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”:

5 MANAGEMENT FUNCTIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professor Noonan says, further (page 12):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I wrote in my previous post:

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

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

Apolitical Intellectuals

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

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

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

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

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

On that day
the simple men will come.

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

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

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

A vulture of silence
will eat your gut.

Your own misery
will pick at your soul.

And you will be mute in your shame.”

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

What’s Left, Toronto? Part Five

As I indicated in an earlier post, on September 19, 2018, several leftist activists gave a talk about what was to be done in the city of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The talks were posted on the Socialist Project website on October 7, 2018 (also posted on YouTube) (What’s Left, Toronto? Radical Alternatives for the City Election). As I indicated in my earlier posts, over the next few months, I will be analyzing some or all of the talks from a Marxian perspective.

The fourth presenter is preceded by a few comments from Herman Rosenfeld, the moderator of the series. Mr. Rosenfeld made the following remarks about the next presenter, James Nugent: “James was involved in some of the struggles to try to reclaim and create decent jobs in a number of neighbourhoods in Toronto.” I had occasion to remark about a similar comment when Mr. Rosenfeld opened the series. I wrote in the first post:

He [Mr. Rosenfeld] mentions “decent, secure jobs with decent pay.” Why any self-declared socialist feels compelled to declare, at this stage of capitalism, to pair the term “decent” with “jobs” and “decent” with “pay” other than fear of alienating his social-reformist allies or due to opportunism is beyond me.”  I leave it to the reader to make her/his own judgement. (See further What’s Left, Toronto? Part One).

Now, let us proceed with an analysis of James Nugent’s presentation. Mr. Nugent refers to community benefits agreements (CBAs). They have employment equity or affirmative action conditions attached to them. Mr. Nugent refers to the Eglinton Crosstown CBA and the Woodbine Casino CBAs. A CBA imposes conditions of employment that are linked to benefiting the community or communities where a project is being built. For example, in the case of the Woodbine Casino CBA,

The agreement requires that 40 per cent of all new employees will be hired from the local area, with some of those jobs filled with the assistance of social organizations in the community. The agreement also stipulates that 10 per cent of all construction-related job hours will have to be filled using apprentices or journeypersons from the surrounding area. (Council Approves Community Benefits Agreement for Woodbine Casino)

Mr. Nugent argues that there are several problems with such agreements, ranging from trade offs between different neighbourhoods or different social groups to merely reformist efforts or even neoliberal CBAs or negotiated neoliberalism.

Nonetheless, he identifies some positive aspects to CBAs, such as bringing to the public eye in an the idea of employment equity again, which had been suppressed since the 1990s; employment equity or affirmative action has an advantage over protests of being an offensive rather than an offensive tactic. Furthermore, it also permitted grassroots social groups and unions to meet in the same room in order to discuss issues rather than going their separate ways, which is usually the case.

Despite these positive benefits, Mr. Nugent’s focus is allegedly elsewhere: he argues that the CBAs have a radical potential if the focus is not on the outcomes but rather on the potential for radical organizing. He outlines five principles for transforming CBAs into a radical movement.

The first principle is that work on a CBA should not focus on results or outcomes but rather on organizing for power and building a radical movement that is capable of forcing the government to give them what they want. There should not be a continual process of negotiations for meager reforms. The goal should be for building a powerful social movement.

The second principle is that it is necessary to raise expectations. This raising of expectations, however, needs to be done honestly. It is necessary to indicate that no positive outcomes may result but that if no one tries, then there will automatically be no positive changes. It is in the process of trying to win honestly that power structures will be created.

The third principle (it is unclear to me whether raising expectations honestly is the third principle, but I assume it forms part of the second principle) is that coalitions that lead to the creation of structures of power need to be led by grassroots groups, not by social agencies that are too tied to the state and funding.

The fourth principle is the building of a broad-based coalition for struggle. Our strength is in numbers. What is necessary is link up issues, such as the CBA with affordable housing groups, anti-poverty groups, groups working with ex-offenders and anti-privation groups.

The fifth principle is that it is necessary to engage, to organize and not focus on servicing the needs of a few (however real such needs are). Employment equity is important, but what is more important is consciousness-raising. People involved in CBAs need to understand the broader picture, understand that they are part of a social movement and themselves become leaders of such a movement.

