The Strawman of a Minimal Universal Basic Income by the Social-democratic Left in Toronto

Simran Dhunna and David Bush have written an article that criticizes moves towards a universal basic income (see https://springmag.ca/against-the-market-we-can-do-better-than-basic-income) .

In two previous posts, I questioned Dhunna’s and Bush’s proposed solution to the problems which members of the working class face, namely an enhanced welfare capitalism (see The Expansion of Public Services Versus a Basic Income, Part Two: How the Social-democratic Left Ignore the Oppressive Nature of Public Services: Part One: Oppressive Educational Services and The Expansion of Public Services Versus a Basic Income, Part Two: How the Social-democratic Left Ignore the Oppressive Nature of Public Services: Part Two: Oppressive Welfare Services). Now I will look at their criticisms of the idea of a universal basic income (UBI).

I will endeavour to show that the authors of the article mainly create a straw concept of universal basic income (in order to criticize it all the more easily).

A Straw Minimal Universal Basic Income

Dhunna and Bush assume that, firstly, there would be a minimal UBI and, secondly, that it would somehow be realized immediately and without a struggle–since some members of the class of employers and their representatives advocate a minimal basic income.

They write the following:

Some on the left look to basic income to complement workers struggles, but the ruling class looks to basic income to blunt class struggle. When the fight to raise the minimum wage was at its height in Ontario, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce countered calls to to raise the minimum wage by stating, “we support the Government’s piloting of a Basic Income, which we see as a more efficient and realistic means of ensuring Ontarians are given greater security.” The business community was in favour of basic income because it acted as a political shield against reforming labour laws, and because a basic income also acts as a wage subsidy for businesses. Employers would be relieved from the pressure of increasing wages from their own coffers and put the onus on the state to top up incomes through general revenues. The burden of payment would shift from the employing class to the rest of us.

Of course, the class of employers would try to minimize basic income–just as it tends nowadays to try to minimize expenditure on public services for the working class (and increase expenditures, if necessary, on services that serve to oppress the working class–such as the police). The authors assume magically that employers will in fact get their way–without a struggle. If, however, an organized movement for the realization of a robust basic income (not the minimal basic income that Dhunna and Bush assume) were to develop, aiming for all to obtain a relatively high standard of living without having to work for a particular employer, then there is little reason to believe that the basic income would be merely a “burden of payment from the employing class to the rest of us.” To pay for such a robust universal basic income would require making inroads on both the power of employers (since it would attack the economic dependence of workers on particular employers) and on their income (since funding would involve substantially increased taxes on corporations).

There is no warrant for their assumption that there could only be the realization of a minimalist universal basic income–as I indicated in my last post on this subject.

References to “class struggle” in their article sound radical, but they really do not aim to question those premises.

The Alaska Model of Basic Income

It is interesting that these Dhunna and Bush refer to experiments in UBI that hardly are robust as so-called evidence that UBI would not work:

Many of the basic income experiments piloted by local governments ended rather abruptly, either running out of money, or ending after a newly elected government without the political commitment to the project axed the program. These are not just unfortunate bumps in the road, but speak to the real political and economic inviability of basic income. As the report summarized, “there is no robust evidence relating to UBI defined as unconditional, regular cash payments to individuals regardless of income or status. The schemes have seldom lasted long enough to test viability over more than a few years.” Thus, there is “no evidence that any version of UBI can be affordable, inclusive, sufficient and sustainable at the same time.”

The longest and largest sustained experiment in basic income is Alaska’s Permanent Fund dividend. Starting in the 1970s, the Alaskan government created a special state-run fund from a portion of oil revenues. Since 1982, the fund pays out a dividend to every permanent resident of Alaska (this annual amount has ranged from $1000 to 2000 per year in recent years). The newly elected governor of Alaska campaigned to increase the dividend, but this came at a cost. To pay for the increase, Governor Mike Dunleavy has pushed a series of cuts to the public university system, ferry service, and other public services. The economic crash in 2020 reduced the dividend payment to $992, and there is now a real question about whether the fund will be able to issue any dividends at all in the coming years

Here is what it says from one of the articles to which they refer above:

This year’s oil royalty check [for residents of Alaska] will be $992, one third of what is should have been under the statutory calculation, but all that the Alaska Legislature’s majority members could give, since they needed the rest of the Permanent Fund dividend dollars to pay for government programs.

If $992 is one third of what recipients normally received, then $2976 per year is what they normally received. If you divide that by 12 months, then you obtain $248 per month–hardly a robust level of basic income! Indeed, the yearly basic income in Alaska was usually less than this.

From Karl Widerquist (2012), “Exporting the Alaska Model to Alaska: How Big Could the Permanent Fund Be if the State Really Tried? And Can a Larger Fund Insulate an Oil Exporter from the End of the Boom?” in Exporting the Alaska Model Adapting the Permanent Fund Dividend for Reform around the World, page 173:

The most recent dividend was $1,174 in October 2011, and dividends have tended to be between $1000 and $2000 per person per year for the past 15 years.

Dividing $1000 and $2000 by 12 gives the low and high range of $83,33 per month to $166,66 per month. Using this model to refute the basic income model is grasping at straws.  Referring to such a basic income as if it were evidence of the infeasability of such a policy is illogical. It is an extremely weak counterexample, and yet they decided to include it in their “critique” of UBI. 

David Macdonald’s Study on Basic Income

The writers refer to David Macdonald’s estimate of a $29 billion federal fund required for one kind of scenario for a basic income. They write:

Some of the appeal of UBI comes from the wishful idea that it can solve all of our problems at once, lifting people out of poverty and making education and public services accessible. But the basic costs show that UBI is, by any measure, a terrible use of resources to address inequality and poverty. As the CCPA’s David MacDonald noted in his study, the $29 billion spent on such a UBI scheme would achieve — at best — less than a 2 percent reduction in the poverty rate, which would “be quite wasteful” when considering the amount of money spent.

I assume that they are referring to the following scenario (from David Macdonald (2016), A Policymaker’s Guide to Basic Income, page 21):

In Scenario 4, the government issues a $1,000 universal cheque in addition to offering all existing income support programs. In essence, this would be the 34th Canadian basic income program, and by providing support over and above what already exists, it would lower poverty rates across all age groups (see Table 6). An annual $1,000 cheque or bank transfer to all Canadians could either be taxed back at year’s end, or clawed back from existing programs.

