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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toward an Alternative

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

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

But let us proceed:

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

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

Let us continue:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frustration and Persistence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green Jobs Oshawa Lives On

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Socialism, Part Five: What It May Look Like, or Visions of a Better Kind of Society Without Employers

The following is a continuation of previous posts on the possible nature of socialism that excludes the power of employers as a class.

In the following, Tony Smith elaborates on the right of use by workers of the places, machinery and so forth where they work, but with the local community being the owner of local resources (and regional and national communities being the owners of regional and national enterprises of regional or national scope). From Globalisation: A Systematic Marxian Account (2006. Boston: Brill), page 304:

(iv) Workers in enterprises are granted use rights to facilities and other
means of production. But ultimate ownership rights remain with the local
community. Workers cannot use their enterprise as a cash cow and then walk
away; they have a legal duty to maintain the value of the community’s
investments. If sufficient depreciation funds cannot be appropriated from
revenues to maintain the value of these investments, it is the responsibility
of community banks to shut down an enterprise. Once depreciated funds
have been deducted, the remainder of the revenues from public allocations
or sales in consumer/producer markets (apart from the taxes to be considered
below) are then distributed among the members of the collective according
to formulae set by the democratically accountable management

Since the workers are the trustees of the workplaces and not their owners, each year, the workers in the sector that produces either consumer goods for the market or the raw material, machines and so forth required to produce both themselves and consumer goods, have to set aside a certain amount of the proceeds from sales to purchase worn out means of production. The workers must also include in that depreciation fund a fund for repairs.

Workers have a responsibility to the present community and to future communities to maintain the general conditions for the continued livelihood of the community. This means that any cooperative that fails to maintain the value of the means of production must be closed down, and workers in such cooperatives must find work in another, more viable cooperative.

The sales revenue will be distributed generally into three parts: (1) the depreciation fund, (2) a tax on capital assets (which will be explained in another post), and a residual of what is called profits, to be distributed to the members of the cooperative as their personal income according to distribution rules created by themselves. (There also may be income tax and consumption tax, but I will not address that).


Socialism, Part Four: What It May Look Like, or Visions of a Better Kind of Society Without Employers

The following is a continuation of previous posts on the possible nature of socialism that excludes the power of employers as a class.

In the following, Tony Smith elaborates on the democratic nature of the workplace, which is subject to control not only by the workers at the particular workplace electing managers but also by certain community organizations that represent specific community interests. From Globalisation: A Systematic Marxian Account (2006. Boston: Brill), page 303:

(iii) Worker collectives produce public goods, inputs into the production process, or final consumption goods. Funds for the first are directly allocated to collectives by the relevant planning agencies (see below). The latter two categories of products are offered for sale in producer and consumer markets. In Schweickart’s view, attempts to centrally plan all inputs and outputs in a top-down fashion are simply not feasible, at least not in a complex and dynamic economy. But it does not follow that capitalist market societies are the only acceptable forms of economic organisation. It is possible to imagine a feasible and normatively attractive society combining markets with the socialisation of the means of production, that is, a society making use of producer and consumer markets after abolishing both capital markets and
labour markets.

In addition to the elimination of a market for workers and management of work enterprises being accountable to work councils and community councils, capital markets in the sense of an investment process owned by a minority would no longer exist. There would, nonetheless, be markets that produced means of production and markets that produced consumption goods. For example, at the brewery where I worked, the workers who produced the soaker or the filler that the brewery workers used would be subject to competition from other workers who produce soakers or fillers. Workers in the brewery would be subject to competition from workers in other breweries.

Unfortunately, Smith does not elaborate much on what he means by the abolition of capital markets. His reference to David Schweickart’s work Against Capitalism, however, gives a clue to what he means. Schweikart has the following to say (page 172):

First, we issue a decree abolishing all enterprise obligations to pay interest or stock dividends to private individuals or private institutions.

This decree will need no enforcement, since enterprises are not going to insist on paying what they are no longer legally obligated to pay.

