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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toward an Alternative

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

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

But let us proceed:

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

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

Let us continue:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frustration and Persistence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green Jobs Oshawa Lives On

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

Collective bargaining is good for everyone

December 23, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collective bargaining is functioning exactly as intended.

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

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

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

 

Review of Jane McAlevey’s “A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy”: Two Steps Backward and One Step Forward, Part One

Jane McAlevey is everywhere these days. Recently appointed a senior fellow at Berkeley’s Labor Center, she is now also a regular columnist for both the Nation and Jacobin. Her webinar (“Organizing for Union Power”) has a global audience. She continues to be called on to address unions and run training sessions in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Scotland, and Germany. In the midst of all this, McAlevey has just come out with a third book on unions and working-class struggles, A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing and the Fight for Democracy (and a fourth is not far behind).

So writes Sam Gindin in an article published on the Socialist Project’s website (“Workplace Struggles and Democracy: Challenges for Union Organizing,” December 13, 2019). Her popularity is undoubtedly due to her skills as an innovative union organizer and collective bargainer. It is, however, undoubtedly also due to her idealization of collective bargaining (and, implicitly, collective agreements)–which is a favourite tactic of the social-democratic left.

I reviewed Ms. McAlvey’s previous book, No Short Cuts: Prganizing for Power in the New Gilded Age before (see the section “Publications and Writings” on the home page of this blog). In that work, at least, Ms. McAlevey had an explicit section on the issue of the relationship between social structure and social agency (or conscious social action). I pointed out, in my review, that Ms. McAlevey, far from solving the problem, not only ignored the issue of the relationship between micro-organizing and the macro social structure but short-circuited the issue by identifying the solution to be micro-organizing at the level of the workplace. As a consequence, she idealized workplace organizing, collective bargaining and collective agreements.

In her latest book, she does not even seek to address explicitly the issue of the relationship between social structure and social agency. As a result, she continues to idealize local workplace struggles, collective bargaining and collective agreements. She also confuses the power of employers as persons and the power of employers as a class.

Rather than look first at some of the strengths of her latest book (which I already looked at in my review of her earlier book), I will look at the weaknesses of her book.

From Chapter 1 of her book:

Despite the weakened state of most unions, workers today who are either forming new ones or reforming older ones point us in the direction of how to solve the crisis engulfing our society and our politics. In the midterm elections in 2018—dubbed the year of the woman—the misogyny oozing from the White House was somewhat rebuked at the polls. Yet the year before, working women scored a series of thoroughly impressive wins, just after Donald Trump lost the popular vote but eked out a win from the Electoral College. Many of those victories received far less media attention. As in the midterm elections, men contributed to these wins, certainly, but the central characters were women—often women of color—who waged tireless campaigns of which the outcomes would have drastic consequences. Chapter 1 discusses three such examples of women winning big.

The arena for these battles was the workplace, in the mostly female sectors of the economy such as health care, education, and hospitality, but also in the tech sector, where sexual harassment and the gender pay gap serve as a stark reminder that, despite the tech elite’s rhetoric of building a new society, nothing much has changed, unless you count the creation of the new generation of Silicon Valley billionaires as progress. Women worker-led policy changes included people wresting control of their schedules away from tone-deaf managers, most of whom have never had to pick up their kids at the bus stop; securing fair and meaningful pay raises; achieving bold new safeguards from sexual predators; and ending racism and other discriminatory practices in their salary structure. The mechanism for securing these victories was the collective bargaining process [my emphasis], and each involved strikes—the key leveraging mechanism of unions.

Strikes are uniquely powerful under the capitalist system because employers need one thing, and one thing only, from workers: show up and make the employer money. When it comes to forcing the top executives to rethink their pay, benefits, or other policies, there’s no form of regulation more powerful than a serious strike. The strikes that work the best and win the most are the ones in which at least 90 percent of all the workers walk out, having first forged unity among themselves and with their broader community. To gain the trust and support of those whose lives may be affected, smart unions work diligently to erase the line separating the workplace from society.

