Once Again on the GM Plant Closure in Oshawa and the Limitations of the Social-Reformist Left

Sam Gindin published an article on the Socialist Project website entitled  GM Oshawa: Making Hope Possible. The following is a continuation of two previous posts on the closure and the inadequate nature of the social-reformist left in dealing with such closures (see Management Rights and the Crisis in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada: Limitations of the Reformist Left, Part One and  Management Rights and the Crisis in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada: Limitations of the Reformist Left, Part Two).

He divides his article into seven sections: 1. an introduction, 2. Workers as Collateral Damage; 3. Lame Politicians 4. The Union 5. Searching for Alternatives 6. Plan B. 7. Conclusion: Is This Really Feasible?

An implicit common thread throughout the various sections is the unfairness of GM’s actions and what to do about them. If the GM closure were not considered unfair, why would there be any concern at all? However, there is no explicit discussion about why it is unfair. This is characteristic of Mr. Gindin’s approach to working-class politics.

1. Introduction

Mr. Gindin claims that the typical measures to address such closures, such as traditional protests, simply will not work. What may work is, rather, democratic control through “community and national planning.” Before elaborating on this in section 6, , Mr. Gindin looks at the probable causes and consequences of the closure and the responses by politicians, the union and possible alternative solutions.

2. Workers as Collateral Damage

Mr. Gindin correctly points out that no matter what concessions workers make to employers, employers will try to find ways to move to places where it is more profitable. Despite the Oshawa plant being  productive materially and profitable in the production of cars and trucks, profitability is located more in truck production than in car production. Since GM has excess capacity in truck production, and the Oshawa plant only assembled trucks when the US plants could not keep up to demand, the decision to close the GM Oshawa plant makes sense from the perspective of GM.

The irony of a materially productive plant being closed down can be explained in Marxian terms (for further details, see my article, Dewey’s Materialist Philosophy of Education: A Resource for Critical Pedagogues? , page 278).

The purpose wealth in a capitalist society is hardly to serve the needs of workers and the community but to serve the needs of the accumulation of capital or more and more money as its own end. Given the need to accumulate capital constantly, it is hardly surprising to find closures occurring in various parts of the world as capital moves from one place to another in search of more surplus value (and profit).

It is interesting to note that the title of this section implies that workers are really mere means for the benefit of the class of employers, as outlined in The Money Circuit of Capital. Unfortunately, Mr. Gindin did not consider this to be characteristic of the experiences of workers on a daily basis in his practice in Toronto. For example, as one of the heads of the Toronto Labour Committee (an organization to which I belonged and from which I withdrew), Mr. Gindin did not find it useful to question the pairing of the Fight for $15 (a fight for the establishment of a minimum wage of $15 and changes in employment law beneficial to the working class, especially the poorer sections) with the idea of “fairness.” Indeed, he seemed opposed to bringing up the issue at a public forum. Moreover, when I questioned Tracy McMaster’s reference to “decent work” and “fair wages” in the context of a call for supporting striking brewery workers,  Mr. Gindin did not support my criticism of such terms. Quite to the contrary. He became quite apologetic of the term “decent work,” arguing that workers were using it as a defensive maneuver in these difficult times. Frankly, I think that that is bullshit–and I said so explicitly.

Mr. Gindin claimed that the Toronto Labour Committee should have a discussion some time about the nature of decent work and what it means–but I doubt that there has been much discussion about this. He himself indicated that he was afraid to become isolated–which meant being afraid of alienating too much trade-union representatives.

Now, Mr. Gindin sings a different tune, implying that workers are expendable no matter what they do.

In any case, Mr. Gindin’s rejection of my argument that we need to bring out into the open and discuss the idea that working for employers is somehow decent, or that employment laws and labour laws are somehow fair undermines his own claim that workers are “collateral damage”–even when there is a collective agreement. By rejecting democratic discussion of such ideology, workers are less likely to be prepared to address the problems that they now face in an adequate manner.

The third section of Mr. Gindin’s article, entitled Lame Politicians, should be aimed at Mr. Gindin, the Toronto Labour Committee and the social-reformist left characteristic of Toronto (and probably in other cities in Ontario and in Canada).

I will skip over that section since Mr. Gindin shares in the politicians’ lame response to the power of employers as a class.