But Schweickart sees a flaw in the abolition of all capital markets, at least immediately (page 173):

6.3.2 Once More, This Time with Feeling (for the Stockholders)

Too Simple? Of course. The above is not meant to be a realistic scenario. Above all, it fails to take into account the fact that millions of ordinary citizens (not only capitalists) have resources tied up in the financial markets. People with savings accounts or holdings in stocks and bonds have been counting on their dividend and interest checks. (Nearly half of all American households have direct or indirect holdings in the stock market, mostly in pension plans.) Eliminating all dividend and interest income-which is what Radical Quick does-will not strike these fellow citizens as a welcome reform. Let us run through our story again, this time complicating it to take into account their legitimate concerns.

Schweickart, realistically, recognizes that workers have investments in capital markets and hence are in some ways tied to such markets. His solution is to imagine a situation where at least the key corporations, due to the circumstances of a crisis, would be subject to elimination from capital markets (pages 173-174):

Let me first set the stage a little more fully than I did with Radical Quick. Let us suppose that a genuine counterproject to capitalism has developed, and that, gradually gaining in strength, it has been able to elect a leftist government that has put most of the reforms outlined earlier in this chapter on the table and has secured the passage of some of them. Suppose investors decide they’ve had enough and begin cashing in their stock holdings. A stock-market crash ensues. In reaction, the citizenry decide that they too have had enough-and give their leftist government an even stronger mandate to take full responsibility for an economy now tumbling into crisis.

Our new government declares a bank holiday, pending reorganization (as Roosevelt did following his election in 1932). All publicly traded corporations are declared to be worker-controlled. Note: This control extends only to corporations, not to small businesses or even to privately held capitalist firms. It is decided that it will be sufficient  to redefine property rights only in those firms for which ownership has already been largely separated from management. (With the “commanding heights” of the economy now democratized, most other firms can be expected to come under increased pressure from their own workers, over time, to follow suit.)

The exact way in which capital markets would be reduced and eventually abolished would vary across time and place, depending on circumstances.

As I have emphasized throughout this blog, though, it is much less likely that workers will be receptive to a call for the elimination of capital markets and markets for workers unless they find the situation to be unfair. The ideology of the social-reformist left consistently makes reference to fairness within the limits of the employer-employee relation. We need to break with such ideology if we are to initiate such a process without having to respond erratically when a crisis hits.

Or are there alternatives? What do you think?

 

Management Rights and the Crisis in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada: Limitations of the Reformist Left, Part Two

In an earlier post, I questioned the Socialist Project’s characterization of the problem that workers in Oshawa face (Management Rights and the Crisis in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada: Limitations of the Reformist Left, Part One).   I also, implicitly, questioned their proposed solutions.  In this post, I will question their proposed solutions explicitly.

The Committee then proposes some things to be done to resolve the problem:

What’s needed are efforts to provide challenging education programs about the potential for workers to demand that the facilities in which they work produce environmentally responsible products, publicly owned, and not dependent on the whims of the fickle and brutally competitive consumer private vehicle market. Without a leadership that points the way forward and questions the hyper-competitive private marketplace workers remain dependent on corporate employers and look to them to provide for their future.

The demand for educational programs ought to shift workers’ consciousness to production that: 1. changes what is produced (environmentally unfriendly private vehicles vs. environmentally friendly vehicles); 2. and for what purpose (competitive and, implicitly, for profit rather than for need).

This demand is unlikely to have much immediate impact at Oshawa. To have an impact it would have been necessary to develop educational programs that call into question various aspects of the capitalist economy, both at the micro level of the plant and at the macro level of the structure of production and exchange. Has such an educational program been developed? Judging from my own experience in an educational program developed by Herman Rosenfeld, Jordan House and me and presented mainly to airport workers at Toronto Pearson airport, such an educational program has had severe limitations placed on it.

Firstly, we did not have many opportunities to provide educational course for such workers. In fact, after we presented three times, we did not present again for around two years.

Secondly, of those three times, only once did we present a critical macro approach, with three sections on the capitalist class, the working class and the capitalist state. The other two times, these sections were eliminated. Herman and Jordan did present to the airport afterwards–probably without the critical macro aspect.

