strike: 

 If workers had this understanding already, they would be challenging the agreement for CUPE to go back to the bargaining table, pushing for a general strike, and calling for a political movement arguing for the demands that Schoots-McAlpine legitimately calls for on their own. But calling for general strike plans to go ahead anyway avoids the necessary education, organization, and strategizing that socialists and radical activists in and around the union movement must bring to either force or help leaders create opportunities to make it happen. Schoots-McAlpine leaves no place for it to happen.

Furthermore, as a counter-example to the characterization of union leaders as bureaucratic, he refers to, among others, J.P. Hornick, current leader of the Ontario Public Sector Employees Union (OPSEU). Workers should definitely appreciate the militancy of Hornick, who supported a wildcat strike by section three (education workers) of OPSEU who themselves supported the striking CUPE members (see https://socialistaction.ca/our-initiatives/the-red-review/ for details), we should not fail to recognize the limiations of Hornick’s own views (see my criticisms of her views in May Day 2022 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada: The Case of the President of the Ontario Public Services Employee Union (OPSEU), J.P. Hornick, Part One: A Fair Contract  and May Day 2022 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada: More Rhetoric from a Union Rep: The Case of the President of the Ontario Public Services Employee Union (OPSEU), J.P. Hornick, Part Two: Do Corrections Officers Protect Us?  ). Rosenfeld does not address such limitations and thus remains quite abstract. 

Let us add one more quote, from the section about delusions: 

Moments of struggle always provide openings to build and move forward, and for workers who are participating, to learn key lessons and develop deeper consciousness and understanding. But every struggle and every moment aren’t necessarily similar. As a socialist, one has to look at the particularities of the experience and the potentials, and build on them.

Let us stop here. We need, according to Rosenfeld, base our analysis on a materialist realiy and focus on the particularities (specifities) of the experience and potentials. However, Rosenfeld does not even go into the material reality of the peculiarity of Ford trying to use the notwithstanding clause to impose a unilateral contract (to call it a collective agreement would be an oxymoron). Nor does he enter into analysing the potential of this peculiar situation to build up a movement in a short period of time. It is in such circumstances that workers may well go beyond their representatives and even their union leaders.

The Unique or Peculiar Situation of an Attack on the Union Movement in General: A Materialist Analysis of the Situation 

Rosenfeld does not engage in the specific nature of the use of the notwithstanding clause as an impulse for union leaders, union rank-and-file and probably social movements to engage in protests, picket-line walking and rallies.  

In normal times, it would be inconsistent  to rely on the bureaucratic union leadership to lead a general strike. However, the Ford government’s  use of the notwithstanding clause to preempt a strik indicated  abnormal times. The bureuacratic union leadership might have felt forced to move towards in a general strike for two reasons. Firstly, they themselves identified with “free collective bargainng” as a principle, and that principle was being threatened. Secondly, they might have been subject to pressure from below. It would of course be necessary to determine if there was such pressure, but the willingness of many workers to engage in an illegal strike/political protest and be subject to $4000 fine a day, as well as the support of the strike by Unifor national, CUPE national and OPSEU, as well as the support of some parents, indicates a willingness to support a move towards a general strike. 

Indeed, in a press conference following the agreement by the Ford government that it would rescind Bill 28, Mark Hancock, president of CUPE National, had this to say when asked about what preparations had been made for a general strike: 

I think part of it is: Nobody really knew. That was the beauty of what’s happened over the last number of days leading into the legislation being enacted that…this grew a movement of its own in some ways. And you heard very clearly from private-sector unions and public-sector unions that everybody was very serious on that. And what that looked like on Saturday at the rally and on Monday, I think we had a pretty good idea. But beyond that I have no idea. This has got legs of its own.

There is such a thing as the “logic of events.” The need for union bureaucrats to appear to represent the will of their members, especially in the context of such a public and political event as Ford’s open use of the cudgel of the notwithstanding clause might well have forced them to take measures that they would not normally take. Furthermore, their own evident belief in the sanctity of collective bargaining  might have reinforced this pressure to engage in more radical measures. 

Rosenfeld’s “materialist analysis of reality” simply ignores the “particularities” of the situation. But the particularities of a situation do not just involve facts–but potentialities. Rosenfeld also ignores the potentialties of the situation. 

Underestimation of the Potentialities of the Situation

Underestimation of the Potentialities of Unifying Unions Across Canada

Furthermore, Rosenfeld’s statement: “As a socialist, one has to look at the particularities of the experience and the potentials, and build on them” is empty. The use of the notwithstanding clause by Ford opened up the potentiality for a national struggle and not just a provincial struggle. That is why Unifor national president spoke at the press conference as did the president of the Canadian Labour Congress. That is why even unions that supported Ford criticized him. The potential to unify unionized workers across the public and private sectors existed because of Ford’s imposition of the notwithstanding clause. 

Union bureaucrats themselves realized the potential threat to their ideology of free collective bargaining so often expressed by them. At the press conference, we hear the following from Mark Hancock: 

National Secretary Treasurer, Candace Renick [of CUPE], Fred Hahn, the Ontario division president, and many CUPE leaders from all across the country. Friends who have joined him from the labour movement today up front. We have leadership from the Canadian Labour Congress, the Ontario Federation of Labour, ATU Canada, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, the Ontario Secondary Schools Teacher Federation, the AEFO, the United Steel Workers, UFCW, Unifor, the Ontario Building Trades, the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, the Sheet Metal Workers, Unite Here, IATSE, the National Union of Public and General Employees, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, the Ontario Nurses Association, SEIU Health Care, the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union, the Society of United Professionals, the Toronto and York Regional Labour Council. Today we represent millions of private and public sector workers all across the country.

This is an unprecedented gathering of labour leaders because the attack against workers’ rights that we’ve seen from this government—the attack on the rights of all Canadians which has been unprecedented. Bill 28 was a direct threat to workers’ rights and to the Charter rights of all Canadians. It invoked the notwithstanding clause to undermine some of our most fundamental rights. That regressive attack on workers united the labour movement like never before.

Hancock used the term “unprecedented” to chaacterize the situation. Karen Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO), also used the same term: 

The Draconian legislation the Ford government passed to impose a collective agreement on CUPE and remove their Charter Rights to free and fair collective bargaining and to strike was an unprecedented attack on collective-bargaining rights the likes of which we have never seen in Canadian history. Rest assured, we, our members, my colleagues, people of Ontario, we will hold Premier Ford to his word to rescind Bill 28. We stand in stead-fast solidarity with you. You can count on us. You can count on ETFO. Solidarity.

Rosenfeld neglects to take into consideration the “unprecedented” threat to the Canadian union movement of Ford’s actions. He wants to restrict it to the issue of repealing Bill 28. Such radical conservatiism. Such conservative radicalism. Such naivety. Such mechanical thinking. Such abstract thinking. 

Of course, like Schoots-McAlpine, I would hardly interpret this rhetoric in a radical sense. Hancock and others, since they sell unions on the basis of the principle of free collective bargaining, rightly saw what Ford did as a threat to their own economic, political and ideological positions. They likely wanted to get back to the status quo as quickly as possible–trade-union cretinism similar to parliamentaty cretinism, which uses voting and social movements as means to pressure the government to obtain limited reforms independently of linking up such reforms with the aim of abolishing the class power of employers. 

This potentiality to unify union forces across Canada and not just in Ontario was there–and squandered. Rosenfeld agress with such a waste of potentiality. 

Underestimation of the Potentialities of Accelerating Worker Creativity, Organization and Class Consciousness  

Rosenfeld also underestimates the potentiality of workers for accelerating their creativiy and class consciousness in such situations. Indeed, Marx criticized those who failed to recognize the creativity of the working class. From Daniel Gaido (2021), “The First Workers’ Government in History: Karl Marx’s Addenda to Lissagaray’s History of the Commune of 1871,” in pages 1-64, Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory, page 42: 

In the extensive section inserted by Marx to criticise the leaders of the Paris Commune, he delved into the question of revolutionary leadership …,  pointing out how the enormous potential power of the working class had ‘always been squandered, diverted, annihilated … by a swarm of declaimers and sectarians … others who are only anxious to climb up the social ladder … [and] a bunch of blind hotheads…’

Marx insisted that ‘If a party needs wisdom, clarity, reason, leadership, it is the revolutionary party.’ [and by party marx did not necessarily mean a formal political party but a group of those who oppose the class power of employers].

Nowhere does Rosenfeld address this potentiality. Indeed, for him the concept of potentiality is limited to the conscious immediate aims of all participants indepdently of the peculiar situaiton of Ford’s invocation of the notwithstaning clause. . Why else does he not refer to the unprecedented situation of an elected official using the notwithstanding clause to break not only a particular union but trying to abolish the right to strike and the potential of that situation? He acknowledges that the right to strike was at issue, and so was the entire union movement not only in Ontario but throughout Canada (since any provincial government could then use the notwithstanding clause at any time to break a union). This fact was initated by the Ford government, and it threatened (had the potential) to unify different union movements thoughout Canada over the issue (and provide a focal point for community organizations to link their demands to that issue as well). 

The potentialities of the situation, however, should not lead us to the conclusion that workers will spontaneously come to the conclusion that we need to go beyond the collective-bargaining regime. This is where previous socialist criticisms of the limtiations of collective bargaining and collective agreements can play a role. Without such criticism, the extent to which workers will be willing to go beyond such a situation will likely be limited. The negative work required to undermine faith in the fairness of the collective-bargaining system needs to become more general if the potentialities of the system are to be realized in such a way that the workers go beyond such a situation. The danger of co-optation is ever present as a limitation to an expansion of the movement in a socialist direction of the abolition of the class power of employers. (For a short critique of the exaggeration of the implied spontaneous leap in class consciousness in such situations, see The Illusions of Radical Social Democrats or Social Reformers about the Extent of the Impact of the Current Educational Workers Strike Wave in Ontario). 

