The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Eight: Class Harmony

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

Professor Noonan’s neglect of the relatively privileged status of university professors in relation to other workers leads him to assert the following (from Thinkings 4Collected Interventions, Readings, Evocations, 2014-2015, page 13):

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. It is an appeal to what ought to be in some utopian world (“the principle of collegial self-governance is the goal to which universities should aspire”)–that can never be in the given context, and then assuming that the utopia is somehow possible in such a context (“the principle of collegial self-governance is the goal to which universities should aspire“). 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.

The illogical nature of the assertion is called asserting as a fact what you are supposed to prove; more technically, it is called begging the question. Professor Noonan assumes that all the workers at universities have the same goal. This view can be criticized on a number of grounds.

The collectivity called the university, in a capitalist setting, involves the purchase of workers on a market for workers. The workers do not collectively and consciously get together to decide to form an organization called the university; rather, it is the employer who sets up a formal organization called a university and then hires workers as employees for a certain period of time. These workers “belong” to the university as a formal collectivity but, since they do not freely unite to form the university, this organization is something imposed on them as a force that is external to them. In other words, the unity which is supposed to be the university is a formal unity that is not self-organization of that which is organized or unified (the workers); the unity is imposed from without or in an external and therefore unfree manner.

The self-organization of workers and the formal organization of workers into a unity makes all the difference in the world in the quality of lives of the workers. In self-organization, the workers express themselves in their unity as something which they have made and to which they have freely subordinated themselves as a power that is their power. In formal organization, workers are brought together as a unity by an external force (in this case, through a formal organization that owns money); their own unity is not their unity but the unity of the employer. The workers then find that the unity is oppressive in various ways.

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) between 1988 and 1990) at the University of Calgary main library, in the cataloguing department. One worker remarked, when I noted that the work was very hierarchical (something which academic Marxists seem to overlook in their own workplace often enough–at least on a practical level when they acknowledge, in the books they have published, the work of librarians, who necessarily oppress workers lower in the hierarchy, but fail to acknowledge the support workers), that she would prefer having a benevolent dictator than a mean one (implying that she had a benevolent dictator).

Again, at the University of Manitoba, where I worked on a temporary library project for Dafoe Library, one of the library assistants, Juliette (a feisty Philippine woman) talked to me explicitly how her supervisor, a white German woman, had explicitly indicated that she did not want to have any more Asians filling the higher ranks of library assistants (library assistant 4, if I remember correctly). Juliette complained to the Human Rights Commission, which apparently found that such library 4 positions were indeed being filled illegitimately by non-Asians.

Although Juliette was protected in some ways from being fired because of the finding that there was discrimination in the assignment of library assistant 4 positions, she also told me that one time she found feces thrown onto her car. Another time she found that someone had somehow opened her car doors and slashed some of the interior. Another time she was driving her car home from work when she found that she had a flat tire. When she had it towed to a garage, the mechanic remarked that it looked like someone had slashed her tires (perhaps with a knife).

Consider another situation at the University of Manitoba. The racism evident in Dafoe Library of the University of Manitoba led someone to post a petition for an Ombudsman’s office on racism at the University in the library staff lounge. I showed Juliette this, and she circulated the petition to library workers in circulation and in the cataloguing department. Only a handful of workers signed the petition (including Juliette and me), not because there was no racism in those departments but, according to Juliette, but because the workers were afraid to sign it out of fear of the possible repercussions from management–and fear is characteristic of many work sites among the lower levels of the hierarchy (whether public or private).

Of course, academics at the University of Manitoba knew nothing about this situation; despite their research skills, they are often blind to events that immediately surround them.

Professor Noonan evidently looks at the world in terms of class harmony–at least in his own environment. Such a world is not filled with degradation and oppression in order that he engage in his activity. Such a world can-without opposing his and all other employers–realize a world where all who work can freely pursue the same goal.

Where you work: Do you feel free? Do you participate equally in the decisions of the place where you work? Can you engage in one activity or another freely (say, be a cataloguer in the morning and tenured professor in the afternoon and a musician in the evening? Or are you oppressed at work in various ways? Are the decisions made at work not subject to your will at all? Do you find yourself restricted to engagement in one particular activity if you are going to live at all because you need the money to live?


