Do Collective Agreements Convert Working for an Employer into Decent Work?

Tracy McMaster is a union steward for Local 561 of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU); she was also vice-president of the local union at one point. However, she prides herself most on her activity of organizing part-time college workers (she works at a college as a library technician). . On March 25, 2019, in a short video (Stewards Assembly 2019), she refers to the need to organize part-time college workers (where she works). She also refers to “a full-time decent unionized job.” This implies that as long as it is full-time and unionized, the job is decent.

Of course, organizing part-time workers so that they obtain increased wages or salary and better benefits (or receive benefits in the first place since many part-time workers do not receive benefits at all) is something to be praised. However, the standard of evaluation for what constitutes a decent job is whether there is a collective agreement that protects a certain level of wages and working conditions.

Such a standard is never questioned. Ms. McMaster never questions that standard throughout the video. Indeed, right after the quoted reference “full-time decent unionized jobs,” she ends with the rhetorical question: Right? Exactly. She believes that a full-time, unionized jobs are by definition decent. To question such a view does not form part of her union activity.

She argues that part-time workers were working under “unjust, awful condition…takes away the dignity of everybody’s job.” Since employers (presumably, or perhaps also students and others–she leaves it unspecified what she means by “people treating others with disrespect”) treat part-time workers with little respect, then full-time unionized workers find that others do not treat them with respect.

She points out that she received solidarity from both the local union presidents in 24 different colleges as well as various labour councils throughout Ontario and especially the labour council in Toronto.

She then claims that it was “an amazing, amazing accomplishment” that the part-time workers “just last week have their first collective agreement.” She is “so proud” that she “was involved in this project.”

Of course, she should feel that she, along with others, has accomplished something. The question is: Is it enough? She herself claims that the job of the labour movement is to find workers who need a union and to organize them. The standard or definition of what constitutes decent work is, then: organized workers who belong to a union.

When I questioned this definition when Ms. McMaster called for solidarity for striking brewery workers here in Toronto because all the striking workers wanted were “decent jobs” and “fair wages,” , the “labour movement” reacted to my questioning with hostility (For example, Wayne Dealy, executive director for Local 3902 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), called me a “condescending prick.”)

Let us take a look at the collective agreement–“an amazing, amazing accomplishment” according to Tracy McMaster.

The memorandum of agreement contains typical clauses in a collective agreement: union representation, rights of union representatives, within limits, to take time off for union business (with compensation in some cases); work hours and scheduling, wages, rate of increase of wages and when that will take affect, period of paying the wages, shift premium, reimbursement of tuition and maintenance of salary if time off is required for courses approved by the employer, kilometrage allowance, developmental leave for furthering academic or technical skills that will enhance their work for the College, holidays, vacations, personal leave without pay, bereavement leave, jury/witness duty, citizenship leave, pregnancy leave, parental leave, health and safety (provision of clothing, work stations, safety devices, environmental conditions, seniority and its loss, layoff and recall, waiver of rights/severance, job postings/promotions, excluded positions, complaints/grievances, duration (until January 31, 2021).

This set of clauses is certainly likely better than wages and working conditions for part-time workers in many industries. As a consequence, as I have indicated in various posts, unions are much more preferable than non-unionized settings for many workers (although wages and working conditions for other industries should also be compared to gain a more accurate picture of workers’ situations in various non-unionized and unionized settings. Fear of unionization by some employers may motivate them to enhance wages and working conditions in non-unionized industries.)

Granted that, should we still not ask whether such jobs are decent?

