The Educational Needs of the Labour Movement: A Radical Imagination

The radical left in Toronto (and probably elsewhere) has failed to engage in the radical imagination. When I participated as a facilitator in a few educational workshops for some workers and worker representatives at the Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA), two other leftists  and I created a program that included three sections on capitalism. The first section dealt with the capitalist class (a part of the class of employers), the second section with the working class and the third section with the capitalist state (or capitalist government). It was a two-day session.

The next session, however, was reduced to only one day. The sections on the capitalist class, the working class and the capitalist state or government were omitted. I went along with such an omission–and regretted it afterwards. I should have been more vigorous in my objections.

For over two years, we waited again to give another course!

Finally, this year, the two men gave another course (I had withdrawn from the organization to which they belonged). It would be interesting to find out whether their course focused exclusively on worker activism at the local level and excluded the more general context of an economy dominated by a class of employers and the related social structures that accompany such domination. Did they include content that involved the radical imagination?

Below is a quote from Stanley Aronowitz’s book The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Workers’ Movement. London: Verso, 2014,

near the end of chapter 6 (no page number):

Today, labor education has suffered sharp decline. After World War II, some unions relied primarily on university-based union leadership programs to train their shop-level stewards and officers in contract administration, labor law, and political action; others sent their full-time organizing and service staff to short-term education and training sessions offered by the universities. In the 1970s, worker education entered a new phase when some universities began offering degree programs to union members and their families. There is intellectual training available through the unions today. But it is not radical intellectual training. What has disappeared is the radical imagination.

The times require a radical imagination that goes beyond the clichés that the social-reformist left dish out–like “decent or good jobs,” “fair wages,” “economic justice” and “social justice.” We need labour education that incorporates a different vision of life–a humanized life, a life that respects human life. Such a life is impossible given the power of employers, and hence such a vision requires a vision that seeks to challenge and to go beyond such power. What is needed is a socialist vision.

 

 

 

Socialism, Part One: What It May Look Like

My wife asked me what other kind of society could we live than the one we are living now. I suspect that most people have the same kind of question. It is difficult to imagine another kind of life than the life that we have experienced all our lives.

There are, of course, no magic answers. The answers will be experimental, with some failures and some successes, and not in ideal circumstances, of course.

However, some ideas can still be provided about some possible ways of living that provide an alternative vision–a vision so obviously lacking among the so-called left these days.

Tony Smith, in his book Globalisation: A Systematic Marxian Account (2006. Boston: Brill), provides a description of some aspects of a possible future kind of society. He borrows his model largely from David Schweichart’s model of economic democracy in After Capitalism (2002) (which I have not read). He adds three modifications of his own.

I will cut and paste short pieces from this work. He paints various aspects of a socialist society that need to be incorporated into a socialist society. There are undoubtedly other aspects, and his own account may have to be modified.

I will not pursue the topic week after week after week until the topic is exhausted since there are other topics which I consider relevant–above all a critique of the power of the class of employers, but also a critique of the social-reformist left and the so-called radical left that do not question the power of employers as a class.

From Smith’s book, page 303:

The model Schweickart defends has the following essential elements:

(i) Production and distribution are primarily undertaken within worker
collectives. Workers are not hired as wage-labourers by capital; they instead
join worker collectives as fellow members. There is a basic right to employment,
with state enterprises providing jobs for those unable to find positions in
collectives.

This condition is to initiate a reduction in economic coercion as an essential move towards an increase in economic and individual freedom.

There is, of course, a possible problem of increased inefficiency, but Smith addresses this issue in further democratic socialist measures.

 

Ontario Looks Right–With Some Help From the “Left”

Herman Rosenfeld recently wrote an article on the election of the right-wing government of Doug Ford in Ontario, Canada (Ontario Looks Right). I would like to take issue with some of his analysis, specifically in relation to unions (and, to a less extent, to community organizations).

He writes:

 

Still, noticeably weak in the campaign was the labor movement. Three different unions waged competing anti-privatization campaigns in the year leading up to the election and were in no position to wage a sustained anti-Ford campaign with its own agenda. They did little or no education in most unions with their members, let alone in their communities, about the underlying issues, other than official appeals to vote for the NDP. Without any socialist political party or movement with roots in working-class communities or institutions, this is not surprising. …

There are several lessons that one can quickly draw from the experience of the Days of Action and the fightback against right-wing populist regimes elsewhere. Clearly, without engaging the working class as a whole, in unions as well as communities, you can’t build a movement that can confront both employers and the government. Simply taking verbal pot shots at the obvious buffoonery of Ford (or Trump for that matter) doesn’t change anything. It simply emboldens their base.

