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.

 

 

 

 

The Canadian Labour Congress’s Idealization of the Collective-Bargaining Process

Relatively recently,  Hassan Yussuff, the president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), wrote an article praising collective bargaining:

Collective bargaining is good for everyone

December 23, 2019

By Hassan Yussuff, as published in the Globe and Mail.  

The holidays aren’t solely about gift-giving and spreading good cheer. Many workers find themselves having to walk a picket line around this time of year.

Everywhere you look these days, teachers, public transit workers, railway and refinery workers seem to be involved in some kind of job action as contracts expire and end-of-year negotiations fail.

It can be frustrating for those affected and may even seem unfair that workers disadvantage the public in pursuit of better working conditions and better wages.

But make no mistake, collective bargaining is a fundamental right that helps ensure workers are getting their fair share. This is especially true when we consistently see certain governments, shareholders and corporate CEOs squeezing workers in order to improve their own bottom lines. “Without the right to pursue workplace goals collectively, workers may be left essentially powerless in dealing with their employer or influencing their employment conditions,” reads a 2015 Supreme Court of Canada ruling upholding the right of RCMP officers to unionize.

Unsurprising that some employers, private interest groups and opinion shapers insist on back-to-work legislation whenever a group of workers flexes collective muscle. But the reality is that work stoppages are a rarity—with almost all collective agreements in Canada reached and renewed without a strike or lockout.

In fact, strikes and lockouts happen far less frequently today than in the past. Days lost to work stoppages in federal private-sector, where CN Rail workers recently struck for several days, are well below levels reached earlier this decade. For instance, in 2019, monthly work stoppages recently dipped to a low of 13 for the entire country. This is well below 2017 and 2018 averages.

Collective bargaining is functioning exactly as intended. Workers leverage their collective strength in order to influence the terms and conditions of their employment. Their efforts to stand up for themselves will often have a ripple effect, improving conditions for non-unionized workers in related industries as well as for the people they serve. When teachers oppose larger class sizes and rail engineers insist on safety improvements, the public directly benefits, too.

The significantly low unemployment rate is also contributing to renewed confidence among workers. More discouraged workers and those overcoming barriers to employment have been able to find work. The number of underemployed workers, like part-timers who prefer but can’t find full-time hours, have ebbed.

This is long overdue. For a decade, young people have been graduating into a high unemployment job market with limited prospects. Women and newcomers to Canada have struggled with a shortage of decent jobs.  While joblessness remains far too high in oil-producing provinces and the Atlantic region (in Alberta, it hovers at a shocking 20% for males under the age of 25), there are gains elsewhere. In Ontario, Quebec and BC, the improving job market has allowed wages to tick up – finally. Since mid-year, wage growth has begun to pick up, averaging over 4%.

During the last ten years of sluggish growth, high unemployment and weak wage gains, typical workers in Canada have seen very little improvement in their wages, adjusted for inflation. Flat earnings are partly responsible for the fact that debt as a share of household disposable income has doubled in the past 25 years. Furthermore, fewer workers even belong to a union at all which often translates in lower earnings and fewer benefits and little recourse to improve matters. Compounded with the rise of the gig economy and with more companies outsourcing work, it’s that much harder for workers to unionize as we are seeing at corporations like IBM and Amazon.

In the meantime, Canada’s top corporate CEOs were paid nearly 200 times what the average worker made in 2017. In 2018, quarterly operating profits reached a post-recession high. Workers have spent the ‘recovery’ simply fighting to hold onto what they have.

It’s not just unions that welcome a stronger labour market and decent wage gains. The Bank of Canada also thinks it’s a good idea. Because inflation remains well under control, it has hesitated to raise interest rates. That’s a good strategy because it helps reduce inequality and strengthens the ability of households to cope with debt, food and shelter costs.

We must all recognize that even when work stoppages do happen, they are simply evidence that the collective bargaining process is working. Despite occasional work-to-rule and walk-outs, this is actually a very good thing because it ensures workers still have a say – as they should.

To be sure, it is generally preferable for workers and their representatives to participate in collective bargaining in order to obtain a collective agreement, but the idealization of the process and the resulting collective agreement, as well as the exaggeration of the fairness of the process and the resulting collective agreement, simply ignores the reality of the power of employers and their representatives (management).