Mr. Nugent then seems to add a sixth principle: leadership needs to emerge from the social movement itself and not from some professional individuals (such as unionists). In this way, a radical democratic and decentralized organizing structure of power will emerge.

Mr. Nugent sums up by arguing that CBAs need to become a movement building tool to build radical and lasting power.

These principles seem sound for developing some power, but what kind of power? And what does Mr. Nugent mean by radical? Like other presenters, he never gets around to discussing what that means. He never relates this to the issue of how the building of power is to be related to the power of employers at work–a daily experience for billions worldwide and millions of workers within Canada.

The idea of radical democratic organizations sounds very fair and open-minded. However, it is, in the context of lives dominated by the power of employers as a class, just rhetoric. Building structures of power that fail to have the focus of taking back control of our lives by taking back and reorganizing the property of the conditions for producing our lives (the machines, buildings and land required for us to produce our own lives) are bound to fail.

In other words, it is an issue of the kind of structures of power that are built that will decide whether they are really radical or not. Are such structures that are built designed to fight against the power of employers as a class? Or are they designed to fight within such structures? For example, what is Mr. Nugent’s position with respect to collective-bargaining structures? To unions? Such structures, if challenged by grassroots leaders, are bound to push back and fight against such grassroots leaders. He skirts the question entirely by claiming that leadership needs to arise organically and not be part of professional organizations (such as unions).

He also skirts the question by claiming that traditional work in CBAs is valuable in itself; he probably fears alienating union leadership directly. Thus, John Cartwright, president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, indirectly endorses traditional CBAs; in the fall 2016 Toronto & York Region Labour Council newsletter, Labour Action, Mr. Cartwright, in his “Message from the President,” refers to such agreements; he is also a member of the Community Benefits Ontario network.

Employment equity or affirmative action as a goal need not of course be opposed and can be beneficial to certain groups, but if they are framed entirely within the general social relation of employer-employee relations, then they will inevitably have limits imposed on them not just externally but internally. The participants will subjectively consider employment equity without considering how to frame such a policy in such a way that it questions the class of employers.

Where is there evidence that Mr. Cartright questions the legitimacy of the power of employers as a class? As I wrote in another post:

Consider the rhetoric of John Cartwright, president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, in his open letter of January 30, 2018, wrote the following: “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.”

What does Mr. Cartwright mean by economic justice? Collective agreements? Since he does not explain what he means (a characteristic of rhetoric), we will assume that he means collective agreements between employers and unions.

Collective agreements, as I have persistently argued, are generally better than just relying only on employment law, but to imply that they somehow embody economic justice as Mr. Cartwright does justifies the continued treatment of human beings as things, as means to ends defined by dictators called employers (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

Mr. Nugent, perhaps, believes, like Mr. Rosenfeld, that the goal should be “decent jobs.” That is to say, the goal is to create unionized jobs for all. For anyone who has read some of the posts on this blog, it is obvious that the concept of “decent jobs,” with their associated collective agreement (and collective bargaining), are generally better than jobs without unions, without collective bargaining and without collective agreements.

Collective agreements, however, as this blog constantly stresses, are holding agreements that continue to express exploitation and oppression. 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. Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that such relatively privileged workers exist in a sea of workers, whether unionized or not, who are things to be used by employers systematically and legally. University professors cannot engage in research, teaching and administrative activities unless there are other workers who produce their food, clothing, cars and so forth.

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

Apolitical Intellectuals

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

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

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

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

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

On that day
the simple men will come.

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

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

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

A vulture of silence
will eat your gut.

Your own misery
will pick at your soul.

And you will be mute in your shame.

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

In relation to Mr. Nugent’s presentation, the vagueness of the concept of what is radical permits Mr. Nugent to propose what he calls radical without really detailing what he means–a very unfortunate characteristic of these presentations so far. Vagueness of meaning permits individuals to evade intellectual (and, ultimately, practical) responsibility for their beliefs, as John Dewey, the American philosopher of education noted long ago (from How We Think, 1910/2011, How We Think, pages 129-130):

