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.

 

 

The Silences of the Social-Democratic Left on the Standards They Use in Relation to Health and Safety

I had a debate on the Facebook page of the Toronto Airport Workers Council (TAWC), an organization designed to facilitate communication and common actions among unions at the Toronto International Pearson Airport. The issue was health and safety and workers’ compensation. In Canada, most workers who work for an employer are covered by workers’ compensation–a fund derived from premiums that employers pay, based on the rate and extent of accidents in the particular industry as well as the accident record of particular employers. Being covered by workers’ compensation means that, if an injury (or disease) is work related, then the worker has the right to be compensated.

The following conversation occurred on October 18, 2019, first with an anonymous member of TAWC and then with the TAWC member Mike Corrado (who is also the general chairperson of the central region of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW):

Premier Ford [of Ontario,Canada] says he cares about safety, but after the 5th temp agency worker death at Fiera Foods Company, he still refuses to take action. Legislation already exists to stop companies from treating temp workers’ lives as disposable. Tell FordNationto implement this law, now! VISIT: www.15andFairness.org

Fred Harris Are there any statistics about now many non-temporary agency workers have died since 1999? Or even during Doug Ford’s term as premier? Is one death one too many in that situation? If so, what is being done about it? Why the focus exclusively on temporary workers? Certainly, that issue should be addressed–but what about those who supposedly have :”good jobs” (unionized, for example)? Do they not still die needlessly in the context of an economy dominated by a class of employers?

Tawc Yyz Thats far too many questions to realistically answer on this post.

Fred Harris Let us assume that this is the case. There are six questions in the above post. Take any question and answer it. Or perhaps one question per week? Or per month? Every two months?

Should not at least one question be answered now? If not, why not?

Take any of the six questions and answer it. Or is one quetion “too much” to realistically answer on this post?”

I remember when I worked at one of those so-called “decent jobs” that much of the social-democratic left talk about. One night, a few days after the brewery was “inspected” (mysteriously the brewery was advised of the inspection beforehand so that the machinery, etc. could be cleaned), a worker lost a couple of fingers when his glove got caught in a chain on the conveyor belt. Not long afterwards, we started to produce beer again.

I guess non-temporary workers have it so good that the issue of whether workers will ever be safe under working conditions controlled in large part by employers should not be brought up? That the general issue of the unsafe working conditions in various forms should not be brought up? Or is that too many questions to answer in a post? If so, then feel free to answer it on my blog.

That temporary workers are more subject to the possibility of unsafe working conditions than regular working conditions is probably true (I worked as a substitute teacher–a temporary worker–though not for a temp agency) for a number of years. That did not prevent me from questioning the more general question.

Mike Corrado The brewery workers were fully covered under worker’s compensation or WSIB whereas temp workers aren’t afforded with the same rights!

Open Letter to Premier Ford
October 8, 2019

RE: Urgent action required after fifth temp worker death at Fiera Foods

Dear Premier Doug Ford,

As you know, on Wednesday, September 25, Enrico Miranda, a father of two, was killed on the job. As you also know, Mr. Miranda is the fifth temporary agency worker who has died on the job at Fiera Foods or an affiliated company.

Shockingly, it has been almost two weeks since his death and yet we have heard nothing from you. You have chosen to remain silent, despite having the power to implement legislation that could have prevented this tragedy.

Mr. Ford, this is the second worker killed at Fiera Foods under your watch.

Had you implemented Section 83(4) of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act – legislation which has already passed, but simply needs your signature – Mr. Miranda might still be alive today.

That’s why we are writing to you to demand that you immediately enact this existing law that will make companies using temp agencies financially responsible under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act for workplace deaths and injuries.

Laws like this will make companies like Fiera Foods think twice before putting temp workers into harm’s way.

There’s no more time to waste, and we need you to take action to make sure this is the last temp agency worker death.

Implement Section 83(4) of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act – right now!

We expect to hear from you right away, and certainly no later than Friday, October 11.

Ontarians deserve to know whether their premier will stand up for workers – or whether he will remain silent and continue allowing companies to treat their workers’ lives as disposable.