In the article, Mr. Yussuff implies that, through the collective-bargaining process and the resulting collective agreement, workers can obtain their “fair share.” Mr. Yussuff provides no evidence of this. A fair share is presented only in terms of shaping the collective working conditions and wages of workers but not in actually controlling those collective working conditions by those who actually do the work–economic democracy or socialism (see the series of posts on what socialism would like on this blog). Mr. Yussuff ignores the implicit or explicit management rights’ clauses in collective agreements (see numerous examples of explicit management rights’ clauses in collective agreements on this blog, for example, Management Rights, Part Two: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario).

There is obviously a pattern that often shows up in social-democratic rhetoric–how marvelous collective bargaining and collective agreements are (see my criticism of Jane McAlevey’s idealization of the collective bargaining process and the resulting collective agreement on this blog) as well as my review of her book in the Publications and Writings Section of this blog) .

It is interesting that Mr. Yussuff also tries to “sell” collective bargaining and collective agreements by implying that the proper functioning of collective bargaining and collective agreements results in fewer strikes:

In fact, strikes and lockouts happen far less frequently today than in the past. Days lost to work stoppages in federal private-sector, where CN Rail workers recently struck for several days, are well below levels reached earlier this decade. For instance, in 2019, monthly work stoppages recently dipped to a low of 13 for the entire country. This is well below 2017 and 2018 averages.

Collective bargaining is functioning exactly as intended.

At least Ms. McAlevey considers strike activity to often be necessary to back up the collective bargaining process whereas Mr. Yussuff’s more conservative stance considers strikes to be a last-ditch effort to be avoided if at all possible. On the other hand, both her and Mr. Yussuff consider the collective-bargaining process to be somehow capable of realizing fairness at the workplace. How this is in fact the case no trade unionist has ever explained to me in the face of the power of the class of employers.

Mr. Yussuff’s idea that workers should have a say minimizes the need for workers to have the say in their work lives–in conjunction with local communities–and not “a say”–as if they were condemned forever as a junior “partner” in the capitalist corporation.

The conservatism of the Canadian labour movement is astounding–but the left here in Toronto (and probably elsewhere) remain silent about such conservatism–since they share the same assumption of the legitimacy of the collective-bargaining process and collective agreements.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SOLIDARITY RALLY HIGHLIGHTS NEED FOR WORKING CLASS UNITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Employers as Dictators, Part Three

The social-democratic left in Toronto, undoubtedly like social-democratic reformists throughout the world, continue to ignore criticisms of their attempt to equate positive reforms with the realization of adequate forms through such rhetoric as “decent work.”

Consider Elizabeth Anderson’s critique of the power of employers, page 130:

Private government at work embeds inequalities in authority,
standing, and esteem in the organizations upon which people
depend for their livelihood. Those consigned to the status of
wage worker for life have no real way out: while they can quit
any given employer, often at great cost and risk, they cannot
opt out of the wage labor system that structurally degrades and
demeans them.

The social-democratic left, however, create all kinds of euphemisms for this fact of economic dictatorship: “decent work,” “fairness,” “fair contracts,” “economic justice,” “fair compensation”  and the like. In a recent post on Facebook by Tina Faibish (president of local 552 of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, or OPSEU), for example, we read: “Willowdale wants decent work!”: There are people with signs saying “Minimum wage of $15 and decent work for all.” The signs also say “$15 and Fairness.”

We certainly need to fight for a higher minimum wage and improved working conditions, but why is it that the social-democratic left need to embellish such demands with such absurd claims as “decent work” and “fairness”? They apparently cannot even face the reality that employers dictate to workers every day in one way or another and that the daily lives of workers, whether they receive a higher minimum wage and improved working conditions, is decidedly not decent work and not fair.

The social-democratic left, however, would have to make a radical break with their own ideology. They, however, undoubtedly will cling to their ideology all the more in order to fend off having to face up to the reality which most people face on a daily basis. They seem incapable of dealing with that reality. They either react with hostility against those who criticize their reformist ideology (calling their critics “condescending pricks,” for example), or they will remain silent.

Thus, I made the following comment on Facebook about the issue of decent work:

Such low expectations–working for an employer=decent work? Good luck being used as a thing for employers–with or without a collective agreement. Management clauses (implicit or explicit in collective agreements) enable management–a minority–to dictate to the majority. Such is decent work in a society dominated by employers–a lack of economic democracy and the existence of dictatorship.