A being that cannot understand at all is at least protected from mis-understandings. But beings that get knowledge by means of inferring and interpreting, by judging what things signify in relation to one another, are constantly exposed to the danger of mis-apprehension, mis-understanding, mis-taking—taking a thing amiss. A constant source of misunderstanding and mistake is indefiniteness of meaning. Through vagueness of meaning we misunderstand other people, things, and ourselves; through its ambiguity we distort and pervert. Conscious distortion of meaning may be enjoyed as nonsense; erroneous meanings, if clear-cut, may be followed up and got rid of. But vague meanings are too gelatinous to offer matter for analysis, and too pulpy to afford support to other beliefs. They evade testing and responsibility. Vagueness disguises the unconscious mixing together of different meanings, and facilitates the substitution of one meaning for another, and covers up the failure to have any precise meaning at all. It is the aboriginal logical sin—the source from which flow most bad intellectual consequences. Totally to eliminate indefiniteness is impossible; to reduce it in extent and in force requires sincerity and vigor. To be clear or perspicuous a meaning must be detached, single, self-contained, homogeneous as it were, throughout.

Mr. Nugent is certainly correct to emphasize the need for focusing on having individuals and groups start to look at the bigger picture, but he fails to delve into the nature of that bigger picture.

My prediction is that, in say three years, the issue of the power of employers as a class will not be addressed by Mr. Nugent; his radicalism probably will extend only within the limits defined by such power.

What’s Left, Toronto? Certainly not a radical agenda–so far.

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?

From

Agreement concluded
between
the Management Negotiating Committee for English-language School Boards (CPNCA)
and
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)
2015-2020,

page 12:

ARTICLE 2-2.00 RECOGNITION
2-2.01
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?

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

Professor Jeff Noonan, as contained in a reference to his work in a previous post( The Poverty of Academic Marxism, Part One), claimed that historical materialism must evolve. This seems to imply that his form of historical materialism, under present conditions, is superior to the historical materialism proposed by Marx.

Professor Noonan claims the following (from Thinkings 4Collected Interventions, Readings, Evocations, 2014-2015, page 8:

A glaring example of the dangers of striking occurred in February of 2012, when workers in London, Ontario were taught a brutal object lesson in the reality of global capitalism. Then Canadian Auto Workers on strike against the locomotive maker Electro-motive were given an impossible choice. The company (a subsidiary of Caterpillar) demanded that the union agree to cut their existing wages in half, or face the closure of the plant. Seeing that what was at stake was not just their plant, but the future of the union movement in the Ontario manufacturing sector, these workers heroically sacrificed themselves, went on strike, and watched their livelihood move to Muncie, Indiana. Had they not stood up to the brutish tactics of Electro-motive, every manufacturer in the country would have been encouraged to make the same demands. What boss wouldn’t want to cut her or his workers’ wages in half? While the jobs were lost, the massive public outcry against legalized extortion preserved the possibility of meaningful collective bargaining in other plants, at least for the time being.

What does “meaningful collective bargaining” mean for Professor Noonan? It is difficult to know since he does not explicitly provide an answer, but the following may what he means (page 12):

v) The University will cease collecting union dues from members and forwarding those dues to WUFA (Article 4:01 and 4:02).”

Now, on one level, these changes are not alarming, for they are changes that would occur in the case of a lockout. What is most disconcerting is that they were unexpectedly thrown into the room when it appeared that both sides were making progress by negotiating and not threatening. Both teams bargained past the lockout deadline and had scheduled meetings for the next day. The assumption amongst members– naïve, as it turned out– was that both sides had found common ground and were splitting the differences that get split for the sake of reaching an agreement with which everyone can live.

Meaningful bargaining is where the parties engage in negotiations in order to achieve a common ground “for the sake of reaching an agreement with which everyone can live.”

Now, in typical collective bargaining, any member of a negotiating team knows that all items on the table will not be achieved. There will be items that are considered more important. The relative strength of the parties to the negotiations in the particular conditions will affect what can be realistically be achieved in the short term (and this includes the possible resources used in lockouts and strikes).

But why refer to the idea of an “agreement with which everyone can live?” Does Mr. Noonan mean by that an attitude by workers that, given the balance of class forces, this is the best that can be achieved, but otherwise it is not something that “everyone can live with”–but have to do so for the time being? That is to say, that the collective agreement is something that does not express fairness but rather expresses the weakness of workers collectively until such time as they no longer need to negotiate agreements that entail their subordination to the power of employers (and managers as their representatives)? Do the various management rights clauses that have so far been posted on this blog express “an agreement with which everyone can live?” Or do they express the asymmetrical power relations between unionized workers and the class power of employers?