How does the above change the general power of employers to treat workers as things that do not participate in the formulation of the goals of the organization to which they belong? Thus, the management rights clause states, in “Memorandum of Settlement:
The College Employer Council for the College of Applied Arts and Technology and Ontario Public Service Employees Union on behalf of the College Support Staff Part-Time”:

5 MANAGEMENT FUNCTIONS

Union Acknowledgements

The Union acknowledges that it is the exclusive function of the Colleges to:
•maintain order, discipline and efficiency;
•hire, discharge, transfer, classify, assign, appoint, promote, demote, lay off, recall and suspend or otherwise discipline employees subject to the right to lodge a grievance as provided for in this Agreement;
•generally to manage the College and without restricting the generality of the foregoing, the right to plan, direct and control operations, facilities, programs, courses, systems and procedures, direct its personnel, determine complement, organization, methods and the number, location and positions required from time to time, the number and location of campuses and facilities, services to be performed, the scheduling of assignments and work, the extension, limitation, curtailment or cessation of operations and all other rights and responsibilities not specifically modified elsewhere in this Agreement.

The Colleges agree that these functions will be exercised in a manner consistent with the provisions of this Agreement.

Ms. McMaster does not even bother to explore whether her characterization of inclusion of such part-time workers under the rule of managerial power–despite the existence of a collective agreement–actually expresses something decent. She ignores completely the management-rights clause and idealizes the collective agreement. This is typical of the social-democratic, reformist left.

Despite Ms. McMaster’s rhetoric to the contrary, the collective agreement cannot be characterized as amazing–unless you have a low standard of what amazing means. Part-time workers now have some protection from arbitrary treatment by employers (subject to a grievance process) and some control over their working lives. However, the collective agreement only limits management rights–like all collective agreements. It does not prevent workers at the various colleges from being used, day after day, for purposes over which they have no control (see The Money Circuit of Capital). To call this “dignity” is rhetoric. It is undignified and humiliating. All workers deserve to control their lives collectively–and that does not mean by limiting such control via management rights.

There is, of course, little point in trying to convince Ms. McMaster and other trade unionists of their lack of critical distance from collective agreements and collective bargaining. They wholeheartedly identify with the process and consider any questioning of such a process and its results to be tantamount to insanity.

It is better to practice the politics of exposure–showing the limitations of their own point of view and the limitations of what their own standards of evaluation for justice and fairness (in the video, Ms. McMaster wears a t-shirt with the inscription “We Stand For Fairness!”). Behind her, there is a poster with what appears to be the inscription “The Future Needs Good Jobs.”

The future certainly does not good jobs–but jobs controlled by workers and their community–without employers.

The future of good jobs for the social-democratic left, however, is just more of the same–collective agreements and the daily grind of working under the dictatorship of employers, limiting their power but not struggling to abolish it.

What if a worker works in a unionized setting but does not find that the work reflects being a decent job? For unionists, the worker should try to change working conditions through the next round of bargaining. However, if the worker finds working for any employer to be objectionable, unionists having nothing to say–except “Suck it up.” Or, alternatively, they will express the rhetoric of “decent work” and so forth and ignore the reality of managerial power and how degrading it is for a majority of workers to be dictated by a minority of representatives of employers.

Ms. McMaster, like her social-democratic colleagues, have a lot to answer for when they idealize collective agreements. They ultimately justify the dictatorship of employers over workers despite their rhetoric to the contrary.

It is, of course, ultimately up to workers themselves whether they wish to organize for purposes of remaining within the limits of the power of the class of employers or whether they wish to organize for going beyond that power. The attempt to go beyond that power is both much more difficult and much more risky. On the other hand, given the emergence of right-wing movements and political parties, it is also risky organizing only to limit the power of employers.

To sum up: Evidently, it it has been argued that the answer to the question whether collective agreements convert working for employers into decent work depends on the level of your standard for deciding what decent work is. The level of many unionists is the collective agreement itself. I have argued, in this and other posts, that level is wholly inadequate. Workers deserve a much higher standard, but to achieve such a standard requires going beyond limitations to employer power and to the power of their representatives via management; it requires questioning any agreement between employers and workers as embodying decent work.

We deserve much better than just collective agreements. We deserve to control our own lives collectively.

Social Democracy or Social Reformism and Trade Unionism: Their Social Limitations and Methodology, Part Two

In my last post, I referred to the self-righteous attitude of many of the social-democratic left, who consider anyone who tries to broaden the discussion to include wider considerations to be “delusional.” Their methodology, I argued, can be considered mechanistic since they try to isolate incidents from the wider social context and treat them as independent of those wider contexts. In fact, they revel in such isolation, taking pride in their narrow-minded attitude, and self-righteously opposing any who try to broaden the discussion.