The response by the social-democratic left? Silence. They refuse to consider that they share the same assumptions as their conservative opponents, namely, that working for an employer can be fair and decent.

Furthermore, there is a contradictory view of whether working for an employer is decent. Thus, on the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council Facebook page, there is reference to the death of an airport worker, 24-year old Kenrick Darrell Hudson, in Charlotte Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, North Carolina on August 12, 2019, where a luggage vehicle flipped, pinning the worker and killing him:

Sending love and solidarity from YYZ to the friends, family, and coworkers of the worker that lost his life last night in Charlotte.

Work smart, stay safe, and look out for one another. Airport workers across the globe share the same goal, we all want to go home safely at the end of the day.

It is difficult to see how the goal of going “home safely at the end of the day” can be achieved under conditions dictated by a class of employers and the ultimate goal of profit. After all, human beings are means to the end of profit and not their own ends (see The Money Circuit of Capital). Indeed, in a video presentation of the airport, one construction worker pointed out that “It’s like a racetrack out there” (Airline employee killed after luggage vehicle flips).

Ironically (and sadly), a few days after TAWC sent the above message to workers and family in Charlotte, North Carolina, there was an accident at the Toronto Pearson International Airport:

INCIDENT Baggage handler trapped under a tractor. Extricated by Toronto Pearson Fire. Transported to trauma centre by Peel Paramedics with serious injuries. Scene being held for investigation. Occurred on the ramp between T1 & T3.

How can safety ever be first when profit is the priority? When human beings are “costs” like other things? Was the work of that dead employee decent work before the accident but not decent afterwards? How can work be decent if it involves the possible injury of workers due to social conditions over which they lack control?

Social democrats should answer these questions, should they not?

Employers as Dictators, Part Two

Union reps typically refer to fair compensation in order to justify their short-term actions. Of course, there is nothing wrong with short-term goals as such, but when they are presented as the same as what should be a long-term goal (fairness and freedom), then such goals become an ideology that justifies the power of employers as a class.

Contrast, for example, the following quote from Ms. Anderson’s book and a discussion I had with a union rep.

From Elizabeth Anderson, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why We Don’t Talk about it), page 40:

I expect that this description of communist dictatorships in our midst, pervasively governing our lives, open to a far greater degree of control than the state, would be deeply surprising to most people. Certainly many U.S. CEOs, who think of themselves as libertarian individualists, would be surprised to see themselves depicted as dictators of little communist governments. Why do we not recognize such a pervasive part of our social landscape for what it is? Should we not subject these forms of government to at least as much critical scrutiny as we pay to the democratic state?

The social-democratic left do not engage in “critical scrutiny” of the “forms of government” of employers. Rather, they use as their standard improved working conditions relative to immediate working conditions–but they leave out any reference to the need to critique the dictatorship of employers.

Thus, I had a conversation with a union rep on Facebook–Dave Janssen–on the issue of fair compensation. Mr. Janssen, according to the Facebook page, “is an integral leader with the TAWC [Toronto Airport Workers’ Council] and the IAMAW [International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers] . He continuously strives to improve safety standards and the overall working conditions for the 49,000+ workers at Toronto Pearson [International Airport].”

Here is the following conservation:

Dan Janssen is at Toronto Pearson International Airport.

June 23 at 1:59 PM · Mississauga ·

Today was the Safety Expo event at Terminal 3 for the Canadian Airports Safety Week. It was a great opportunity to speak to my coworkers at YYZ [Toronto Pearson International Airport] about the importance of coming together to improve working conditions. Amazing to see so much support for flight attendants, as they need a change to federal labour laws that will ensure they are fairly compensated for their work. TAWC: Toronto Airport Workers’ Council [Facebook page]

9 Comments

Fred Harris What determines being “fairly compensated?” Can labour laws really ever “ensure they are fairly compensated?” Or is this an illusion? A cliche? Can any amount of money be considered “fairly compensated” when the people receiving the money are used as things for other persons’ purposes?

Please explain what “fairly compensated” means. Otherwise, the reference to “fairly compensated” is a cliche and does workers a disservice.

Dan Janssen For flight attendants, being fairly compensated means actually being paid for hours worked. The current model used around the world allows FAs to be paid only when the door of the aircraft is closed prior to pushback, not for any time spent prior to the flight departing.

