Do Collective Agreements Convert Working for an Employer into Decent Work?

Tracy McMaster is a union steward for Local 561 of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU); she was also vice-president of the local union at one point. However, she prides herself most on her activity of organizing part-time college workers (she works at a college as a library technician). . On March 25, 2019, in a short video (Stewards Assembly 2019), she refers to the need to organize part-time college workers (where she works). She also refers to “a full-time decent unionized job.” This implies that as long as it is full-time and unionized, the job is decent.

Of course, organizing part-time workers so that they obtain increased wages or salary and better benefits (or receive benefits in the first place since many part-time workers do not receive benefits at all) is something to be praised. However, the standard of evaluation for what constitutes a decent job is whether there is a collective agreement that protects a certain level of wages and working conditions.

Such a standard is never questioned. Ms. McMaster never questions that standard throughout the video. Indeed, right after the quoted reference “full-time decent unionized jobs,” she ends with the rhetorical question: Right? Exactly. She believes that a full-time, unionized jobs are by definition decent. To question such a view does not form part of her union activity.

She argues that part-time workers were working under “unjust, awful condition…takes away the dignity of everybody’s job.” Since employers (presumably, or perhaps also students and others–she leaves it unspecified what she means by “people treating others with disrespect”) treat part-time workers with little respect, then full-time unionized workers find that others do not treat them with respect.

She points out that she received solidarity from both the local union presidents in 24 different colleges as well as various labour councils throughout Ontario and especially the labour council in Toronto.

She then claims that it was “an amazing, amazing accomplishment” that the part-time workers “just last week have their first collective agreement.” She is “so proud” that she “was involved in this project.”

Of course, she should feel that she, along with others, has accomplished something. The question is: Is it enough? She herself claims that the job of the labour movement is to find workers who need a union and to organize them. The standard or definition of what constitutes decent work is, then: organized workers who belong to a union.

When I questioned this definition when Ms. McMaster called for solidarity for striking brewery workers here in Toronto because all the striking workers wanted were “decent jobs” and “fair wages,” , the “labour movement” reacted to my questioning with hostility (For example, Wayne Dealy, executive director for Local 3902 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), called me a “condescending prick.”)

Let us take a look at the collective agreement–“an amazing, amazing accomplishment” according to Tracy McMaster.

The memorandum of agreement contains typical clauses in a collective agreement: union representation, rights of union representatives, within limits, to take time off for union business (with compensation in some cases); work hours and scheduling, wages, rate of increase of wages and when that will take affect, period of paying the wages, shift premium, reimbursement of tuition and maintenance of salary if time off is required for courses approved by the employer, kilometrage allowance, developmental leave for furthering academic or technical skills that will enhance their work for the College, holidays, vacations, personal leave without pay, bereavement leave, jury/witness duty, citizenship leave, pregnancy leave, parental leave, health and safety (provision of clothing, work stations, safety devices, environmental conditions, seniority and its loss, layoff and recall, waiver of rights/severance, job postings/promotions, excluded positions, complaints/grievances, duration (until January 31, 2021).

This set of clauses is certainly likely better than wages and working conditions for part-time workers in many industries. As a consequence, as I have indicated in various posts, unions are much more preferable than non-unionized settings for many workers (although wages and working conditions for other industries should also be compared to gain a more accurate picture of workers’ situations in various non-unionized and unionized settings. Fear of unionization by some employers may motivate them to enhance wages and working conditions in non-unionized industries.)

Granted that, should we still not ask whether such jobs are decent?

How does the above change the general power of employers to treat workers as things that do not participate in the formulation of the goals of the organization to which they belong? Thus, the management rights clause states, in “Memorandum of Settlement:
The College Employer Council for the College of Applied Arts and Technology and Ontario Public Service Employees Union on behalf of the College Support Staff Part-Time”:


Union Acknowledgements

The Union acknowledges that it is the exclusive function of the Colleges to:
•maintain order, discipline and efficiency;
•hire, discharge, transfer, classify, assign, appoint, promote, demote, lay off, recall and suspend or otherwise discipline employees subject to the right to lodge a grievance as provided for in this Agreement;
•generally to manage the College and without restricting the generality of the foregoing, the right to plan, direct and control operations, facilities, programs, courses, systems and procedures, direct its personnel, determine complement, organization, methods and the number, location and positions required from time to time, the number and location of campuses and facilities, services to be performed, the scheduling of assignments and work, the extension, limitation, curtailment or cessation of operations and all other rights and responsibilities not specifically modified elsewhere in this Agreement.