4. The Union

Mr. Gindin rightly criticizes the union for making concessions in hope that jobs would be somehow guaranteed. However, as noted above, it is not just the particular union strategy of bending over backward to retain jobs but the whole union view of claiming that collective agreements somehow convert working for an employer into decent work despite the employer-employee relationship inherently making workers “collateral damage” even during the terms of the collective agreement. I have not seen Mr. Gindin once criticize explicitly the collective-bargaining process and its result, collective agreements. He and the Toronto Labour Committee have been too afraid of isolating themselves from the trade-union leadership–but that is surely what is necessary if typical trade-union rhetoric is going to be challenged.

5. Searching for Alternatives

Mr. Gindin outlines some possible alternative strategies open to Unifor (the union that represents the Oshawa workers at GM) in order to achieve the goal of maintaining the status quo (retention of jobs according to the signed collective agreement). Such strategies, such as boycotts or placing high tariffs on the import of cars from Mexico are unlikely to arise under the given circumstances. He mentions an occupation of the plant, but as he points out, an occupation without a plan is merely only a protest and not a solution to the problem facing the Oshawa workers.

This leads to his own preferred solution.

6. Plan B

Mr. Gindin claims that the only practical alternative is radical or revolutionary: it must break with previous models and focus on production for need and not for profit and competition. This would ignite the working-class imagination across the country, constituting a rallying point for working-class unity.

He correctly points out that GM will likely try to buy off some of the Oshawa workers through “pension top-ups and buyouts.” Unfortunately, he underestimates what would be required to counter such a strategy. My prediction is that such a strategy will work because of the lack of any effort to counter union rhetoric about “decent work,” “fair contracts,” “fairness,” “economic justice” and “fair labour laws.”

As already pointed out in various posts as well as this post, union leaders have generally become ideologists of employers by claiming that collective agreements, labour law and employment law are somehow fair. Workers have been spoon-fed the pabulum of “decent work,” “fairness” and “fair wages” for decades. Now, all of a sudden, they are supposed to shift gear and practically treat GM as unfair, their former jobs as indecent? They are supposed to become class conscious and act as a class despite the indoctrination that they experienced at school (see A Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part Two: The Ontario History Curriculum and Its Lack of History of Employers and Employees)?Similarly, they are supposed to envision all of a sudden a radical alternative without any discussion whatsoever of the nature of such a radical vision (see Socialism, Part One: What It May Look Like   , Socialism, Part Two: What It May Look LikeThe Canadian Left’s Lack of a Vision of the Good Life Beyond a Class of Employers  , Socialism, Part Three: What It May Look Like, or Visions of a Better Kind of Society Without Employers)?

It is certainly an occasion to reflect on a possible alternative vision of production based on need and not on profit, but to be effective it is required to combine such a vision with a critique of the present structure of production, distribution, exchange and consumption–and with that the union rhetoric of “decent work/jobs,” “fair wages,” “fairness,” “fair labour laws,” or “economic justice.” Workers would need to prepare themselves ideologically for taking such measures and for a battle along class lines. Mr. Gindin has done nothing to prepare them for such a shift.

So, my prediction is that Mr. Gindin’s alternative vision of production in Oshawa shifting to production for need will falter because it is utopian. On the one hand, it would be necessary to criticize the current union leadership much more thoroughly than Mr. Gindin’s is willing to do. On the other hand, it lacks any plan for shifting the attitude of workers to a class attitude, grounded in an explicit understanding that they are mere means for the purposes of obtaining more and more money and that process is unfair to the core and needs to be rejected.

One final point. Mr. Gindin recommends that the Oshawa plant be seized without compensation. That sounds fair since GM received a substantial bailout without repayment. However, is it realistic? Mr. Gindin does not even consider how the US government would react to such a move. One historical incident illustrates the problem. The democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz, in Guatemala (a country just south of Mexico), in 1954, nationalized the United Fruit Company’s land (the United Fruit Company (UFC) was an American multinational). He offered compensation according to the value of the land claimed by the UFC on its taxes–around $600,000 according to some. UFC wanted $25 000 000. Arbenz refused to pay the sum. The United States government, through the CIA, overthrew Arbenz and installed a military dictatorship through Castillo Armas.

Why did Mr. Gindin not take into account the possible reaction of the United States government? Furthermore, given the ideological paablum of “decent work,” etc. across the country as well as economic indoctrination across the country (see  A Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part One: The Manitoba History Curricula and Its Lack of History of Employers and EmployeesA Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part Two: The Ontario History Curriculum and Its Lack of History of Employers and Employees), would other workers support such a seizure without compensation? This does not mean that there should be no seizure without compensation, but it is necessary to take into account the possible reaction of the United States government in proceeding with seizure with no compensation. Mr. Gindin fails to provide any consideration of this in his article.

