The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Three: Collective Bargaining and the Interests of the Working Class

This is a continuation of a critique of an academic leftist (aka academic historical materialist), the philosopher Jeff Noonan.

Another example of the limitations of Professor Noonan’s analysis is the following
(from Thinkings 4Collected Interventions, Readings, Evocations, 2014-2015,page 10):

And sometimes it is necessary to struggle to protect or extend our rights as workers to help determine our conditions of work.

The context for the statement is Professor Noonan’s defense of workers’ right to strike. The problem with this argument is located in his use of the word “sometimes.” Since order-in-council 1003, enacted in 1944 during the Second World War, workers have not had the right to strike during the terms of a collective agreement in Canada. What happens during the terms of a collective agreement? Workers are generally expected to grieve an order, a procedure and so forth by management but continue to work. Is this something with which Professor Noonan agrees? His use of the word “sometimes” seems to imply that as well as his defense of the right to strike–a right that legally arises only after the expiration of a collective agreement.

But what of the need to struggle during the terms of a collective agreement? It may appear that Professor Noonan is sympathetic to the working class and to socialism, and yet his silence concerning, on the one hand, the general legitimacy of collective agreements in the context of the power of a class of employers and, on the other, his silence concerning the need to engage in struggle during the terms of a collective agreement demonstrate the limitations of his approach.Indeed, the International Workers of the World (IWW) have recognized the need to engage in struggle in various forms, with escalating consequences rather than just the strike; the strike, rather, is a high-end pressure tactic and not generally the first form of tactic to engage in in order to achieve workers’ own ends.

This does not mean that workers will engage in struggle continuously; workers of course need to pick and choose their struggles. However, the defense of the right to strike without any mention of the need to struggle against employers during the term of a collective agreement (and not just in the form of grievances) is a very limited defense of the interests of the working class.

It may seem that Professor Noonan recognizes the limitations of collective bargaining. He says the following (page 11):

Collective bargaining is a difficult process. At its best, it is a rare opportunity for workers to participate in the determination of their conditions of work, rather than simply accept whatever conditions are offered. Collective bargaining allows workers to deliberate together as a democratic body about how they think their work should be organized and compensated and to make their case to the employer. Despite what employers publicly maintain, there is no equality of power. Since employers retain ultimate legal control over the workplace, since they continue to draw full salary during any work stoppage, and since the legislative deck is stacked in their favour, without solidarity, both between members of the bargaining unity and between the bargaining unit and the wider community of labour and concerned citizens, the employer is typically in an advantaged position.

How does “solidarity, both between members of the bargaining unity [unit?] and between the bargaining unit and the wider community of labour and concerned citizens” overcome the power of employers as a class? A particular employer may have to concede relative defeat due to certain favourable conditions of a particular section of the working class, but the fact that workers still have to work for an employer involves “an advantaged position” of employers as a class–including the relatively “disadvantaged” employer.

Further evidence of the inadequacy of Professor Noonan’s position can be seen from the following (page 11):

We have only taken strike votes in the face of protracted impasses at the bargaining table over issues of fundamental importance to the membership.

Professor Noonan is trying to present the Windsor University Faculty Association as being reasonable; it does not engage in needless strike votes but only “over issues of fundamental importance of the membership.” This seems eminently reasonable–except it neglects the management rights clause, implicit or explicit, in collective agreements. What if an issue arises “of fundamental importance” to “the membership” during the term of a collective agreement that is not grievable?

Professor Noonan, further, argues the following (page 12):

Why, then, has bargaining often stretched into the fall? The answer is that both sides have too often brought so many items to the table that it took that long to work through them all in a responsible manner.

Perhaps university professors, who have greater control over what they do, how they do their work, and when they do their work than most other employees, need not bring “so many items to the table,” but the implicit or explicit management rights clause for most employees involves the general power of employers and their representatives, managers, to determine what to do, how to do it and when to do it. It is quite understandable why there are many items on the negotiating table from employees’ point of view–the collective agreement is a limiting document, restricting the power of management to exercise its right as management.

In fact, when I was a member of a negotiating team for Operating Engineers Local 858, Prince George, British Columbia, Canada, I consciously tried to show the workers how many items on the table we had to remove in order to obtain what we obtained by presenting all items desired on the left-hand side of the bargaining bulletin and either an x or check mark on the right-hand side. The union business manager had to present this format to a ratification meeting for those in Prince George (because she had asked me to draft it), but since the bargaining unit extended beyond Prince George, ratification also assumed the form of mail-in ballots. The union business manager changed the format to show only what we won before sending out an information bulletin.

