The Call for the Conversion of the GM Oshawa Plant to a Facility for the Production of Medical Equipment in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic

On April 19, 2020, on the Socialist Project website–Retool Oshawa GM Complex to Combat Covid19–there is a press conference by five individuals–Tony Leah (facilitator), Michael Hurley, Rebecca Keetch, Patty Coates and James Hutt–calling on the Canadian government (and the Ontario provincial government) to take over the GM Oshawa plant, which closed on December 19, 2019, in order to facilitate the production of medical equipment, including masks, ventilators, gloves and tests–all of which are in short supply due to the international competition for such equipment as well as the Trump government’s ban on exporting medical equipment into Canada.

Some of the following is taken verbatim from the five presenters without quotes in order to facilitate reading whereas some of it is paraphrased. After a description of what they say, I make some critical comments in relation to the call for public ownership and other issues.

Mr. Hurley, president of the Hospital Division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), emphasizes the urgency of the need for medical equipment for front-line workers. Medical equipment is in short supply to deal with the coronavirus pandemic,  and such equipment is vital if front-line workers are not to succumb to the virus themselves, as many paramedics did in New York.

Ms. Keetch, a former autoworker at GM Oshawa, calls on the Canadian and provincial governments to convert the closed-down GM Oshawa assembly plant into a publicly-owned site in order to use it to produce much needed medical equipment. She points out that other countries and companies have converted car factories into plants for producing medical equipment: the Chinese capitalist company BYD producing masks and hand sanitizers; GM having its workers produce ventilators at its Kokomo Indiana plant; and Ford Canada having its workers produce face masks at its Windsor Ontario plant. She justifies taking over the plant on the basis of putting social need in general before the interest of profit and the particular health and safety needs of workers who have been declared essential, such as hospital workers and grocery workers. There already exists a skilled workforce available to produce the needed medical equipment–the workforce of the former GM plant and the workers of its former suppliers.

Ms. Coates, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour (representing 54 unions and a million workers) indicates her support for the initiative and points out how the Conservative government of Doug Ford had reduced the health-care budget before the pandemic. Health-care workers, patients and community members need vital medical equipment that are currently lacking. She also supports a proposal for workers having 21 paid sick days so that they can stay home if sick without financial hardship and free healthcare for all regardless of immigration status. Workers themselves are calling for such protective measures.

Mr. Hutt does climate and labour justice with the Leap. On the Leap website, it says:

Mission

The Leap’s mission is to advance a radically hopeful vision for how we can address climate change by building a more just world, while building movement power and popular support to transform it into a lived reality.

Since our launch, we’ve drawn heavily on the ideas and networks of our co-founders, Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis.

Mr. Hutt notes that Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, called for manufacturing companies to retool to produce medical equipment, but it is not enough to rely on the goodwill of CEOs and manufacturers to produce what is needed at this time. There is a textile manufacturer, Novo Textile Co, based in Coquitlam, British Columbia, that has ordered machinery from China in order to produce masks, but it has not yet received the equipment. What we need now is fast production of medical equipment.

This shows that we need the government to play a strong role in ensuring that we increase production of medical equipment in order to meet the demand for medical supplies in Canada. This is where GM Oshawa can play a role. The auto assembly plant is one of the largest plants in North America, and yet 90 percent of its capacity is currently going to waste. Furthermore, there are available 5,000 workers who lost their jobs directly through the closing of the factory and 10,000 more workers who, indirectly, became unemployed.

The workers should be hired back in good, well-paying unionized jobs. After all, it is they who produce the value and services needed  by society.

What we need is a people’s bailout, which includes both workers and the environment, instead of a bailout of corporations and banks. The people’s bailout contains three components. Firstly, it responds to the immediate life-and-death needs of front-line workers and by all those whose lives have been turned inside out by the pandemic. Secondly, it helps to recover our lives, but in a new way, through government stimulus in creating a zero-carbon and full employment economy. Thirdly, it helps to reimagine our society. The economy must be transformed to ensure that safety and stability are the priorities for all and not just the 1%.

Nationalizing the plant, or converting it into public ownership, would create 13,000 unionized, well-paying jobs to produce the things that we need, initially in the first component or phase of producing medical equipment and, in the second phase, the production of electric vehicles for, for example, Canada Post, the single largest user of vehicles in Canada, and electric buses across Canada.