For example, as noted in my earlier post, Tina Faibish, president of local 552 of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), made the following commentary:

From Tina Robin Faibish “come on are you kidding me, you can not look at these two issues as if the level of unjust is similar or comparable because they are not!”


Note the self-righteous attitude of such a reply. How dare I take into consideration anything else! This is her attitude.

Her social-democratic friend then pipes in, when I try to broaden the discussion:

Liz Seaward Ash Fred Harris one thing has nothing to do with the other…you’re delusional..

Not only is this a self-righteous attitude, but it is a hostile attitude. Calling someone delusional is meant to be an insult, of course.

Let us leave these attitudes to one side, though (although anyone who wants to broaden the discussion these days should expect hostile and self-righteous attitudes from the social democratic left). Let us turn to the issue of methodology by referring to John Dewey’s philosophy of human nature. This philosophy considers human life to encompass physical, biological and social aspects that involve a process. This view of human life as an inclusive process has many implications for social analysis, but I will restrict it to the issue of abortion and the human body.

Dewey considers life in general in the following terms (from Experience and Nature, pages 277-278:

Every “mind” that we are
empirically acquainted with is found in connection with
some organized body. Every such body exists in a
natural medium to which it sustains some adaptive connection:
plants to air, water, sun, and animals to these
things and also to plants. Without such connections,
animals die; the “purest” mind would not continue with out them. An animal can live only as long as it draws
nutriment from its medium, finds there means of defence
and ejects into it waste and superfluous products of its
own making. Since no particular organism lasts forever,
life in general goes on only as an organism reproduces
itself; and the only place where it can reproduce itself is in
the environment. In all higher forms reproduction is
sexual ; that is, it involves the meeting of two forms. The
medium is thus one which contains similar and conjunctive
forms. At every point and stage, accordingly, a
living organism and its life processes involve a world or
nature temporally and spatially “external” to itself but
“internal” to its functions.

The only excuse for reciting such commonplaces is that
traditional theories have separated life from nature, mind
from organic life, and thereby created mysteries.

The idea that life (or the life process) involves something that is physically external to the body but is functionally internal can be easily understood if we try to hold our breath. We need elements from the air–which are physically external to our body–and this need is functionally internal to the continued existence of the body. If you extend this idea to all your needs, whether physical or social, then you can see that your life process extends far beyond your immediate physical body.

What has this to do with abortion and the issue that Ms. Faibish raised concerned the law in Ohio about preventing 11-year-old girls from having an abortion if they are raped? If control over the life process involves control over the immediate human body but does not end there but rather extends to the environmental conditions that are physically external but functionally internal, then control over the body is a necessary but insufficient condition for control over our own human life processes.

From John Dewey, Experience and Nature, page 295:

Those who talk most of
the organism, physiologists and psychologists, are often
just those who display least sense of the intimate, delicate
and subtle interdependence of all organic structures and
processes with one another. The world seems mad in
pre-occupation with what is specific, particular, disconnected
in medicine, politics, science, industry, education.
In terms of a conscious control of inclusive wholes,
search for those links which occupy key positions and
which effect critical connections is indispensable. But
recovery of sanity depends upon seeing and using these
specifiable things as links functionally significant in
a process. To see the organism in nature, the nervous
system in the organism, the brain in the nervous system,
the cortex in the brain is the answer to the problems which
haunt philosophy. And when thus seen they will be seen
to be in, not as marbles are in a box but as events are
in history, in a moving, growing never finished process.

The radical left needs to analyze the connections of the world in terms of something that is physically external but functionally internal. With such knowledge, it needs to criticize persistently the social-democratic left, who in general isolate now one aspect of what is functionally internal, now another aspect.

Such an approach is necessary if we are to both oppose those in power and those who ultimately propose to reform the world without radical restructuring of our lives. Along the way, we can of course expect to receive insults and be oppressed in various ways. That should be expected–but it should not deter us from doing what is necessary to oppose the power of employers as a class and to create a society worthy of our own nature as human beings.