Professor Noonan says, further (page 12):

Nevertheless, despite the nightmares of right-wing pundits, university faculties are not full of rabid leftists chomping at the bit to prosecute the class struggle (there are a few of us still left, but I can assure everyone we are in a small minority). Most faculty members care most about their research and their teaching, they do not want either interrupted by either lockouts or strikes, and most are loath to engage in struggles that might harm the reputation of the institutions in which their own reputations as academics are forged. You really have to push academics hard to anger them enough as a collective to make them want to strike (or a strongly resist an imposed lockout).

Although some or even many or even most university professors may find doing research and teaching meaningful in itself, as you go down the line of jobs, with less and less control and more precarious work, the extent of a job being meaningful probably decreases correspondingly. Even jobs in schools, with some control over pedagogy can be less important than other aspects of the job (such as pay and vacation). Although workers try to find meaning in their work in various ways (in the brewery, for example, some workers would play “ball” with beer bottles when the foremen were not looking), many workers have families and find the work more a means to an end rather than an end in itself. (This is the “decent work” that social democrats and reformers persistently talk about–without discussion–such clichés).

In the context in which Professor Noonan is speaking–a union of university professors–it may make sense to speak of striking as a last ditch effort by them to avoid a strike if at all possible–it makes less sense as the work becomes less and less meaningful. Workers in various sectors (whether public or private) may not like to strike–it interrupts their own lives and makes life difficult in various ways–but even when a collective agreement is signed, they are more prone to strike and engage in covert (and, if necessary, overt) actions that express their treatment as things to be used by employers.

Professor Noonan’s neglect of the relatively privileged status of university professors in relation to other workers leads him to assert the following:

Whether or not it was ever practiced in reality, the principle of collegial self-governance is the goal to which universities should aspire. Unlike for profit businesses, universities do not have owners whose goal is to maximise profits. Instead, all members of the institution– faculty, librarians, learning specialists, lab technicians, students, support workers, and administration have the same goal—the advance of human knowledge and creativity in the widest and most comprehensive sense. If that claim is true, then it should follow that all the groups who together make up the university ought to cooperate (not without respectful disagreement) in the determination of the budgets, policies, rules, and goals that guide the institution’s mission. The best ideas emerge through deliberative and democratic argument—no one group knows best just because of the position they occupy in the hierarchy.

This view is ideology in the worst sense of the term. In a society dominated by employers–including public-sector employers like universities, it is highly unlikely that such workers as “lab technicians, students and support workers” have the same goal–“the advance of human knowledge and creativity in the widest and most comprehensive sense.” Such a view may apply in a socialist organization, but to assume such a situation in universities, which function in a capitalist context, is bound to lead to inadequate policies and theories.

Consider support workers. I worked twice at a university library, once doing my practicum to obtain a library and information technology diploma from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) at the University of Calgary main library, in the cataloguing department. At the University of Calgary, I noted that the work situation was characterized by a very hierarchical, top-down power structure. One worker commented that she would prefer a benevolent dictator to a mean one; of course, but why have a dictator at all? At least this worker recognized that there was a dictator–unlike Professor Noonan.

At the University of Manitoba Dafoe Library, the same hierarchy existed, but there was even more repression (including racist oppression). Was “the left” at the University even aware of this? Not that I could see. Has Professor Noonan even inquired about the working conditions of subordinates at the University of Windsor? Has he tried to criticize trade unionists who adopt an ideology of “decent work?”

It is much easier to criticize from afar than near at hand–much less dangerous. Talk of “democracy” that does not threaten one’s own work position is pure rhetoric.

As I wrote in my previous post:

Furthermore, a few privileged sets of workers (such as tenured university professors) may seem to have “decent jobs,” but even that situation has eroded over time. It should not be forgotten that such relatively privileged workers exist in a sea of workers, whether unionized or not, who are things to be used by employers systematically and legally. University professors cannot engage in research, teaching and administrative activities unless there are other workers who produce their food, clothing, cars and so forth.

This division of labour is implied in a poem by one of the most famous poets of Gutemala, Otto Rene Castillo (from Apolitical Intellectuals):

Apolitical Intellectuals

One day
the apolitical
intellectuals
of my country
will be interrogated
by the simplest
of our people.

They will be asked
what they did
when their nation died out
slowly,
like a sweet fire
small and alone.

No one will ask them
about their dress,
their long siestas
after lunch,
no one will want to know
about their sterile combats
with “the idea
of the nothing”
no one will care about
their higher financial learning.

They won’t be questioned
on Greek mythology,
or regarding their self-disgust
when someone within them
begins to die
the coward’s death.

They’ll be asked nothing
about their absurd
justifications,
born in the shadow
of the total lie.

On that day
the simple men will come.

Those who had no place
in the books and poems
of the apolitical intellectuals,
but daily delivered
their bread and milk,
their tortillas and eggs,
those who drove their cars,
who cared for their dogs and gardens
and worked for them,
and they’ll ask:

“What did you do when the poor
suffered, when tenderness
and life
burned out of them?”