Fred Harris It is more fairly compensated if they are paid for hours worked. How is it fairly compensated if they receive such pay?

When I worked in a brewery, we were paid for hours worked according to that definition (of course, not for travel to and from work). If we were paid for travel time and for hours worked, would we then have been fairly compensated?

I fail to see how that can be so. Firstly, we were things to be used by employers for the end of profit–no matter what our current pay. Secondly, of course the question arises: where does the profit come from except from the workers’ labour in the first place.

Thirdly, even if there were no profit, flight attendants would still be things to be used for purposes external to their own lives; it is not they who democratically control their own working lives.

Fourthly, flight attendants operate within a social division of labour that is determined by the general structure of the economy. They are not free to choose different kinds of activities, within the limits of their time and abilities and those of other workers because they are economically dependent on an employer.

They are unfree in various ways.

Fighting for higher earnings is always necessary–to refer to “fairly compensated”–that does workers a disservice. How can any compensation be adequate to such a lack of freedom when working for an employer?

Dan Janssen I see where you are coming from. This campaign for fair compensation has been resonating with all of our coworkers in support of flight attendants since it was launched. We are open to suggestions if you would like to put forward any ideas.

Fred Harris My suggestion is: cease referring to it as fair compensation. Use the relative term “fairer” and explain why there can be no such fair compensation. Explain that workers deserve much more than that–to control their own working lives and that a fight for increasing compensation for flight attendants is one step in a link of steps to eliminate the power of employers over workers and over our lives in general.

In other words, what is needed is an approach that links up, explicitly, one particular fight against employers with a general fight against employers.

Another aspect would be to start a discussion–or campaign–to question both explicit and implicit management clauses in collective agreements. Why do they exist? Why do employers have such power? What are the implications of managerial power for the limitations of legal union power?

What of collecting several management rights clauses in various collective agreements at the airport and having discussions over such clauses via emails, to the general membership, asking them what they think about this power? What of steward training that shows the limitations of collective agreements in relation to the power of unions?

Why not expand such discussions by linking them to other aspects of power by employers (their legal power, their political power, their social power and so forth)?

Fred Harris Any responses to the suggestions?

Dan Janssen Yes Fred, please come out to one of our TAWC open meetings and put your ideas forward to the council to be actioned. Our meetings are open to all airport workers, unionized or not and anyone can bring forward ideas, events, actions, etc. Decisions are made as a group. Message the page with your email and we will add you to our email list.

Fred Harris Another suggestion: Have a discussion (both among union reps and among the general membership of various unions) concerning the lack of discussion about the origin and nature of employers in the Ontario history curriculum (and the origin and nature of employees, of course, since employers without employees is impossible).

In other words, have a discussion about this issue in order to counter the silent indoctrination of hundreds of thousands of students concerning their probable future lives as subordinates to the power of the class of employers–unless they organize not only to oppose that power but to overcome it.

Fred Harris Not really feasible. I already attempted to question the idea of $15 and Fairness” at a public forum, and despite raising my hand a number of times to ask a question, I was not recognized by the chair–Sean Smith.

Secondly, I have experienced hostility by union members (rather, union reps) before concerning such ideas. I doubt that my ideas would be taken seriously if I broached the issue.

To be fair to Mr. Janssen, he did invite me to attend the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC), but as I indicated above, in a public forum, I was not recognized by Sean Smith (a member of another union, Unifor), and Mr. Smith is a member of TAWC. Indeed, on the TAWC Facebook page, along with Mr. Janssen and others, there is a short passage about Dan Janssen and Sean Smith : ” Sean Smith (UNIFOR) and Dan Janssen (IAMAW) spent some time going over the history, past actions and structure of the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council to a captive audience of MAN [Manchester International Airport) workers from various companies and job functions.”

Although it is possible that Mr. Smith inadvertently did not recognize me when I raised my hand several times to ask the question about why the campaign for $15 and “Fairness” had the campaign linked to the concept of fairness, I am skeptical about such a view. I was sitting on an end chair in a direct line of sight with Mr. Smith. Furthermore, when one of the members of the audience who was instrumental in campaigning for the $15 and “fairness” raised her hand (Pam Frache), she was not only recognized by the chair but spoke for much longer than normal.

