Smokey Thomas, President of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU)–A Good Example of the Real Attitude of Many Union Leaders Towards the Ruling Class

A few days ago, on April 17, 2021, Warren “Smokey” Thomas, the president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), wrote the following(https://opseu.org/news/a-statement-from-opseu-sefpo-president-warren-smokey-thomas/120559/). The immediate background is that Doug Ford is the premier (head) of the Ontario government (Ontario is the province with the largest population in Canada). My comments are within the square brackets]:

Chaos is the last thing we need [The government waited to hospitals would fill up as predicted by models–and then reacted when they filled up. It permitted restaurants to open up outdoors and then ordered them close within a couple of weeks. It permits schools to remain open. It has resisted a movement to provide paid sick days for workers despite such a recommendation by the medical field. And so forth. Of course, all this is without mentioning the health cuts before the pandemic–by the same government). 

Cornwall.  Peterborough. Guelph. Ottawa. Niagara. Peel. Toronto. And now police forces right across the province are refusing to make use of the new powers authorized by the Ontario government yesterday. And with good reason; randomly stopping citizens and ticketing those who don’t comply won’t stop the COVID-19 pandemic. [The Ford government responded to the third wave of the pandemic by granting expanded powers to the police, including enabling them to question why a person is outside and to provide their home address. There was a backlash against the expansion of such powers, but to what extent Ford changed his mind due to citizen backlash or police backlash remains unclear. Even the police objected to granting them such powers–and responsibility; several police forces in the province indicated that they would not be actively enforcing the law.] These measures could lead to racialized, homeless and vulnerable communities already disproportionately impacted from this virus to now be living in fear and apprehension. What’s now labelled as the back of napkin efforts of a government furiously trying to stop the spread of the virus are leading to ineffective measures and chaos. And chaos is the last thing we need.

Ontarians don’t know who to trust on the issue of COVID-19. No matter where we look, there is conflicting information about masks, about safety, about vaccines. They are confused by the lockdowns, followed by the easing of restrictions, followed by more lockdowns. Businesses are mandated to close, then opened next month, then closed again the next week. The economy is teetering on the brink of the next announcement. And Ontarians are left feeling insecure and unsafe.

When the police refuse to follow the instructions of the government, we have the beginnings of civil unrest. [Mr. Thomas is evidently afraid of civil unrest. Civil unrest for him is something purely negative.] We are already seeing parents tearing down yellow tape to get into playgrounds and visiting elderly family members despite orders.  It’s been more than a year of announcements that don’t fully work and measures that only temporarily curb the pandemic or protect the public.

As the leader of Ontario’s public service union, I am most concerned with public safety. Thousands of OPSEU/SEFPO members have been in the front lines of this pandemic, risking life and limb for the protection and safety of all Ontarians. To protect them, and the rest of us, we need a return to public trust and measures that work.

I am also concerned with how politicized the issue has become. There is no easy answer to ending the pandemic. If there were, surely we would see evidence around the world, not just in a few select places. If we are to get through this, we are going to have to rely on a few things, starting with available vaccines into as many arms as possible, regardless of the name on the label. 

We are going to need capacity, both in terms of infrastructure and skilled, trained human resources.

We need treatment options for early onset symptoms for high-risk individuals.

Education, not enforcement, will see us through.

And we need collaboration.

Accusing the Premier of being uncaring, callous and more concerned with finances than health is simply dishonest.

I have come to know the Premier. I know he is distraught. I know he cares. I know he is working around the clock. The burden of leadership, whether he signed up for it or not, weighs heavy in life or death decisions. Armchair quarterbacking is far cozier.

Stop lobbing rhetorical bombs, end the name calling and hostility. Now is not the time for posturing along party lines that has been so front and centre.

We must come together now. [My daughter, Francsesca, calls the idea of “We’re all in this together”–bullshit.]

I am calling on the Premier to share the burden, widen the tent and bring all voices into a room where egos can be checked at the door for the good of Ontario. [We are, after all, all Ontarians if not Canadians. That despite the class power of employers in Ontario and Canada. That in spite of the fact that Mr. Ford is himself a capitalist employer.] Let’s hash it out; determine a course, develop a narrative everyone can trust and understand. And finally let’s implement it once and for all.

With nearly 4,500 new cases of COVID-19 reported in Ontario today, it’s clear that the answers must come quickly. Real answers from leaders who care more about people than their own futures. [Yes, real leaders–not the pseudo-leader called Warren “Smokey” Thomas.]

OPSEU/SEFPO President Warren (Smokey) Thomas

For more information: Warren (Smokey) Thomas, 613-329-1931; OPSEUCommunications@opseu.org

The above expresses the ideology of “We’re all in it together.” This is the real nature of trade union leaders–not the rhetoric (bullshit) that they often express to their members.

I quoted Mr. Thomas in another post, this time dated November 27, 2018. In that quote, it is the rhetoric (bullshit) that is expressed. I invite the reader to contrast the two quotes. All bolded words in the text are my emphases:

Ford in bed with business, won’t save good GM jobs

OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas in the Queen's Park media gallery.
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Toronto – OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas says Doug Ford has indeed made Ontario “open for business” … to trample all over workers and kill good jobs.

Shrugging his shoulders at GM’s callous plan to shutter a state-of-the-art Oshawa plant next year is yet another sign that Ford has no clue how to manage the province, Thomas said. He could care less that thousands of hard-working people will end up losing their jobs.

“This premier is in bed with business and this is how business behaves. Always putting profits ahead of people,” said Thomas. “Ford couldn’t organize a two-float parade, let alone run the province.  We need leadership that will stand up for working people.”

GM is a successful company that has already posted $6 billion in profits so far this year, Thomas noted.

“Ontario was there in 2009 when GM needed a multibillion-dollar lifeline from taxpayers. Now it’s turning its back on the people and Ford isn’t lifting a finger to stop it,” he said.

Contrast that with the premier’s red-faced fury a few months ago when he vowed to do whatever it took – including invoking the notwithstanding clause – to settle a score with Toronto city council, said OPSEU First Vice-President/Treasurer Eduardo (Eddy) Almeida.

“This is the bully who threatened to suspend constitutional rights to slash city hall and get even with his critics,” he said. “But when GM tells him they’re going to close shop and throw thousands of people out of work, he just rolls over. What are his priorities?”

With the Conservative government in shambles over its disastrous decision to scrap the office of Ontario’s French-language Commissioner and abuse-of-power scandals breaking almost daily, it’s clear that Ford’s incompetence is dragging Ontario down.

“He can’t run a party, never mind the province,” Thomas said. “At least Ontario has strong unions who stand united to fight for good jobs, even if the premier won’t.”

For more information: Warren (Smokey) Thomas, 613-329-1931

Which is the real Warren “Smokey” Thomas?

Union Pensions and the Inconsistency of Union Leaders

The following was posted on Facebook by one of my friends. It refers to OMERS

“OMERS, the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System, invests on behalf of more than 500,000 public servants, including police officers and firefighters. The fund manager’s largest customer is the Canadian Union of Public Employees. In an interview, CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn said the union is calling for a review of OMERS investment decision-making processes after “an epic failure for workers.”

“We understand that we are long-term investors, and should not focus on results from just one year. However, OMERS has consistently underperformed versus other, similar plans,” Mr. Hahn said.

OMERS’s annual return of 8.2 per cent for the 10 years prior to 2020 trails the 9.8-per-cent performance in the same period at the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan and the 11.4-per-cent return over the past decade at the Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan.

CUPE is in negotiations on retirement benefits for its members, and is pushing for increased employer contributions to pension plans.”
My reply: 
 
Once again [a similar post was posted on the same day, to which I also replied], references to OMERS’ loss of profits by Mr. Hahn involves silence concerning the source of those profits. The source of those profits is–the exploitation of workers. However, nothing is said at all about that. The concern, rather, is with the loss of profits for the plan–and not at all about the exploitation of the workers who produce profits for employers.
 