Apolitical intellectuals
of my sweet country,
you will not be able to answer.

A vulture of silence
will eat your gut.

Your own misery
will pick at your soul.

And you will be mute in your shame.”

Collective agreements do not exist in a vacuum but form part of interrelated social relations; to exclude such relations when considering the nature and legitimacy of collective agreements is to empty collective agreements of the background conditions which give them meaning in the first place.

Worker Resistance Against Management, Part One

Some among the social-reformist left here in Toronto have accused me of being academic. They paint their activism as real as opposed to my own activities.

I thought it appropriate, then, to provide a story first about my own resistance as a worker. I will do so in order to be able to point to such resistance when I am accused of being an armchair activist (as I was by a community organization here in Toronto, JFAAP, or Jane and Finch Action Against Poverty when I criticized the limitations of their efforts).

I will probably eventually post a separate section on my resistance as a Marxist father.

I am copying (with a few modifications) something that I wrote when I was a member of the Toronto Labour Committee (TLC), headed by Sam Gindin (I withdrew from the Committee because it is an organization that fails to distance itself adequately from the union movement and therefore lacks critical capacity for questioning the class nature of the society in which we live). It was used as part of a course that Herman Rosenfeld (member of the TLC and a former educator for CAW for around a decade and a half) and Jordan House (member of the TLC and also a member of the International Workers’ of the World (IWW)) and I developed and gave for airport workers at Pearson Airport in Toronto.

In the brewery where I worked (at first it was Carling O’Keefe Brewery and then Molson’s Brewery, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada), the pasteurizer (the machine that pasteurized the beer) made the bottling shop very, very hot in the summer and even early fall. The workers had traditionally worn either their own clothes or company-provided coveralls.

Occasionally, there were tours of the bottling shop since there was a catwalk where visitors could see the workers below. One day, the foremen started handing out T-shirts and pants. Workers were given the choice to wear either their own clothes, the T-shirt or the coveralls. On the T-shirt was inscribed “Let’s Just Say OV” (OV stood for Old Vienna beer, one of the kinds of beer producer there).

A few nights later, the two night shift foremen started handing out coveralls to those who were wearing their own clothes, saying that they had to either wear coveralls or the T-shirt and pants from that point on. A few accepted this, but I, who was working in my own clothing, refused to so. The foremen waited until 6:00 a.m.., when the bottling manager started working. At that time (an hour before the end of the shift), I was told to leave the premises–I was being sent home and disciplined for insubordination.

After consulting with the local union president, Bill Flookes, I showed  up for my regular shift that night, wearing my own clothes. An hour into the shift, I was called in the office again. A foreman and the Union steward were waiting when I got there. In the discussion, I was that wearing the coveralls were too hot to work in. I willingly agreed to wear the company-supplied pants, but not the shirt that advertised the product. When asked why, I responded that I had nothing but contempt for capitalists and their representatives. The foreman sent me home once  again.

After I was sent home, unknown to me at the time, another worker was ordered to replace me. That worker also had his own clothes on and refused to change into the  T-shirt and pants or the coveralls after being ordered to do so. He too, was sent home. This occurred with another worker. The same thing happened; he too was sent home. A third worker was also sent home. Eventually, the foremen did not bother to send anyone further home; otherwise, they might not have had enough workers to operate the machines.

The issue was dropped, and the workers could wear their own clothes if they chose–or coveralls. The company withdrew the demand around the T-shirt and pants. A few workers resented what I had started, since they no longer received free T-shirts or pants, but in general there was support for the refusal: As one worker remarked, “The issue was a question of principle.”

There were three questions attached to this scenario (among other scenarios) for the course:

  1. What were some of the plans and decisions that made this action successful?
  2. What were some of the limits of this action–and things that might hold the union local back from moving forward after this action? How might these limits be addressed?
  3. What lessons can be learned from this experience for your own workplace, union and efforts to build the power of workers there?

When this scenario was presented to mainly union representatives at the course for airport workers, interestingly enough, most of the representatives, in their conversations, found that I should have filed a grievance and followed orders.

This experience taught me both the personal difficulty of resistance–my heart was pounding–and the importance of solidarity. It also taught me the limitations of solidarity and militancy at the micro level; despite the support from others workers, none of the workers questioned the legitimacy of the power of the employer to direct our working lives. The workers were in general militant (we organized the sabotaging of machines when a particular foreman tried to intensify our work, for example), but their attitude was general acceptance of the employer-employee relation.

For the course, we did not include the discussion that transpired between the bottling manager and the local union president, Bill Flookes, the morning of the second day that I was sent home. The bottling manager asked Bill if he knew what “that Marxist son-of-a-bitch had said?” Perhaps it should have been included in the course. Any opinions?