But what does the radical left do in Toronto? Pander after the reformist left’s narrow point of view, refusing to challenge such views at every turn. They are like those who believe that the human life process goes beyond the human body but refuse to criticize those (the social democrats) who believe the human life process does not include the interconnected workplaces in the first instance in a particular country and, ultimately, throughout the world.

The radical left talk a lot about democracy these days, but democracy does not entail tolerance to mistaken ideas. It is the duty of the radical left, among other things, to show that the ideas that social democrats hold are mistaken by challenging them. Why does it not do so?

What do you think?

Social Democracy or Social Reformism and Trade Unionism: Their Social Limitations and Methodology, Part One

This will be a two-part post, with the second part being a brief focus on the inadequate methodology of social democrats and trade unionists. The radical left need to take measures against such inadequate methodology. I demonstrate briefly their inadequate methodology by referring to John Dewey’s philosophy of human nature and contrast it with one implicit social-democratic view that limits consideration to the immediate human body without taking into consideration the wider context within which the human body operates and lives.

The first part focuses on a discussion I had on Facebook a few weeks ago about the issue of a law passed in Ohio, the United States, which prevents girls who are raped (sexually abused) from having an abortion. I am certainly opposed to such a law, but it is insufficient to simply condemn such a law. It is necessary to understand how such a law could be formulated in the first place if we are to prevent the emergence of such laws (and worse) in the future. Social democrats and trade unionists, however, often merely react with gut feelings that are inadequate to the task of opposing on a wider basis the roots of such laws (and policies related to such laws).

Below I paste a copy of the conservation on Facebook. It is instructive in how limited the view of social democracy or social reformism and trade unionism really is and how ineffective as a consequence their responses will be. It is also instructive how such limitations arise from a typical method that social democrats or reformists and trade unionists use.

To be sure, social democrats or reformists and trade unionists may prevent, on occasion, the formulation and passing of such laws, but since they never address the roots of such laws, they will inevitably be incapable of eradicating the conditions for such laws to arise in the first place.

Tina Faibish, who is the main discussant below, is president of local 552 of OPSEU (Ontario Public Service Employees Union).

Here is the discussion, including my reply. After my reply, there was–silence.

chicagotribune.com


The story of Should 11-year-old girls have to bear their rapists’ babies? Ohio says yes .An impregnated preteen girl in Massillon, Ohio, has drawn national attention to the state’s new, highly restrictive abortion laws.


15Tina Robin Faibish and 14 others
18 Comments
Kristen Bones Disgusting
Raymadawn Hamilton Hell no!!!!!!!
Liz Seaward Ash No they should not…this is disgusting
Natalie Ashlyne Brooke Michener Wtf these law makers have to go who the hell would do that to someone
Fred Harris Undoubtedly this is amoral [should be immoral]–but so too is having to work for an employer. And yet how many among the left really find working for an employer to be “disgusting?”
Tina Robin Faibish Fred Harris come on are you kidding me, you can not look at these two issues as if the level of unjust is similar or comparable because they are not!
Fred Harris Of course, social democrats simply ignore the day-to-day exploitation and oppression of billions of workers (this is so trivial) when compared to the issue of “11-year old girls having to bear their rapists’ babies.” This shows the extent to which the social-democratic left have been indoctrinated into accepting the employer-employee relation–which treats human beings as things.

So “moral”! Such phrases as “decent work,” and “$15 and Fairness” hide the immorality of being treated as things.

The social-democratic left want to present themselves as morally superior, and yet they ignore the persistent and day-to-day subordination of billions of workers to the power of employers.

