Transparency in Collective Bargaining: A Necessary but Insufficient Condition for Democratic and Rational Working-Class Practice

Rebecca Keetch wrote an article that was posted on the Socialist Project’s website on transparency and collective bargaining (https://socialistproject.ca/2020/09/canadian-auto-workers-fight-for-contract-transparency/). Ms. Keetch was a former GM worker at Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, and she is a member and activist of Green Jobs Oshawa.

Ms. Keetch advocates for transparent bargaining in a form similar to what I tried to do when I was a member of the negotiating committee for the support workers of the Prince George School District No. 57, in Prince George, British Columbia, Canada (see Reform or Abolition of the Police, Part One). Not only must we present to our unionized fellow workers the proposals that we have tentatively negotiated but also what we have been unsuccessful in negotiating or had to modify in the process:

As bargaining at the Detroit Three automakers kicks off in Canada, union members are fighting back against a longstanding undemocratic contract ratification process. In an unprecedented development, the Solidarity Movement, a rank-and-file movement within Unifor, has launched a petition to demand full disclosure of the collective agreement before voting takes place. Since the launch in early August, more than 1,800 members have signed.

The petition calls on Unifor leadership to “provide full disclosure of the contents of the contract, five days before ratification, by publishing all revisions, additions, deletions, and changes to the contract, clearly marked, on the Unifor National website and the websites of the locals involved in ‘Detroit Three’ bargaining.” It also requests “that the ratification highlights include a clear statement of all money and benefits negotiated on behalf of union representatives and any money or benefits negotiated to be paid to the Locals and/or National Union.”

In the US, the United Auto Workers publishes the full contract with all changes on its website where Detroit Three members can read it before they go to their ratification/information meetings — a long-time demand of American union reformers. The UAW began posting the tentative Detroit Three contracts online in 2011.

This movement to create transparency is to be welcomed. Workers deserve to be able to see what negotiators have done on their behalf before making a decision on whether to ratify the collective agreement or to reject it. It is their lives, and they have a right to make decisions concerning its direction and quality as far as is humanly possible.

Ms. Keetch certainly is moving in a more democratic position when she writes:

The members’ concerns should be acknowledged, not simply dismissed. Real democracy means taking our lead from the members.

She then outlines the procedures used in typical undemocratic collective bargaining:

Historically, auto negotiations are secretive. Once contract demands are collected by leadership, workers are nearly shut out of bargaining, which takes place behind closed doors. At the completion of bargaining, information/ratification meetings are immediately scheduled.

As members enter the meeting, they are given a handout called a “Bargaining Report.” The Bargaining Report contains highlights of the tentative agreement and includes messages from the national president and other leaders encouraging ratification. Union leadership and staff make a presentation on the highlights of the agreement. Members are given limited time and opportunity to ask questions and no opportunity to meaningfully discuss the agreement with each other before being required to vote. Historically, voting has taken place at the information meeting.

She then argues that the Constitution of Unifor is supposed to be democratic and that it is necessary for it be in reality democratic rather than just formally:

Democracy In The Constitution

The Unifor constitution makes it clear that Unifor is intended to be a democratic organization and that the members are meant to control the union. Article 2, Section 1 states, “Unifor is a voluntary organization that belongs to its members. It is controlled by members and driven by members. Its role is to serve their collective interests in the workplace and in our communities. The life of Unifor is shaped by the essential ingredient of democratic participation. Democratic values are the foundation of all that we do. Our commitment to the principles and practices of democratic unionism define who we are and are reflected in our rules, structures, and processes.”

Our constitution cannot just be words on paper. If union leadership doesn’t live and breathe to empower and engage the membership, if leadership limits worker agency, participation, discussion, and debate, then the inevitable outcome is a weak, disempowered membership that can’t fight back when the bosses are trying to walk all over us.

Unifor members are often told to just trust our leadership. But ratifying a collective agreement isn’t about rubberstamping whatever the leadership brings. If that were the case, why would we even go to the time and trouble of having a ratification vote? With technology today, it couldn’t be cheaper or easier to make the contract available ahead of ratification.