The third component or phase would involve the creation of a more just society for all, which entails public ownership of the plant, the provision of production facilities in Canada that would involve internal production of medical equipment throughout Canada.

Mr. Leah then points out that there is a petition that viewers of the Conference can sign, which will be sent to Premier Ford of Ontario and Prime Minister Trudeau (Petition–Order GM to Make Needed PPE).

There was then a question and answer session, with Valerie McDonald (? unsure if this is the name) asking the question of how quickly could the Oshawa plant fully employ the former workforce, whether directly or indirectly, and use the plant to capacity. Another question by Kate (I could not make out her last name) was who would paid for the retooling, the federal or provincial governments, and how much would it cost and how long it would take. Mr. Hurley pointed out that China set up factories within two weeks for the production of fiber masks. Given that the Canadian governments have adopted emergency powers, they could start producing almost immediately. As for the cost, currently Canada is paying almost three times the normal price for medical supplies on the open market; consequently, there would actually be considerable savings by shifting to local production. Ms. Leetch added that in the United States, in Warren, it took about two weeks to be converted and a total of a month for thousands of masks to be produced. She also points that, in relation to costs, it would be necessary for the government to provide aid for retooling. Ms. Coates adds that we need to think about the future beyond this pandemic: we need to have the capacity to produce ventilators and other medical equipment. As for the cost, the issue of cost has little to do with the issue since lives are priceless, and the cost of retooling to save lives not just now but also for the foreseeable future–since there will still be demand for personal protective equipment for some time to come even in the case of the current pandemic. We need a permanent solution to the problem and not a temporary one.

Another couple of questions were: The federal government had no problem purchasing a U.S. owned pipeline company, but now that such a company will be idled, why would the federal government not step in and purchase the plant from GM and retool it? A follow-up question is: Is the plant too large, and can it be adapted to produce medical equipment and other things [unclear if this is the exact question]. Another question is whether the machinery already exists in the plant or must it be imported?

Mr. Hurley indicated that neither the provincial Ontario government nor the federal government has responded in an urgent fashion to the pandemic by forcing employers to retool to produce medical equipment despite hundreds and even thousands of Canadians dying due to the pandemic. It is time that the Trudeau government institute wartime measures to force employers to retool in order to save lives by producing tests, ventilators and other medical equipment that are fundamental to the protection of workers.

Ms. Coates added that not only healthcare workers do not have sufficient protection but also grocery workers, bus drivers and municipal workers are still working and need to be protected during this pandemic.

Ms. Keetch points out that what they are demanding is that the government order production because that will then allocate resources that permit things to happen. As for the plant being too big: not really. We can use whatever space is necessary at the plant right now to address immediate needs. In relation to parallels between the federal government purchasing a pipeline company and purchasing the GM Oshawa plant, but the issue now is to prioritize what needs to be done, and the priority should be to protect Canadian citizens, and both money and the political will need to be found to do that. She does not know whether the machinery is on site, but she does know that Ontarians are experts in manufacturing and have been for decades.

For closing remarks, Ms. Keetch pointed out that the pandemic is an interdependent phenomena, with both the public coming into contact with workers and workers coming into contact with the public, so that both need to protect each other through the use of protective equipment. The use of present resources to meet this need is a common-sense approach.

Tony Leah stated that what happened in the United States in Kokomo and other places in the United States, when the government ordered production, shows that medical equipment can be relatively quickly produced, within a week or two, depending on the complexity of the equipment. He judges GM’s inaction to be shameful, especially since GM took $11 billion in Canadian bailout money during the last economic crisis.

As an emergency measure, it makes sense to convert the idle GM Oshawa plant into a plant where workers could produce much needed medical equipment. As a longer-term measure, it also makes sense to convert the idle plant into a permanent facility for the production of medical equipment in order to prevent any future shortage of medical supplies. Alternatively, once the pandemic has past, it could make sense to convert the plant  into an electric-vehicle factory as originally planned.

From the point of view of the workers who lost their jobs when GM Oshawa closed the plant, it also makes sense to try to be employed again; they could resume the same kind of life that they used to live rather than joining the unemployed.

