The Limitations of Social-Democracy in the Face of the Coronavirus

John Cartwright is the president of Toronto and York Labour District Council. According to the website of this Council:

The core belief of unions is in solidarity. We want every one of our members to feel they belong, to appreciate the gains that unions have made for working people, and to have a sense of our common purpose. For all of us, fairness matters. Winning union members to embrace those common values is one of the most important tasks we have.

It is in that context that we address the challenge of tackling systemic racism and building stronger unions.

By working together, we can nurture inclusive workplaces and strengthen our shared commitment to our union’s shared values of equality, respect, justice and dignity for all.

This sounds very radical. However, the claim that “fairness matters” and similar statements do not address the issue of whether Mr. Cartwright opposes the power of employers as a class or whether he accepts such power and merely aims to modify such power to the advantage of workers and the community.

To answer this question, we need to look at another statement made by Mr. Cartwright:

Speaking notes for CAW-CEP – A Moment of Truth Workshop

By John Cartwright, President Toronto and York Regional Labour Council

February 25, 2012

COMMUNITY POWER AND POLITICAL BARGAINING

  • Since its start, our movement has undertaken two kinds of bargaining – collective bargaining to determine terms and conditions in the workplace; and political bargaining to determine the conditions of life both inside and outside the workplace
  • The Canadian labour movement has fundamentally defined itself as a social union movement, guided by the slogan “What we wish for ourselves, we also wish for others”.
  • That has led to us taking a stance from the earliest days to speak out for public education, universal healthcare, public pensions, unemployment insurance, public transit, affordable housing and wide variety of social services
  • Those have been achieved through a combination of building mass popular movements and formal political action – the US experience serves as a sobering reminder of how narrow the political window can be without the existence of a social democratic party with labour roots, as we have with the NDP and PQ, despite their shortcomings

What are the shortcomings of the NDP (and PQ)? There is no elaboration, but at least we get a clearer idea of what Mr. Cartwright means by fairness–capitalism with a human face, or the welfare state of old.

This view is also expressed in the following:

JUST LABOUR vol. 8 (Spring 2006) [page) 92

EQUITY BARGAINING IN THE NEW ECONOMY

John Cartwright, President, Toronto and York Region Labour Council,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

When thinking about equity bargaining in the new economy we need to think about
both collective bargaining and political bargaining strategies. The gains of the union movement have been built on pursuing both of these strategies.In greater Toronto, out of the 2.3 million paid work force, over 1 million workers earn less than the
official poverty level. The vast majority of those workers are women and workers of colour. If we are going to talk about bargaining for equity, we need to address how to build power to bargain gains for these workers and how to transform
ourselves to build power.

The Labour Council is launching a major initiative – a framework for dozens of campaigns called A Million Reasons, because there are a million workers in this city below the poverty line and therefore a million reasons to raise wages, to improve labour law, and to improve standards and social programs.

In this framework we see four pieces crucial to building trade union power in today’s economy:

1. Protect good jobs in the public sector and private sector. That means that every
union needs to get involved in supporting each other’s struggles.

2. Bargain to raise standards sector by sector by establishing common bargaining. For example, we need to bargain standards for the hotel industry in the city, not just bargain with each hotel separately.

3. Mass organizing, especially with workers of colour. We need to forge ties and be
involved in the community organizing that is going on in local, ethnic communities,
asking them to tell us how to best support their struggles.

4. Use our power to protect and strengthen the social wage –all of those programs people think of as government programs. We need to reclaim these as the
programs we fought for and won politically – including workers’ compensation, health care, public education, child care, etc. The social wage is crucial, especially for low-wage workers of colour to achieve equity.

We certainly should try to increase standards for a whole industry and not just for a particular employer, and we should fight for improved community conditions, increases in the minimum wage and more social supports (the social wage).

Mr. Cartwright’s implicit standard, though, is “good jobs”–both in the private and public sectors. Good or decent jobs will not only lift those below the poverty out of poverty but will ensure that a social wage will be protected: “public education, public education, universal healthcare, public pensions, unemployment insurance, public transit, affordable housing and wide variety of social services.”

I have criticized Mr. Cartwright’s views before (Ontario Looks Right–With Some Help From the “Left”), but what inspired me to look a little closer at Mr. Cartwright’s views was an email I received from him today, March 24, 2020, related to the coronavirus crisis:

Dear Fred,

Every day, political leaders at all levels of government are making new announcements to respond to COVID-19 impacts, on both people and the economy. These have been crucial steps to ensure public safety and financial stabilization. Nobody knows how long this crisis will last, but we do know that when it finally recedes our world will look very different.

We cannot truly address the COVID-19 crisis if the responses entrench the social and economic dynamics that made us so vulnerable in the first place. Now is the time to remind our decision makers that their policies must not only seem fair for today but must also correct the growing imbalances in our society that are leaving too many of our neighbours behind.

Perhaps now more than ever, we see clearly that divestment in our public services and safety net has always been, in reality, divestment in ourselves. When any one person in Canada can’t access basic water and sanitation, medicines that they need or a fair wage, then we are all vulnerable.