The democratization of the collective bargaining process at the level of the local is certainly necessary. However, even if it were democratized, the result would not overcome limitations which Ms. Keetch does not address.

She makes the following claim:

Though the collective agreement is one of the most important documents to shape a worker’s life, Canadian auto workers at General Motors, Fiat-Chrysler, and Ford are not allowed to see it before we are asked to ratify it. Unifor, the largest private sector union in Canada, represents nearly 17,000 auto workers at the Detroit Three.

Technically, as a document, the collective agreement does indeed shape a worker’s life–by limiting what the employer can do. From a worker’s perspective, it is, on the one hand, a a tool for limiting the power of management and, on the other, an expression of monetary remuneration and benefits for transferring the power of control over the worker’s life, temporarily, to the employer.

Ms. Keetch’s critique of the collective bargaining process is more advanced than Brian Forbes’ implicit defense of typical collective-bargaining procedures (see the article “Critique of Collective-Bargaining Models in Canada” found in the Publications and Writings section of this blog) since Mr. Forbes fails to criticize the traditional anti-democratic model of collective bargaining.

However, what if you democratize a process in the context of a situation that is undemocratic? Ms. Keetch nowhere explores the limitations as such of the collective bargaining process and the resulting collective agreement in the context of a class of employers. How does this context “shape a worker’s life?” Is this context more or less important than the collective agreement?

Readers who have read some of my posts will already know my answer: the context of a class of employers and the associated economic and political structures influences workers’ lives much more than any collective agreement. The level of influence of this context can be seen explicitly seen in various managements rights’ clauses in collective agreements (see, for example, Management Rights, Part One: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia or Management Rights, Part Two: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario). This lack of reference to this class situation will at most enable particular workers working for particular employers to limit their particular employer’s power in the best way possible without moving towards threatening the power of employers as a class.

Transparency is not only necessary at the level of the particular employer but at the macro level of the class economy. Mr. Keetch’s reference to democracy needs to involve both micro and macro level transparency if workers are to make rational decisions concerning the working lives and the purpose of their organizations.

At the micro level, even if there were complete transparency during collective bargaining, how would workers decide on what to do if they took no or little account of the macro structure that involves treating them as impersonal means for impersonal ends (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

Should there not be open discussion about the kind of economy that exists in order for workers to make rational decisions about the adequacy of collective agreements in meeting their lives, both inside and outside work? To exclude transparency in the wider situation is like looking at the hand and treating it as if it were the whole body. The hand may look to be in perfect condition, but not when linked to a body that has invasive cancer in the bladder, or rectal cancer or metastatic liver cancer.

Nor can any collective agreement be considered a fair contract without considering the context of exploitation and oppression characteristic of the general situation of workers–whether in the public or private sectors (see various posts on management rights in both the public and private sectors on this blog. See also such posts as Employers as Dictators, Part One , The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part One and The Rate of Exploitation of Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part Two, Or: Intensified Oppression and Exploitation).

It is thus questionable whether collective bargaining can really be transparent if the wider picture of the general economic and political structure is excluded. If the purpose of transparency of the collective-bargaining process at the micro level is to ensure that workers make democratic and rational decisions concerning their lives, it is necessary to move towards macro transparency.

The purpose of this blog is, in part, to move in that direction. If others wish to do so as well, they are most welcome to do so on this blog or by providing links to their own blogs or other resources.

A Critical Look at The Socialist Project’s Pamphlet on Green Jobs Oshawa

The Socialist Project, “based in Toronto [Ontario, Canada] … works to generate and promote Left activism education and organizing. Our membership includes activists, students, workers educators and others interested in Socialist politics in Canada,” recently published (February 2020) a pamphlet titled Take the Plant–Save the Planet: The Struggle for Community Control and Plant Conversion at GM Oshawa

The pamphlet has an introduction and the mission statement of Green Jobs Oshawa. It refers to the closing of most of the GM auto assembly plant in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, in December 2019.