I did sign the petition, but mainly because it makes sense to pressure the governments to convert the plant into a factory to deal with the pandemic crisis. Given the urgency of the situation, however, there could at least have been reference to seizing the plant by the workers. Seizing the plant could easily have been justified as necessary in order to save lives.

Such seizure, it seems, is probably impractical for a number of reasons. Firstly, the workers themselves have probably been demobilized (moved on to other jobs if they can find them), or they may have abandoned any hope of working at the plant again; others may have accepted a retirement package. Secondly, even if they seized the plant, financing for retooling seems to be beyond their collective means–hence, the need to rely on the government for funding.

However, at least the possibility of seizing the plant and the legitimacy of doing so should have been raised in order to highlight the discrepancy between the real needs of people, the lack of action by the governments and the class power of employers. After all, in normal times, the needs of those who cannot pay are neglected, and the needs of workers for safe working conditions are often neglected as well. Focusing exclusively on what is practical in the situation resulted in another lost opportunity to open up a conversation about the legitimacy of the current economic and political structures.Rather than using the situation as an opportunity to at least point out the legitimacy of seizing the plant–they focus exclusively what is immediately practical. Such “realism” is hardly in the best interests of the working class and of the community.

Mr. Hurley is the person who comes closest to showing such discrepancy, but he limits his criticism to the present governments of Ontario and Canada rather than to the limits of an economy characterized by a dictatorial structure and a modern state characterized, on the one hand, by merely formal equality between “citizens” that often assumes a repressive form (by the police and the courts, for example) and, on the other, a hierarchical dictatorship characteristic of the employer and employee relation within government or the modern state.

The presenters did not use the situation as an opportunity to link the particular–and urgent–problem of a society capable of producing needed medical equipment–to the general problem of a society that excludes not only the needs of people for various goods and services–but also the needs of workers to control their own working lives.

It is true that Mr. Hutt does refer to a third component of a people’s bailout–a reimagined society–but it is more like a social-democratic reimagining more than anything else–and it is utopian. To call for a society that is safe would require the elimination of the power of employers as a class. After all, workers are means for the benefit of employers, and as means their safety is always in jeopardy (for the necessary treatment of workers as means for the benefit of the class of employers, see The Money Circuit of Capital; for the issue of safety, see for example Working for an Employer May Be Dangerous to Your Health, Part One).

As for Mr. Hutt’s call for stability, that too would require the elimination of the power of the class of employers since investment decisions are made for the purpose of accumulating more profitable capital, and such an accumulation process often leads to crises in production and exchange (through overproduction and hence unemployment. Employers also introduce machinery into workplaces, reducing the demand for workers. Since workers are the basis for profit, though, the situation is again ripe for an economic crisis since the production of such a profit requires increasing the exploitation of workers who do work while keeping down their wages through increasing unemployment–overwork for those who work and little work for the unemployed.

Furthermore, given the repressive nature of the employers (see, for example, Employers as Dictators, Part One) and the government (see for example Socialism, Police and the Government or State, Part Two), many peoples’ lives are hardly experienced as stable.  Mr. Hutt’s reference to stability rings hollow.

Does Mr. Hutt really believe in the elimination of a class of employers? The elimination of classes would be what is needed to live a safe and stable life within the limits of the natural world and the limits of our own created world, He nowhere says so. In fact, it is probable that Mr. Hutt believes in the reconstruction of a welfare state–capitalism with a human face. His reference to “good, well-paying unionized jobs” is what is probably the aim–“decent work,” “a fair contract,” and “free collective bargaining.” I have criticized these ideas in earlier posts, so readers can refer to them in order to see their limitations.

Mr. Hutt’s reference to a zero-carbon economy also fails to meet the problem of the infinite nature of the nature of the capitalist economy and the limited earth on which we live. Even if the capitalist economy moves to a zero-carbon economy (free of the use of fossil fuels), the infinite nature of capitalist accumulation would undoubtedly continue to rape the planet (see The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One).

