Unions and the Coronavirus Pandemic: A Critique of a Social-Democratic View, Part One

Professor Tuft (geography professor, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada), in an article published on the Socialist Project’s website (Covid-19 and ‘Actually Existing’ Unions), argues that unions will be in crisis as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Unions exist financially because of union dues, and with the increased level of unemployment among unionized workers, unions have experienced substantial reductions in the flow of union dues, at least here in Canada. As a consequence, they have begun to lay off union staff.

I will address Professor Tuft’s solution to this problem in a follow-up post, but in this post I will address his reference Sam Gindin’s call for a restructuring of unions. Mr. Gindin was the former research director of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union

Before looking at Professor Tuft’s analysis and recommendations, let us pause to look at Professor Tuft’s reference to Mr. Gindin’s call for a renewed union movement (The Coronavirus and the Crisis This Time).  The union movement, Mr. Gindin argues:

The failure of unions over the past few decades both in organizing and in addressing their members’ needs is inseparable from their stubborn commitment to a fragmented, defensive unionism within society as it currently exists, as opposed to a class-struggle trade unionism based on broader solidarities and more ambitiously radical visions. This calls for not just ‘better’ unions, but for different and more politicized unions.

The view that unions need to develop “broader solidarities” and “more radical visions” certainly forms an essential element of the renewal of organized labour’s contribution to a new socialist movement. However, I have indicated before that Mr. Gindin seems opposed to questioning the limitations of present unions in relation to the limitations of collective bargaining and collective agreements (see The Contradictions of Social Democracy: Mr. Gindin’s Musings on the Closure of GM’s Oshawa Plant). Broader solidarities can arise without becoming radical; an example of that is the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC), an organization that cuts across unions at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. Such an organization, of course, should be welcomed since it does have the potentiality to create common bonds among workers who belong to different unions. However, there is no basis for assuming that such common bonds will generate a more radical vision (see The Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC): One Step Forward and Two Steps Backward?).

Mr. Gindin also asserts the following:

Andrew Murray, chief of staff at the British/Irish union UNITE has noted the difference between a left that is ‘focused’ on the working class and one that is ‘rooted’ in it. The greatest weakness of the socialist left is its limited embeddedness in unions and working-class communities. Only if the left can overcome this gap – which is a cultural gap as much as it is a political one – is there any possibility of witnessing the development of a coherent, confident, and independently defiant working class with the capacity and capacity-inspired vision to fundamentally challenge capitalism.

There is undoubtedly much to be said of such an analysis. Radicals who cannot find a way to address the concerns, interests and needs of regular working people will stand on the sidelines and have little impact on the working class. However, Mr. Gindin fails to see the need to do the opposite–to stand with one foot outside of working-class communities, who for so long have been shaped by the concerns, interests and needs of the class of employers. Being too close to working-class communities and working-class organizations (like unions) can easily limit the development of the capacities of workers to develop a radical vision that contributes to the creation of an effective movement against the class of employers. Mr. Gindin himself, as I have argued elsewhere (see The Socialist Project’s Critique of Doug Ford’s Attack on Local Democracy Falls Short), has been too close to the union movement, failing to engage in its criticism when it is warranted. We need to develop an environment in the labour and union movements where discussion of important issues–such as whether working for an employer can ever really be characterized as “decent” or whether any wage or contract can ever really be considered “fair”–can emerge without heaping abuse on those who raise such issues.

Mr. Gindin’s reference to “inward development” following on the coronavirus–focusing on organization at the local and national level rather than at the international level–may or may not turn out to be radical (see his article Inoculating Against Globalization: Coronavirus and the Search for Alternatives). Those who look only to international developments to resolve our problems without connecting them to organization and action at the level of the city, the region and the nation will likely vastly underestimate the difficulties that lie ahead. The basis for a powerful international working-class movement must have deep roots in the working class at the local level. Indeed, the local level itself is relative and, unless artificially separated off from the wider world and context, must lead to that wider world and context if we are to come to grips with that local level theoretically and practically. From John Dewey (2004), Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education,  pages 229-230):

… local or home geography is the natural starting point in the reconstructive development of the natural environment, it is an intellectual starting point for moving out into the unknown, not an end in itself. When not treated as a basis for getting at the large world beyond, the study of the home geography becomes as deadly as do object lessons which simply summarize the properties of familiar objects. The reason is the same. The imagination is not fed, but is held down to
recapitulating, cataloguing, and refining what is already known. But when the familiar fences that mark the limits of the village proprietors are signs that introduce an understanding of the boundaries of great nations, even fences are lighted with meaning. Sunlight, air, running water, inequality of earth’s surface, varied industries, civil officers and their duties–all these things are found in the local environment. Treated as if their meaning began and ended in those confines, they are curious facts to be laboriously learned. As instruments for extending the limits of experience, bringing within its scope peoples and things otherwise strange and unknown, they are transfigured by the use to which they are put. Sunlight, wind, stream, commerce, political relations come from afar and lead the thoughts afar. To follow their course is to enlarge the mind not by stuffing it with additional information, but by remaking the meaning of what was previously a matter of course.

Starting at the local level does not end there but gains in meaning as the conditions for the existence of that local level become more evident, just as the larger picture gains in depth by being routed in diverse ways to our immediate lives (page 143):

Nor are the activities in which a person engages, whether intelligently or not, exclusive properties of himself; they are something in which he engages and partakes. Other things, the independent changes of other things and persons, cooperate and hinder. The individual’s act may be initial in a course of events, but the outcome depends upon the interaction of his response with energies supplied by other agencies.

However, that means that taboo issues that unions and the so-called progressive left either ignore or actively suppress need to see the light of day–such as just how legitimate any person or organization can claim that they represent “fairness” in the context of an economic and political system dominated by a class of employers.

To make good on the simultaneous focusing on the local and the global, it is necessary to begin to develop class analysis at the local level such as the local, regional and national class structure as well as local conditions of exploitation (rate of exploitation) and class oppression. Class organization also involves class analysis.  Let us hope that Mr. Gindin (and others) start this important analysis. Otherwise, reference to the local is just rhetoric.

Professor Tuft’s brief reference to Mr. Gindin’s call for a radical restructuring of unions, then, is far from adequate. By merely referring Mr. Gindin’s call for a radical restructuring of unions without analyzing the adequacy of such a call, Professor Tuft skirts the issue of the nature of such radical reconstruction. By doing so, Professor Tuft can then proceed to focus on what is typical of his approach: reform of unions and the nature of such reformed unions rather than radically reconstructed unions and the nature of such radically reconstructed unions. Unfortunately, then, Professor Tuft’s call for reformed unions already has limitations.

A further post will shift to investigating Professor Tuft’s analysis of the probable situation of unions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic here in Canada as well as his proposed solution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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