Under this scenario, the overall poverty rate would fall two percentage points — taking 713,000 people out of poverty. The biggest impact would affect child poverty, which would drop three percentage points, from 10.9% to 7.9%. Adult poverty would drop from 11.8% to 9.9%. Seniors would see the smallest, though by no means insignificant, benefit under this scenar-

A $1000 cheque a year is, again, hardly a robust universal basic income–even if it were a top up to present income-enhancing schemes. Why do Dhunna and Bush fail to mention, once again, the wider context that shows how minimal such a scenario would be? Perhaps they want to create a straw model of basic income so that they can then proceed with their idealized solution to the problems that face the Canadian working class and community members face by proposing an expanded public service? Is this ethical? Is it honest?

Stereotypical Presentation of Those Who Advocate a Robust Universal Basic Income

Dhunna and Bush say this

Some of the appeal of UBI comes from the wishful idea that it can solve all of our problems at once, lifting people out of poverty and making education and public services accessible.

They present no evidence to show that those who advocate a robust universal basic income somehow “can solve all of our problems at once.” 

Bryant Sculos (2018), in  “Socialism & Universal Basic Income,” Class, Race and Corporate Power, Volume 6, Issue 1, shows that their view finds an echo in other stereotypical criticisms of a robust UBI: 

Most of the critics of UBI treat its advocates as though they believe UBI would solve all or most socioeconomic problems, at least in the Global North. I have yet to come across any serious UBI advocate who takes such an expansive position.

Contradictory Conception of the Capitalist Government or Capitalist State: 

Dhunna and Bush argue, contradictorily, the following:  

Instead of ending poverty, UBI could in reality entrench low wages and precarious work, and reduce workers’ bargaining power. In part, this reflects an analysis that understands that the state’s role under capitalism is to create conditions of profitability for capitalists, such that workers are further pushed into the labour market [my emphasis].

They also have the following to say: 

Our energy and money is better spent waging struggle directly to strengthen labour laws [my emphasis].

Of course, labour laws should be strengthened–but how does this come about except through–the capitalist state. They can argue for state intervention in the form of strengthened labour laws, but those who advocate for a robust UBI provided by the capitalist state cannot. Why is it that they can rely on the capitalist state whereas those who advocate for a robust universal basic income cannot?

In addition, as I have shown in a number of posts, labour laws (for example, relating to collective bargaining and management rights) may restrict the power of the class of employers but they in no way question the legitimacy of that power (see, for example, Management Rights, Part Nine: Is A Collective Agreement that Involves Management Rights and the Exploitation and Oppression of Workers a Fair Contract?Do Collective Agreements Convert Working for an Employer into Decent Work?Comments from John Urkevich, AESES-UM Business Agent, to my Critique of the Grievance and Arbitration Procedure: Letter to the Editor, Inside The Association of Employees Supporting Educational Services (AESES), Vol. 17, No. 4, May 1994). 

Why is it that Dhunna and Bush are silent on the limitations of labour laws and reliance on the capitalist state? Perhaps because they are biased towards reformist unions? Perhaps because they idealize unions and labour laws? 

I will let the reader figure out why Dhunna and Bush express such contradictions. Or why they propose the following: 

At the cost of $29 billion annually, we could have free transit in major cities ($10 billion), clean drinking water for every First Nation ($4.5 billion), eliminate tuition fees at all universities ($11 billion), and end homelessness ($4.5 billion). If we are spending $177 billion dollars a year (the cost of a negative income tax model to raise people to $21,810), we could have all of the above plus a universal pharmacare program, universal childcare, universal dental care, and begin to implement a robust public housing policy.  

Would not such policies be implemented–by the capitalist state? They criticize advocates of UBI for pressuring the capitalist state to provide for a universal level of income above the poverty line, but they rely on the capitalist state to provide free state services. What is sauce for the goose is apparently not sauce for the gander.

Furthermore, if the proposal for a robust universal basic income is used as an organizing tool and linked to the aim of abolishing the class power of employers and all classes, the issue of going beyond the capitalist state and indeed beyond capitalism arises–but that question never arises for Dhunna and Bush.

In a follow-up post, I will look at the one example which they provide that involves a more robust or ambitious UBI–the one referred to by the International Labour Organization.

An Implicit Assumption of a Zero-Sum Approach to Struggling Against the Class of Employers

Dhunna and Bush in the last quote above imply that improvements in the level of UBI will likely lead to reductions in services in other areas–a kind of zero-sum situation. However, reduction in social services have occurred over the years without the existence of UBI; there is no necessary connection between the two.

As I wrote in my first post on this topic, the struggle for a robust universal basic income and the expansion of public services need not be mutually exclusive. The working class should struggle for both–all the while aiming to abolish the class power of employers and not just reform it, as Dhunna and Bush aim to do (see A Basic Income Versus the Expansion of Public Services? Part One: Critique of the Social-democratic Idea that the Expansion of Public Services is Socialist).

Their implied zero-sum analysis in the following quote thus is also illogical:

The business community was in favour of basic income because it acted as a political shield against reforming labour laws, and because a basic income also acts as a wage subsidy for businesses. Employers would be relieved from the pressure of increasing wages from their own coffers and put the onus on the state to top up incomes through general revenues.

To claim that the “business community was in favour of basic income” is, again, true only on a minimalist assumption of a basic income–the “business community was in favour of [a minimalist version of” basic income–not a more robust version. The assumption for most of their article operates on this assumption so that they can easily refute such a model and provide their idealized version of the expansion of public services–their humanized version of capitalism, or humanized welfare capitalism (see my critique of that version in A Basic Income Versus the Expansion of Public Services? Part One: Critique of the Social-democratic Idea that the Expansion of Public Services is Socialist).

Conclusion

Dhunna and Bush assume a minimal universal basic income in order to provide superficial evidence against it. They stereotype the position of radical advocates of a universal basic income and have a contradictory conception of the nature of the capitalist government or state; they idealize labour laws and, implicitly, union as well as the provision of public services. In addition to these problems, they assume that there is necessarily a zero-sum situation facing the working class: either a (minimal) universal basic income or an expansion of public services. They exclude from consideration a simultaneous struggle for a robust universal basic income and an expansion of public services. Finally, they exclude any consideration of aiming to abolish the class power of employers and thereby the elimination of class exploitation and class oppression–once and for all. 