The Colleges agree that these functions will be exercised in a manner consistent with the provisions of this Agreement.

Ms. McMaster does not even bother to explore whether her characterization of inclusion of such part-time workers under the rule of managerial power–despite the existence of a collective agreement–actually expresses something decent. She ignores completely the management-rights clause and idealizes the collective agreement. This is typical of the social-democratic, reformist left.

Despite Ms. McMaster’s rhetoric to the contrary, the collective agreement cannot be characterized as amazing–unless you have a low standard of what amazing means. Part-time workers now have some protection from arbitrary treatment by employers (subject to a grievance process) and some control over their working lives. However, the collective agreement only limits management rights–like all collective agreements. It does not prevent workers at the various colleges from being used, day after day, for purposes over which they have no control (see The Money Circuit of Capital). To call this “dignity” is rhetoric. It is undignified and humiliating. All workers deserve to control their lives collectively–and that does not mean by limiting such control via management rights.

There is, of course, little point in trying to convince Ms. McMaster and other trade unionists of their lack of critical distance from collective agreements and collective bargaining. They wholeheartedly identify with the process and consider any questioning of such a process and its results to be tantamount to insanity.

It is better to practice the politics of exposure–showing the limitations of their own point of view and the limitations of what their own standards of evaluation for justice and fairness (in the video, Ms. McMaster wears a t-shirt with the inscription “We Stand For Fairness!”). Behind her, there is a poster with what appears to be the inscription “The Future Needs Good Jobs.”

The future certainly does not good jobs–but jobs controlled by workers and their community–without employers.

The future of good jobs for the social-democratic left, however, is just more of the same–collective agreements and the daily grind of working under the dictatorship of employers, limiting their power but not struggling to abolish it.

What if a worker works in a unionized setting but does not find that the work reflects being a decent job? For unionists, the worker should try to change working conditions through the next round of bargaining. However, if the worker finds working for any employer to be objectionable, unionists having nothing to say–except “Suck it up.” Or, alternatively, they will express the rhetoric of “decent work” and so forth and ignore the reality of managerial power and how degrading it is for a majority of workers to be dictated by a minority of representatives of employers.

Ms. McMaster, like her social-democratic colleagues, have a lot to answer for when they idealize collective agreements. They ultimately justify the dictatorship of employers over workers despite their rhetoric to the contrary.

It is, of course, ultimately up to workers themselves whether they wish to organize for purposes of remaining within the limits of the power of the class of employers or whether they wish to organize for going beyond that power. The attempt to go beyond that power is both much more difficult and much more risky. On the other hand, given the emergence of right-wing movements and political parties, it is also risky organizing only to limit the power of employers.

To sum up: Evidently, it it has been argued that the answer to the question whether collective agreements convert working for employers into decent work depends on the level of your standard for deciding what decent work is. The level of many unionists is the collective agreement itself. I have argued, in this and other posts, that level is wholly inadequate. Workers deserve a much higher standard, but to achieve such a standard requires going beyond limitations to employer power and to the power of their representatives via management; it requires questioning any agreement between employers and workers as embodying decent work.

We deserve much better than just collective agreements. We deserve to control our own lives collectively.

The Radical Left Needs to Call into Question Existing Social Institutions at Every Opportunity, Part One

Before I obtained a so-called permanent teaching position (I will explain in a much later post why I use the word “so-called”), I worked for a number of years as a substitute teacher (with short periods of term teaching positions). I became an executive member of the Winnipeg Teachers’ Association (WTA) (in the province of Manitoba, Canada), representing substitute teachers.

The WTA had an education fund for the executive, where each member, if approved by the executive, could access up to $3,000 for educational purposes. A condition for obtaining such funds was a summary of the educational experience and its publication in the WTA newsletter.