Fred Harris Yes, the brewery workers were “fully covered under worker’s compensation or WSIB”–and is this compensation for the man who lost his two fingers?

Furthermore, substitute teachers (at least in Manitoba) are not covered by workers compensation.

In addition, the answer that “being fully covered under workers’ compensation” (or not) skirts the question of whether workers, whether covered or not, can ever be safe under conditions that are dominated by a class of employers.

Why shift the issue to being “fully covered under worker’s compensation or WSIB” or not to the issue of whether human safety is really possible under conditions dominated by a class of employers?

Of course, this does not mean that workers who are not covered by worker’s compensation should not struggle to obtain coverage (and others should support such struggle). However, the standard is itself ‘workers who are covered by worker’s compensation or WSIB”–an inadequate standard,.

Let us assume that all workers who work for employers are covered by worker’s compensation. On such a view, then workers would be safe? If not, why not? How many workers have suffered injury at the airport in the last five years? Two years? One year? Do they qualify for worker’s compensation?

Finally, legislation can prevent some injuries and deaths–but hardly all injuries and deaths under existing conditions of domination of the economy by a class of employers and the social structures that go along with that domination. Human beings are things to be used by employers–like machines. Given that situation, there are bound to be injuries and deaths. Or why is it that there around 1000 deaths at work a year in Canada and over 600,000 injuries?

No further response was forthcoming. Was my question about whether being covered by workers’ compensation was an adequate standard out of line? Do not workers deserve an answer to the question? Why the silence?

To be fair to Mike Corrado, at least he broke the silence typical of much of the social-democratic left. Unfortunately, he chose to then revert back to the silence so typical of the social-democratic left when it comes to the power of employers as a class.

Furthermore, Mr. Corrado’s position with respect to the power of employers as a class shines through on the same Facebook page just prior to the Canadian federal elections held on October 21, 2019:

Election Day is Monday. Family values, workers rights, healthcare, pharmacare, the economy, privatization, electoral reform, the environment and the wealthy paying their fair share are at stake and so is my child’s future!

I too am for workers’ rights, healhcare, pharmacare, etc. But what does Mr. Corrado mean by “the wealthy paying their fare share?” This is a social-democratic slogan or cliche. What does it mean? There is no elaboration about what it means. The slogan implies that the wealthy should continue to be wealthy–but only that they should “pay their fair share.” As long as they pay “their fair share,” they can continue to treat workers as things at work. They can continue to make decisions about what to produce, how to produce, when to produce and where to produce. They can continue to dictate to workers (subject to the collective agreement). They can continue to make decisions concerning how much of their wealth will be reinvested and how much will be personally consumed (determining thereby the rate of accumulation and the level of economy growth and the quality of that growth).

Just as the social-democratic left are silent concerning the adequacy of the standard of workers’ compensation, so too they are silent concerning the legitimacy of the existence of a class of persons who make decisions that affect, directly and indirectly, the lives of millions of workers.

Why the silence? Why are not workers constantly talking about these issues?

What’s Left, Toronto? Part Two

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 (What’s Left, Toronto? Radical Alternatives for the City Election). As I indicated in my earlier post,  over the next few months, I will be analyzing some or all of the talks from a Marxian perspective.

The first talk is by Dan Karasik, an activist in the movement for the fight for $15. He claims that the goal now is to hold on to the gains that have been made through the passing of Bill 148 (reform of employment law, which introduced a number of employment laws beneficial to unorganized workers and increased the minimum wage to $14 an hour as of January 1, 2018 and was scheduled to increase as of January 1, 2019). In the short term, such a goal is of course realistic; organized opposition to the class of employers will not occur overnight.

However, Dan likely overestimates, like much of the social-reformist left, the immediate potentiality for radicalizing sections of the working class in terms of the immediate conditions prior to an election. He claims that a radicalization of working-class politics can occur because of the elections. Alternatively, his definition of radical politics is social-reformist and is radical only in relation to Doug Ford’s immediate political position. Both likely share similar positions concerning the necessity of the class of employers (see my earlier post about a social reformist who claims that the fight for $15 is indeed fair, Social-Reformist Leftist Activists Share Assumptions with the Right).