In a future post, I will look at their references to studies by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and Public Service International (both international social-democratic labour organizations).

Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Seven: Critique of the School Curriculum

This is a continuation of earlier posts.

When I was a French teacher at Ashern Central School, in Ashern, Manitoba, Canada, I started to place critiques, mainly (although not entirely) of the current school system. At first, I merely printed off the articles, but then I started to provide a summary of the article along with the article. I placed the summaries along with the articles in a binder (and, eventually, binders), and I placed the binder in the staff lounge.

As chair of the Equity and Justice Committee for Lakeshore Teachers’ Association of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS), I also sent the articles and summary to the Ning of the MTS (a ning is “an online platform for people and organizations to create custom social networks”).

As I pointed out in a previous post, it is necessary for the radical left to use every opportunity to question the legitimacy of existing institutions.

The context of summaries related to the brain was that the principal of Ashern Central School, where I worked, started talking about “brain research’ and how teachers needed to implement such research in their daily teaching practice. He even placed an article on brain research in our school mailboxes. As a consequence, I researched the issue and provided critical summaries that critiqued his reductionist view of human intelligence as “brain work.”

Good morning, everyone,

I sent the attached article to the ESJ Ning yesterday. I prefaced it with the following:

After attending the ESJ workshop, it is evident that many consider the school system is equivalent to education and that education is equivalent to schooling. John Dewey, throughout his long life, criticized such a view since most schools become formal organizations isolated from life and organized in such a way as to prevent children from becoming educated.

The author of the following article, “John Dewey’s The Child and the Curriculum,” (D.C. Phillips) provides a summary of Dewey’s 1902 work The Child and Curriculum. Dewey opposed throughout his long career many dualisms, such as mind/body, thought/action, the individual and the social—and the child and the curriculum.

Typically, schooling has focused on the curriculum at the expense of children (subject matter organized logically in the form of the disciplines and attendant skills of reading, writing and arithmetic) but has, at times, focused on children at the expense of the curriculum.

Dewey argued that children’s experience is merely the beginning of education and the curriculum is the end of the education. The child experiences the world in a certain way and the logical curriculum in the form of the disciplines is the culmination of that experience when it is organized to maximize control of that experience. Formal education is to be designed in such a way that childhood experiences become increasingly differentiated until they assume the form of the disciplines. Formal education must provide a mediating process by which childhood experience can be both differentiated into the disciplines and integrated, with each logical form (the disciplines) reinforcing the other logical forms so that the child can engage in the world in as artistic manner as possible (since art integrates the diverse into a coherent whole, with each aspect modified by the other distinct aspect but at the same time supported by the other aspects).

The curriculum developed in the twentieth century and still prevailing in the twenty-first century in most schools has not solved the problem pointed out by Dewey. Given this curriculum, the child’s interests and the objective nature of the content of the disciplines often clash. It has, alternately, emphasized the child (whole language, to a certain extent) and the content of the curriculum. Nowadays, of course, the content of the curriculum is emphasized at the expense of the child. Dualism prevails in schools.

Rather than seeing the curriculum as defined by the disciplines as the end point that requires a mediating structure that transforms childhood interests into more logical forms (forms designed to increase our control over our lives), and the end point thus serving as a basis for interpreting and guiding childhood behaviour, the modern curriculum defines childhood experience as merely a simplified form of the logical form of the disciplines. Such a view has no theoretical basis.

One aspect that was not mentioned in the article was the eventual departmental structure of the Dewey School (the University Laboratory School), with teachers being specialists so that they could interpret adequately the potentialities of childhood behaviour. Initially, a generalist teacher was hired, but it was found impossible for a generalist to provide the precision necessary for learning to occur.
Integration of the specialized departments and teaching occurred, in terms of the curriculum, through the mediating structure of the use of social occupations linked to the basic needs stemming from the human life process: food, clothing and shelter. These needs and the activities required to satisfy them have been subject to evolution as social life has become more complicated. The disciplines emerged from the pursuit of such basic needs (chemistry in the case of cooking and wool dyeing) and mechanics (and physics) in the case of the shelter. Pedagogically, integration occurred through weekly meetings of teachers. Experientially, the children did not experience “studies,” but rather the studies were functions of the life process—means to the end of that process and not ends in themselves. Socially, the school was a community.

Childhood experience requires many transformations before it can be organized into a logical form. Furthermore, for most people, learning is a means towards the end of life and not an end in itself; human beings are not academics (how many reading this dedicate themselves to inquiry for inquiry’s sake?). Although children and adolescents should learn to appreciate the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself (making inquiry into inquiry an end in itself so that the consequences of inquiry must conform to the conditions for further inquiry), most will not engage in the active pursuit of inquiry for inquiry’s sake in their own vocation; being an academic or scientist is not the calling of most people. To assume otherwise is both unrealistic and authoritarian.

The analogy of the relationship between a journey and a map illustrates Dewey’s concerns. A journey forms the presupposition for the creation of a map; it constitutes the psychological aspect of map making. The actual temporal process of the journey may lead to unexpected and unwanted experiences.

But a map, once it is created, enriches the journey by providing a summary and a form which can guide future activities and make the journey more efficient; it constitutes the sociological aspect of map making. The map is intermediary between the original experience and the enriched experience.

The making of the map must, at some point, become the end in order for an enriched experience is to emerge. However, a map is still intermediary between the original journey and the enriched journey. It is not an end in itself except temporarily; when viewed from the totality of experience, it is intermediary. Learning is, likewise, intermediary and not an end in itself when the totality of experience is considered.

The child and the curriculum are thus not opposed. The curriculum must be organized to enable the child to organize her/his own experience into an increasingly organized, controlled and meaningful manner.

The author also points out a weakness in Dewey’s theory: some dualisms cannot be resolved but rather one side must win out against the other side. Dewey recognized this situation in the case of the natural sciences but in the case of the social sciences he often failed to recognize the irreconcilable nature of social conflicts between classes, for instance, where one class controls, oppresses and exploits another class. The Deweyan curriculum must, therefore, be modified to incorporate the dualism of social relations.

