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.