By the way, I do have a daughter. And she has been treated unjustly in various ways–including being treated as a thing by employers. I neither ignore the other ways in which she has been treated unjustly–nor the way in which she has been treated unjustly as an employee. The social-democratic left, however, do not consider it unjust to have to work for an employer. Their trite phrases, such as “decent work” express their own biases.
Laura Betty Fred Harris really?
Fred Harris Really what?
Fred Harris I have a blog on the issue of the employer-employee relation and the bankruptcy of the social-democratic left–theabolitionary
Tina Robin Faibish Fred Harris this is your MO and why no one is listening. Your comparison is completely off topic, and undermines the legitimacy and outrage as it relates to this discussion. In other words, as valid as your point may be, this is not the appropriate place to reference a comparison that clearly does not exist!
Fred Harris Let us see. There was a topic on Hydro. Social democrats made many unrelated comments on that topic. But if I make a comment in a supposed unrelated topic, it is considered inappropriate.

As for no one listening to me–social democrats automatically do not listen to me–that is to be expected. But some people from India, China, the UK, the US, Canada have gone on my blog.

As for my “MO”: the MO [modus operandi—a typical way of approaching the world or of doing something] of social democrats is automatically to ignore the issue of the power of employers as a class.

As for the topic of being forced to have babies after being raped–of course this should be opposed. My daughter accused the man (Juan Ulises) who lived with her mother of raping her. He was charged, but the charges were dropped because it was his word against hers. She maintains his guilt to this day–and I believe her. Is this on topic?

But social democrats simply ignore the issue of the power of employers which occurs every day at work. They like to consider themselves morally superior as I said above.

To paraphrase the mathematician, philosopher of education and philosopher of science, Alfred North Whitehead: it is very difficult to engage critically with something that you constantly experience every day as normal.

Feel free to delete me from the Facebook account.
Nina Keogh Tina Robin Faibish yup.
Fred Harris From Tina Robin Faibish “come on are you kidding me, you can not look at these two issues as if the level of unjust is similar or comparable because they are not!”

Children grow up to be adults–and in our society, things to be used by employers. According to the moral social democrats, their concerns take priority over the day-to-day treatment of billions of workers. 

Why are they not on the same level? Why focus on this particular occurrence in a particular state? That it is morally disgusting, I fully admit.

However, social democrats–by this person’s own admission–do not find the fact that billions of workers worldwide are treated as things on a daily basis to be of the same moral consideration. But what of the children of today? Is that not their fate tomorrow unless we stop permitting any person to be treated as a thing at work?

Is it moral to ignore the future of children?

Is it moral for the top 20 largest private employers to obtain $59 billion in profit (approximately $59 000 per unemployed person in Canada)? What of the children who suffer because of this?

Etc.

What of the over 200,000 Guatemalans who were butchered during the civil war (including children) in order to defend a system of employers?

Etc.

Or the “morality” of talking about employers paying their “fair share” of the taxes–after they have exploited workers in order to obtain the profits in the first place.

Yup.
Liz Seaward Ash Fred Harris one thing has nothing to do with the other…you’re delusional..
Fred Harris Note the lack of argument here and the lack of establishment of connections–and the resort to insults.

The issue of not permitting female children who are raped to have an abortion has to do with “property rights”–and that definitely has to do with the employer-employee relation and capitalism in general.

The struggle of women (and children) to control their own bodies forms part of a larger struggle to control our lives.

To say that they have nothing to do with each other is absurd–and shows the narrow-mindedness of the social-democratic left.

But that is to be expected–since the social-democratic left do not object to the general control of our bodies by employers but only particular forms. of it.

After all, do they not express such things as “decent work”–while simultaneously not criticizing the power of employers to control our lives at work in various ways. The social-democratic left like to “compartmentalize” our lives–separating out was is necessarily connected so that they can feel themselves morally–and intellectually–superior.

From the book Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why We Do Not Talk About It) (Ellizabeth Anderson–a woman, who probably would be considered delusional by the social-democratic left), 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.

[End of quote]

If Ms. Anderson’s analysis is correct–why would it be surprising to limit the capacity of children (and their parents’) control over their bodies given the daily lack of control over the bodies of hundreds of millions of workers in the United States and billions worldwide (which the social democrats generally ignore)?