How can equity and social justice be achieved when the dualism characteristic of the modern curriculum prevails (with the content of the curriculum being opposed to children’s own experiences)? Can living beings be treated as central when the environment constitutes necessarily part of the life process? Can the environment be considered central when an environment is an environment only in relation to living beings? Can equity and social justice be achieved when the life process is simply set aside or considered from only one side of the relation?

How can equity and social justice be achieved when human beings lack so much control over their own environments in school and at work? Is not real education to increase control over the environment? How are teachers real teachers if what they do leads to a lack of control by students over their own environments? Given the modern economic structure, how can students gain control over their own environments?

When teachers begin to face these issues (rather than avoiding them through silence), then perhaps inquiry can begin and education can be released from its shackles. Until that time, students will be shackled to the chains of the modern curriculum—despite the pedagogical efforts of teachers and the illusions that such pedagogical efforts engender by being restricted to that level.

Fred

Socialism and Central Planning: Mr. Gindin’s Analysis of The Political Situation of Workers in General, Part Two

The following is the second of a two-part series on Bill Resnick’s interview with Sam Gindin, in accordance with the two-part presentation of the interview. I put my summary of Mr. Gindin’s talk in italics; my comments are in regular print. I also use italics when quoting others.

According to Bill Resnick, part two is an exploration of the potentialities for stimulating the working class from its lethargic state of passivity, cynicism and individual self-defense in order to inspire people to recognize their powers and capacities and thereby a socialist society.

Mr. Resnick then claims that climate change will oblige us to think how the economy is working.

Moving on to Mr. Gindin’s views, Mr. Gindin claims that it will be the environment that will be the key issue in relation to inequality. The rich are satisfied with the status quo of environmental conditions since they do not have to suffer the consequences from its deterioration.

Mr. Gindin then refers to the situation in Oshawa. He points out that, despite workers losing their jobs anyway, any suggestion of a serious alternative still meets with resistance since they have experienced thirty or forty years of lowering their expectations of what is possible. Their response to a left alternative is that it is a great idea, but it will never happen because they do not see their unions fighting for it nor do they see that larger social force fighting for it.

We should pause here. When have most unions, even during the 1950s, 1960s and the 1970s, generally fought for a larger vision of socialism? Most unions accepted the justice of collective bargaining and of collective agreements. Mr. Gindin implies that before the onset of neoliberalism 30 or 40 years ago, unions did have a larger social vision. That is a myth.

Indeed, red-baiting and the expulsion of communists from the Canadian labour movement forms part of the history of unions in Canada–a fact which Mr. Gindin conveniently ignores (see Irving Abella, The Canadian Labour Movement, 1902-1960). Social democracy won out within unions over any radical vision of society.

Why does Mr. Gindin ignore such facts? It is likely that Mr. Gindin indulges his supporters rather than taking the necessary step to criticize them. He probably panders after union support rather than criticizing the limitations of unions–including the limitations of collective bargaining and collective agreements.

He fails to criticize the responsibility of unions for, historically, partially contributing to the suppression of an alternative vision.

By the way, Mr. Gindin’s reference to the environment as being the key to inequality lacks any historical and factual basis. Where is there evidence that it is the environment that forms the center around which people are willing to fight against those in power and attempt to defeat them? It is the daily grind of working and living in a society dominated by a class of employers that will form the key issue–a social relation, and not the “environment” in the abstract sense of “nature” or environmental conditions in a general sense.  Mr. Gindin, as I indicated in my earlier post, wants to jump on the bandwagon of environmentalism in general and the climate crisis in particular in order to prop up his appeal. I doubt that he will be successful.

Mr. Gindin then argues that we need to develop structures through which people can fight so that they can gain a clear vision of the forces that support them and the forces that oppose them as well as understanding the importance of collective action for realizing workers’ aims. That is why political parties are important because they form a space for strategizing about what needs to be done. We must take organizing seriously.

Mr. Gindin then reiterates how impressed he is about what the environmental movement has done. However, he points out the limitations of that movement, that criticizes corporate power or the 1% but does not seriously propose taking power away from them. It is insufficient to merely lobby against them. If we are going to have [democratic] planning, we cannot have corporations making the investment decisions.

Mr. Gindin is certainly correct to point out the limitations of the environmental movement–but he should be consistent and point out the limitations of unions as unions in relation to collective bargaining and collective agreements. He does not. He avoids alienating his social-democratic supporters. Is that what is needed at present?

Furthermore, he refers to the importance of organization–but is organization by itself going to lead to the questioning of corporate power? Ms. McAlevey does not question such power. Social democrats do not question such power. Both engage in organizing of one sort or another. It is not, then, organizing in general that is the issue but what kind of organizing–on what basis? Organizing from the start needs to question corporate power–and that includes questioning the legitimacy of their power to manage workers as such. We may need to make compromises along the way, as embodied in a collective agreement, but let us not bullshit the workers by calling such agreements or contracts “fair,” “just” and other such euphemisms.

To be consistent, Mr. Gindin should question the limitations of unions and union organizers in relation to collective bargaining and collective agreements. Why does he not do so?

Mr. Gindin claims that struggles are fundamental and that they develop the capacity to recognize the limits of being militant. They develop democratic capacities that prevent them from accepting authority.

Workers certainly do learn the limitations of being militant (they get fired, for example), but such a lesson hardly need translate into learning the limitations of unions, collective bargaining and collective agreements.  Workers may blame unions for the limitations of militancy–unless the limitations of unions, collective bargaining and collective agreements are pointed out, on the one hand, and an alternative vision of what may be is outlined, on the other.

Although struggles are certainly necessary, are they sufficient to enable workers to come to the conclusion that the authority of the class of employers should be questioned? What is more likely is that such struggles will lead to criticisms of particular aspects of such power but not that power as such. Mr. Gindin vastly underestimates the ideological hold this kind of society has on workers and how it is vital to engage in constant ideological struggle if we are to develop democratically to the point where we can consciously and organizationally take corporate power away.

We need to take state power, but not just that. We need to take state power and transform that power so that we can develop our democratic capacity so that there is, on the one hand, a check on what the state does and, on the other, that people are actually participating in state power. This requires developing the technical capacity of ordinary workers to make appropriate decisions that affect their lives and not just having scientists come into government to make decisions for us.