Overestimation of Rosenfeld’s Own Political Position and Actions

Rosenfeld’s implied claim that only if the workers defeated Bill 28–and then subsequently built on that short-term victory–is consistent with his gradualist approach. Only one step at a time–baby steps. The problem with that approach is that the goal of abolishing the class power of employers is most often forgotten in the process. 

Another problem is that it allows the represenatives of employers to figure out strategies that co-opt the movement (a danger that Roesnfeld simply ignores). I pointed Rosenfeld’s neglect of this in another post:

In relation to capitalism, I first became aware of the idea of proposing the abolition of prisons when I read Thomas Mathiesen’s works The Politics of Abolition and Law, Society and Political action: Towards a Strategy Under Late Capitalism. Mathiesen argues that the capitalist state has become particularly adept at co-opting or neutralizing more radical movements so that it is necessary to emphasis the abolition of structures rather than their reform in order not to contribute to the continuation of repressive structures. From page 73:

In the fourth place, we have seen that legislation which breaks with dominating interests, legislation which in this sense is radical, is easily shaped in such a way during the legislative process that the final legislation does not after all break significantly with dominating interests, as the examples from political practice of trimming, stripping down, the creation of pseudo alternatives, and co-optive co-operation, show.

I have referred, in another post, to the whittling down of the criminalization of employer actions following the murder of the Westray miners in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1992 (see  Working for an Employer May Be Dangerous to Your Health, Part Three). Co-optation is a real danger for the left–and Mr. Rosenfeld minimizes the power of the capitalist state to co-opt movements through reforms.

Rosenfeld’s strategy leads the left down the path to nowhere but reformism and to limits to class struggle that fail to realistically organize to aim for the abolition of the class power of employers. 

Rosenfeld, by arguing that we must create 

the necessary education, organization, and strategizing that socialists and radical activists in and around the union movement must bring to either force or help leaders create opportunities to make it [a general strike] happen.

adopts a conservative stance. We must take baby steps, always being cautious, never assuming that certain situations may have the potential to accelerate class creativity, class organizing and class consciousness. 

The following is another piece of abstract and mechanical thinking (sloppy thinking–a term Rosenfeld used in another atticle to characterize another radical–see my criticism of his views on this in Reform or Abolition of the Police, Part One): 

The education necessary to eventually organize more widespread, radical, and concerted actions still needs to be done within unions, locals, and communities in the education, health care, and other sectors. Is the author of this article willing to contribute to this, or would he prefer to sit on the sidelines and criticize the main protagonists?

This is hardly realistic. Rosenfeld, Jordan House and I presented “educationals” to workers at the Toronto Pearson Airport in the mid 2010s (and, I will admit, they did more work on the course than I did–I never have liked speaking in public). However, at one point, we had to wait almost two years to provide one course. Such educationals hardly provide a dent in the armour of the class of employers. Something much more is needed–and the situation which developed was far more important for providing an educational context than such educationals. 

Let Rosenfeld provide an account of just how he has educated the workers about their exploitation and oppression. Let him enlighten us on just how effective he and his fellow radical conservatives or conservative radicals have educated the workers on their class situation. 

Frankly, his abstract and mechanical thinking leads to a situation of just talking and talking rather than taking bold steps that may indeed fail–but are better than just chattering about socialism without really advancing it at all. His approach reminds me of one part in the Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, where a woman indicates that Brian is going to be crucified  (see   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55fqjw2J1vI ). Chatter, chatter and more chatter. And hardly ever any real critical discussion.

Indeed, when we had three educationals at the airport, the first of them was without hand-picked trade union reps. The educational lost its focus (our curriculum) because the session turned into a series of long complaints about the employer and the union. None of us really had an idea about what to do with the situation. Finally,, I perceived that one of the workers attending had an exaggerated understanding of the power of collective bargaining and collective agreements and did at least manage to point that out. The following two educationals were with hand-picked trade union reps who were more “docile.” Thus, when these hand-picked union reps were presented with the situation at the brewery where I worked (I was not identified in the exercise personally), in which I refused to carry out an order by the foremen, most stated that the person should have grieved the issue and acquiesced–hardly a dignified response and also a response that would have prevented workers to engage in solidarity at the actual workplace–which is what happened. 

Conclusion

I will end here, for now. Rosenfeld obviously believes that limiting the illegal political protest/strike by CUPE education workers to the repeal of Bill 28 was justified under the circumstances. To that end, he engages in name calling by claiming that Schoots-McAlpine’s defense of a general strike expressed a naive, mechanistic and intellectualist point of view. In fact, such a defense is delusional for Rosenfeld. 

Despite his claim to engage in a matrialist analysis of reality, he fails to engage in an analysis of the unique or peculiar situation which not only workers but union leaders faced when Ford passed Bill 28. His materialist analysis is wanting. The same could be said of his lack of analysis of the potentialities of that situation. Bill 28 threatened unions across Canada, and it had the potential to create more permanent links between unions across Canada. In such a situation, workers’ own creativity, organizing capacity and class consciousness could have developed further–if the strike had not been called off on Monday, November 7. Finally, Rosenfeld greatly overestimates his own political postion and actions; his analysis and actions remain puny beside the rage, the actions, the unity and the solidarity of union members, parents and others when Ford passed Bill 28. 

One can only wonder who is delusional in such a situation. 

There are undoubtedly many other issues that have arisen that are relevant to Ford’s attempt to impose a preemptive contract on workers, with the help of the notwithstanding clause. I may or may not write further on this topic and, if I do, I may then convert this into the first part of a two-part series, or I may simply write another post about some related topics on the issue. Or I may just modify this post. 

A Short List of the Largest Private Employers in Edmonton, Alberta, Based on the Number of Employees

The following is a list of the twenty-two largest private employers in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, based on the number of employees. I restrict this list to private employers since the number of employees across government departments seems to be provincial and not city-based. For example, the number of employees in Alberta Health Services is 123,000, which far exceeds the number of employees for private-based companies. The list also excludes not-for profit companies.

The statistics are based on the following site: Largest Employers in Edmonton

  1. Stantec: 22,000
  2. PCL Employees Holdings Ltd.: 16,000
  3. Bee-Clean Building Maintenance (Gingras Enterprises): 9,500
  4. Katz Group: 8,000
  5. Brick Warehouse Corporation: 5,700
  6. ATB Financial: 5,600
  7. AutoCanada Inc.: 4,200
  8. Chemco: 2,500
  9. EPCOR Utilities: 2,340
  10. Canadian Western Bank: 2,300
  11. Lilydale (Sofina Foods Inc.): 2,300
  12. Services Credit Union Ltd.: 2,200
  13. Alcanna: 2000
  14. Lockerbie & Hole Inc.: 2000
  15. Fountain Tire: 1,600
  16. Morgan Construction & Environmental Ltd.: 1,500
  17. Pyramid Corporation (A PTW Company): 1,300
  18. DynaLIFE: 1,200
  19. West Edmonton Mall Attractions Inc.: 1,200
  20. All Weather Windows: 1,000
  21. IBM Canada Limited: 1,000
  22. K-Bro Linen Inc.: 1,000

Total Employees: 94,140
Average Employees per Employer: 4,279 

The statistics do not reflect in any precise manner the number of employees specifically employed in Edmonton. For example, Stantec employees are spread across the world, but without further dis-aggregation of the statistics, it is impossible to tell how many employees Stantec employees only in Edmonto. Consequently, the total number of employees is skewed as is the average employees per employer.

In any case, what is the power of these employers in Edmonton? In Alberta? In Canada? In the world? Compare your power to its power, whether you are unionized or not? Could it not be concluded that, compared to such employers, you have little power? As a worker? As a unionized worker? As a voter? As a legal subject? All talk about freedom, democracy and the like ignore such realities.

In the movie The Lord of the Rings, Part 2, The Two Towers, King Theoden says: “How did it come to this?” How indeed did it come to the point where individuals have little power and employers have concentrated power?

To be sure, belonging to a union can increase the power of individuals and decrease to a limited extent the power of an employer, but we should not have the illusion that unions somehow balance the power relations. Even if there were a balance of power, since employers’ goal is external to employees, such a balance would not be maintained for very long; employers would revolt and attempt to subordinate workers to their wills.

The social-democratic left have little to say on this score. They talk about “fair contracts,” “decent work,” and the like. They themselves contribute to the power of employers by failing to look beyond such cliches to the reality of the power that employers have as a class over workers at work (whether unionized or not), in “public life” and in the political sphere. Or they talk about such employers “paying their fair share of the taxes.” In such a view, as long as such employers pay a certain percentage of taxes, they have the right to use workers as things (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

Does this situation express the freedom of workers? Or the freedom of employers? Their freedom to dictate to workers what to do, when to do it, how to do it and how much to produce?

What should be done about such a situation? The first thing to be done is to recognize the situation and to discuss its economic social and political implications. The radical left here in Toronto (and probably elsewhere) do not do so. They talk about capitalism this and capitalism that, but they are so vague that no one takes them seriously. Or, alternatively, they are so afraid of upsetting trade unionists that they timidly bring up such questions. Is this what we need–given the situation that workers working for such employers face?

A Missed Opportunity: The Limitations of Trade Unions

This is a very short post.

When I went to the political picket line/strike and rally on November 4, 2022, there were thousands of people present in front of the Ontario legislative buildings. Premier Doug Ford’s ramming through of Bill 28–legislating workers back to work and using the notwithstanding clause of the Charter and Rights to Freedom to prevent any legal challenge–essentially stripped away collective-bargaining rights–including the right to strike. This-galvanized workers, citizens, immigrants, migrants and parents and led to to support for the workers. Even union reps felt their cherished ideal of free collective-bargaining and a fair contract threatened, and thus supported a wildcat strike.

