The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Three: Collective Bargaining and the Interests of the Working Class

This is a continuation of a critique of an academic leftist (aka academic historical materialist), the philosopher Jeff Noonan.

Another example of the limitations of Professor Noonan’s analysis is the following
(from Thinkings 4Collected Interventions, Readings, Evocations, 2014-2015,page 10):

And sometimes it is necessary to struggle to protect or extend our rights as workers to help determine our conditions of work.

The context for the statement is Professor Noonan’s defense of workers’ right to strike. The problem with this argument is located in his use of the word “sometimes.” Since order-in-council 1003, enacted in 1944 during the Second World War, workers have not had the right to strike during the terms of a collective agreement in Canada. What happens during the terms of a collective agreement? Workers are generally expected to grieve an order, a procedure and so forth by management but continue to work. Is this something with which Professor Noonan agrees? His use of the word “sometimes” seems to imply that as well as his defense of the right to strike–a right that legally arises only after the expiration of a collective agreement.

But what of the need to struggle during the terms of a collective agreement? It may appear that Professor Noonan is sympathetic to the working class and to socialism, and yet his silence concerning, on the one hand, the general legitimacy of collective agreements in the context of the power of a class of employers and, on the other, his silence concerning the need to engage in struggle during the terms of a collective agreement demonstrate the limitations of his approach.Indeed, the International Workers of the World (IWW) have recognized the need to engage in struggle in various forms, with escalating consequences rather than just the strike; the strike, rather, is a high-end pressure tactic and not generally the first form of tactic to engage in in order to achieve workers’ own ends.

This does not mean that workers will engage in struggle continuously; workers of course need to pick and choose their struggles. However, the defense of the right to strike without any mention of the need to struggle against employers during the term of a collective agreement (and not just in the form of grievances) is a very limited defense of the interests of the working class.

It may seem that Professor Noonan recognizes the limitations of collective bargaining. He says the following (page 11):

Collective bargaining is a difficult process. At its best, it is a rare opportunity for workers to participate in the determination of their conditions of work, rather than simply accept whatever conditions are offered. Collective bargaining allows workers to deliberate together as a democratic body about how they think their work should be organized and compensated and to make their case to the employer. Despite what employers publicly maintain, there is no equality of power. Since employers retain ultimate legal control over the workplace, since they continue to draw full salary during any work stoppage, and since the legislative deck is stacked in their favour, without solidarity, both between members of the bargaining unity and between the bargaining unit and the wider community of labour and concerned citizens, the employer is typically in an advantaged position.

How does “solidarity, both between members of the bargaining unity [unit?] and between the bargaining unit and the wider community of labour and concerned citizens” overcome the power of employers as a class? A particular employer may have to concede relative defeat due to certain favourable conditions of a particular section of the working class, but the fact that workers still have to work for an employer involves “an advantaged position” of employers as a class–including the relatively “disadvantaged” employer.

Further evidence of the inadequacy of Professor Noonan’s position can be seen from the following (page 11):

We have only taken strike votes in the face of protracted impasses at the bargaining table over issues of fundamental importance to the membership.

Professor Noonan is trying to present the Windsor University Faculty Association as being reasonable; it does not engage in needless strike votes but only “over issues of fundamental importance of the membership.” This seems eminently reasonable–except it neglects the management rights clause, implicit or explicit, in collective agreements. What if an issue arises “of fundamental importance” to “the membership” during the term of a collective agreement that is not grievable?

Professor Noonan, further, argues the following (page 12):

Why, then, has bargaining often stretched into the fall? The answer is that both sides have too often brought so many items to the table that it took that long to work through them all in a responsible manner.

Perhaps university professors, who have greater control over what they do, how they do their work, and when they do their work than most other employees, need not bring “so many items to the table,” but the implicit or explicit management rights clause for most employees involves the general power of employers and their representatives, managers, to determine what to do, how to do it and when to do it. It is quite understandable why there are many items on the negotiating table from employees’ point of view–the collective agreement is a limiting document, restricting the power of management to exercise its right as management.