The rest consists of various articles written by seven authors. The first article, “Unifor Settlement with GM– Footprint or Toe Tag?,” is by Tony Leah, “a retired autoworker and founding member of Green Jobs Oshawa.” The second and third articles, titled respectively, “GM Oshawa: Lowered Expectations Unexplored Opportunities,” and “The GM Strike and the Historical Convergence of Possibilities,” are by Sam Gindin, “who served from 1974 to 2000 as research director of the Canadian Auto Workers (Unifor’s predecessor), now an adjunct professor at York University. The fourth article, titled “Bringing SNC-Lavalin to Mind During an Uninspiring Federal Election,” is by Leo Panitch, Professor Emeritus,  Canada Research Chair, York University. The fifth article, titled “Take It Over: The Struggle for Green Production in Oshawa,” is by  Linda McQuaig,  ” journalist, columnist, non-fiction author and social critic.” The sixth article, titled “Green Jobs Oshawa and a Just Transition,” is by Rebecca Keetch, who “was a GM worker and is an activist with Green Jobs Oshawa.” The seventh article, titled “Why GM’s Oshawa Assembly Line Shutdown is a Black Eye for Unifor’s Jerry Dias,” is by Jennifer Wells, “a former columnist and feature writer for the [Toronto] Star’s Business section.” An appendix, titled “Feasibility Study for the Green Conversion of the GM Oshawa Facility: Possibilities for Sustainable Community Wealth: Summary Overview,” is by
Russ Christianson, “started working with small businesses and co-operatives and now travels across Canada working as a consultant who’s a business start-up specialist.”

I am not going to review the entire pamphlet. I addressed some of Mr. Gindin’s views in a previous post (see The Contradictions of Social Democracy: Mr. Gindin’s Musings on the Closure of GM’s Oshawa Plant).

The Introduction provides the framework for the pamphlet (pages 4-5):

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 naive. 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.

Before looking at the proposed solution, the extent of the problem needs to be specified. Mr. Gindin’s first article does this:

The Oshawa facility currently supports 5,700 – 6,000 jobs: GM directly employs 2,200 hourly workers and some 500 salaried workers, with other companies employing over 3,000 to supply components (some working right inside the Oshawa facility). The new proposal means cutting this total by upwards of 5,300 jobs.

The loss of jobs for many families undoubtedly will be devastating for many within the community. The alternative proposed is outlined below (page 5):

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 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 hydroelectric 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 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.

The proposed takeover of the plant, however, is linked to reliance on governments, without really addressing how much organized power would be required to force governments realistically to provide support for such a proposal. On the one hand, without such organized power, it is mere wishful thinking. This is implicit in the silences of even so-called progressive forces over the proposal (from Mr. Panitch’s article, page 34):

This is of course par for the course. The $3-billion left unpaid by General Motors from the $12-billion public bailout provided to it a decade ago could have covered all the costs entailed in implementing the Oshawa worker-environmental alliance plan to save the GM plant by taking it into public ownership and converting it into producing battery electric powered vehicles for Canada Post and other public fleets. That not even Unifor, let alone the NDP or the Green Party, has championed this plan only goes to show how bereft of big ideas are the foremost institutions that pass for the left in Canada today.

To demand that the municipal or federal (or, for that matter, provincial) governments take over the plant when even the so-called left did not rally behind the idea expresses an over-reliance on governments that is often expressed in the document. For example, Ms. McQuaig argues the following (page 36):

Of course, Gindin’s idea for producing public utility vehicles would require co-operation from the federal and provincial governments, and it is hard to imagine such co-operation from our current political leaders.

If it is unrealistic to expect co-operation from “current political leaders,” then such co-operation would require force–organized power by worker and community members. No such force exists–as those who wrote the introduction implied (page 5):

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 (see appendix) 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.

If the level of support for the proposal of Green Jobs Oshawa could not even generate major support from those most directly affected by the shutdown, why would anyone think that the governments, which support the class power of employers, would support their plan?

An alternative that undoubtedly was discussed by some at the factory and within Green Jobs Oshawa is not even mentioned: the workers taking over the factory and starting to produce without GM. That alternative may not have been realistic either under the circumstances, but at least it should have been discussed in the pamphlet. It is nowhere to be found.