However, as soon as Ford promised to rescind the legislation, unions welcomed this move since their primary concern was to negotiate a collective agreement and not engage in challenges to the existing class power of employers.

After returning to the bargaining table, the two sides have still not been able to come to an agreement; wages as an issue have been settled, but the main issue now is staffing levels and job security. 

The education workers will go on strike again on November 21 unless there is a settlement. In the meantime, there will be a rally in Toronto (among other places) in two locations on November 19 (not in front of the legislature building). My prediction is that there will still be support–but hardly the level of support shown on November 4. The opportunity to force the Conservative Ford government’s hand has been lost. 

May Day 2022 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada: More Rhetoric from a Union Rep: The Case of the President of the Ontario Public Services Employee Union (OPSEU), J.P. Hornick, Part Two: Do Corrections Officers Protect Us?

Introduction

In my previous post in this two-part series, I showed that J.P. Hornick, the relevatively new president of the Ontario Public Services Employees Union (OPSEU) holds social-reformist or social-democratic views. I showed that she used the social-reformist and euphemistic phrases, such as “fair contract” and “good jobs”–which the management rights clause contradicts.

I thought it appropriate to post the second part of the series now because Ms. Hornick appears to be a militant union leader who defends the rights of workers. She does indeed defend the rights of workers–to bargain collectively–but not their right to be free of exploitation and oppression (see Solidarity with Union Members–and an Occasion for Discussing the Limitations of Collective Bargaining: The Ontario Ford Government’s Legislation to Force CUPE Education Workers to Abandon Their Strike).

Further evidence of her reformist views is her praise of the work of correction officers–whom she believes “keep us safe” in some fashion.

From https://opseu.org/news/honouring-our-corrections-members-this-week-and-every-week/153542/  , dated May 3, 2022:

Honouring our Corrections members this week – and every week

Corrections Division logo (keys crossed)

It’s Correctional Services Staff Recognition Week, and we feel privileged to lead a union that represents thousands of these dedicated professionals.

OPSEU/SEFPO members include correctional officers, probation and parole officers, Nurses and Social workers, recreation and administrative staff. They put their lives at risk every day to keep Ontarians safe.

We were honoured to attend the Correctional Services Ceremony of Remembrance on Tuesday at the Ontario legislature, a tribute to Corrections workers who have died on the job. [my emphasis]

Our members care deeply about their communities, and it does not stop at the end of the workday.   OPSEU/SEFPO’s members created a Corrections Cares campaign recently, where they have raised money and collected food for community support groups.

OPSEU/SEFPO has for years warned of a crisis in the Corrections system. Understaffing and crumbling infrastructure have put the health and safety of both inmates and staff at risk.

In addition to the day-to-day challenges of working in Corrections, our members have had to contend with COVID-19. Some of our members have contracted COVID more than once during the pandemic.

Thanks to our union’s efforts, progress has been made, but so much more remains to be done. Most institutions continue to house far more inmates than they were ever designed to hold. The proportion of Correctional Officers to offender population continues to pose serious risks, leading to overwork, stress and burnout.  Probation and Parole are constantly having to juggle higher caseloads with inadequate staff.

As the Correctional Bargaining Unit is in the midst of negotiating a new collective agreement, we again demand that the government repeal Bill 124 [which “generally limits annual salary increases to one per cent for many parts of the public sector in the province” of Ontario]. Corrections is an inherently hazardous occupation. Working conditions are among the worst imaginable. If we wish to attract and retain correctional workers, they must be paid commensurately with the exceptional risks they take every single day on the job. [my emphasis] 

OPSEU/SEFPO will back its Corrections members at every step of the way with every possible professional and financial support. We are determined to ensure get the kind of contract that properly reflects their professionalism, integrity and contributions.

During Correctional Services Staff Recognition Week, OPSEU/SEFPO joins every Ontarian in thanking Corrections workers for their courageous and selfless work to keep us safe [my emphasis]

In solidarity,

JP Hornick, OPSEU/SEFPO President
Laurie Nancekivell, OPSEU/SEFPO First Vice-President/Treasurer

This evident defense of corrections officers (prison guards) is interesting. Why the emphasis on corrections officers and not, say, on nurses (another profession which OPSEU represents)?

Questionable Assumptions

False Assumption 1: Unions Have the Power to Force Employers to Act Safely

Perhaps Ms. Hornick could provide research that substantiates that corrections officers’ work is much more dangerous than most workplaces. It may be the case, but  suassumptions should be looked at in relation to the issue of the health and safety of workers (and of citizens, immigrants and migrant workers). Thus, she wrote a message (dated April 27, 2022) for the April 28 Canadian National Day of Mourning of those who have died or been injured at work (https://opseu.org/news/day-of-mourning-2022-opseu-sefpo-remembers-lives-lost/153063/):

Day of Mourning 2022: OPSEU/SEFPO remembers lives lost

April 27, 2022 – 11:33 am
Notice
Awareness Days, Health and safety
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Workplace health and safety is one of the fundamental reasons unions exist, so that every worker feels safe and protected while doing their jobs. On this Day of Mourning, we remember those who were killed on the job because of workplace incidents, and we also stand in solidarity with those who have been injured due to workplace hazards.

Day of Mourning is observed annually on April 28. This day also commemorates the United Nations’ World Day for Safety and Health at Work, marked to highlight the importance of accident and disease prevention at work and to foster strong Occupational Health and Safety workplace cultures.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated workplace health and safety hazards in Ontario and around the world. It has increased the stress of our members working on the frontlines of the pandemic. They’ve faced increased risks and it has taken a mental and emotional toll.

OPSEU/SEFPO stands with our allies to honour those who were killed as well as those injured on the job. We must continue to work together to make sure Occupational Health and Safety legislation and workplace policies are strengthened and enforced. As safety risks increase, employers must work with us to ensure that the necessary protections keep pace.

We will continue to keep health and safety a top priority in every conversation with employers and the government, because all workers deserve to feel safe in their workplaces and return to their loved ones when the work day is done.

Find Day of Mourning events across Ontario that you can take part in.

In solidarity,

JP Hornick, OPSEU/SEFPO President

Laurie Nancekivell, OPSEU/SEFPO First Vice-President/Treasurer

This is typical union rhetoric. Should workers not ask whether “Occupational Health and Safety legislation and workplace policies” actually provide protection–aka safety? Unions undoubtedly have provided some protection from death, injury and disease, but their power to do so should not be exaggerated.

Let me quote a union rep in relation to health and safety as quoted from Steven Bittle’s doctoral dissertation, Still Dying for a Living: Shaping Corporate Criminal Liability After the Westray Mine Disaster. The quote is in the context of legislation to make it a criminal offence for corporations to harm workers (ultimately diluted, of course). Page 202:

Another union representative expressed concern [with the proposed government legislation] that unions can be held responsible for workplace accidents, noting that unions and employees have little decision-making control with the organization:

…basically we wanted the legislation to go after corporate bosses, basically, because
they’re the ones that make the decisions. At the end of the day any decision that’s
made on anything to do with the business comes about as a result of management’s
decision. It doesn’t come about because of a union decision. We wish, but it doesn’t.
They have the ultimate authority to manage, and that authority is only restricted by
terms of a collective agreement, and in very few cases, maybe in terms of regulations or legislation. So we were hoping that it would focus more on criminal liability for those that have the power to make decisions. But in reality what it does is that it will hold anybody accountable if the investigation shows there was any part played in any particular incident by anybody from the janitor right up to the CEO. Now some people will argue, why not? Well normally, in my experience in almost forty years, is that any decision made by the janitor is usually something that is usually handed down from above, right. And there are very few cases where you could actually cite where somebody at that level had any type of malicious intent to do anything to cause harm “(Union representative, Interview 12).

Ms. Hornick simply engages in union rhetoric and does not address the fact, as the union rep above admits, that workers–whether unionized or not–have limited say over their own health and safety.Working for an employer is often dangerous and leads to injury–and sometimes death.

How is the work of corrections officers any different in this respect? Let Ms. Hornick provide concrete statistics to substantiate her assumption that corrections officers are subject to “the exceptional risks they take every single day on the job.” I doubt that she has looked at any such statistics. She assumes, without question, that correcions officers’ lives are more subject to risks” (why else use the adjective “exceptional”)? Such is the nature of the rhetoric of leaders of unions these days.

Interlude: The Prison System and the Property System in Which We Live

Let us look at the prison system, briefly. Obviously there is some truth in the function of prisons as protective; there are people who are violent and would probably do harm to others if they were not controlled in some way (Trump comes to mind). However, to appreciate the nature of prisons, it is necessary to link them up to the kind of society in which we live.

Most people in Canada and in many other countries need to work for an employer in order to obtain money. Some people–like me–do not want to work for an employer since, among other reasons, they find having to do so to be in effect a denial of our freedom to choose; in effect, having to work for an employer is a dictatorship (see for example Employers as Dictators, Part One). Being treated as a means for other person’s ends (see The Money Circuit of Capital) is hardly an expression of freedom; rather, it is an expression of a dicatorship.

For some of those people who find working for an employer to be disgusting, it would seem preferable to seek alternative means of obtaining money and hence an alternative means to live. Many legitimate alternative means to live have been gradually eliminated, leaving the need to engage in the exchange process with an employer as the primary means by which to obtain the means to live.

Exchange involves mutual recognition of the right of the other to own the property that is offered for exchange. In other words, it excludes direct coercion to obtain what one needs. You must have something to offer the other party that that party to the exchange relation wants  if you are to obtain what the other party owns.

Here is where the police, law, the courts, prisons and of course corrections officers enter the picture. In general, a system of general exchange has two forms of law to deal with breaches of exchange: civil law and criminal law.