As I pointed out above, social democrats or reformists like to compartmentalize their discussions–a trick that enables them to omit issues that provide a wider context for the more narrow issues. They adopt what could be called a mechanistic philosophy to human society by assuming that human problems can be pigeon-holed into discrete parts. They look at society as if each area is distinct from another part. Aristotle, a Greek philosopher, however long ago argued that a hand, to be a hand, must be related to the human body. Social democrats, however, would like to have us believe that hands exists independently of the human body. They then accuse anyone who tries to widen the issue of illegitimately addressing issues that have nothing to do with these narrower issues. Indeed, note the reference to “delusional” by one of the social democrats. They glory in their own narrowmindedness and accuse all who fail to share in their narrowmindedness with delusions.

John Dewey, the philosopher of education, argued that acting intelligently, among other things, involves considering the wider context, or contextualizing the immediate situation that constitutes the immediate problem.

Social democrats or reformists generally refuse to consider the wider context of the class structure and class power of employers. They thereby propose, implicitly, that workers act unintelligently.

The fact that social democrats and radical leftists (such as Sam Gindin) fail to attack persistently the power of employers as a class entails the possibility of the rise of forces outside the workplace (such as the extreme right). After all, does not such right-wing politicians as Doug Ford (premier of Ontario) or Donald Trump glory in the dictatorship of employers? Do they not, like the social-democratic left, ignore such dictatorship? Do they not cover up such a dictatorship through rhetoric, like the social-democratic left?

One final point: Ms. Faibish posted the following on Facebook:

Workers at the Rainforest Cafe in Niagara Falls have been on strike for more than a month. What they’re fighting for proves the need for strong employment-standards legislation — and strong unions.

I made a comment by pointing out that it would have been helpful to give examples of locals that are strong unions. She did not provide any. Social democrats or reformists and trade unionists often use clichés without providing any support for such clichés. When someone questions their clichés, they then engage in–silence. This is not what the labour movement needs.

Rest assured that if you call into question the self-righteous left’s assumptions, they will engage in insults. That is to be expected. They refuse to face up to their own social limitations and the limitations of their own mechanistic methodology.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments from John Urkevich, AESES-UM Business Agent, to my Critique of the Grievance and Arbitration Procedure: Letter to the Editor, Inside The Association of Employees Supporting Educational Services (AESES), Vol. 17, No. 4, May 1994

As I wrote in my last post (Critique of the Grievance and Arbitration Procedure: Letter to the Editor, Inside The Association of Employees Supporting Educational Services (AESES), Vol. 17, No. 4, May 1994), I would provide the business agent’s reply to my letter to the editor in the same volume of the union newsletter. Here it is verbatim:

Mr. Harris’ comments are noteworthy in several respects albeit difficult to understand. I  believe that Mr. Harris is attempting to convey the message that a collective agreement only goes so far in reducing management’s unbridled right to manage its affairs and its working force and therefore a union, any union, is only as effective as the collective agreement it has to work with on behalf of its membership.

I would agree, as would most, that collective agreements only limit management’s right to manage and that which is not specifically abridged by a collective agreement remains within the employer’s purview. This right, however, is tempered by legislation which dictates that the exercising of management rights must be reasonable, fair, non-arbitrary, non-discriminatory and in good faith. Although arbitrators do not generally accept the argument that because there is a collective agreement, management is restricted to dealing only with those functions as specified in the agreement unless there is union agreement, neither do arbitrators accept the argument that management has an unfettered right to act completely as it wishes, in particular when it comes to severing or detrimentally affecting an employee benefit.

Mr. Harris reiterates the definition of a grievance which is found in our collective agreement but in so doing leaves the impression that such a definition is restrictive. I would suggest that this defines a grievance in its broadest sense.

Arbitration is the final step in the grievance procedure and therefore is part and parcel of the procedure and not an entity of its own. The arbitration of a grievance occurs only if the parties cannot come to a mutually acceptable resolution of the issue either during the process or before a grievance is ever filed. Many of the issue that arise during the life of a collective agreement are resolved without either the necessity of a grievance of arbitration. Depending on the state of the employer/employee relationship, common sense and fairness can prevail without a confrontation.