Thus, to have an impact, there would have had to exist many educational opportunities for the workers, and the content of the courses would have had to include a critical approach at both the micro and macro level. Since there has not been such opportunities, a call for such a modified educational program at this stage is wishful thinking. It is highly unlikely to occur.

This leads into the last part of the article. The Committee demands the following:

Political Struggle, Community Control

The Socialist Project supports serious efforts by the union and the membership to organize collective actions that challenge GM’s decision and calls for new products to be allocated to Oshawa.

We also call for the union to build a movement inside Local 222, the surrounding community and across the union movement and the Canadian working class, to:

  • Pressure governments to ensure the survival of the productive facilities in Oshawa by taking ownership, after a community seizure of the plant. Productive facilities, like what remains of GM Oshawa were paid for by the community need to be owned and further developed by the community. The federal government didn’t hesitate to take ownership of the Trans Mountain pipeline project, and there is an historical precedent for the conversion of auto production during World War II to needed war materials.

  • Along with the workers and their surrounding communities, come up with a plan to produce needed mass transit equipment and other environmentally and socially necessary products. It would require and could lead to new capacities for research, development, production and distribution, that could create jobs, help stem the tide of climate change and foster the growth of a challenge to neoliberal capitalism.

  • Investment can be provided by a publicly owned municipal, provincial or federal development bank. More could be provided by taxing the assets of banks or other private investment institutions. •

It is of course necessary to try to address the immediate decision of GM to close the plant. A call for community seizure of the plant may be immediately needed to prevent GM from carrying out its plans. However, this is mixed up with the call for the federal government to take over ownership. Why would there not be a call for ownership to be located at the community level after the seizure? Why this shift to ownership by the federal government? Would it not be more democratic if the community owned the plant and workers made decisions within a framework provided by the community? Would not a community board of directors, with representatives from various community organizations being the ultimate owner, be more democratic than ownership by the federal government? (Tony Smith, in his book Globalisation: A Systematic Marxian Account) argues for such community ownership and organization, with workers having the right of use of the facilities owned by the community.)

The federal government may be needed to prevent GM from taking away the physical assets and accounts of the plant; it may also be needed in various ways to support the community. However, since the federal government is unlikely to be democratic in structure if it owned the plant. Workers would still be treated as things since the federal government would be the employer. Undoubtedly, given the macro environment of a capitalist economy dominated by employers, community organization would also tend in that direction. However, there would be less of tendency in that direction than would be the case if the federal government owned the plant.

In relation to the second point–a plan for democratically producing environmentally-friendly output, the emphasis seems to be more on the kind of output rather than the kinds of relations between human beings at work. Admittedly, creating environmentally-friendly vehicles does express a positive relation between individuals, but this relation would be between the set of workers producing the environmentally-friendly objects and other workers and institutions who buy the vehicles.

What should have been included is a characterization of the preferred internal relations between workers–democratic–and how such a form could at least have been begun (although hardly achieved since the Oshawa plant would exist in a sea of capitalist relations of production and exchange).

The two bulleted points, with the suggested modifications, will however very unlikely be realized; GM will in all likelihood be closed down, with the Oshawa workers and community experiencing the immediate brunt of the shut down. What would have been required was persistent preparation of both the community and the workers (of course, not exclusionary since Oshawa workers can also be inhabitants of Oshawa) for a democratic takeover of the plant through a criticism of the employer-employee relation as such. Given the lack of such criticism, workers are likely unprepared ideologically and psychologically  (in terms of their attitude towards what needs to be done and what goals to pursue) for a democratic break with the structure of capitalist production and exchange.

An example of the inadequate preparation of workers: I heard Chris Buckley, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, give a speech at a rally in support of striking airport workers in 2017. He used several times the term “decent job” and “decent work”–by which he meant a job subject to a collective agreement. The social-reformist and radical left did not question him anymore than they questioned Tracy McMaster, president of Greater Toronto Area Council, to which are affiliated 35 local unions of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU)), who also referred to “decent work” and “fair wages.”  They are afraid to alienate union reps and heads, but it is difficult to see how such alienation can be prevented given the acceptance of the power of employers as a class by such reps and heads of unions

