The Contradictions of Social Democracy: Mr. Gindin’s Musings on the Closure of GM’s Oshawa Plant

The following is a critique of an article written by Sam Gindin before the coronavirus pandemic emerged. It is relevant to the current situation because of the current call for public ownership as a solution to the problems that we face.

Mr. Gindin published an article on February 3, 2020, titled Realizing ‘Just Transitions’: The Struggle for Plant Conversion at GM Oshawa. Here Mr. Gindin attempts to criticize, on the one hand, what happened at GM Oshawa (elimination of around 2200 direct jobs when GM closed the auto plant), and on the other to suggest what should be done to prevent such a situation to arise in the future. However, his own social-democratic position, with its implicit assumption of not challenging the power of the class of employers, shines through in the article.

Mr. Gindin claims that GM’s decision to close, among other plants, the GM Oshawa plant left the recently elected Conservative government of Doug Ford “red-faced”:

The response of the federal government, which had used the preservation of jobs to justify giving GM billions in public funds during the financial crisis, was a tepid ‘disappointment’. The provincial government, which had been plastering the province with the slogan ‘Ontario is open for business’ was left red-faced when, as its billboards were going up, GM announced the closing of one of the largest workplaces in the province.

Where is there evidence that the Ford government was embarrassed at all? The idea of “open for business” includes the idea that, in the competitive struggle for survival, corporations will sometimes close down. The obverse side of “open for business” is–“closed for business.” Corporations are free to decide to open and close doors as they see fit–such is the nature of neoliberalism. Or is that not so?

Mr. Gindin then criticizes Ms. Dias, head of Unifor (which represented the workers at GM Oshawa):

Nor did the autoworkers’ union, Unifor, escape its own share of discomfort. Less than two years earlier, its leadership had negotiated lower wages and pensions at GM for new (essentially younger) workers in spite of those workers doing exactly the same job as those beside them. This betrayal of union solidarity was sold to the members as a victory because of its promised retention of jobs. When the closure exposed the job ‘guarantees’ as a sham, the national president reacted with predictable bluster and launched a public relations campaign to shame the corporation into reversing its decision.

Undoubtedly, Mr. Dias would have preferred for the plant not to close. To prevent such an action, Mr. Dias negotiated a collective agreement that involved “lower wages and pensions at GM for new (essentially younger) workers in spite of those workers doing exactly the same job as those beside them.” Mr. Gindin objects to such a negotiated agreement on the basis of “union solidarity.” The principle of union solidarity, it would seem, involves attempting to have all union members who are doing the same job to be treated in the same way. (Note that Mr. Gindin does not refer to “labour solidarity” or “worker solidarity” but “union solidarity.” Mr. Gindin is a friend of–unions. As I argued in another post, he is too close to unions to adequately criticize them. But that just as an aside).

Mr. Gindin then refers to how this “betrayal to union solidarity was sold to the members of a victory because of its promised retention of jobs.” It is of course possible to criticize Mr. Dias and others for sacrificing some workers in exchange for an impossibly guaranteed retention of jobs. However, Mr. Gindin does not explicitly question the power of employers to make decisions that involve closing down plants. Such power forms part of management rights and is often embodied in a management rights clause, implicitly if not explicitly. Why does Mr. Gindin not criticize this fundamental right?

And why does he not criticize the attempt by many unions to “sell” negotiated collective agreements on the basis of “fairness,” “decent work” and so forth? He certainly criticizes Mr. Dias’ attempt to “sell” the betrayal to union solidarity” in relation to the creation of a two-tiered collective agreement–but he nowhere criticizes the implicit or explicit acceptance of unions and negotiating committees to the legitimacy of collective agreements. Union reps often “sell” negotiated collective agreements that need to be ratified to their members by referring to them as “fair contracts”

“We have been trying to negotiate a fair contract for seven months,” said James Nugent, the bargaining team’s chief spokesperson [for CUPE Local 3902, or the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3902]. “We’ve been fighting for better learning conditions for our students and better working conditions for our members. Last night, our members sent us back to the bargaining table to keep fighting for those things, and that’s what we intend to do.”

Union reps often try to “sell” this ideology of “fair contracts” to their members. Why does not Mr. Gindin criticize this ideology and not just the ideology of two-tiered contracts? What happens if a collective agreement does not have a two-tiered provision? Does that then make it a “fair contract?” Mr. Gindin is silent over the issue–as are union reps. Why this silence?

Mr. Gindin then has a section that outlines an alternative:

Toward an Alternative

A small group of rank and file Oshawa workers and retirees understood that far more was needed; both logic and history suggested that appealing to GM to rethink their cold calculations was naïve. They joined with other community allies, including the Durham Labour Council and supporters from the Toronto-based Socialist Project, to establish Green Jobs Oshawa. Its mandate was to explore and organize around other possibilities for the Oshawa facility.