Returning to Professor Noonan’s idealism: quoting part of his illogical statement:

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,

Of course, the assumption that this is true in the context of a capitalist society is illogical and, coming from a supposed progressive philosopher professor illustrates the limitations of such academics (and social democracy in general).

Compare this limitation with Professor Noonan’s arrogant claim:

The social-reformist left has problems, but the ‘revolutionary’ left suffers from the problem of not existing as in any sense a meaningful political force, and has no model (save archaic Leninist ideas) about how to build. If nineteenth and early twentieth century ideas about revolution were going to work they would have worked 100 years ago. Historical materialism requires new political thinking in new times. The organizational forms that will attract and unify people have yet to be found. Most times I worry they never will be.

Apparently, Professor Noonan’s updated “historical materialism” for “new times” involves ignoring completely the nature of wage labour–even when it does not involve directly working for a profit. His assumption that all workers at a university somehow magically share the same goal compares poorly with the following by Marx. The quote applies just as much to university workers (less so for university professors with tenure, undoubtedly) as to a capitalist factory (from Capital, volume 1, pages 449-450):

The control exercised by the capitalist is not only a special function arising from the nature of the social labour process, and peculiar to that process, but it is at the same time a function of the exploitation of a social labour process, and is consequently conditioned by the unavoidable antagonism between the exploiter and the raw material of bis exploitation. Similarly, as the means of production extend, the necessity increases for some effective control over the proper application of them, because they confront the wage-labourer as the property of another. … Moreover, the co-operation of wage-labourers is entirely brought about by the capital that employs them. Their unification into one single productive body, and the establishment of a connection between their individual functions, lies outside their competence. These things are not their own act, but the act of the capital that brings them together and maintains them in that situation. Hence the interconnection between their various labours confronts them, in the realm of ideas, as a plan drawn up by the capitalist, and, in practice, as his authority, as the powerful will of a being outside them, who subjects their
activity to his purpose.

Professor Noonan may counterargue that the university is not a capitalist. True. However, this fact does not prevent the above description from being applicable to the situation of most workers at universities. Universities, from subordinate workers’ point of view, are impersonal employers, and as impersonal employers they constitute an external unity for workers that is imposed on them from without. Such an external unity assumes the form of despotism (some employers being better or worse, admittedly, but nevertheless all being forms or kinds of despotism.)

Professor Noonan’s position is similar to John Dewey’s position: assuming cooperation is somehow superior to class conflict and class struggle. As I wrote in my masters’ thesis (Towards a Critical Materialist Pedagogy: Marx and Dewey, page 121):

Philosophy, or the method of intelligence or democratic inquiry, according to
Dewey, was to contribute to the resolution of conflicts through problerm-solving, just as in the natural sciences. Like Marx, Dewey posited that reason or philosophy (a means) was to be used to try to contribute to the resolution of social conflicts (achieve an acceptable end goal or end in view) (Brodsky, 1988). Problems would be openly breached and defined, and common solutions to the specific problems sought (Colapietro, 1988). However, this method is applicable only when the distribution of power is relatively equal and when relations of domination do not arise. When the distribution of power is skewed, as in a capitalist society, conflict can be resolved through reason only if those in power deign to listen. Moreover, those in structural positions of power will often see no need to change since the situation corresponds to their interests. They will deny that the
situation is problematic and refuse to engage in debate and negotiation (Brosio, 1994a).

What constitutes a problem will be more easily defined by those who control the
working environment–the employers and managers. Similarly, solutions sought will tend to be in accord with problems defined by employers and managers rather than in terms defined by those who concretely use the means of production.

It is typical of social democrats and social reformers that they idealize the public sector–as if working for a non-profit institution is somehow freer for workers. Professor Noonan, by making the assumption that the goal of a university is one unified goal–does the same and serves, objectively, as an ideologue of public-sector employers.

Such is the nature of one form of “historical materialism” for “new times,” it is really just a rehashed form of social democracy that cannot even deal with the real world of regular workers in the workplace where these academic Marxists or academic historical materialists work.

Furthermore, as I argued in an earlier post ( What’s Left, Toronto? Part Five):

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.

If we add various categories of workers who work at a university, then this poem is really applicable to many academic leftists. They may pay lip-service to being sympathetic to the exploitation and oppression of workers in other industries, but when it comes to doing anything practical in fighting against the oppression of workers characteristic of their own employer, they take flight to an ideal hypothetical world:


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

 

 

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.

