For some of the context of the strike, see a couple of earlier posts (The Case of the Possible General Strike of Ontario Unionized Workers: Critique of Conservative Radicalism or Radical Conservatism and The CUPE Education Workers Strike: A Lesson on the Nature of the Public Sector).
A few more leftists have made commentary on the initial strike of 55,000 education workers and the possibility of a general strike in Ontario. I looked at the debate between Adam King and Abdul Malik and in the online newsletter Passage https://readpassage.com/should-cupe-have-kept-education-workers-on-strike/) in my last post. Then there is Sam Gindin’s analysis on the Socialist Project’s website https://socialistproject.ca/2022/12/education-workers-lead-but-come-up-short/. I will now look at his article.
The title of his article–Education Workers Lead But Come Up Short: What Lessons for Labour?–indicates that workers and the left can and should draw lessons from the strike. His article is organized as follows (using his headings as guides):
Threats of Fines and Legislation
Context: When a Strike is More Than a Strike
Organize, Organize, Organize!
Why Didn’t CUPE Stay on Strike?
Did the Education Workers Win or Lose?
Gindin then lists and explains a number of points. In his own words:
Of the various indicators of whether labour is, at long last, turning the corner, four challenges/tests seem especially pivotal.
3. Addressing Class
4. Union Transformation
In the introduction, Gindin rightly emphasizes the unique nature of the situation which the education workers faced. Unlike the typical scenario of the government legislating striking workers back to work and union reps grumbling about its anti-democratic nature but complying with the legislation–and the workers also complying with the legislation–Ford passed the legisaltion before the workers even went out on strike:
The divergence from earlier experiences began with the way the Ford administration tried to end the strike. Rather than wait until the strike was actually on, Ford used his parliamentary majority to pass legislation that criminalized the right of these workers to strike even before they actually went out (in the infamous Bill 28, Keeping Students in Class Act). With inflation running just under 7%, the legislation imposed a collective agreement offering 2.5% for workers earning under $43,000 annually and 1.5% for those earning above that princely sum. (The distinction the government made between low-paid and less low-paid workers was perhaps intended to push 1.5% as the standard for future collective bargaining in the public sector with the additional sum for lower-paid workers an ‘exceptional’ add-on for this sector alone.)
Threats and Fines
In the section on Threats of Fines and Legislation, Gindin points out to the second difference from the typical union scenario–the use of the notwithstanding clause, which reverberated not only within the union movement but beyond it:
and, in addition, [the Ford government] invoked the notwithstanding clause to prevent a legal challenge to such legilsation.
Gindin then points out that the workers (not the union reps) did not follow the typical script: they refused to comply with the legislation and walked off the job:
The main break with past collective bargaining came next. Unlike earlier labour responses, the education workers rejected the script. Across the province, school custodians, maintenance workers, education assistants, early childhood educators, lunchroom and safety monitors, librarians, and office staff ignored the legislation and walked out.
The audacity of the education workers galvanized the larger labour movement against Ford’s authoritarian over-reaction. On the ensuing weekend, after the first day of the strike, rumours spread of an imminent escalation of the conflict. A press conference was called for Monday morning (Nov. 6) where unions leaders were to announce a ‘general strike’. What was so recently unthinkable – a province-wide shut-down – seemed to have become an actual possibility.
This led to Ford backtracking and to an improved wage offer at the bargaining table:
With this, the government’s once definitive ‘final offer’ also became flexible. In response to the union’s demand to ’put more money on the table’ Ford conceded that the government would indeed increase the wage offer if the workers ended the strike and returned to the bargaining table. The union complied and on November 20, the two sides announced a tentative agreement. It included monetary gains, though short of workers’ hopes, but no gains on staffing. More than two weeks later, 76% of members voted on the tentative agreement with 73% voting for ratification (it’s unclear why ratification took more than two weeks).
Context: When a Strike is More Than a Strike
In the section “Context: When a Strike is More Than a Strike,” Gindin outlines why Ford acted as he did and why the wildcat strike likely happened whereas it had not happened earlier for many years among other workers:
Like other public sector workers, the education workers had suffered under the 1% cap on wages in their last agreement. Over the past decade (2012-2021), their real wages had fallen by some 10% as prices increased by 19% while wage increases were under 9%. Moreover, while all workers have been hard hit over this period, Ontario’s education workers’ wages fell further behind the province’s broader public sector, where average wages had increased by 12.2%. Federally regulated workplaces had seen their wages increase by 18.6%, municipal unions by 19.1%, and private sector workers by 20.3%.
The education workers’ 1% wage cap had expired with the end of their previous collective agreement, ‘freeing’ CUPE to bargain without that cap – the first major agreement to be in that position. This set the stage for the face-off with the government. For the Ford administration the demands of the education workers were not just about one sub-sector but a Trojan Horse for gains across the public sector. They had to be aggressively contained.
He then claims that CUPE OSBCU faced, however, definite obstacles to engaging in a fight with the Ford government; it was only one union that faced the Ford government head on despite the significance for the public sector; he also claims that the significance for privat-sector bargaining was less directly affected:
This morphed a ‘normal’ conflict with a set of employers (the school boards) into what was essentially a political strike against the government. The dilemma for the union was that in spite of the conflict’s significance for the entire public sector (and less directly, for private sector bargaining), the battle was being led and fought by only a sub-sector of the union movement.
This underestimates union reps’ perceived threat that the use of preemptive legislation and the use of the notwithstanding clause by Ford threatened their own economic, political and ideological interests, as I argued in an earlier post on this topic (see The Case of the Possible General Strike of Ontario Unionized Workers: Critique of Conservative Radicalism or Radical Conservatism). To quote from that post:
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.
Gindin, like his ally Herman Rosenfeld, underestimaes the extent to which Ford’s move threatened the interests of not only public-sector unions but also private-sector unions. This underestimation then permits him to neglect the potentiality of uniting the union movement and workers in unions due to the pecularities of that situation–a peculiarity which Malik rightly emphasizes:
Continuing to organize is important, but the massive groundswell of support and mobilization is already dwindling. I believe it’s doubtful we’ll see this degree of action again anytime soon, and we’re all worse off for it.
Gindin’s pessimism is reinforced by his view that only sporadic lights of hope have emerged in unions’ fights in recent years:
Further militating against the aspirations of the education workers was that the prevailing mood of labour as a whole was characterized by a dispiriting passivity. It is true that there were some hints of a reawakening within the labour movement. OPSEU’s (Ontario Public Sector Union) college strike and ATU’s (Amalgamated Transit Union) GO bus strike had generated some optimism. So too did progressive changes in union leadership in OPSEU, Unifor, and the Toronto elementary teachers. But the grumbling across unions over the 1% caps on wages included little or no substantive resistance. Strikes in the public and also private sectors were at an ebb. Tentative agreements were rarely rejected. Wildcats were almost unheard of.