Coming to the final point of the article is also wishful thinking. To create a developmental bank would require a fighting organization–a set of unions that are designed to engage in systematic attacks at the municipal, provincial and federal levels against the power of employers as a class and not the rhetorical flashes of engaging in struggles (see Chris Buckley’s letter to Premier Doug Ford, Letter From OFL President Chris Buckley to Premier Doug Ford Regarding GM Oshawa). The recent indication by Jerry Dias, national president of Unifor, and Warren (Smokey) Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), that they are going to fight Ford’s agenda, will unlikely be sufficient to change the situation in Oshawa   (OPSEU and Unifor Join Forces Against Doug Ford); both accept the premise that collective agreements express a relation of fairness or justice. Expanding alliances across the public and private sector may or may not constitute structural change within unions. If such alliances are merely extensions of the existing union structures, it is unlikely to be an effective fighting force since such structures are not designed to question the legitimacy of the power of employers as a class; they assume the legitimacy of the power of employers as a class and seek only to limit such power–a necessary part of working-class struggle, but hardly sufficient. To become fighting organizations (with purposes that go beyond the limits of the power of employers as a class) and not merely defensive organizations, they need to question the legitimacy of collective agreements while still engaging in collective bargaining as a necessary evil.

We can see this on the OPSEU website for example. The title of one article is  Ford in bed with business, won’t save good GM jobs ; as noted in the first part of the post (see the link to that post above), the logic of this is that before GM announced its decision to close the plant, GM jobs were “good jobs,” but after the announcement, what were they? Bad jobs? The right of employers to close down may be fought on a particular basis, but generally employers as a class have the right to close businesses based on business criteria (generally, profitability in the private sector and public efficiency and political expediency in the public sector). This applies to jobs such as the jobs at GM. To call any job controlled by employers as good, therefore, is contradictory; jobs apparently are both good (when they are not eliminated) and bad (if they can be eliminated).

The article on the OPSEU website has Warren (“Smokey”) Thomas specifically claiming the following: ““At least Ontario has strong unions who stand united to fight for good jobs, even if the premier won’t.” In addition to calling such jobs good (and, by implication bad when they can be eliminated)–in addition to this contradiction–Smokey’s argument ignores how workers at Oshawa are used as means for the benefit of obtaining more and more money by GM (see the  The Money Circuit of Capital, which calls into question any characterization of working for employers as good or decent since workers are necessarily things or means for ends not defined by them but by a class of employers).

We can get an idea of Jerry Dias’ views on “good jobs” from the following article on the Unifor website, entitled   Unifor to hold national ‘Good Jobs Summit’.  Mr. Dias states the following:

“We need elected officials to help chart a path towards a good jobs future,” Dias wrote. “We need to start raising expectations that we can win jobs that pay fair wages, are safe and stable. And we want all workers in Canada to join in.”

Working for an employer, who generally has the legal right to close a factory, a department and so forth without democratic control by those effected by the decision, is somehow still a “good job.” It somehow results in fair wages (whereas wages, in the private sector, result from previous surpluses produced by workers and therefore are used to further exploit workers. See my post Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part Two , criticizing David Bush’s one-sided analysis of capitalist relations of production and exchange).

The idea that jobs within a capitalist society are somehow safe also is questionable, as a number of posts have tried to make clear (Confessions of a Union Representative Concerning the Real Power of EmployersUnions and Safety on Jobs Controlled by EmployersGetting Away with Murder and Bodily Assault: Employers and the Law).

As for stable jobs: Where does Mr. Dias question management rights clauses in collective agreements, which implicitly or explicitly express the right of employers to reduce the number of positions or close factories or departments? That unions can and have limited such a right is certainly preferable to letting management have carte blanche, but limitations on that right hardly involve stability–as the Oshawa workers have experienced first hand. In any case, in a system characterized by capitalist accumulation, where a minority make decisions about what to invest, where to invest, when to invest and so forth, stability is possible for awhile but subject to constant disruption as investors seek new profits and new means to accumulation across the globe. Stability was possible after the Second World War, for instance, for some time because of the substantial destruction of means of production during the Second World War, the opening up of new areas for investment, the expansion of demand for workers and relative increases in wages. Given that a global war is hardly in the workers’ best interests, it is likely that more and more workers will be subject to increasingly precarious jobs until a global slump much wider and deeper than the one in 2007-2008 reduces the value of many means of production, leading to a vast upsurge in unemployment–in either case hardly a stable future.