 

Socialism, Police and the Government or State, Part Two

This is a continuation of a previous post. It is a response to Mr. Sam Gindin’s article, We Need to Say What Socialism Will Look Like , where he argues that under socialism the government or state will not “wither away” but will expand as public services expand. Mr. Gindin’s conception of the expansion of public services is, however, largely quantitative and has little to do with fundamental qualitative changes in public services.

The issue has to do with the idea of a “transitional socialist society.” Mr. Gindin assumes that such a society will come into existence through the expansion of public services that already exist. Compare his assumption with the following (from Rob Bryer, Accounting for History in Marx’s Capital: The Missing Link, pages 279-280):

…he [Andrew Kliman] makes a helpful suggestion: “except to say that I have increasingly come to suspect that the very idea of ‘transitional society’ is incoherent, and seems to stand in the way of thinking things through clearly” (Kliman 2004, 11). Rather than opting out, or making a transition from capitalism to socialism, Kliman
(2004, 12) argues “what requires explanation is the essential character of the change, which is not gradual quantitative decrease, but [quoting Hegel’s Science of Logic] the ‘abstract transition of an existence into a negation of the existence,’” Kliman (2004, 14) therefore suggests, “Capitalism . . . cannot ‘become’ a new society; it cannot gradually cease-to-be as the new society comes-to-be. Is it not the case, then, that revolutionary transformation can only be comprehended as absolute liberation that begins the day after the revolution, rather than as gradual transition?”

A transitional mode of production is incoherent, but history shows pre-capitalist transitional societies in which different modes co-existed, where class conflict was driving change in which one became dominant. Changes in the dominance of pre-capitalist modes—slavery over primitive communism, feudalism over free peasants, and capitalism over feudalism— were transitions. In his early work, Marx used the idea of transitional societies, changing from one ‘mode of commercial intercourse’ to another to explain history and, particularly in The Communist Manifesto, argued for a transition to socialism. However, from Grundrisse onward he argued that the
change to socialism was unique because, rather than an unconscious change in dominance from one form of exploitation to another, socialism results from consciously changing the social relations of production, and creating the necessary superstructure, to abolish it. Socialism becomes possible only if all (or the vast majority) of workers understand Marx’s theories of value and history and, when they do, they ‘inevitably’ change society’s social relations of production on Day 1 to abolish all exploitation.

There can, therefore, according to the mature Marx, be no transition to socialism, no ‘transitional society,’ part capitalist, part socialist, but only a once for all, immediate and comprehensive, qualitative change in the social relations of production.

Although history will undoubtedly be much messier than this “once and for all, immediate and comprehensive, qualitative change,” the basic idea of a vastly different kind of society emerging from capitalism than the emergence of capitalism from earlier kinds of society is something which Mr. Gindin ignores. The need for a conscious and organized effort to eliminate classes needs to be explicitly put on the agenda from the beginning in order to make a qualitative change in our lives.

Mr. Gindin does speak of the “transformation” of the capitalist state into a socialist democratic state, but his complete neglect of the repressive aspects of the government and his insistence that “scarcity” and “external motivation” will necessarily characterize socialism means that such a transformation will continue to possess repressive features.

Many members of the working class (especially the precarious members of the working class in Canada since many unionized members of the working class no longer engage in illegal strikes), however, experience the capitalist government or state as repressive. Mr. Gindin simply ignores this feature of working-class experience when he refers to the “transformation” of the capitalist state. The need to abolish a separate police power was formulated long ago, when the Paris Commune emerged in 1871 in France.

Let us continue with the issue of the repressive power of legal system. Last time, we looked at the police. Let us now look briefly at the criminal courts. An accused is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty–so says the rhetoric (rhetoric characterizes much of a society dominated by a class of employers). Is this really the case, though?

From Doreen McBarnet, Conviction: Law, the State and the Construction of Justice, page 2:

The whole flavour of the
rhetoric of justice is summed up in the idea that it is better for ten
guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to be wrongly
convicted. Why then the paradox that the vast majority of cases
processed through a criminal justice system so geared to favouring
the accused results in a finding of guilt?