A problem already arises. I am ignorant of the specific nature of the Durham Labour Council, but the Toronto and York Region Labour Council does not call into question the legitimacy of the power of employers as a class; rather, it presupposes such legitimacy (John CartWright, president of the Council, refers to “economic justice”–implicitly referring to collective agreements. See my post  Ontario Looks Right–With Some Help From the “Left” ). I have criticized  as well some of the views expressed by the Steering Committee of the Socialist Project (see The Socialist Project’s Critique of Doug Ford’s Attack on Local Democracy Falls Short).

But let us proceed:

Four perspectives drove their ambitious proposal. First, GM was the problem, not the solution.

Yes, GM is a problem and not the solution–but it is not just GM that is the problem but the power of employers as a class, of which GM is only one example. Defining the problem only in terms of a particular employer is a typical social-democratic trick of focusing on one “bad” employer rather than the class of employers. Already, looking at alternatives seems limited.

Let us continue:

Second, expecting to compete in the market with China, Mexico or plants in the American south was no answer. It would only reproduce past pressures on wages and working conditions, past insecurities and past failures. Third, any alternative would need to introduce a product with special social significance. And fourth, the issue was not just jobs but retaining Canada’s manufacturing capacities.

Seeking an alternative product that would prevent competition with other workers in the same kind of market is certainly to be preferred. As for “a product with special social significance,” this issue is connected to the following:

The Oshawa facility could then be converted to assembling fleets of electric vehicles. The sale of these vehicles was to depend not on market competition, but a social plan based on direct government purchases of the products the government had invested in. The fleet vehicles involved would range from electric post office vans (as recommended earlier by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers) to hydro-electric vans, newly designed school buses, ambulances and police cars. With that base, the plant could also produce electric cars for individual consumers and, depending on how much space remained available, add other environmentally-related products.

The government would provide the bulk of demand for the output, with individual consumers making up any needed demand so that the Oshawa facility could be fully utilized (GM had identified under-utilization of the capacity of the plant as a major reason for its closing).

The government as the major consumer would also be the major owner:

In line with this outlook, Green Jobs Oshawa called on the federal government – or the municipal government with substantial financial and technical support from the feds – to take over the land and equipment idled by GM.

The government would then become both the employer and the major consumer. This solution may certainly have retained the jobs–but would not have changed the use of workers as things by government. Merely because the government is the employer does not prevent workers from being exploited and oppressed (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

Why did Green Jobs Oshawa not call on the government to take over the plant while concentrating decision-making power over the plant with the workers who worked there? Why did it not call into question the power of employers to make decisions at all that can affect the lives of many workers and the community–investment decisions? Why not use the GM shut down as an example of the dictatorial power of employers? Why this focus on the government as the saviour rather than the workers and the community?

Green Jobs Oshawa, rather, tried to evade this central issue:

The message was that jobs, the environment, and the industrial capacities for conversion and restructuring are inseparable. From that perspective, saving Oshawa was not an end point but a beginning and an example to build on.

Jobs, the environment and the industrial capacities for conversion are not just inseparable. To adequately address them, it is necessary to address the power of employers as a class, the infinite movement of capital (see  The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One) and the social and political structures that go with them.

The next section of the article is titled “Frustration and Persistence.” Mr. Gindin outlines what he believes is the cause of workers’ skepticism concerning such an alternative:

Frustration and Persistence

Green Jobs Oshawa developed a website, distributed leaflets to workers, held educationals and public forums in Oshawa and Toronto, organized petitions, commissioned a widely respected professional feasibility study confirming its case, received sympathetic attention in the press and gave numerous media interviews. Yet the committee couldn’t generate the necessary level of support, starting with the workers themselves.

The workers in Oshawa were frustrated and angry, but anger doesn’t necessarily translate into activism. Having experienced the steady drip-drip decline of the Oshawa complex, having recently suffered demoralizing defeats after defeats in bargaining, and now seeing the final end of vehicle assembly in the city, workers had shifted to survival mode. In that state of mind, most workers, it seemed, had simply stopped even thinking about possibilities. Nor was it unusual for workers to guard against hope creeping into their consciousness; risking the pain of once more seeing hopes dashed made even hope something to willfully avoid.

Though workers contacted by Green Jobs Oshawa generally considered the proposals on conversion as sensible, this was trumped by their skepticism of ‘sensible’ driving economic and political decisions. Critical here was the role of the union. As frustrated as workers were with the union, they still looked to its structures and resources for leadership, especially given the radical nature of the alternative proposed. But with both the national and local leadership not interested in and even hostile to an alternative, it was no surprise that workers were lukewarm to committing to a fight for a long-shot alternative.