I used this situation as an opportunity to criticize the limitations of the educational experience.

Of course, representatives should not limit themselves to such criticism but rather perform their representative function in order to enhance the democratic nature of the union or association to which they belong. To that end, I and others on the Substitute Teachers’ Committee created a survey for substitute teachers and used the results of such a survey to criticize the policy of the WTA of permitting only permanent teachers the right to apply for permanent positions (substitute teachers paid association dues and consisted of usually 700-900 paying members of around 4000 members, but they did not have the right to apply for permanent positions).

Below is a copy of the draft (written in 2007) as well as the critical summary of my educational experience.

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To the Negotiations Committee

As members of the same organization, all should be treated in the same way unless there are sufficient differential grounds for distinguishing the members and for thus treating them on a differential basis. However, that does not mean that substitute teachers should necessarily all have the same rights as permanent contract teachers.

A basic principle of political philosophy is that all should be treated the same unless there are differential conditions for treating some differently from others. There are differential conditions, at least in the case of substitute teachers who are relatively new. Would it be fair, for instance, that permanent contract teachers, who by definition generally expect to work for the same employer for years, be reduced to the same rights as a beginning substitute teacher? Attachment to a particular employer for an increasing length of time forms the basis for privileging permanent teachers over substitute teachers, just as the principle of seniority does in unions.

However, as substitute teachers are engaged in employment with the same employer for an increasing length of time, the grounds for differential treatment become less and less valid.

Of course, the reported statistics from the survey of substitute teachers do indicate that there is a substantial percentage of substitute teachers who have been employed by the Division for a number of years. Their exclusion from any consideration of whether they can apply for positions is less valid than the exclusion of shorter term substitute teachers. Of course, the exact cut off line is not easy to define, but the issue is first of all whether all substitute teachers should be banned from applying for positions. Perhaps there are counterarguments which justify such exclusion, and I would like to hear such arguments. Lacking such counterarguments, substitute teachers with a certain period of employment with the Division should have the right to apply for positions as they arise, just like permanent contract teachers.

Addressing now the issue of those with a shorter period of employment with the Division, the Division may agree to allow them to apply for positions once the third round of blue sheets have been distributed.

In other words, there would be two sets of substitute teachers, those with sufficient length of service to be able to apply for positions immediately, and those with less service, who would be able to apply for positions on the third round of job postings.

Although this two-tier system of selection may be preferable, it may not be possible during the 2009 round of bargaining; a collective agreement involves two parties, and it may be impossible to negotiate the “best” scenario in any particular year of bargaining. Consequently, there are two alternative proposals: a “bottom-line one,” and a preferred (but perhaps unrealistic) one at this stage. The important point is to have substitute teachers’ concern about the right to apply for job postings addressed.

Proposed “bottom-line clause”: All substitute teachers shall have the right to apply for job postings during the third round of postings of the blue sheets.”

An alternative would be as follows: Substitute teachers who have substituted for the Division for at least ten (10) years shall have the right to apply for job postings. Substitute teachers with less than 10 years of substitute teaching shall have the right to apply for job postings during the third round of postings of the blue sheet.”

Of course, the exact wording is irrelevant at this stage. It is the concept that matters.

Fred, chair, Substitute Teachers’ Committee

The critical summary of my educational experience (

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The Double-Bind of Teachers as Employees

On September 21 [2007], I attended a seminar on Employment Law Essentials. It covered various topics, including the difference between an employee and an independent contractor, pre-employment inquiries, employment standards and workplace harassment policies.

There were two areas of most relevance to teachers: a discussion of the nature of an employee and the issue of the age at which people can become employees.

Let us start with the last issue first. The age at which people can become employees is relevant for teachers since the age at which students can become employees then arises. Generally, it is very difficult for students under the age of 12 to become employees. On the other hand, it is less difficult for students between the ages of 12 and 16 to obtain a permit. Four people must be in agreement if those between 12 and 16 are to become employees: the student, the parent, the principal and the employer. Since being an employee may affect school work, teachers who are concerned about some of their students working as employees may consult with the principal since the latter needs to agree to such employment.