Strikes (and well-organized and well-strategized strikes at that) will certainly form a part of a movement for the creation of a different kind of society, but already Ms. McAlevey idealizes the collective bargaining process. She never specifies how the collective bargaining process actually expresses anything more than some gains made by workers in the face of the overwhelming economic (and political) power of the class of employers.

I have persistently referred to management rights clauses in collective agreements–and collective bargaining and the resulting collective agreement do not address this issue except as a limitation (and not as a negation) of the power of any particular employer as a member of the class of employers (and that applies to both the private and public sector). See the various management rights clauses on this blog (for example,     Management Rights, Part Eight: Private Sector Collective Agreement, Quebec).

This exaggeration of the efficacy of the collective-bargaining process forms part of the exaggerated rhetoric of the social-democratic left–such as “fair contracts.” It is a sell job in order to get workers to support unions. This may have short-term gains, but when workers then experience the day-to-day grind of working for an employer (even a unionized worker and even deeply organized workers), the rhetoric of “securing victories” starts to wear thin. So does such rhetoric as the following:

The women-powered collective bargaining wins described in chapters 1, 5, and 6 represent monumental improvements to worker and community lives[my emphasis]  that happened much faster than traditional policy changes—unless, perhaps, you are the billionaire class.

What are these “monumental improvements?” In her previous book she often refers to “good agreements.” I compared one of her “good agreements” with a collective agreement between the brewery union to which I belonged and the employer. I concluded that the brewery collective agreement was probably slightly better–but that it hardly expressed a “good agreement.”

The reference to the billionaire class sounds very “class-like”–but there are also millionaires who are capitalists, and of course there are many workers in the public sector, many of whose bosses are not capitalists at all in the strict sense.

Although it is certainly necessary to personalize the employer class rather than always referring to such generalities as the “capitalist class,” the “employer class” and the like, the problem is not just billionaires but the economic, social and political structures that constitute the mechanisms by which workers are maintained as employees (and as unemployed and underemployed for a section of the working class). To reduce the problem to the “1%” may be legitimate as a short-hand for those structures, it may also hide the need to challenge these macro structures at every opportunity. By idealizing collective bargaining and collective agreements, on the one hand, and by reducing the power of the class of employers to “the 1%,” on the other, Ms. McAlevey simply ignores the problem of the relationship between social structure and social agency.

How are we going to solve that problem and control our lives by ignoring such a problem? How are we going to do when we read such rhetoric as:

It is precisely because unions can produce these kinds of gains, even in their emaciated state, that they have been the targets of sustained attacks from the corporate class. Unions’ track record of redistributing power—and therefore wealth—and changing how workplaces are governed is what led to a war waged against them by the business class. In just twelve years in the private sector, from 1935 to 1947, with massive strikes at the core of their strategy, workers made huge breakthroughs that benefited most people and created the concept of the American Dream—that your kids will do better than you, along with home ownership for workers and a right to retire and play with those grandkids.

“huge breakthroughs?” Ms. McAlevey is prone to exaggeration–as are many social democrats. Improvements there were, and such improvements as a rising standard of living in various domains are to be welcomed through struggling against the employer class, but this reference to the “American Dream” was hardly generalized, and one of the reasons why this Dream has increasingly vanished for the working class is the exaggeration of the gains achieved through collective bargaining, collective agreements and the union movement. Workers were still used as things for the benefit of employers-something which Ms. McAlevey never addresses (see  The Money Circuit of Capital).

Ms. McAlevey’s standard for improvement is rather low. Workers deserve much better–they deserve to control their own life process, and no collective agreement can ever do that.