Important here, as well, were the limits of the environmental movement. Environmentalists have most impressively raised public awareness of the looming environmental catastrophe. Yet they have been far less successful in getting the mass of working people on side. Two inter-related problems stand out. First, the promise of a ‘just transition’ is well-meaning but unconvincing to workers; workers rightly ask how such a commitment could be met in a society driven by competition and private profits. Second, with the environmental movement generally absent from workers struggles, developing ‘awareness’ could only go so far.

Workers have been indoctrinated from school to accept the power of employers to make decisions over their lives (as I show in a series of posts on indoctrination in schools via the silence of the Canadian history curriculum over the historical emergence of employers and employees. See, for example,  Co-optation of Students at School Through We Day, Or School Indoctrination, Part One). Various organizations and activities reinforce such indoctrination (union ideology of “fair contracts,” “decent work,” social organizations that deal with oppressing people in various ways (child and family services, social assistance, collection agencies, courts and the like). To counteract such indoctrination, it would be necessary to engage systematically in a critique of such indoctrination–but Mr. Gindin does not believe that such a systematic and engaged critique is necessary (otherwise, he would have engaged in such criticism when the opportunity presented itself in relation to pairing the fight for a minimum wage of $15 an hour with the idea of “fairness”).

The skeptical attitude of workers in relation to their own capacities for controlling their lives in the face of multiple forms of indoctrination and oppression is understandable, but Mr. Gindin ignores such indoctrination and oppression in practice.

The final section is called “Green Jobs Oshawa Lives On.” Mr. Gindin states what he thinks has and has not been accomplished in the Green Jobs Oshawa” campaign and what should be done:

Green Jobs Oshawa Lives On

Measured by its ability to keep the Oshawa facility humming, Green Jobs Oshawa was not successful; today, no more vehicles are being assembled in Oshawa. But measured by their work in placing a vital but largely ignored issue on the agenda – the steady loss of the productive capacity we will need to reconstitute the environment – brings a more encouraging conclusion.

Though the Oshawa facility is now quiet, the battle to revive it, with all its noise and productive bustle, continues. The facility still has waiting assembly lines, a body shop, a paint shop, and 10 million square feet of space. In Oshawa and nearby, there is no shortage of workers anxious to apply their too often underestimated skills, suppliers with flexible tooling capacities, and young engineers leaving university anxious to apply their knowledge to developing socially useful products. Green Jobs Oshawa continues to send out material and speak at events, making connections and spreading the urgent discussion of possibilities.

Workers – with the support of their union leadership where possible, on their own if that leadership is not sympathetic – should be setting up committees to consider the future of their workplaces and holding meetings to discuss the plant occupations, nationalizations and conversions in other cities facing major manufacturing shutdowns.

The Canadian Labour Congress should be supporting and coordinating such initiatives with its own research and also joining with the environmental movement to take the initiatives further. A significant step would be to lobby for a National Conversion Agency with the authority and financial and technical resources to intervene when plant closures occur or seem imminent.

Provincial federations of labour could focus on the environmental particularities of their own regions as, for example, the Alberta Federation of Labour has started to do in addressing how the inevitable transition away from oil could be economically and socially managed. This could include lobbying to establish local tech-enviro centers populated by the hundreds of young engineers mentioned above. Alongside coming up with possibilities for local conversion and development, they could contribute to spreading understanding to the community of what we face and what needs to be done.

For private sector workers, the crucial fact is that environmental pressures will require transforming everything about how we live, work, travel, and use our leisure time. Such a massive and unprecedented undertaking (the conversions entering and exiting World War II come closest) can, if done right, mean not a loss of jobs but a shortage of workers trying to meet society’s ‘regular’ needs and the demands of environmental reconstruction.

As for the public sector, the growing acceptance that environmental limits translate into limiting individual consumption in the developed countries leads to a greater emphasis on collective consumption. We are on the cusp of having to urgently redefine what we mean by ‘abundance’ and to place greater value on retrieving our time, leisure, social services (health, education), collective goods (public transit, libraries), and public spaces (sports, music, arts, parks) – a reorientation, that is, to the expansion of the public sector and public sector jobs.

Finally, for environmentalists, truly addressing the scale of what must be done means moving from a vague anti-capitalism to an aggressive – and confident – call for democratic planning and its corollary of fundamentally challenging corporate property rights. And addressing how to implement such policies, requires bringing the mass of workers on side to both the environmental necessities and to the overcoming of capitalism. This can only begin with actively supporting the defensive struggles of workers with the goal of linking them, as Green Jobs Oshawa has tried to do, to those larger issues of conversion and democratic planning in the shaping of the world to come.