Civil law deals with any breach of the exchange relation (or contract), and it usually applies to breaches between individual parties to a contract. A typical example these days is the credit card. Let us say that you use the credit card to purchase food at a grocery store. By using the credit card, you have implicitly agreed to pay the company that issued the credit card money after a certain time. If you fail to do so, the company can take you to civil court, and if proven, the court can force you to pay the company (unless you declare bankruptcy–which is another issue). You, legally, freely entered into an implicit contract with the company, and by breaching the contract, the civil court is forcing you to hold up your end of the bargain. The issue is a particular breach of contract between you and the company; you have not breached the general structure of exchange relations and the principles on which they are based.

Criminal law and criminal courts and crimes, on the other hand, deal generally with breaches of the general structure and the principles of exchange, which includes but is not limited to the employer-employee relation. This general structure and principles of exchange constitute the basic conditions for the class power of employers, the economic dependence of workers on employers and economic coercion since it is in and through exchange that workers are exploited and oppressed. (Undoubtedly, the distinction between civil law and criminal law is more complicated than this, but this initial distinction is useful for outlining the essential functions of police and corrections officers as defenders of exploitative and oppressive relations.)

The criminal system thus protects a property system that results in the exploitation and oppression of workers. That some people may become violent in such a system in order to achieve their ends, of course, then involves a demand, not only by employers but also by workers, of some form of protection from such violence. However, since the violence perpetrated by the class structure (such as the killing and injury of workers on the job) is not generally addressed by such a system, the police, the courts, the prison system–and correction officers– do not effectiely protect workers, citizens, immigrants and migrant workers from the dangers they face in such a society.

Prisons do not protect workers, citizens, immigrants and migrant workers from such violence. Do they, however, protect us from violent criminals?

Let us first look at the issue of whether prisons protect us from the dangers characteristic of a society dominated by a property system that protects the property of a class of employers.

False Assumption 2: The Legal System Protects Us Against the Dangers That We Face in Our Lives

Ms. Hornick’s rhetoric of corrections officers ‘keeping us safe” flies in the face of the real dangers that we face–real dangers that arise from a system driven by the class power of employers which, ultimately, is for the pursuit of profit. From Harry Glasbeek (2018), Capitalism: A Crime Story:

Law’s different definition of risk in non-capitalist
spheres

Welfare in terms of what people need to be safe and healthy plays no special role, certainly not a central role, in the normal practices of capitalism. If the central goal of production was not profit but the satisfaction of needs rather than wants, that is, if it was to meet people’s essential necessities rather than their desires (inbred or stimulated), the business plan of producers (even if still private) would be quite different. Some of the principal needs to be satisfied by the productive activity would
be the health and safety of the workers, of their communities, and of their physical and cultural environments. The balance between risk-creation and outcome would be totally different than it is under capitalism. There would still be injuries and harms, but they would be different both in kind and
number: the rate and kinds of “accidents” and “spills” would be totally different

Workplace and environmental injuries, diseases and deaths are linked to the class power of employers and the pursuit of profit, but they are not considered “violent crimes.” From Glasbeek:

She [Lisa Heinzerling, a writer on ethics and environmental law] notes the extent of some of the actual harms caused by ethical inattention and records that unchecked, uncalculated, but
checkable and calculable, impacts of for-profit activities, such as mining, mean that “fine particulates in the ambient air kill tens of thousands of people every year in the United States alone … 26% increase in premature deaths are attributed to fine-particulate air pollution … [and that] widely used chemicals such as vinyl chloride pose risks of lethal cancers and other diseases … greenhouse gases [also have grave impacts on health and welfare].”86

There are many similar data that strongly suggest that not taking precautions when there is a practically foreseeable certainty that harm will ensue inflicts a lot of injuries and environmental and other ills on society. Take, for instance, a summary compiled by David Whyte of the U.K. reports on the incidence of health and safety harms. His overview led him to conclude that

managements are responsible—and are legally liable—for the majority of deaths caused by working … we can say with little doubt that the minority of deaths caused by working can be regarded purely as “misfortunes” or “accidents” which were not avoidable … the majority of deaths at work do not result from “out of control” or haphazard circumstances, but are the result of decisions or non-decisions that could … be traced to the authors of those decisions. [emphases added by Glasbeek]

The infliction of potentially foreseeable deaths and harms short of death by routinely exercised inattention,87 by failures to act as the ethics and morality espoused by an idealized liberal society dictate, is commonplace in capitalism.

Worldwide, the actual harm characteristic of a society dominated by a class of employers undoubtedly remains one of the hidden facts which Ms. Hornick simply ignores. From Glasbeek:

Unlike fighters or hockey or football players, who all run a very similar risk of being the injured party as a result of the violence of their interaction, this is markedly not the case when the risks to workers,
consumers, communities, and the environment are created by capitalists and their corporations. Among the two million deaths, 270 million injuries, and 160 million occupational related diseases inflicted per annum worldwide, a miniscule number are suffered by employers. Of the millions of people adversely affected by pollution arising from profit-maximizing activities, the overwhelming majority are not profit-maximizers. Rather, they are people who cannot live on top of the hills, away from the prevailing winds, in wooded lands, or more pointedly, they are people who live in the
economically impoverished parts of the globe; they are non-capitalists and, among them, the poorest are likely to suffer the most.97 In capitalism, the risk of harm does not constitute an equal opportunity terrain. The riskcreators are not the risk-takers. In capitalism everything is upside-down. The point being belaboured is that, even when regulated capitalists search for profits within the boundaries set by regulations, their conduct is criminal in nature as they are allowed to continue to inflict harms on non-consenting individuals. Capitalism’s legitimacy should always be in issue.

What is the situation in Canada? As I pointed out in another post:

More than 1000 employees die every year in Canada on the job, and about 630,000 are injured every year (Bob Barnetson, 2010, The Political Economy of Workplace Injury in Canada. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, p. 2). The same year as the publication of that work saw 554 homicides (Tina Mahonny, 2011, Homicide in Canada, 2010. Ottawa: Statistics Canada, p. 1) —the number of employee deaths at work under the power of employers was around double the number of murders.

Murders are the focus of the social media and the criminal legal system. Inquiries into murders do occur, and some are very thorough. On the other hand, inquiries into the extent to which the pursuit of profit played a major role in the death of employees (or the extent to which the undemocratic nature of work of public-sector employers) are lacking. There is an implicit assumption that such deaths are acceptable and the cost of living in the modern world. Should not those concerned with social justice query such an assumption? Is there much discussion concerning the facts? Or is there silence over such facts?

But Hornick does not call into question capitalism’s legitimacy. Rather, through her rhetoric, clichés or abstract slogans of “fair contracts” (see my previous post in this series, May Day 2022 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada: The Case of the President of the Ontario Public Services Employee Union (OPSEU), J.P. Hornick, Part One: A Fair Contract)  and corrections officers ‘keeping us safe,” she herself contributes to the legitimacy of capitalism. And this from a so-called radical union leader.

False Assumption 3: Prisons Provide Major Protection for Workers, Citizens, Immigrants and Migrant Workers From Violent Crimes

Let us now look at the other question: Whether prisons protect us from violent crimes?

Not much, if at all.

I will use several quotations with brief commentaries by me from Jeremy Reiman’s and Paul Leighton’s book, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice (2017) to show what I mean.

From Jeremy Reiman’s and Paul Leighton’s book, pages 40-41:

The Brennan Center concluded that during the 1990s, incarceration had no effect (zero percent) on violent crime and reduced property crime by six percent; from 2000 to 2013, incarceration had no effect (zero percent) on violent crime and reduced property crime by 0.2 percent.79

The models from seven high-quality studies, when updated with new data for subsequent years, showed that between 2000 and 2013 incarceration caused between a four percent decline to a one percent increase in violent crime. This is consistent with the findings of the National Academy of Sciences panel on incarceration, which found that “mandatory minimum sentence and three-strike laws have little or no effect on crime rates,” and with respect to the effect of the overall increase in incarceration, “the evidence suggests it was unlikely to have been large.”80 This distinguished panel of criminologists noted further: “The evidence reviewed in this report reveals that the costs of today’s unprecedented rate of incarceration, particularly the long prison sentences imposed under recent sentencing laws, outweigh the observable benefits.”

The imprisonment binge had only a modest effect on crime rates because American jurisdictions have   always been highly likely to imprison violent offenders, so the increase in incarceration swept up more people with less significant criminal propensities. Incarcerating people who are less dangerous means there is less of
an impact on public safety. Indeed, a substantial number of those admitted to prison were people who had their parole revoked for technical reasons, not because they were charged with or convicted of a new crime.

False (Hidden) Assumption 4: Prisons Protect Us Without Discrimination

Correction officers do not just protect us from those who have committed violent crimes; They disproportionately “protect” us from poor male indigenous youth. Although the following claim would have to be modified by referring to other characteristics–such as being Aboriginal–it probably applies for the most part to the situation in Canada. From Reiman and Leighton, pages 82-83:

This was the Typical Criminal in 1974, but little has changed since. Let us look more closely at the face in today’s criminal justice mirror, and we shall see much the same Typical Criminal.

The person is, first of all, a he. Of 8.8 million persons arrested for crimes in 2014, 73 percent were males. Of persons arrested for violent crimes, 80 percent were men. Second, he is young. More than one-third (36 percent) of men arrested for all crimes were under the age of 25, and the same is true of violent crimes (37 percent). Third, he is predominantly urban.19 Fourth, he is disproportionately black: In 2014, with blacks representing 13 percent of the nation’s population, they made up 38 percent of violent crime arrests and 28 percent of all crime arrests.20 Finally, he is poor. Almost one-third (29 percent) of 2002 jail inmates were unemployed (without full- or part-time work) prior to being arrested, an unemployment rate considerably higher than that of adults in the general population.21 A 2004 study, updated to include inflation through 2014, found that the pre-arrest income of incarcerated males was 41 percent less than comparably aged nonincarcerated men. As the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice reported in 1967, “The offender at the end of the road in prison is likely to be a member of the lowest social and economic groups in the country.”