Ms. McAlvey exaggerates often:

The methods organizers use to achieve these kinds of all-out strikes require the discipline and focus of devoting almost all of their time and effort reaching out to the workers who don’t initially agree, or even may think they are opposed to the strike, if not the entire idea of the union. This commitment to consensus building is exactly what’s needed to save democracy. To win big, we have to follow the methods of spending very little time engaging with people who already agree, and devote most of our time to the harder work of helping people who do not agree come to understand who is really to blame for the pain in their lives. Pulling off a big, successful strike means talking to everyone, working through hard conversations, over and over, until everyone agrees. All-out strikes then produce something else desperately needed today: clarity about the two sides of any issue. Big strikes are political education, bigly. [My emphasis] 

Strikes can indeed contribute to political education, but since there is evidence that Ms. McAlevey’s political education is drastically incomplete (ignoring the issue of the relationship between social structure and social agency and how to bridge the gap indicates a drastic lack of political education–as does the idealization of collective bargaining), “big strikes” do not necessarily generate certain kinds of political education.

As for saving democracy–political democracy has more or less existed (although even that is debatable), but the dictatorship which characterizes most workplaces–even unionized and radical ones–forms part and parcel of political democracy (see, for example, my post Employers as Dictators, Part One on economic dictatorship).

Ms. McAlevey refers to “working through hard conversations,” but when I tried to engage in such a conversation about the reference to “decent work” and “fair contracts,” with what I believed were the radical left in Toronto, I was insulted and ridiculed. I decided that such “hard conversations” had to occur without such insults and ridicule. I also decided to start this blog because, when I submitted an article for possible publication to the Canadian journal Critical Education, three anonymous reviewers rejected the article as it was and recommended extensive revisions. Since I did not consider their criticisms to be valid, I sought an alternative venue for expressing my views–hence this blog. (I will be posting their criticisms as well as my critical analysis of their criticisms in future posts.)

Ms. McAlevey often refers to winning “big”–while ignoring the impossibility of really winning control over our lives unless we address the macro issue. It is a definite limitation of her approach:

Chapter 1 discusses three such examples of women winning big.

The first chapter’s title is “Workers Can Still Win Big.” Ms. McAlevey refers to the strike of Local 2850 of Unite Here against Marriott Hotels in 2018. I tried to find the collective agreement but was unable to do so (if someone finds it, please send a commentary with the link). I looked at the UNITE HERE Local 2850 website, the American site for private-sector collective agreements, the following site Collective Bargaining Agreements File: Online Listings of Private and Public Sector Agreements – OLMS (Office of Labor-Management Standards), Department of Labor, United States) and the UNITE HERE Local 2850 Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/UniteHere2850/.

On the Facebook page, one reference to the strike provides some idea of what was won:

Today members of UNITE HERE Local 2850 at the Oakland Marriott City Center ratified an agreement with Marriott and will end our strike as of tomorrow. We thank our allies who supported us in our fight for jobs that are enough to live on in Oakland.

The collective agreement, then, in this judgement, permits the workers represented by the Local sufficient wages to be able to live in Oakland.

She does refer to the persistent sexual harassment to which many hotel workers have been subject and the measures that have been taken to address the issue–as indeed the Local should. The Local, through such representatives as Irma Perez, has expanded its work to include organizing to push for (and pass) legislation that addresses sexual harassment at work.

In a footnote, Ms. McAlevey writes:

Irma Perez, author interview. Irma is what’s called a shop steward in her hotel, so she’s deeply familiar with her own contract and the standards in her area. She states, “We have to clean 15 rooms a day at my job. But at hotels that are not unionized, workers have to clean 28 rooms a day, or sometimes even 30.” From my time working in Las Vegas, the same union versus nonunion standard applied to number of rooms cleaned per day, fifteen in a unionized hotel versus upward of thirty in a nonunion casino.

Cleaning 15 rooms rather than 28 or 30 rooms is certainly a large improvement in working conditions for those who clean hotel rooms. I remember my mother, a small woman (4′ 9″ or around 145 cm) working at a hotel in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, at a hotel. She found it difficult. She finally quit when her supervisor (a Yugoslavian woman) slapped her in the face. A reduction in the intensity of labour by almost 100 percent indeed is significant.