In short, the issue is not simply a matter of bringing the environmental movement and the labour movement together; each must be transformed if the sum is to be more than the currently limited parts. The environmental movement must raise itself to a new level by concretely engaging the working class, and the labour movement must escape what, for it, has become an existential crisis. The threats and opportunities of the environmental crisis offer a chance for labour revival, but only if this incorporates a renewed approach to organizing, struggle, radical politics, and the maximization of informed membership participation. •

Mr. Gindin follows the British Labour Party, in its Manifesto, by jumping on the bandwagon of environmentalism–rather than focusing on criticizing the power of employers as a class (which would involve criticizing union ideology of “fair contracts,” “decent work,” “fair collective bargaining,” and the like) , first, and then linking that issue to environmental issues (see my post  The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One). Mr. Gindin only near the end of this section does Mr. Gindin address this issue:

Finally, for environmentalists, truly addressing the scale of what must be done means moving from a vague anti-capitalism to an aggressive – and confident – call for democratic planning and its corollary of fundamentally challenging corporate property rights.

But earlier, Mr. Gindin claims the following is the key issue:

But measured by their work in placing a vital but largely ignored issue on the agenda – the steady loss of the productive capacity we will need to reconstitute the environment

The deindustrialization of the advanced capitalist countries–is that really more important than another issue that has been “largely ignored”–the power of employers as a class? Which should the left focus on? And if we focus on the power of employers as a class, should we not criticize the ideology of many unions, which often try to sell the results of collective bargaining as a “fair contract?”

Frankly, Mr. Gindin’s approach fails to see the need for a rigorous and persistent struggle against those who justify collective agreements with such phrases. The same applies to other social movements who refer to “fairness” and the like. We need to use every opportunity to oppose such indoctrination.

Mr.Gindin, however, argues only for the positive side in the following:

Workers – with the support of their union leadership where possible, on their own if that leadership is not sympathetic – should be setting up committees to consider the future of their workplaces and holding meetings to discuss the plant occupations, nationalizations and conversions in other cities facing major manufacturing shutdowns.

To set up committees that are more than paper committees, it would be necessary to deal with the limitations of unions, collective bargaining and collective agreements while recognizing that collective agreements do provide some real protection for workers. If workers merely set up committees without engaging seriously in debate over the pros and cons of collective bargaining and collective agreements, then such committees will likely be isolated from the needs and interests of workers.

It is interesting that Mr. Gindin engages in abstract moralizing when referring to what the Canadian Labour Congress (an organization of affiliated unions that represent over three million Canadian workers) ‘ought or should do’:

The Canadian Labour Congress should be supporting and coordinating such initiatives with its own research and also joining with the environmental movement to take the initiatives further.

Another inadequacy of Mr. Gindin’s approach can also be seen from the above quote. Hegel, a German philosopher, saw through such empty phrases as “ought to” or “should” long ago (from the Encyclopedia Logic, page 30):

… the understanding, which regards its dreams (L e., its abstractions) as something genuine, and is puffed up about the “ought” that it likes to prescribe, especially in the political field-as if the world had had to wait for it, in order to learn how it ought to be, but is not. If the world were the way it ought to be, what then would become of the pedantic wisdom of the understanding’s “ought to be”?

This does not mean that we should not engage in wishing for what ought to be, but that what ought to be should be grounded in what is the case. What is the nature of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC)? Is it realistic to believe that the CLC would ‘support and coordinate’ such initiatives? See my criticism of the position of the president of the CLC, Hassan Yussuff, in The Canadian Labour Congress’s Idealization of the Collective-Bargaining Process.  Would it not be better to engage in criticism of the CLC–what it is, how it operates and so forth?

There are other problems with this last section. Reference to “democratic planning” clashes with the call for the government (a capitalist government) to operate as employer. How is there democratic planning when the government is the employer? This is to idealize the government and the public sector. This idealization also is expressed in the following:

As for the public sector, the growing acceptance that environmental limits translate into limiting individual consumption in the developed countries leads to a greater emphasis on collective consumption. We are on the cusp of having to urgently redefine what we mean by ‘abundance’ and to place greater value on retrieving our time, leisure, social services (health, education), collective goods (public transit, libraries), and public spaces (sports, music, arts, parks) – a reorientation, that is, to the expansion of the public sector and public sector jobs.

This uncritical reference to the “public sector”–as if working for the government were somehow not subject to exploitation and oppression–is typical of social democrats. So too is Mr. Gindin’s one-sided reference to challenging “corporate property rights” without challenging the power of the state as a capitalist state, on the one hand, and as an employer, on the other. Again, see the money circuit of capital link above for a critique of this view.