Hence, Mr. Hahn’s own statement can be turned against him. He claims:

” In an interview, CUPE Ontario president Fred Hahn said the union is calling for a review of OMERS investment decision-making processes after “an epic failure for workers.”

After Mr. Hahn’s epic failure in criticizing the exploitation of workers–the source for OMERS’ investment profits–we should review CUPE’s own silences concerning the exploitation of workers.

To start with, CUPE’s own idealization of collective agreements as “fair contracts” (fair collective agreements) shows CUPE’s “epic failure for workers.” No collective agreement is fair because working for an employer is unfair–period.

The silence of unions over such issues speaks mountains about “the epic failure for workers.”
I may add that CUPE is the largest union in Canada, and I have provided proof that it claims that collective agreements are somehow fair (see  Fair Contracts (or Fair Collective Agreements): The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part One). 
 
 
Of course, there was no reply to my criticisms. The union reps do not feel the need to justify their assertions–or perhaps they prefer to keep silent since they cannot justify their assertions. 
 

Reform Versus Abolition of the Police, Part Six: Unions and the Police

I read an article on unions and the police that I thought would be useful for readers: George Rigakos & Aysegul Ergul (2011), “Policing the Industrial Reserve Army: An International Study,” in Crime, Law & Social Change, Volume 56, Number 4. (see https://www.researchgate.net/publication/227052617_Policing_the_industrial_reserve_army_An_international_study). I came across the article while researching the function of the police in a society characterized by the domination of a class of employers. The article explains, indirectly, why social democrats like Herman Rosenfeld have a hostile attitude towards more radical political positions (see earlier posts in this series for a criticism of Mr. Rosenfeld’s social-democratic position on the issue of the abolition of the police).

In the article, the authors argue that there is empirical evidence (factual data used as evidence for a hypothesis or theory) among many countries that shows that unions, at the micro level, function to limit exploitation of workers but, at the macro level, they may well function to limit the radical nature of the working class. This is consistent with some of my own experiences with and observations of unions–as well as the social-democratic left.

Let us first look at their arguments and evidence for their view that unions limit the radical nature of the working class (page 330):

After the Second World War, the dominant form of trade unionism recognized the primacy of the liberal democratic state and accepted the capitalist organization of production and private property. The revolutionary Marxist claims of overthrowing the state through the destruction of the capitalist mode of production were replaced by efforts to generate a dialogue and social pact among labour, capital and the state [158]. To put it differently, the goal of trade-unions to mobilize working class power for revolutionary purposes was abandoned in exchange for the legal recognition of collective bargaining and thus the state of trade-unions became crystallized as that of political actors representing an organized interest group within liberal democracy. The internalization of the attitude of “peaceful accommodation with capitalist interests” caused a deradicalization and depoliticization of the trade union movement [158]. The effects of a paradigm shift from Keynesianism to neoliberalism, therefore, have deeply cut into both trade-union membership and political activism.

In the context of the accumulation process of capital (the reinvestment of the surplus produced by workers), some workers are thrown out of work (the unemployed, or what Marxian economists call the reserve army of labour), others are insecure in their work and some are more secure.

The end of the social pact among “labour, capital and the state [government]”–at least from the point of view of capital, and increasingly of the state or government–has left workers with less protection from the onslaught of the vicious nature of a society dominated by a class of employers and the associated economic, political and social relations. There has been an increase in inequality in terms of income and wealth in the neoliberal era of privatization, deregulation and trade liberalization (page 342):

The income gap between people living in the top fifth of the richest countries and those living in the bottom fifth was 30:1 in 1960, 60:1 in 1990, and 74:1 in 1997. In 2005, the Human Development Report stated “the world’s richest 500 individuals have a combined income greater than that of the poorest 416 million.” In the same year the 2.5 billion people, or 40% of the world’s population, that lived on less than two dollars a day accounted for 5% of global income while the richest 10%, almost all of whom lived in high income countries, accounted for 54% of global income [163]. According the World Institute for Economic Research [31], the richest two per cent of adults in the world owned
more than half of global household wealth while the poorer 50% of the world’s adults owned barely 1% of global wealth.

The increase in inequality in the neoliberal era has led to increased insecurity. You would think that with increased insecurity and inequality, there would be a need for more police, both private and public. However, what is interesting is how the presence of unions has generally not led to increases in the level of policing. Ironically, Mr. Rosenfeld, in his criticism of the idea of the abolition of the police, refers to the concept of “legitimation”:

In reality, though, bourgeois democratic institutions are not simply a façade for a bloody and murderous dictatorship over the poor and colonized. Yes, there are instances of state acts of murder and even terrorism. The liberal democratic state and institutions facilitate private capital accumulation and are structured in ways which seek to repress, diffuse and co-opt alternative political and social movements, but these are mediated by the necessities of legitimating capitalism. The relative power, political ideology and organization of the working class and colonized Indigenous peoples also affect the character of liberal democracy (and in the subordinate strata, there are forms of class differences and other contradictions that also matter).

Yes, the working class can modify or reform certain economic, political and social institutions through their strength. However, Mr. Rosenfeld does not look at the opposite process: how this modification leads to the modification of the demands of the working class, blunting their power to oppose the class of employers as an independent class.

This limitation of the potential power of the working class can be seen in the lack of the need for increased policing despite increased levels of insecurity–because most unions now serve at the macro level to legitimate the continued existence of the class of employers (page 354):

Union membership was unrelated to policing employment, whether public, private or
combined for all countries. But when post-USSR states were removed from the sample a
statistically significant inverse relationship between private security or total policing employment and unionization appeared. … This finding provides empirical evidence for the claim that unions may actually provide a surrogate policing function for capital in western nations. That is, a stronger union presence lessens the necessity for more policing. This is particularly evident among northern European (and Ghent countries [Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden) where the average unionization rate is 25.6%, the highest by far among all regions, but the average total policing rate is 453.4, the lowest among all regions.

The reason for excluding the former USSR countries is because in those countries there is indeed a positive relationship with high unionization and high levels of public policing–undoubtedly because of the centralized policing function of the former USSR-countries (page 354):

In former USSR countries, on the other hand, a high unionization rate (12.5%) coincides with more
policing, particularly public policing (620.6) as the massive post-totalitarian apparatus has been largely maintained in the form of new protection rackets.

Should workers then not form or join unions? This is hardly what is being argued. It is vital for workers to protect themselves–but of course this protective function should be such that it does not legitimate the power of employers as a class. Furthermore, unions that rely on the organizational strength of their members rather than mainly on the power of the government or the state to enforce the protective function are superior.

At the macro level, modern unions often function to legitimate the class of employers, thereby serving a legitimating function for that class. At the micro level, however, they do serve as organizations of resistance (provided that they are indeed independent organizations at the micro level) (page 355):

What labour militancy does seem to provide, however, is a reduction in the rate of exploitation as measured by the extraction of surplus-value. Thus, surplus-value is inversely correlated to strikes and lock-outs)even when post-USSR states are omitted. There is no direct relationship, however, between policing employment and strikes and lock-outs. This suggests that while strikes and lock-outs may not directly threaten capitalist relations as measured by the necessity to employ more police and security, such work interruptions do have a statistically significant impact in reducing rates of exploitation. As Marxian political economy would indicate, the data also suggest unions are adept at checking exploitation by pushing for more favourable wage and hourly conditions but this does not translate into any direct threat to the established order of security as indicated by more policing.

In other words, unions are contradictory. On the one hand, they function to legitimate the power of the class of employers (even if that is not their intention), but simultaneously they function to limit the exploitation of workers.