Funding for retooling and the production of electric vehicles would require a substantial investment, and that is perhaps the reason why the mere take-over of the plant may not have been realistic. On the other hand, a takeover of the plant could have had a different purpose–to outline how unfair this particular situation was, how unfair the situation of GM not repaying

The $3-billion left unpaid by General Motors from the $12-billion public bailout provided to it a decade ago could have covered all the costs entailed in implementing the Oshawa worker-environmental alliance plan to save the GM plant by taking it into public ownership and converting it into producing battery electric powered vehicles for Canada Post and other public fleets. (Mr. Panitch, page 34),

and how unfair in general it is for employers to have the power to make decisions independently of those who are most directly affected by them. When people find a situation unfair, they are sometimes willing to go to extreme lengths to address the situation. As Barrington Moore remarks, in his Injustice   page 510, says:

Anger at the failure of authority to live up to its obligations, to keep its word and faith with the subjects, can be among the most potent of human emotions and topple thrones.

However, for such a tactic to have gained a foothold, it would have been necessary to have done the necessary preparatory work–negative work, if you like, by engaging workers in conversation and discussion over the fairness of various aspects of their lives, both in the workplace and outside the workplace. Indeed, Mr. Gindin, in a different context, recognizes the need for longer-term preparation: a tiered workplace, where some workers doing the same jobs received a lower wage and lower benefits despite belonging to the same union–Unifor (page 25):

The tiered structure GM was able to put in place in 2007 saved the corporation billions, and to boot, provided the company with a divided and weaker workforce. Only a union crusade, not a luke-warm demand among miscellaneous other demands, could have forced GM to give this up. It would, for example, have meant starting at least a year or two in advance to prepare the members for a war with the company, solidly win over the broad public in spite of a prolonged strike, and isolate General Motors. The absence of such preparations didn’t just make it harder to eventually win; it sent the message to the company that the union wasn’t all that serious in putting an end to tiered wages and would be satisfied with some face-saving tinkering. Which is what the workers in fact ended up with.

The issue of fairness is hardly a minor issue. Workers will unlikely engage in sustained efforts and sacrifices unless they find their situation and that of others to be unfair in some fashion or other. There is no evidence, though, that Mr. Gindin and other radicals engaged in such necessary negative work.

Returning to the issue of the government, the pamphlet, in addition to unrealistically relying on governments rather than on organizing the anger of those who have been treated unfairly in various ways in a society dominated by a class of employers, idealizes public ownership. For instance, Ms. McQuaig in particular idealizes public ownership (nationalization) (page 36):

In fact, as we’ve seen, Canadian public enterprise has an impressive history and has made its mark in fields that are at least as complicated as vehicle manufacturing. The creation of a public hydroelectric power system in Ontario – and later in other provinces – was a stunning achievement that served as a model for US president Franklin D. Roosevelt when he created highly successful public power systems, including the New York Power Authority, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Rural Electrification Administration, and the Bonneville Power Administration. There was also Connaught Labs, the publicly owned Canadian drug company, which made remarkable contributions to the development of breakthrough vaccines and treatments for a wide range of deadly diseases. And the publicly owned CNR exhibited innovative business skills in creating a viable national rail network out of five bankrupt railway lines and in establishing, during the pioneering days of radio, a cross-country string of radio stations, which became the basis of the nationwide CBC broadcasting network.

Public ownership which undoubtedly has the potential advantage of providing services based on need, not on the amount of money you personally have (such as medicare here in Canada). However, working in a public corporation should not be idealized; workers are still things to be used by employers, whether public or private (see The Money Circuit of Capital). Nationalization in the context of an economy dominated by a class of employers, by autonomous economic structures (money, finance, commerce and production) and an alienated political structure is hardly radical (see The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Seven: The Idealization of the Nation State or the National Government and Nationalization in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Part Two).

This idealization of public ownership is intensified when it is coupled with the war efforts of governments (page 37):

And, as we’ve seen, some of Canada’s most impressive public enterprises were created during the Second World War, when twenty-eight Crown corporations contributed enormously to Canada’s war effort, manufacturing airplanes, weapons, and communications equipment. Crown corporation Victory Aircraft provided the foundation for the postwar Canadian subsidiary that developed the Avro Arrow, a state-of the-art military fighter plane (discontinued by the Diefenbaker government for political, not technological, reasons). And Crown corporation Research Enterprises, teaming up during the war with Ottawa’s National Research Council, produced highly innovative optical and communications equipment, including radar devices, binoculars, and radio sets – equipment with countless applications that could have been successfully developed for the postwar market if our political leaders hadn’t succumbed to the notion that government shouldn’t be involved in
producing such things.