This is the Typical Criminal feared by most law-abiding Americans. Poor, young, urban,
(disproportionately) black males make up the core of the enemy forces in the crime war. They are seen as a menace, threatening the lives, limbs, and possessions of the law-abiding members of society, necessitating recourse to the ultimate weapons of force and detention in our common defense. This picture is widely shared.

In Canada (from  https://pressprogress.ca/canadas-prairie-provinces-are-failing-to-address-systemic-racism-in-the-criminal-justice-system-experts-say/#:~:text=Manitoba%20and%20Saskatchewan%20also%20have,Manitoba%20and%2076%25%20in%20Saskatchewan.), dated July 14, 2021:

Yet the number of Indigenous people incarcerated in federal prisons has been steadily rising — Indigenous people currently make up 30% of federal inmates despite making up only 5% of the general population in Canada

The class bias of the legal system against the lower layers of the working class  can also be seen in the length of sentences of those who obtain less income or who are unemployed. From Reiman and Leighton, pages 140-141:

Research on adult offenders consistently finds economic discrimination. D’Alessio and Stolzenberg’s study of a random sample of 2,760 Florida offenders found that poor offenders received longer sentences for violent crimes, such as manslaughter, and for morals offenses, such as narcotics possession.100 A study of individuals convicted of drunk driving found that increased education (an indicator of higher economic status) “increase[d] the rate of movement from case filing to probation and decrease[d] the rate of movement to prison.”101

Chiricos and Bales found that, for individuals guilty of similar offenses and with similar prior records,
unemployed defendants were more than twice as likely as their employed counterparts to be incarcerated if found guilty.102 McCarthy noted a similar link between unemployment and greater likelihood of incarceration.103 In his study of 28,315 Southern felony defendants, Champion also found that offenders who could afford private counsel had a greater likelihood of probation and received shorter sentences when incarceration was imposed.104 A study of the effects of implementing Minnesota’s determinate sentencing program shows that socioeconomic bias is “more subtle, but no less real” than before the new program.105

Tillman and Pontell examined the sentences received by individuals convicted of Medicaid-provider fraud in California. Because such offenders normally have no prior arrests and are charged with grand theft, their sentences were compared with the sentences of other offenders convicted of grand theft who also had no prior records. While 37.7 percent of the Medicaid defrauders were sentenced to some jail or prison time, 79.2 percent of the others convicted of grand theft were sentenced to jail or prison. This was so even though the median dollar loss due to the Medicaid frauds was $13,000, more than 10 times the median loss due to the other grand thefts ($1,149). The authors point out that most of the Medicaid defrauders were health professionals, while most of the others convicted of grand theft had low-level jobs or were unemployed. They conclude that “differences in the sentences imposed on the two samples are indeed the result of the different social statuses of their members.”106

Data on racial discrimination in sentencing tell the same story of the treatment of those who cannot afford  the going price of justice. A study of 9,690 males who entered Florida prisons in 1992 and 1993, and who were legally eligible for stricter sentencing under the habitual offender statute, shows that for similar prior records and seriousness of crime, race had a “significant and substantial” effect: Black defendants were particularly disadvantaged “for drug offenses and for property crimes.”107 Based on a total of 40 recent studies of both federal and state data, Spohn concludes that “Black and Hispanic offenders—particularly those who are young, male, or unemployed—are more likely than their white counterparts to be sentenced to prison; they also may receive longer sentences than similarly situated white offenders.”108 The National Academy of Sciences panel on incarceration finds that the racial “disparities are enormous,” not only with incarceration but also capital punishment and life sentences.

Ms. Hornick’s acceptance of the rhetoric that corrections officers mainly “keep us safe” hides the reality of an oppressive racist and classist legal system.

Indeed, as already pointed out above, Hornick plays into the stereotypical view of corrections officers as ‘keeping us safe,” since the real threats that we typically face in the real world are swept under the rug. From Reiman & Leighton,  pages 90-91:

This last point is important. It indicates that we have a mental image not only of the Typical Criminal but also of the Typical Crime. If the Typical Criminal is a young, lower-class male, the Typical Crime is one-on-one harm—where “harm” means physical injury, loss of something valuable, or both. Certainly this is the Typical Crime portrayed on any random sample of police or private-eye shows on television.

Moreover, the media portray violent crime way out of proportion to its occurrence in the real world. One in-depth study of local and cable news found that 30 percent of all stories on news programs were about crime, and half of those were about murder.33 In contrast, murder makes up about 14,000 of the 9.4 million crimes reported to the police.34 Further, popular police TV programs do not show the policing of consumer fraud, environmental pollution, financial crimes, or unsafe workplaces. When Law & Order detectives track down a well-heeled criminal, it is for a one-on-one harm, usually murder.

Notice, then, that TV crime shows focus on the crimes typically committed by poor people, but they do not present these as only committed by poor people. Rather than contradict the Pyrrhic defeat theory, this combination confirms it in a powerful way. The result of this combination is that TV crime shows broadcast a double-edged message: (1) that the one-on-one crimes of the poor are the typical crimes that rich and poor criminals alike commit—thus, they are not caused uniquely by the pressures of poverty; and (2) that the criminal justice system pursues both rich and poor criminals—thus, when the criminal justice system happens mainly to pounce on the poor in real life, it is not from any class bias. By overrepresenting violent, one-on-one crimes, television confirms the commonsense view that these are the crimes that threaten us. Since, in the real world those crimes are disproportionately committed by poor people, the image that it is the poor who pose the greatest danger to law-abiding Americans is projected for all to see.

It is important to identify this model of the Typical Crime because it functions like a set of blinders. It
keeps us from calling an industrial “disaster” a massacre even if 14 men were killed and even if someone is responsible for the unsafe conditions in which they worked and died. One study of newspaper reporting of a food-processing plant fire, in which 25 workers were killed and criminal charges were ultimately brought, concludes that “the newspapers showed little consciousness that corporate violence might be seen as a crime.”35 More recently, the Washington Post reported that the Peanut Corporation of America “knowingly shipped out contaminated peanut butter 12 times in the past two years.” The company’s salmonella-tainted peanuts were linked to 9 deaths and over 700 cases of illness, many requiring hospitalization.36 Media covered the recall of more than four thousand peanut-based products but made no mention of “mass murder” or even “crime,” although federal law makes it a felony to intentionally place adulterated food into commerce. A press conference, at which the victims called for criminal charges, received no attention from mainstream media.37 This is due to our fixation on the model of the Typical Crime. This particular piece of mental furniture so blocks our view that it keeps us from using the criminal justice system to protect ourselves from the greatest
threats to our bodies and possessions.

What keeps an industrial “disaster” from being a mass murder in our eyes is that it is not a one-on-one
harm where the desire of someone (or someones) is to harm someone (or someones) else. An attack by a gang on one or more persons or an attack by one individual on several still fits the one-on-one harm model of interpersonal violence. Once he selects his victim, the rapist, the mugger, or the murderer all want that person to suffer. A executive, on the other hand, does not want his employees to be harmed. He would truly prefer that there be no accident and no injured or dead workers. What he does want is something legitimate. It is what he has been hired to get: maximum profits at minimum costs. If he cuts corners to save a buck, he is just doing his job. If ten men die because he cut corners on safety, we may think him crude or callous but not a murderer. He is, at most, responsible for indirect harm not one-on-one harm. For this, he may even be criminally indictable for violating safety regulations but not for murder. The men are dead as an unwanted consequence of his (perhaps overzealous or under-cautious) pursuit of a legitimate goal. So, unlike the Typical Criminal, he has not committed the Typical Crime and therefore should not be a target of the criminal justice system—or so we generally believe. As a result, men are dead who might be alive now if cutting corners of the kind that leads to loss of life, whether specifically aimed at or not, were treated as murder.

This is our point. Because we accept the belief—encouraged by our politicians’ statements about crime and by the media’s portrayal of crime—that the model for crime is one person specifically and directly trying to harm another, we accept a legal system that leaves us unprotected against much greater dangers to our lives and well-being than those threatened by the Typical Criminal.

This focus on “individual crime” as opposed to the actions of institutions that harm us diverts us from focusing on those institutions and the economic, political and social structures that support them. From Reiman and Leighton pages 177-178:

Any criminal justice system like ours conveys a subtle yet powerful message in support of established
institutions. It does this for two interconnected reasons. First, it concentrates on individual wrongdoers. This means that it diverts our attention away from our institutions, away from consideration of whether our institutions themselves are wrong or unjust or indeed “criminal.”

Second, the criminal law is put forth as the minimum neutral ground rules for any social living. We are taught that no society can exist without rules against theft and violence, and thus the criminal law seems to be politically neutral: the minimum requirements for any society, the minimum obligations that any individual owes his or her fellows to make social life of any decent sort possible. Because the criminal law protects the established institutions (the prevailing economic arrangements are protected by laws against theft, and so on), attacks on those established institutions become equivalent to violations of the minimum requirements for any social life at all. In effect, the criminal law enshrines the established institutions as equivalent to the minimum requirements for any decent social existence—and it brands the individual who attacks those institutions as one who has declared war on all organized society and who must, therefore, be met with the weapons of war. Let us look more closely at this process.

What is the effect of focusing on individual guilt? Not only does this divert our attention from the possible evils in our institutions, but it also puts forth half the problem of justice as if it were the whole problem. To focus on individual guilt is to ask whether the individual citizen has fulfilled his or her obligations to his or her fellow citizens. It is to look away from the issue of whether the fellow citizens have fulfilled their obligations to him or her. To look only at individual responsibility is to look away from social responsibility. Writing about her stint as a “story analyst” for a prime-time TV “real crime” show based on videotapes of actual police busts, Debra Seagal describes the way focus on individual criminals deflects attention away from the social context of crime and how television reproduces this effect in millions of homes daily:

By the time our 9 million viewers flip on their tubes, we’ve reduced fifty or sixty hours of mundane and compromising video into short, action-packed segments of tantalizing, crack-filled, dope-dealing, junkiebusting cop culture. How easily we downplay the pathos of the suspect; how cleverly we breeze past the complexities that cast doubt on the very system that has produced the criminal activity in the first place

Seagal’s description illustrates as well how a television program that shows nothing but videos of actual events can distort reality by selecting and recombining pieces of real events.