Another way in which the legitimating function of unions can be seen is when mass movements that clash with the police arise. Unions often are aloof from such movements, or even engage in conservative attacks on such movements. For example, in France (page 358):

The 2006 youth protests occurred throughout the country as an opposition to the new labour law (First Employment Contract) whose goal was to reduce high youth unemployment through giving more flexibility to employers. In other words, the bill was to make it easier for employers to fire young workers without any compensation. Consequently, the youth responded to this bill by demonstrating on the streets, occupying universities, and blocking university activities including strikes. The insistence of youth in their opposition to the First Employment Contract eventually brought them support from unions. But why did the trade-unions not resist such a bill in the first place? How would the unions have acted had the youth not challenged the First Employment Contract? The unions’ (overly) cautious attitude in responding to issues concerning the labour market and the vested rights of workers is one of the most overt examples of their “policing” role in society. Perhaps the low employment and unionization rates among Parisien youth made them unrestrained by union membership, necessitating massive police intervention. …

It should come as no surprise by now that France and Greece have among the highest rates of total policing employment in Europe.

What should the radical left do? It depends, of course, in part on “where they are at.” They may be unemployed, retired or working (in unionized jobs, professional jobs, insecure jobs and so forth). What can generally be said is that the class issue, or the macro issue, needs to be addressed wherever possible. At the same time, it is of course necessary to engage in tasks that protect the immediate interests of workers.

What they should not do, though, is engage in legitimizing acts and rhetoric for the class of employers–which is what they also often do, in which case they need to be criticized.

Do Workers Work for a Particular Employer or for the Class of Employers? Part Two: Critique of Unions and the Social-Reformist or Social-Democratic Left

Introduction

This is a continuation of the previous post (see Do Workers Work for a Particular Employer or for the Class of Employers? Part One: A Limitation of Some Radical Left Critiques of Capitalist Relations of Production and Exchange (A.K.A. Capitalism)). In that post, I criticized some of the radical left for one-sidedly implying that workers only work for the class of employers; such a view is true, but it excludes the other truth, namely, that workers also work for a particular employer and indeed experience that fact immediately. Working for a particular employer is what workers are conscious of–and not that they work for the class of employers.

On the other hand, the social-reformist or social-democratic left often commit the opposite error of practically ignoring union representatives’ assumption that the relationship of workers to a particular employer by means of collective bargaining, a collective agreement, labour legislation and local union democracy, can express something fair. Such a view ignores the fact that, although workers at any particular time work for a particular employer–yet when considering, on the one hand, the whole working class, they do work for a class of employers and, on the other, when considering the whole life of an individual worker.

Dependent Local Unions Versus Unions That Are Independent of a Particular Employer

This can be seen in reference to Herman Rosenfeld, a self-declared Marxist here in Toronto and former worker in the automobile industry.  For example, he justly criticizes a clause in the collective agreement between Magna International and the Canadian Autoworkers Union (CAW) (now Unifor), but he one-sidedly idealizes CAW Local 88 and fails to analyze critically either the collective-bargaining process or the resulting collective agreement. 

Mr. Rosenfeld rightly criticized the Canadian Framework of Fairness Agreement when it first came out (see Magna Is Not CAMI):

This “Framework of Fairness” is based on Stronach’s time-tested system of anti-union structures. Rooted in the human relations practises developed in the 1920s to keep industrial unionism out of mass workplaces, Magna’s paternalistic system attempts to build-in loyalty and dependence on management. It also seeks to individualize worker concerns and issues. All of this is institutionalized in the CAW-Magna framework. [CAW was the Canadian Auto Workers union; it is now Unifor.] 

As has also been pointed out, any real effort to create an independent union presence and structure is stymied by the time frame involved in the deal and the commitments embedded in it: it would take about 10 years to organize the various plants in increments of 3 or 4 per year. If the CAW tries to subvert the process at any time, Magna could end the entire project. Besides, the agreement itself commits the union NOT to subvert the process and build an independent union structure.

Needless to say, the collective shop-floor struggles that built Local 88, culminated in the successful 1992 strike and paved the way for the strong union local they are today are not possible at Magna. Workplace struggle would be policed there (according to commitments made in the framework), rather than led by the union.

I will assume, for the sake of argument, that Mr. Rosenfeld’s comparison of (at the time) CAW Local 2009 AP and CAW Local 88’s union are accurate. In other words, I will not dispute the accuracy of Mr. Rosenfeld’s comparison of the two locals (and their collective agreements).

To understand why Mr. Rosenfeld opposes the “CAW-Magna framework,” I searched for the most recent collective agreement between Magna International and any union on the Web. Unfortunately, the most recent one I found was the collective agreement between Magna International and Unifor Local 2009 AP that has already expired:

NATIONAL COLLECTIVE BARGAINING AGREEMENT
BETWEEN:
MAGNA INTERNATIONAL INC.
– AND –
UNIFOR, and its Local 2009 AP

The collective agreement lasted four years:

This agreement shall remain in effect for a four-year period, from the date of ratification, November 7, 2013 until November 6, 2017 at 11:59 p.m.

The most recent collective agreement would, of course, have been preferable.

The 2007 Canadian Framework of Fairness Agreement is incorporated into the collective agreement. Some of this Framework is reproduced below to get a flavour of its nature:

A. Background and Principles

1. Introduction

Canada’s automotive assembly and parts industry is our country’s most important high-technology, value-added, export industry and employs thousands of people directly and indirectly. It makes a crucial contribution to family incomes, productivity growth, and foreign trade performance. Because of the high productivity of the industry and because of the strong linkages between assemblers, parts producers, and the thousands of companies which supply them (with everything from components to materials to services), every new job in an assembly or parts facility ultimately generates several additional jobs for Canadians. Automotive manufacturing is one of Canada’s only industrial “success stories,” and has made a crucial contribution to diversifying our economy away from an exclusive reliance on the production and export of natural resources and energy. For all of these reasons, the auto industry holds an immense economic and social importance to Canada.

Within this context, Magna and the CAW are motivated by the shared goal of not only preserving but expanding Canada’s automotive sector through high-performance work practices; investments in both capital and human resources; effective and just labour relations; world-class quality, productivity, and reliability; developing and renewing top-quality skilled trades; and continuing to support and enhance social and environmental sustainability.

As each stakeholder – companies, unions, employees, communities and government – shares in the benefits of a successful and prosperous automotive industry, each stakeholder must also contribute, in a meaningful way, to ensuring that continuing success.

This responsibility requires that all parties seek new and innovative ways to deal with the industry’s challenges, working cooperatively to achieve these goals. To this end, Magna and the CAW are committing with this Framework of Fairness Agreement (the “FFA”) to develop a new, innovative, flexible, and efficient model of labour relations. This model will combine the best features of union representation, with Magna’s established culture of workplace democracy and fair treatment (as embodied in the Magna Employee’s Charter). The model incorporates aspects of existing North American and European labour relations practices, yet will also reflect a uniquely Canadian attempt to combine industrial and financial success with principles of fairness and social responsibility.

Given the exploitative nature of the relations between workers for Magna and Magna as their employer (see  The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part One), references to “fairness” and “social responsibility” ring hollow.

Mr. Rosenfeld, from the point of view of the interests of workers, is thus right to criticize such a clause in a collective agreement. 

By contrast, according to Mr. Rosenfeld, Local 88, unlike Local 2009 AP, developed as an independent union that emphasized the opposition between the workers which it represented and

CAMI [GM assembly plant in Ingersoll, Ontario, Canada) included an elected workplace committee of union representatives, a democratic structure independent of management, to defend workers’ interests. The CAW as a whole maintained a commitment to an independent union presence in the workplace, expressing a different ideology and set of interests than that of the employer. The CAW national representative who serviced the CAMI union was an experienced working class fighter, who helped to mentor the new union reps. (That was only made possible by the existence of the elected body of union representatives, independent of management and beholden only to the members who elected them).