What would Professor Noonan say to a worker who works under the collective agreement at the university where he works (see Management Rights, Part Five: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario) if that worker did not find not only the particular collective agreement unfair but all collective agreements unfair since they presuppose the subordination of the will of workers to the power of an employer (and his or her representatives)?

There is a world of difference between understanding that a collective agreement may be the best that can be hoped for under existing conditions of class power and the view that a collective agreement is something that people can live with. In the first case, there is a smoldering presence of a feeling of unfairness, which can surface when conditions change. In the second case, there is a feeling of fairness, and workers who breach a collective agreement can legitimately be reprimanded. Professor Noonan’s failure to specify any difference between the two probably expresses his own working conditions, which are undoubtedly superior to most workers who are employees.

Imagine a situation where a group of thugs decide to set up a process of collective bargaining between themselves and people whom they have sexually abused. Representatives of the sexually abused engage in negotiations with representatives of the thugs. Under given circumstances, the thugs have much more power than those who are sexually abused. If they come to an agreement over the extent of sexual abuse (with both parties bargaining in good faith), would professor Noonan call the resulting agreement an agreement “with which everyone can agree with?”

Yes, workers are not sexually abused, but as employees they are used as things for purposes over which they lack control (see The Money Circuit of Capital). Why should anyone who is an employee feel that they can live with such an agreement except for the recognition that they have to do so, given the necessarily unequal power relations between them and the class of employers?

Despite Professor Noonan’s radical rhetoric, his hidden assumption is that working for an employer is not really all that bad. How else could he refer to an agreement “with which everyone can agree with?”

In the movie Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee is fighting against several people, and he runs into a chamber where the walls suddenly close on all sides. He cannot escape, realistically. He sits down and accepts the situation–not because it is fair but, presumably, because he lacks the power to oppose the situation. This is what the collective-bargaining process should express and not such social-reformist rhetoric as accepting a contract “with which everyone can agree.”

Professor Noonan reminds seems to forget–or perhaps he never learned–the lesson of Bob Dylan’s song, Like a Rolling Stone. In that song, Dylan sings the following:

You never turned around to see the frowns
on the jugglers and the clowns
when they all did tricks for you.

Although I can never be sure, the hidden resentment that people feel in the face of those in power is probably well expressed in the expression of a Guatemalan (perhaps a peasant) sitting on a roadside when the military was there. (See at around 2:30, Guatemala–Pete Sears) Guatemalan peasants had to live with the extreme oppression characteristic of Guatemala in the later 1970s and especially in the early 1980s, but they need not “learn to live with it.”

Professor Noonan may argue that he merely needed to qualify his reference to collective agreements “with which everyone can agree,” as I have done above, but since he failed to qualify such an assertion, it can be inferred that Professor Noonan does not really come to grips with the daily oppression and the daily grind that most workers face at his own workplace, let alone in the wider city of Windsor and, indeed, in the province of Ontario, in Canada and in the world.

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?

From

AGREEMENT
BETWEEN
THE BOARD OF SCHOOL TRUSTEES OF
SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 57 (PRINCE GEORGE}
AND
CANADIAN UNION OF PUBLIC EMPLOYEES
LOCAL 4991
JULY 1,2014 TO JUNE 30,2019

page 5:

ARTICLE 4 • MANAGEMENT RIGHTS
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.

Management Rights, Part Five: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario

There are some among the left who idealize the public sector. They fail to address how the public sector magically treats workers in the public sector, who are employees, as human beings rather than as things. They have no solution to the problem of the employer-employee relation in general except–nationalization. Such nationalization hardly implies democratization and humanization of the workplace, and yet the left continue to idealize the public sector.

