Management Rights and the Crisis in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada: Limitations of the Reformist Left, Part Two

In an earlier post, I questioned the Socialist Project’s characterization of the problem that workers in Oshawa face (Management Rights and the Crisis in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada: Limitations of the Reformist Left, Part One).   I also, implicitly, questioned their proposed solutions.  In this post, I will question their proposed solutions explicitly.

The Committee then proposes some things to be done to resolve the problem:

What’s needed are efforts to provide challenging education programs about the potential for workers to demand that the facilities in which they work produce environmentally responsible products, publicly owned, and not dependent on the whims of the fickle and brutally competitive consumer private vehicle market. Without a leadership that points the way forward and questions the hyper-competitive private marketplace workers remain dependent on corporate employers and look to them to provide for their future.

The demand for educational programs ought to shift workers’ consciousness to production that: 1. changes what is produced (environmentally unfriendly private vehicles vs. environmentally friendly vehicles); 2. and for what purpose (competitive and, implicitly, for profit rather than for need).

This demand is unlikely to have much immediate impact at Oshawa. To have an impact it would have been necessary to develop educational programs that call into question various aspects of the capitalist economy, both at the micro level of the plant and at the macro level of the structure of production and exchange. Has such an educational program been developed? Judging from my own experience in an educational program developed by Herman Rosenfeld, Jordan House and me and presented mainly to airport workers at Toronto Pearson airport, such an educational program has had severe limitations placed on it.

Firstly, we did not have many opportunities to provide educational course for such workers. In fact, after we presented three times, we did not present again for around two years.

Secondly, of those three times, only once did we present a critical macro approach, with three sections on the capitalist class, the working class and the capitalist state. The other two times, these sections were eliminated. Herman and Jordan did present to the airport afterwards–probably without the critical macro aspect.

Thus, to have an impact, there would have had to exist many educational opportunities for the workers, and the content of the courses would have had to include a critical approach at both the micro and macro level. Since there has not been such opportunities, a call for such a modified educational program at this stage is wishful thinking. It is highly unlikely to occur.

This leads into the last part of the article. The Committee demands the following:

Political Struggle, Community Control

The Socialist Project supports serious efforts by the union and the membership to organize collective actions that challenge GM’s decision and calls for new products to be allocated to Oshawa.

We also call for the union to build a movement inside Local 222, the surrounding community and across the union movement and the Canadian working class, to:

  • Pressure governments to ensure the survival of the productive facilities in Oshawa by taking ownership, after a community seizure of the plant. Productive facilities, like what remains of GM Oshawa were paid for by the community need to be owned and further developed by the community. The federal government didn’t hesitate to take ownership of the Trans Mountain pipeline project, and there is an historical precedent for the conversion of auto production during World War II to needed war materials.

  • Along with the workers and their surrounding communities, come up with a plan to produce needed mass transit equipment and other environmentally and socially necessary products. It would require and could lead to new capacities for research, development, production and distribution, that could create jobs, help stem the tide of climate change and foster the growth of a challenge to neoliberal capitalism.

  • Investment can be provided by a publicly owned municipal, provincial or federal development bank. More could be provided by taxing the assets of banks or other private investment institutions. •

It is of course necessary to try to address the immediate decision of GM to close the plant. A call for community seizure of the plant may be immediately needed to prevent GM from carrying out its plans. However, this is mixed up with the call for the federal government to take over ownership. Why would there not be a call for ownership to be located at the community level after the seizure? Why this shift to ownership by the federal government? Would it not be more democratic if the community owned the plant and workers made decisions within a framework provided by the community? Would not a community board of directors, with representatives from various community organizations being the ultimate owner, be more democratic than ownership by the federal government? (Tony Smith, in his book Globalisation: A Systematic Marxian Account) argues for such community ownership and organization, with workers having the right of use of the facilities owned by the community.)