That was reinforced by a CAW Statement on Work Reorganization that asserted:

As we mobilize against regressive taxation, the weakening of unemployment insurance or plant closure legislation, we are reminding our members that the “team” they are on is not the same as their employer, and the ‘adversary’ is not other workers but those who are on the other side of these issues. Similarly, as we take on other collective bargaining issues – like opposing profit-sharing, or demanding indexed pensions or insisting on some movement towards reduced worktime, the message that the needs of working people are quite different from those of management is constantly articulated.

Such a union–and a corresponding collective agreement that reflects such a union–is certainly much more preferable to the union established at Magna–and its corresponding collective agreement:

As has also been pointed out, any real effort to create an independent union presence and structure is stymied by the time frame involved in the deal and the commitments embedded in it: it would take about 10 years to organize the various plants in increments of 3 or 4 per year. If the CAW tries to subvert the process at any time, Magna could end the entire project. Besides, the agreement itself commits the union NOT to subvert the process and build an independent union structure.

A union that can oppose its particular employer is certainly much more preferable to one that cannot–and hence Local 88 and its structure serves much more the immediate interests of the workers than union represented by workers at Magna International:

Needless to say, the collective shop-floor struggles that built Local 88, culminated in the successful 1992 strike and paved the way for the strong union local they are today are not possible at Magna. Workplace struggle would be policed there (according to commitments made in the framework), rather than led by the union.

The CAW President of Local 88 at the time, Cathy Austin, wrote a letter to the editor, dated  of the Toronto Star (a major newspaper in Toronto, Ontario, Canada), saying similar things: 

The first collective agreement at CAMI was negotiated before production started. It offered the barest of guidelines of how ideas such as team concept were actually to be worked out in practice in a unionized environment. The agreement represented a tactical compromise. On the one hand, the contract departed from standard agreements in the auto industry. It committed the union to the principals of the Japanese Production System including team concept, substantial management flexibility and kaizen (continuous improvement). Additionally, the union agreed to an economic package on wages and benefits that fell below the industry norm. However, despite these tactical compromises the first contract contained provisions for important union principals such as union security, recognition of union elected and independent workplace representatives, union committee persons and a true grievance procedure.

Our local wasted little time in establishing an independent presence in the plant. Over time the union began to demand changes and workers fought back. By contesting CAMI policy and practice, the members increasingly came to see the local as an independent force that championed the cause of workers’ dignity and rights.

Fighting to Make Gains Against the Class of Employers? 

Mr. Rosenfeld, however, then makes some assertions without explaining what he means:

Another major difference from CAMI is the larger role of the CAW. In the CAMI era, the union was clearly committed to challenging the ideology of partnership and competitiveness, fighting to make gains against employers and defending workplace rights as well as wages and benefits and embarking upon ambitious political projects that questioned the logic of competitiveness and globalization [my emphasis].

What does it mean to fight “to make gains against employers?” Since he did not elaborate, I searched further to see what he might mean. I found the following written by Mr. Rosenfeld, from Labour Notes, July 31, 2005, titled Reflections on the Birth of the Canadian Auto Workers  :

This July marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Canadian Auto Workers. The CAW was created out of a split from the U.S.-based United Auto Workers, at the beginning of a difficult era that is still with us.

The CAW split with the UAW over a series of fundamental differences. The CAW’s leaders believed that unions—and the workers they represent—have interests that are independent and different from those of their employers; that the role of a union is to fight for workers’ interests—not to sell the agenda of employers; that the competitiveness of employers is a constraint on unions and workers, not something that unions should see as their goal.

The CAW’s birth marked a major shift in the Canadian labor movement. The split was seen both as a statement that Canadian workers can build their own union movement free of U.S. tutelage and as a bold challenge to the employer offensive that sought to change the very nature of unionism.

CONFLICT OVER CONCESSIONS

In the early 1980s, U.S. auto companies and the UAW agreed to radically change the role of unions. Accepting the Big Three’s argument that U.S. automakers’ success against offshore competitors could only be assured by worker concessions—like replacing wage increases with lump-sums and profit sharing—UAW leaders saw their role as selling this perspective to their members.

It began in 1979, with Chrysler on the verge of bankruptcy. Both the UAW and its Canadian leadership agreed to temporary concessions. But when the U.S. Congress demanded more concessions as the price of further aid, the Canadians balked.

In subsequent negotiations, as Chrysler’s outlook improved, the Canadian UAW demanded and won back the concessions in the face of opposition from UAW leadership.

When GM and Ford followed suit, calling on the union to re-open their collective agreements in 1982 bargaining, the UAW leadership accepted. But they had to organize a campaign to “sell” concessions to their own members, and quash or marginalize any opposition.

In fact, when GM and the UAW first tested the waters amongst GM workers in the United States, the workers rejected concessions. Traditions of resistance remained in the union and it took years of effort by the leadership to try and root it out.

Again, unions that are independent of particular employers, that oppose concession bargaining, that have a democratic structure, have the ability and willingness to strike, fight for more general rights (such as easier access to unemployment insurance, improved federal pensions and similar reforms) are certainly preferable to more conservative unions.

Independent Local Unions Need Not Oppose the Class of Employers

Nonetheless, there is a qualitative difference between such unions and efforts to go beyond the class power of employers. Mr. Rosenfeld does not address this issue at all; alternatively, he implies, without evidence, that unions that aim for certain general rights (outlined in the previous paragraph) somehow fight against the class of employers consciously as a class of employers.

Independent unions at the level of the particular company or firm need not  be independent at the level of classes.

Actually, it is Ms. Austin’s letter to the editor which expresses in a compact manner, both what is right and what is wrong with Mr. Rosenfeld’s position. She specifies three aspects that are characteristic of what her and Mr. Rosenfeld would probably call progressive unions:

There are three fundamental differences between our ‘foot in the door’ collective agreement at CAMI in 1988 and the current Magna deal; first a democratically elected independent union representation directly elected by and accountable to the membership, secondly a grievance procedure, third the right to strike (which we did for 5 long weeks in 1992). The differences between the proposed Magna deal and CAMI are monumental in the lives of workers. At the October 28th membership meeting the members of Local 88 unanimously endorsed a resolution opposed to this flawed agreement. The workers at Magna need and deserve the royal blue colour of the CAW not the yellow of a company union. •


A union democratically elected by its membership may be independent of the influence of the particular employer, but the union itself, within the collective bargaining regime set up since 1944 in Canada (during the Second World War) hardly makes unions independent of the class power of employers. They operate on the basis of laws that establish their legitimacy and limits of action. Such laws and limits influence what unions do and how they act.

This limitation can be seen, for example, in how union representatives view collective agreements and how they justify them. On the Unifor Local 88 website, for instance, there is a history section, with the following (my emphasis):

1992-Strike

The 1992 Collective Agreement was a struggle to achieve. These set of negotiations were very tough. Both the Union and the Company had many differences that could not be settled. As a result the membership of CAW Local 88 endured a five week strike against CAMI Automotive. The membership grew up very quickly and was determined to negotiate a fair and respectful collective agreement. Shortly after the October 1992 Thanksgiving weekend a collective agreement was voted upon and ratified by the membership.

How can any collective agreement express “a fair and respectful agreement?” Since workers are exploited at work (see, for example, The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part One)  how can any union “negotiate a fair and respectful collective agreement?” Unions, by persistently referring to the negotiating process and the resulting collective agreement as somehow fair, are not independent of the class of employers.  They become ideologues of  the class of employers objectively even if they are unconscious of doing so.

Therefore, Ms. Austin’s three criteria for an effective union (and Mr. Rosenfeld’s likely agreement with such criteria)–an independent and democratically structured union, a grievance procedure and the right to strike–by no means necessarily make unions independent of the class of employers (although may well make the union independent of the particular employer they face during negotiations).