One final point to reinforce the previous post: nationalization and reliance on the modern government and state, typical of the social-democratic left, are hardly democratic. For real democracy and not just formal democracy to arise, it would be necessary to dismantle the repressive nature of the modern government or state. As George McCarthy (2018) remarks, in his book Marx and Social Justice Ethics and Natural Law in the Critique of Political Economy, page 279:

Following closely the military and political events surrounding the [Paris] Commune, Marx recognised very quickly that some of his earlier ideas about the socialist state contained in the Communist Manifesto (1848) were no longer relevant: ‘[T]he working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’.18 The state is not an independent and neutral political
organisation capable of yielding power for one class and then another; it is not simply an issue of gaining control over the state and then implementing economic
and social reforms. Rather, the republican state, utilising its political and legal apparatus, is an oppressive mechanism of social control preserving the class interests of the bourgeois economic system, and this, too, would also have to be restructured. Continuing arguments from On the Jewish Question (1843), Marx contends that the role of the French state was to maintain the economic and political power of the propertied class: ‘[T]he state power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labour, of a public force organised for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism’.19 Therefore, with this in mind, the Commune’s first actions were to dismantle the various component parts of the French state, including the army, police, bureaucracy, clergy, and the judiciary. Thus an entirely new form of government would have to be constructed that conformed to the socialist ideals of human emancipation and political freedom.

To talk of “democratic public ownership” in the context of a sea of economic dictatorship both within and outside the modern government or state stimulates high expectations that are bound to be dashed in the real world.

The earlier call by Green Jobs Oshawa was to nationalize the plant and to produce electric vehicles may seem also to make sense, but I will address this issue in another post in reference to the Socialist Project’s pamphlet Take the Plant–Save the Planet: The Struggle for Community Control and Plant Conversion at GM Oshawa. 

Addendum:

The above post was posted at 1:00 a.m., Friday, April 24. In the afternoon, it was announced that the GM Oshawa plant would indeed be retooled to produce a million masks a month for essential workers (see GM Oshawa plant will now produce millions of masks following worker mobilization: CUPE Ontario). The federal Trudeau government and GM signed a letter of intent to that effect. The response from one of the unions that represent front-line hospital workers–the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE):

 “We mobilized our community through a petition and public events and it goes to show that collective action works. This unprecedented victory is now an opportunity to push the Ford Conservatives to also retool private companies to produce what Ontarians need.”

To produce what Ontario needs: What does that mean? They are probably  referring to the production of needed medical equipment:

“The Ford Conservatives need to learn from this example and order the private sector to ramp up production of these supplies – or retool factories if necessary,” said Fred Hahn, President of CUPE Ontario, highlighting feeder plants and other manufacturing facilities across the province. “They’ve had no problem unilaterally issuing orders that override the freely-negotiated collective agreements of front-line workers. They now need to use their power to order the immediate production of PPE for everyone who needs it.”

The use of the abandoned GM Oshawa plant for the production of medical equipment is indeed a victory–this is vital if frontline workers are to be protected from the coronavirus.

It should be noted, though, that this victory is probably a short-term victory. The urgent need for masks for frontline workers, as I pointed out above, could have been used to justify at least theoretically the seizure of the GM Oshawa plant by the workers who used to work there. Since the call for using the GM Oshawa plant and the retooling needed are separated from any reference to the legitimate right of the workers to seize the plant, when the need for the production of masks no longer exists, the plant will probably revert to its former status as an abandoned capitalist factory. The workers will have a difficult time justifying the continued maintenance of production at the plant given their short-term victory. Indeed, given that the form of the announcement is a letter of intent between the federal government and GM, shifting production to masks, in the eyes of many, will probably be viewed as a result of actions by government and employer rather than by workers and unions.

Another problem is that it is unclear who will be rehired to produce the masks, and how many will be rehired.

The urgency of the need for medical equipment is short-term–but it should have been used for long-term gains. Instead, an opportunity for shifting public opinion towards the legitimization of the seizure of workplaces by workers has been squandered.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOLIDARITY RALLY HIGHLIGHTS NEED FOR WORKING CLASS UNITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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?

 

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

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

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

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

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

From

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

page 5:

ARTICLE 4 • MANAGEMENT RIGHTS
4.01 The Union recognizes the right and responsibility of the Board to manage and
operate the school district, and agrees that the employment, assignment, direction
and determination of employment status of the work force Is vested exclusively in the Board, except as otherwise specifically provided in this agreement Of applicable legislation.

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