There has be a series of alternative policies and approaches popularized across the working class that can address many of the workers who supported Ford and his party. Mass democratic movements of workers, women, indigenous, LGBTQ people, tenants, and more need to be ready to disrupt the workings of the system that Ford looks to impose. This won’t be easy.

The NDP (like the Democrats in the US) will include elements that can be part of any resistance movement. Some of the newly elected MPPs have excellent activist histories that have placed them decidedly to the left of the party’s leadership. They should be welcomed as allies.

On the other hand, the NDP has a history of limiting the space for left critiques and activism within its caucus. Leader Horwath has already made moves to limit the party’s role to being an official parliamentary opposition and a government-in-waiting. This doesn’t bode well for the NDP’s potential role in any movement.
But it is critical not to subordinate any movement’s autonomy or leadership to that of a moderate, electoral political party like the NDP. It is important to keep in mind that the latter only became the center of electoral opposition to Ford because of the collapse of the Liberals and the lack of any real left alternative.

Most important is to build what was completely lacking in the last major popular push against the Harris years: socialists have to work with allies to change the opinions and understanding of working people who look to the false solutions of Ford. This can’t be done in isolation, but as part of building an alternative resistance in unions, communities, and other working-class spaces and institutions.

It means combining socialist principles with deeper education about the causes and solutions to challenges posed by neoliberalism, along with learning about right-wing populism and its agenda. Socialists need to argue that a clear analysis of the conjuncture and of the nature of our forces and those on the other side is essential in building solid resistance. This has to be done inside and alongside unions and working-class institutions and spaces and social movements, around all kinds of issues that have a class component: housing, transportation, education, workplace issues, jobs, social programs, racism, sexism, homophobia, and more.
Upcoming municipal elections across Ontario in October provide a potential space to mobilize resistance across the province if the left can build sectoral networks around the above issues, in alliance with elected officials, candidates, and community and labor activists.

Socialist organizations and individuals are small and isolated. We can’t control the larger course of events, but we can contribute towards building a countermovement against Ford and the broader right-wing populist push he represents — a movement that can ultimately move from playing defense against these forces to offense.

He rightly points out that the NDP limits leftist criticism and activism, but he does not extend this to the unions in any detailed way. Why not? General criticisms of unions are hardly what is needed at this point.

For example, John Cartwright, president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, speaks of economic justice, in his open letter of January 30, 2018 (an open letter to our movement):

 We need to fight for labour law reform including broader based bargaining so that precarious workers can have a vehicle in which to achieve dignity and economic justice.

It is unlikely that he means by economic justice the creation of a working-class movement organized to abolish the treatment of workers as a class. He probably means the signing of a collective agreement, with its management rights clause. (For an example of a management rights clause.  Management Rights: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia

Compare this with the money circuit of capital (The Money Circuit of Capital) to determine whether workers experience economic justice even in the best-case scenario of a collective agreement. Or do not socialist principles include opposing treating human beings as things, as mere means for others’ purposes?

What are these socialist principles of which Herman speaks? Do they not contradict many of the principles of what union leaders and representatives express these days? Does not resistance against the right include criticizing the rhetoric that many union leaders and representatives express?

As for issues that have a class component: Where was this component when the wisdom of the social-reformist left linked the fight for a minimum $15 with the idea of “fairness”? As I argued in another post, the radical left abandoned any class view and simply jumped on the bandwagon of “Fight for $15 and Fairness.” (The Limitations of the Social-Reformist Left).

What of CUPE 3902 and its reference to a fair contract (CUPE 3902)? Do socialist principles indicate that there can be such a thing as a fair contract given the power of employers as a class? Should socialist then remain silent over the issue?

As for the right-wing drift in many countries, one contributing factor may be the acceptance of social-reformist rhetoric, that is to say, the lack of criticism of the so-called progressive left.

It would be necessary to develop a socialist organization that is willing to criticize both unions, with their persistent vague references of social justice, and community organizations that do the same (see for example my criticism of OCAP, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty). Basic Income: A Critique of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Stance). 

What is needed is—a more specific idea of what socialist principles mean. I thought I tried to live socialist principles by criticizing union rhetoric—and was abused because of it.

What, then, are these socialist principles? How do they relate to collective agreements? How do they relate to unions? How do they relate to ideas like the Fight for $15 and Fairness? How do they relate to working for employers as a class?

So many questions—but no answers to be found in Herman’s article. A pity.