Gindin’s pessimism reminds me of of-quoted remark by Marx. From The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 33, page 103:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given
and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.
Yes, let us be cautious when the situation warrants it, but the situation which not only the education workers faced but also the entire Canadian working class faced because of Ford’s authoritarian actions hardly warranted a conservative stance. By looking towards the past rather than the potential of the present and thus the future, Gindin, like his fellow conservative radical Rosenfeld, thereby urges the gradual approach of step-by-step organization–without any consideration of possible situations that may potentially accelerate organization and class consciousness.
In addition, Gindin, like Rosenfeld, underestimates the potential the situation had for unifying the labour movement not only in Ontario but also in Canada since Ford’s use of the withstanding clause had the potential to threaten the collective-bargaining process across Canada if other premiers used it to prevent legal challenges to their own anti-labour legislation. Gindin, like Rosenfeld, positions himself as a radical conservative or a conservative radical by failing to take into account the potentialities of the situation.
On the other hand, we certainly need to look at the limitations of past leftist actions in contributing to limitations on the potentials of unique situations. Gindin and his ally Rosenfeld, as well as the left here in Toronto in general, have done nothing to undermine the idealization of collective bargaining and collective agreements. Gindin, for example, justified unions’ use of the ideological phrase “decent work” in the context of working for employers because unions were acting defensively–as if unionized settings consitute decent work when workers are still used as means or things for employers’ own purposes–see The Money Circuit of Capital for the objective situation of workers in both the private and public sectors). Bullshitting the workers with such rhetoric is hardly in the class interests of workers–and yet Gindin justifies such rhetoric. Go figure.
What is needed when such potentially radical situations are not on the horizon is to undermine union rhetoric by exposing, on the one hand, the actual relations of workers to their employers and, on the other hand, exposing and underming directly the union rhetoric of “decent jobs,” “fair contracts,” and other such euphemisms that hide the reality of class oppression and class exploitation.
Gindin also refers to parents as players in the scenario.Undoubtedly, parents are a player in determining the level of public support for such a strike:
Of concern as well to the union was the likely response of parents. Parents had experienced the negative impact of COVID on their kids’ education and with their kids at home, they faced interruptions in their own work. Even though the union had prioritized its concern for kids and their parents in its emphasis on improving badly-needed school services, and there had been very impressive organizing among parents by the Ontario Parents Action Network, Ford would no doubt try to position himself as the defender of in-school learning against its ‘disrupters’.
Gindin probably underesitmates the level of parent support for the striking education workers; at the picket line and the rally that I attended on November 4, there were a number of parents who had signs that supported the workers. The use of the notwithstanding clause probably angered not just unionized workers and represenatives but also parents.
Organize, Organize, Organize!
In the section “Organize, Organize, Organize!,” Gindin argues that the education workers’ strike was largely successful in beating back Ford’s authoritarian legislation because of the eight-month lead in organizing workers up to the strike, using Jane McAlevey’s model of organizing. Although McAlevey’s organizing model is certainly innovative, focusing on using organic leaders who are the recognized leaders at the workplace (and not necessarily union or political activists) as well as “structured tests” as mini-tests to determine whether there is indeed power to back up demands).
This emphasis on the need to engage in “deep organizing” is certainly relevant, but as I pointed out in my critiques of McAlevey’s books (see my review “Review: Jane McAlevey’s No shortcuts: Organizing for power in the new gilded age,” in the section “Publications and Writings” on this blog and the posts Review of Jane McAlevey’s “A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy”: Two Steps Backward and One Step Forward, Part One and Review of Jane McAlevey’s “A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy”: Two Steps Backward and One Step Forward, Part Two), McAlevey’s approach does little to address the larger class problem of the class power of employers–and such power concentrated in the government or state.
The next section addresses the issue of whether a general strike was a viable option. Unfortunately, Gindin then hands over the ball to his ally, Herman Rosenfeld, by referring to an article written by Rosenfeld, who argues that a general stike was not realistically on the table:
These are hopeful sentiments. But we need to be sober about the state of the labour movement and what it takes to pull off even a partially successful general strike (see especially the account by Herman Rosenfeld). If we credit the pre-strike organizing by education workers for their illegal walk-out, a corollary is that since labour as a whole generally has done so little of such organizing, it could not have successfully pulled off much of a general strike. The above optimism over what might emerge from a general strike does not tell us how to actually achieve a general strike.
As I have argued against Rosenfeld’s position in another post, I refer the reader to that post ( ).
Gindin provides further arguments that it would have been unrealistic to call for a general strike under existing circumstances:
Consider. The teachers, as noted earlier, were not supportive of the education workers’ disruption of classes and this didn’t bode well for other sectors walking out. Would public sector workers who suffered the 1% cap without their own unions putting up much of a fight take the sudden call for a general strike seriously? Ditto private sector workers, whose unions often defended and even sold concessions such as two-tier wages to their members. Moreover, would we expect – or even want – workers to go on a general strike when they haven’t been consulted, the strategy hasn’t been debated, no education has occurred, and no larger plan articulated?
Firstly, were teachers not supportive, or were teachers’ unions not supportive? Gindin assumes there is an identity between the two. Whether there were such an identity would have to be proven, not assumed. Secondly, even if teachers themselves opposed supporting the striking workers, would other “public sector workers who suffered the 1% cap without their own unions putting up much of a fight take the sudden call for a general strike seriously?” That would have remained to have been seen. Given Ford’s authoritarian fist of using the notwithstanding clause, they may or may not have done so; this would have been a test to see who had more power. Even if the other public-sector workers were not organized on the basis of McAlevey’s approach, they could at least have been partially organized in order to support a general strike. We will never know, of course. But there could have been partial mobilization in support of a general strike that could have provided further pressure on the Ford government and not, as Gindin implies, some long-drawn out process that requires the step-by-step gradualism that he and his ally Rosenfeld evidently advocate.
Furthermore, this would have been an appropriate occasion for bringing up explicitly the issue of the adequacy of “free collective bargaining” and what union reps mean by that. Gindin remains silent over this issue.
Of course, strategy should be debated–but part of what is interesting about the situation is the open-endedness of the situation, as even Mark Hancock, the president of CUPE National stated:
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.
For Gindin, like Rosenfeld, what is needed is–debate, debate and more debate! and not the translation of even imperfect debates into action (and even then, the debate must occur within limits deemed relevant by Gindin–see below concerning his belief that it is irrelevant to debate whether union rhetoric that unionized work is decent).. Like his fellow ally, Rosenfeld, 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.
Gindin also opposes the advocacy of a general strike because it was unclear what the term meant:
Nor was it even clear what the union leaders intended by a ‘general strike’. Did they mean an indefinite strike or – more likely – a one, perhaps two-day strike which, though of consequence would essentially amount to another protest rather than a fundamental challenge to authority (protests had preceded the talk of a general strike; they were spirited and not insignificant, but far from overwhelming).