For they do. According to the criminal statistics for 1978,
conviction rates were as follows: 8o per cent of Scottish cases
involving crimes, 95 per cent of Scottish cases involving offences, 84
per cent of English Crown Court cases, 93 per cent of indictable
cases, 95 per cent of non-indictable cases, in the English magistrates’
courts.3 Some samples show even higher rates-a 98.5 per cent
conviction rate for magistrates’ courts in Sheffield (Bottoms and
McClean, 1976). Conviction depends in court on the plea or the
verdict. If the accused pleads guilty to the charge against him,
conviction follows as a matter of routine. If he pleads not guilty, a
contested trial follows. According to Bottoms and McClean, 72 ·5
per cent of those contesting the case in magistrates’ courts, 55 per
cent of those choosing jury trials, and 71 per cent of those allocated
to the higher courts were convicted on some or all counts (pp. 106,
209). In the rhetoric of justice everyone is entitled to a fair trial; yet
most defendants plead guilty. In the rhetoric of justice any
reasonable doubt should result in acquittal; yet for the clear
majority of cases the court is convinced beyond reasonable doubt,
despite all the rhetorical hamstrings on police and prosecution, that
the accused is guilty. Why?

One answer might be quite simply that the defendants are guilty;
the case against them is too strong to be plausibly disputed; the facts
speak for themselves. Sir Robert Mark has suggested indeed that the
very limitations placed on police and prosecution bringing a case to
court make it highly probable that only the indisputably guilty
come through the process at all….

Mr. Gindin probably has been indoctrinated into the ideology of law, which presents courts as areas where legal due process is dominant–whereas the opposite is the case.

From Doreen McBarnet, Conviction: Law, the State and the Construction of Justice, Page 153:

Legal policy has established two tiers of justice. One, the higher
courts, is for public consumption, the arena where the ideology of
justice is put on display. The other, the lower courts, deliberately
structured in defiance of the ideology of justice, is concerned less
with subtle ideological messages than with direct control. The latter
is closeted from the public eye by the ideology of triviality, so the
higher courts alone feed into the public image of what the law does
and how it operates. But the higher courts deal with only 2 per cent
of the cases that pass through the criminal courts. Almost all
criminal law is acted out in the lower courts without traditional due
process. But of course what happens in the lower courts is not only
trivial, it is not really law. So the position is turned on its head. The
98 per cent becomes the exception to the rule of ‘real law’ and the
working of the law comes to be typified not by its routine nature, but
by its atypical, indeed exceptional, High Court form. Between them
the ideologies of triviality and legal irrelevance accomplish the
remarkable feats of defining 98 per cent of court cases not only as
exceptions to the rule of due process, but also as of no public interest
whatsoever. The traditional ideology of justice can thus survive the
contradiction that the summary courts blatantly ignore it every
day-and that they were set up precisely for that purpose.

The real world of courts (and the police) needs more than “transformation”–it needs abolition since they function at the level of real law and not at the level of the rhetoric of justice. From Doreen McBarnet, Conviction: Law, the State and the Construction of Justice, pages 154-155:

The rhetoric of justice requires incriminating evidence as the
basis for arrest and search; the law allows arrest and search in order
to establish it. Justice requires that no-one need incriminate himself;
the law refuses to control the production of confessions and allows
silence as a factor in proving guilt. justice requires equality; the law
discriminates against the homeless, the jobless, the disreputable.
Justice requires each case be judged on its own facts; the law makes
previous convictions grounds for defining behaviour as an offence
and evidence against the accused. Justice places the burden of proof
on the prosecutor; the law qualifies the standard and method of
proof required and offers the prosecutor opportunities for making a
case which the accused is denied. Justice proclaims the right to trial
by one’s peers; the legal system ensures that 91 per cent of all
defendants plead guilty, and of the rest most are tried without a
jury.

If, then, the process of conviction is easier than the rhetoric of
justice would have us expect-and easier still the lower the status of
the defendant-it is hardly surprising. A wide range of prosecution
evidence can be legally produced and presented, despite the
rhetoric of a system geared overwhelmingly to safeguards for the
accused, precisely because legal structure, legal procedure, legal
rulings, not legal rhetoric, govern the legitimate practice of criminal
justice, and there is quite simply a distinct gap between the
substance and the ideology of the law.

This conclusion has two direct and immediate implications. First
it places the contemporary policy debate over law and order in a new
light. The police demand for more powers, for the removal of the
hamstrings of the right to silence, the limitations on arrest and
search-and indeed the civil liberties camp’s agitated response that
the legal checks of British justice must be upheld-begin to appear
rather odd. Both sides of the debate are framed in terms of the
ideology of civil rights, not in terms of the realities of legal procedure
and case law which, as I hope this analysis has amply shown, have
all too often already given the police and prosecution the very
powers they are demanding. The law does not need reform to
remove hamstrings on the police: they exist largely in the unrealised
rhetoric.