The Canadian Labour Congress’s Idealization of the Collective-Bargaining Process

Relatively recently,  Hassan Yussuff, the president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), wrote an article praising collective bargaining:

Collective bargaining is good for everyone

December 23, 2019

By Hassan Yussuff, as published in the Globe and Mail.  

The holidays aren’t solely about gift-giving and spreading good cheer. Many workers find themselves having to walk a picket line around this time of year.

Everywhere you look these days, teachers, public transit workers, railway and refinery workers seem to be involved in some kind of job action as contracts expire and end-of-year negotiations fail.

It can be frustrating for those affected and may even seem unfair that workers disadvantage the public in pursuit of better working conditions and better wages.

But make no mistake, collective bargaining is a fundamental right that helps ensure workers are getting their fair share. This is especially true when we consistently see certain governments, shareholders and corporate CEOs squeezing workers in order to improve their own bottom lines. “Without the right to pursue workplace goals collectively, workers may be left essentially powerless in dealing with their employer or influencing their employment conditions,” reads a 2015 Supreme Court of Canada ruling upholding the right of RCMP officers to unionize.

Unsurprising that some employers, private interest groups and opinion shapers insist on back-to-work legislation whenever a group of workers flexes collective muscle. But the reality is that work stoppages are a rarity—with almost all collective agreements in Canada reached and renewed without a strike or lockout.

In fact, strikes and lockouts happen far less frequently today than in the past. Days lost to work stoppages in federal private-sector, where CN Rail workers recently struck for several days, are well below levels reached earlier this decade. For instance, in 2019, monthly work stoppages recently dipped to a low of 13 for the entire country. This is well below 2017 and 2018 averages.

Collective bargaining is functioning exactly as intended. Workers leverage their collective strength in order to influence the terms and conditions of their employment. Their efforts to stand up for themselves will often have a ripple effect, improving conditions for non-unionized workers in related industries as well as for the people they serve. When teachers oppose larger class sizes and rail engineers insist on safety improvements, the public directly benefits, too.

The significantly low unemployment rate is also contributing to renewed confidence among workers. More discouraged workers and those overcoming barriers to employment have been able to find work. The number of underemployed workers, like part-timers who prefer but can’t find full-time hours, have ebbed.

This is long overdue. For a decade, young people have been graduating into a high unemployment job market with limited prospects. Women and newcomers to Canada have struggled with a shortage of decent jobs.  While joblessness remains far too high in oil-producing provinces and the Atlantic region (in Alberta, it hovers at a shocking 20% for males under the age of 25), there are gains elsewhere. In Ontario, Quebec and BC, the improving job market has allowed wages to tick up – finally. Since mid-year, wage growth has begun to pick up, averaging over 4%.

During the last ten years of sluggish growth, high unemployment and weak wage gains, typical workers in Canada have seen very little improvement in their wages, adjusted for inflation. Flat earnings are partly responsible for the fact that debt as a share of household disposable income has doubled in the past 25 years. Furthermore, fewer workers even belong to a union at all which often translates in lower earnings and fewer benefits and little recourse to improve matters. Compounded with the rise of the gig economy and with more companies outsourcing work, it’s that much harder for workers to unionize as we are seeing at corporations like IBM and Amazon.

In the meantime, Canada’s top corporate CEOs were paid nearly 200 times what the average worker made in 2017. In 2018, quarterly operating profits reached a post-recession high. Workers have spent the ‘recovery’ simply fighting to hold onto what they have.

It’s not just unions that welcome a stronger labour market and decent wage gains. The Bank of Canada also thinks it’s a good idea. Because inflation remains well under control, it has hesitated to raise interest rates. That’s a good strategy because it helps reduce inequality and strengthens the ability of households to cope with debt, food and shelter costs.

We must all recognize that even when work stoppages do happen, they are simply evidence that the collective bargaining process is working. Despite occasional work-to-rule and walk-outs, this is actually a very good thing because it ensures workers still have a say – as they should.

To be sure, it is generally preferable for workers and their representatives to participate in collective bargaining in order to obtain a collective agreement, but the idealization of the process and the resulting collective agreement, as well as the exaggeration of the fairness of the process and the resulting collective agreement, simply ignores the reality of the power of employers and their representatives (management).

In the article, Mr. Yussuff implies that, through the collective-bargaining process and the resulting collective agreement, workers can obtain their “fair share.” Mr. Yussuff provides no evidence of this. A fair share is presented only in terms of shaping the collective working conditions and wages of workers but not in actually controlling those collective working conditions by those who actually do the work–economic democracy or socialism (see the series of posts on what socialism would like on this blog). Mr. Yussuff ignores the implicit or explicit management rights’ clauses in collective agreements (see numerous examples of explicit management rights’ clauses in collective agreements on this blog, for example, Management Rights, Part Two: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario).