In fact, when I was a member of a negotiating team for Operating Engineers Local 858, Prince George, British Columbia, Canada, I consciously tried to show the workers how many items on the table we had to remove in order to obtain what we obtained by presenting all items desired on the left-hand side of the bargaining bulletin and either an x or check mark on the right-hand side. The union business manager had to present this format to a ratification meeting for those in Prince George (because she had asked me to draft it), but since the bargaining unit extended beyond Prince George, ratification also assumed the form of mail-in ballots. The union business manager changed the format to show only what we won before sending out an information bulletin.

Professor Noonan says, further (page 12):

Nevertheless, despite the nightmares of right-wing pundits, university faculties are not full of rabid leftists chomping at the bit to prosecute the class struggle (there are a few of us still left, but I can assure everyone we are in a small minority). Most faculty members care most about their research and their teaching, they do not want either interrupted by either lockouts or strikes, and most are loath to engage in struggles that might harm the reputation of the institutions in which their own reputations as academics are forged. You really have to push academics hard to anger them enough as a collective to make them want to strike (or a strongly resist an imposed lockout).

Although some or even many or even most university professors may find doing research and teaching meaningful in itself, as you go down the line of jobs, with less and less control and more precarious work, the extent of a job being meaningful probably decreases correspondingly. Even jobs in schools, with some control over pedagogy can be less important than other aspects of the job (such as pay and vacation). Although workers try to find meaning in their work in various ways (in the brewery, for example, some workers would play “ball” with beer bottles when the foremen were not looking), many workers have families and find the work more a means to an end rather than an end in itself. (This is the “decent work” that social democrats and reformers persistently talk about–without discussion–such clichés).

In the context in which Professor Noonan is speaking–a union of university professors–it may make sense to speak of striking as a last ditch effort by them to avoid a strike if at all possible–it makes less sense as the work becomes less and less meaningful. Workers in various sectors (whether public or private) may not like to strike–it interrupts their own lives and makes life difficult in various ways–but even when a collective agreement is signed, they are more prone to strike and engage in covert (and, if necessary, overt) actions that express their treatment as things to be used by employers.

Professor Noonan’s neglect of the relatively privileged status of university professors in relation to other workers leads him to assert the following:

Whether or not it was ever practiced in reality, the principle of collegial self-governance is the goal to which universities should aspire. Unlike for profit businesses, universities do not have owners whose goal is to maximise profits. Instead, all members of the institution– faculty, librarians, learning specialists, lab technicians, students, support workers, and administration have the same goal—the advance of human knowledge and creativity in the widest and most comprehensive sense. If that claim is true, then it should follow that all the groups who together make up the university ought to cooperate (not without respectful disagreement) in the determination of the budgets, policies, rules, and goals that guide the institution’s mission. The best ideas emerge through deliberative and democratic argument—no one group knows best just because of the position they occupy in the hierarchy.

This view is ideology in the worst sense of the term. In a society dominated by employers–including public-sector employers like universities, it is highly unlikely that such workers as “lab technicians, students and support workers” have the same goal–“the advance of human knowledge and creativity in the widest and most comprehensive sense.” Such a view may apply in a socialist organization, but to assume such a situation in universities, which function in a capitalist context, is bound to lead to inadequate policies and theories.

Consider support workers. I worked twice at a university library, once doing my practicum to obtain a library and information technology diploma from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) at the University of Calgary main library, in the cataloguing department. At the University of Calgary, I noted that the work situation was characterized by a very hierarchical, top-down power structure. One worker commented that she would prefer a benevolent dictator to a mean one; of course, but why have a dictator at all? At least this worker recognized that there was a dictator–unlike Professor Noonan.

At the University of Manitoba Dafoe Library, the same hierarchy existed, but there was even more repression (including racist oppression). Was “the left” at the University even aware of this? Not that I could see. Has Professor Noonan even inquired about the working conditions of subordinates at the University of Windsor? Has he tried to criticize trade unionists who adopt an ideology of “decent work?”

It is much easier to criticize from afar than near at hand–much less dangerous. Talk of “democracy” that does not threaten one’s own work position is pure rhetoric.

As I wrote in my previous post:

Furthermore, a few privileged sets of workers (such as tenured university professors) may seem to have “decent jobs,” but even that situation has eroded over time. It should not be forgotten that such relatively privileged workers exist in a sea of workers, whether unionized or not, who are things to be used by employers systematically and legally. University professors cannot engage in research, teaching and administrative activities unless there are other workers who produce their food, clothing, cars and so forth.