From page 1, Collective Agreement:

THIS AGREEMENT made this 16th day of September, 2016
BETWEEN:
UNIVERSITY OF WINDSOR, hereinafter called the ‘Employer
OF THE FIRST PART
and
UNIFOR LOCAL 2458 –
(FULL TIME OFFICE & CLERICAL UNIT) hereinafter call the “
Union”
OF THE SECOND PART:

ARTICLE 2 -MANAGEMENT RIGHTS

2:01 The Union acknowledges that all managerial rights of the Employer hitherto exercised by the Employer shall be reserved to it, except to the extent herein limited; and without limiting the generality of the foregoing, the Union acknowledges that it is the right of the Employer to:

(a) Manage, conduct and operate the University of Windsor;

(b) Maintain order, discipline and efficiency;

(c) Establish and enforce rules and regulations consistent with the provisions of this Agreement, governing the conduct of the employees;

(d) Hire, classify, direct, transfer, lay off, promote, demote, suspend, discipline or discharge employees for just cause provided that a claim of direction, transfer, promotion, demotion, lay off, suspension, discipline or discharge without just cause may be the subject of a grievance under the orderly procedure as outlined in this Agreement.

2:02 The Employer agrees that such rights shall be exercised in a fair manner consistent with the terms and provisions of this Agreement.

2:03 The Employer will inform the Union and the Chairperson, in writing, with at least one (1) month notice, prior to any changes concerning rules and regulations as referred to in 2:01 (c) above.

Should the radical left not develop a more critical approach to the public sector? Should it not also develop a more thoroughgoing critical analysis of this sector (as Marx did for the private sector)? What of public financing? What is the left’s analysis of such financing? In relation to the employer-employee relation and the power structure at work in the public sector?

Should the left engage in self-criticism–including its own theoretical, empirical and practical limitations?

 

Management Rights, Part Four: Private Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario

The social-democratic left typically is incapable of dealing with the issue of the power of management. There is little or no discussion over such issues despite the existence of the power of the class of employers at various levels of society: economic, political, social and cultural. This silence expresses both the power of the class of employers and the poverty of the social-democratic left.

Indeed, the social-reformist left often uses such phrases as a “decent job,” or “decent work”–as if for most people in a capitalist society there is such a thing. Alternatively, the standard used by the left to judge what constitutes decent work and a decent job assumes the legitimacy of the power of employers.

Such a standard is assumed and not justified, of course, by the social-reformist left. Indeed, I even heard one so-called radical leftist in Toronto claim that the phrase “decent work” expressed a defensive maneuver on the part of the left. Such a view is convenient for those who fear alienating unions.

However, is it in the interests of workers to hide the reality of work that is undignified and involves their treatment as things in one way or another?

In the following clause, should not the members of the union have discussed the clause thoroughly? What is the likelihood that they have? My wager is that they have not done so. If not, should not the union be criticized? Should not the radical left who fail to criticize such unions also be criticized?

 

From

COLLECTIVE AGREEMENT
between
AIR CANADA
And those employees
In the service of
AIR CANADA
As represented by
UNIFOR
LOCAL 2002
Contract No. 31
As modified by the Memorandums of Agreement
dated June 13th 2015
Effective: March 1st 2015, to February 28th 2020

pages 2-3:

ARTICLE 3 RESERVATIONS OF MANAGEMENT
3.01 Subject to the provisions of this Collective Agreement, the control and direction of the working forces including the right to hire, suspend or discharge for cause, dispense with, to advance or set back in
3
classification, to reassign, to transfer or lay off because of lack of work or for other legitimate reasons, is vested solely in the Company.
3.02 These enumerations shall not be deemed to exclude other prerogatives not enumerated, and any of the rights, powers or authority of the Company are retained by the Company except those which are subject to the provisions of this Collective Agreement.

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

As I wrote in my last post (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), I would provide the business agent’s reply to my letter to the editor in the same volume of the union newsletter. Here it is verbatim:

Mr. Harris’ comments are noteworthy in several respects albeit difficult to understand. I  believe that Mr. Harris is attempting to convey the message that a collective agreement only goes so far in reducing management’s unbridled right to manage its affairs and its working force and therefore a union, any union, is only as effective as the collective agreement it has to work with on behalf of its membership.

I would agree, as would most, that collective agreements only limit management’s right to manage and that which is not specifically abridged by a collective agreement remains within the employer’s purview. This right, however, is tempered by legislation which dictates that the exercising of management rights must be reasonable, fair, non-arbitrary, non-discriminatory and in good faith. Although arbitrators do not generally accept the argument that because there is a collective agreement, management is restricted to dealing only with those functions as specified in the agreement unless there is union agreement, neither do arbitrators accept the argument that management has an unfettered right to act completely as it wishes, in particular when it comes to severing or detrimentally affecting an employee benefit.

