Worker Resistance Against Management, Part Two

This is a continuation of a series of posts on worker resistance. The following was written by Herman Rosenfeld. Since it formed part of a course that he, Jordan House and I presented for workers at the Toronto Pearson International Airport, I am including the preliminary instructions and the subsequent questions so that others can modify and make use of it in similar courses.

Activity Sheet 3: Learning from Collective Resistance Experiences

This is a small group activity.
Read the story and answer the questions below together.
Be prepared to describe the collective struggle to the whole class, and report your answers.
You have 25 minutes to complete this exercise. [This exercise, initially, was combined with resistance against management at the brewery, so we permitted them 25 minutes for both.]

Clapping for Lisa Raitt

When CAW (Canada Auto Workers union] Air-Canada reservation and air ticket agents briefly went on strike over a series of contract concessions demanded by management, the Conservative government [of Stephen Harper, prime minister at the federal or Canada-wide level], though Labour Minister Lisa Raitt quickly introduced a law to legislate them back to work. (It would have been the 5th time in 5 years that the Harper government had taken away workers’ right to strike.) An agreement was reached between the union and Air Canada.

The workers who handle baggage, members of the IAM (International Association of Machinists) rejected the tentative agreement bargained by their leadership and demanded that they go back to the table and bargain improvements.

After the rejection, the workers started forming “Action Committees” to prepare co-workers to organize rallies at the airport, to pressure the employer to bargain seriously. The IAM workers had previously supported the actions of Reservation and Flight Attendants, who had protested the elimination of their right to strike.

A key action was to write a letter to the company president, complaining about endless demands for concessions and the culture of entitlement for the top executives.

Some quotes from the letter:

“It smacks of hypocrisy of the highest order to be led by Executives that continually demand we make sacrifices for the “viability” of the Company and then watch those same Executives pocket millions in bonuses and receive raises in pay and pension benefits in excess of 70% in a year.

A day doesn’t go by without us hearing about how we are the problem and how management is trying to find ways to replace us with “low cost” workers from senior Executives whoa are never replaceable and must be highly compensated in order to maintain their loyalty to the Company.

Over the past decade we have agreed to take wave after wave of concessions and have watched this goodwill allow Senior management to make hundreds of millions in payments of “special distributions” to their corporate backers or in golden parachutes to departing millionaire Executives.

It is time to lead by example. It’s time to end this culture of senior executives viewing us workers as a cost in which to be squeezed for more bonuses at the top.

This will require a major change in culture including management not using their friends in Ottawa to threaten our unions into concessionary agreements, ending the disastrous habit of unilaterally imposing policies on us (lie the unilateral changes to travel charges) and ending the out of control greed at the top.

The workers planned to present the letter to the president at the private management celebration of the 75th anniversary of Air Canada’s founding. They stormed into the meeting and, after a scuffle with the police, agreed to select 2 representatives to deliver the latter. Rovinescu, the company president, received the letter, but was not happy about it.

Shortly after this incident, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt, landed at Pearson Airport for a meeting. As she exited the plane, the worker who recognized her, started a slow, rhythmic clapping, as a kind of spontaneous protest against the attack on their collective bargaining rights, followed her through the terminal, as the crowd of clapping workers grew Raitt, who fancied herself as a kind of “friend of the workers” was angry, and called on the police to,” “arrest these animals!”

The police took no action, but Air Canada security guards sent 5 or 6 of the protesters home, in an action that usually signifies a discharge.

The word of the firings went viral. All of the IAM workers at Pearson stopped work and stayed out all night, demanding that the fired workers be reinstated, and that collective bargaining begin again. All 30 of the workers who went on the wildcat were promptly fired.

The morning shift workers refused to work. All workers in Vancouver, Montreal and in airports across Canada downed their tools as well. It made the national news.

The company and the union began talks, and agreed to send the issue of the wildcat to an arbitrator (one often used by Air Canada and its unions, but one not known for his friendliness to union and worker issues).

After heated debate, the workers decided to stay out until the workers were reinstated. The striking workers spent a lot of time talking with members of the other unions at the airport, building solidarity with their actions and issues. When the fired workers were reinstated (although further discipline was planned), the wildcat was ended. Bargaining on the contract began soon afterwards.

A few months later, after the contract was signed, Air Canada fired a number of activist workers using their private E-mail comments, as “incriminating” evidence against them.

Questions

  1. What were some of the plans and decisions that made this action successful?
  2. What were some of the limits of this action–and things that might hold the union back from moving forward after this action? How might these limits be addressed?
  3. What lessons can be learned from this experience for your own workplace, union and efforts to build the power of workers there?

The Meaning of Being Hired, Fired and Laid Off

The following is a debate on Facebook I had with a pro-employer right-winger. The context was the closing down of the Oshawa GM auto factory (among others) in Ontario, Canada, the loss of around 3,000 direct jobs there and the possible loss of around 15,000 additional workers due to the spin-off losses of the suppliers of the factory.

I initially indicated that the 15,000 workers would be fired, not laid off. A right-winger named Jim Edgeworth argued that they were laid off rather than fired and referred to Brampton (Ontario, Canada) workers at Chrysler allegedly eight years ago as proof that the 15,000 workers would be laid off, not fired.

The issue is interesting in terms of what hiring, firing and laying off mean—something lost in most discussions about “jobs.”

I do not report the verbatim arguments of Jim Edgeworth; he deleted his arguments from Facebook.

Let us assume for the moment that that is true. Then all the more reason to eliminate a class of employers that must fire “over 15,000” since they cannot exploit them adequately (to say “laid off” assumes that that is temporary).

Of course, this person is not really concerned about the 15,000 fired. Rather, he is concerned about defending the interests of employers at any cost.