Management Rights, Part One: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia

In Ontario, Canada, there will be an election in three days. Ontario is the most populous province in Canada. Currently, the Liberals are in power, but even their leader admits that they will lose the election. The race is now between the Progressive Conservatives (an oxymoron, of course), headed by the populist Doug Ford, and the NDP (supported by many unions), headed by Andrea Horwath.

I will vote for the NDP, but I hardly believe that this party represents my interests. Such a party has no intention of opposing the power of employers as a class.

The fact is the NDP party and unions cannot address issues that I and many others face in our lives–in this case, the power of management to dictate to us at work. They remain silent over such issues, or they paper over such issues by high-sounding rhetoric that hides the reality.

Consider the rhetoric of John Cartwright, president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, in his open letter of January 30, 2018, wrote the following: “We need to fight for labour law reform including broader based bargaining so that precarious workers can have a vehicle in which to achieve dignity and economic justice.”

What does Mr. Cartwright mean by economic justice? Collective agreements? Since he does not explain what he means (a characteristic of rhetoric), we will assume that he means collective agreements between employers and unions.

Other social-reformist leftists express a different kind of rhetoric that centers around the non-unionized workforce. For example, the fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage here, along with needed reforms of employment standards, was paired with the concept of “fairness.” David Bush, a contributor to the rankandfile website, explicitly considered such reforms to be fair.

Collective agreements, however, are probably better than the provisions of employment standards for workers in that they limit the power of management even more. Nonetheless, collective agreements are decidedly unfair in that they do not question the power of management to use workers as things for the benefit of the employer.

The NDP, Canadian unions, the social-reformist left in general and even the so-called radical left seem incapable of criticizing the adequacy of such collective agreements.

This blog will at least partly compensate for this silence.

The following management rights clause is more detailed than many. It illustrates the power of employers in relation to employees and how employees are, ultimately, things to be used (in this instance, for obtaining as much money as possible). It also illustrates the lack of democracy in the workplace.

Even if the management rights clause were not detailed, arbitrators have indicated that there is an implied management rights clause in collective agreements. Consequently, workers are expected to follow management’s orders or suffer the consequence of possible discipline and, ultimately, dismissal–economic blackmail.

This is what working for an employer involves–economic blackmail. The implicit situation is: if the worker does not like the working conditions and does not like being treated as a thing–there is the door. The worker is “free” to leave at any time. Of course, workers in general (as a class) lack the conditions for their own economic independence. Consequently, their freedom is an empty freedom. If they try to exert their freedom, how are they to live? If they are parents, how are they to feed, clothe and provide for the children? Such freedom is empty, and yet this empty freedom is nowhere addressed by the social-reformist left. At best, they look towards a renovated welfare state and not to democratic control over the economy.

 

From

COLLECTIVE AGREEMENT
Between
COLD LOGIC CORPORATION
And
UNITED FOOD AND COMMERCIAL WORKERS UNION, LOCAL NO. 247
Chartered by the United Food and Commercial
Workers International Union, CLC
TERM OF AGREEMENT
October 17, 2010 to January 31, 2021

pages 3-4:

ARTICLE 4 – MANAGEMENTS RIGHTS
4.01 Except as specifically limited by the express provisions of this Agreement, the Company retains exclusive right to exercise all management rights or functions.
These shall include:

a) The right to formulate, enforce, revise and administer rules, policies and procedures covering the operations including but not limited to attendance, discipline and safety.

b) The right to discipline or discharge for just cause.

c) The right to select the products to be handled, choose customers, determine the methods and scheduling of shipping, receiving and warehousing, determine the type of equipment or vehicle used and the sequence of operating processes within the facility, determine the size and character of inventory and to introduce different shipping, receiving and warehousing methods. Without restricting the generality of the foregoing, the Union agrees that the Company has the right to study or introduce new or improved production methods or facilities

d) The right to establish work schedules, to determine the number of employees necessary to operate any department, or classification of the Company, to determine management organization for each department, to hire, layoff, suspend, promote, transfer and demote, to assign work on a temporary and permanent basis, to establish or revise reasonable performance and quality standards.

4.02 It is agreed that listing of the foregoing management rights shall not be deemed to exclude other rights of management not specifically listed.

You will unlikely be able to find anything by the social-reformist left that addresses the issue of why management has such dictatorial power over workers on a daily basis.

Why the silence?

Perhaps, as Jack Nicholson said in the movie A Few Good Men–“You can’t handle the truth!”

The NDP and its social-reformist follower cannot handle the truth. Why other wise the silence?