Addressing now the first issue—the nature of an employee—there are four criteria for determining whether a person is an employee or has her or his own business (is an independent contractor): lack of control over the work performed (how, when and where the work is to be performed), the ownership of tools, possibility of loss or gain and the extent to which the person is integrated into the employer’s operations. The criterion of loss or gain is inapplicable to the situation of teachers. The criterion of integration is only used in borderline cases. Hence, the question of the status of teachers is reduced to the two criteria of control and ownership of tools.

In the seminar, we briefly discussed whether teachers are employees. Although teachers may control the order in which the curriculum is presented, it is the Division, generally, which determines standards of performance for teachers. Another aspect of control is whether the employer determines where and when work is done. Teachers work for the Division and not for specific schools. The collective agreement may modify the power of the employer, but it does not fundamentally alter the situation—as teachers in low-enrollment schools may discover when they are transferred to other schools. In terms of control, teachers are employees.

The other criterion for determining who is an employee is the ownership of tools. In the case of teachers, although the latter may personally purchase items for use in the classroom, it is the Division which owns the buildings, the things in the building and so forth. The fact that the Division may represent the vague public because of the payment of taxes does not change the situation.

Since the situation of teachers satisfies the two major criteria for determining whether teachers are employees, it can indeed be concluded that they are employees.

The collective agreement does not change the status of teachers as employees; it modified the conditions of employment—certainly an important characteristic—but it does not fundamentally alter the employer-employee relationships as such. For example, employment standards are such that judges will take into account length of service to an employer when considering notice required, but the judge will not take it into consideration when the issue of dismissal arises. Arbitrators of collective agreements, on the other hand, do take into account length of service when considering the issue of dismissal.

The issue of control is full of interesting sub-issues. One of the issues that were brought up was whether employees who are under the control of employers are extensions of the will of the employer. They are. This situation, however, has major social implications. If employees are extensions of the will of the employer, then employees are means to the ends specified by the employer.

Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, argued that it is a categorical ethical imperative to treat all human beings as ends in themselves. If we apply the philosophical principle of the unity of the ends in the means and the means in the ends, then to treat human beings as ends in themselves is to have them participate in the process of defining their own ends. They need to be able to contribute to the formation of the ends toward which their activity tends: living democracy rather than formal democracy.

Being an employee, however, which involves being an extension of the will of the employer, clashes with the principle of treating human beings as a unity of both means and ends in the same process. Human life is split, with teachers being extensions of the will of the Division. Their personhood is suspended to the extent that they cannot formulate the ends of their own activity in conjunction with the activity of other teachers.

This clash applies to other employees in other domains, such as waiters and waitresses, bus drivers, factory workers, office workers and so forth. In the specific case of teachers, though, there is an added contradiction. Teachers are supposed to treat students as ends in themselves: the formation of character. To do so, they need to have students learn to unify the ends in the means and the means in the ends. If, however, part of their function is to prepare students for their status as employees, then their educative function clashes with their function within the school system. This is the double bind of teachers: being an employee, on the one hand, and being an educator within an economy dominated by the employer-employee relation on the other.

Are teachers in a double bind? What do other teachers believe?

Fred Harris, executive member

Management Rights, Part Seven: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Quebec

It is fascinating how the social-democratic or reformist left, with their talk of “good contracts,” “decent work,” a “fair deal,” and “economic justice” and so forth do not feel that they have the need to justify themselves. They assume what they must prove to workers–that a collective agreement expresses “good contracts,” and so forth.

Do you think that collective agreements as a whole, which concentrates decision-making power in a minority called management, express good contracts? Fairness? Decent work? A fair deal? Economic justice?

What do you think of the following?


Agreement concluded
the Management Negotiating Committee for English-language School Boards (CPNCA)
the Centrale des syndicats du Québec on behalf of the professionals’ unions represented by its bargaining agent, the Fédération des professionnelles et professionnels de l’éducation du Québec (CSQ)

page 12:

The union recognizes the board’s right to direct, administer and manage, subject to the provisions of this agreement.