I then respond to Edgeworth’s reference to the Brampton workers at Chrysler:

Who defines what constitutes “laid off.” Are the Brampton workers still waiting around, expecting to be rehired? Or have they moved on to other employers? The person needs to provide facts to substantiate the view that workers have somehow being “laid off”–despite not working for the same worker for “eight years ago.”

I ignored Edgeworth’s attempt to insult me, and wrote:

This right-winger, evidently, is more concerned with his own egotistical nature than with addressing the problems and sufferings of real human beings–a characteristic of employers, who use human beings as means for their own end of obtaining more and more money.

Rather than indulging in the same kind of trite behavior, let us look at this so-called fact of being laid off or being fired. To be laid off or fired, it is first necessary to be hired. What does it mean to be hired by Chrysler at Brampton?

To be hired requires that the workers themselves lack economic independence–the means by which they can realize their act of working belong to others–to a minority called employers. At a brewery, for example, the soaker, filler and labeler are owned by the brewery employer and not by the workers who use the soaker, filler or labeler (and not by those workers who produced the soaker, filler and labeler).

If workers were economically independent, they would be able to sell the commodities that they produced than their own capacity or ability to work.

Workers in a society characterized by production mainly for exchange need money in order to obtain the means necessary for them to live (means of consumption). They then sell their capacity to work as a commodity (a thing to be exchanged and used by another) for money, and then they buy other commodities necessary to live.

To obtain the money necessary to live, they must sell their capacity to labour to the owners of the means of production (call such means MP). We can then show the process of hiring, from the point of view of the employer, as M-C (=L), where M represents the money of the employer, – or a dash represents an exchange, C represents a commodity and L represents the specific commodity sold by the worker, labour power or the capacity to work or use the means of production (MP).

Of course, L (labour power or the capacity to work by using the means of production) is bought only in order to oblige the workers to use the means of production (MP) owned by employers, and the means of production (MP) is generally must be purchased before labour power (L) since the employer only has temporary power to use of labour power (L) and cannot own L outright (unlike the means of production, MP).

The initial exchange of the employer is then divided into two parts: M-C(L) and M-C (MP), or M-C(=L+MP).

We now have sufficient information to understand what being fired and what being laid off mean. One of the major functions of money in a capitalist society is to unite workers (L) and means of production (MP)–because capitalist property relations ensure that workers and the conditions of their living are separated into two opposed classes.

When workers are laid off, they are temporarily separated from the means of production (MP), with the real possibility of being united with them again with the same employer (of course, the nature of the means of production may change due to technological change). Being laid off is a temporary severance of the relationship between the workers and the means of production, on the one hand, and the particular employer on the other.

It should be noted that it is the employer who makes a decision to lay off and not the workers.

Workers who are fired have the relationship between them and the means of production, on the one hand, and a particular employer on the other, permanently broken or severed.

In a capitalist society, workers do not have to legally work for a particular employer; they are not full-time slaves. As a class, of course, they do have to work for the class of employers as long a capitalism persists–otherwise, capitalism could not continue to exist.

Now, this right-winger claims that workers who have not worked for eight years for Chrysler in Brampton are laid off because they have the right of recall (according to a collective agreement, undoubtedly, since workers do not have the right to recall otherwise).

Practically, these workers have had to look for other employment (or received income from government assistance–or starved). How else would they continue to live? The right of recall hardly takes precedence over the need to live. The right of recall after eight years of time, practically, results in being fired (severed permanently from using the means of production and having a real relation to the employer by being exploited by the employer).

But since the right-winger does not specify where he obtains his information concerning the right of recall, let us take a look at the collective agreement between Oakley subassembly Windsor ULC Brampton plant and Unifor Local 1825 (October 4, 2013-October 3, 2016). On page 16, clause 12.03, it says the following:

“Seniority will be lost and an employee will be terminated if an employee: …
“(c) is laid off and not recalled for a period of eighteen (18) months or for a period of time equal to the employee’s accumulated seniority at date of layoff, whichever is greater, with a maximum of thirty six (36) months”

The right-winger, of course, does not really care whether the workers eight years ago were fired or laid off–nor with understanding the difference between them nor with understanding the kind of society in which we live. He is a superficial mouthpiece of employers and, like employers, he has used the workers at Brampton to serve his own egotistical ends.

By the way, the left share similar beliefs to this right-winger–despite their opposition toward each other. Both he and the left believe in the necessity of employers. He considers anything employers as a class do as good whereas the left believe in the humanization of the employer-employee relation. Why else would the left talk about “decent work,” “fair wages,” (expressed by, for example, Tracy McMaster, president of Greater Toronto Area Council, to which are affiliated 35 local unions of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU)), “economic justice,” (expressed by John Cartwright, president, Toronto & York Region Labour Council), “fairness” (as in the expression “Fight for $15 and Fairness,” a grassroots and union movement in Ontario), and Fair Labour Laws (as posted on the JFAAP website but copied from a union (Jane and Finch Action Against Poverty, a grassroots organization in one of poorer and racialized areas of Toronto)? All in the context of a society characterized by the use of human beings as means for the private sector employers to obtain more and more money (and public sector employers to use workers as means for purposes not defined by them but by senior management).

Such is the nature of the right and the social-reformist left.

Should we workers not understand better what it means to be hired, fired and laid off in order to grasp better the nature of our lives? Does the social-reformist left provide us with the tools necessary to understand our own experiences? Do they themselves bother in providing us with an understanding of our own experiences in this world? If not, why not? And if not, does that not demonstrate both a lack of democracy among the social-reformist left?

Does not the social-reformist left not have contempt for the regular worker when they remain silent about the meaning of the social structures which workers experience on a regular basis as a class?