In the first place, the creation of public ownership under war conditions is hardly comparable to the situation which the GM Oshawa workers faced; during the Second World War, workers were much more organized–and armed, and many other capitalist states were willing to use direct physical force to achieve their goals at the expense of other capitalist states.

In the second place, as already indicated, Ms. McQuaig does not even ask what kind of lives those who worked in such Crown corporations lived. Their working conditions may have been better than in the privatized sector (though that requires research and should not be assumed), but better working conditions do not change the fact that workers are still things to be used by such corporations any more than the existence of a collective agreement does. Thus, Ms. McQuaig does not even address this issue.

This idealization of public ownership or nationalization continues in Ms. Keech’s article, page 41:

In November 2018, GM announced the closure of the Oshawa Assembly Plant. Workers in the community faced the crushing reality that their livelihood was being stolen. At a time of record profits, in the billions of dollars, GM showed a complete disregard for thousands of workers and their communities.

Out of this devastation Green Jobs Oshawa was born. Green Jobs Oshawa is a coalition of workers, environmentalists, academics, and community members. We recognized, in the midst of a climate crisis requiring immediate action and a community facing massive job loss and disruption, the need for a bold idea: bring the plant under democratic control through government ownership and build battery electric vehicles or other products that meet community need instead of corporate greed.

Ms. Keetch would need to elaborate on how her claim that “the plant would be under democratic control through government ownership” is possible given that the government is formally democratic but in practice is often anti-democratic (externally, through the use of police and, internally, through a hierarchic and undemocratic structure of an employer-employees relation). She does not do so.

She further idealizes the current political structure by having workers rely on it to transform the capitalist economy, which necessarily expands beyond any limits (see The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One), to a society free of a conflict between the nature of capitalist relations and the natural world in which we live (page 42):

Not only do we need to move away from fossil fuels and wasteful consumption – from harm and devastation – but we must build healthy, resilient communities while creating a strong sustainable economy.

We must demand massive government investment in green energy, green technology, and electrification. The government must take action, such as the immediate electrification of government fleet vehicles and public transportation. This must include public ownership of key manufacturing and resource sectors.

The environmental movement and the labour movement must demand this transformation include just transitions for workers and communities.

Unlike the other articles, Jennifer Wells’ article takes aim at Jerry Dias’ leadership. Jerry Dias is the president of Unifor, which represented the workers in the 2016 round of bargaining. She criticizes Dias for caving in on, for example, defined benefit pensions for new hires, thereby effectively creating a two-tiered workforce–a concession that Dias considered necessary in order to save jobs. Such jobs, however, were obviously not safe since most have been lost.

Although Dias’ sacrifice of one set of workers in concession bargaining should be criticized, as Ms. Wells does, she never asks whether collective bargaining has its own limits when it comes to representing the interests of workers. Her criticism remains well within the limits of faith in the collective-bargaining process itself to produce a “fair contract.”

Mr. Christianson’s appendix provides a feasibility study for the green conversion of the plant. I will only note the following. Under the heading of “Democratic Public Ownership,” he has the following (page 53):

…we consider democratic, public ownership to include governments, auto workers and community members. The legal structure of the organization can take many forms, including a crown corporation. In any case, the organization will need to
use a board matrix to ensure representation from government, auto workers, community members, people with the experience and skills required for the business, and a diverse mix of people (gender and ethnicity).

How democratic such an organization can be should have been outlined by, for example, giving other examples, where modern government provides the funding. In the general context of a society characterized by the domination of a class of employers, it is unlikely that it would be very democratic. At least at Mondragon, in Spain, the funding is not primarily from government–and yet it is debatable just how democratic Mondragon really is (see  The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Four: The Myth of Creating Socialist Spaces). Real democracy requires much more than the rhetorical phrase “democratic public ownership.”