Either Mr. Rosenfeld, like many unionists and leftists, simply ignores the issue of the class power of employers and the need to consciously aim for the abolition of the power of such a class, or he falsely assumes that unions that fight for general rights of workers somehow also aim to abolish the class power of employers. 

The Chairperson of the Organizing Committee of Local 88, Barry Smith, also expresses the limitations of the union point of view. Admittedly, the following quote is in the context of consultation by the Ontario government of employment-law reform, but there is no evidence that what he wrote was merely a tactical move:

“Changing Workplaces Review”
London Consultation
July 8, 2015

Dan Borthwick, President
Colleen Wake, Chairperson Union In Politics Committee
Barry Smith, Chairperson Organizing Committee
Ingersoll, Ontario
July 8, 2015

I believe that if those hard won protections were afforded to all, through improvements in the language of both these Acts, employers would have a stronger, more dedicated workforce that would improve the situation for all parties. It wasn’t until September 17/2013 after completing contract negotiations that the S.W.E.s [Supplement Workforce Employees] got the advantages we needed. Thanks to strong contract language, we got vacation, better benefits, a pension plan and almost equal treatment as any long term employee at CAMI and gained Full Time status.

I truly believe that if it wasn’t for Unifor and General Motors coming to a fair agreement at the Bargaining Table, I would still be a S.W.E. and having to worry on a daily basis about how I will be supporting my family next week. [my emphasis]

Indeed, a document by Unifor, submitted on September 2015, to the Ontario Changing Workplaces Consultation, was itself titled Building Balance, Fairness, and Opportunity in Ontario’s Labour Market. This document in its very title expresses the ideology that somehow the labour market can be fair–whereas the existence of a labour market is itself an expression of the unfair situation in which workers who work for an employer find themselves (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

This document, furthermore, implies that workers who work for employers cannot, somehow, be exploited–as if employment law (governing non-unionized workers), labour law (governing unionized workers) and collective bargaining legislation and collective-bargaining structures, along with unions, can somehow eliminate exploitation and oppression at work. From page 6 (my emphasis):

Yet the institutional bulwarks which are essential for working people to attain better outcomes from the labour market (such as ambitious and actively-enforced employment standards, strong and widespread collective bargaining structures, and even a positive common-sense understanding of fair practice in the world of work) have become less capable of moderating these trends, instead of being strengthened to meet these challenges. The result is a labour market marked by pervasive inequality, underemployment, and all too often hopelessness. [my emphasis]

What is this “positive common-sense understanding of fair practice in the world of work?” I guess I lack this “positive common-sense understanding of fair practice.” On page 104, they ask:

The Changing Workplaces Review must address a fundamental challenge for the future of labour market policy: what measures can effectively provide Ontario workers the dignity, security, and fair treatment they deserve, while maintaining the efficiency and success of Ontario’s economy?

An honest answer to that question–given the context of an economy structured according to the demands of a class of employers–is that only measures that aim to eliminate the power of the class of employers can achieve those twin goals. The dishonest answer is that the twin goals can both be achieved within the structure of the employer-employee relation.

Mr. Rosenfeld is therefore right when he affirms that unions, such as the original CAW Local 88. as a union that was independent of its particular employer, are much better than the union that represented Magna workers.

However, both sets of workers were exploited and oppressed locally at work due to their class situation, and their unions were not independent of the class of employers even in the case of the original CAW Local 88–unless Mr. Rosenfeld can show evidence to the contrary by showing that the local not only tried to become independent from its particular employer but from the class of employers (by, for instance, showing the limitations of the collective-bargaining process and the resulting collective agreement–and even then such a situation is only the beginning of a process towards becoming independent of the class of employers through the elimination of all classes). I doubt that he can. This is where Mr. Rosenfeld is wrong–a union independent of a particular employer does not mean that such a union is independent of the class of employers.

Finally, let us look at the collective agreement between CAMI Automotive and CAW Local 88. I could not find the 1992-1995 collective agreement (which would have been the most relevant since there is reference to the 1992 strike above), but I did find the collective agreement for 1995-1998, which has the following:

3. MANAGEMENT RIGHTS

The Union recognizes the right of CAMI to hire, promote, transfer, demote and lay off employees and to suspend, discharge or otherwise discipline employees for just cause subject to the right of any employee to lodge a grievance in the manner and to
the extent as herein provided.

The Union further recognizes the right of CAMI to operate and manage its business in all respects, to maintain order and efficiency in its plant, and to determine the location of its plant, the products to be manufactured, the scheduling of its production and its methods, processes, and means of manufacturing. The Union further acknowledges that CAMI has the right to make and alter, from time to time, rules and regulations to be observed by employees, which rules and regulations shall not be inconsistent with the provisions of this agreement.

The Union recognizes the right of CAMI to formulate, revise and publish Personnel policies, which shall be administered in a fair, impartial and consistent manner to all members of the bargaining unit [bold in the original–although I am uncertain if that was intentional.]

Of course, unions may be forced to include such clauses in the collective agreement. If, however, they were really independent of the class of employers, they would question the legitimacy of such a clause openly to their members and promote discussion of the clause whenever they could. Does Mr. Rosenfeld have any evidence that CAW Local 88 did that? If not, his idea that CAW Local 88 was an independent union, though true in relation to its particular employer, was false in relation to the class of employers.

I predict that Mr. Rosenfeld will not provide any evidence to show that CAW Local 88 was an independent union at the level of the class of employers. 

Social democrats like Mr. Rosenfeld do the opposite of what some Marxists and radical leftists do: social democrats correctly emphasize the need for unions do be independent of the particular employer, but they neglect how unions, at the level class, are not independent of employers.

Some Marxists and other radicals, on the other hand, neglect the importance of the independence of unions from particular employers by referring merely to workers working for the class of employers–as I tried to show in my previous post). 

A Little Theory

To round off this post, I will refer to a book by a German author that may not appear to have much relevance to the issue of the independence of the working class, but nevertheless does address the issue indirectly (theoretically). 

The quote is a very rough translation from the German of Maxi Berger (2012), Labour, Self-consciousness and Self-determination in Hegel: Towards the Interdependence of Theory and Praxis, page 23 (I include the German after the quote for those who read German):

In order to be able to understand that the individual cannot escape from economic coercion, it is crucial to emphasize the total social character of the capitalist mode of production. This total social character is manifest in social organization, that is to say, that the legal foundations and administrative institutions as well as the organization of the economic sphere as a whole are appropriate in the sense of accumulation for the sake of accumulation–not however in the sense of a reasonable organization of human life. As a result of this the action of the members is placed under constraint: Whoever wants to obtain his means of life, whoever therefore who wants to live, must accommodate themselves to the conditions of commodity and labour markets, not the opposite.

(Um verstehen zu können, daß sich Einzelne den ökonomischen Zwängen nicht entziehen
können, ist es entscheidend, den gesamtgesellschaftlichen Charakter der kapitalistischen
Produktionsweise zu betonen. Dieser gesamtgesellschaftliche Charakter ist in der
gesellschaftlichen Organisation manifest. D. h. daß die juristischen Grundlagen und verwalterischen
Institutionen ebenso wie die Organisation der ökonomischen Sphäre insgesamt
zweckmäßig im Sinne der Akkumulation um der Akkumulation willen sind – nicht
aber im Sinne einer vernünftigen Organisation menschlichen Lebens. Dadurch wird das
Handeln der Mitglieder unter Sachzwang gestellt: Wer sich seine Lebensmittel beschaffen
will, wer also leben will, muß sich den Bedingungen des Waren- und Arbeitsmarktes anpassen,
nicht umgekehrt.)

Unions and the social-reformist or social-democratic left that fail to take into account the fact that the freedom of the worker to shift from one employer to another does not prevent economic coercion need to be criticized. Independent unions at the level of a particular employer go hand in hand with such economic coercion.