A study of 69 TV crime dramas finds that fictional presentations of homicide focus on individual
motivations and ignore social conditions: “Television crime dramas portray these events as specific
psychological episodes in the characters’ lives and little, if any, effort is made to connect them to basic social institutions or the nature of society within which they occur.”15 (Criminology, too, focuses on why individuals break the law, and the study of neighborhoods, cities, and larger regions is “the road not taken.”16)

To look only at individual criminality is to close one’s eyes to social injustice and to close one’s ears to the question of whether our social institutions have exploited or violated the individual. Criminologists James Unnever and Shaun Gabbidon in their important book A Theory of African American Offending link black criminality with a “long history of public dishonor and ritualized humiliation”—including by the criminal justice system—due to racism.17 As a result, African Americans are less likely to have respect for the law and weaker bonds with conventional institutions. Focusing only on individual responsibility obscures the contribution of racism to African American criminality.

Justice is a two-way street—but criminal justice is a one-way street. Individuals owe obligations to their fellow citizens because their fellow citizens owe obligations to them. Criminal justice focuses on the first and looks away from the second. Thus, by focusing on individual responsibility for crime, the criminal justice system effectively acquits the existing social order of any charge of injustice!

This is an extremely important bit of ideological alchemy. It stems from the fact that the same act can be criminal or not, unjust or just, depending on the circumstances in which it takes place. Killing someone is ordinarily a crime, but if it is in self-defense or to stop a deadly crime, it is not. Taking property by force is usually a crime, but if the taking is retrieving what has been stolen, then no crime has been committed. Robin Hood’s thefts from the rich to give to the poor are seen as heroic and just even though the legal system run by the rich declared him a criminal. Further, acts of violence are ordinarily crimes, but if the violence is provoked by the threat of violence or by oppressive conditions, then, like the Boston Tea Party,18 what might ordinarily be called criminal (even terrorist) is celebrated as just.

This means that when we call an act a crime, we are also making an implicit judgment about the conditions in response to which it takes place. When we call an act a crime, we are saying that the conditions in which it occurs are not themselves criminal or deadly or oppressive or so unjust as to make an extreme response reasonable or justified or noncriminal. This means that when the system holds an individual responsible for a crime, it implicitly conveys the message that the social conditions in which the crime occurred are not responsible for the crime, that they are not so unjust as to make a violent response to them excusable.

Although we definitely need to take into account the social context within which society has been or not been responsible towards the individuals who commit crimes, we should also take into account that characterizing them as pure victims is one sided. To be a pure victim of society takes away the capacity and responsibility of individuals to make decisions towards their own social situation and towards others. Thomas Mathiesen (1980) calls the view that those who suffer from societal oppression and exploitation the symptom theory. The opposite theory, which attributes responsibility purely to individual activity, he calls action theory. From  Law, Society and Political Action Towards a Strategy under Late Capitalism, pages 243-244:

… it is also true that the ‘action theory’ which Hollie presents (the expression is mine, as a counterpart to ‘symptom theory’), leads, if that theory remains alone, to a one-sided reform-oriented policy out of touch with the fundamental conditions which necessitate the use of drugs for an increasing number of
people. While Hollie is right in emphasizing that the symptom theory alone is politically pacifying, the action theory alone is obstructive to the political perspective. The action theory is necessary for the mobilization to struggle, the symptom theory (or a refinement of the symptom theory) is necessary for the understanding of the forces one struggles against; neither of the theories is sufficient in itself; both are necessary because both contain elements which together comprise a total truth. Again the combination is implemented this way: the information which a given political action provides about the system which the action opposes is captured and made into common knowledge through continual discussion, so that a continually larger number become more and more alert to the deeper
premises of the system.

Both the victimization of individuals by the class system and the need for individuals to take responsibility for their actions are required–as are discussions of how individual actions against the class system affect that system.

Mathiesen’s distinction between symptom theory and action theory is useful since it addresses the problem of whether social structures completely determine our actions, or whether individuals can be agents of their own actions and change their social circumstances or conditions:

From Mathiesen, page 246:

The insurmountability of the structural barriers presupposes (i.e. has as a necessary and sufficient condition) precisely the political demoralization and passivity which follows from the perspective of
domination if it reigns alone. In other words, the insurmountability of the structural barriers presupposes a phenomenology, on the part of the suppressed with potential power, which emphasizes the futility of opposition. This phenomenology is itself generated by the domination perspective, if it prevails alone. The compelling imperatives of domination, the insurmountable boundaries of the structure, are, on the contrary, in principle able to be abolished if the main condition for domination—the political passivity, the phenomenology of futility—is abolished in those who are suppressed and also have potential power. In society a series of consciousness-producing agencies are established, the function of which is precisely to maintain the ‘domination perspective’ as a single perspective among the suppressed. Thus the surmountability of domination, which exists in principle, is prevented from being materialized.

This does not mean, if we return to the economic level of the mode of production, that the individual capitalist may act very differently from normal if he wishes to survive. Neither does it mean that the individual worker may act very differently if he wishes to survive. For both, individually, the structural barriers constitute insurmouhtable boundaries for action: the capitalist must accumulate
in order to survive; the worker must sell his labour in order to survive. It does tnean, however, that the workers collectively may break the barriers of the structure. In principle and in the end the workers can, if they stand entirely united and ict in unison—nationally and internationally— with one stroke abolish the earlier insurmountable and structural barriers.

It should be sufficient from the above that Hornick deals with rhetoric, cliches or abstract slogans by claiming that correction officers “keep us safe.”

Not only does Hornick, by claiming that corrections officers “keep us safe,” assume that those who are in prison are the real threat to our lives, but she assumes that she (like her fellow former trade-union bureaucrat, Herman Rosenfeld, who refers to the police protecting us from murder and theft  (see Reform versus Abolition of Police, Part Two),there is some homeogenous “we” (direct object form “us” in her “keep us safe”) that are being kept safe by corrections officers (and others, like the police).This is another myth and cliché. From Reiman and Leighton, page 173:

Households with annual income below the poverty level were victims of violent crimes at a rate nearly twice that for high-income households. Indeed, as Table 4.1 shows, rates of victimization by all categories of “common” crime are substantially higher for the poorest segment of the population and drop dramatically as we ascend the economic ladder.

The difference in the rates of property-crime victimization between rich and poor understates the difference in the harms that result. The poor are far less likely than the affluent to have insurance against theft, and because they have little to start with, what they lose to theft takes a much deeper bite out of their ability to meet their basic needs. Needless to add, the various noncriminal harms documented in Chapter 2 (occupational hazards, pollution, poverty, and so on) also fall more harshly on workers and those at the bottom of society than on those at the top.

What is Hornick’s situation? Would she face the same probability of experiencing a crime, violent or non-violent, when compared with the lower levels of the working class? As a professor at the School of Labour, in 1921, she received $116,957.02 + $74.25 in benefits, for a total of $117,031.27 (https://www.sunshineliststats.com/Salary/jphornick/2021/9/?employer=georgebrowncollegeofappliedartsandtechnology&f=1).  Hornick is much less likely to experience crime, however defined, than the lower echelons of the working class. Her reference to the work of corrections officers who “keep US safe,” hides how the legal system is both bias against the lower layers of the working class and their personal actions when compared to the impersonal but violent actions of employers and against the greater likelihood of being incarcerated.

False (Hidden) Assumption 5: Implicit Connection Between the So-Called Exceptional Risks Taken by Corrections Officers and the Risks Taken by Police Officers

When we look at the OPSEU webpage for the event “Corrections Ceremony of Remembrance”  ( https://opseu.org/event/2022-corrections-ceremony-of-remembrance/#:~:text=The%202022%20Corrections%20Ceremony%20of,Park%20Cres%20E%2C%20Toronto%20ON.), we read the following:

2022 Corrections Ceremony of Remembrance

Corrections Bargaining Unit logo
Tuesday, May 3, 2022
12:00 PM to 1:00 PM

The 2022 Corrections Ceremony of Remembrance, which honours Correctional workers who died in the line of duty, takes place May 3 at 12 noon at Queen’s Park.

The ceremony takes place beside the Ontario Police Memorial Park, at  23 Queen’s Park Cres E, Toronto ON.  Queen’s Park Circle. It is just to the east of the legislative buildings.

It is instructive to note that the place of the memorial for corrections officers who have died at work is “beside the Ontario Police Memorial Park.” This is hardly a coincidence. The memorial for murdered correction officers is obviously meant to be closely tied to murdered police officers. Toronto Police Service

We read the following (http://Ontario Police Memorial – Toronto, Ontario, Canada):

Ontario Police Memorial – Toronto, Ontario, Canada


Ontario Police Memorial

Preserving the memory of fallen officers

The Ontario Police Memorial is dedicated to all of the brave police officers in Ontario’s history who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

The memorial is made up of a bronze statue of a male and female officer standing atop a large granite pedestal. The names of fallen officers are carved into a granite wall – the Wall of Honour – that stands on each side of the pedestal.

The words, “Heroes in Life, Not Death,” are carved on the memorial. This is to recognize that police officers risk their lives, every day, to protect people and neighbourhoods, and deserve the respect and gratitude of the citizens they serve [my emphasis]. The Ontario Police Memorial is in a small park at the corner of Queen’s Park Crescent and Grosvenor Street in Toronto.

