Employers as Dictators, Part One

I find it fascinating how the social-democratic or reformist left fall all over themselves, insisting that they are fighting for fairness and justice–and yet neglect the persistent injustice of having to work for an employer. (The same could be said of many who consider themselves radicals these days).

Elizabeth Anderson, in her book Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It) questions the assumption of the social-democratic or reformist left by pointing out how the power of employers resembles the power of communist dictators (pages 37-39):

Communist Dictatorships in Our Midst

Imagine a government that assigns almost everyone a superior whom they must obey. Although superiors give most inferiors a routine to follow, there is no rule of law. Orders may be arbitrary and can change at any time, without prior notice or opportunity to appeal. Superiors are unaccountable to those they order
around. They are neither elected nor removable by their inferiors. Inferiors have no right to complain in court about how they are being treated, except in a few narrowly defined cases. They also have no right to be consulted about the orders they are given.

There are multiple ranks in the society ruled by this government. The content of the orders people receive varies, depending on their rank. Higher- ranked individuals may be granted considerable freedom in deciding how to carry out their orders, and may issue some orders to some inferiors. The most highly ranked individual takes no orders but issues many. The lowest-ranked may have their bodily movements and speech minutely regulated for most of the day.

This government does not recognize a personal or private sphere of autonomy free from sanction. It may prescribe a dress code and forbid certain hairstyles. Everyone lives under surveillance, to ensure that they are complying with orders. Superiors may snoop into inferiors’ e- mail and record their phone conversations.
Suspicionless searches of their bodies and personal effects may be routine. They can be ordered to submit to medical testing. The government may dictate the language spoken and forbid communication in any other language. It may forbid certain topics of discussion. People can be sanctioned for their consensual sexual activity or for their choice of spouse or life partner. They can be sanctioned for their political activity and required to engage in political activity they do not agree with.

The economic system of the society run by this government is communist. The government owns all the nonlabor means of production in the society it governs. It organizes production by means of central planning. The form of the government is a dictatorship. In some cases, the dictator is appointed by an oligarchy. In other cases, the dictator is self- appointed.

Although the control that this government exercises over its members is pervasive, its sanctioning powers are limited. It cannot execute or imprison anyone for violating orders. It can demote people to lower ranks. The most common sanction is exile. Individuals are also free to emigrate, although if they do, there is usually no going back. Exile or emigration can have severe collateral consequences. The vast majority have no realistic option but to try to immigrate to another communist dictatorship, although there are many to choose from. A few manage to escape into anarchic hinterlands, or set up their own dictatorships.

This government mostly secures compliance with carrots. Because it controls all the income in the society, it pays more to people who follow orders particularly well and promotes them to higher rank. Because it controls communication, it also has a propaganda apparatus that often persuades many to support
the regime. This need not amount to brainwashing. In many cases, people willingly support the regime and comply with its orders because they identify with and profit from it. Others support the regime because, although they are subordinate to some superior, they get to exercise dominion over inferiors. It
should not be surprising that support for the regime for these reasons tends to increase, the more highly ranked a person is.

Would people subject to such a government be free? I expect that most people in the United States would think not. Yet most work under just such a government: it is the modern workplace, as it exists for most establishments in the United States. The dictator is the chief executive officer (CEO), superiors are managers, subordinates are workers. The oligarchy that appoints the CEO exists for publicly owned corporations: it is the board of directors. The punishment of exile is being fired. The economic system of the modern workplace is communist, because the government— that is, the establishment— owns all the assets,1 and the top of the establishment hierarchy designs the production plan, which subordinates execute. There are no
internal markets in the modern workplace. Indeed, the boundary of the firm is defined as the point at which markets end and authoritarian centralized planning and direction begin.

Most workers in the United States are governed by communist dictatorships in their work lives.


This parallel of the power of communist (or fascist) dictators and the power of employers to dictate to workers is simply neglected by social-democratic reformers. They ignore the issue altogether, minimize it or, when some try to bring up the issue, engage in insults. Their own conception of what is fair is so limited that they have little to say about the daily experiences of billions of workers worldwide.

They remind me of something which Karl Marx wrote long ago. From Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume 1: The Process of Production of Capital (page 91):

Perseus wore a magic cap so that the monsters he hunted down might not see him. We draw the magic cap down over our own eyes and ears so as to deny that there are any monsters.

The social-democratic left seek to hide the reality of our own lives from us–lives characterized by dictatorship in various ways (with some freedoms, to be sure, such as limited freedom of speech–depending on where you are located on this planet and your status within that locality).

Let us listen to the social-democratic left for a moment as they characterize modern social relations and “draw the magic cap down over our eyes so as to deny that there are any monsters”. As I wrote in another post:

As already mentioned, the left does not generally criticize management rights as such. Quite to the contrary. It uses rhetoric and euphemisms, such as “decent work,” “fair wages,” (Tracy McMaster), “a fair contract” (Wayne Dealy). It fails to criticize the pairing of the Fight for $15 with the concept of “fairness,” implying that fairness can be achieved within the employer-employee relation. It fails to criticize the rhetoric of “Fair Labour Laws Save Lives.” It fails to criticize the rhetoric of “economic justice” (John Cartwright).