Unions and the Coronavirus Pandemic: A Critique of a Social-Democratic View, Part Two

This is a continuation of commentary on an article written by Professor Tufs (geography professor, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada) (see https://socialistproject.ca/2020/05/covid19-and-actually-existing-unions/).

In my last post, I pointed out that Professor Tuft’s reference to Sam Gindin’s call for restructured and more radical unions is inadequate. Rather than addressing directly the issue of the inadequacy of modern-day unions in addressing the problems which workers face, Professor Tuft shuffles off the issue to Mr. Gindin. This shift permits Professor Tuft to focus almost exclusively on the creation of stop-gap measures to address the possible crisis in unions as a result of the pandemic.

Let us now turn to his discussion of reformed unions. He points out that many unions are not created by the members themselves in any real sense of the workers organizing themselves into  a fighting unit that functions to protect the common interests of its members I take it that that is what he means by the following:

There is also the reality that the current structures of the labour movement are limited. Rank-and-file members are not mobilized to self-organize.

Such a criticism needs elaboration, but Professor Tuft fails to do so. The very nature of modern unions (at least in Canada and the United States) as organizations whose primary function is to negotiate collective agreements, sets limits to the self-organizing capacity of unions–as long as they accept the model of “free collective bargaining” as somehow beyond criticism. Unions could develop the capacity to see collective bargaining and collective agreements as merely contracts forced upon them due to the inevitable power imbalance between the working class and the class of employers rather than somehow being “fair,” and they could also come to see such expressions as “decent work” as ideological in the bad sense of the word–of covering up the reality of the exploitation and oppression of workers.

By being vague, Professor Tuft fails to specify what he means by self-organize, and he thereby permits himself the luxury of not confronting the general limitations of unions, of collective bargaining and collective agreements. To openly call into question the center around which modern unions revolve–collective bargaining and collective agreements–would threaten the interests of many representatives of modern unions and thereby expose Professor Tuft to insults and ridicule by the social-reformist left.

Professor Tuft mentions another limitation of unions–they address mainly only the interests of their immediate employed members and not the unemployed. He mentions the construction trades as an exception:

 But there is the larger problem that labour organizations are simply not oriented toward the unemployed. Some unions such as the building trades maintain relationships with unemployed workers through hiring-hall ‘lists’. But this is an exception.

Professor Tuft fails to show how the lack of orientation towards the unemployed by unions is a larger problem. Rather, the lack of orientation towards the unemployed is interrelated with the focus on collective bargaining and the collective agreement.  Since unions focus on collective bargaining and collective agreements, and since unemployed workers have limited or no rights under such agreements (such as call-back rights), workers covered by a collective agreement who lose their job generally “vanish” or cease to exist as far as unions are practically concerned. The issue of unions not being oriented towards the unemployed is thus linked to the issue of their focus being collective bargaining and the collective agreement.

To be sure, workers in construction unions do not vanish from the union; they form part of a list to be hired. Professor Tufts does not explore this exception at all to determine whether it overcomes the limitations of traditional unions. (My brother, by the way, worked as a construction labourer in Calgary and a few other places in Alberta, Canada, when he was younger, and he evidently found the work not only difficult but exhausting.)

The construction industry is seasonal , and therefore many workers have only temporary jobs. Once their work for a particular employed has ended, they form part of a list to be hired by a pool of employers in the construction industry. The reason why the relation of the laid off member to the union is maintained, therefore, is because the worker is potentially employable by many different employers.

The hiring-hall list converts unions in the construction industry into, in some ways, a temporary job agency. From Michael Duke, Luke Bergmann, Genevieve Ames (2010), “Competition and the Limits of Solidarity among Unionized Construction Workers,” in Anthropology of Work Review, Volume 31, Number 2, page 85:

…the union serves as a job broker between workers and employers. In this capacity, union representatives from a given Local receive notice of job openings at particular job sites, and are tasked with providing those employers with workers from the union’s membership roster. The duration of these jobs varies widely, from 1 or 2 days to more or less permanent employment, resulting in many workers facing a continual struggle to receive a steady paycheck, and a continuous jockeying among members for jobs.

In addition to the seasonal nature of construction work, there is the additional but related fact that workers in the construction industry often work for a number of employers during a year and not just one employer. Construction workers go from periods of employment with one employer to periods of unemployment and then periods of employment with, possibly, a different employer.

There is, however, a major difference between this function as performed by construction unions and temporary agencies. Construction unions try to smooth out the distribution of work so as to make the system fairer as a whole for the construction workers in the union. Page 89:

There is little doubt that the hiring list benefits job seekers by reducing the influence of
favoritism, connections, and other influences that privilege some workers over others, and by spreading the risk of joblessness more or less equally among those on its roles.

Like most features of worker organizations in a capitalist society, though, the hiring-hall list is a double-edged sword. Being on the list is an expression of being unemployed, and in particular being at the bottom of the list expresses the likelihood of being unemployed for a longer period of time than many workers can afford. Page 89:

At the same time, the list represents a potent symbol of this alienation for these workers, in
that it provides a constant reminder of the temporary nature of their employment, and of the ephemeral quality of relationships on the job site.More centrally, the list represents for members the limits of union solidarity, the loss of a common stake in work and job security, and, ultimately, the alienation of laborers from the work they produce and the relationships that develop through that work.

A hiring-hall list does indeed maintain a relationship between workers and the union even when there is no specific employment relationship–but because the union functions in part as a temporary work agency, it also functions in part as an oppressive mechanism. A union that overcomes one of the limitations of collective bargaining–being connected to the union only by being connected to an employer (or set of employers in the case of more centralized bargaining)–often involves contradictions in other areas (such as the oppressive function of a temporary hiring agent).

Therefore, even when unions expand their functions to those beyond collective bargaining and collective agreements, they become involved in further contradictions that they cannot resolve. They are limited institutions for the self-organization of the working class. These limitations should be admitted and addressed.

Nevertheless, the issue of the unemployed not being organized by unions is certainly important. Employed and unemployed workers form, in general, part of one and the same working class.

Employed workers are united (temporally, during the working day) with the means of their work (buildings, machines, tables, floors, raw material, computers, and so forth). After work, they too , like their unemployed counterparts, become separated not only physically but also socially from those means (they do not own and control them).

The unemployed are separated physically and socially from all means of production for a shorter or longer period of time. Of course, some who work for employers may become unemployed, and some who are unemployed may become employed again. There is a often a change of who is employed and who is unemployed, due in great part to the changing needs of employers and, to some extent, the changing needs of workers (workers are not tied to a specific employer but can quit and try to find another employer to hire them).

Both groups of workers form part of the working class as class. As members of a class, those who work for a particular employer also are working for the class of employers.  No particular worker can work at any particular activity for any length of time without other workers producing both the means of production (machines, computers, phones, raw material, pens, pencils, tables and so forth) with which the worker works. In other words, there is a division of labour, where other workers are working for other employers in a system of interdependence. (Such interdependence has recently been experienced by some workers because of the coronavirus epidemic–as some workers stopped working, so too did others since they depended on other workers for the resources or means of production required to produce in their particular sphere). Or, as Thomas Hodgskin (1825), in his Labour Defended Against the Claims of Capital, remarked (page 45):

If we push our inquiries still further, all that we can learn is, that there are other men in existence who are preparing those things we need, while we are preparing those which they need.

The source of the active army of labour, at least in Canada, is the continued births of children within Canadian borders, on the one hand, and immigrants on the other.

The workers themselves, or the active army of workers of the class of employers, however, are subject to various levels of precariousness, some more and some less since changes in technology, rates of accumulation, taxes, state expenditures and its composition, intensity of work and so forth  can change employment levels. The precise composition of the active army of workers can of course also vary according to kinds and degrees of racism, sexism and so forth prevalent in and outside work.