Second, more theoretically, this analysis has implications for the
explanation of law-enforcement and its outcomes. A whole range of
excellent sociological studies has pointed out situational, informal,
non-legal factors in police-citizen encounters and courtroom
interaction to explain who is arrested or convicted, and to explain
why the system so often seems in practice to be weighted against the
accused. Their answer lies essentially in the complex nature of social
interaction and motivation; in the fact that people do not merely
administer the law but act upon and alter it as they do so. This study
offers a supplementary perspective, making the law rather than the
activities of its administrators problematic. The conclusion is quite
different. Given the formal procedures and rules of the law and the
structure of arrest, investigation, plea and trial, one could not–even
if human beings acted entirely as legal automatons–expect the
outcomes to be other than they are. If the practice of criminal justice
does not live up to its rhetoric one should not look only to the
interactions and negotiations of those who put the law into practice
but to the law itself. One should not look just to how the rhetoric of
justice is subverted intentionally or otherwise by policemen bending
the rules, by lawyers negotiating adversariness out of existence, by
out-of-touch judges or biased magistrates: one must also look at how
it is subverted in the law. Police and court officials need not abuse the
law to subvert the principles of justice; they need only use it.
Deviation from the rhetoric of legality and justice is institutionalised
in the law itself.

Mr. Gindin’s implicit contention that the “withering away of the state” is utopian expresses his own middle-class experiences and bias. He probably has not experienced the repressive nature of the police and the court system. He vastly underestimates the importance of that repressive apparatus and implicitly idealizes the current state system.

To what extent, for example, is the modern welfare state not only the provision of needed public services but also oppressive? Mr. Gindin has nothing to say on this score. Yet if we consider how social workers are linked to the police and to the courts, then we can see that the modern welfare state is itself often repressive and needs not just transformation but substantial reconstruction as the repressive apparatus of a hierarchy of managers is abolished and work is democratized. What of faculties of education and schools? Would they not need substantial reconstruction as their repressive aspects are abolished in conjunction with the repressive apparatus of employers? And so forth.

For those oppressed by the police, criminal court systems and various social agencies, there is a need for the abolition of such structures and the “withering away” of such structures as workers and the community finally develop processes that enable them to control their own life process.

Mr. Gindin’s article, then, ultimately serves as a reminder of just how distant “real socialists” (actually, social-democratic reformers) are from the daily experiences of billions of workers and community members.

Mr. Gindin’s “realistic” socialism, then, fails to address either the nature of modern capitalist society or the qualitatively different kind of society which would characterize a socialism without a repressive government apparatus.

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

Professor Jeff Noonan, as contained in a reference to his work in a previous post( The Poverty of Academic Marxism, Part One), claimed that historical materialism must evolve. This seems to imply that his form of historical materialism, under present conditions, is superior to the historical materialism proposed by Marx.

Professor Noonan claims the following (from Thinkings 4Collected Interventions, Readings, Evocations, 2014-2015, page 8:

A glaring example of the dangers of striking occurred in February of 2012, when workers in London, Ontario were taught a brutal object lesson in the reality of global capitalism. Then Canadian Auto Workers on strike against the locomotive maker Electro-motive were given an impossible choice. The company (a subsidiary of Caterpillar) demanded that the union agree to cut their existing wages in half, or face the closure of the plant. Seeing that what was at stake was not just their plant, but the future of the union movement in the Ontario manufacturing sector, these workers heroically sacrificed themselves, went on strike, and watched their livelihood move to Muncie, Indiana. Had they not stood up to the brutish tactics of Electro-motive, every manufacturer in the country would have been encouraged to make the same demands. What boss wouldn’t want to cut her or his workers’ wages in half? While the jobs were lost, the massive public outcry against legalized extortion preserved the possibility of meaningful collective bargaining in other plants, at least for the time being.

What does “meaningful collective bargaining” mean for Professor Noonan? It is difficult to know since he does not explicitly provide an answer, but the following may what he means (page 12):

v) The University will cease collecting union dues from members and forwarding those dues to WUFA (Article 4:01 and 4:02).”