However, let us not exaggerate such a change. The hotel workers still must do what management wants in general–there is no dignity in that–nor equity.

The strike, implicitly, was about better pay in order to eliminate the need to have two jobs to make ends meet:

has the kind of energy that can motivate everyone on the picket line for days on end, dancing as she’s [Irma Perez] chanting to remind the workers and their supporters that they are fighting for a better life, for the freedom from having to work two full-time jobs. Every picket sign has the strike slogan and the worker’s demand, ONE JOB SHOULD BE ENOUGH!

The standard of having only one job that pays sufficiently well to make ends meet is certainly a standard worthy to fight for. However, this does not meet that it is an adequate standard to justify writing such things as the following:

In addition to the wins I’ve already listed, the three unions in the case studies here have secured the right to affordable, high-quality health care; equitable pay [my emphasis]; pay policies that eliminate gender and racial disparities, and favoritism; the right to keep control over your own schedule; improvements in safety on the job, for the workers as well as the patients, students, or guests; effective tools to combat sexual harassment; advances in paid time off, whether to have and get to love a baby, to take vacation, or get sick and avoid getting everyone else sick by going to work. Part of what makes unions and collective bargaining so effective is that workers themselves pull up to the negotiation table to decide how to redistribute the profits they make for others and design rules that actually solve their immediate problems. No other mechanisms engage the ingenuity of workers themselves.

Ms. McAlevey now engages in social-democratic ideology–“equitable pay,” “fair contracts,” “decent work” and the like are catch phrases used by the social democratic left to hide the continued dictatorship of employers over the lives of workers–whether unionized or not.

I probably received higher pay in the unionized jobs that I worked than the UNITE HERE Local 2850 workers, but to claim that what I received was “equitable” in any way simply ignores the issue of how it is equitable. On what basis does Ms. McAlevey justify her claim of equitable pay? She simply ignores the issue.

Furthermore, her reference to “redistribute the profits they make for others” assumes that it is legitimate for employers to use workers to produce a profit in the first place; fighting for complete control over the workplace (and the massive class struggle that that would entail) is simply ignored.

Of course, Sam Gindin and other social-democratic activists consider such explicit aims as “taking control of the economy” (at the grassroots level) as unrealistic under existing conditions. They believe in some magical future where the issue of the power of employers as a class will be addressed–they will always push such an issue to the waited-for future.

How any aim is to be achieved except by using it in the present to organize our present activities is a mystery to me–for that is what a real aim is and not a pseudo-aim. (Among children, the inductive approach of realizing an aim less explicitly may be more appropriate, and adults may even formulate more explicit aims of what they are trying to achieve after engaging in practice for a certain time–but then again, they may never do so). This does not mean that the aim has to be clear from the outset–far from it since aims are often clarified as they are put into effect. Nevertheless, an explicit aim of eliminating the power of employers as a class is certainly a legitimate aim to be put on the agenda of the working class and discussing it in the present–rather than putting it off to the distant future that social democrats are accustomed to doing.

I will continue a critical review of Ms. McAlevey’s book in another post.

The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Five: Middle-Class Delusions

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


As noted in a previous post, Professor Noonan makes the following statement in relation to employees at a university (from Thinkings 4Collected Interventions, Readings, Evocations, 2014-2015, page 13):

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

Professor Noonan may respond that he wrote the above in hypothetical form–“if that claim is true”–rather than stating “That claim is true.” By not inquiring into whether the claim is in fact true, though, and proceeding on the basis as if it were true, he practically makes the claim that it is true.

Professor Noonan fails to consider the hierarchy at work as illegitimate; democracy for him, it seems, maintains a hierarchical division of labour; the difference is one where (page 13):

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.