We certainly do need to take state power–and transform it. However, if we are to do this consciously from the start, then we need to question the present state structures in their various dimensions. For example, we need to question the current educational structures, with their emphasis on assigning marks or grades to students, their separation of curriculum into academic (intellectual) and non-academic (vocational, which allegedly has more to do with the body), and so forth. When I belonged to the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly GTWA (which morphed into the Toronto Labour Committee), of which Mr. Gindin was practically the head, Mr. Jackson Potter was invited to discuss how the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) organized and led a successful strike. I eventually wrote up a critique of one of the CTU’s documents (see my article “A Deweyan Review of the Chicago Teachers‘ Union Publication The Schools Chicago Students Deserve: Research-Based Proposals to Strengthen Elementary and Secondary Education in the Chicago Public Schools” in the Publications and Writings section of this blog). The response of the GTWA to my critique was–silence.

Education, of course, is just one area that needs to be restructured through the abolition of its repressive features. The courts, police and the legal system need to be radically transformed as well (as I argued in another post and about which Mr Gindin was silent (see   Socialism, Police and the Government or State, Part Two). Health is of course another area which needs to be radically restructured and its repressive features abolished (see various posts on the health and safety of workers on this blog).

Mr. Resnick then mentions Lucas Aerospace, which closed; in response,  and workers came up with a plan to change things by focusing on products needed by the community. Workers built a powerful movement both inside and outside the union.

Mr. Gindin points out that Lucas ended in defeat. Nevertheless, what is inspiring in the case of Lucas and in Oshawa is the focus on producing not for profit but for social need, which stimulates the imagination and leads to diverse creative ideas. The problem is that you need the power to implement them.

You do indeed need the power to implement them. The illusion that workers have much power through collective bargaining and collective agreements needs to be constantly criticized so that they can begin to organize to challenge the power of employers as a class and not just particular employers. In other words, it requires ideological struggle and not just “organizational” struggle. How workers are to build power when they have faith in the collective-bargaining system and collective agreements is not something Mr. Gindin addresses. Why is that? Why does he ignore such a central issue when it comes to talking about unionized workplaces?

Mr. Gindin then points out that people do rebel, but the problem is how to sustain that rebellion.

That is indeed a problem, but failing to criticize one of the keystones of modern unions–collective bargaining and collective agreements–surely impedes a sustained effort at rebellion. Faith in the collective-bargaining process is bound to lead to cynicism since the cards are stacked against workers from the beginning because of the implicit or explicit management rights clause that exists in the collective agreement–and yet workers are fed the ideology that collective agreements are “fair,” “just” and so forth.

Mr. Gindin next claims that people can see that capitalism is not the ultimate end of history since it does not address their needs nor the needs of the environment.

This gives way too much trust in people’s rhetorical criticism of capitalism but their real acceptance of it–as he himself earlier implied. People lack a vision of a better world and accept, reluctantly at times, the so-called inevitability of capitalism in practice. Social democrats may refer to capitalism this and capitalism that, but they do not really seek to overthrow the power of employers.

Mr. Resnick then refers to racial, gender and sexual orientation as divisions that will be overcome in the social movement. Mr. Gindin does not specifically address these issues but claims that when people work together, they begin to form common dreams as they realize they have common problems.

Is there evidence that workers in the closed GM plant at Oshawa now are opposed to the power of employers as a class? After all, surely some of the workers for GM at Oshawa have come together and discussed some of their common problems. Yet earlier Mr. Gindin pointed out that there is much cynicism among such workers. It is not only insufficient for workers to get together and to discuss common problems–since there is such a thing as their immediate common problem–which centers around a particular employer, and the common problem of having to work for an employer as such (any employer)–a problem that is rarely if ever discussed.

Furthermore, Mr. Gindin’s view is not only naive, but there is evidence that contradicts it. As a member of the Toronto Labour Committee, and in good faith, I tried to bring up the issue, in the context of striking brewery workers, of whether their work constituted “decent work” and whether the wages that they sought should be called “fair wages.” I was met with insults by one trade unionist. Mr. Gindin, in addition, claimed that the reference to “decent work” was a purely defensive move. That is nonsense; it is ideology, and should have been criticized. People did not work together over the issue of the legitimacy of collective bargaining and collective agreements; the issue was simply buried through insults and the rhetoric of “defense.”

There is a continuation of the theme that organization is the key–it is insufficient to become aware or that capitalism is bad.

Mr. Gindin fails to see the need to combine a specific kind of organization with ideological struggle. To be sure, without organization workers cannot gain power, but workers will unlikely gain power without engaging in organization and ideological struggle simultaneously. Mr. Gindin minimizes the importance of ideological struggle and exaggerates the importance of mere changes in organizational struggles (such as Ms. McAlevey’s innovations in organizing). Both are required simultaneously, and that means engaging in an ideological battle with the traditional left. Mr. Gindin, however, indulges the social-democratic left and panders to them by avoiding an ideological struggle. Any organization that emerges as a consequence will unlikely be more than an organization that accepts the power of employers as a class.

For Mr. Gindin, what has been defeated is the socialist idea.

That idea was long ago defeated–few workers in Canada adhered to it even in the 1960s and 1970s. Furthermore, Mr. Gindin now implies that ideological struggle is indeed vital–but he implied just above that it was not that important–that organization was vital. Or is he now arguing that both organizational and ideological struggle are vital? If so, why does he not explicitly engage in ideological struggle with his social-democratic supporters?

The following does indeed imply that it is vital to unify organizational and ideological struggle:

We have to organize to end capitalism.

Good. To do so, however, requires meeting objective conditions–and one of those conditions is criticizing those within the labour movement who idealize organizing efforts that merely lead to collective bargaining and collective agreements (such as Tracy McMaster, union steward, organizer, former vice president, Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), “our Tracy,” as Mr. Gindin once called her). Mr. Gindin, by not criticizing Ms. McMaster’s reference to “decent work” and “fair wages” fails to meet such objective conditions for the ending of capitalism.

However, Mr. Gindin then makes the following claim:

People see through the system.

Do they really? I doubt it. This view vastly underestimates the ideological hold that the power of employers in its various facets has on workers and the repressive character of various institutions–from work institutions to state institutions People do not see through the system. If they did, they would not pair the struggle for a minimum wage of $15 (and needed reforms in employment law) with the concept of “fairness” so nonchalantly. They would not call collective agreements fair, nor would they imply that there is a relatively equal power between organized (unionized) workers and employers.