Note the downplaying of around 10,000 workers and supporters at the picket line/rally on November 4 in the context of the head of a government legislating workers back to work before they even had begun a strike and using the notwithstanding clause to prevent any legal challenge to such legislation. For Gindin, it would seem, only if hundreds of thousands of workers were organized and out on the streets should any realistic talk of a general strike be attempted. Let us not risk anything; let us be 99 percent certain of victoy before we act. Gindin, apparently idealizes the Days of Action in the 1990s, when about 200,000 people in Toronto alone participated in a city general strike that formed part of a rolling provincial general strike (shifting from one city to another, such as from London or Hamilton–see the interview with Gindin (https://podcasts.apple.com/ca/podcast/so-you-want-to-have-a-general-strike-feat-sam-gindin/id1472061764?i=1000463838625).
If there were 200,000 Sam Gindin’s in Toronto participating in a strike, I doubt that the Ford government would have to worry; even if organized, they would seek a very slow, very cautious path that would not upset the status quo–except perhaps in 200,000 years.
Gindin’s cautious attitude also reminds me of a parliamentary attitude towards mass actions–despite Gindin’s own undoubtedly sincere acknowledgement of the importance of mass action. From Johannes Agnoli, Collected Works, Volume 2, page 70 (my loose translation):
… exactly herein lies the point of divergence between attempted communism and conformist social democracy. There will surely be many comrades at the base and in the top committees, who (without knowing that they are therewith repeating the watchword of narrow-minded German conservatism) will say: We will make no experiments, we will not stake our organization and our methods of struggle, which are well tried and function well, in favour of a new path whose outcome we do not know. The German social democrats had already proclaimed, when faced with the rise of Nazism: “Let’s not risk too much in order not to lose everything.” Yet one day comrades will in fact begin to think about a somewhat currious phenomenon, that the organizations and methods tried and tested by history in the western capitalist countries have not only never led in any particular case to revolution but also have not not even been good enough to stop the counter-revolution. [Werner Bonfeld, in “Constitutional Norm versus Constitutional Reality in Germany: A Review Article on Johannes Agnoli’s Die Transformation der Demokratie und andere Schriften zur Kritik der Politik
(The Transformation of Democracy and other writings on the Critique of Politics),” in pages 65-88, Capital & Class, Volume 16, Issue No. 1, page 66). By “counter-revolution” Agnoli means, as Werner Bonefeld explains, “Agnoli understands the political integration, and thus reformulation, of social struggles for social emancipation as being bound up with a merely political emancipation which characterises the constitution of power in bourgeois societies.”
Gindin fails to take into account the effective nature of the capitalist state in co-opting or integrating social movements in general and union movements in particular into the capitalist system (backed up, when necessary, by the iron fist of the police and, at times, the military).
Thomas Mathiesen saw this danger to which Gindin is blind. Mathiesen calls the state absorbent when it has a refined capacity for neutralizing radical and revolutionary movements and demands. Mathiesen calls being co-opted “being defined in” and being shuffled to the side as irrelevant extremists “being defined out.” He calls “finished” the impossibility of contributing to the overcoming of the economic, political and social structures that characterize the dominance of the class of employers. From Mathiesen (1980), Law, Society and Political action: Towards a Strategy Under Late Capitalism ,page 252:
The strongly absorbent late capitalist society has in fact managed, by the process of defining in, to absorb large parts of the Left into political work of a structure maintaining kind, while at the same time, through the process of defining out, it has managed to neutralize the remaining part of the Left as so-called extremists. By an interchange of the forces which define in and define out, on the one hand, and internal organizational reactions to these forces on the other, the parties of the Left have to a large degree either become ossified organizations which are defined in, or ossified organizations which are defined out. In any case they are, in our sense, finished.
On the other hand, Gindin does accurately assess the union reps’ likely response to Ford’s backing down over Bill 28:
In any case, the proposed general strike wasn’t actually over the workers’ demands, but the Premier’s especially authoritarian legislation. Once that law was repealed, so too was talk of a general strike. And based on what we saw in the media and heard from other channels, while the labour leadership was rightly proud of getting Ford to step back, it seemed quite universally relieved that their threat of a total provincial walk-out would not be tested.
Yes, the union leadership was probably relieved. However, that does not mean that the rank-and-file necessarily were.
The underestimation of the co-optive capacity of the capitalist state leads Gindin to fail to support the potential opposition to the government arising from various sources–a lost opportunity.
Bill 24, as a specific piece of authoritarian legislation, was the continuation of earlier authoritarian legislation, such as Bill 5, which had changed–in 2018 mid-municipal elections–ward boundaries. In 2021, when the Ontario Supreme Court judged parts of Bill 254 (which pertained to doubling the length of time a third party could run pre-election ads) to be unconstitutional, Ford used the notwithstanding clause to pass Bill 307–which contained those parts judged unconsttutional; the use of the notwithstanding clause to quash a judges rulings should be seen in the context of provincial elections the following year–which Ford won. More directly relevant was Bill 124, which capped public-sector wage increases to one percent per year for three years. Just recently, on November 29, the Ontario Supreme Court judged the Bill unconsitutional; Ford’s government is appealing the decision.
There has been plenty of evidence that Ford has used the political system to quash even liberal political democracy when he can. Given that only about 43.5 percent or, to put it the other way, about 56.5 percent did not bother to vote in the 2022 provincial elections, this in itself indicates that actual support for Ford was probably quite a bit lower. Given the historical record of Ford’s authoritarian administration, and the use of the notwithstanding clause to break not only the union but also set a precedent that could be used to block “free collective bargaining” in the future not only in Ontario but across Canada, the potential for substantial opposition to Ford’s government was there. Furthermore, given the pent-up lives of many during the COVID pandemic, the potential was probably even greater.
Gindin ignores this potential.
And what did Gindin do before this situation to call into question the typical union model of “free collective bargaining?” His advocacy of Jane McAlevey’s approach to organizing as deep organizing (with stress tests to see how much power workers have) is a start, but he vastly underestimates the need to engage in ideological struggle if micro-organizing is going to be linked effectively with macro organizing with the aim of overcoming and abolishing the class power of employers. His own defence of unions’ use of such rhetoric as “decent work,” fair contracts” and so forth hardly prepared workers for a grasp of the inadequacy of collective bargaining and collective agreements as vehicles for realizing their interests.
Gindin then provides a rather weak explanation of why Ford backed down by agreeing to repeal Bill 28:
And yet Ford did back down in the shadow of labour’s threat of an all-out war with his government. What are we to make of this? Though speculative, it seems that it was not so much the fear of a successful general strike that moved Ford, but a growing web of contradictions. He had been trying to carry the populist banner of representing ‘the little man’ and nurturing labour leaders to his side. But the chain of events that the education strike set off exposed his true anti-worker colours and lost him the seven endorsements, primarily from unions in the construction trades, that he had previously recruited.