So, Mr. Gindin’s conclusion that it is impossible to determine whether his proposed alternative is feasible is incorrect. It is likely utopian since it fails to break definitively with a one-sided union model that continues to justify the power of employers as a class. It also fails to realistically assess the level of support needed to protect the seizure of assets without compensation.

The title of Mr. Gindin’s article should read: GM Oshawa: Making False Hopes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Comments from John Urkevich, AESES-UM Business Agent, to my Critique of the Grievance and Arbitration Procedure: Letter to the Editor, Inside The Association of Employees Supporting Educational Services (AESES), Vol. 17, No. 4, May 1994

As I wrote in my last post (Critique of the Grievance and Arbitration Procedure: Letter to the Editor, Inside The Association of Employees Supporting Educational Services (AESES), Vol. 17, No. 4, May 1994), I would provide the business agent’s reply to my letter to the editor in the same volume of the union newsletter. Here it is verbatim:

Mr. Harris’ comments are noteworthy in several respects albeit difficult to understand. I  believe that Mr. Harris is attempting to convey the message that a collective agreement only goes so far in reducing management’s unbridled right to manage its affairs and its working force and therefore a union, any union, is only as effective as the collective agreement it has to work with on behalf of its membership.

I would agree, as would most, that collective agreements only limit management’s right to manage and that which is not specifically abridged by a collective agreement remains within the employer’s purview. This right, however, is tempered by legislation which dictates that the exercising of management rights must be reasonable, fair, non-arbitrary, non-discriminatory and in good faith. Although arbitrators do not generally accept the argument that because there is a collective agreement, management is restricted to dealing only with those functions as specified in the agreement unless there is union agreement, neither do arbitrators accept the argument that management has an unfettered right to act completely as it wishes, in particular when it comes to severing or detrimentally affecting an employee benefit.

Mr. Harris reiterates the definition of a grievance which is found in our collective agreement but in so doing leaves the impression that such a definition is restrictive. I would suggest that this defines a grievance in its broadest sense.

Arbitration is the final step in the grievance procedure and therefore is part and parcel of the procedure and not an entity of its own. The arbitration of a grievance occurs only if the parties cannot come to a mutually acceptable resolution of the issue either during the process or before a grievance is ever filed. Many of the issue that arise during the life of a collective agreement are resolved without either the necessity of a grievance of arbitration. Depending on the state of the employer/employee relationship, common sense and fairness can prevail without a confrontation.

The reason that management does not file grievances is because the employer/employee relationship is such that the employer acts and the employee reacts. The union’s right to be proactive is curbed by the law which prohibits employees from withholding their services during the term of a collective agreement and specified that all agreements must contain a method of resolving disputes which arise during the term without a work stoppage (grievance procedure). Whenever management takes an action the employee must continue as normal whether or not the employer is correct (there are some exceptions). This is aptly coined as the “work now–grieve later” principle. If this were not the case then I suspect that management grievances would be a fact of life.

I do not agree, as Mr. Harris suggests, that because management’s right is merely restricted by a collective agreement that employees should not voice their concerns or their problems, unless it is certainty that a grievance is winnable. Union members should always check with their union representative any questionable act of management. After all the employer only has control over the how, what, and when, it does not have the right to treat employees in an unjust or undignified manner. Employees are not channel.

I have provided Mr. Urkevich’s response in full without my intervention so that the reader could see the whole response before I begin to analyze the response (an opportunity which I did not have since, as I said, I was no longer a member of the union).

….Mr. Harris is attempting to convey the message that a collective agreement only goes so far in reducing management’s unbridled right to manage its affairs and its working force and therefore a union, any union, is only as effective as the collective agreement it has to work with on behalf of its membership.

I fail to see how anyone could infer from what I wrote that that is the message that I wanted to convey. Unions need to teach their members the limitations of the legal rights of union members as contained in collective agreements–and those legal rights are very limited. That is what I wanted to convey.

Union representatives, in order to “sell” a contract, often exaggerate the fairness of a collective agreement and thereby do their members a disservice because they then teach them the opposite; they imply that, by being “fair,” collective agreements are not very limited instruments for protecting their collective interests. See, for example, reference to a “fair contract” by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3902 of the University of Toronto (CUPE 3902, University of Toronto Education Workers).

I would agree, as would most, that collective agreements only limit management’s right to manage and that which is not specifically abridged by a collective agreement remains within the employer’s purview. This right, however, is tempered by legislation which dictates that the exercising of management rights must be reasonable, fair, non-arbitrary, non-discriminatory and in good faith.