Mr. Harris reiterates the definition of a grievance which is found in our collective agreement but in so doing leaves the impression that such a definition is restrictive. I would suggest that this defines a grievance in its broadest sense.

Arbitration is the final step in the grievance procedure and therefore is part and parcel of the procedure and not an entity of its own. The arbitration of a grievance occurs only if the parties cannot come to a mutually acceptable resolution of the issue either during the process or before a grievance is ever filed. Many of the issue that arise during the life of a collective agreement are resolved without either the necessity of a grievance of arbitration. Depending on the state of the employer/employee relationship, common sense and fairness can prevail without a confrontation.

The reason that management does not file grievances is because the employer/employee relationship is such that the employer acts and the employee reacts. The union’s right to be proactive is curbed by the law which prohibits employees from withholding their services during the term of a collective agreement and specified that all agreements must contain a method of resolving disputes which arise during the term without a work stoppage (grievance procedure). Whenever management takes an action the employee must continue as normal whether or not the employer is correct (there are some exceptions). This is aptly coined as the “work now–grieve later” principle. If this were not the case then I suspect that management grievances would be a fact of life.

I do not agree, as Mr. Harris suggests, that because management’s right is merely restricted by a collective agreement that employees should not voice their concerns or their problems, unless it is certainty that a grievance is winnable. Union members should always check with their union representative any questionable act of management. After all the employer only has control over the how, what, and when, it does not have the right to treat employees in an unjust or undignified manner. Employees are not channel.

I have provided Mr. Urkevich’s response in full without my intervention so that the reader could see the whole response before I begin to analyze the response (an opportunity which I did not have since, as I said, I was no longer a member of the union).

….Mr. Harris is attempting to convey the message that a collective agreement only goes so far in reducing management’s unbridled right to manage its affairs and its working force and therefore a union, any union, is only as effective as the collective agreement it has to work with on behalf of its membership.

I fail to see how anyone could infer from what I wrote that that is the message that I wanted to convey. Unions need to teach their members the limitations of the legal rights of union members as contained in collective agreements–and those legal rights are very limited. That is what I wanted to convey.

Union representatives, in order to “sell” a contract, often exaggerate the fairness of a collective agreement and thereby do their members a disservice because they then teach them the opposite; they imply that, by being “fair,” collective agreements are not very limited instruments for protecting their collective interests. See, for example, reference to a “fair contract” by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3902 of the University of Toronto (CUPE 3902, University of Toronto Education Workers).

I would agree, as would most, that collective agreements only limit management’s right to manage and that which is not specifically abridged by a collective agreement remains within the employer’s purview. This right, however, is tempered by legislation which dictates that the exercising of management rights must be reasonable, fair, non-arbitrary, non-discriminatory and in good faith.

Mr. Urkevich, like many union representatives, begs the question. Why does he assume what he needs to prove, namely, that the employer/employee relation can be “reasonable, fair?” In the money circuit of capital, for example, it has been shown that employees are mere means for the benefit of employers (see  The Money Circuit of Capital). Indeed, as I wrote in that section:

Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, argued that, in order to act ethically, it is necessary to treat people never as means only but as ends in themselves: “For, all rational beings stand under the law that each of them is to treat himself and all others never merely as means but always at the same time as ends in themselves” (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. New York: Cambridge University Press, page 41). Human beings need to be treated as ends and not as means. To treat human beings as ends in themselves, it is necessary to have those who engage in realizing the ends also engaged in participating in the formulation of the ends.

If human beings, as employees, are treated as means to others’ ends, then how is such a situation “fair and reasonable”? For the employer, by definition, it is fair and reasonable. Is it for the workers though? Does not Mr. Urkevitch take the point of view of the employer as his standard? Should we? Why?

Is not Mr. Urkevich’s reference to “legistlation which dictates that the exercising of management rights must be reasonable, fair, non-arbitrary, non-discriminatory and in good faith” meant to justify Mr. Urkevitch’s own role as union business agent since, otherwise, Mr. Urkevich would be justifying unreasonable actions, unfair actions, and so forth.

Although arbitrators do not generally accept the argument that because there is a collective agreement, management is restricted to dealing only with those functions as specified in the agreement unless there is union agreement, neither do arbitrators accept the argument that management has an unfettered right to act completely as it wishes, in particular when it comes to severing or detrimentally affecting an employee benefit.