Dan argues that Doug Ford is a populist who was elected the premier of Ontario, Canada, in June 2018 in part to represent “the people,” with a substantial part of the people, according to Dan, expecting Doug Ford to maintain the provisions set out in Bill 148. With the Ontario Chamber of Commerce calling on the Ontario government to completely repeal the Bill, the mood among the social-reformist left has shifted from being celebratory to a mood characterized by a mood characterized by increasing jitters Nevertheless, there is now a space for radicalization since the fight for $15 and what Dan still calls “fairness” potentially has done is to open up a struggle amongst racialized and gendered sections of the working class since minimum wage jobs in Toronto are predominantly filled by racialized and gendered members of the working class–should Ford ultimately decide to follow the recommendations of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce.

Although there may indeed may be some space for organizing along these lines, Dan at no time indicated what he meant by radical politics. Somehow the false promise of Doug Ford to represent “the people” is to magically transform racialized and gendered working-class members into radicals.

Dan never gets around to indicating what he means by “radical politics,” let alone “radical working-class politics.” Since he never does question pairing the term “Fight for $15” with the term “fairness,” his radical politics probably is defined entirely within the limits of the social-reformist left’s definition of radical politics–social reforms that in no way question the power of employers as a class. The questioning of such power is implicitly “off the agenda.”  See several of my posts for criticisms of the positions of politics of the social-reformist left.

Dan briefly referred to the situation of capital and labour in Toronto–without stating anything further. What is the situation of capital and labour in Toronto? When I was a member of the Toronto Labour Committee (with Sam Gindin, Herman Rosenfeld and Paul Gray practically being the leaders), I proposed  a class analysis of Toronto (but indicated that I did not really know how to go about doing that–although I was willing to learn–I was involved in another project in gathering data pertaining to the ruling class analysis in Toronto, but it could not really be considered directly related to the ruling class, but perhaps to the class of self-employed and small to middle-sized employers–but that would have required more refined tools than those used). The response was–silence.

So, what is the situation of capital and labour in Toronto? You would not be able to tell at all from anything Dan had to say. (Perhaps someone can refer me to recent articles and books on the subject? I would definitely appreciate it.)

In general, Dan’s talk refers to a radical politics, but it really contains very little in the way of specifying what that may mean. The audience is left to “fill in” what that may mean. Since the moderator already filled in part of it by referring to “decent work,” (see an earlier post), it is highly probable that Dan’s radical politics really means more of the same social-reformist politics that has been circulating since the employer class went on the offensive in the 1970s. In essence, this radicalism wants to return to a renewed welfare state, with social housing, enhanced unemployment benefits, improved welfare benefits, reductions in austerity, reformed employment laws and so forth. Such a politics, however, has no intention, though, of questioning the legitimacy of the power of employers to dictate to workers. That is not on the agenda.

It certainly was not mentioned by Dan at all. Such is the radical space left untouched in the first talk in the series.

What’s left, Toronto? So far, social-reformism and the acceptance of the power of employers as a class.

 

An Example of the Inadequacy of the Canadian Left, or How the Canadian Left Contributes to the Emergence of the Canadian Right

On Facebook, a social-reformist leftist posted the fact that the Ontario Conservative government, headed by the right-wing millionaire Doug Ford, had eliminated the position of Ontario Child Advocate Office, integrating it with the Ombudsman’s Office.  The person had attached the comment “Shameful”. A subsequent comment objected to the fact that the man who filled the position of Child Advocate, Irwin Elman, found out that his position had been eliminated through the media rather than directly through his employer.

I had a discussion with some social-reformist left on Facebook concerning this. I first posted the following:

Although such an institution may be useful in some cases, the social-reformist left fail to provide any critical distance and question whether such institutions are adequate to their alleged purpose. In other words, the left tend to react to the closing down of downsizing of any institution with a knee-jerk reaction of “let us save this institution” without inquiring while assuming that such institutions do not need to be criticized or changed. In other words, the left often lacks critical distance. When schools were to be closed, what did the left do? “Let us save the schools”–as if schools all of a sudden were ideal institutions.