So, the alliance of a public-sector union and a private-sector union is unlikely to provide the basis for the realization of the third point in the Socialist Project’s Steering Committee: neither the emergence of a development bank at the municipal, provincial or federal level, nor taxing the banks and other investment institutions is likely to be realized in the near future. (It is to be wondered why taxing is limited only to investment institutions and excludes taxing corporations involved in production. But that only in passing.)

The article fails to address the issue of preparing workers to develop a working-class attitude that would be conducive to engage in action that reflects an understanding of their class interests. It may or may not be too late to engage the workers at the Oshawa plant with such an approach, but such an approach should have been started long ago in order to address democratically the power of this particular employer to exert its class right to determine what to do with the means of production.

As it stands, there will probably be knee-jerk reactions to an immediate crisis–which is a typical response of an approach that fails to take into account the class nature of working for an employer but rather assumes that there are such things, within the confines of the employer-employee relation, as “good or decent jobs,” “fair wages,” “a fair contract,” “economic justice” (given collective agreements), “fairness,” “Fair Labour Laws Make Work Safe” and other such half-truths and platitudes. Perhaps the workers in Oshawa will learn the hard way this lesson, but it is more likely to do so if a critical working-class organization exists which questions such half-truths and platitudes and enables workers to understand their own experiences in a wider social context.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Management Rights and the Crisis in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada: Limitations of the Reformist Left, Part One

The Socialist Project Steering Committee wrote the following on its website (Taking on the GM Shutdown: Unifor, Oshawa and Community Control) :

General Motor’s plan to end production at its Oshawa plant at the end of 2019 is a callous, cynical act by the U.S.-based multinational auto giant that needs to be challenged. After accepting $13.7-billion bailout offered by the Canadian public to the big automakers back in 2008 to keep GM and Chrysler alive (one third of which will never be recovered), the company plans will leave 2500 workers at the plant out of work, with perhaps further spinoff losses of jobs and taxes. This is a brutal blow for the home of industrial unionism in Canada and one of the long-time centres of Canadian auto production.

This view implies that GM’s decision to close the plant is somehow unfair. Why else would such a decision be called callous and cynical?

Why is it unfair? There seem to be several reasons for providing such a judgement. Firstly, GM, like many other capitalist employers, were bailed out by the so-called Canadian public (actually, the Canadian government–hardly the same thing). Secondly, “one third” of the bailout “will never be recovered.” So, you lend someone a hand–and they not only fail to appreciate your aid but bite the hand that helps him. These are two the moral objections to the closing of the Oshawa plant provided by the Socialist Project Steering Committee.

The negative consequences of the closure seem to be a further objection, but that would only be so if there was an argument against closing plants by employers in general. If the Canadian government had not bailed out GM and no funds had been lost, then GM could legitimately “leave 2500 workers at the plant out of work, with perhaps further spinoff losses of jobs and taxes.” (Just as an aside–there is little doubt that there would be substantial spinoff losses of jobs and taxes. Why the Socialist Project Steering Committee decided to add the qualifier “perhaps” is a mystery. For one description of what happens, at an experiential level, to workers’ lives when coal mines and steel plants close down, see Simon J. Charlesworth, A Phenomenology of Working-class Experience).

The article, however, does not limit itself to only two reasons for considering the decision to be unfair:

From the point of view of the workers and communities surrounding Oshawa and, indeed, the needs and concerns of the working class across the country, there is no understanding why a place so productive can be shut down. Besides directly attacking the livelihoods and economic futures of workers, the shutdown would eliminate a key component of productive capacities in Canada.

Two further reasons are thus provided: the Oshawa plant is productive, and its closing would result in a reduction in the productive capacities in Canada.