Mr. Urkevich, like many union representatives, begs the question. Why does he assume what he needs to prove, namely, that the employer/employee relation can be “reasonable, fair?” In the money circuit of capital, for example, it has been shown that employees are mere means for the benefit of employers (see  The Money Circuit of Capital). Indeed, as I wrote in that section:

Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, argued that, in order to act ethically, it is necessary to treat people never as means only but as ends in themselves: “For, all rational beings stand under the law that each of them is to treat himself and all others never merely as means but always at the same time as ends in themselves” (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. New York: Cambridge University Press, page 41). Human beings need to be treated as ends and not as means. To treat human beings as ends in themselves, it is necessary to have those who engage in realizing the ends also engaged in participating in the formulation of the ends.

If human beings, as employees, are treated as means to others’ ends, then how is such a situation “fair and reasonable”? For the employer, by definition, it is fair and reasonable. Is it for the workers though? Does not Mr. Urkevitch take the point of view of the employer as his standard? Should we? Why?

Is not Mr. Urkevich’s reference to “legistlation which dictates that the exercising of management rights must be reasonable, fair, non-arbitrary, non-discriminatory and in good faith” meant to justify Mr. Urkevitch’s own role as union business agent since, otherwise, Mr. Urkevich would be justifying unreasonable actions, unfair actions, and so forth.

Although arbitrators do not generally accept the argument that because there is a collective agreement, management is restricted to dealing only with those functions as specified in the agreement unless there is union agreement, neither do arbitrators accept the argument that management has an unfettered right to act completely as it wishes, in particular when it comes to severing or detrimentally affecting an employee benefit.

Of course arbitrators would not permit employers to let managers do what they will with employee benefits or, for that matter, employees in general. The treatment has to be consistent with the line of business. However, this leaves management with a very wide latitude of power to determine what can and cannot be done at work.

Whenever management takes an action the employee must continue as normal whether or not the employer is correct (there are some exceptions). This is aptly coined as the “work now–grieve later” principle. If this were not the case then I suspect that management grievances would be a fact of life.

Mr. Urkevitch, like many union representatives, assume without further ado that the employer/employee relation is inherently reasonable. I categorically deny that, and for reason already provided in reference to Kant and the money circuit of capital.

Management has a monopoly of decision-making power except as restricted by the collective agreement (and limited legislation); why employers have such a monopoly of decision-making power Mr. Urkevitch does not even question–undoubtedly like many other trade-union representatives and social-reformists.

Mr. Urkevitch merely repeats what needs to be explained: “Whenever management takes an actio the employee must continue as normal…” Why must the employee do so? Because of economic coercion, perhaps? (See “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty: OCAP)). It is the economic power of employers compared to employees that shapes legislation in favour of employers?

Mr. Urkevitch, undoubtedly like many union representatives, with a manipulative “if” (“If this were not the case”–but it is not the case–and that makes all the difference in the world for the daily lives of unionized workers–seeks to minimize the importance of the fact that it is mainly unions that file grievances and not management–because management has the power to make the major decisions that effect the lives of millions of workers.

I do not agree, as Mr. Harris suggests, that because management’s right is merely restricted by a collective agreement that employees should not voice their concerns or their problems, unless it is certainty that a grievance is winnable.

This reasoning is pure fantasy. Employees should voice their concern in various ways–even if the grievance is not winnable. Where did I imply that only if the grievance is winnable should workers voice their concern?

After all the employer only has control over the how, what, and when, it does not have the right to treat employees in an unjust or undignified manner. Employees are not chattel.

This last sentence likely sums up the attitude of many union representatives. No, employees are not chattel, that is to say, they are not slaves, owned 24 hours a day. They are not required to work for a particular employer. No one forces them to work for a particular employer.

However, just as with the manipulative use of the word “if” above, Mr. Urkevitch uses the word “only” in order to minimize the importance of how much power management has over the lives of even unionized workers: “the employer only [my emphasis] has control over the how, what, and when….”

Mr. Urkevitch evidently does not think that “control over the how, what, and when” is “unjust or undignified.”

I do. (See above, referring to Kant and the money circuit of capital). Employers, by controlling “the how, what, and when”–control the lives of workers, which is undignified and unjust.

Union representatives, like Mr. Urkevitch, however, obviously believe that it is just. They believe in the justice of the collective agreement, where “the employer only has control over the how, what, and when.”

Union representatives imply, often enough, that there is somehow something fair about collective agreements. No one seems to challenge them to explain what they mean by fair collective agreements.