This division of labour is implied in a poem by one of the most famous poets of Gutemala, Otto Rene Castillo (from Apolitical Intellectuals):

Apolitical Intellectuals

One day
the apolitical
intellectuals
of my country
will be interrogated
by the simplest
of our people.

They will be asked
what they did
when their nation died out
slowly,
like a sweet fire
small and alone.

No one will ask them
about their dress,
their long siestas
after lunch,
no one will want to know
about their sterile combats
with “the idea
of the nothing”
no one will care about
their higher financial learning.

They won’t be questioned
on Greek mythology,
or regarding their self-disgust
when someone within them
begins to die
the coward’s death.

They’ll be asked nothing
about their absurd
justifications,
born in the shadow
of the total lie.

On that day
the simple men will come.

Those who had no place
in the books and poems
of the apolitical intellectuals,
but daily delivered
their bread and milk,
their tortillas and eggs,
those who drove their cars,
who cared for their dogs and gardens
and worked for them,
and they’ll ask:

“What did you do when the poor
suffered, when tenderness
and life
burned out of them?”

Apolitical intellectuals
of my sweet country,
you will not be able to answer.

A vulture of silence
will eat your gut.

Your own misery
will pick at your soul.

And you will be mute in your shame.”

Collective agreements do not exist in a vacuum but form part of interrelated social relations; to exclude such relations when considering the nature and legitimacy of collective agreements is to empty collective agreements of the background conditions which give them meaning in the first place.

What’s Left, Toronto? Part Five

As I indicated in an earlier post, on September 19, 2018, several leftist activists gave a talk about what was to be done in the city of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The talks were posted on the Socialist Project website on October 7, 2018 (also posted on YouTube) (What’s Left, Toronto? Radical Alternatives for the City Election). As I indicated in my earlier posts, over the next few months, I will be analyzing some or all of the talks from a Marxian perspective.

The fourth presenter is preceded by a few comments from Herman Rosenfeld, the moderator of the series. Mr. Rosenfeld made the following remarks about the next presenter, James Nugent: “James was involved in some of the struggles to try to reclaim and create decent jobs in a number of neighbourhoods in Toronto.” I had occasion to remark about a similar comment when Mr. Rosenfeld opened the series. I wrote in the first post:

He [Mr. Rosenfeld] mentions “decent, secure jobs with decent pay.” Why any self-declared socialist feels compelled to declare, at this stage of capitalism, to pair the term “decent” with “jobs” and “decent” with “pay” other than fear of alienating his social-reformist allies or due to opportunism is beyond me.”  I leave it to the reader to make her/his own judgement. (See further What’s Left, Toronto? Part One).

Now, let us proceed with an analysis of James Nugent’s presentation. Mr. Nugent refers to community benefits agreements (CBAs). They have employment equity or affirmative action conditions attached to them. Mr. Nugent refers to the Eglinton Crosstown CBA and the Woodbine Casino CBAs. A CBA imposes conditions of employment that are linked to benefiting the community or communities where a project is being built. For example, in the case of the Woodbine Casino CBA,

The agreement requires that 40 per cent of all new employees will be hired from the local area, with some of those jobs filled with the assistance of social organizations in the community. The agreement also stipulates that 10 per cent of all construction-related job hours will have to be filled using apprentices or journeypersons from the surrounding area. (Council Approves Community Benefits Agreement for Woodbine Casino)

Mr. Nugent argues that there are several problems with such agreements, ranging from trade offs between different neighbourhoods or different social groups to merely reformist efforts or even neoliberal CBAs or negotiated neoliberalism.

Nonetheless, he identifies some positive aspects to CBAs, such as bringing to the public eye in an the idea of employment equity again, which had been suppressed since the 1990s; employment equity or affirmative action has an advantage over protests of being an offensive rather than an offensive tactic. Furthermore, it also permitted grassroots social groups and unions to meet in the same room in order to discuss issues rather than going their separate ways, which is usually the case.