Another, more personal example. In Winnipeg [Manitoba, Canada], when my daughter told me that her mother had slapped her in the face so hard that her tooth was bleeding in Winnipeg, I went to the Children’s Advocate to complain about it, The Children’s Advocate, claimed that there had been indication of physical abuse–but the only institution that could really do something about it was–the Winnipeg Child and Family Services.

The last time that I had complained to the Winnipeg Child and Family Services about physical abuse by her mother was a complaint that her mother had kicked my daughter in the back, The response by Winnipeg Child and Family Services was, initially, that there were no marks. The second response was a letter in January, 2004, indicating that they would no longer investigate my complaints and that they may even consult their lawyer and the Winnipeg Police for allegedly making false accusations (which several years later they indirectly admitted were true).

The Children’s Advocate did nothing about my allegation of my daughter’s slapping Francesca (my daughter) in the face, and it was the Winnipeg Child and Family Services which inquired into the slapping–about three months later, with no consequences as far as I could see.

This does not mean that Ford should not be criticized; but the left’s typical uncritical stance concerning such institutions needs to be pointed out and criticized. The left’s lack of criticism of criticism of social institutions can be seen in other areas–such as work, where they thoughtlessly use such terms as “decent work,” “fair wages,” “economic justice,” and “fairness.”

A subsequent comment was made by Willy Noiles, the president of the Ontario Network of Injured Workers’ Groups (ONIWG) (the same person who objected to the indirect way of informing Irwin Elman that he had lost his position) to the effect that I had read too much into his comment and that he would agree to such a criticism of the Ontario Child Advocate (and presumably other such institutions) if a third party, upon inquiry, found the institution negligent of its duties. (The president deleted his comment subsequently since it is no longer there; consequently, I cannot provide his answer verbatim.)

My response was as follows:

I hardly read into this person’s comments anything except silence concerning the efficacy of such an institution in relation to advocating for children. This person failed to mention anything about such efficacy in the original post.

As for “third party” investigation–which third party? I filed a complaint against the Winnipeg Child and Family Services with the Ombudsman’s Office. Their judgement: the Winnipeg Child and Family Services had committed no breach of its duties, etc. As for the Children’s Advocate–it lacked the power of the Winnipeg Child and Family Services and did nothing, practically, to save my daughter from further abuse.

So, this person, instead of focusing on adequacy of such institutions (including “third parties”), complains about how the employee was treated.

This person’s criticism of the way the government operated is certainly valid–but he leaves out so much that should be included but rarely is by the left–the adequacy of the institutions themselves.

As for employer’s indicating that the Children’s advocate, Irwin Elman was to lose his job through the media–undoubtedly this should be criticized.

But what of the thousands of other people who silently are crushed by their employer or who are afraid of complaining about the power of their employer? Does this person complain about that, which undoubtedly an NDP government [the NDP is a social-reformist political party] would fail to address since it assumes that the power of employers is sacrosanct?

What is the position of this person on the power of employers in general? Why complain about the abuse of a particular employer only? Why not complain about the abuse of employers as a class? Or use this particular abuse as an example of such abuse?

Instead of criticizing only Ford and his government, why not criticize the accepted assumption by the left and the right of the legitimacy of employers in general?

Another person then commented that she supported Ford’s decision to close the Ontario Child’s Advocate since, according to her, it has done little to advocate for children. She claimed that there were other similar programs set up that were politically motivated but that they have not even “come remotely close to addressing their mandate.” She accused the former Ontario Liberal government of Kathleen Wynn of creating many such useless institutions due to political patronage. She therefore supported “Ford needs to drain the swamp of these types of ‘institutions’ because they are nothing but institutional welfare for academics in most cases.”

She then claimed that she is “not of any political stripe…in fact I deplore ‘politics’, but I support anyone who is willing to clean up the mess we are all paying for.”