For instance, here is an example from a relatively recent union representative in Ontario:

Toronto (24 May 2018)…

Warren (Smokey) Thomas, President of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU/NUPGE) said he is hopeful the employer is ready to step up and do what is right for 20,000 of its workers who have suffered for decades under appalling working conditions.

“We’ve heard countless horror stories from our new members about poor pay and job security, no vacation time, they don’t even get sick days,” said Thomas.
“The fact our members overwhelmingly voted to join OPSEU/NUPGE in the largest organizing drive in Canadian history sends a strong message that times are changing. I hope this employer will work with us and make sure our members get a fair contract,” he said.

Of course, unions generally do improve wages and working conditions, but such improvements do not give them the right to declare that any collective agreement is somehow fair. They abuse their position by doing so, and by abusing their position, they open themselves up to legitimate criticism.

Unfortunately, few among the so-called left engage in such criticism. Rather, at best they follow along behind the unions, seeking “openings” here and there to open up discussion rather than openly criticizing all talk of fair contracts or collective agreements. They do a disservice to the regular worker but certainly aid both union representatives–and the class of employers.

One final point: although any particular employee is not obliged to work for any particular employer, what of the class of emloyees in relation to the class of employers? Can the class of employees simply not work for an employer, freely and realistically? If not, what does that make them?

So many questions, but so few answers–by union representatives and, undoubtedly, by many social reformists.

 

 

Critique of the Grievance and Arbitration Procedure: Letter to the Editor, Inside The Association of Employees Supporting Educational Services (AESES), Vol. 17, No. 4, May 1994

In a previous post, I provided the current management rights clause between AESES and the University of Manitoba  (Management (Employer) Rights, Part Three: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Manitoba). This is a continuation, of sorts.

The title indicates what the content of this post will be about.

In 1994, I worked on a project at Dafoe Library at the University of Manitoba (Canada) for a few months (one of the few positions I had because I was probably blacklisted because of my previous union and radical activity in my workplace in School District No. 57, Prince George, British Columbia). I sent in the following to the union newsletter. Unfortunately, I could not pursue any further the debate since the project had ended–and consequently my union membership.

The following is a verbatim letter to the editor of the AESES newsletter. The next post, probably next week, will be the business agent’s reply to my letter in the same newsletter.

Unions need to instruct members concerning the legal limits of the union’s capabilities, and members need to know what they can legally expect from the union. Unfortunately, from my own observations, many members do not know what the limits of union power are as it presently exists. They do not even have a clear grasp of the grievance and arbitration procedure. The following is thus meant both to inform members of the procedure and to generate some debate over the nature and function of unions.

A grievance is frequently defined as any difference arising from the interpretation, application, administration, or alleged violation of a collective agreement. If a grievance is not resolved in the grievance process, it may end in arbitration (a sort of court which determines whether the grievance is valid). The problem is that most arbitrators in Canada interpret the collective agreement as merely limiting management’s general right to manage work–including the lives of the workers–as it sees fit. With few exceptions, management retains its general right unless specifically restricted in the agreement.

Some union executives may disagree, claiming that the collective agreement expresses the joint and equal will of both parties (management and the union); the collective agreement is a contract like any contract and is binding on the parties. Such a view fails to account for the specific nature of the employment contract. The employment contract entails the control by management of employees’ activities. Indeed, arbitrators differentiate independent contractors from employees primarily (though not exclusively) on the basis of the level of control: an independent contractor is not under the control of an employer, but an employee is. In other words, an employee is a subordinate.

Moreover, if the employment contract were similar to other contracts, both parties would likely claim a breach of the agreement roughly the same number of times. However, the vast majority of grievances are initiated by unions. Why is that? The answer has already been formulated above: management need not initiate grievances because it has the general right to manage work.

However, many issues important to workers which emerge during the term of the collective agreement are not covered by the collective agreement. Given that arbitrators’ authority is restricted to the collective agreement, it is unlikely that workers will win grievances that end in arbitration if no provisions exist in the agreement which restrict management’s general rights To be sure, arbitrators have some leeway in applying arbitral jurisprudence, but they are ultimately restricted by the collective agreement which exists.

Ontario Looks Right–With Some Help From the “Left”

Herman Rosenfeld recently wrote an article on the election of the right-wing government of Doug Ford in Ontario, Canada (Ontario Looks Right). I would like to take issue with some of his analysis, specifically in relation to unions (and, to a less extent, to community organizations).