Given the employer-employee relation, Professor Noonan’s position is contradictory. If there is an unelected hierarchy, then how is their democratic argument? Does not an unelected hierarchy necessarily prevent democratic argument since democratic argument requires relative equality of power? In other words, Professor Noonan assumes a socialist organization in the first place, but in the context of an unelected hierarchy, which involves unequal power relations. Or does Professor Noonan consider that an unelected hierarchy does not involve unequal power relations?

Furthermore, given the unelected hierarchy, who will be at an advantage in “the determination of budgets, policies, rules, and goals that guide the institution’s mission?” Of course, academics and the upper echelons of administration. This situation is hardly democratic (although it is certainly to the advantage of tenured academics and the upper echelons of administration).

What is more, Professor Noonan’s implicit acceptance of the current structure of the division of labour hardly reflects a just society. as James Furner has argued, in order for there to be a free society, it is necessary to abolish occupational confinement and occupational identity (see https://www.academia.edu/24290808/Marxs_Sketch_of_Communist_Society_in_The_German_Ideology_and_the_Problems_of_Occupational_Confinement_and_Occupational_Identity ).

In addition, to claim that all workers at a university should have the same goal, where the economic relation of employer-employee is dominant, is to perceive the world from the upper echelons. Why should all workers at a university have the same goal when they are treated as things by the unelected hierarchy? Or are they not treated as things? How is it possible to not be treated as a thing when there exists an employer-employee relation? Perhaps Professor Noonan can explain how this is possible.

Finally, Professor Noonan advocates class collaboration, implicitly if not explicitly. His use of the verb “cooperate” indicates that he believes that all the diverse kinds of employees working at a university should get along in a collegial fashion in order to pursue the same goal. A Marxist, by contrast, would see that although workers have a certain interest in maintaining the university as an institution in the short-run because they need money in order to live, they are used as means for the benefit of the upper echelons’ purposes and are excluded in fact from doing so (see https://theabolitionary.ca/the-money-circuit-of-capital/). Calls for cooperation in such a context work against their own long-term interest of abolishing such a situation. Rather, calls for the intensification of conflict would be more appropriate since there is already an antagonistic relation between workers as employees and management at universities.

Professor Noonan’s position, is, therefore half-hearted. Rather than seeking the elimination of the power of employers as a class, he opts for the illusion of democracy in the public sector–as if that were possible given the dominance of the power of employers as a class in both the public and private sectors.

Such is the poverty of academic leftists, social democracy and reformist leftism these days.

Management Rights, Part Eight: Private Sector Collective Agreement, Quebec

Here is another clause from a collective agreement concerning management rights, this time from the private sector–and in a province in Canada where French is predominant officially. Undoubtedly for the social-democratic left, it expresses a situation where there is decent work–a cliché among the left, who refuse to investigate its meaning in a democratic fashion. 

It should be pointed out that the power of employers (via the power of managers) is independent of language–their power is expressed in many languages, just as their use of workers for their own ends is expressed in many languages. Differences in languages (and differences in nations), therefore, should not be something for workers which divides them since they face the same enemy in various languages and across many borders–the class of employers as dictators.

Should we not be discussing this issue thoroughly? Why are we not doing so? Why is there hostility to such discussion? 

 

From

COLLECTIVE AGREEMENT
2013 – 2017
FOR THE RESIDENTIAL SECTOR
OF THE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY
Between the APCHQ and
the Centrale des syndicats démocratiques
(CSD-Construction), the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN-Construction),
the Conseil provincial du Québec
des métiers de la construction (International),
the Fédération des travailleurs
et travailleuses du Québec
(FTQ-Construction)
and the Syndicat Québécois
de la construction (SQC)

page 7:

2.03 Management Right The signatory representative associations recognize an employer’s right to exercise its supervisory, administration and management duties in a manner that is compatible with the provisions of this collective agreement.

 

The Silences of the Social-Democratic Left

I had two recent conversations with social democrats on two different (though undoubtedly related topics).