Despite these positive benefits, Mr. Nugent’s focus is allegedly elsewhere: he argues that the CBAs have a radical potential if the focus is not on the outcomes but rather on the potential for radical organizing. He outlines five principles for transforming CBAs into a radical movement.

The first principle is that work on a CBA should not focus on results or outcomes but rather on organizing for power and building a radical movement that is capable of forcing the government to give them what they want. There should not be a continual process of negotiations for meager reforms. The goal should be for building a powerful social movement.

The second principle is that it is necessary to raise expectations. This raising of expectations, however, needs to be done honestly. It is necessary to indicate that no positive outcomes may result but that if no one tries, then there will automatically be no positive changes. It is in the process of trying to win honestly that power structures will be created.

The third principle (it is unclear to me whether raising expectations honestly is the third principle, but I assume it forms part of the second principle) is that coalitions that lead to the creation of structures of power need to be led by grassroots groups, not by social agencies that are too tied to the state and funding.

The fourth principle is the building of a broad-based coalition for struggle. Our strength is in numbers. What is necessary is link up issues, such as the CBA with affordable housing groups, anti-poverty groups, groups working with ex-offenders and anti-privation groups.

The fifth principle is that it is necessary to engage, to organize and not focus on servicing the needs of a few (however real such needs are). Employment equity is important, but what is more important is consciousness-raising. People involved in CBAs need to understand the broader picture, understand that they are part of a social movement and themselves become leaders of such a movement.

Mr. Nugent then seems to add a sixth principle: leadership needs to emerge from the social movement itself and not from some professional individuals (such as unionists). In this way, a radical democratic and decentralized organizing structure of power will emerge.

Mr. Nugent sums up by arguing that CBAs need to become a movement building tool to build radical and lasting power.

These principles seem sound for developing some power, but what kind of power? And what does Mr. Nugent mean by radical? Like other presenters, he never gets around to discussing what that means. He never relates this to the issue of how the building of power is to be related to the power of employers at work–a daily experience for billions worldwide and millions of workers within Canada.

The idea of radical democratic organizations sounds very fair and open-minded. However, it is, in the context of lives dominated by the power of employers as a class, just rhetoric. Building structures of power that fail to have the focus of taking back control of our lives by taking back and reorganizing the property of the conditions for producing our lives (the machines, buildings and land required for us to produce our own lives) are bound to fail.

In other words, it is an issue of the kind of structures of power that are built that will decide whether they are really radical or not. Are such structures that are built designed to fight against the power of employers as a class? Or are they designed to fight within such structures? For example, what is Mr. Nugent’s position with respect to collective-bargaining structures? To unions? Such structures, if challenged by grassroots leaders, are bound to push back and fight against such grassroots leaders. He skirts the question entirely by claiming that leadership needs to arise organically and not be part of professional organizations (such as unions).

He also skirts the question by claiming that traditional work in CBAs is valuable in itself; he probably fears alienating union leadership directly. Thus, John Cartwright, president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, indirectly endorses traditional CBAs; in the fall 2016 Toronto & York Region Labour Council newsletter, Labour Action, Mr. Cartwright, in his “Message from the President,” refers to such agreements; he is also a member of the Community Benefits Ontario network.

Employment equity or affirmative action as a goal need not of course be opposed and can be beneficial to certain groups, but if they are framed entirely within the general social relation of employer-employee relations, then they will inevitably have limits imposed on them not just externally but internally. The participants will subjectively consider employment equity without considering how to frame such a policy in such a way that it questions the class of employers.

Where is there evidence that Mr. Cartright questions the legitimacy of the power of employers as a class? As I wrote in another post:

Consider the rhetoric of John Cartwright, president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, in his open letter of January 30, 2018, wrote the following: “We need to fight for labour law reform including broader based bargaining so that precarious workers can have a vehicle in which to achieve dignity and economic justice.”

What does Mr. Cartwright mean by economic justice? Collective agreements? Since he does not explain what he means (a characteristic of rhetoric), we will assume that he means collective agreements between employers and unions.