He writes:

 

Still, noticeably weak in the campaign was the labor movement. Three different unions waged competing anti-privatization campaigns in the year leading up to the election and were in no position to wage a sustained anti-Ford campaign with its own agenda. They did little or no education in most unions with their members, let alone in their communities, about the underlying issues, other than official appeals to vote for the NDP. Without any socialist political party or movement with roots in working-class communities or institutions, this is not surprising. …

There are several lessons that one can quickly draw from the experience of the Days of Action and the fightback against right-wing populist regimes elsewhere. Clearly, without engaging the working class as a whole, in unions as well as communities, you can’t build a movement that can confront both employers and the government. Simply taking verbal pot shots at the obvious buffoonery of Ford (or Trump for that matter) doesn’t change anything. It simply emboldens their base.

There has be a series of alternative policies and approaches popularized across the working class that can address many of the workers who supported Ford and his party. Mass democratic movements of workers, women, indigenous, LGBTQ people, tenants, and more need to be ready to disrupt the workings of the system that Ford looks to impose. This won’t be easy.

The NDP (like the Democrats in the US) will include elements that can be part of any resistance movement. Some of the newly elected MPPs have excellent activist histories that have placed them decidedly to the left of the party’s leadership. They should be welcomed as allies.

On the other hand, the NDP has a history of limiting the space for left critiques and activism within its caucus. Leader Horwath has already made moves to limit the party’s role to being an official parliamentary opposition and a government-in-waiting. This doesn’t bode well for the NDP’s potential role in any movement.
But it is critical not to subordinate any movement’s autonomy or leadership to that of a moderate, electoral political party like the NDP. It is important to keep in mind that the latter only became the center of electoral opposition to Ford because of the collapse of the Liberals and the lack of any real left alternative.

Most important is to build what was completely lacking in the last major popular push against the Harris years: socialists have to work with allies to change the opinions and understanding of working people who look to the false solutions of Ford. This can’t be done in isolation, but as part of building an alternative resistance in unions, communities, and other working-class spaces and institutions.

It means combining socialist principles with deeper education about the causes and solutions to challenges posed by neoliberalism, along with learning about right-wing populism and its agenda. Socialists need to argue that a clear analysis of the conjuncture and of the nature of our forces and those on the other side is essential in building solid resistance. This has to be done inside and alongside unions and working-class institutions and spaces and social movements, around all kinds of issues that have a class component: housing, transportation, education, workplace issues, jobs, social programs, racism, sexism, homophobia, and more.
Upcoming municipal elections across Ontario in October provide a potential space to mobilize resistance across the province if the left can build sectoral networks around the above issues, in alliance with elected officials, candidates, and community and labor activists.

Socialist organizations and individuals are small and isolated. We can’t control the larger course of events, but we can contribute towards building a countermovement against Ford and the broader right-wing populist push he represents — a movement that can ultimately move from playing defense against these forces to offense.

He rightly points out that the NDP limits leftist criticism and activism, but he does not extend this to the unions in any detailed way. Why not? General criticisms of unions are hardly what is needed at this point.

For example, John Cartwright, president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, speaks of economic justice, in his open letter of January 30, 2018 (an open letter to our movement):

 We need to fight for labour law reform including broader based bargaining so that precarious workers can have a vehicle in which to achieve dignity and economic justice.

It is unlikely that he means by economic justice the creation of a working-class movement organized to abolish the treatment of workers as a class. He probably means the signing of a collective agreement, with its management rights clause. (For an example of a management rights clause.  Management Rights: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia

Compare this with the money circuit of capital (The Money Circuit of Capital) to determine whether workers experience economic justice even in the best-case scenario of a collective agreement. Or do not socialist principles include opposing treating human beings as things, as mere means for others’ purposes?

What are these socialist principles of which Herman speaks? Do they not contradict many of the principles of what union leaders and representatives express these days? Does not resistance against the right include criticizing the rhetoric that many union leaders and representatives express?

As for issues that have a class component: Where was this component when the wisdom of the social-reformist left linked the fight for a minimum $15 with the idea of “fairness”? As I argued in another post, the radical left abandoned any class view and simply jumped on the bandwagon of “Fight for $15 and Fairness.” (The Limitations of the Social-Reformist Left).

What of CUPE 3902 and its reference to a fair contract (CUPE 3902)? Do socialist principles indicate that there can be such a thing as a fair contract given the power of employers as a class? Should socialist then remain silent over the issue?

As for the right-wing drift in many countries, one contributing factor may be the acceptance of social-reformist rhetoric, that is to say, the lack of criticism of the so-called progressive left.