Presumably what the Committee means by productive is in terms of material production. It may also mean value added as a whole. However, as the Committee undoubtedly understands, what is productive in those terms need not transfer to productivity for capital since the issue for capital is aggregate profit, and that usually in relation to total investment (rate of profit). What is productive materially and value added need not necessarily translate into higher profits and a higher rate of profit. For example, the same value added can be distributed differently between profits and wages. And the same level of profits, if related to different aggregate costs, will result in a different rate of profit.

It seems that the Committee is using a different definition of what constitute productivity from what GM considers productivity; why else would GM decide to close the Oshawa plant? It has decided, according to its own definition of productivity, what is productive–profitability and the rate of profit.

That the Committee and GM are using different definitions of productivity becomes clearer in what follows:

There is no reason to close down the facility in Oshawa which has consistently ranked as one of the top plants in the world (and similar doubts could be raised for the four U.S. plants also slated for closure). GM could easily retool these plants, and produce both new electric and hybrid vehicles, as well as the SUVs that are dominating current markets. These plants have rested on the community and labour resources of their communities; if GM doesn’t use this productive capacity, it should be seized as community property and put to other uses.

Brutal Corporate Strategy

From the point of view of GM, and the financial markets that back GM up, the closures are part of a brutal corporate strategy to: cut overall costs; to concentrate production in hot selling profit-making trucks and SUVs; and to finance later moves to offshore production of electric vehicles (quite possibly in China as the key growth market for e-vehicles).

In what way has Oshawa consistently “ranked as one of the top plants in the world?” Perhaps it has done so in terms of level of material productivity, value added, profitability and rate of profit–or perhaps it has not. Without a further explanation of what the standards are that are being used to make such a judgement, it is impossible to say what is being claimed here. However, in the above quotation, the Committee itself recognizes that its standards and those of GM are not the same. GM has decided to close certain plants “to cut overall costs.” If overall costs are cut, with profit remaining the same, then the rate of profit increases. “From the point of view of GM,” the productivity of capital will have increased. Furthermore, a shift from production in Oshawa and other plants to “hot-selling profit-making trucks and SUVs.” Not only did GM makes its decision based on the input sides (costs), but it also made its decision on the output side (level of demand). Furthermore, there is implied an already proven profit-making market, with relatively secure profits since demand is apparently quite high for output.
Is this not what capitalist employers do? How is GM any different from other employers in this regard?

The unfairness arises from an implied critique of capitalism as such as unfair without explicitly making it so; it is couched in terms of a bailout and non-recoverable funds. However, the article confuses the two issues and does not argue against GM as such as unfair.

If the only actions that are unfair is the bailout and nonrecoverable funds, then the solution would be to seize the Oshawa plant and have GM pay back the lost funds, after which GM would be free to close down the plant.

If, on the other hand, an economy dominated by a class of employers is unfair as such, then GM’s actions are unfair and seizing the plant without compensation would be only a prelude to seizing other plants since the ownership of such plants by employers would be illegitimate.

Since the Steering Committee fails to criticize explicitly the power of employers as a class to decide what to produce where and when it wants, its criticism of GM’s “brutal corporate strategy” rings hollow.

Why, for example, did it not criticize the following?:

MASTER AGREEMENT
BETWEEN
GENERAL MOTORS OF CANADA COMPANY
AND
UNIFOR
Local No. 199 St. Catharines Local No. 222 Oshawa Local No. 636 Woodstock
Dated
September 20, 2016
(Effective: September 26, 2016)
Page 5:
SECTION IV
MANAGEMENT
(4) The Union recognizes the right of the Company to hire, promote, transfer, demote and lay off employees and to suspend, discharge or otherwise discipline employees for just cause subject to the right of any employee to lodge a grievance in the manner and to the extent as herein provided.

The Union further recognizes the right of the Company to operate and manage its business in all respects, to maintain order and efficiency in its plants, and to determine the location of its plants, the products to be manufactured, the scheduling of its production and its methods, processes, and means of manufacturing. The
Union further acknowledges that the Company has the right to make and alter, from time to time, rules and regulations to be observed by employees, which rules and regulations shall not be inconsistent with the provisions of this Agreement.

(This blog has criticized management rights on principle on a number of occasions. See    (Management Rights, Part One: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia, Management Rights, Part Two: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario,  Management (Employer) Rights, Part Three: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Manitoba,   Management Rights, Part Four: Private Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario).