I will not explore further Gindin’s speculation except to speculate that it was indeed probably “the fear of a successful general strike that moved Ford.” Gindin wants to play down the possibility of such a successful strike and thus provides a speculative account of why Ford backed down that does not involve evidence that a general strike might have achieved more than Gindin is willing to admit.
He then paints a geneal strike as somehow useful at times but not the only or even the most appropriate weapon workers can use to accomplish their goals:
None of this denies that general strikes can be a crucial instrument in labour’s arsenal in the struggle to make our society more democratic and equal and our lives more secure and meaningful. But ill-prepared general strikes may also expose the weakness of the labour movement rather than showcase its potential. And general strikes are not necessarily the strategic pinnacle of labour opposition.
Consider the contrast with the Days of Action in the mid-1990s. In that earlier period the labour movement understood that it didn’t have the strength to call and sustain a general strike. The alternative chosen was to turn to a series of community shut-downs. This allowed labour to start with communities where it was stronger, concentrate their best organizers there, spend a good deal of time to prepare for each action, and ultimately sustain the protest over eleven one-day regional strikes over two and a half years.
Firstly, there are undoubtedly times when the call for a general strike would be ill-advised. When I attended a second rally in Toronto in support of the education workers on November 11, 2022, there were perhaps only 300 protesters when compared to the 10,000 a week earlier. Despite this, Socialist Action, a far-left political organization here in Toronto, had a poster that called for a general strike; it was evident that such a call for a general strike would fall mostly on deaf ears at this stage. However, before the calling off of the strike on November 7, the potential for a successful strike was much greater to at least force Ford to repeal Bill 28 before workers were to go back to work. It also had the potential to snowball into a call for the repeal of Bill 124 (the legislation that limited public-sector workers’ wages to one percent per year–which a court has recently declared invalid, a decision which Ford has appealed).
Secondly Gindin refers to the Days of Action and the lack of a general strike but rather eleven one-day regional strikes over two and half years.” What was accomplished by such a tactic? Gindin fails to specify what was gained. Was it a further advance in the organizational capacity of workers? A further understanding of the class nature of our society? A further weakening of the legitimacy of government? When I came to Toronto at the end of August 2013. the left was dominated by social democrats or social reformers–and Gindin reinforced their dominance by failing to engage in any real criticism of their political position.
Why Didn’t CUPE Stay on Strike?
This section tries to answer the question in the heading:
Why Didn’t CUPE Stay on Strike?
The most vexing question emerging out of the education workers’ strike is how it ended. Rather than following the common union practice of staying on strike until there was a concrete offer on hand and ratified by the membership, the leadership ended the strike, returned to negotiations, and also accepted a blackout on information.
The practical point here is that the return to work took the pressure off the employer. Even if talks broke down and picket lines returned, in the interim the momentum of the strike will likely have been eroded. The democratic point is that staying on strike until workers have seen and ratified a deal gives concrete expression to the promise that ‘the union belongs to the workers’. Furthermore, the labour movement seemed to be solidly behind the strike and polls showed the workers had the support of more than six parents in ten. Why, after all the preparations and this apparently favourable moment, would the union end the strike?
As for the media blackout on information, usually justified as allowing the bargaining to ‘go more smoothly’, this generally comes from employers more concerned with trying to freeze the union’s on-going mobilization. For the union, on the other hand, keeping the members informed was a matter of respecting the wisdom of workers and of the commitment to continuous organizing. Transparent bargaining could also facilitate getting a better read on where the members were at as the conflict progressed.
Moreover, in light of Ford’s recent embarrassed retreat, the union had some leverage in rejecting a bargaining blackout. Anxious to quickly end the strike, Ford would have had trouble delaying bargaining so as to control and block information flows. (The obvious compromise was to put any blackout on hold; if bargaining did seem at some point to demand a blackout this could, through mutual agreement be reconsidered.)
Gindin is right to point out the unusual backing down of the reps for the education workers in calling off a strike until demands had been met. The lack of transparency in negotiations is also of concern since this reflects typical anti-democratic behaviour of many union reps.
Gindin further argues:
Yet, there were two factors making the continuation of the strike problematic. First, Ford’s eating humble pie changed the dynamics of the bargaining conflict. The labour movement’s prime concern had been Ford’s removal of the right to strike and once that was defeated, the use of that right became secondary. For the labour movement, the negotiations between the education workers and the government drifted towards becoming a more or less ‘normal’ labour-management confrontation.
Ford’s “eating humble pie” did indeed change “the dynamic of the bargaining conflict”–for union reps. Their focus was on defending “free collective bargaining,” and once that had been achieved by a written guarantee by Ford that he would appeal the law, they “drifted towards becoming a more or less ‘normal’ labour-management confrontation. This should have been met by a radical critique of not only this shift but the obvious earlier idealzing of the whole collective-bargaining process and the resulting collective-bargaining agreements as inadequate expressions of the interests of workers. Gindin has done no such thing.
The radical left needs to explicitly address the inadequacies of the collective-bargaining process, critizing union rhetoric at every turn. It needs to use every opportunity to open up debate about the legitimacy of that process–and such a debate has not been opened up since I moved to Toronto in 2013. Should not socialists be addressing this explicitly whenever they can?
The second factor to which Gindin refers is parent support:
Along similar lines, the support of parents could not be indefinitely counted on. After Ford had shown some ‘flexibility’ in annulling his legislation and expressing a readiness to modify his final offer, parents could be expected to pressure the union to show a parallel flexibility by ending the strike and returning to negotiations.
It is true that parents cannot be the determining factor for union strategies – the first consideration must be the workers affected – but neither can the reaction of parents be easily dismissed. Parent attitudes can affect the morale of workers and are critical to any future alliance for improvements in school conditions and funding. And with a good number of parents themselves workers, a relationship to parents is also critical to the building of a more coherent working class. Still, risking the loss of parent support might have been the route to go if it weren’t for the second factor.
Continuing the strike demanded a strike-able issue but in moving to a wage settlement, the union undermined both the staffing issue and the possibility of continuing the strike to win more. This clearly requires some unpacking. In doing so, the point isn’t to make judgements with the benefit of hindsight, but to explore some of the dynamics of bargaining to the end of rethinking future tactics/strategies.
It is true that parent support would likely not last indefinitely–short of much more radical measures. Gindin’s point is that the union could have tried to shift the central issue in bargaining from wages to the other issue of staffing levels–which would resonate more with parents than wage increases. This was perhaps a tactical error even for union reps–they could have achieved more at the bargaining table if they could sustain parent support.