It would be necessary to develop a socialist organization that is willing to criticize both unions, with their persistent vague references of social justice, and community organizations that do the same (see for example my criticism of OCAP, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty). Basic Income: A Critique of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Stance). 

What is needed is—a more specific idea of what socialist principles mean. I thought I tried to live socialist principles by criticizing union rhetoric—and was abused because of it.

What, then, are these socialist principles? How do they relate to collective agreements? How do they relate to unions? How do they relate to ideas like the Fight for $15 and Fairness? How do they relate to working for employers as a class?

So many questions—but no answers to be found in Herman’s article. A pity.

A Radical Basic Income as a Radical Reform

Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) argues against any kind of Basic Income (Basic Income in the Neoliberal Age ). I have argued against their opposition on their own terms in two previous posts.

Others, too, argue for a radical basic income as a proposal that breaks the “economic coercion” required by the class of employers and its representatives by breaking the link between need and entrance into the job market.

I remember reading somewhere (I cannot remember the author or title) of a proposal for a basic income of 45 000 euros a year. Of course, such a proposal could not be realized within the job market of capitalism. That, however, is just the point. Aiming for a goal that cannot be realized in terms of “economic coercion” prescribed by the job market would question the need for such economic coercion. It would also promote discussion about the need for the creation of alternative economic relations and processes. Of course, the exact level of basic income proposed would be open for debate, with variations according to needs, but the principle of making demands that the capitalist job market cannot satisfy permits a policy for organizing and for going beyond a society characterized by the power of a class of employers.

A radical basic income, therefore, needs to become part of the process of questioning the economic coercive power of employers as a class and the associated economic, social and political structures that support such economic blackmail. It is not, in itself, the goal but part of the means for creating a world free from such economic blackmail.

That it is impossible to realize a basic income that threatens the job market within the social relations characterized by a society dominated by a class of employers is hardly a reason to abandon a demand for such a basic income; it is, rather, a reason for making this and other proposals that begin to question economic coercion.

Several writers have argued for basic income, not as a cure-all, but as a means of addressing that economic coercion. For example, Tony Smith, in his book Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism: Marx and Normative Social Theory in the Twenty-First Century (Leiden: Brill, 2017, page 346:

It is not the mere presence of markets that establishes the alien power of
capital. What makes capitalist market societies so different from pre-capitalist
societies with markets is the society-wide compulsion to place the accumulation
of surplus value above all other ends. The democratising of decisions regarding
the levels and priorities of new investments, combined with full employment
and basic income guarantees that are not feasible in capitalism, removes the
compulsion.

The alternative is to delude yourself by using such rhetoric as “economic justice,” “decent work,” “fair contracts,” “good contracts,” a “fair wage” and “fairness” (as much of the social-reformist left does in Toronto). This is what the social-reformist left has done and continues to do. Should not those who claim to be radical break with such reformist ideology and begin the long road towards the construction of a society worthy of human beings.

Unless of course human beings deserve to be “economically coerced.” That is the hidden assumption of the social-reformist left.

The social-reformist left (and much of the radical left, at least in Toronto) certainly fails to question such economic coercion. It seeks reforms entirely in terms of economic coercion and economic blackmail. Is that rational?

The social-reformist left, however, do not see it that way since they assume that it is possible to achieve economic justice, decent work, fair wages and fairness in a society dominated by a class of employers.

Should not the social-reformist left listen to OCAP’s very realistic description of the nature of social world in which we live in their pamphlet mentioned above: “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (page 6)? Should they not take that fact seriously? Given that fact, should they not aim to abolish such a situation by advocating measures that question the need for such coercion? Or should the so-called radical left at least start to openly criticize the absurd rhetoric of “decent wages,” “fairness,” a “good contract,” and a “fair contract?” Unless the racial left are really social reformists and do not, in practice, question the economic coercion that characterizes the job market.

 

 

The Limitations of the Social-Reformist Left

Introduction

I used to belong to a leftist organization in Toronto. I started, slowly, to realize that it really has little to do with challenging the power of employers as a class despite the rhetoric concerning class issues being a priority. This view was confirmed when a movement for the reform of employment standards developed in Ontario in general and in Toronto in particular, and the Ontario Liberal government (Canada is divided into provinces, with Ontario as one of the provinces) agreed to such reforms.

The reform of employment standards was certainly needed, and the reforms are indeed useful to the working class. Among the reforms was included an increase in minimum wages to $15 an hour (in two phases). However, the problem is not the reforms but the pairing of these reforms with “fairness.” T-shirts with the slogan “Fight for $15 and Fairness” were produced, and rallies were announced with the same slogan. I found such a pairing objectionable, to say the least.