The federal government may be needed to prevent GM from taking away the physical assets and accounts of the plant; it may also be needed in various ways to support the community. However, since the federal government is unlikely to be democratic in structure if it owned the plant. Workers would still be treated as things since the federal government would be the employer. Undoubtedly, given the macro environment of a capitalist economy dominated by employers, community organization would also tend in that direction. However, there would be less of tendency in that direction than would be the case if the federal government owned the plant.

In relation to the second point–a plan for democratically producing environmentally-friendly output, the emphasis seems to be more on the kind of output rather than the kinds of relations between human beings at work. Admittedly, creating environmentally-friendly vehicles does express a positive relation between individuals, but this relation would be between the set of workers producing the environmentally-friendly objects and other workers and institutions who buy the vehicles.

What should have been included is a characterization of the preferred internal relations between workers–democratic–and how such a form could at least have been begun (although hardly achieved since the Oshawa plant would exist in a sea of capitalist relations of production and exchange).

The two bulleted points, with the suggested modifications, will however very unlikely be realized; GM will in all likelihood be closed down, with the Oshawa workers and community experiencing the immediate brunt of the shut down. What would have been required was persistent preparation of both the community and the workers (of course, not exclusionary since Oshawa workers can also be inhabitants of Oshawa) for a democratic takeover of the plant through a criticism of the employer-employee relation as such. Given the lack of such criticism, workers are likely unprepared ideologically and psychologically  (in terms of their attitude towards what needs to be done and what goals to pursue) for a democratic break with the structure of capitalist production and exchange.

An example of the inadequate preparation of workers: I heard Chris Buckley, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, give a speech at a rally in support of striking airport workers in 2017. He used several times the term “decent job” and “decent work”–by which he meant a job subject to a collective agreement. The social-reformist and radical left did not question him anymore than they questioned Tracy McMaster, president of Greater Toronto Area Council, to which are affiliated 35 local unions of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU)), who also referred to “decent work” and “fair wages.”  They are afraid to alienate union reps and heads, but it is difficult to see how such alienation can be prevented given the acceptance of the power of employers as a class by such reps and heads of unions

Coming to the final point of the article is also wishful thinking. To create a developmental bank would require a fighting organization–a set of unions that are designed to engage in systematic attacks at the municipal, provincial and federal levels against the power of employers as a class and not the rhetorical flashes of engaging in struggles (see Chris Buckley’s letter to Premier Doug Ford, Letter From OFL President Chris Buckley to Premier Doug Ford Regarding GM Oshawa). The recent indication by Jerry Dias, national president of Unifor, and Warren (Smokey) Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), that they are going to fight Ford’s agenda, will unlikely be sufficient to change the situation in Oshawa   (OPSEU and Unifor Join Forces Against Doug Ford); both accept the premise that collective agreements express a relation of fairness or justice. Expanding alliances across the public and private sector may or may not constitute structural change within unions. If such alliances are merely extensions of the existing union structures, it is unlikely to be an effective fighting force since such structures are not designed to question the legitimacy of the power of employers as a class; they assume the legitimacy of the power of employers as a class and seek only to limit such power–a necessary part of working-class struggle, but hardly sufficient. To become fighting organizations (with purposes that go beyond the limits of the power of employers as a class) and not merely defensive organizations, they need to question the legitimacy of collective agreements while still engaging in collective bargaining as a necessary evil.

We can see this on the OPSEU website for example. The title of one article is  Ford in bed with business, won’t save good GM jobs ; as noted in the first part of the post (see the link to that post above), the logic of this is that before GM announced its decision to close the plant, GM jobs were “good jobs,” but after the announcement, what were they? Bad jobs? The right of employers to close down may be fought on a particular basis, but generally employers as a class have the right to close businesses based on business criteria (generally, profitability in the private sector and public efficiency and political expediency in the public sector). This applies to jobs such as the jobs at GM. To call any job controlled by employers as good, therefore, is contradictory; jobs apparently are both good (when they are not eliminated) and bad (if they can be eliminated).