There is obviously a pattern that often shows up in social-democratic rhetoric–how marvelous collective bargaining and collective agreements are (see my criticism of Jane McAlevey’s idealization of the collective bargaining process and the resulting collective agreement on this blog) as well as my review of her book in the Publications and Writings Section of this blog) .

It is interesting that Mr. Yussuff also tries to “sell” collective bargaining and collective agreements by implying that the proper functioning of collective bargaining and collective agreements results in fewer strikes:

In fact, strikes and lockouts happen far less frequently today than in the past. Days lost to work stoppages in federal private-sector, where CN Rail workers recently struck for several days, are well below levels reached earlier this decade. For instance, in 2019, monthly work stoppages recently dipped to a low of 13 for the entire country. This is well below 2017 and 2018 averages.

Collective bargaining is functioning exactly as intended.

At least Ms. McAlevey considers strike activity to often be necessary to back up the collective bargaining process whereas Mr. Yussuff’s more conservative stance considers strikes to be a last-ditch effort to be avoided if at all possible. On the other hand, both her and Mr. Yussuff consider the collective-bargaining process to be somehow capable of realizing fairness at the workplace. How this is in fact the case no trade unionist has ever explained to me in the face of the power of the class of employers.

Mr. Yussuff’s idea that workers should have a say minimizes the need for workers to have the say in their work lives–in conjunction with local communities–and not “a say”–as if they were condemned forever as a junior “partner” in the capitalist corporation.

The conservatism of the Canadian labour movement is astounding–but the left here in Toronto (and probably elsewhere) remain silent about such conservatism–since they share the same assumption of the legitimacy of the collective-bargaining process and collective agreements.

 

Defense of Arrested Picketers is Vital–But Not the Idealization of Collective Bargaining, Collective Agreements and Strikes

On January 20, 2020, Jerry Dias, president of a large private-sector union in Canada, and others–were arrested in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. Despite my criticism of Mr. Dias on this blog, in this instance he and others deserve support–as do the workers who are on the picket line in that city.

I am copying the details below from the Rank-and-File website–but I also have a criticism of how Rank-and-File used the situation to support an ideology of fairness if there were anti-scab legislation to prevent the situation from arising in the first place:

In a move that shocked trade unionists across the country, the Regina Police Service arrested Unifor National President Jerry Dias and thirteen other Unifor members at Gate 7 of Regina’s Co-op Refinery Complex on Monday, January 20, 2020.  About 730 refinery workers, members of Local 594, have been locked out for the past 49 days for trying to save their current Defined Benefit pension plan.

Earlier that day, Dias announced Unifor would blockade the refinery gates, challenging a court injunction which ruled workers could only delay vehicles entering and leaving the refinery by 10 minutes. The union argues this injunction interferes with workers’ constitutional right to picket.

“Let’s just say in 2019 – and so far 2020 – we’ve had enough injunctions that we could probably wallpaper a concert hall,” Dias tells RankandFile.ca. “The simple reality is that Unifor is very different than other unions. The fines, the police, the court decisions are not going to prevent us from winning justice for our members. It isn’t any more complicated than that.”

The night prior to the Unifor arrests, around 500 Unifor members from across Canada flew in to help bolster the picket lines. Because of this, Dias asserted that Unifor – not Local 594 – was blockading the refinery, and therefore not breaking the injunction leveled against Local 594.

However, the Co-op Refinery disagreed, calling the blockade “illegal” and a “bullying tactic.”

The Regina Leader-Post also reported that trucking companies lobbied the government and police to intervene the morning of the crackdown:

“C.S. Day Transport president Heather Day sent a letter Monday morning to RPS Chief Evan Bray, as well as Premier Scott Moe, Labour Minister Don Morgan, Corrections and Policing Minister Christine Tell, Mayor Michael Fougere and Regina city councillors.”

“RPS is failing to enforce the court order and other laws and bylaws by ‘not choosing sides.’ Does the presence of a labour dispute mean that laws no longer need to be followed or enforced?” she asked.”

Regina Police Chief Evan Bray stated this letter did not influence his decision to intervene.

Following Dias’ arrest around 5 PM, the Regina Police Service continued a protracted attempt to break Unifor’s blockade, bringing in several tow trucks – two belonging to the City of Regina – and a front-end loader to remove vehicles Unifor had parked as part of their blockade. Bray says about 50 police officers were deployed.