I responded:

The left should take a long look at the above post by [this woman]. The left, by not taking a critical stance on many issues and institutions (they assume that certain institutions, such as schools, the Children’s Advocate, the employer-employee relationship in general, labour laws, collective agreements or employment laws) are somehow the embodiment of fairness, justice and decency.

It is the right that then captures the sympathy of certain individuals by eliminating or reducing funding to certain institutions. Such individuals then falsely generalize to believing that “Ford needs to drain the swamp of these types of institutions.” Ford becomes popular because the left fails to criticize certain institutions that deserve criticism–and then individuals turn to the right by overgeneralizing–as if Ford were sympathetic to the creation of a humanistic world rather than pandering after the interests of employers.

The left is just as responsible as the right for “Ford nation.” In addition to failing to criticize social institutions, it also shares with Ford the belief that employers as a class are somehow necessary. Why else would they talk about “fair contracts,” “fair wages,” decent work,” “economic justice” and “fairness?”

The woman then reiterated that she was not for any political party and was neither left-wing or right-wing. She even claimed that she opposed multinational corporations. However, she then reiterated that she would support a government that opposed “a bureaucracy where the head makes over a quarter million dollars annually, plus, plus, plus. We are paying horrific prices for these political ‘gifts’.”

My reply:

The problem with this approach is that we are forced to take sides in the real world. I oppose Ford because of what he represents–the interests of employers. His elimination of the Children’s Advocate has little to do with benefiting children and probably more to do with his agenda of streamlining government so that employers have to pay less. All this talk of saving “taxpayers’ money” is itself a cloak for the benefit of employers.

To be opposed to multinational corporations would entail being opposed to Ford on many fronts–why then focus on “supporting Ford” on a particular issue since the general issue is what Ford represents–employers as a class?

Ford is a parasite–he is an employer and a millionaire. How did he obtain his money if not by exploiting workers? Why not criticize this form of parasitism–which is the central parasitism of our times–rather than a particular parasite? Or why not criticize Ford as exemplary of such central parasitism?

Or where do the profits of employers come from except from the exploitation of workers (employees)?

The woman did not comment after this, but one man indicated that Ford was even worse because “inherited his company from his father, then shut down most Ontario operations and moved to the US.”

Another woman made a final comment: “And even one of those operations in the US was run into the ground killing jobs.”

One of the lessons of this discussion is, as I indicated in my post to Facebook, the left often reacts in  knee-jerk way to the actions of the right in relation to specific social institutions in such a way that they alienate others who consider those social institutions to be a waste. The left in effect act as conservatives of past institutions that may well deserve to be restructured or eliminated in order to address problems internal to such institutions.

A second lesson is that the left do not see that there is mixed in the beliefs of supporters of the right critical aspects that may form a way in which to undermine such support (such as the woman’s belief in eliminating parasites and her opposition to multinational companies).

A third lesson is that the left, by assuming that employers are necessary, form an implicit alliance with the right despite the apparent opposition to them. The issues between the social-reformist left and the right stem mainly from the issue of the extent to which the state will be a welfare state or not–a social-democratic state versus a neoliberal state. The left, however, like the right, assume that employers as a class are here to stay. The issue for it is never in questioning the legitimacy of employers but whether a society dominated by a class of employers can accommodate a welfare state.

By not engaging in a critique of the power of employers as a class, the left miss an opportunity for connecting with those who support some of the actions of the right. Has not the right restructured the state? Has not sections of the working class supported such restructuring in part because of the lack of criticism by the left of a society dominated by a class of employers? The left will at best propose welfare reforms, but since it shares with the right the belief in the sanctity of the employer-employee relation and the limits that imposes on state restructuring and reform, it will likely produce a backlash in the form of support for right-wing policies by sections of the working class.

Should not the left engage in self-criticism? Should it not begin to criticism its own rhetoric of “decent work,” fair wages,” “economic justice,” “fairness,” and “fair labour laws.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Social-Reformist Leftist Activists Share Assumptions with the Right

In an earlier post (Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part Two), I argued that the social-reformist leftist activist Mr. Bush used Karl Marx’s theory of surplus value for conservative (reformist purposes). This post will expand on this view by pointing out, in a more theoretical way, how Mr. Bush, undoubtedly like many of his social-reformist comrades, share assumptions with their apparent enemies, the right, such as the conservatives.