Given my skepticism about Mr. Smith’s attitude towards my views, and given the close relation between Mr. Smith and TAWC, it is unlikely that my views would be taken seriously at such meetings. Mr. Janssen’s invitation, then, though it may look democratic, may be less so.

Or perhaps I am wrong. Should I attend such meetings despite the probable ridicule of my views? What do you think? Any suggestions about what should be done?

Working for an Employer May Be Dangerous to Your Health, Part Two

I thought it appropriate to post on the issue of safety and health in relation to working for an employer at this time since, in Canada, April 28 is the National Day of Mourning, or Workers’ Mourning Day, for workers killed, injured or suffering illnesses due to workplace hazards.

Why do unions and the social-reformist left often speak in terms of “fairness,” “fair contracts,” “economic justice,” and so forth in the light of persistent deaths and injuries on the job? They do so in order to justify their own practices–which generally do not question the legitimacy of the power of employers as a class. By limiting their reference to fairness and justice to social relations within the present class system, they serve as ideologues or representatives of employers (even if they do not intend to do so).

Part of the purpose of this blog is to undermine the typical ways of thinking about social problems among the social-democratic or reformist left and among radicals. It is highly unlikely that any major social changes will arise without a frontal attack on the ways of thinking of many workers (including trade unionists). Tom Dwyer points out the importance of this task (Life and Death at Work: Industrial Accidents as a Case of Socially Produced Error, pages 97-98:)

The effect whereby notions of truth and justice are undermined is of great importance for sociology, anthropology, and, as we shall see in highly complex industries, for cognitive psychology. This effect potentially modifies cultural systems, contributes to the destruction of one set of visions of truth and justice and their replacement through the building up of another

Of course, notions of truth and justice are not just undermined and others arise through ideological means. Struggles against those in power play an important part, but the explicit critique of old, upper-class expressions of truth and justice and their replacement by new, working-class expressions of truth and justice are important in unifying the direction of diverse movements consciously and in modifying the direction of each separate struggle accordingly.

The idealization of unions by the left, on the other hand, play into the hands of employers since union representatives and rank-and-file members often diverge over key concerns related to, for example, safety and health issues (from Dwyer,  pages 78-79):

Studies from the United States illustrate this last point: the union movement perceives safety in a manner different to workers. A survey by the Upjohn Institute found that unionized automobile and steel workers placed job health and safety issues at the top of their priorities. This was corroborated by a national survey which found that in “the labor standards areas . . . most important to workers were those relating principally to the general area of health and safety.”121 In the Upjohn study, union leaders and top management “both thought money rather than working conditions deserved the most attention, an almost exact reversal of the blue collar attitudes.”122 In other words, these are clear
signs that the union movement integrates an uneasy tension between political demands, which are perceived, built, and responded to by its leadership, and social demands from its base.

It is high time the radical left begin to openly criticize the persistent ideological conceptions of truth and justice characteristic of trade union reps. If they do not, they form part of the problem rather than a solution to the social problems characteristic of capitalism and the domination of our lives by the class of employers.

Fixed Social Dogmas and the Special Language of the Social-Reformist Left

Michael Perleman refers to the Procrustean dogma that characterizes much of the discussion about the social world in which we currently live. What better characterization of the social-democratic rhetoric of “fairness,” “decent work,” a “fair wage,” “economic justice” and “social justice?”

From Michael Perleman, The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism: How Market Tyranny Stifles the Economy by Stunting Workers (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011),

CHAPTER TEN
Where Do We Go from Here?

The Procrustean Language

Presently, two conflicting trends are colliding. On the one hand, those in control are successfully accumulating more power, solidifying the hold of Procrusteanism. On the other hand, the application of these new powers is producing dismal results, except for the most privileged sectors of society. Once people come to recognize the growing gap between economic performance and the potential productivity of society, the destructive nature of Procrusteanism will, hopefully, become self-evident.

Even so, the ideology of the status quo is so thoroughly ingrained that little progress—or even little hope of progress—appears on the horizon. We can only hope that Frederic Jameson was wrong when he observed that within contemporary society “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” One precondition of moving in a progressive direction is to carefully reframe the imagery of the economy. The problem is that the Procrustean world has created a special language, one that intentionally clouds the harsh reality in which people find themselves, in effect, making the handcuffs invisible and questions of class unthinkable.