Unifor members responded by climbing in and on top of the union’s vehicles to prevent them from being towed, letting air out of the tires, or removing tires altogether. At one point, an RPS officer took control of one of Unifor’s U-Haul trucks and attempted to drive it away, hitting a worker who was then arrested by other officers. RPS also threatened to use tear gas, but the union was able to talk to the police and deescalate. The police withdrew around 11 PM and the blockade remained intact. The workers arrested throughout the night were charged with mischief.

“We don’t see the police getting involved very aggressively very often anymore,” says Charles Smith, co-author of Unions in Court: Organized Labour and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “It was much more common in the post-war period in the 50s and 60s. We don’t see it as much anymore – which is why it’s in some ways so shocking.”

Instead of jail time, courts often level major fines against unions for breaking laws or injunctions. For example, Prime Minister Trudeau legislated the Canadian Union of Postal Worker’s back to work in 2018. This broke the union’s rotating strikes under threat of $1,000 – $50,000 fines a day for individual workers and $100,000 a day for the union if found in contravention of the act. These fines are significant enough to deter union leadership from breaking the law, even if it weakens the union’s position at the bargaining table.

Unifor 594 has been fined $100,000 for breaking the injunction.

“You know, if you want to win these battles, sometimes you’re going to have to pay a bit of fines,” Unifor 594 President Kevin Bittman explains to RankandFile.ca. “Because really, if you’re going to just stand out here and walk back and forth, you’re probably not going to win it against somebody that’s willing to spend a billion dollars just to try and break you.”

Smith argues Co-op’s injunction escalated tensions on the line because it took away the workers’ key bargaining chip – putting economic pressure on the employer by withholding their labour.

“There’s no way we can call it an equal struggle,” he states. “Now imagine if we had anti-scab legislation, which meant the employer couldn’t use replacement workers. Then it becomes much more of a fair fight, but of course we’re not willing to have that sort of negotiation in Saskatchewan, because the government isn’t interested in evening the playing field.” [my emphasis] 

“Because we have this situation where employers can weaken lines through these legal instruments,  why would we be surprised that tensions ramp up like this?” Smith continues. “It easily could have not happened, we easily could have avoided this had there been some sort of semblance of fairness by the employer or the state.”

SOLIDARITY RALLY HIGHLIGHTS NEED FOR WORKING CLASS UNITY

Unifor 594 President Kevin Bittman speaks at Wednesday’s solidarity rally.

Following Monday’s arrests, labour unions across the country condemned the police intervention and called for Co-op to return to the bargaining table.

Notably, Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff flew in for a solidarity rally on January 22, alongside CUPE National President Mark Hancock, OPSEU President Warren “Smokey” Thomas and Seafarers’ International Union President James Given. Canadian Federation of Nurses’ Unions President Linda Silas and Saskatchewan Federation of Labour President Lori Johb were also present.

Representing Unifor was Local 594 President Kevin Bittman and National Secretary Treasurer Lana Payne. Dias was barred from the picket line, a condition of his release. Payne told the crowd Dias faces a two year prison sentence if he returned to the refinery.

“You cannot allow an employer, whether it’s a government, or private business to be allowed to destroy workers hopes and dreams to build a better life,” Yussuff tells RankandFile.ca. “I’m here to show solidarity with these workers – regardless of course of anything else – and to make sure they know the entire labour movement is with them to ensure they can get a fair settlement to resolve this dispute.” [my emphasis] 

In 2018, Unifor disaffiliated from the CLC following an attempted raid of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113. Unifor and the CLC disagreed over the interpretation of Article 4 of the CLC constitution. According to Larry Savage, Article 4 “governs the disputes between affiliates and provides a pathway for workers to switch unions.”

The disaffiliation created tension between Unifor and the broader labour movement, impacting organizing & resource distribution all the way down to the labour councils. Given this history, Yussuff’s presence at the Unifor picket line is significant.

“I think this should remind us all we’re stronger together. When we’re together, we’re a stronger movement, because we need each other,” he continues. “Without that, of course, any employer or government could take advantage of us. This again demonstrates why we need solidarity and to build together to build the entire labour movement in this country.”

CUPE National President Mark Hancock not only showed up to Wednesday’s rally, but actively intervened in de-escalating Monday night’s police crackdown. The police had brought two City of Regina tow trucks and a front-end loader operated by CUPE members. Hancock let his members know they had the right refuse unsafe work, which they did, leaving Gate 7.

“We all have our differences,” Hancock tells RankandFile.ca. “Every union is different…they all bring different things to the Canadian Labour Congress…and sometimes, you know, we have our disagreements, we have our fights – and that’s okay. But when it comes to workers, being treated the way that these workers are, the attack on their pensions, the labour movement needs to be united. Whether it’s Unifor, whether it’s OPSEU, whether it’s CUPE, we all need to support each other – and that’s why CUPE is here.”