Mr. Bush referred to Marx’s theory of surplus value and assumed that this was the primary feature of Marx’s theory. Undoubtedly it is an important aspect of Marx’s theory, but Mr. Bush, by referring to the “messy business of material reality,” including “costs,” crassly assumes that costs are somehow a fixed standard that leftists are somehow not to question. The “messy business of material reality” is assumed, in other words, to be a fixed fact rather than a fluid reality created by human beings and therefore subject to change by them.

Mr. Bush assumes, like Doug Ford and other conservatives, that things (including human beings), have “costs” (the “messy business of material reality)–without inquiring into the nature of those costs or why such things have such costs in the first place.

Let us, however, refer to Marx (and not to the shared assumptions of Mr. Bush and Doug Ford). From Capital, Volume 1, pages 173-175,

Political economy has indeed analysed value and its magnitude, however incompletely, and has uncovered the content concealed within these forms. But it has never once asked the question why this content has assumed that particular form, that is to say, why labour is expressed in value, and why the measurement of labour by its duration is expressed in the magnitude of the product.  These formulas, which bear the unmistakable stamp of value of the belonging to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite, appear to the political economists’ bourgeois consciousness to be as much a self-evident and nature-imposed necessity as productive labour itself.

The first point is that value and its magnitude (which is related to price, money and “cost”) is an expression of a kind of society in which “process of production has mastery over man [and woman], instead of the opposite.”

The second point is that Marx relates his labour theory of value in order to reveal the social and alienated nature of the labour involved in the development of money and in “costing” things. From Capital, Volume 1, pages 168-169:

Consequently, it was solely the analysis of the prices of commodities which led to the determination of the magnitude of value, and solely the common expression of all commodities in money which led to the establishment of their character as values.
It is however precisely this finished form of the world of commodities – the money form – which conceals the social character of private labour and the social relations between the individual workers, by making those relations appear as relations between material objects, instead of revealing them plainly.

Other authors agree that Marx’s concern is not just with a theory of surplus value but with a theory of surplus value. Thus, John Weeks, in his work Capital, Exploitation and Economic Crisis (New York: Routledge, page 19):

Value acts as a regulator of price once the entire product, all inputs, are monetized;
until this occurs, the product is not a commodity in its entirety and all the
concrete labor time expended on it need not be replaced by money. This occurs
only with the development of capitalist production. It is important not to
become entangled in semantics. “Value” regulates price under capitalist relations
and can be used as a tool of analysis only in capitalist society.

Value regulates cost or the price of what is produced because both the items used to produce something have a price and what is produced with those commodities generally have a price (public services on the produced side excepted). Cost is not some neutral fact in a capitalist society but in an integral aspect that characterizes the very nature of the kind of society in which we live: a capitalist society (modified by public services but not altered fundamentally).

Marx’s theory of value, which Mr. Bush completely ignores, is designed to capture that essential aspect. This is one of the reasons why, before he analyzed capital, he analyzed commodities and money.

Mr. Bush, like Mr. Proudhon, a nineteenth century leftist socialist reformist before him, simply assumes that costs are natural. He refers to these costs as the “messy business of material reality”–as if material reality were somehow by nature characterized by prices and costs. Doug Ford undoubtedly shares the same belief.

In other words, Mr. Bush, a self-avowed social-reformist leftist, shares similar beliefs as Doug Ford about the nature of society despite apparent opposing ideologies. The same could be said of many trade unionists. Do they not believe that costs are natural? That the “messy business of material reality” must necessarily include costs and prices? A social world without costs and prices would be impossible for them.

How can such a shared belief not but fail to have limits in practice? Already Mr. Bush has equated fighting for a $15 minimum wage and other employment law reforms with “fairness.”