Now, on one level, these changes are not alarming, for they are changes that would occur in the case of a lockout. What is most disconcerting is that they were unexpectedly thrown into the room when it appeared that both sides were making progress by negotiating and not threatening. Both teams bargained past the lockout deadline and had scheduled meetings for the next day. The assumption amongst members– naïve, as it turned out– was that both sides had found common ground and were splitting the differences that get split for the sake of reaching an agreement with which everyone can live.

Meaningful bargaining is where the parties engage in negotiations in order to achieve a common ground “for the sake of reaching an agreement with which everyone can live.”

Now, in typical collective bargaining, any member of a negotiating team knows that all items on the table will not be achieved. There will be items that are considered more important. The relative strength of the parties to the negotiations in the particular conditions will affect what can be realistically be achieved in the short term (and this includes the possible resources used in lockouts and strikes).

But why refer to the idea of an “agreement with which everyone can live?” Does Mr. Noonan mean by that an attitude by workers that, given the balance of class forces, this is the best that can be achieved, but otherwise it is not something that “everyone can live with”–but have to do so for the time being? That is to say, that the collective agreement is something that does not express fairness but rather expresses the weakness of workers collectively until such time as they no longer need to negotiate agreements that entail their subordination to the power of employers (and managers as their representatives)? Do the various management rights clauses that have so far been posted on this blog express “an agreement with which everyone can live?” Or do they express the asymmetrical power relations between unionized workers and the class power of employers?

What would Professor Noonan say to a worker who works under the collective agreement at the university where he works (see Management Rights, Part Five: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario) if that worker did not find not only the particular collective agreement unfair but all collective agreements unfair since they presuppose the subordination of the will of workers to the power of an employer (and his or her representatives)?

There is a world of difference between understanding that a collective agreement may be the best that can be hoped for under existing conditions of class power and the view that a collective agreement is something that people can live with. In the first case, there is a smoldering presence of a feeling of unfairness, which can surface when conditions change. In the second case, there is a feeling of fairness, and workers who breach a collective agreement can legitimately be reprimanded. Professor Noonan’s failure to specify any difference between the two probably expresses his own working conditions, which are undoubtedly superior to most workers who are employees.

Imagine a situation where a group of thugs decide to set up a process of collective bargaining between themselves and people whom they have sexually abused. Representatives of the sexually abused engage in negotiations with representatives of the thugs. Under given circumstances, the thugs have much more power than those who are sexually abused. If they come to an agreement over the extent of sexual abuse (with both parties bargaining in good faith), would professor Noonan call the resulting agreement an agreement “with which everyone can agree with?”

Yes, workers are not sexually abused, but as employees they are used as things for purposes over which they lack control (see The Money Circuit of Capital). Why should anyone who is an employee feel that they can live with such an agreement except for the recognition that they have to do so, given the necessarily unequal power relations between them and the class of employers?

Despite Professor Noonan’s radical rhetoric, his hidden assumption is that working for an employer is not really all that bad. How else could he refer to an agreement “with which everyone can agree with?”

In the movie Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee is fighting against several people, and he runs into a chamber where the walls suddenly close on all sides. He cannot escape, realistically. He sits down and accepts the situation–not because it is fair but, presumably, because he lacks the power to oppose the situation. This is what the collective-bargaining process should express and not such social-reformist rhetoric as accepting a contract “with which everyone can agree.”

Professor Noonan reminds seems to forget–or perhaps he never learned–the lesson of Bob Dylan’s song, Like a Rolling Stone. In that song, Dylan sings the following:

You never turned around to see the frowns
on the jugglers and the clowns
when they all did tricks for you.

Although I can never be sure, the hidden resentment that people feel in the face of those in power is probably well expressed in the expression of a Guatemalan (perhaps a peasant) sitting on a roadside when the military was there. (See at around 2:30, Guatemala–Pete Sears) Guatemalan peasants had to live with the extreme oppression characteristic of Guatemala in the later 1970s and especially in the early 1980s, but they need not “learn to live with it.”

Professor Noonan may argue that he merely needed to qualify his reference to collective agreements “with which everyone can agree,” as I have done above, but since he failed to qualify such an assertion, it can be inferred that Professor Noonan does not really come to grips with the daily oppression and the daily grind that most workers face at his own workplace, let alone in the wider city of Windsor and, indeed, in the province of Ontario, in Canada and in the world.