Given the intent of making a close tie between murdered correction officers at work and murdered police officers at work, and given that the main function of the police is to maintain social order in an exploitative and oppressive society dominated by a class of employers (see Reform Versus Abolition of the Police, Part 8: The Police and the Political Economy of Capitalism), it is highly likely that the main function of correction officers is also to maintain social order in an exploitative and oppressive society–and not “to protect people and neighbourhoods,” After all, there is an obviously close connection between the power of the  police to arrest and the prison system.

Conclusion

Ms. Hornick’s political tendency is towards social reformism at best. She makes a number of false assumptions (more or less open) concerning the work of corrections officers and unions. Unions do not, generally, have the power to enforce health and safety on the job. The legal system does not protect us agains the major dangers that we face in our lives. Prisons do not provide us with protection against violent crimes. Prisons do not protect us from discriminatory practices against the lower-sections of the working class and Aboriginal and Afro-American peoples. Corrections officers no more than police protect us from many of the dangers that we face but rather protect a system that involves systemic exploitation and oppression.

My prediction is that Ms. Hornick, as leader of OPSEU, will be more militant than the former president Mr. Warren “Smokey” Thomas, but she will still be a typical union bureaucrat. Her belief in the collective-bargaining system as a system that produces “fair contracts” is typical of most Canadian union reps. Furthermore, her belief that corrections officers really “keep us safe,” although it contains a grain of truth, hides the reality of many unsafe environments for Canadian workers, citizens, immigrants and migrant workers.

The Illusions of Radical Social Democrats or Social Reformers about the Extent of the Impact of the Current Educational Workers Strike Wave in Ontario

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Educational workers in Ontario were set to strike on Friday November 4, 2022. Premier Doug Ford not only passed legislation that makes the strike illegal but used the “notwithstanding clause” in the Constitution to prevent legal challenges to such legislation for five years. This measure has indeed galvanized the workers’ movement, to a certain extent. 

John Clarke, a radical social democrat here in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, has this to say about the recent strike wave of educational workers (from Facebook): 

At this moment in Ontario, tens of thousands of education workers are defying the government and fighting back. Much greater numbers of working class people are looking to this with hope and drawing strength from it.

 

Yet, I’m utterly astounded by how many comments I see on Facebook and Twitter, coming from those with generally left perspectives, that hammer out the refrain that people sat at home and let the Tories get elected, so they deserve everything they get. A couple of points need to be made about this.
Firstly, don’t overestimate the difference that would have been made by an alternative electoral outcome. Certainly, the Ford Tories are the most clear cut representatives of the present regressive agenda but the fundamental thrust of the attack would be playing out had there been a different result at the ballot box. Bluntly, if you conclude that electing social democratic politicians means a just society without the need to fight for it, you haven’t been paying much attention to what’s been happening in the world.

 

Secondly, and more importantly, in thousands of ways, this society works to prevent working class people drawing the conclusion that they can act together in their own interests and win. Indeed, we are living in a period when such an understanding has been rendered especially difficult to draw. Yet, we find ourselves at this moment and a powerful struggle is underway. We should be thinking about how we can take it forward and draw into it other workers and communities that are under such sharp attack.

 

A moment of possibility for mass action and a major victory on this scale hasn’t existed in this province for more than twenty years. The class struggle is such an explosive force precisely because it involves sudden leaps in thought, when masses of people who saw no way forward come to life and act together. This could be such a time and the issue is to do all we can to ensure that it is as powerful and effective as it possibly can be.
Having attended the picket line and rally on Friday, November 4, I certainly felt that these workers were angry and that others supported them (several signs indicated parents were supportive of the strike). However, there was little recognition of the need to go beyond the social conditions that already exist. In other words, the organizing was mainly defensive, not offensive. 
 
What was being defended was “free collective bargaining”–and there was little indication that anyone had any aims that went beyond that. There is little wonder of that given the lack of ideological struggle by the radical left against the limitaitons of “free collective bargaiing,” on the one hand, and the lack of aiming for social relations beyond a refurbished welfare state on the other. Clarke himself, as I have pointed out on a number of occasions, does not really aim to go beyond an enhanced welfare state. Thus, he acknowledges economic coercion, but he has not indicated how we are to overcome it.
 
Furthermore, given that the picket line/rally that I attended occurred around the provincial legislative buildings, a radical leap in thought would have at least referred to the few police who were within sight (undoubtedly, there were many more waiting and available for deployment if the government considered it advisable). There was no such reference. Indeed, one of the speakers at the rally, J.P. Hornick, leader of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, had defended correction officers previously (I will post something on that theme later on). 
 
Whatever the outcome of this strike, I doubt that there will be “sudden leaps in thought”–such a vague term because the ideological work required to wear away at the faith of the “free collective bargaining system” has not been instituted by the radical left. 

Solidarity with Union Members–and an Occasion for Discussing the Limitations of Collective Bargaining: The Ontario Ford Government’s Legislation to Force CUPE Education Workers to Abandon Their Strike

The recent passing of legislation to force Ontario education workers to abandon a strike that they had not even yet started deserves to be opposed energetically. Ford, the Ontario premier, furthermore, justified the law practically by invoking the “notwithstanding” clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights. This clause involves the following:

The notwithstanding clause — or Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — gives provincial legislatures or Parliament the ability, through the passage of a law, to override certain portions of the charter for a five-year term. Effectively, it allows governments to pass pieces of legislation notwithstanding their potential violations of Charter rights.

The context of the legislation is the following: 

The law involving the notwithstanding clause came after Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government could not reach an agreement with the Canadian Union of Public Employees. The union has been seeking wage increases for the education workers, and indicated it would strike on Friday if an agreement was not met.

In response, Premier Doug Ford’s government pre-emptively passed a law that banned a strike, and set fines for violating the ban of up to $4,000 per employee per day — which could amount to $220 million for all 55,000 workers — and up to $500,000 per day for the union.

CUPE has said it will fight the fines, and that its job actions will continue indefinitely.

The Progressive Conservative government included the notwithstanding clause in its legislation, saying it intends to use it to guard against constitutional challenges to its strike ban. Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce justified its use by citing the need to keep students in school following a disruptive two-and-a-half years of learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its restrictions.

Now, let me state explicitly that CUPE workers deserve unequivocal support for their actions of striking despite the legislation. I, for example, went to the picket-line rally on Friday, November 4, held at the Ontario legislative buildings in support of the strikers. The number of supporters was impressive; solidarity was both evident and necessary in the face of such reactionary laws. 

However, should not the radical left, while supporting unequivocally the striking workers, use the occasion to open up discussions about the limitations of collective bargaining and collective agreements? Solidarity, yes, absolutely, but critical solidarity–not rubber-stampting solidarity–as if workers have no right to engage in criticism of what is being defended. 

Thus, at the rally, J.P. Hornick, president of the Ontario Public Services Employees Union (OPSEU), had this to say (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPhQ_mo3h84&list=LL): 

Everyone from an equity-deserving group knows where this ends, and it’s not good for any of us. This is an attack on the very Constitution itself: our freedom of association, our freedom of expression. The reason that unions exist is to build worker power by allowing us to come together and bargain freely and fairly for better working conditions. Doug Ford might understand this, but he needs to know: When you punch down on a worker, you raise a movement.  

Yes, when a government tries to take away the limited power of the collective-bargaing process and the resulting collective agreement, we should indeed fight back. But we should not idealize this so-called free collective-bargaining and the resulting collective agreement. This is what Hornick does–as do many other trade-union leaders. As if the existence of a collective-bargaining process somehow magically transforms working for an employer into a free life. Collective bargaining and the resulting collective agreement limit the power of employers–but that is all. Look at a management rights clause to see what power management still has. Should it have such power? Does such power express the freedom of workers? 

I will not repeat criticisms of the collective-bargaining process and collective agreements–I have made such criticims of them in previous posts, including a relatively recent post criticiaing Hornick’s views (see May Day 2022 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada: The Case of the President of the Ontario Public Services Employee Union (OPSEU), J.P. Hornick, Part One: A Fair Contract). 

What is interesting is how the so-called radical left have merely called for support for the strikers without addressing critically the standard of “free collective bargaining.” Thus, the Socialist Project Steering Committee did not provide any criticial distancing concerning the adequacy of “free collective bargaining” in addressing workers’ continued exploitation and oppression by employers   (https://socialistproject.ca/2022/11/support-cupe-education-workers/).  It simply calls for support: 

They have received support from the Ontario Federation of Labour and a number of other unions, for a series of demonstrations, rallies and picketing. This is important and should be celebrated.

This though, is not enough. Successfully beating back Ford requires a response that must be built over time. Like the Ontario Days of Action in 1995 – a series of one day general strikes across the province, led by the OFL – there needs to be some form of wider strike action built over a relatively short period by other public and private sector unions. But this can’t happen by itself – it must be built.

How do we do this?

  • As individuals and socialists, first and foremost, engage in all forms of support for the CUPE strikers. Join the protests, pickets and demonstrations. Talk to family, friends, neighbours and organize their collective participation.
  • The provincial labour movement must create a collective strategy to build for and organize solidaristic strike actions, modelled on the one day general strikes of the Days of Action. But the infrastructure for this isn’t there yet. The union movement has to get itself into shape.
  • OFL affiliates, Unifor and other non-affiliated unions, led by education and healthcare unions should organize educational sessions for all of their locals, explaining why challenging Ford’s actions and plans are essential for our rights as workers, and why they need to engage in these actions. They should include training on how to talk with co-workers, neighbours, parents and family. During the Days of Action, many workers who supported Harris were won over to these actions by the educational work organized through the OFL and spearheaded by key affiliate unions.
  • Build similar educational campaigns in local communities of parents, students, healthcare workers, and families of patients and those in long term care facilities. Many parents are concerned about their kids’ education, but they are also aware of the cynical and cruel actions of the government. We have to win them over and engage them.

