What’s Left, Toronto? Part One

On September 19, 2018, several leftist activists gave a talk about what was to be done in the city of Toronto. It was posted on the Socialist Project website on October 7, 2018 (What’s Left, Toronto? Radical Alternatives for the City Election) Over the next few months, I will be analyzing some or all of the talks from a Marxian perspective.

Before looking at the diverse talks, though, I will reiterate in this post a point that I have already addressed in some other posts since the moderator of the talks, Herman Rosenfeld, brought the issue up again. He mentions “decent, secure jobs with decent pay.” Why any self-declared socialist feels compelled to declare, at this stage of capitalism, to pair the term “decent” with “jobs” and “decent” with “pay” other than fear of alienating his social-reformist allies or due to opportunism is beyond me.

Working for an employer by human beings is indecent–period. The justification for such a view is given in   The Money Circuit of Capital.  The same could be said of pay. Human beings are used as things when working for employers–whether they receive high or low pay, and whether they have a secure or precarious job.

Of course, it would be better to have secure jobs than precarious jobs, and it would of course be better to receive more pay than less pay. To deny that would be foolish. But to use such terms as “decent” is itself absurd when there is a claim to be “radical.” This is not radical–it is social reformism–and nothing more. The implication is that somehow the good life can be achieved within the limits of a society characterized by domination by a class of employers.

For instance, it is likely that the radical left has remained silent while Pam Frache, an organizer for the Workers’ Action Centre in Toronto who has been involved in the fight for the $15 minimum wage and other reforms of employment law, has recently stated the following in reaction to Doug Ford’s legislative attack on Bill 148, which provides for various employment law reforms, including the proposed minimum wage of $15 an hour as of January 1, 2019 in Ontario, a province in Canada:

“The law is the law, and as it stands, nearly 2 million workers are scheduled to get a raise in 11 weeks,” says Pam Frache, Coordinator of Fight for $15 & Fairness Campaign. “Every single day we encounter people who tell us they voted for Premier Ford because they thought his promise to be ‘for the people’ meant standing up to corporate elites, like Galen Weston and Rocco Rossi. Repealing Bill 148 now would be a slap in the face of many workers who voted for Premier Ford,” she added.

The law is the law? Really? Does that mean that the working class is supposed to respect the law? Does that mean that Pam Frache proposes that all workers subject to collective agreements follow orders according to management rights (see  Management Rights, Part One: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia,   Management Rights, Part Two: Public Sector Collective Agreement, OntarioManagement (Employer) Rights, Part Three: Public Sector Collective Agreement, ManitobaManagement Rights, Part Four: Private Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario) and agree to being treated as things to be used? That they should respect the law?

There are ways of defending workers’ power through law without defending law as such. For example, it could have been said that Bill 148 limits the power of employers to exploit and oppress workers and permits workers some increased freedom and should therefore be defended not because it is law as such but because precisely of what it permits. To claim that “The law is the law” ties workers to employers’ power and is hardly in the interest of the working class since the legal system is geared towards the power of employers as a class. The same reasoning could be used to defend signing a collective agreement (but union reps sometimes idealize union agreements by referring, as did Pam Frache, to the sanctity of the law: “The law is the law,” after all–as if human beings are supposed to exist for the laws and laws are not supposed to exist for human beings.)

The radical left had the opportunity to question Pam Frache’s ideology at a forum on $15 and “Fairness.” She was a member of the audience and had her hand raised and was acknowledged by the chair of the forum, Sean Smith. Pam spoke for perhaps 10 minutes. I raised my hand perhaps four time to ask a question about pairing the fight for $15 with the term “fairness”–and was not acknowledged. However, Herman was present in the audience  (as was Sam Gindin), and he did not raise the issue.

Already, one wonders what is indeed left in Toronto when the moderator introduces such reformist rhetoric into his introduction. On the eve of the Toronto elections, the Toronto “left” are already proving themselves to be afraid to question social-reformist rhetoric.

Next month, I will look at one of the talks in the series.


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

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.