Mr. Gindin once again minimizes the ideological struggle.

The issue of a worsening environment through global warming then comes up. Mr. Gindin argues once again that access to the environment will be one of the great inequalities of our times–access to the environment.

As I argued in the previous post, Mr. Gindin’s concept of the environment is faulty. The environment of human beings has included the use of land and tools for millenia. That access has been denied with the emergence of classes and some form of private property (and communal property can be private property relative to another communal property). Access to the environment has always been a class issue–even before capitalism.

An environmental crisis may lead to authoritarian structures arising rather than democratic ones. One of the problems is that people do not see structures through which they can work, commit and have confidence that such issues will be addressed–and this includes unions and political parties. People know that something is wrong, but they lack the confidence of getting at it. That is why fighting through unions is so important; you learn on a daily basis that collectively you can effect things: you can affect your workplace, you can affect your foremen, you can have different kinds of relationships to your workmates.

It keeps coming down to whether people do not know enough or whether people do not see the structures through which they can fight through and win. Mr. Gindin believes it is the lack of structures which forms the problem, not whether people do not know enough,

Mr. Gindin’s criticisms of unions is welcome–but too general and vague to be much help. He should elaborate on why unions are not the structures through which people can “work, commit and have confidence” that their problems will be addressed adequately. Why such a vague characterization of the inadequacy of unions and union structures? What is it about union structures that prevents workers from having the confidence and the commitment to work though them to achieve their goals?

Again, Mr. Gindin underestimates the importance of ideological struggle within the labour movement in general and the union movement in particular.

The labour movement, despite having been kicked around for the last 30 or 40 years, has not concluded that we need to unite in class terms. Certainly, engaging in resistance is vital, but what have we learned from such resistance? To push harder for our own particular agenda, or have we learned that we need a class perspective to address our problems? That we need to recognize that gender, race and wage inequalities must be overcome so that we can function as a class? That does not happen automatically and has not happened automatically. That class perspective has to be built. Otherwise, workers are only individual, fragmented workers with particular identities separate from each other. We need to make ourselves a collective force–a class; it does not happen spontaneously. The potential for workers to make themselves a class has increased, but the potential will not be actualized automatically.

There are various openings or potentialities for politicization, but we should not exaggerate this by arguing that we are well on the way to winning. People are willing to fight, but then the question is: How do we actually organize ourselves to win. We are not very far along in that road.

That road is socialism, which allows the best aspects of humanity to develop.

Certainly, divisions within the working class need to be recognized and overcome in order to form a class. A class perspective needs to be fought for in various fronts. Unfortunately, Mr. Gindin does not see that such a class perspective requires a confrontation with the ideology of the legitimacy of collective bargaining and collective agreements. There will be no spontaneous overcoming of the organizational limitations of unions (including the ones proposed by Ms. McAlevey in her various books) unless the legitimacy of collective bargaining and collective agreements is called into question. This does not mean that unions would not engage in collective bargaining or not have collective agreements voted on; rather, the limitations of collective bargaining and the corresponding limitations of collective agreements would be explicitly recognized via a class perspective, which permits recognition of the need for temporary truces because of a relative lack of power.

My prediction is that Mr. Gindin’s efforts in Oshawa will be in vain since he underestimates greatly the need for ideological struggle in general and the struggle in particular for union members to recognize the limitations of collective bargaining and collective agreements not just rhetorically or by way of lip service but rather practically by ceasing every opportunity to demonstrate their limitations and the need for an organization that addresses such limitations–a socialist organization.

Class Harmonies in Health Care? The Social-Democratic Way

Researchers in health care, like researchers in education, seem to assume that the current social structures are sacred. They simply research what is there, and assume that any problems must be resolved in terms established by that social structure. There are, of course, possible differences in the way problems are defined or solutions proposed, but there are limits to problem definition or proposed solutions can be forthcoming from the social-democratic point of view. That limit is the class of employers. Social democrats assume–probably without being aware of it–that all problem definitions and proposed solutions must fit into a social structure characterized by a class of employers.

Consider research on what has been called “patient-centred care” (PCC). This idea is similar to the idea of a “child-centred curriculum” that often circulates in school circles.

One researcher, Sara Kreindler  (“The Politics of Patient-Centred Care,”2013, in pages 1139-1150,  Health Expectations, volume 18) argues that there are at least three different groups that argue for PCC, with each one excluding the other two as legitimate representatives of the interests of patients: management, providers (doctors and nurses) and patient advocates outside the health-care system. Each group claims to represent the interests of patients, but they do so by excluding the other interest groups as legitimate representatives of the interests of patients.

Her solution to this problem is to claim that the aspire model (The Actualizing Social and Personal Identity Resources) provides a four-step model that permits the simultaneous recognition of each group’s identity while enabling a synthesis to emerge that incorporates the different views without trampling on each other’s social identity.  The groups are identified through a survey of staff, then each group discusses issues related to its own point of view without the influence of other groups. The third step involves the selection of representatives from each group to come together in order to come to a common vision of what PCC involves. The fourth step is to implement the common vision. Ms. Kreindler argues that it is the process that will lead to change; we should not second-guess the changes required to realize a PCC approach.

Ms. Kreindler, however, argues the following contentious view (page 1147):

While it may be counterproductive to define PCC in terms of taking power or focus away from certain groups, it remains very legitimate to talk about putting patients first.

In the first place, Ms. Kreindler assumes what she needs to prove: that a focus on patient care can exist independently of power relations. She does recognize such power relations when she makes the following assertion (page 1147):

Second, each subgroup discusses the issue separately, defining it in their own terms and using their own language (which may or may not include the term ‘patient-centred care’5). This is very important if staff groups are to have real ownership of the process and make a meaningful contribution; it is even more important for
patients, who have the least power and perceived expertise within the health-care system. Patient/family groups should have a neutral facilitator and not be led (or even frequented) by managers, to avoid the risk of co-optation either by ‘the system’ in general or by whatever subset of managers happens to run the involvement activity.