Of course arbitrators would not permit employers to let managers do what they will with employee benefits or, for that matter, employees in general. The treatment has to be consistent with the line of business. However, this leaves management with a very wide latitude of power to determine what can and cannot be done at work.

Whenever management takes an action the employee must continue as normal whether or not the employer is correct (there are some exceptions). This is aptly coined as the “work now–grieve later” principle. If this were not the case then I suspect that management grievances would be a fact of life.

Mr. Urkevitch, like many union representatives, assume without further ado that the employer/employee relation is inherently reasonable. I categorically deny that, and for reason already provided in reference to Kant and the money circuit of capital.

Management has a monopoly of decision-making power except as restricted by the collective agreement (and limited legislation); why employers have such a monopoly of decision-making power Mr. Urkevitch does not even question–undoubtedly like many other trade-union representatives and social-reformists.

Mr. Urkevitch merely repeats what needs to be explained: “Whenever management takes an actio the employee must continue as normal…” Why must the employee do so? Because of economic coercion, perhaps? (See “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty: OCAP)). It is the economic power of employers compared to employees that shapes legislation in favour of employers?

Mr. Urkevitch, undoubtedly like many union representatives, with a manipulative “if” (“If this were not the case”–but it is not the case–and that makes all the difference in the world for the daily lives of unionized workers–seeks to minimize the importance of the fact that it is mainly unions that file grievances and not management–because management has the power to make the major decisions that effect the lives of millions of workers.

I do not agree, as Mr. Harris suggests, that because management’s right is merely restricted by a collective agreement that employees should not voice their concerns or their problems, unless it is certainty that a grievance is winnable.

This reasoning is pure fantasy. Employees should voice their concern in various ways–even if the grievance is not winnable. Where did I imply that only if the grievance is winnable should workers voice their concern?

After all the employer only has control over the how, what, and when, it does not have the right to treat employees in an unjust or undignified manner. Employees are not chattel.

This last sentence likely sums up the attitude of many union representatives. No, employees are not chattel, that is to say, they are not slaves, owned 24 hours a day. They are not required to work for a particular employer. No one forces them to work for a particular employer.

However, just as with the manipulative use of the word “if” above, Mr. Urkevitch uses the word “only” in order to minimize the importance of how much power management has over the lives of even unionized workers: “the employer only [my emphasis] has control over the how, what, and when….”

Mr. Urkevitch evidently does not think that “control over the how, what, and when” is “unjust or undignified.”

I do. (See above, referring to Kant and the money circuit of capital). Employers, by controlling “the how, what, and when”–control the lives of workers, which is undignified and unjust.

Union representatives, like Mr. Urkevitch, however, obviously believe that it is just. They believe in the justice of the collective agreement, where “the employer only has control over the how, what, and when.”

Union representatives imply, often enough, that there is somehow something fair about collective agreements. No one seems to challenge them to explain what they mean by fair collective agreements.

For instance, here is an example from a relatively recent union representative in Ontario:

Toronto (24 May 2018)…

Warren (Smokey) Thomas, President of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU/NUPGE) said he is hopeful the employer is ready to step up and do what is right for 20,000 of its workers who have suffered for decades under appalling working conditions.

“We’ve heard countless horror stories from our new members about poor pay and job security, no vacation time, they don’t even get sick days,” said Thomas.
“The fact our members overwhelmingly voted to join OPSEU/NUPGE in the largest organizing drive in Canadian history sends a strong message that times are changing. I hope this employer will work with us and make sure our members get a fair contract,” he said.

Of course, unions generally do improve wages and working conditions, but such improvements do not give them the right to declare that any collective agreement is somehow fair. They abuse their position by doing so, and by abusing their position, they open themselves up to legitimate criticism.

Unfortunately, few among the so-called left engage in such criticism. Rather, at best they follow along behind the unions, seeking “openings” here and there to open up discussion rather than openly criticizing all talk of fair contracts or collective agreements. They do a disservice to the regular worker but certainly aid both union representatives–and the class of employers.

One final point: although any particular employee is not obliged to work for any particular employer, what of the class of emloyees in relation to the class of employers? Can the class of employees simply not work for an employer, freely and realistically? If not, what does that make them?

So many questions, but so few answers–by union representatives and, undoubtedly, by many social reformists.