The first conversation is a representative of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 4400 (education workers). The Local’s website indicates the following:

Toronto Education Workers/Local 4400 is made up of approximately 12,000 Education Workers who primarily work within the Toronto District School Board; Childcare Workers from various Childcare Centres and Caretakers from Viamonde French Board.

Representing over 400 Job Classifications, and over 1,000 Worksites.

They were set to go out on strike in the context of major budget cuts for school funding due to retrenchment by the Conservative provincial Ontario government of Doug Ford.

Duane Kennedy, Unit D Steward Co-Ordinator for Local 4400, made the following comment on a Facebook page:

Duane Kennedy Too bad they couldn’t get it right , we will strike not for new bargining dates it will be for a fair contract

I am unsure what he was referring to in relation to “new bargaining dates.” It may be to the title of a video and an accompanying textual explanation that is related to a video link on the Facebook page:

CUPE says strike next week if no dates scheduled

The union that represents school support staff says they will walk off the job next week if the province doesn’t agree to more talks

I asked the following:

Fred Harris What is a fair contract? Collective agreements limit the power of employers to dictate to workers, but they do not eliminate the power of management to dictate to workers what to do.

I guess it is fair for employers to treat workers as things?

The response was–silence. Why is that? Was my question out of line? Was it inappropriate? Did it express, as CUPE Local 3902 executive director Wayne Dealy indicated when I brought up the issue of whether working in a capitalist brewery constituted “decent work,” , the rantings of a “condescending prick?”

Or is it perhaps that union reps use the phrase “fair contract” without facing up to the fact that management has the power to dictate to workers in various ways whether there is a collective agreement or not?

Let us consider a couple of collective agreements between CUPE Local 4400 and the Toronto District School Board.

COLLECTIVE
AGREEMENT
Between
Toronto District School Board
And
Local 4400,
Canadian Union of
Public Employees
UNIT C
September 1, 2014 – August 31, 2019

Page 66 of this collective agreement has the following clause:

ARTICLE D – MANAGEMENT RIGHTS
D.1 The Union recognizes that it is the right of the Employer to exercise the
generally recognized regular and customary functions of management and
to direct its working forces. The Employer agrees not to exercise these
functions in a manner inconsistent with the provisions of the Collective
Agreement.

As I have indicated in other posts, the management rights clause gives management (as representative of the employer) far-ranging powers to direct workers as it sees fit. The collective agreement limits that power but in no way calls that power into question.

Consider another collective agreement for the same local:

COLLECTIVE
AGREEMENT
Between
Toronto District School Board
And
Local 4400,
Canadian Union of
Public Employees
UNIT D
September 1, 2014 – August 31, 2019

Page 66 of this collective agreement has the following clause (identical to the other collective agreement):

ARTICLE D – MANAGEMENT RIGHTS
D.1 The Union recognizes that it is the right of the Employer to exercise the
generally recognized regular and customary functions of management and
to direct its working forces. The Employer agrees not to exercise these
functions in a manner inconsistent with the provisions of the Collective
Agreement.

How are these collective agreements (collective contracts) fair contracts? Why did not the CUPE union rep not respond to my question? My hypothesis is that–he could not. The term is a cliche for union reps, used to justify their activity of limiting their criticism of an employer to–an employer. They do not question the power of employers to direct workers in general but only wish to limit that power.

For a collective agreement to be fair, it would be necessary to show that managerial power to direct work forces as it sees fit (subject to the collective agreement) is fair. Where is there such a justification?

Where is there a fair contract? Can union reps provide examples of such a contract among regular workers? I would like to see such an example so that I know what they are talking about. Would you not like to see some examples so that we have a target that we can aim at?

This idea of a fair contract is, frankly, bullshit. It does not deal with–and cannot deal with–the daily lives of workers in unionized environments. Workers are subject, in various ways, to restrictions on their lives. How is that fair? The power of managers to dictate what to do, when to do it, how to do it and how much to produce (legally although certainly not always factually) leads to various kinds of injustices–up to and including the injury and death of workers.