The key concepts of this rhetorical façade are freedom and equality.

The special language of the social-reformist left include such key concepts as “fair contracts,” “fair wages,” “fairness,” “decent work,” “a contract you can live with,” “social justice” and “economic justice.” The social-reformist left never get around to discussing what that actually means in the context of a society dominated by employers–they simply assume that what they call “fair,” “decent work,” “a contract you can live,” “economic justice” and other such rhetorical expressions is what is fair, decent, livable and economically just without any further discussion.

Anyone who calls into question their rhetoric is then often  treated as a pariah, insulted or ostracized. Such is the anti-democratic nature of the social-reformist left. Is there really any wonder why the right has gained ground when the so-called left seek to hide the real problems which workers face as members of a class?

Critique of a Social-Reformist Left’s Position in RankandFile.Ca on GM’s Decision to Close the Oshawa auto plant

An article (Buckle Up: GM Declares War on Oshawa)   by Gerard Di Trollo, Dave (or David) Bush and Doug Nesbitt, written for the social-reformist unionist website Rankandfile.ca purports to look critically at GM’s decision to close the Oshawa plant. It is far from critical in this regard.

The title of their article is GM’s supposed declaration of war against Oshawa. One of the authors, Gerard di Trollo, has another article with a similar title: “Ford’s teacher snitch line is a declaration of war.” Apparently, we are in a war now overtly. Let us see whether the proposed solutions to this alleged war situation correspond to the rhetoric of war.

Some of the criticisms that I made in an earlier post concerning the GM situation in Oshawa relating to the statement made by the Socialist Project Steering Committee applies to the post by these three social-reformist leftist activists. Indeed, since the article by Di Trollo, Bush and Nesbitt was published earlier than the statement, it is likely that some of the ideas of the statement are derived in part from this article (such as Unifor’s inadequate response, or the need to shift production into green production). Indeed, there is some similarity of wording: The Di Trollo, Bush and Nesbitt article: “…we need to retool the plants to build mass transportation, electric vehicles, and other green transition infrastructure and equipment.” The Steering Committee statement: “GM could easily retool these plants, and produce both new electric and hybrid vehicles, as well as the SUVs that are dominating current markets.”

There are differences, though. The statement goes into less detail about the inadequacy of Unifor’s bargaining tactics whereas the Di Trollo, Bush and Nesbitt article criticizes–rightly–Unifor’s acceptance of a two-tiered pension system. They also criticize Unifor’s pandering after attracting jobs at all costs–and at the expense of the jobs in other countries.

This, however, is where their proposed solution runs into problems. They claim the following:

The labour movement has little room to protect jobs for workers unless they redouble their efforts to promote a real green transition strategy founded on international workers’ solidarity. It’s the only way to create jobs without succumbing to the elite’s real strategy of race-to-the-bottom.

Part of the solution is similar to the Steering Committee’s statement (“a real green transition strategy”). It is different in proposing that international solidarity as the only possible solution to prevent a “race-to-the-bottom.”

There are two problems with this strategy. Firstly, although international solidarity among workers is certainly to be lauded as a goal, there is no indication of how such solidarity is to be achieved and on what basis. It is, like much of social-reformist leftist rhetoric, vague. How is this to be achieved in the concrete between, say, workers in Canada and workers in Mexico? Forming links without thinking about the kinds of links that promote international solidarity is likely to break down quickly or to end up merely with a general call for solidarity among union leaders without the rank-and-file really forming solid links with other workers across countries.

This leads to a second problem: there are implied terms to the kinds of such linkage required when they write the following: “Our society needs the productive capacity in places like Oshawa, and the skills and job knowledge of the autoworkers. We not only need these good jobs….” They do not go into detail what constitutes “good jobs,” but there is a fact that constitutes evidence of what they mean by good jobs.

I had a debate with Dave Bush on Facebook about the appropriateness of pairing the Fight for $15 in Ontario with the idea of “fairness.” Mr. Bush nowhere explained why it was fair; he simply declared it. The employment laws that expressed that “fairness” were certainly better than before, but their provisions are generally less adequate that many collective agreements. Since I have implied that collective agreements are unfair since they merely limit the capacity of management to dictate to workers what to do, where and when to do their work and how to do it (Management Rights, Part Two: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario), thereby still permitting employers to treat workers as things or objects for the benefit of the employer, employment laws and their provisions by implication are even less fair than the provisions of collective agreements.