Collective agreements, as I have persistently argued, are generally better than just relying only on employment law, but to imply that they somehow embody economic justice as Mr. Cartwright does justifies the continued treatment of human beings as things, as means to ends defined by dictators called employers (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

Mr. Nugent, perhaps, believes, like Mr. Rosenfeld, that the goal should be “decent jobs.” That is to say, the goal is to create unionized jobs for all. For anyone who has read some of the posts on this blog, it is obvious that the concept of “decent jobs,” with their associated collective agreement (and collective bargaining), are generally better than jobs without unions, without collective bargaining and without collective agreements.

Collective agreements, however, as this blog constantly stresses, are holding agreements that continue to express exploitation and oppression. A few privileged sets of workers (such as tenured university professors) may seem to have decent jobs, but even that situation has eroded over time. Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that such relatively privileged workers exist in a sea of workers, whether unionized or not, who are things to be used by employers systematically and legally. University professors cannot engage in research, teaching and administrative activities unless there are other workers who produce their food, clothing, cars and so forth.

This division of labour is implied in a poem by one of the most famous poets of Gutemala, Otto Rene Castillo (from   Apolitical Intellectuals):

Apolitical Intellectuals

One day
the apolitical
intellectuals
of my country
will be interrogated
by the simplest
of our people.

They will be asked
what they did
when their nation died out
slowly,
like a sweet fire
small and alone.

No one will ask them
about their dress,
their long siestas
after lunch,
no one will want to know
about their sterile combats
with “the idea
of the nothing”
no one will care about
their higher financial learning.

They won’t be questioned
on Greek mythology,
or regarding their self-disgust
when someone within them
begins to die
the coward’s death.

They’ll be asked nothing
about their absurd
justifications,
born in the shadow
of the total lie.

On that day
the simple men will come.

Those who had no place
in the books and poems
of the apolitical intellectuals,
but daily delivered
their bread and milk,
their tortillas and eggs,
those who drove their cars,
who cared for their dogs and gardens
and worked for them,
and they’ll ask:

“What did you do when the poor
suffered, when tenderness
and life
burned out of them?”

Apolitical intellectuals
of my sweet country,
you will not be able to answer.

A vulture of silence
will eat your gut.

Your own misery
will pick at your soul.

And you will be mute in your shame.

Collective agreements do not exist in a vacuum but form part of interrelated social relations; to exclude such relations when considering the nature and legitimacy of collective agreements is to empty collective agreements of the background conditions which give them meaning in the first place.

In relation to Mr. Nugent’s presentation, the vagueness of the concept of what is radical permits Mr. Nugent to propose what he calls radical without really detailing what he means–a very unfortunate characteristic of these presentations so far. Vagueness of meaning permits individuals to evade intellectual (and, ultimately, practical) responsibility for their beliefs, as John Dewey, the American philosopher of education noted long ago (from How We Think, 1910/2011, How We Think, pages 129-130):

A being that cannot understand at all is at least protected from mis-understandings. But beings that get knowledge by means of inferring and interpreting, by judging what things signify in relation to one another, are constantly exposed to the danger of mis-apprehension, mis-understanding, mis-taking—taking a thing amiss. A constant source of misunderstanding and mistake is indefiniteness of meaning. Through vagueness of meaning we misunderstand other people, things, and ourselves; through its ambiguity we distort and pervert. Conscious distortion of meaning may be enjoyed as nonsense; erroneous meanings, if clear-cut, may be followed up and got rid of. But vague meanings are too gelatinous to offer matter for analysis, and too pulpy to afford support to other beliefs. They evade testing and responsibility. Vagueness disguises the unconscious mixing together of different meanings, and facilitates the substitution of one meaning for another, and covers up the failure to have any precise meaning at all. It is the aboriginal logical sin—the source from which flow most bad intellectual consequences. Totally to eliminate indefiniteness is impossible; to reduce it in extent and in force requires sincerity and vigor. To be clear or perspicuous a meaning must be detached, single, self-contained, homogeneous as it were, throughout.

Mr. Nugent is certainly correct to emphasize the need for focusing on having individuals and groups start to look at the bigger picture, but he fails to delve into the nature of that bigger picture.

My prediction is that, in say three years, the issue of the power of employers as a class will not be addressed by Mr. Nugent; his radicalism probably will extend only within the limits defined by such power.

What’s Left, Toronto? Certainly not a radical agenda–so far.