This crisis hasn’t just created new disasters, it has taken root within the flaws of our existing system. Inequality in Canada has meant that now, in this time of deep need, we risk sacrificing the health and safety of vulnerable people for whom the social safety net has been weakened.

This inequality has been with us for generations, whether we consider the long-standing boil water advisories for First Nations communities or the ongoing austerity measures in our health care systems. The impact of social and political disparity puts many Canadians at increased risk because not everyone has access to basic lines of first defence such as secure housing or access to a doctor.

Governments across the country have taken quick steps to expand programs like Employment Insurance and Emergency Benefits, granting sick time, and pausing evictions or water shut-offs. Health care workers have again become heroes instead of targets for conservative politicians. Most importantly, people are re-discovering the reason why past generations decided to create strong public services that reach every community. Reinvestment in our public services and social safety net is the right thing to do – not only now, during COVID-19, but permanently in Canadian society.

Our economic system has allowed a small portion of society to gain the vast majority of benefits. Too many politicians have divested in public services and increased corporate loopholes, resulting in a reduced social safety net that sacrifices more and more people to the very real risks of unaffordable housing, lower access to health care, precarious work or, of course, to COVID-19. The climate crisis means that we will see an increase in health and extreme weather emergencies, making a just transition into jobs that bolster our environmental and social health even more pressing.

The expected bailout for the oil and gas industry is the exact opposite of this approach. That industry suffers from an unrelated and untreatable crisis of global price wars and a world that is leaving it behind for greener solutions. Instead of pouring good money after bad, our governments should create green jobs programs that reclaim land, support public health and reinvest in local communities. The loopholes that allowed these giant corporations to pay a pittance into the public sphere must be closed, along with those for the new digital commerce giants and others hiding fortunes in tax havens.

Nobody wants to see a repeat of the last financial crisis – when CEOs rewarded themselves with huge bonuses while people were losing their jobs and their homes. If any company is to be supported with public funds, ownership shares must be taken, or strong rules imposed to benefit ordinary people instead of billionaires. Why should banks be allowed to charge interest rates of over 20 per cent on credit card charges that many Canadians will have to rely on to survive? In exchange for billions in liquidity from the federal government, there should be strict limitations on gouging the public, during this time of crisis and beyond.

Government must show leadership in transforming our economy to one that works toward well-being for all of us rather than for the few. We have the momentum and opportunity to shift our systems to prioritize our care and wellbeing for the long run. While this crisis is unlike any in our lifetime, the Council of Canadian will organize to hold elected officials accountable, challenge corporate greed and fight for the common good – as we work together for a renewed vision of a better world for all.

In solidarity,

John
John Cartwright
Chairperson

Again, expansion of public provisions in health care, education, pensions and the like is better than their contraction. However, Mr. Cartwright still implies that employers are somehow necessary. In referencing “increased corporate loopholes,” he implies that if such loopholes were eliminated, then corporations would be legitimate. In other words, it is the old repetition of corporations paying their “fair share” of taxes.

/Furthermore, Mr. Cartwright’s demand for an expansion of public services and an increase in the safety net through education and health care does not even address the issue of the quality of such public education or health care. I have already criticized the Chicago Teachers Union’s assumption of the need to only expand educational “services” rather than a radical restructuring of the public education system (see, in the section Publications and Writings on the main page of this blog, “A Deweyan Review of the the Chicago Teachers’ Union Publication The Schools Chicago Students Deserve: Research-Based Proposals to Strengthen Elementary and Secondary Education in the Chicago Public Schools (2012). 

As for health care, in the first place, I have already addressed the inadequate nature of health and safety at the workplace in a series of posts (see, for example, Working for an Employer May Be Dangerous to Your Health, Part One). In the second place, see the last post for the beginnings of a critique of health care.

It is hardly sufficient to reinvest “in our public services and social safety net.” Like the private sector, such public services have been characterized by the dictatorship of employers (see The Money Circuit of Capital  and the series of posts  Employers as Dictators, Part One etc.).

Mr. Cartwright, as part of the social-democratic left, uses the period before neoliberalism as his standard. He wants to return to the ideal world of welfare capitalism. This standard is wholly inadequate for the creation of a fair society. Before neoliberalism, there was still the treatment of human beings at work as things to be used for the benefit of employers. There was, certainly, a more robust safety net than now, but even then such a robust safety net was always under threat by sections of the class of employers.

Even if we assumed that there existed a robust safety net, as long as a class of employers exists, such a safety net will always be threatened.

It is better to think about starting a movement towards the abolition of the power of the class of employers in order to create a society that can respond in a humane and timely fashion to threats to our common lives on this planet. Trying to recreate the social-democratic ideal of the past (the 1950s-1970s)–the social-democratic ideal of welfare capitalism– is utopian; if we are to meet adequately our common problems, we need to go beyond the rhetoric of improvements in the safety net. Such solutions are band-aid solutions that do not meet the challenges to our lives that we face in the 21st century. What we do not need is more social-democratic rhetoric.

It is better to think about how to create a movement towards a socialist society–a society without a class of employers.

 

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.