The limitation of the social-reformist left are further exposed in the following:

Workers in Canada, the USA or Mexico for that matter, have no democratic control over what is being produced in our countries, or the fate of the productive facilities that produce them. Current governments of all stripes accept the free movement of capital and the domination of large investors in making key economic decisions. Trudeau, Ford and NDP governments are so committed to free trade and the wisdom of the private marketplace, that it is breathtaking to see how they fall over themselves to accept the right of GM to close down Oshawa, and limit themselves to providing Employment Insurance (EI), retraining and such.

This call for democratic control comes from out of the blue. Such a call is pure rhetoric and is not at all linked with the critique of concrete social structures that workers and community members experience on a daily basis. It is “breathtaking to see how they fall over themselves” in failing to criticize the various social structures that support the power of employers in general. Seizing the plant and managing it on democratic principles hardly need to coincide. Seizing the plant may be just an immediate reaction to the perceived threat to jobs–jobs that are hardly decent since they involve treating human beings as things (see The Money Circuit of Capital) but, nonetheless, are needed by workers if they are going to live in a society dominated by a class of employers.

A call for democratic control requires preparation. Why is there no definite critique of management rights? Why is there no definite critique of the right of employers to use workers as things legally? Why is there no definite critique of the economic dependence which characterizes so much of the lives of the working class? A critique of these structures is a necessary prelude to real democratic control by workers over the economic conditions of their own lives.

Actually, what they probably mean by “democratic control” is the regulations of employers and not the actual democratic control by workers over their own lives. Why else do they use the term “no democratic control.” They seem to object, not to the power of employers to dictate to workers in general, but to a particular form of that dictatorship–neoliberalism, where the welfare state is reduced in scope for the benefit of the class of employers.

The Committee then proceeds to criticize the weakness of Unifor’s response in the face of the announced closure of the Oshawa plant. The criticism is accurate as far as it goes, but the Committee does not bother to look at the weakness of the left and its role in feeding into that response. As already mentioned, the left does not generally criticize management rights as such. Quite to the contrary. It uses rhetoric and euphemisms, such as “decent work,” “fair wages,” (Tracy McMaster), “a fair contract” (Wayne Dealy). It fails to criticize the pairing of the Fight for $15 with the concept of “fairness,” implying that fairness can be achieved within the employer-employee relation. It fails to criticize the rhetoric of “Fair Labour Laws Save Lives.” It fails to criticize the rhetoric of “economic justice” (John Cartwright).

Were the jobs at the Oshawa plant before the announcement “decent jobs?” Was the collective agreement a “fair contract” and the wages a “fair wage?” But then magically, after the announcement, they are no longer “decent jobs?” There is no longer a “fair contract?” There is no longer a “fair wage?”

Were the labour laws fair before the announcement of the closure of the Oshawa plant fair? If so, how did they remain fair afterwards? Or did they magically become unfair?

So many questions, but the article by the Steering Committee fails to provide any answers.

A later post will look in more detail at the proposed solutions by the Steering Committee.

 

Socialism, Part Two: What It May Look Like

The following is a continuation of an earlier post (Socialism, Part One: What It May Look Like) about the nature of socialism–which is a solution to problems that capitalism, characterized by the domination of a class of employers, cannot solve. Socialism is not something that emerges from a utopian view independently of the nature of capitalism but requires a critical approach to capitalism.

In the following, Tony Smith elaborates on the democratic nature of the workplace, which is subject to control not only by the workers at the particular workplace electing managers but also by certain community organizations that represent specific community interests. From  Globalisation: A Systematic Marxian Account (2006. Boston: Brill), page 303:

(ii) Managers of worker collectives are democratically accountable to those
over whom they exercise authority, either through direct elections or through
appointment by a workers’ council that is itself directly elected. These
enterprises are required to have representatives from a range of social
movements (environmental groups, consumer groups, feminist groups, and
so on) on their boards of directors, accountable to those movements.

What do you think of such proposals? How do they relate to democracy? To the lack of democracy in your life? Do you think that such proposals are worth fighting for?