Of course, it may be the best contract under the power relations that currently exist–but that is not the same thing as claiming that it is a “good contract.” Ideologues for unions may counter that it is implied that the power relations are unfair. But if so, why is it that the union bureaucracy does not bring it out explicitly? Are they afraid that some workers might start organizing to overthrow (abolish) those conditions?

Where and where is there discussion and debate over such issues? Certainly not in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Trying to bring such issues out into the open results in insults (I was called a condescending prick by one union representative; a Facebook friend called me “delusional” when I tried to link the issue of the power of employers to the issue of the state of Ohio prohibiting girls who were raped from having abortions).

Should we not be discussing the issue of why management rights exist? Should we not be discussing what the implications of such rights have on our working and daily lives? Should we not be discussing what we should be do about the problem of a minority dictating to a majority?

Management Rights, Part Six: Public Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia

I thought it appropriate to include a collective agreement of the place where I used to work. I worked as a bilingual library technician at the District Resource Centre of School District No 57, Prince George, British Columbia for about two and a half years. I was also the union steward at the board office and participated as a member of the bargaining committee in collective bargaining.

Unlike the social-democratic left, I hardly found my working experience there to be “decent” (as in “decent work,” a phrase used by the social-democratic left often enough, without explaining what they mean by it). Being riveted in front of a computer screen day after day became boring and oppressive. In the old collective agreement (in the early 1990s), it was the Operating Engineers Union, Local 858, that represented the workers. In that collective agreement, those who worked in front of a computer screen could do alternative work for ten minutes per hour. I began to exercise that right and did some clerical work (affixing labels to items, for example). Needless to say, this created an implicit friction between my immediate supervisor, Carrie Yuen-Lo, and me since it interfered with management’s decision-making power to determine what I and my fellow workers were to do.

Interestingly enough, other workers who worked in front of computer screens did not use this right to escape from being in front of the computer screen for hours on end without a break. Perhaps they enjoyed their work so much that they felt no need to take a break. Or perhaps they felt intimidated and feared making waves. I will let the reader decide which was the more probable reason.

Should workers comply with collective agreements out of necessity (because their enemy has more power than they do–for now), or should they comply with them because it is the “decent” or right thing to do? Union reps have few if any answers to this question. Why is that?


LOCAL 4991
JULY 1,2014 TO JUNE 30,2019

page 5:

4.01 The Union recognizes the right and responsibility of the Board to manage and
operate the school district, and agrees that the employment, assignment, direction
and determination of employment status of the work force Is vested exclusively in the Board, except as otherwise specifically provided in this agreement Of applicable legislation.

4.02 It is mutually agreed that no third party Shall have the right to amend, modify or expand the provisions of the collective agreement and any Issue arising during the term of the agreement on which the Board has not specifically agreed to some limitation on the exercise of its authority will be conclusively determined by the judgement of the Board until otherwise established through subsequent collective bargaining.

Ontario Looks Right–With Some Help From the “Left”

Herman Rosenfeld recently wrote an article on the election of the right-wing government of Doug Ford in Ontario, Canada (Ontario Looks Right). I would like to take issue with some of his analysis, specifically in relation to unions (and, to a less extent, to community organizations).

He writes:


Still, noticeably weak in the campaign was the labor movement. Three different unions waged competing anti-privatization campaigns in the year leading up to the election and were in no position to wage a sustained anti-Ford campaign with its own agenda. They did little or no education in most unions with their members, let alone in their communities, about the underlying issues, other than official appeals to vote for the NDP. Without any socialist political party or movement with roots in working-class communities or institutions, this is not surprising. …

There are several lessons that one can quickly draw from the experience of the Days of Action and the fightback against right-wing populist regimes elsewhere. Clearly, without engaging the working class as a whole, in unions as well as communities, you can’t build a movement that can confront both employers and the government. Simply taking verbal pot shots at the obvious buffoonery of Ford (or Trump for that matter) doesn’t change anything. It simply emboldens their base.

There has be a series of alternative policies and approaches popularized across the working class that can address many of the workers who supported Ford and his party. Mass democratic movements of workers, women, indigenous, LGBTQ people, tenants, and more need to be ready to disrupt the workings of the system that Ford looks to impose. This won’t be easy.