The Social-Reformist Left

This is a “selling point” typical of the social-reformist left. They try to get others to agree to the reforms that they propose by claiming that it is fair or just in some way; this is also often the tactic of union negotiating teams (as will be seen in another post).

Logically, the social-reformist left would never dare to pair a law that reduced the number of times a husband could hit his wife legally from 25 times a year to 10 times a year with the concept of fairness. Of course, receiving 10 hits a year is, in general, better than receiving 25 hits a year (all other circumstances being the same, such as the force of the hit, the hit not resulting in death and so forth). But they would object to the very idea of calling even the 10 hits a year fair.

Logically, though, the social-reformist  left do dare to pair $15 an hour (and other labour law reforms) with the concept of fairness. They “forget” that workers still are treated as means for purposes over which they have little or no control (see The Money Circuit of Capital)

This forgetfulness is actually agreement with the continued existence of the power of employers as a class.

Indeed, David Bush, a labour and community organizer (and doctoral student) in Toronto specifically claimed that the reforms were fair. They are certainly fairer, but to claim that they are fair assumes that the relationship between the class of employers and the class of workers is fair. The social-reformist left rely on the acceptance of the fairness of the employer-employee relation in order to justify its own position. The money circuit of capital shows that such a relationship is decidedly unfair. (I will address Mr. Bush’s reformist ideology in another post).

The social-reformist left, therefore, conveniently forget about the class relation between employers and employees as the background for any reform movement, and then boldly claims that the Fight for $15 is fair. They have no intention of challenging the power of employers as a class.

The social-reformist left may, of course, try to argue that there is a large difference between arguing that a reduction from 25 hits to 10 hits is fair to arguing that an increase in the minimum wages to $15 is fair. A reduction in the number of hits is negative whereas the increase in the minimum wage is positive. If, however, we look at the logic of both, they are the same. Both narrow the focus to what has been gained. In the case of a reduction in the number of hits, the focus is exclusively on the number of hits, without taking into consideration the remaining hits. In the case of an increase in the minimum wage (and other labour law reforms), consideration of the remaining power of employers–a power that is abusive in itself–is simply ignored. How otherwise could the social-reformist left then call the increase in the minimum wage fair (rather than fairer)?

Both logics exclude consideration of the wider context, and both present certain changes exclusively in a positive light (a favourite tactic of the social-reformist left). In another post, it will be pointed out that acting intelligently requires taking into consideration the context; if we do not, we likely will act unintelligently. The social-reformist left, ultimately, propose that we act unintelligently.

The Radical Left

The organization to which I belonged found the pairing of $15 and fairness to be irrelevant. There was no objection to such a linking of the reform movement and the issue of fairness. I found this lack of criticism to be appalling and, as a consequence, withdrew from the organization.

The silence of the so-called radical left in Toronto (and undoubtedly in other cities and countries) over such issues shows just how dominate the social-reformist point of view has become at a practical level. Such a view assumes TINA: there is no alternative.

We need to start discussing how to challenge the power of employers as a class. The so-called radical left, however, creates all sorts of excuses for not adopting a class point of view and for putting off any discussion about such issues. Reform is all that is on the agenda for them–like the social-reformist left.

The radical left in Toronto, by remaining silent over the issue, practically are on the same level as the social-reformist left. By remaining silent, they foster the continued illusion that the existence of the class of employers and the class of employees are somehow natural and eternal. This illusion needs to be constantly criticized.

By remaining silent, the radical left in Toronto fosters actions that are unintelligent. By remaining silent, the radical left contributes to the continued oppression and exploitation of the billions of workers who experience the daily grind of being treated as things at work.

Some among the radical left, of course, will justify such silence in many ways. Some may say that it is necessary to create structures (such as TAWC–the Toronto Airport Workers Council) that cut across unions. Somehow, by magic, such structures are going to address the power of employers as a class–in the far distant future. Such a vague future is a fairy tale. The radical left, in practice, do nothing different from the social-reformist left.

I attended one TAWC meeting; I did not hear any conversation that related to the power of employers as a class. It was more like an extended union meeting than anything else.

Others may claim that we need to engage in a “war of position” (based on the Italian Marxist Gramsci). Practically, this “war of position” turns out to be no different than the social-reformist left’s position. Why else was there silence over the issue of the fairness of $15 an hour? Or is such silence an expression of a “war of position”?

Ultimately, the radical left in Toronto lost an opportunity for bringing up the class issue–and that is what is needed in these trying times of ours–and not more social-reformist rhetoric.