The reason that management does not file grievances is because the employer/employee relationship is such that the employer acts and the employee reacts. The union’s right to be proactive is curbed by the law which prohibits employees from withholding their services during the term of a collective agreement and specified that all agreements must contain a method of resolving disputes which arise during the term without a work stoppage (grievance procedure). Whenever management takes an action the employee must continue as normal whether or not the employer is correct (there are some exceptions). This is aptly coined as the “work now–grieve later” principle. If this were not the case then I suspect that management grievances would be a fact of life.

I do not agree, as Mr. Harris suggests, that because management’s right is merely restricted by a collective agreement that employees should not voice their concerns or their problems, unless it is certainty that a grievance is winnable. Union members should always check with their union representative any questionable act of management. After all the employer only has control over the how, what, and when, it does not have the right to treat employees in an unjust or undignified manner. Employees are not channel.

I have provided Mr. Urkevich’s response in full without my intervention so that the reader could see the whole response before I begin to analyze the response (an opportunity which I did not have since, as I said, I was no longer a member of the union).

….Mr. Harris is attempting to convey the message that a collective agreement only goes so far in reducing management’s unbridled right to manage its affairs and its working force and therefore a union, any union, is only as effective as the collective agreement it has to work with on behalf of its membership.

I fail to see how anyone could infer from what I wrote that that is the message that I wanted to convey. Unions need to teach their members the limitations of the legal rights of union members as contained in collective agreements–and those legal rights are very limited. That is what I wanted to convey.

Union representatives, in order to “sell” a contract, often exaggerate the fairness of a collective agreement and thereby do their members a disservice because they then teach them the opposite; they imply that, by being “fair,” collective agreements are not very limited instruments for protecting their collective interests. See, for example, reference to a “fair contract” by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3902 of the University of Toronto (CUPE 3902, University of Toronto Education Workers).

I would agree, as would most, that collective agreements only limit management’s right to manage and that which is not specifically abridged by a collective agreement remains within the employer’s purview. This right, however, is tempered by legislation which dictates that the exercising of management rights must be reasonable, fair, non-arbitrary, non-discriminatory and in good faith.

Mr. Urkevich, like many union representatives, begs the question. Why does he assume what he needs to prove, namely, that the employer/employee relation can be “reasonable, fair?” In the money circuit of capital, for example, it has been shown that employees are mere means for the benefit of employers (see  The Money Circuit of Capital). Indeed, as I wrote in that section:

Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, argued that, in order to act ethically, it is necessary to treat people never as means only but as ends in themselves: “For, all rational beings stand under the law that each of them is to treat himself and all others never merely as means but always at the same time as ends in themselves” (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. New York: Cambridge University Press, page 41). Human beings need to be treated as ends and not as means. To treat human beings as ends in themselves, it is necessary to have those who engage in realizing the ends also engaged in participating in the formulation of the ends.

If human beings, as employees, are treated as means to others’ ends, then how is such a situation “fair and reasonable”? For the employer, by definition, it is fair and reasonable. Is it for the workers though? Does not Mr. Urkevitch take the point of view of the employer as his standard? Should we? Why?

Is not Mr. Urkevich’s reference to “legistlation which dictates that the exercising of management rights must be reasonable, fair, non-arbitrary, non-discriminatory and in good faith” meant to justify Mr. Urkevitch’s own role as union business agent since, otherwise, Mr. Urkevich would be justifying unreasonable actions, unfair actions, and so forth.

Although arbitrators do not generally accept the argument that because there is a collective agreement, management is restricted to dealing only with those functions as specified in the agreement unless there is union agreement, neither do arbitrators accept the argument that management has an unfettered right to act completely as it wishes, in particular when it comes to severing or detrimentally affecting an employee benefit.

Of course arbitrators would not permit employers to let managers do what they will with employee benefits or, for that matter, employees in general. The treatment has to be consistent with the line of business. However, this leaves management with a very wide latitude of power to determine what can and cannot be done at work.