The NDP (like the Democrats in the US) will include elements that can be part of any resistance movement. Some of the newly elected MPPs have excellent activist histories that have placed them decidedly to the left of the party’s leadership. They should be welcomed as allies.

On the other hand, the NDP has a history of limiting the space for left critiques and activism within its caucus. Leader Horwath has already made moves to limit the party’s role to being an official parliamentary opposition and a government-in-waiting. This doesn’t bode well for the NDP’s potential role in any movement.
But it is critical not to subordinate any movement’s autonomy or leadership to that of a moderate, electoral political party like the NDP. It is important to keep in mind that the latter only became the center of electoral opposition to Ford because of the collapse of the Liberals and the lack of any real left alternative.

Most important is to build what was completely lacking in the last major popular push against the Harris years: socialists have to work with allies to change the opinions and understanding of working people who look to the false solutions of Ford. This can’t be done in isolation, but as part of building an alternative resistance in unions, communities, and other working-class spaces and institutions.

It means combining socialist principles with deeper education about the causes and solutions to challenges posed by neoliberalism, along with learning about right-wing populism and its agenda. Socialists need to argue that a clear analysis of the conjuncture and of the nature of our forces and those on the other side is essential in building solid resistance. This has to be done inside and alongside unions and working-class institutions and spaces and social movements, around all kinds of issues that have a class component: housing, transportation, education, workplace issues, jobs, social programs, racism, sexism, homophobia, and more.
Upcoming municipal elections across Ontario in October provide a potential space to mobilize resistance across the province if the left can build sectoral networks around the above issues, in alliance with elected officials, candidates, and community and labor activists.

Socialist organizations and individuals are small and isolated. We can’t control the larger course of events, but we can contribute towards building a countermovement against Ford and the broader right-wing populist push he represents — a movement that can ultimately move from playing defense against these forces to offense.

He rightly points out that the NDP limits leftist criticism and activism, but he does not extend this to the unions in any detailed way. Why not? General criticisms of unions are hardly what is needed at this point.

For example, John Cartwright, president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, speaks of economic justice, in his open letter of January 30, 2018 (an open letter to our movement):

 We need to fight for labour law reform including broader based bargaining so that precarious workers can have a vehicle in which to achieve dignity and economic justice.

It is unlikely that he means by economic justice the creation of a working-class movement organized to abolish the treatment of workers as a class. He probably means the signing of a collective agreement, with its management rights clause. (For an example of a management rights clause.  Management Rights: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia

Compare this with the money circuit of capital (The Money Circuit of Capital) to determine whether workers experience economic justice even in the best-case scenario of a collective agreement. Or do not socialist principles include opposing treating human beings as things, as mere means for others’ purposes?

What are these socialist principles of which Herman speaks? Do they not contradict many of the principles of what union leaders and representatives express these days? Does not resistance against the right include criticizing the rhetoric that many union leaders and representatives express?

As for issues that have a class component: Where was this component when the wisdom of the social-reformist left linked the fight for a minimum $15 with the idea of “fairness”? As I argued in another post, the radical left abandoned any class view and simply jumped on the bandwagon of “Fight for $15 and Fairness.” (The Limitations of the Social-Reformist Left).

What of CUPE 3902 and its reference to a fair contract (CUPE 3902)? Do socialist principles indicate that there can be such a thing as a fair contract given the power of employers as a class? Should socialist then remain silent over the issue?

As for the right-wing drift in many countries, one contributing factor may be the acceptance of social-reformist rhetoric, that is to say, the lack of criticism of the so-called progressive left.

It would be necessary to develop a socialist organization that is willing to criticize both unions, with their persistent vague references of social justice, and community organizations that do the same (see for example my criticism of OCAP, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty). Basic Income: A Critique of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Stance). 

What is needed is—a more specific idea of what socialist principles mean. I thought I tried to live socialist principles by criticizing union rhetoric—and was abused because of it.

What, then, are these socialist principles? How do they relate to collective agreements? How do they relate to unions? How do they relate to ideas like the Fight for $15 and Fairness? How do they relate to working for employers as a class?

So many questions—but no answers to be found in Herman’s article. A pity.