Another “conversation” I had (really, a monologue–such is democracy these days) was about a 57-year old man, Enrico Miranda, who was killed in a capitalist factory (Fiera Foods) here in Toronto. He had been working for a temporary-worker agency for about ten years, five of which were for the industrial bakery Fiera Foods, located in As Mr. Miranda cleaned a machine, he was crushed by it and died.

A community organization called the Jane and Finch Action Against Poverty (JFAAP), located in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood of Toronto (one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Toronto), organized a rally (along with some union members) to protest the fifth killing of temporary workers at the capitalist factory in the past 20 years. (The factory is located about six kilometers from Jane Street and Finch Avenue, in North York, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.) Seventy percent of its workforce consists of temporary workers. Many are hired through temporary agencies.

In Ontario, when temporary workers are injured on the job and are employed by temporary agencies, the premiums of employers who hire workers from temporary agencies and who pay into workers’ compensation are unaffected since they are not considered to be the employer but rather the temporary agency. It is, in effect, a way of avoiding to pay higher premiums in the case of injuries to workers.

On their Facebook page, JFAAP posted:

Posted @withrepost • @mayworkstoronto Another temp worker death at Fiera Foods. The 5th worker killed while on the factory floor of this company. Up to 70% of this company’s workers are temp workers, twice as likely to be injured on the job as full employees. Fiera has had more than 150 health and safety violations. When Enrico Miranda was killed last week, Fiera Foods did not even stop production. Under Canada’s Criminal Code, Fiera Foods should be held criminally responsible. ‘Kill a worker, go to jail.’ #canlab #fierafoods #onpoli
Funeral fund to support the family: https://www.gofundme.com/f/funeral-help-for-tay @ Fiera Foods

I made the following comment:

Fred Harris “Kill a worker, go to jail”: a fitting slogan, but how is it going to be achieved? It would require much more power than at present among communities and the working class. How, for example, to prevent the whittling down of legislation to make corporations criminally responsible for deaths (see Stephen Bittle’s work on the whittling down of such legislation after the Westray mine deaths).

The response was–silence. It is all very good to make demands that are needed by people, but unless we can find a way of actually realizing such demands, they are mere wishes. The social-democratic left often resort to such wishful thinking rather than facing up to the power required to realize certain demands. That power is–class power, not just “community power” (although the two could go hand in hand).

In another post, JFAAP posted:

No photo description available.

My comment: Fred Harris Fiera certainly should be criticized, but are all these “accidents” due to the use of temporary workers? Could they not be the result of a combination of the use of such temporary workers and the more general fact that workers are things to be used by employers? By the fact that workers are “costs” (with a price) for employers?

Or are the approximately 1,000 deaths at work in Canada mainly due to the use of temporary agencies?

Also, can labour laws ever really protect workers in the context of a society driven by the pursuit of profit?

The response was–silence.

JFAAP’s response reminds me of all those movies and television programs (including Netflix, of course), where there is one or a few “bad cops,” and yet the police in general are treated as good. Fiera Foods certainly is worse as an employer in terms of health and safety than many other employers–but what of all the other employers whose health and safety records are better? Why not criticize them? Why let them off the hook on a daily basis?

This attitude of criticizing a particular employer and not employers as a class (just like the criticism of a particular cop rather than the police as such) can be called “the bad apple syndrome.”

It is much easier to criticize particular employers than it is to criticize employers as a class.

Or are my concerns just the concerns of an “insane” person (as Errol Young, a member of JFAAP, once called me)? Or are my concerns a reflection of the fact that I am a  “condescending prick” (as a representative of CUPE Local 3902, Wayne Dealy, once called me)?

Or is it that both union reps and reps from community organizations refuse to face up to the limited effectiveness of their concepts of justice and fairness? That they refuse to consider the class power of employers and how that situation in general is unfair?

What do you think?

 

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