In the world, there are “around 1.65 billion in the active labor army” (R. Jamil Jonna and John Bellamy Foster (April, 2016), “Marx’s Theory of Working-Class Precariousness – And Its Relevance Today,” in Monthly Review, page 38). 

The active army of labour is always subject to more or less unstable working conditions since the workers do not control the machines, buildings, resources, raw materials and so forth that they use, but are rather subject to the immediate control of particular managers and employers and, ultimately, to the control of the pressures of the world market.

The same could be said of the unemployed: they too are subject to varying levels of precariousness and subject to varying connections to particular employers and to the class of employers in general.

There are, in general, four kinds of groups that constitute the unemployed or the reserve army of labour: floating, latent, stagnant and pauperized. From R. Jamil Jonna and John Bellamy Foster, page 26:

… the floating population consisted of workers who had a connection – if a precarious one – to the active labor army, with a recent history of employment; they constituted those who would likely be the first to be re-hired in an expansion.

A section of the unemployed that has more precarious roots in the working class is the latent surplus population. From page 26:

The next layer of the reserve army, in Marx’s description, is the latent surplus population. For the most part this refers to the (self-sustaining) segments of the agricultural (or rural) population. This population served as a vast source of potential labor for capitalist industry (hence, “latent”).

In Canada, one of the sources for this form of unemployment is probably overseas in the form of the The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). From the Canadian government’s website:

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) allows Canadian employers to hire foreign nationals to fill temporary labour and skill shortages when qualified Canadian citizens or permanent residents are not available.

In other countries, similarly, the temporary immigrant population also form part of the latent reserve army of labour. Many students can now be considered to form part of the latent reserve army of labour.

In earlier times, women also formed part of the latent part of the reserve army of labour; employers eventually hired women, for example, for weapons factories during the Second World War. (My mother worked in a weapons factory in Toronto during  part of the War.)

The third form of the unemployed or the reserve army of labour is the stagnant group: it is a very precarious section of the reserve army of labour, characterized by very low wages and superexploitation. Some workers in short-term positions, some workers for temporary agencies, day workers, workers in the informal economy and the like constitute this layer of the reserve army of labour, which is subject to very irregular work. Even some substitute teachers may form part of this group since they are effectively shut out of obtaining a permanent position as teachers and often have no hiring rights at all (as is (or was) the case for substitute teachers as members of the Winnipeg Teachers’ Association, or WTA).

Finally, the pauperized layer of the reserve army of labour constitutes the lowest layer of the reserve army of labour, which includes those incapable of working for an employer, those who live from social assistance (and who, occasionally, can be obliged to work if they are to continue to receive social assistance), those who live from petty thefts and the like. Part of those workers in the informal economy (including children) form part of this layer, including those who try to sell small amounts of commodities at an individual level.

The distribution of the active and reserve army of labour (with their various layers) can be seen from the following (page 38):

In 2013, according to International Labour Organization (ILO, 2015b) figures, the global reserve army consisted of some 2.3 billion people, compared to around 1.65 billion in the active labor army, many of whom are precariously unemployed. The number of officially unemployed at that time (corresponding roughly to Marx’s floating population) was 200 million workers. Some 1.5 billion workers were classified as “vulnerably employed” (related to Marx’s stagnant population), made up of workers working “on their own account” (informal workers and rural subsistence workers) and “contributing family workers” (domestic labor). Another 600 million individuals between the prime working ages of 25-54 were classified as economically inactive. This is a heterogeneous category but undoubtedly consists preponderantly of those of prime working age who are a part of the pauperized population.

Unions, indeed, are limited since their focus is mainly on the organized sections of the active army–although we should not forget that unions have, in various ways, fought, indirectly if not directly, for the interests of various layers of the unemployed at specific periods in their history in the form of a national pension system, part of a pension system based on the duration of residence in Canada (Old Age Security), rather than on length of employment and level of contribution, medicare and so forth.

Professor Tuft’s  reference to the need for an organization dedicated to addressing the needs of the unemployed in the face of a possible decrease in the power of organized unions makes some sense–but it made sense even before the pandemic since unions often tooted the mere organization of workers into a union (and the effective enforcement of a collective agreement) as sufficient for ensuring “decent work,” a “fair contract,” “fairness” and the like.

With the emergence of the pandemic and the likely decrease in the working effectiveness of unions to protect the immediate interests of their members, on the one hand, and the increase in the need for stop-gap measures as more workers remain unemployed for a longer period of time, a gap arises that can be filled by former union representatives who also may well lose their jobs. According to Professor Tufts:

Most important, union representatives know the workers that will require a range of labour market adjustment services such as: assessment of the mental and physical health impacts of COVID-19; help with navigating emergency assistance, the CERB, and EI bureaucracies; assistance with resume writing; ensuring licenses and certifications are maintained during unemployment; counsel for workers considering early retirement; and guidance for workers considering re-training options. If the pandemic reoccurs in waves, as some have predicted, workers will shift in and out of employment and require training in COVID-19 health and safety measures. Who is going to do this work?

The federal government has allocated $350-million to help keep afloat the not-for-profit agencies providing needed services. These funds should be expanded and target labour organizations to deliver labour market adjustment services to unemployed workers. Economically, it makes sense as union communications infrastructure and staff can be efficiently deployed to assist workers. The social benefit of providing successful labour market adjustment and support is self-evident as it reduces hardship and the period of unemployment.

This solution seems to be reasonable  in the face of the likely increased instability of both the active army of workers and the reserve army of labour in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, on the one hand, and the likely decreased power of unions on the other. This situation will, of course, vary between sectors of the economy and over time; in other words, some groups of the active working class will be more subject to increased precariousness as will some groups of the reserve army when compared to their situation before the pandemic and when compared to other groups of workers in the active army or in the reserve army.

Professor Tuft’s solution is to call for Workers’ Resource Centres  to address the problem of the unemployed. Such centres would link active workers with unemployed workers and the community:

Politically and practically, resource centres make sense. ‘Actually existing’ unions have been in decline for decades. Serving all working people and entire communities rather than just employed members is fundamental to making unions relevant during the crisis. It also gives union staff work to do during a slow recovery that might preserve some institutional integrity that will be needed to fight inevitable workplace restructuring and austerity. As sectors recover, unions will be crucial in advocating for sufficient staffing levels and new COVID-19 related health and safety protocols.

This solution is certainly worthy of consideration–but of course it is hardly sufficient. The present-day workers’ action centres are entirely reformist and aim to address the immediate needs of workers without taking into consideration their long-term needs.

Professor Tuft then shifts to wishful thinking: such resource centres might serve as transitional organizations for a “green economy”:

A workers’ resource centre approach is admittedly full of contradictions and compromises. But we need realistic options for presently insufficient unions to survive in the short-term and meet workers material needs. Indeed, such efforts should be seen as part of building capacities for more transformative demands and actions. This may very well include expanding resource centre mandates in the future to administrate ‘just-transition’ supports for workers as economies adapt to green production. COVID-19 is a potentially transformative event for organized labour, but a sober analysis of what is possible to meet the needs of unemployed workers at this moment is required alongside aspirational calls.

He pays lip service to the “contradictions and compromises” that such workers’ resource centres would experience since funding for such centres would likely come from government coffers by way of funding community organizations and other non-governmental organizations:

It would not cost the government a great deal as these services will, in any case, need to be delivered by community organizations.

Professor Tuft implies that such organizations could somehow be self-organizations of the working class. What is more likely is that they will become at best reformist organizations like their trade union counterparts or, worse, even more restricted in their functions because of their dependence on the government for their continued functioning. Such a situation is hardly an expression of self-organization. Professor Tufts, like his social-reformist comrades, fails to address the limitations that workers’ resource centres would likely face that would prevent them from being institutions of self-organization. Professor Tufts, then, like his social-democratic or social reformist comrades, fails to address the limitations of such institutions.