What does the radical left do in Toronto (and probably elsewhere)? It is afraid to criticize Mr. Bush’s ideology. After all, Mr. Bush is–doing something. He is “progressive.” Such progress, however, will lead to a backlash since its limits are limits shared by him and Doug Ford. Mr Bush will not seek to go beyond the limits of the power of employers. He will become an apologist for employers, ultimately, since he considers costs and prices to be inevitable–like Doug Ford does. He will, in practice, engage in tactics and strategies that will limit the capacity of workers to free themselves from the power of employers as a class once and for all. He has already begun the process ideologically by claiming that $15 an hour as a minimum wage is somehow fair.

The radical left, then, would do better by criticizing Mr. Bush’s position (and the position of trade unionists similar to that of Mr. Bush). Otherwise, it forms part of the problem rather than part of the solution. By not criticizing such positions as that of Mr. Bush, by remaining silent, it panders after the elite and fails to address the needs of the working class, unionized or non-unionized. Those needs involve exposing the produced conditions of their oppression and exploitation and the proposal of an alternative vision of a society without such oppression and exploitation–which only they can produce.

In other words, the radical left, by failing to develop an independent position and merging with the amorphous “progressive left” (aka, the social-reformist left), has aligned itself with a clique of elitist activists within the labour movement rather than with the working class as a whole.

By doing so, the radical left indirectly aligns itself with the right–such as Doug Ford, since Mr. Bush and Doug Ford share certain assumptions.

 

 

The Socialist Project’s Critique of Doug Ford’s Attack on Local Democracy Falls Short

The Socialist Project has rightly condemned Doug Ford (the new Premier of Ontario, Canada) for his unilateral reduction of the number of Toronto city councilors (in the midst of Toronto elections, no less–indeed, an autocratic act) (see Ford’s Attack on Local Democracy in Toronto).

Despite their criticism of Ford’s autocratic manner, they should also look at the so-called left’s own anti-democratic practices.

Being ignorant of who exactly are the members of the Socialist Project, I will limit my commentary to the probable membership of Sam Gindin in that organization.

I belonged to an organization called the Toronto Labour Committee until last November, when I resigned over what I perceived as a lack of discussion over what I considered to be vital issues relevant to regular members of the working class (not union representatives). My view is that the Toronto Labour Committee was too closely tied to the union movement and had compromised itself in several ways democratically. It is probable that the Socialist Project does the same.

I will not go into the details of how it compromised itself (of course, if Sam or other members of the Toronto Labour Committee raise the issue–then, of course, I will then pursue the issue in further detail).

I will simply point out one issue that illustrates the limited nature of the Socialist Project’s call for democracy in the case of Ford, which should also be directed at the so-called left.

From the Socialist Project’s post:

Democracy is not about “economic efficiency.” It is about providing for free and open debate and discussion between competing points of view in order to make decisions.

Is there any evidence that there is such “free and open debate and discussion between competing points of view in order to make decisions” within the Toronto Labour Committee? For example, I tried to raise the issue of health and safety and how systemic such problems were in the context of a capitalist economy (referring to the work by Bob Barnetston The Political Economy of Workplace Injury in Canada, where he pointed out that over 1000 workers died a year on the job and over 630,000 are injured. There was silence.

Subsequently, when a representative of a local labour council called for support of some striking brewery workers here in Toronto, she justified her call for such support on the basis of referring to what the workers supposedly want–good jobs and a fair deal.

I had worked in a brewery for around four years in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I questioned this reference to a good (or decent) work and a fair contract. I did not try to attack the representative personally. I tried to address the issues.

I also pointed out that the striking workers did deserve our support–that it was a question of solidarity.

Wayne Dealy, who is a representative of a local Toronto union here, then intervened, stating the following:

Is this meant to be a serious intervention or are you taking the piss?

I expressed a point of view that was different–and was roundly insulted on a listserve.

I replied:

It is meant to be a serious intervention. If Wayne Dealy has something against the intervention–apart from emotional venting and insults-he is welcome to debate the issue.

Social democrats, unionists and others who consider themselves to be progressive often refer to good or decent jobs and fair contracts (deals). This is an assumption that is rarely questioned. Indeed, the tone of Wayne’s response is indicative of the lack of real concern over the issue of the power of employers as a class in relation to employees as a class. In other words, Wayne’s response itself shows just how much the issue needs to be debated. That topic will start to be addressed at the next Toronto Labour Committee on March 9, from 7:00-9:00 at 31 Wellesley.