Ms. Kreindler never questions whether it is really possible to have equality between different “interest groups” in the context of the employer-employee relation and in the  context of the power of a class of employers. We see this problem when Trump argued that workers should go back to work on April 12–despite the biological possibility of many workers being exposed to the coronavirus as a consequence. Workers and many community members in a society dominated by a class of employers are, ultimately, things to be used, and this priority conflicts with any real concept of the patient coming first.

Ms. Kreindler’s belief that somehow managers, as representatives of employers, can somehow be treated at the same level of power as professional groups and patient advocates has little warrant. Since employers have control, in one way or another, over budgeting, finance, health facilities and wages, they ultimately call the shots concerning patient care. This situation does not mean that some of the power of managers cannot be limited. Such a limitation, however, is similar to the limitation of collective bargaining and collective agreements. Employers may be forced to grant some concessions, but this hardly means that they are not the primary power holders in the situation.

One of Ms. Kreindler’s implicit views is that the employers’ interests (represented by management) and the interests of employees can somehow be reconciled. An alternate view argues the contrary:

One highly useful example from the empirical literature that illustrates
the effects of process alienation is that of Whitehall I and Whitehall II studies
of Whitehall civil servants (Marmot et al., 1997, 1999). Forbes and
Wainwright (2001, p. 810) have commented, but do not develop further, that
the evidence and results from the studies appear ‘to be directly related to the
Marxian concepts of alienation and exploitation’. The research has identified
that among civil servants of differing ranks there are decidedly different
experiences of health that appear to relate to how much control a worker has
in their workplace. Looking more squarely at the studies a picture of how
process alienation is at play can be established. In both studies, there is a
clear social gradient in mortality (Marmot et al., 1984) and morbidity
(Marmot et al., 1991). In these studies we see how a worker’s health is
affected by the extent of their control (examples being, choosing what to do at
work, in planning, or in deciding work speed) within their working
environment (Bosma et al., 1997), and how on a variety of measures the health, whether physical (for men and women) or mental (mainly for men),
is influenced by the position or rank that they hold within the organization
(Martikainen et al., 1999). This chimes very much with the alienation that
arises out of the labour process where ‘[i]nstead of developing the potential
inherent in man’s powers, capitalist labour consumes these powers without
replenishing them, burns them up as if they were a fuel, and leaves the
individual worker that much poorer’ (Ollman, 1976, p. 137).

Ms. Kreindler assumes that in a relation characterized by economic dependence, hierarchical authority and detailed division of labour, the interests of management and health employees can somehow converge by putting the patient first. Her assumption reminds me of Professor Noonan’s assumption of class harmony at universities (see The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Five: Middle-Class Delusions). Both magically wand away the antagonistic interests of subordinates and superiors in public institutions.

In relation to the principle that patients come first, it is too much to believe that patients will ever really come first when human beings are evaluated on the same level as things: they are a cost, in money terms, and such costs, when set in the context of a society dominated by employers, must always be considered in relation to “alternative use of resources” for such things as buying medical equipment, medication, and so forth, internally, and in relation to the diverse expenditures in other government departments for the maintenance of a society dominated by a class of employers.

Related to this issue is the reason why a hierarchy of skilled and less skilled workers arises in the first place; such a hierarchy has advantages from the point of view of the class of employers. Charles Babbage (a pioneer in developing some principles of computer construction in the nineteenth century), published a book in 1832 titled On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, where he pointed out a major advantage for such a hierarchy. From Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, pages 79-80:

In “On the Division of Labour,” Chapter XIX of his On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, the first edition of which was published in 1832, Babbage noted that “the most important and influential cause [of savings from the division of labor] has been altogether unnoticed.” He recapitulates the classic arguments of William Petty, Adam Smith, and the other political economists, quotes from Smith the passage
reproduced above about the “three different circumstances” of the division of labor which add to the productivity of labor, and continues:

Now, although all these are important causes, and each has its influence on the result; yet it appears to me, that any explanation of the cheapness of manufactured articles, as consequent upon the division of labour, would be incomplete if the following principle were omitted to be stated.

That the master manufacturer, by dividing the work to be executed into
different processes, each requiring different degrees ef skill or ef farce, can purchase exactly that precise quantity ef both which is necessary for each
process; whereas, if the whole work were executed by one workman, that
person must possess sufficient skill to perform the most difficult, and
sufficient strength to execute the most laborious, ef the operations into which
the art is divided. 13

To put this all-important principle another way, in a society based upon the purchase and sale of labor power [the commodity the worker sells on the market, different from labour since workers, when they labour, have already sold their commodity], dividing the craft cheapens its individual parts.

Ms. Kreindler does not even consider the issue as relevant; indeed, I doubt that she is even aware of the issue. She blindly assumes the permanent status of a hierarchical division of labour.

Of course, there may be other conditions which involve a hierarchical division of labour than the allocation of diverse skills to different individuals for the purpose of cheapening the total wage bill, but this process undoubtedly forms part of the reason why there exists a hierarchical division of labour.

Some workers in that hierarchical division of labour may, on the other hand, be more autonomous than others. Doctors may, for example, be formally employees at hospitals, but their monopoly of certain skills may give them much more autonomy than other employees. Some or even many may form part of the middle class, but other employees in the hierarchy at work have less autonomy–such as nurses, nurses’ aids, food workers and custodians.

In this situation, the idea of patient-centered care will undoubtedly be focal point for diverging definitions of what constitutes such care. That in the struggle over such definitions patients may not be the real focus is possible. On the other hand, given the power advantage of management to regular employees, it is unlikely that their way of defining PCC will be on the same level as management’s definition. The same could be said of patient-advocate groups. Even if her intent is different, Ms. Kreindler’s assumption papers over differential power relations–to the advantage of management undoubtedly.

Another silence in focusing on PCC is the need to look at the relation between health care and prevention of sickness, injury and disease. In a socialist society, health care would still be important. From  Calum Paton (1997),  (pages 205-216), “Necessary Condtions For A Socialist Health Service,” in Health Care Anal., volume 5, page 209:

A socialist health service in a non-socialist society may be forced to stress care and rescue rather than prevention, health maintenance or the promotion of better health and more equal health status. Nevertheless this may be an important role. Even in a utopian society of perfect health promotion and prevention, people are more likely to die of more complex comorbidities at a later stage in the life cycle. The concept of substitute mortality and morbidity is useful here. 5 As a result simplistic trade-offs which suggest that ‘the more primary care there is, the less secondary care will be necessary’, are unlikely to be true either in the here and now or in the perfect society.