Gindin then, interestingly enough, suggests an alternative scenario that would have addressed the staffing issue even if it were not a priority for the bargining committee:
When they did, any pressure on the government moving on staffing was essentially gone. The union could not sustain a strike on staffing alone, which would have been a hard task in any case but certainly after wages, the workers main issue, was settled. Like wages, the call for more staffing went against Ford’s determination to continue reductions in expenditures across the public sector. What was distinct about staffing was that it challenged employers’ sacred ‘management right’ to rule the workplace. Getting the government to bend on staffing would be especially difficult and uncertain.
To have escaped this dilemma, the union would likely have had to concentrate on the staffing issue before getting to wages. This may seem peculiar given that wages were the obvious priority. But there is a distinction between priorities and the tactics of putting a package together. Unions in fact commonly try to address critical workplace and management rights issues before turning to wages, even when wages increases are the main goal.
When Ford offered to modify the government’s final offer in exchange for the union ending the strike and returning to the table, what if the union had responded not by pointing to wages but by leaving the wages to the side – knowing they would in the end return to the centre – and demanding some movement on staffing before they ended the strike? If Ford bit and offered something – anything – that in itself would give the workers a breakthrough to build on. If he didn’t, then twinning wages and staffing (unlike staffing alone) could sustain the continuation of the strike.
This indeed could have been done. Pressing for an inroad into what is traditionally management rights would have opened up the possibility of further politicizing the issue. However, such a possibility would have to be built on and not just swept under the rug–which is what the social-democratic or reformist left do so often.
In addition, Gindin does not question the adequacy of addressing staffing levels–which have to do with adequate services under the existing school system. Adequate staffing levels appears then to assume that the school system is itself adequate and what is needed is an expansion of money and current services–and public education will be adequate. Public education, however, is riveted with contradictions and inadequacies, such as the rhetoric of addressing the educational needs of children while simultaneously using grades or marks to control, oppress and stream students (see in general the series of posts titled “Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher” and for the partiular criticism of the use of grades or marks in schools see Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Fifteen: Progressive Versus Regressive Grading Systems in Schools).
Did the Education Workers Win or Lose?
This final section before drawing up lessons learned is a summing up of whether the education workers won or lost.
Did the Education Workers Win or Lose?
It’s hard to claim a victory when wages will fall even further behind inflation and staffing remains as is. But what can be said is that the internal organizing among the education workers and their readiness to strike illegally mattered. In a mere two days, the education workers had, remarkably, forced an aggressive Premier to back off a law dangerous to the labour movement as a whole, pushed the employer to drop concessionary demands like the erosion of paid sick days, and in spite of Ford’s absolute ‘final offer’, raised wages by a dollar across the workforce in each year of the agreement (a near doubling of the earlier offer).
Beyond this, the education workers were a showcase for implementing systematic member organizing into union strategy and demonstrating that workers can fight back even in the worst of circumstances. The education workers tried to derail the grim austerity agenda the Ford government has been pursuing but fell short. This poses a challenge to the larger labour movement to acknowledge its decades long internal crisis and start to confront seriously what reversing that crisis will mean.
It will take time to assess whether, considering everything, this strike is deemed a win or not. It will take some time to get a read on whether the education workers and the labour movement as a whole came out of this stronger or weaker. Time to learn about the impact on the consciousness and confidence of the education workers and time to see how the union deals with lingering disappointment. Time, that is, to see whether the example of the education workers affects the orientation and culture of the labour movement.
The education workers did indeed gain something–an increase in wages that they would otherwise have not gained, They also gained in organizing themselves and in learning to organize themselves. These positive gains also must include the negative gain of defeating Bill 28. However, largely what was gained was–a return to the status quo without any real questioning of the premises of the class power of employers. There is little indication that the workers drew any radical conclusions about the nature of working for an employer, the limitations of collective bargaining and collective agreements or the nature of class oppression and class exploitation.
Why is that?
My prediction is that what transpired will have little effect on “the orientation and culture of the labour movement.” It had the potential to do so–but the potential was wasted–and Gindin, ultimately, is in agreement with such waste even if he is not conscious of his implicit agreement.
Gindin then refers to what he claims is needed for the labour movement:
Of the various indicators of whether labour is, at long last, turning the corner, four challenges/tests seem especially pivotal.
He actually refers to five, not four, “challenges/tests”:
Activists should be pressing the parent union of the education workers CUPE, the largest union in the country, to extend the education/training carried out with such success in its education sector to the rest of CUPE. And activists everywhere should push their union to emulate the internal organizing the education workers did, adapted of course to their own circumstances. Among other things this would require setting up a cross-union school for training instructors. and essentially adding ‘organizing schools’ to the characterization of what unions are.
Yes, internal organizing and organizing schools should be created–but they should be combined with a critical part of such education–on the one hand, the critical determination of the nature of the kind of society in which we live and, on the other hand, a critical discussion of the limits of collective bargaining and collective agreements.
The second challenge/test:
It is stunning that in the face of the 1% caps on public sector wage agreements, no systematic coordination occurred across unions. There have been ad hoc attempts to coordinate bargaining in some sectors like health, but it has been limited. Any broader coordination across unions will be difficult, yet with the public sector facing common attacks from the state, it’s surely time for the creation of a permanent council of public sector unions to strategize and build solidarity for the confrontations that we know are sure to come.
Yes, this too should arise. However, coordination across the public sector that fails to be crticial of union rhetoric is likely to result in the same kind of business union concerns that individual unions address. For example, when I attended a meeting of the Toronto Airport Workers Assembly (TAWC), an organization where union reps from various local unions whose jurisdiction is Toronto Pearson Airport workers, the meeting seemed like an enlarged union meeting, with the concerns of union reps being addressed without any critical larger issues being addressed (for addtional information on TAWC, see the posts The Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC): One Step Forward and Two Steps Backward? and The Pearson Survey of the 50,000 Employees at the Toronto International Airport: A Document Expressing the Ideology of Employers as well as TAWC’s Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/search/top?q=tawc%3A%20toronto%20airport%20workers%27%20council. What we also need is not just defensive coordination but offensive coordination. Unions have not engage in offensive tactics and strategies for a long time–and that does not just mean going on strike to achieve better contracts; it also means coordinating efforts with the explicit purpose of challenging the class power of employers in various ways, such as economic, political and ideological struggle.
Gindin refers to the third challenge/test–and it sounds radical:
3. Addressing Class
While organizing at the base and coordinating at the top complement each other, both need a clear strategic vision. What are workers being educated and trained for? What struggles would coordination prepare workers for? Some four decades ago Doug Fraser, then president of the UAW, clearly identified the emerging reality: “A class war is being waged in this country but only one class is fighting.” This remains true today and workers have suffered immensely for it. If this is to change, workers must come to grips with who they are, who is there with them, and where they ‘fit’ in the system. Class penetrates every aspect of workers’ lives and unless workers integrate class into how they think and act, the future will, if anything, be even worse than the past and present.