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.

The West-Virginia Teachers’ Strike and a Socialist Movement

The social-reformist left like to claim that what they are interested in is class struggle from below–the self-organization of the working class that opposes the power of the class of employers. In a podcast, David Camfield’s analysis of the West Virginia teachers strike is an example of such a claim by the social-reformist left (This Is How to Fight!, recorded on March 29, 2018).

There were undoubtedly innovations in the strike that make it different from other strikes. Firstly, the context is different from most other teachers’ strikes. West Virginia teachers do not have a typical collective-bargaining system since West Virginia is a “right-to-work” state, with no legal right to collective bargaining. Secondly, the degree of solidarity among teachers that was shown during the events leading up to the strike and during the strike is much deeper than normal  (such as throughthe Facebook coordination of more than 20,000 . Thirdly, the degree of solidarity between teachers and other school staff was also much deeper than normal. Fourthly, the degree of solidarity displayed by both teachers and other workers in the public sector was much deeper (by, for example, the refusal to end the strike unless all public-sector workers received the same pay raise). Finally, the recognition of the needs of the poorest sections of their students for continued provision of breakfast and lunch programs through the continued provision of food during the strike indicated a consciousness of addressing the needs of a vulnerable section of the community while they were on strike.

Undoubtedly there are other notable features of the strike that make it stand out from the typical strike.

These distinctive features of the strike should, of course, not be downplayed. In the face of a difficult situation (facing the reactionary billionaire Governor Justice, on the one hand, and a lack of collective bargaining rights on the other), the teachers and support staff stood fast and forced through an agreement that goes beyond what they would have achieved if they had engaged in collective bargaining separately and legally.

However, David Camfield, as a social-reformist leftist, idealizes this situation. Firstly, the results of the strike were mixed. The across-the-board five percent increase for all public-sector workers was certainly a win for solidarity at one level, but at another level it indicated uneven wage and salary increases since five percent for those near the top of the wage and salary schedule means a greater absolute gain than those at the bottom. A demand for an across-the-board increase for all public-sector employees, with the total amount distributed controlled by workers democratically, would have been a demand more consistent with a socialist vision. That there is no reference to such a demand in Camfield’s presentation indicates one of the limitations of Camfield’s analysis.

Secondly, the issue of adequate health-care insurance paid by the employer rather than the workers remained unresolved and was shuffled off to a “task force.” This is a typical stalling tactic by management and employers in order to diffuse a situation and often does not resolve an issue for workers, or the solution becomes watered-down and more acceptable to management.

Thirdly, although there may have been some socialists who aimed at the abolition of the power of employers as a class in the movement, there has been, as far as I am aware, no indication of any explicit expression of a rejection of the power of employers as a class by Virginia teachers. The social-reformist left do not do so, and even the radical left often fear doing so out of fear of isolation from the working class.

Mr. Camfield claims that this form of class-struggle from below makes such workers more susceptible to socialist ideas. That may or may not be the case. It would require investigation to determine whether that is true. Camfield does not investigate whether that is true, so his assertion is pure speculation. It may, however, be a convenient ideology, since it may then be used to divert attention from the need to fight against current social-reformist ideology (such as “decent jobs,” “fair wages,” “economic justice”) and other such rhetoric in the here and now. That would require opposing union ideology in its various forms consistently and more assertively.

Mr. Camfield also does not refer to and hence does not take into account the specific situation of teachers in general in relation to other members of the working class nor the specific situation of the teachers in West Virginia (and in some other states). In relation to the first point–the specific nature of teachers in relation to other members of the working class–teachers’ jobs, as Beverly Silver, in her work Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization since 1870, argues (pages 116-117), are not interdependent in their work like autoworkers technically; on the other hand, they are linked to the social division of labour via the disruptive impact of strikes on the routines of workers as parents, which in turn can have an impact on other employers. Furthermore, unlike the auto industry, it is difficult to increase productivity through changes in technology; teaching is still relatively labour-intensive. In addition, the labour of teachers is difficult to export geographically (unlike, for example, jobs in the auto industry); Consequently, teachers have, potentially, a certain kind of economic power–a spatial fix–lacking in other industries (although workers in other industries may have different forms of economic power–a technical fix in the case of auto workers, for instance).