The article on the OPSEU website has Warren (“Smokey”) Thomas specifically claiming the following: ““At least Ontario has strong unions who stand united to fight for good jobs, even if the premier won’t.” In addition to calling such jobs good (and, by implication bad when they can be eliminated)–in addition to this contradiction–Smokey’s argument ignores how workers at Oshawa are used as means for the benefit of obtaining more and more money by GM (see the  The Money Circuit of Capital, which calls into question any characterization of working for employers as good or decent since workers are necessarily things or means for ends not defined by them but by a class of employers).

We can get an idea of Jerry Dias’ views on “good jobs” from the following article on the Unifor website, entitled   Unifor to hold national ‘Good Jobs Summit’.  Mr. Dias states the following:

“We need elected officials to help chart a path towards a good jobs future,” Dias wrote. “We need to start raising expectations that we can win jobs that pay fair wages, are safe and stable. And we want all workers in Canada to join in.”

Working for an employer, who generally has the legal right to close a factory, a department and so forth without democratic control by those effected by the decision, is somehow still a “good job.” It somehow results in fair wages (whereas wages, in the private sector, result from previous surpluses produced by workers and therefore are used to further exploit workers. See my post Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part Two , criticizing David Bush’s one-sided analysis of capitalist relations of production and exchange).

The idea that jobs within a capitalist society are somehow safe also is questionable, as a number of posts have tried to make clear (Confessions of a Union Representative Concerning the Real Power of EmployersUnions and Safety on Jobs Controlled by EmployersGetting Away with Murder and Bodily Assault: Employers and the Law).

As for stable jobs: Where does Mr. Dias question management rights clauses in collective agreements, which implicitly or explicitly express the right of employers to reduce the number of positions or close factories or departments? That unions can and have limited such a right is certainly preferable to letting management have carte blanche, but limitations on that right hardly involve stability–as the Oshawa workers have experienced first hand. In any case, in a system characterized by capitalist accumulation, where a minority make decisions about what to invest, where to invest, when to invest and so forth, stability is possible for awhile but subject to constant disruption as investors seek new profits and new means to accumulation across the globe. Stability was possible after the Second World War, for instance, for some time because of the substantial destruction of means of production during the Second World War, the opening up of new areas for investment, the expansion of demand for workers and relative increases in wages. Given that a global war is hardly in the workers’ best interests, it is likely that more and more workers will be subject to increasingly precarious jobs until a global slump much wider and deeper than the one in 2007-2008 reduces the value of many means of production, leading to a vast upsurge in unemployment–in either case hardly a stable future.

So, the alliance of a public-sector union and a private-sector union is unlikely to provide the basis for the realization of the third point in the Socialist Project’s Steering Committee: neither the emergence of a development bank at the municipal, provincial or federal level, nor taxing the banks and other investment institutions is likely to be realized in the near future. (It is to be wondered why taxing is limited only to investment institutions and excludes taxing corporations involved in production. But that only in passing.)

The article fails to address the issue of preparing workers to develop a working-class attitude that would be conducive to engage in action that reflects an understanding of their class interests. It may or may not be too late to engage the workers at the Oshawa plant with such an approach, but such an approach should have been started long ago in order to address democratically the power of this particular employer to exert its class right to determine what to do with the means of production.

As it stands, there will probably be knee-jerk reactions to an immediate crisis–which is a typical response of an approach that fails to take into account the class nature of working for an employer but rather assumes that there are such things, within the confines of the employer-employee relation, as “good or decent jobs,” “fair wages,” “a fair contract,” “economic justice” (given collective agreements), “fairness,” “Fair Labour Laws Make Work Safe” and other such half-truths and platitudes. Perhaps the workers in Oshawa will learn the hard way this lesson, but it is more likely to do so if a critical working-class organization exists which questions such half-truths and platitudes and enables workers to understand their own experiences in a wider social context.