To be cared for with dignity, and to suffer with dignity and to die with dignity–these would all be important aspects of socialist health care.

Ms. Kreindler’s focus on PCC also excludes a major issue dealing with health: its prevention. By focusing exclusively on patients, she ignores entirely the need to consider the prevention of disease, injury and sickness in the first place (at least in the article above). What are the social conditions that increase the likelihood that a person would become a patient in the first place? Undoubtedly, as we become old, we will likely become patients at some stage in our lives–there is no getting around this fact. However, there are social determinants of health as well, and consequently becoming a patient is also often a function of social conditions.

In a socialist society, prevention would be a major focus of social policy and would deal with addressing the social determinants of health problems, ranging from health problems linked to the workplace to health problems linked to environmental conditions, including food processing.

Today, though, many social determinants are largely ignored in favour of focusing on caring for those already sick. Consider breast cancer. It arises in many instances from environmental conditions, and yet most money is allocated to caring for those already inflicted with the disease rather than with preventing it from arising in the first place. From Faye Linda Wachs (2007), (pages 929-931), “Review. Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy. By Samantha King,” in Gender & Society, volume 21, number 6 (December), pages 930-931:

Recent studies reveal that simply removing known carcinogens from products and our environment could prevent thousands of cases annually (Brody et al. 2007). However, funding for such research is limited, while the monies for identifying and curing existing cases is the focus of most efforts. Indeed, many of the companies that fund survivorship continue to use known car cinogens in their products. King points to the fact that despite increased awareness, rates of breast cancer have increased from 1 in 22 in the 1940s to 1 in 7 in 2004. Even if one considers women’s increasing longevity, this still indicates an increase in the prevalence of breast cancer. Moreover, structural factors that affect risk and survivorship, such as socioeconomic status, remain woefully understudied.

Personally, the issue of cancer research funding versus caring for cancer patients hits home. In March 2009, I was diagnosed with invasive bladder cancer, and in June 2010 I was informed that I had a 60 percent chance of dying in the next five years (it never happened, of course). The extent of “inquiry” into why I had cancer was a sheet of paper when I was admitted into the hospital for surgery. Two questions related to the causes of the cancer were: Did I smoke? And did I or had I worked in areas that might contribute to cancer. Nothing more. Of course, scientific research is much more extensive and hardly limited to inquiry into specific personal cases. I did find, however, that no qualitative inquiry into possible causes of cancer indicated a lack of a certain kind of cancer research in the area.

Even worse, in December 2015, I was diagnosed with rectal cancer. In 2016, I asked the doctor why I had cancer again. His answer was: Bad luck.

Of course, I would have preferred never to have been a cancer patient at all–patient-centered or otherwise.

Social democrats in various spheres of society (such as the economy, education, health and unions) generally assume the legitimacy of the hierarchical division of labour in society. They seek reforms within such hierarchy–rather than challenging such a hierarchy in the first place. Ms. Kreindler does the same. She, like her fellow social democrats, assumes that such a hierarchy can, ultimately overcome its divisions and serve the public (such as in the idea of patient-centered care).

The focus of social democrats often result in neglect of the wider picture. In the context of health, Ms. Kreindler neglects not only the importance of the employer-employee relation and its power differentials, but she also neglects the importance of preventing disease in the first place. Being a patient is to be avoided, if possible–and that means balancing health prevention and the inevitable need for health care as we age (or are accidentally injured even in a socialist society).

Rather than assuming class harmony between different sectors of health care, we should seek to analyse the class discord in that field and how such discord can lead, ultimately, to a society without classes. Social democrats, however, by assuming the possibility of class harmony within existing economic, political and social conditions, oppose, practically (and often theoretically) such a move.

Worker Resistance Against Management, Part Four

This is a continuation of a series of posts on worker resistance. The following was written by Herman Rosenfeld. Since it formed part of a course that he, Jordan House and I presented for workers at the Toronto Pearson International Airport, I am including the preliminary instructions and the subsequent questions so that others can modify and make use of it in similar courses.

Activity Sheet 3: Learning from Collective Resistance Experiences

This is a small group activity.
Read the story and answer the questions below together.
Be prepared to describe the collective struggle to the whole class, and report your answers.
You have 25 minutes to complete this exercise. [This exercise, initially, was combined with other experiences of resistance against management, so we permitted them 25 minutes.]

Overtime Action in the Ontario Legislature

In the early 2000s, members of a public-sector union in Ontario–policy advisors, analysts and other public-service workers–were fighting their employer, the Government of Ontario, for a first overtime provision in their collective agreement. Up until that time, members of the union could be forced to work unlimited hours. The Employment Standards Act does not apply to most civil servants.

As bargaining got started, it became clear the employer did not want to bargain the overtime provision. The union had made it a priority, in part because it was known that many members worked several uncompensated hours on a weekly basis.

The union is organized into chapters along ministry lines. The chapter at the Ministry of Labour was typically the most radical in the union and included people who well understood the challenges facing the union movement in the province. Conscious of the fact that the overtime provision was going to be tough to win, the chapter hatched a plan, with the quiet endorsement of the union’s head office.

When the legislature is in session, policy advisors are expected to complete their House notes by 8:30 a.m. These are documents that government ministers read from when asked questions in the House by opposition members. House notes often take up to one hour to complete. The chapter identified House note “production” as a pressure point that could be used in bargaining. Not having house notes when needed, if done as a collective act, would send a strong message to the employer. That first week the House was in session, the chapter made sure that every House note that was to be delivered to the Minister arrived an hour late. The Minister found herself in the House with no papers to read from when called upon to answer questions. It was an embarrassing performance, indeed!

The message was sent. The following week the employer began to bargain the overtime provision, which was eventually won a few months later and incorporated into a new collective agreement. The Labour Chapter understood how to keep up the pressure in the context of bargaining. The tactic with House notes forced the employer to bargain a provision that the entire membership now benefits from.

Questions

  1. How might this example show that worlplace cultures and practices, favourable to the boss, can be changed?
  2. What were some of the things that the union chapter in the Ministry of Labour would have had to do, in order to build the confidence and resolve necessary to carry out such a collective action? 
  3. What lessons can be learned from this example that applies to your workplace? 

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 Guatemala, 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?