At the Toronto Pearson airport (the largest in Canada, with between 40,000 and 50,000 employees), at the May Day rally, there was a banner being carried by some with the message: ‘Airport Workers Fighting for Decent Work.’ The banner also had the following: ‘$15/Fairness YYZ’ (YYZ is the airport code for Toronto Pearson International airport). If working for an employer is essentially working for a dictator, then the demand for decent work and fairness under such conditions is illogical. It is certainly necessary to fight for better working conditions and increases in wages and salaries, but better working conditions and an increased salary do not change the fundamentally dictatorial nature of employer power. To think otherwise–and the slogans express such thought–is to engage in delusions–which is hardly what the labour movement requires.

Organizations need to arise that express openly the reality of our lives so that we can begin to address the problems associated with that reality.

The Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC): One Step Forward and Two Steps Backward?

I thought it appropriate, on May 1, the International Workers’ Day, to refer to something that disturbed me on Facebook yesterday–a post by the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC), which included some remarks (and a video) by Howard Eng.
Howard Eng is the CEO of the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, the operator and manager of Toronto Pearson International Airport, the largest airport in Canada, with between 40,000 and 50,000 workers.

The step forward is the effort and success by some union members at the airport in creating a workers’ organization that not only cuts across union jurisdictions–the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council–but also makes efforts to create solidarity among airport workers across countries.

The two steps backward is the obvious reliance on representatives of employers in achieving goals of the TAWC. It is not that any workers’ organization should not make compromises; it is how such compromises are dealt with internally within the union membership which determines whether such compromise is worthwhile.

Compromise with management needs to be explained as a tactical necessity for the time being because of the superior forces of management at the time–and not justified in somehow expressing common interests. Workers, ultimately, do not have common interests with employers (unless it is argued that it is in the interests of workers to be treated as things for purposes which they themselves do not define. See https://theabolitionary.ca/the-money-circuit-of-capital/ for an explanation of how workers are necessarily treated as things by employers, whether in the private or public sector.)

A video featuring a short speech by him was posted, without comment, on the Facebook page for the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC). There was also a picture of Mr. Eng and a woman (presumably a union rep) in front of a YYZ solidarity banner (YYZ is the city airport code for Toronto Pearson International Airport).

On the Facebook page, it is stated (and Mr. Eng is quoted. See https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=tawc%3A%20toronto%20airport%20workers’%20council&epa=SEARCH_BOX ):

The GTAA and the TAWC have been working to collect data on the makeup of our workforce, on best practices used by other airport when dealing with labour issues, and on safety initiatives. He was glad he “has the support of the unions, working collaboratively together to move forward, not just for our airport but for everyone that works here.”

Howard didn’t shy away from speaking about the difficult times we have had over the years and the challenges that have come. He asked for patience and to keep bringing forward our issues so that we can do our best to come up with solutions to address them.

Howard finished by stating: “change takes time. Let’s work together to make this a better place to work for the 50,000 that work here.”

This statement by Mr. Eng is typical employer rhetoric: workers and management are, ultimately, one big family, and need to cooperate to achieve a common goal. There is no comment by union representatives on the Facebook page to counter this rhetoric.

I did make some comments concerning this.

My first comment:

Did any of the workshops aim to counter the ideology expressed by this representative of employers? Or was there silence over the issue?

There was one reply:

Alex Ceric Change does not take time. I’s a very simple decision to improve the live of the workers. And when that decision is made the change is instantaneous. What takes time is for them do drop off a cookie crumb here and a cookie crumb there until it amounts to one single improvement.

I just wrote a reply:

This is pure rhetoric. The bottom line is profit at the airport, is it not? Safety comes second to that bottom line. Or does it not?

Besides, it is not just a question of change but what kind of change but also who makes the decision to change and how that decision is made.

Mr. Eng has power to make change, within limits. Who gave him that power? Why does he have it? Does his possession of power imply that a majority of workers have less power?

And on a technical note: change always takes time. No change is “instantaneous.” Please explain how any change is instantaneous.

Finally, the issue of Mr. Eng’s rhetoric that implies that management and workers have ultimately the same interest. What is TAWC’s position on such rhetoric? What is it doing to counteract such rhetoric, if anything?

My second comment:

I wonder how it is possible to address the problem of health and safety at a workplace when those who actually do the work are treated as things at work. To address health and safety requires democratic control over the workplace–for regular workers to be the “decision makers,” including determining who are the decision makers.

To refer to “opportunity to speak with the decision makers” sounds very anti-democratic, does it not? Who is the majority at the airport? The workers or the decision makers? If the decision makers are a minority and are not elected–would we not call that a dictatorship at the political level? And yet there is utter silence about the issue when it comes to the economic level.

Why is that?

No one has responded.

I have little doubt that many union reps at the airport, if they read this, will consider the writer to be a “condescending prick” (as CUPE local 3902 rep Wayne Dealy once called me). (CUPE is the Canadian Union of Public Employees). I would prefer to be called that and bring up issues which they hide rather than not be called that and remain silent over such issues. We workers deserve far more than the rhetoric of Howard Eng.

Do we workers not deserve more than such rhetoric?