There is evidence that what Gindin means by “class” is quite different from what I understandin by class. Thus, part of the nature of class is to criticize slogans that hide the real nature of oppression and exploitation at work. As Gindin wrote on November 24, 2017:
Debating whether a job is ‘decent‘ is a misdirection. Everyone pretty much knows, I think, that workers are exploited even if their conditions improve. ‘Decent jobs’ or a ‘good contract’ are a way of expressing defensive gains when radical gains are not even on the table and we – those on this exchange – don’t have the capacity tooter [to offer?] them any kind of alternative jobs. So criticizing them for this hardly seems an effective way to move them to your view – which is not to say you shouldn’t raise it but that you shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t suddenly act on your point.
Gindin’s approach is far from Marx’s approach. From a letter written by Marx to Arnold Ruge, September 1843 (Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 3, page 142):
But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists,
ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.
“Everyone pretty much knows … that workers are exploited even if their conditions improve.” Really? I doubt that. Where is the evidence that workers or even the so-called radical left here in Toronto take seriously the nature of exploitation in Toronto? It is nowhere to be found. Who is this everyone?
Indeed, it is one of the basic features of capitalist relations (class relations in a capitalist society) that they take the form of a relation between things and thus hide the nature of class exploitation. Social relations between workers become an objective relation that controls the workers rather than vice versa. From Nicholas Gray (Winter 2012), “Against Perversion and Fetish: The Marxian Theory of Revolution as Practical Demystification,” in pages 13-24, Studies in Social and Political Thought, Volume 20, page 19:
Thus, in bourgeois society, although individuals hold their “social power in their pocket” or “in the shape of a thing” (Marx, 1973, p. 157), in fact it is they who are beholden to it, or under its sway: they are “ruled by abstractions” (their own social relations which have become abstracted from them – i.e. alienated from them) (1973, p. 164). The alienation of social power goes hand in hand with an ontological inversion characteristic of the money form of value: money is transformed from means of exchange to a relation of power which subjugates individuals; a social relation alienated such that
it becomes autonomous, self-standing, and an end in itself.
These objective relations between workers results in their exploitation–but such exploitation is not visible–unlike earlier kinds of society. From Meghnad Desai (1974), Marxian Economic Theory, page 16:
The contradiction between the juridically free status of the labourer and his exploitation is the original contradiction of capitalism. It is original since it appears at the origin in capitalism. In no other society does exploitation take the value form [objective form of the relations between producers] since in no society does it have to be masked from visible relationships.
Class relations are hidden by relations of exchange, or relations of buying and selling commodities. Desai, page 23:
The difference lies not in the characterization of the productive process, similar for all schools of
economics, but in the process of buying and selling labour power, which lies at the beginning of the productive process and leads to appropriation of surplus value by one class. Throughout all the participants perceive only legitimate exchange relations and not unequal relations of class and
Exploitation is hardly evident in a class society characterized by capitalist relations of production, distribution, exchange and consumption. Quite to the contrary. The capitalist process of exploitation appears in the form of its opposite. From Desai, page 55:
In Neoclassical economic theory, preferences and technology are the structural relations which explain the observed pricequantity data. Marx would reject these Neoclassical relations as not
penetrating beneath the surface of exchange relationships to the relations of production and the forces of production. But Marx went further than this. He also emphasised that the observed reality was the inverse or mirror image of the true social relationship. Thus, exchange shows equality where the true relationships are of exploitation. In this sense, observed reality is upside down, and empirical data unless approached within a value theoretic framework would lead to conclusions which will contradict the predictions of the value theory.
Exchange relations appear as what they are–formal relations of equality between buyer and seller. No one threatens through the use of physical violence for workers to work for a particular employer. This formal exchange relation, however, conflicts with the exploitation and oppression of workers when they are working.
In addition to exchange relations hiding the real nature of exploitation, distribution relations also hide the nature of exploitation. Although I have tried to calculate the rate of exploitation of specific workers working for specific employers (see for example The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part One), the amount of surplus value or profit particular employers receive need not and indeed rarely coincides with the surplus value that their workers produce. The amount of surplus value (s) or profit employers receive is mediated through the distribution of the surplus value produced according to the rule of equal rates of profit for equal amount of total capital invested (for an example of this complicating issue, see my response to a comment made by Biswadip Dasgupta on my post The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Air Canada, One of the Largest Private Employers in Canada). As Desai remarks, page 56:
The role of price mechanism and exchange in Marx’ s theory is to mask surplus value and make it appear legitimate as profit. The profit of anyone particular firm, industry or Department does not equal the surplus value produced by it. … The link between profits and surplus value becomes complex and in fighting against exploitation workers cannot fight against their own industry’s owners in isolation; they have to fight the whole system.
What workers face immediately, however, is a particular employer so that the fight has its point of departure there but has class exploitation as its background and supposition.
Given the nature of capitalist reality, exploitation is hardly evident to workers. An ideological struggle is thus necessary to expose such a reality–but Gindin obviously considers such struggle to be secondary to the magic of “organization.” As I wrote in another post:
Mr. Gindin fails to see the need to combine a specific kind of organization with ideological struggle. To be sure, without organization workers cannot gain power, but workers will unlikely gain power without engaging in organization and ideological struggle simultaneously. Mr. Gindin minimizes the importance of ideological struggle and exaggerates the importance of mere changes in organizational struggles (such as Ms. McAlevey’s innovations in organizing). Both are required simultaneously, and that means engaging in an ideological battle with the traditional left. Mr. Gindin, however, indulges the social-democratic left and panders to them by avoiding an ideological struggle. Any organization that emerges as a consequence will unlikely be more than an organization that accepts the power of employers as a class.
Gindin ignores the specific nature of exploitation in a capitalist society–its hidden nature.
Or is Gindin referring to some union reps being aware of exploitation, such as Wayne Dealy (executive director of CUPE local 3902) or Tracy McMaster (union steward, former president of the Greater Toronto Area Council, to which are affiliated 35 local unions of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU)), and former vice president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU)?
Perhaps Dealy plays lip service to the existence of exploitation (although I have never seen any evidence of this), but does he take such exploitation into account when formulating a plan of action? There is no evidence that he does so. Let Gindin provide evidence to the contrary.
As for Tracy McMaster–“Our Tracy,” as Gindin once called her–her views are linked to Dealy’s response to her email sent to those on the listserve of the Toronto Labour Committee:
Sean, It was great hearing you on CBC this morning talking about TAWC! In case you haven’t heard, our neighbours the Molson’s workers from Local 325 CUBGE are on the picket line. Representing airport & airline workers I spoke at their Solidarity BBQ last week at the International Drive/Carlingview entrance. They are in a tough battle with a huge corporate (and American) giant in Coors and could really use our support. Please boycott Molsons products for the duration of the strike, and feel free to drop by the picket line -honking support is also welcome! The workers just want a fair deal, good jobs, pension security and fair benefits [my emphases] but the employer won’t even bargain. I hope you all will join me in showing solidarity with the brewery workers from Local 325!