Solidarity across borders as a class of workers against the class of employers cannot be expressed in terms of “good jobs” since there is no such thing in the given social relations characterized by a class of employers (see The Money Circuit of Capital). Workers in the Oshawa plant did not have good jobs; they had better jobs than many other workers in terms of pay and benefits and, perhaps, some working conditions, but they did not have good jobs. This is an ideology of employers, repeated ad nauseum by the social-reformist left and union leaders. The standard of what constitutes a “good job” for such people is–the existence of a class of employers with a “humanized face.” This is really liberal rhetoric disguising itself as radical.

In any case, the call for international solidarity at this stage will unlikely have any meaningful impact in terms of whether the Oshawa plant will be shut down. What is required is not just occupation of the plant but an explicit rejection of the claim that such jobs can ever be characterized as good in a context characterized by the dictatorship of an economy by a class of employers.

It would be in the interest of the working class to not only seize the plant and not only shift production to more earth-friendly forms of transportation (certainly not though, SUVs, contrary to the article), but to establish solidarity on a ground characteristic of a lack of bullshit concerning “good jobs” and the like as long as employment is controlled by a class of employers. Solidarity needs to be grounded in rejection of the shared assumption of the right and left concerning the continued need for a class of employers–as expressed in the rhetoric of “good jobs.”

Unfortunately, the bullshit rhetoric of the social-reformist left concerning “good jobs” (and other such rhetoric) prevails among many trade unionists, with the consequence that no such solidarity will likely arise without prolonged struggle against such bullshit. In the meantime, it is likely that the Oshawa GM workers will be thrown out of work and no real solidarity will arise internationally for some time to come.

 Or is this an inaccurate analysis of the situation? What do you think?

 

Working for an Employer May Be Dangerous to Your Health, Part One

The title is a variation of one of the subsections in chapter two of Jeremy Reiman’s The Rich Get Richer … and the Poor Get Prison.

In a couple of earlier posts, I pointed out that working for an employer involves needless deaths and injuries (The Issue of Health and Safety in the Workplace Dominated by a Class of EmployersGetting Away with Murder and Bodily Assault: Employers and the Law). I have decided to start writing a series of posts on the issue of health and safety in the workplace since it is a key issue for workers.

Consider the following on the Fight for $15 and “Fairness” website (Fight for $15):

We NEED fair labour laws to save lives

On Tuesday, October 23, the Doug Ford government introduced Bill 47. This legislation seeks to impose a real dollar cut in the minimum wage and eliminate most of our new workplace rights, including paid sick days, equal pay for equal work, and more. If passed, this outrageous legislation will force millions into poverty, while putting workers’ health and safety at risk.

The introduction of Bill 47 by the conservative Ford government in Ontario, Canada (and the repeal of Bill 148, which introduced an increase in the minimum wage and a number of needed reforms of employment law) is presented as preventing the institution of “workers’ health and safety.” If Bill 148 had not been repealed and if Bill 47 were not passed (it was), then “workers’ health and safety” would not be “at risk.”  This is the unconscious or implicit assumption and message of the author of the article on that website. It is also the stated or unstated assumption of the social-reformist left.

The social-reformist left must absolutize the reforms which they seek. By absolutize, I mean that they must claim that there is somehow a fair situation that results if what they seek is realized. It is not, for them, a question of something fairer be realized but rather something that is fair.

The article mentions the community and union opposition that emerged against Bill 147, as well it should.

A little further down in the article, the recent death of a temporary worker at Fiera Foods is mentioned, and a vigil is called for. The vigil is to be lauded, and the article emphasizes that this is the fourth temporary worker killed working for the same food-processing plant.

However, the following is then claimed:

We know this heartbreaking death is not an isolated event…. It is what happens – and what will happen in the future – if workers are treated as disposable and if the laws meant to protect us are weakened, or not enforced at all.

Labour laws, like collective agreements, can certainly contribute to the improvement of workers’ lives, but can labour laws really prevent workers from being “treated as disposable?” It is the very nature of a society dominated by a class of employers that workers are disposable; to think otherwise is to not understand the basic nature of such a society (see   The Money Circuit of Capital)  for a characterization of workers as means or things for ends defined by employers).