Furthermore, the idea that such centres could be the stepping stone to “green production” is wishful thinking since a really green economy could only arise through the abolition of a society characterized by the class power of employers and the infinite increase of money–at the expense of human beings and this planet (see  The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One).

Professor Tuft’s proposal for workers’ resource centres, from his point of view, then, undoubtedly express a “realistic option” for the self-organization of workers.

From my point of view, by contrast, his proposal will foster illusions of the self-organization of the working class while, in reality, perpetuating the exploitation and oppression of the working class by employers. His proposal is only realistic for social reformers and not for workers who reject the legitimacy of working for any employer.

It is necessary to link the interests of the unemployed and the employed by creating a common goal of controlling their life process through controlling the conditions of that life process–which is currently owned and controlled by the class of employers and protected by a government responsive to the need to reproduce itself in and through the protection of such forms of property and control. That common goal cannot arise without critiquing workers’ organizations that may have some independence from the class of employers locally or at the micro level but that operate at the macro level to confine the class struggle to limits set by the structural economic, political and social conditions characteristic of a society dominated by a class of employers.

Unions and the Coronavirus Pandemic: A Critique of a Social-Democratic View, Part One

Professor Tuft (geography professor, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada), in an article published on the Socialist Project’s website (Covid-19 and ‘Actually Existing’ Unions), argues that unions will be in crisis as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Unions exist financially because of union dues, and with the increased level of unemployment among unionized workers, unions have experienced substantial reductions in the flow of union dues, at least here in Canada. As a consequence, they have begun to lay off union staff.

I will address Professor Tuft’s solution to this problem in a follow-up post, but in this post I will address his reference Sam Gindin’s call for a restructuring of unions. Mr. Gindin was the former research director of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union

Before looking at Professor Tuft’s analysis and recommendations, let us pause to look at Professor Tuft’s reference to Mr. Gindin’s call for a renewed union movement (The Coronavirus and the Crisis This Time).  The union movement, Mr. Gindin argues:

The failure of unions over the past few decades both in organizing and in addressing their members’ needs is inseparable from their stubborn commitment to a fragmented, defensive unionism within society as it currently exists, as opposed to a class-struggle trade unionism based on broader solidarities and more ambitiously radical visions. This calls for not just ‘better’ unions, but for different and more politicized unions.

The view that unions need to develop “broader solidarities” and “more radical visions” certainly forms an essential element of the renewal of organized labour’s contribution to a new socialist movement. However, I have indicated before that Mr. Gindin seems opposed to questioning the limitations of present unions in relation to the limitations of collective bargaining and collective agreements (see The Contradictions of Social Democracy: Mr. Gindin’s Musings on the Closure of GM’s Oshawa Plant). Broader solidarities can arise without becoming radical; an example of that is the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC), an organization that cuts across unions at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. Such an organization, of course, should be welcomed since it does have the potentiality to create common bonds among workers who belong to different unions. However, there is no basis for assuming that such common bonds will generate a more radical vision (see The Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC): One Step Forward and Two Steps Backward?).

Mr. Gindin also asserts the following:

Andrew Murray, chief of staff at the British/Irish union UNITE has noted the difference between a left that is ‘focused’ on the working class and one that is ‘rooted’ in it. The greatest weakness of the socialist left is its limited embeddedness in unions and working-class communities. Only if the left can overcome this gap – which is a cultural gap as much as it is a political one – is there any possibility of witnessing the development of a coherent, confident, and independently defiant working class with the capacity and capacity-inspired vision to fundamentally challenge capitalism.

There is undoubtedly much to be said of such an analysis. Radicals who cannot find a way to address the concerns, interests and needs of regular working people will stand on the sidelines and have little impact on the working class. However, Mr. Gindin fails to see the need to do the opposite–to stand with one foot outside of working-class communities, who for so long have been shaped by the concerns, interests and needs of the class of employers. Being too close to working-class communities and working-class organizations (like unions) can easily limit the development of the capacities of workers to develop a radical vision that contributes to the creation of an effective movement against the class of employers. Mr. Gindin himself, as I have argued elsewhere (see The Socialist Project’s Critique of Doug Ford’s Attack on Local Democracy Falls Short), has been too close to the union movement, failing to engage in its criticism when it is warranted. We need to develop an environment in the labour and union movements where discussion of important issues–such as whether working for an employer can ever really be characterized as “decent” or whether any wage or contract can ever really be considered “fair”–can emerge without heaping abuse on those who raise such issues.

Mr. Gindin’s reference to “inward development” following on the coronavirus–focusing on organization at the local and national level rather than at the international level–may or may not turn out to be radical (see his article Inoculating Against Globalization: Coronavirus and the Search for Alternatives). Those who look only to international developments to resolve our problems without connecting them to organization and action at the level of the city, the region and the nation will likely vastly underestimate the difficulties that lie ahead. The basis for a powerful international working-class movement must have deep roots in the working class at the local level. Indeed, the local level itself is relative and, unless artificially separated off from the wider world and context, must lead to that wider world and context if we are to come to grips with that local level theoretically and practically. From John Dewey (2004), Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education,  pages 229-230):

… local or home geography is the natural starting point in the reconstructive development of the natural environment, it is an intellectual starting point for moving out into the unknown, not an end in itself. When not treated as a basis for getting at the large world beyond, the study of the home geography becomes as deadly as do object lessons which simply summarize the properties of familiar objects. The reason is the same. The imagination is not fed, but is held down to
recapitulating, cataloguing, and refining what is already known. But when the familiar fences that mark the limits of the village proprietors are signs that introduce an understanding of the boundaries of great nations, even fences are lighted with meaning. Sunlight, air, running water, inequality of earth’s surface, varied industries, civil officers and their duties–all these things are found in the local environment. Treated as if their meaning began and ended in those confines, they are curious facts to be laboriously learned. As instruments for extending the limits of experience, bringing within its scope peoples and things otherwise strange and unknown, they are transfigured by the use to which they are put. Sunlight, wind, stream, commerce, political relations come from afar and lead the thoughts afar. To follow their course is to enlarge the mind not by stuffing it with additional information, but by remaking the meaning of what was previously a matter of course.

Starting at the local level does not end there but gains in meaning as the conditions for the existence of that local level become more evident, just as the larger picture gains in depth by being routed in diverse ways to our immediate lives (page 143):

Nor are the activities in which a person engages, whether intelligently or not, exclusive properties of himself; they are something in which he engages and partakes. Other things, the independent changes of other things and persons, cooperate and hinder. The individual’s act may be initial in a course of events, but the outcome depends upon the interaction of his response with energies supplied by other agencies.

However, that means that taboo issues that unions and the so-called progressive left either ignore or actively suppress need to see the light of day–such as just how legitimate any person or organization can claim that they represent “fairness” in the context of an economic and political system dominated by a class of employers.

To make good on the simultaneous focusing on the local and the global, it is necessary to begin to develop class analysis at the local level such as the local, regional and national class structure as well as local conditions of exploitation (rate of exploitation) and class oppression. Class organization also involves class analysis.  Let us hope that Mr. Gindin (and others) start this important analysis. Otherwise, reference to the local is just rhetoric.

Professor Tuft’s brief reference to Mr. Gindin’s call for a radical restructuring of unions, then, is far from adequate. By merely referring Mr. Gindin’s call for a radical restructuring of unions without analyzing the adequacy of such a call, Professor Tuft skirts the issue of the nature of such radical reconstruction. By doing so, Professor Tuft can then proceed to focus on what is typical of his approach: reform of unions and the nature of such reformed unions rather than radically reconstructed unions and the nature of such radically reconstructed unions. Unfortunately, then, Professor Tuft’s call for reformed unions already has limitations.

A further post will shift to investigating Professor Tuft’s analysis of the probable situation of unions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic here in Canada as well as his proposed solution.