President of the Seafarer’s International Union James Given said SIU would donate $10,000 to Unifor, and challenged all other unions present to do the same.

“If they wanted a fight, if they’re looking for a fight, they’ve got themselves a fight” Given said about Co-op at the rally, “…11.5 million union members are now focused on Regina.”

Shobna Radons, President of the Regina and District Labour Council, believes it is important to remember this dispute is about real people.

“One of the things that’s just amazing to me is coming out and spending time with folks on the line and talking with real people,” she tells RankandFile.ca. “Everyone knows there’s been a disaffiliation of Unifor and that affects us even at the municipal level and the labour councils. It’s pretty powerful having [Yussuff] here supporting workers, the fact that we can put our differences aside and fight the fight.”

Bittman is thankful for the support, and emphasizes the outcome of this pension fight with the Co-op impacts workers across the country, not just his members.

“It just keeps building and building, every day there’s more people on the lines, there’s more unions coming out to support, everybody knows what’s at stake here,” he says. ”This is just old fashioned union busting and we’re not going to let it happen. If you can let a company that’s making 2.5 billion dollars over 3 years take away pensions, it’s really okay for companies to take anybody’s pension away. This is a stand that we’ve got to put down and say it’s not okay.“

The call for solidarity is indeed welcome. Anti-scab legislation, furthermore, is certainly preferable to a lack of such legislation. However, alongside this call in the article for such legislation, it is argued that anti-scab legislation can somehow magically transform the struggle between the working class and the class of employers into “an equal struggle,” that anti-scab legislation can miraculously transform such struggles into a “much more fair fight,” thereby “evening the playing field,” leading to a “fair settlement?”

Is there evidence that any collective agreement expresses “a fair settlement?” Is there evidence that anti-scab legislation leads to a much more level playing field between employers and workers?

Anti-scab legislation does exist in two other provinces–Quebec and British Columbia (see “A Federal Anti-Scab Law for Canada? The Debate over Bill C-257,” Larry Savage and Joseph Butovsky, 2009, in Just Labour: A Canadian Journal of Work and Society , Volume 13 , Spring 2009). Such legislation does not prevent the economic power of employers from taking precedence; therefore, such legislation does not by any means tip the relation between unionized members and their employers in such a way that they are equals (page 20):

Unions are not interested in negotiating an employer out of business. For that reason, economic conditions rather than the presence of anti-scab laws, continue to dictate the tone and content of negotiated agreement.2 … anti-scab laws may provide modest improvement in settlements…

Furthermore, as shown on this blog, collective agreements in Quebec and British Columbia express, implicitly and often explicitly, the power of management (a minority) to dictate to workers (a majority) in a particular firm or state organization (see Management Rights, Part One: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia,  Management Rights, Part Six: Public Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia  and Management Rights, Part Seven: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Quebec).

The social-democratic left, it can be seen, must idealize legislation and  the collective-bargaining regime because, if they did not, they would then have to openly recognize that the working class can never possess equal power to the power of employers as long as the economic power of employers as a class is not challenged as such (and not just the particular powers of particular employers).

(I will critique Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff’s views in another post when I review Jane McAlevey’s book A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy.) 

What has been the response of some leftists here in Toronto? If the response by the Steering Committee of the Socialist Project is any indication, then there is obviously condemnation of the arrests, but the Steering Committee then makes a vague criticism of the rule of law:

While the employer crows on about how wonderful the “rule of law” is – a trumped-up law that prevents workers from protecting their futures and jobs – Unifor Secretary-Treasurer Lana Payne commented, “[t]his will not be settled in the courts. This will not be settled by police. We’re holding the line. I don’t know how much more clear I can be.”

The Socialist Project stands in support and solidarity with the members of Unifor 594 and the union’s national leadership in this struggle. We support the union’s demands for an end to the prosecution of workers exercising their right to picket, removal of the trumped-up charges and injunctions, stopping the use of scabs and demand that Co-op return to the bargaining table and withdraw their efforts to change workers’ pensions. •

Reference to the “rule of law” in quotation marks, I assume, uses the quotation marks as “scare quotes.” But what is the Steering Commitee’s position on the rule of law? Silence. (See, by contrast, the posts Socialism, Police and the Government or State, Part One). What is the Steering Commitee’s position on the idea that collective bargaining is a fair process and that the collective agreement is a fair contract? That unionized workers have a “decent job” because of the existence of a collective agreement? What is the Steering Committee’s position on the implicit or explicit management rights clause that exists in collective agreements?

Such is the left in Toronto these days. Is there any wonder that there is a rightward drift of workers when the left simply ignores such issues?