The article then provides some probable consequences of instituting Bill 47, but it fails to consider whether, even if Bill 47 were withdrawn (it was not, and it passed), whether this would be sufficient to protect workers in an economy structured on the basis of the control of billions of workers throughout the world by a class of employers:

Let’s be clear about the serious implications of Bill 47:

  • When the government says freeze the minimum wage for 33 months, it means a real dollar cut in earnings for the lowest-paid workers in the province. After that wage cut, the minimum wage would only be adjusted in accordance with the previous year’s price increases (Consumer Price Index). It could be 2025 by the time the minimum wage reaches $15, and by then, a $15 wage will, once again, fall below the poverty line. This government wants to reimpose poverty on millions of workers in this province.

  • When the government says it wants to cut paid sick days, it is saying it has no problem forcing workers to work while they are sick or injured. It is saying they have no problem with parents having to send their sick child to school where they might spread illness to other children and education workers. It says this government has a complete disregard for the health and well-being of the people who keep this province functioning.

  • When the government says it wants to re-impose a requirement for Doctors’ notes, it is saying it has no problem forcing sick workers into hospital waiting rooms and risk spreading disease to others. It has no problem clogging up our health care system for visits that the Ontario Medical Association has said are unnecessary, wasteful, and costly. It says this government has no problem imposing red tape on workers and health providers.

  • When this government reduces penalties for employers who openly disregard the law – as Bill 47 seeks to do – this government is telling Ontario’s most unscrupulous employers that it is open season on the most vulnerable workers in this province. Especially those who work in temp agencies.

It is good to expose the extreme business-oriented position of the Conservative government, and the article is to be lauded for that. However, the following undermines this by implying that fair labour laws can somehow be achieved in the context of the present structure of the economy:

We need your help to deliver a message to Premier Doug Ford and his government: Fair labour laws, save lives. Bill 47 has not been passed, and it needs to be withdrawn immediately. Our elected officials must ensure our safety and well-being on the job, not jeopardize it.

Labour laws may increase the workers’ power by limiting further the power of employers as a class, but unless the labour law somehow challenges the principle of the power of employers as a class, it cannot be the sole basis for protecting workers from being used as disposable means for the benefit of employers. Workers should fight for labour laws that can serve as means to protect them from some of the ravages of employer-dominated establishments, but they should also organize initially at the local level on the shop floor as a fighting force that can oppose the power of management to treat them  as things to be used for goals not of their own making. Furthermore, they should realize that no labour law and no local level organization can protect them from the ravages of an economy in which they are economically dependent on employers; labour laws and local organizations can only reduce the likelihood of injury and accident but not eliminate it. The very nature of their economic dependence and their treatment as things includes the very real possibility of workplace injury and accident.

Should we not take seriously the following (from Bob Barnetson, The Political Economy of Workplace Injury in Canada, page 2):

Perspectives on workplace injury

How you react to the vast number of workers injured and killed each year reflects your values and beliefs. Are these injures inevitable? Are they just the cost of doing business? One way to look at workplace injuries is from an economic perspective. This view sees the risk of injury as minimal, unavoidable and, ultimately, acceptable. Is it the price we (or at least workers) must pay for a “healthy” economy? If we are going to lower the risk of injury, we need to ensure the cost is less than the benefit we’ll receive. And the people best positioned to decide that are employers.

This economic perspective dominates the debate about workplace health and safety. It is the lingua franca of employers, bureaucrats, politicians, and most academics. There are, of course, alternative perspectives. An alternative advanced by workers views workplace injuries as the result of choices employers make in order to maximize profitability. Contrary to the slogan “safety pays,” it is usually cheaper for employers to organize work unsafely. This is especially true if employers can (with the tacit consent of government) pass along the cost of occupational injuries and disease to workers.

Should any leftist claim that any possible reform in the context of an economy dominated by a class of employers is fair? We certainly need to fight for reforms, but why bullshit the workers by calling such reforms fair? They are fairer or less fair, to be sure. To have labour laws that enable workers to protect themselves more is better than no labour laws or less effective labour laws. But how does this translate into fairness?

Why does the social-reformist left find it necessary to claim that such reforms express “decent work,” “fair wages,” “a fair contract,” “fairness,” or “economic justice”?

What do you think?

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.