Whenever management takes an action the employee must continue as normal whether or not the employer is correct (there are some exceptions). This is aptly coined as the “work now–grieve later” principle. If this were not the case then I suspect that management grievances would be a fact of life.

Mr. Urkevitch, like many union representatives, assume without further ado that the employer/employee relation is inherently reasonable. I categorically deny that, and for reason already provided in reference to Kant and the money circuit of capital.

Management has a monopoly of decision-making power except as restricted by the collective agreement (and limited legislation); why employers have such a monopoly of decision-making power Mr. Urkevitch does not even question–undoubtedly like many other trade-union representatives and social-reformists.

Mr. Urkevitch merely repeats what needs to be explained: “Whenever management takes an actio the employee must continue as normal…” Why must the employee do so? Because of economic coercion, perhaps? (See “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty: OCAP)). It is the economic power of employers compared to employees that shapes legislation in favour of employers?

Mr. Urkevitch, undoubtedly like many union representatives, with a manipulative “if” (“If this were not the case”–but it is not the case–and that makes all the difference in the world for the daily lives of unionized workers–seeks to minimize the importance of the fact that it is mainly unions that file grievances and not management–because management has the power to make the major decisions that effect the lives of millions of workers.

I do not agree, as Mr. Harris suggests, that because management’s right is merely restricted by a collective agreement that employees should not voice their concerns or their problems, unless it is certainty that a grievance is winnable.

This reasoning is pure fantasy. Employees should voice their concern in various ways–even if the grievance is not winnable. Where did I imply that only if the grievance is winnable should workers voice their concern?

After all the employer only has control over the how, what, and when, it does not have the right to treat employees in an unjust or undignified manner. Employees are not chattel.

This last sentence likely sums up the attitude of many union representatives. No, employees are not chattel, that is to say, they are not slaves, owned 24 hours a day. They are not required to work for a particular employer. No one forces them to work for a particular employer.

However, just as with the manipulative use of the word “if” above, Mr. Urkevitch uses the word “only” in order to minimize the importance of how much power management has over the lives of even unionized workers: “the employer only [my emphasis] has control over the how, what, and when….”

Mr. Urkevitch evidently does not think that “control over the how, what, and when” is “unjust or undignified.”

I do. (See above, referring to Kant and the money circuit of capital). Employers, by controlling “the how, what, and when”–control the lives of workers, which is undignified and unjust.

Union representatives, like Mr. Urkevitch, however, obviously believe that it is just. They believe in the justice of the collective agreement, where “the employer only has control over the how, what, and when.”

Union representatives imply, often enough, that there is somehow something fair about collective agreements. No one seems to challenge them to explain what they mean by fair collective agreements.

For instance, here is an example from a relatively recent union representative in Ontario:

Toronto (24 May 2018)…

Warren (Smokey) Thomas, President of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU/NUPGE) said he is hopeful the employer is ready to step up and do what is right for 20,000 of its workers who have suffered for decades under appalling working conditions.

“We’ve heard countless horror stories from our new members about poor pay and job security, no vacation time, they don’t even get sick days,” said Thomas.
“The fact our members overwhelmingly voted to join OPSEU/NUPGE in the largest organizing drive in Canadian history sends a strong message that times are changing. I hope this employer will work with us and make sure our members get a fair contract,” he said.

Of course, unions generally do improve wages and working conditions, but such improvements do not give them the right to declare that any collective agreement is somehow fair. They abuse their position by doing so, and by abusing their position, they open themselves up to legitimate criticism.

Unfortunately, few among the so-called left engage in such criticism. Rather, at best they follow along behind the unions, seeking “openings” here and there to open up discussion rather than openly criticizing all talk of fair contracts or collective agreements. They do a disservice to the regular worker but certainly aid both union representatives–and the class of employers.

One final point: although any particular employee is not obliged to work for any particular employer, what of the class of emloyees in relation to the class of employers? Can the class of employees simply not work for an employer, freely and realistically? If not, what does that make them?

So many questions, but so few answers–by union representatives and, undoubtedly, by many social reformists.