Since I wanted to open up debate on such an issue, I responded thus:
I would like to respond to Tracy’s reference to a “fair deal” and “good job.”
These workers do certainly deserve to be supported in various ways–it is a question of solidarity.
However, I do hear often enough such terms by those who support unions. I too support unions, but the use of such terms needs to be debated.
Having worked in a brewery for about four years, I do have some experience in the area. I fail to see how what workers at a brewery do is considered to be a good job. They are used as means to obtain
more money for investors. Is being used to obtain more money for investors something to be proud of?
Would a parent sincerely want her or his child to be used to obtain more money for others? To be treated as a means to that end?
Yes, brewery workers may receive higher wages than some, and they may receive benefits as well (if they fight for them through organizing themselves). However, is this adequate compensation for
being treated, ultimately, as things to be used by investors and their representatives in order to obtain more money? Do we not deserve better–much better?
But let us assume that these workers have whatever is called a good job and are not used by others (a cooperative could be such a situation where workers have more control over their immediate working lives). Firstly, what of the other workers in other industries, or those who work in the public sector?Are their lives not a means for obtaining a profit (the private sector), or for realizing the mission of the particular public sector (without much control over their own working lives). Even on the assumption that a particular group of workers have somehow a “good” job involves other workers lacking control over their working lives. Such a situation contradicts the principle of solidarity among workers,does it not?
Unless of course there is a growing movement for all workers to control their working lives–which involves the conscious intent to do so and the practical effort to realize such a goal.
The same logic applies to a “fair” deal.
What is meant by a “good job,” a “decent job,” or a “fair deal?”
Dealy responded thus:
Is this meant to be a serious intervention or are you taking the piss?
Wayne G. Dealy
Department of Political Science
University of Toronto
It is meant to be a serious intervention. If Wayne Dealy has something against the intervention–apart from emotional venting and insults-he is welcome to debate the issue.
Social democrats, unionists and others who consider themselves to be progressive often refer to good or decent jobs and fair contracts (deals). This is an assumption that is rarely questioned. Indeed, the tone of Wayne’s response is indicative of the lack of real concern over the issue of the power of employers as a class in relation to employees as a class. In other words, Wayne’s response itself shows just how much the issue needs to be debated. That topic will start to be addressed at the next Toronto Labour Committee on March 9, from 7:00-9:00 at 31 Wellesley.
Fred Harris, Ph. D., philosophy of education, former brewery worker
By the way, the topic was never addressed by the Toronto Labour Committee at the date and time indicated–and never while I was a member of that organization.
Deepest apologies. Those fourteen words have been buried deep inside me for years and they could no longer be contained. I regret that you suffered so for their ill-timed appearance.
Apologies too for not showing more gratitude for the fact that you deigned to use Tracy’s call for picket-line support to explain to us in plain language how wage labour is exploitative. Sam, David, Tracy et al, I hope you all were taking notes. All of us on this list are obviously and sorely in need of simple explanations of such things; fortunately Fred is here to fill that void.
On a more personal note, thanks to your second intervention, my consciousness has been raised even further: I now see the problem all along was my “lack of real concern over the issue of the power of
employers as a class in relation to employees as a class”.
And the fact that you were able to suss me out from my fourteen ill-chosen words? Mind. Blown.
Thanks again, truly, for sharing your insights. This group is extremely fortunate to have a Promethean figure like yourself who so selflessly kept the ember of class analysis alive so that it could be shared with all us sinners.
p.s. If I had wanted to insult you I would have called you a condescending prick
Gindin’s intervention involves his cavalier dismissal in the quote above of my concerns, beginning with: “Debating whether a job is ‘decent‘ is a misdirection.”
Further evidence that McMaster does not take exploitation and oppression seriously is one of her emails, a response to an email I sent, part of which is reproduced below:
On Feb 2, 2018, at 4:32 PM, Frederick Harris <email@example.com> wrote:
The idea that 20,000 new members have been organized as part of a collective-bargaining unit is certainly better than not belonging to a collective-bargaining unit. One has to wonder, though, what Jane McAlevey would think about such an accomplishment. Is it the old model of a union engaging in collective bargaining while the membership grieve mainly through legal means (the grievance procedure) and, otherwise, remain passive? Is it the model where at best 2,000 of those members attend union meetings (probably substantially less, if the number who attended UNITE HERE Local 75 meetings is any indication)? Where union really means an objectified social structure that fails to really unify the workers against management on a day-to-day basis?
Of course, since there are no details provided about what organizing 20,000 part-time workers actually means for the lives of these 20,000 workers, it is difficult to determine how significant this is.
What is needed, instead of merely citing numbers (purely quantitative considerations), is an opening into a qualitative debate and conversation about the goals of the labour movement and of the union movement and their relation to the power of employers as a class–unless of course we already have fairness, economic justice and fair contracts–in the best of all possible worlds.
McMaster responded as follows:
Fri 2018-02-02 7:33 PM
I don’t normally repsond to your emails, but I feel compelled. 20,000 workers, who for 50 years had almost no protections in the workplace, since they were excluded from many of the most basic protections of the Employment Standards Act, will now have a voice in the workplace. The potential to improve their material circumstances, as well as their health – precarious workers are at greater risk for negative health outcomes, due to uncertainty, and of course poverty – gives me hope.
Having worked alongside numerous activists on this project for the past 13 years, I can only express delight that they finally have come this far. Collective bargaining is limited and imperfect, but a fuck-ton better than none [my emphasis]. I hope you can attend the meeting to hear what’s going on with them, particularly in the context of the pressure being put on their employer through the recent faculty strike. Theory is a marvelous thing, but we need to acknowledge concrete gains and losses if we have any hope of affecting change.
In the first place, I had already recognized that collective bargaining that results in a collective bargaining is better than no collective agreement. In the second place, her claim that “collective bargaining is limited and imperfect” sounds like more union rhetoric. If it is limited and imperfect, in what way? If so, what is McMaster doing about it? The reference to “limited and imperfect” is union rhetoric that hides any real consideration of such limits and imperfections and taking them to heart. The only way to convince Ms. McMaster, as far as I can see, is to–agree with her. She idealizes collective bargaining and fails to address its limitations.
I sincerely doubt that McMaster takes seriously the limitations and imperfections of collective bargaining. If there is such evidence, others should provide us. If she did, she would have discussed such limitations and imperfections as well as what needs to be done to overcome such limitations and imperfections. She merely pays lip service to such limitations and imperfections. In practice, she operates entirely in terms of collective bargaining.