The labour and community networks need to come to the aid of the CUPE workers, and to keep the momentum going as it continues and what come after. This is not a battle that will end soon – regardless of what the government does in the next few days. Building against Ford and creating a fighting infrastructure of struggle and political understanding in the union movement, inspired by the CUPE fight will take longer, but it needs to happen.

The Socialist Project supports CUPE and all efforts to stand up to Ford and Lecce, and the economic interests behind them and the necessary and welcome campaigns to build further. •

Building towards solidarity is indeed needed–but to what end? “Free collective bargaining?” Or towards a socialist society–while also defending the freedom of workers to engage in collective bargaining? The Socialist Project Steering Committee does not even address the issue. Perhaps it believes that through such struggles, there will arise in the future a concern for challenging the limitations of collective bargaining and collective agreements. Such a future often never arrives since social reformists constantly push that issue to some vague future. When will the so-called left start questioning the sanctity of collective baragining and collective agreements (while simultaneously defending them as necessary defensive means in a prolonged struggle)? 

It is much better to unite the aim of creating a socialist society with the aim of defending the limited power that we do have while not idealizing that limited power and ascribing “freedom” to such limited power–and not wait for some distant future to count on the creation of a socialist society.

 

The Ontario Federation of Labour’s Workers-First Agenda: A Critique: Part One

Introduction

The so-called radical left here in Toronto rarely engages in any detailed criticism of unions or groups of unions. Quite to the contrary. They either make vague assertions about “the trade-union elite” or the “trade-union bureaucracy” (union bureaucrats or business unions), or they remain silent when faced with the persistent rhetoric that unions. It is hardly in the interests of the working-class to read merely vague criticisms of unions or to not read anything concerning the limitations of unions or groups of unions. 

To enlighten workers concerning such limitations, I have on a number of occasions criticized unions in various ways. The following is a further example of such criticism. It pertains to Ontario Federation of Labour’s “Workers-First Agenda” campaign.

The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL)

What is the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL)? On its website, we read the following: 

WHO WE ARE

Just as workers unite in a union to protect their rights, unions also unite in federations of labour to fight for better working and living conditions. The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) serves as an umbrella group for working people and their unions.

From our inception in 1957, the OFL has grown to represent over one million Ontario workers belonging to more than 1,500 locals from 54 affiliated unions, making us Canada’s largest labour federation. Our strong membership and constant vigilance make us a formidable political voice.

WHAT WE DO

We push for legislative change in every area that affects people’s daily lives. Areas like health, education, workplace safety, minimum wage and other employment standards, human rights, women’s rights, workers’ compensation, and pensions.

We also make regular presentations and submissions to the Ontario government and mount internal and public awareness campaigns to mobilize the kind of political pressure that secures positive change for all workers – whether you belong to a union or not.

To accomplish these goals, we work with affiliated local unions and labour councils across the province. We also partner with other community and social justice organizations to build a fairer and more inclusive society that meets everyone’s needs.

The Ontario Federation of Labour’s Worker’s-First Agenda Campaign

The Ontario Federation of Labour (Ontario is a large province in Canada) has initiated a campaign called “Building the Fight for a Workers-First Agenda” (https://ofl.ca/event/activist-assembly-2022/). 

I certainly agree that workers need to fight to create a workers-first agenda. However, I seriously question that what the Ontario Federation of Labour calls a workers’ agenda expresses a full and complete workers’ agenda. 

As is usual, I hardly oppose the fight for reforms that benefit workers. However, is what is proposed anything other than the fight for a more humanized form of capitalism? Let us see. 

On the above web page, we read: 

That means good jobs and decent work for all workers; a $20 minimum wage; high quality affordable housing; accessible and well funded health care, long term care, education, and other public services; justice for Indigenous people and racialized communities; climate justice and a livable planet; and so much more!

These are winnable demands, but only if we fight for them. That’s why we need you to help build the fight for a workers first agenda in our province.

A $20 minimum wage is certainly better than $15; high quality affordable housing is certainly better than privatized unaffordable housing, or affordable but dilapidated housing (I used to live in a dilapidated house in Calgary, Alberta), more accessible and better funded health care, long-term care, education and other public services  that are more accessible and better funded, It is certainly preferable to achieve greater justice for Indigenous and racialized communities. It is also better to reduce global warming and the destruction of our planet. 

But what is the standard used to determine 

  1. what good and decent jobs are? 
  2. high-quality affordable housing? 
  3. accessible and well-funded health care?
  4. accessible and well-funded long-term care?
  5. accessible and well-funded education?
  6. justice for Indigenous people and racialized communities?
  7. climate justice?
  8. a livable planet? 

Decent work would undoubtedly include 10 paid sick days for all workers (including gig workers and migrant workers). A more detailed treatment of what the Ontario Federation of Labour means by “decent work” can be found in their document titled Protection for Every Worker
Establishing the Future of Decent Work in Ontario, a “Submission to the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee, Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development,” dated July 21, 2021 (see the post on the webpage https://ofl.ca/   by using the search terms “decent work”). 

In that document, we read: 

1. THE DECENT WORK AGENDA

As we emphasized in the OFL’s extensive submissions to the Changing Workplaces Review, a job should be a pathway out of poverty. We strongly encourage the OWRAC [Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee] to review the OFL’s submission to the Changing Workplaces Review, which outlines a suite of required changes to both the ESA [Employment Standards Act{ and the LRA [Labour Relations Act]. While some Ontarians are staying home, those keeping the province running – and facing a greater risk of infection – are people working in jobs that traditionally have been the lowest paid with few benefits and no access to unionization. And it is women workers, racialized and Indigenous workers, migrant and immigrant workers, and workers with disabilities that are overrepresented in these precarious but essential jobs. A full economic recovery will require the government to legislate increases to workers’ wages and protections as well as to correct the inherent power imbalance between workers and employers.

The Limitations of the OFL’s “Workers First” Labour Agenda Campaign

The OFL admits that there is an “inherent power imbalance between workers and employers”–but fails to explain why such an inherent imbalance of power exists in the first place. Surely it is due to the workers not having a right of access to the means of producing their own lives (machines–including computers–buildings, offices, office supplies, raw material and so forth) and employers having the right to exclude workers from such right of access. Why is the OFL silent over an elaboration of the nature of such imbalance? 

I searched on the Ontario Federation of Labour’s website using the search term “power imbalance” (in quotation marks). These are the results (three of them) (my emphases): 

  1. The OFL’s submission puts forth recommendations to both the Employment Standards Act and the Labour Relations Act that will raise the minimum standards for all Ontario workers, expand access to our fundamental freedom to associate for the meaningful pursuit of collective workplace goals, correct the inherent power imbalance in the employment relationship, and protect vulnerable workers.
  2. Ontario’s outdated labour laws can do little to remedy the dramatic power imbalance that exists between well-heeled company owners and their employees

  3. “Migrant workers endure an incredible power imbalance in the face of their employers and are often gendered and racialized workers,” said Irwin Nanda, Executive Vice-President of the OFL. “To address the root of this exploitation, the province must also push the federal government to scale back the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and return to a robust national policy of permanent immigration that provides migrant workers with opportunities for permanent residency.”

The incredible lack of educational content in this reference to “imbalance of power” is typical of the social-democratic or social-reformist left here in Toronto (and the so-called radicals here rarely if ever challenge this). 

So, there is acknowledged an inherent imbalance of power between employers and employees–but the OFL fails to explain why that is so. This is the first limitation of their so-called “workers-first agenda.” 

The second limitation also relates to this inherent balance of power between employers and employees; the OFL implies that this inherent balance of power between employers and employers can somehow be overcome by “correcting” the imbalance of power. 

How is this to be done? Nowhere does the OFL really spell this out, but it can be inferred, from the typical justification for reference to “decent work” among the social-democratic or social-reformist left is free collective bargaining and the resulting collective agreement.

This is simple nonsense. As I have argued in a number of other posts (see for example Do Collective Agreements Convert Working for an Employer into Decent Work?), collective bargaining limits the power of employers over workers but hardly leads to a balance of power; oppression is inherent in both public and private employment, and exploitation is inherent in the private sector (if not in the public sector). To be an employer inherently involves more power than workers (this of course does not mean that key workers in specific industries cannot disrupt the power of employers if the material conditions are such that they form a strategic place in the chain of production of commodities. Such disruption, unless it aims to overcome the inherent imbalance of power between workers as a class and employers as a class by abolishing classes, can hardly change the ultimate class-based imbalance of power between workers and employers). 

The inadequate solution to the problem of the imbalance of power between employers and workers is linked to the inadequate definition of the problem. By failing to engage in inquiry into why workers face an imbalance of power, the OFL’s implicit proposal of correcting the imbalance of power by means of collective bargaining and collective agreements fails to address the inherent imbalance of power between employers and workers even when “fair” collective bargaining and collective agreements exist; management rights (implicit or explicit in collective agreements) give the lie to the claim that such an imbalance of power can be “corrected.” 

Conclusion

The OFL, like so many other social-democratic or social-reformist organizations, does not and cannot face the reality that unionized workers face. It itself contributes to the persistent imbalance of power between employers and workers by inadequately defining the problem and the corresponding solution. 

References to good and decent jobs are not equivalent to creating a balance of power between workers and employers.

By defining the problem the way it does, the OFL necessarily excludes the solution of developing a movement that aims to abolish the power of employers–period. For the OFL, the existence of employers is permanent; what needs to be changed for it is the power imbalance through unionization. 

Frankly, this is social-democratic ideology. It needs to be constantly challenged by the radical left (unlike the so-called radical left that fears to challenge it) and in some detail (unlike the radical left, that often refers vaguely to capitalism this and capitalism that).

As for my other questions, I will deal briefly with some of them in another post since I have already dealt with them in other posts and will refer the reader to those posts.