Mr. Camfield also fails to provide any details at all concerning the specific nature of the West Virginia teachers strike. Firstly, the strikers themselves recognized that there was an imbalance between teacher demand and teacher supply: teacher demand exceeded teacher supply. Secondly, the West-Virginia teachers, as Hakan Yilmaz argues (Public Education, the State and the Crisis, 2018), there has been at least a two-pronged attack against the working class since the early 1970s, when economic crises became more prevalent. One prong has been an attack on unions, wages and benefits to shore up profit and the profit rate (the practical measurement for capitalists of how well they are doing in the economy–it is measured variously, but in general it is after-tax profit divided by total invested).

Another prong has been the shift in the tax rate. At the federal level, in the U.S. from 1981 to the end of the 1980s, the tax rate decreased from 70% to 33%. This shift in the tax rate was not that relevant directly for educational financing (since such financing occurs more at the state and local levels), but it provided the overall ideological climate for such shifts at those levels later on. The federal public debt skyrocketed, which provided the justification for federal neoliberal austerity measures (reduction of federal social services, for example).

When the great economic crisis of 2007-2008 arose, there were further attacks on the working class, including public-sector workers. As investment decreased following the crisis, tax revenues were also hit. In West Virginia, during the last quarter of 2017, for instance, state revenue was still 7% below the pre-crisis level; the state funding formula for West Virginia decreased by 11.4% between 2008 and 2018. Simultaneously, the cost of Medicare and Medicaid increased, and the costs of health care for public employees were being increased directly paid out by teachers, among others: “patient costs” increased from “zero in 1988 to over four hundred dollars a month today” (Kate Doyle Griffiths, March 13, 2018: Crossroads and Country Roads: Wildcat West Virginia and the Possibilities of a Working Class Offensive), page 2.

As Yilmaz points out, “lower state revenues and higher state costs have led to significant declines in teachers’ salaries and benefits” (page 22). This has often had implications for teachers salaries. In the case of West Virginia, teacher salaries declined “from $49,999 to $45,701” between 2003 and 2016 (page 23). With rising health costs and absolutely decreasing salaries, the pressure on teachers’ own livelihoods was increasing. Undoubtedly the movement gained momentum and reached the level of solidarity it did in part because of these circumstances These circumstances, although they may aid in developing class consciousness, a rejection of capitalism and the power of employers as a class and for socialism, need not do so. To do so requires sustained criticism of the power of employers as a class, criticisms of justifications of that power (such as “fair wages,” “decent work,” “a fair contract,” and similar clichés, and a vision of an alternative kind of society.

However, I remember Mr. Camfield being the keynote speaker at one of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society’s meetings (the Manitoba Teachers Society is an organization, according to its own website, that “is the collective bargaining and professional development organization for all of Manitoba’s 15,000 public school teachers”). What Mr. Camfield said was hardly radical. This is not surprising given not only the reformist nature of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society but also its conservative nature. When I was attending the French university in Winnipeg (College universitaire de Saint-Boniface) to obtain a bachelor of education degree, the Manitoba Teachers’ Society presented its services to teacher candidates. It provided scenarios to show what teachers should do in various situations. In one scenario, a teacher could have criticized its employers, but the presenter indicated that under no circumstances should teachers do so.

All in all, Mr. Camfield’s podcast presentation is an example of idealizing the struggle of workers and claiming that such struggles are somehow socialist. He nowhere indicates the need for socialists to make explicit and to challenge those in the labour movement in general and the union movement in particular concerning their persistent justification of the power of employers as a class.

Although such struggles undoubtedly need to be supported, they are insufficient. Such struggles need to become more explicitly aimed at ending the power of employers as a class. Struggles against a particular employer, in other words, need to be generalized and become indeed a class struggle explicitly. Such struggles need to become radicalized through the goal of ending of the power of employers as a class being made explicit and using that goal in the present to organize for the goal of overthrowing that power.

Such a goal requires that socialists–including academics–risk being oppressed in various ways by the diverse powers of the class of employers and their representatives inside and outside the state. It demands that socialists be thoroughly critical, challenging the power of employers any way they can–including their ideology–and that includes challenging the ideology of union representatives. What kind of a socialist is that who does not do that but demands that workers risk their lives? To refer to class struggle from below without risk is hypocritical because it demands that workers risk their lives–but not socialists.

Or are there not objective and subjective conditions required for challenging the power of employers as a class?

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?