Gindin’s claim that “Everyone pretty much knows, I think, that workers are exploited even if their conditions improve” rings hollow both at the level of working class in general and at the level of so-called trade-union activists.
The fourth “challenge/test” also seems to be radical:
4. Union Transformation
Carrying out the above projects is not just a matter of adding certain functions to unions. To deal with them seriously is to recognize that what is at stake is transforming our unions. Truly addressing all of the above means changing union structures and priorities, how unions allocate their funds, the role of the staff, the leadership’s relationship to their members, the unions’ approach to bargaining, and its orientation to ‘politics’.
Given Gindin’s position in point three above (unless he has changed his position in the meantime), his call for transforming unions is insufficient. When faced with a challenge by me of a typical union position, he defended the union position and criticized my position without a thought. His meaning of what union transformation involves and what I mean are obviously quite different.
Furthermore, in Gindin’s article, he implies above that going out on strike
It is true that there were some hints of a reawakening within the labour movement. OPSEU’s (Ontario Public Sector Union) college strike.
How was the college strike an indication “of a reawakening within the labour movement?” Gindin fails to explain how this was so. Going out on stike as a means to obtain a collective agreement has formed part of the union scene even during the Second World War and has formed a part of that scence during the post-War settlement. That strikes have decreased in frequency does not mean that a resurgence in strikes questions the premises of the class power of employers in any way. It may just be a tactic to obtain a better collective agreement.
How is this change to arise if not through criticism? Through open debate? I withdrew from the Toronto Labour Committee and started this blog in large part because of the lack of open debate in the Toronto Labour Committee over issues that I consider important. I fail to see how Gindin’s position has changed in the meantime. Perhaps he can enlighten his readers on this point.
The only change that Gindin seems to propose concretely is to follow Jane McAlevey’s model of organizing. He fails to address how the macro issue of the class power of employes is to be addressed (McAlevey fails to address it). He nowhere takes into account how the nature of capitalist economic, political, legal and ideological relations hide the nature of exploitation and oppression. He also fails to address the issue of how unions are to be transformed when they persistently define the limits of their actions in terms of collective bargaining. Even McAlevey repeatedly refers to “good contracts”–as if there were such a thing.
Fifth challenge: Politics
The problems workers face go beyond any workplace, union, or sector. And at some point we need to clearly address why things are the way they are: Why do inequalities keep rising? Why is there unemployment and why is there inflation? Why do we have a looming environmental crisis? Politics is not so much about good policies as about building the social base so we have the power to see those policies implemented. At the centre of building such a base is the making of a working class with the understandings, coherence, individual and collective capacities, and confidence to make change. At this moment in time, the over-riding political question is how we to organize ourselves so as to build that kind of working class. The Ontario CUPE education workers gave us a glimpse of what is needed and what is possible. Will the labour movement in Canada build on this? There is much more to be done. •
Note Gindin’s focus here: increasing inequalities, unemployment, inflation, the environmental crisis. All of these are real enough and of concern for workers, but there is also the daily politics of subordinating billions of workers’ lives and wills to the power of employers. No mention of exploitation here. I guess we never really need to make exploitation an essential aspect of any critical approach to class politics.
Gindin seems also to asusme that what is needed is to develop the social power of workers–so that they can push through policies that the state will then implement–why else refer to “have the power to see those policies implemented”? Who does the implementing of policies is vital. It is crucial that workers not only “have the power to see those policies implemented” but that they have the power to implement them as well and to oversee such implementation–the democratisation of the state through the abolition of its hierarchical, separate and objective nature (see the post The CUPE Education Workers Strike: A Lesson on the Nature of the Public Sector for an elaboration of this)–in effect abolishing the nature of the state as an oppressive feature in our lives and self-government through an a great expansion of who is elected (administrators and judgeds would themselves be elected) and a great expansion of control over those elected through the right to recall elected officials–real accountability, not the pseudo-accountability of the present neoliberal state.
On the positive side, he rightly emphasizes the unique nature of the situation–especially Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause. Gindin also emphasizes the need for deep organizing as suggested by Jane McAlevey–and how the education workers used that principle to organize their own strike. In addition, he correctly assesses the probable desire of union leaders to return to the status quo of “free collective bargaining” as soon as possible. Furthermore, Gindin also usefully refers to the need to consider tactical considerations (and public support) when emphasizing certain bargaining demands, Finally, he justifiably indicates that the education workers did make some gains
, -but . He certainly does not really engage with the issue of how working for an employer is oppressive and exploitative nor how collective-bargaining and collective agreements cannot adequately address this common situation of workers
There are nontheless many problems with Gindin’s analysis. Gindin’s approach clings to caution, caution and more caution. His underestimation of the uniqueness of the situation to unify the union movement not only in Ontario but also in Canada leads him, in part to be overly cautious. This cautious attitude is reinforced by his underestimation of the probable level of public support for the striking workers. He also downplays the probabe real fear that Ford experienced of a possible general strike.
Despite his recognition of the need to fashion bargaining demands that take into account likely public reaction (especially in the public sector) while making inroads in management rights, he does not consider the larger qualitative issue of the adequacy of the social services provided in the public sector (such as the adequacy of the grading system to meet the learning needs of students).
Gindin leaves open the impact of the education workers’ strike on the union and labour movement. My assessment is that there will be little impact of what occurred on the larger labour movement. Gindin ignores both the specific hidden nature of exploitation and the co-optive capacity of the modern capitalist state.
Organizing will continue on the same basis, and “free collective bargaining” will continue to be idealized. Even deep organizing will fail to address the wider class issues. So too will coordination within the public sector unless it addresses the exploitative and oppressive nature of the employment relaitonship and the inadequacies of “free collective bargaining.”
Gindin’s call for making class central sounds radical, but his understanding of class does not come to grips with the specific nature of capitalist exploitation and oppression. Given the nature of class exploitation and oppression in modern capitalism, his call for union transformation, accordingly, has a hollow ring to it since he fails to address the economic, political and ideological obstacles to such a transformation. Similarly, his call for class politics sounds radical, but he apparently conceives the modern government, with its hierarchy and anti-democratic executive structure, to be the vehicle for the realization of the social power of the working class. Class politics, however, also needs to involve a radical breaking down of the hierarchy through the expansion of the election of administrators and judges and the closer control of them by workers and the general public.
Now that the opportunity for a general strike or at least a more unified union and labour movement–along with advanced in the repeal of repressive Bills (such as Bill 124) through workers’ own initiative rather than through the courts–has been lost, what will Gindin do? Probably continue to engage in his slow, social-reformist approach that will not serve the interests of the working class as a whole.
All in all, Gindin’s article, like Rosenfeld’s article, expresses conservative radicalism or radical coservativism.