Fred Harris, Ph. D., philosophy of education, former brewery worker

I was too hopeful. No one from the listserve–including Sam Gindin–addressed the real issues of whether there is such a thing as good jobs or a fair contract.

Wayne Dealy replied:

Deepest apologies. Those fourteen words have been buried deep inside
me for years and they could no longer be contained. I regret that you
suffered so for their ill-timed appearance.

Apologies too for not showing more gratitude for the fact that you
deigned to use Tracy’s call for picket-line support to explain to us
in plain language how wage labour is exploitative. Sam, David, Tracy
et al, I hope you all were taking notes. All of us on this list are
obviously and sorely in need of simple explanations of such things;
fortunately Fred is here to fill that void.

On a more personal note, thanks to your second intervention, my
consciousness has been raised even further: I now see the problem all
along was my “lack of real concern over the issue of the power of
employers as a class in relation to employees as a class”.

And the fact that you were able to suss me out from my fourteen
ill-chosen words? Mind. Blown.

Thanks again, truly, for sharing your insights. This group is
extremely fortunate to have a Promethean figure like yourself who so
selflessly kept the ember of class analysis alive so that it could be
shared with all us sinners.

Wayne.

p.s. If I had wanted to insult you I would have called you a
condescending prick

Wayne G. Dealy
Ph.D. Candidate
Department of Political Science

 
University of Toronto

From there the issue got sidetracked, and the issue of whether there can be decent jobs or a fair contract in the context of a class of employers vanished (I take some responsibility–although only some responsibility for this–I got sidetracked rather than focusing on these two issues, which is what I should have done all along).

I doubt that there has been any real

free and open debate and discussion between competing points of view in order to make decisions.

The class issue has been buried by political rhetoric, insults and excuses. Sam Gindin, for example, used the excuse that the reference to “decent work” was a purely “defensive” move. Has there been any “free and open debate and discussion between competing points of view in order to make decisions” about the appropriateness of using such a term as “decent work” or a “fair contract”? I doubt it.

So-called socialists in Toronto (and probably elsewhere) should look internally to see whether they really are practicing “free and open debate and discussion between competing points of view in order to make decisions.” That would indeed be welcome.

As Alan R.H. Baker (Geography and History: Bridging the Divide) wrote, page 213:

I subscribe to consensual historical geography. Of course, any
consensus in history can be sought, and sometimes achieved, only by debate. This
brings me to my third principle of historical geography: debate is central to the
practice of historical geography. Rethinking and revising current, orthodox interpretations should be the norm in historical geography: it should be conventional to be radical. Current ideas and assertions must be, and must expect to be, revised as new evidence comes to light, as new techniques of analysis become available, as new problems deserving attention are identified, and as new ideas and theories are brought into play. Debate, both about substantive issues and about research methodologies, lies at the heart of historical geography as it does also of history (Fig. 6.3). Within historical geography, as within history, there should be an unrelenting criticism of all orthodoxies and conventional wisdoms, as well as an
unremitting awareness of discourses in cognate disciplines.

Do the so-called socialists really engage in debate with a view of achieving some kind of consensus? Will trade-union leaders abandon their views if it is shown that they are mistaken? If they do not, what will socialists do? Or are socialists so afraid of upsetting their trade-union connections (Sam Gindin once indicated that he did not want to become isolated) that they would practically desist from engaging in “free and open debate and discussion between competing points of view in order to make decisions?”

Sam Gindin claimed that we are supposed to be humble. Why? Why should regular workers be humble? They are oppressed and exploited every day. Why should they be humble in the face of union leaders who talk of fair contracts and good jobs? They should be angry at such talk–not humble. They deserve a far better life than what they now experience as things to be used by employers.

A final question: Is there free and open debate and open discussion between competing points of view” among regular workers about management rights, whether unionized or non-unionized? Frankly, I doubt it. If there is evidence to the contrary, I hope others would correct my error.