The Radical Left Needs to Call into Question Existing Social Institutions at Every Opportunity, Part Seven

In the last post in this series, I pointed out that before I obtained a so-called permanent teaching position , I worked for a number of years as a substitute teacher (with short periods of term teaching positions). I became an executive member of the Winnipeg Teachers’ Association (WTA) (in the province of Manitoba, Canada), representing substitute teachers.

The WTA had an education fund for the executive, where each member, if approved by the executive, could access up to $3,000 for educational purposes. A condition for obtaining such funds was a summary of the educational experience and its publication in the WTA newsletter.

I used this situation as an opportunity to criticize the limitations of the educational experience.

Below is a copy of the critical summary of my educational experience (written in 2008):

A Philosophical (Critical) Commentary on the Mel Myers Labour Conference, March 12-13, 2008

A third speaker, Professor Guard, provided a welcome contrast to the one-sided emphasis on legal relations. She outlined how the rights of workers and of others depended on the labour movement becoming involved in wider struggles for social justice. From such struggles, the right to universal medicare, unemployment insurance, pensions and various other basic rights (which have been attacked during the past three decades) emerged through struggle—both legal and illegal. Indeed, the modern collective bargaining regime emerged in part on the basis of illegal strikes, forcing employers to recognize the union of the employees’ choice.

As Professor Guard noted, the way in which workers will expand their rights is not mainly through legal provisions but through organizing themselves effectively and through struggle. Legal provisions are mainly a consequence of such struggles and not their presupposition; such provisions can reinforce organizational forms and struggles already taking place. They cannot replace them.

Although Professor Guard did not address the issue, all legislation implicitly presupposes the legal right of employers to control employees or to use human beings for the ends of the group called employers—contrary to the ethical categorical imperative of Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, to treat all human beings as ends in themselves. Even human rights legislation presupposes the legitimacy of treating human beings as means to the ends of employers.

Given the limitations of legal relations, it is curious that a conference that was advertised as “management free” had as its keynote speaker at lunch on March 12 Gail Asper, who spoke on the importance of the Canadian Muesum for Human Rights, located in Winnipeg. According to the 2005 Annual Report of CanWest Global Communications Corp., of which Gail Asper is a director and corporate secretary, total assets of that employer exceeded 5 billion dollars. To what extent Ms. Asper could be considered sympathetic to the daily concerns and needs of employees, including those of teachers, should be queried. Furthermore, by profession, she is a lawyer. Given these two facts, it is unlikely that she would engage in critical thinking about the legal system or the economic structure of society, which is largely characterized by the economic dependence of most who work on employers.

Despite these major limitations of the Conference, it was useful to gain technical knowledge of problems associated with collective bargaining since they are indeed problems that employees, including teachers, face or will face.

I chose three sessions for March 12: Mistakes to Avoid, Pension Update and Trends in Retirement. The session on Mistakes to Avoid involved some tips on how labour representatives can avoid problems in grievance handling. For example, they should play the devil’s advocate and question thoroughly the potential griever or witness to ensure that all relevant facts are elicited before deciding whether to proceed to arbitration.

The bottom line of the Pension Update was that if benefits are to remain constant, then contributions will have to increase since the rate of interest has decreased substantially and the longevity has increased. Alternatively, benefits will have to decrease if contributions remain constant.

The Trends in Retirement session pointed out that income-tax law has recently changed to allow a person to work, draw a pension and still contribute to the pension.

The morning session for all participants on March 13 dealt with safety in the context of emergency situations, such as a gun-toting person at a university campus or at a high school. A model was presented, emphasizing the need for a comprehensive and active inclusion of all relevant persons involved in a possible crisis situation.

I chose two independent sessions for the day: selection grievances and duty of fair representation. In the first session, it was emphasized that selection of employees for specific positions is one of the most difficult areas for unions to win a grievance since arbitrators are loathe to interfere in managerial power to select.

In the second session, most unions have been found guilty of breaching the duty of fair representation of members when they have not properly investigated a grievance. As long as they do so, it is unlikely that the Labour Relations Board will find a union to have breached its duty—even when it is wrong.

The final session for all participants referred to the top ten cases of 2007. In one case, an employee with ten years seniority posted an award of $500 to pie the CEO. The employee persistently attempted to excuse the act through subterfuge. The employee did not apologize, and the arbitrator found the employee dishonest. The termination was upheld.

This case gives one pause to thought. The employee, it was implied, should have immediately apologized and admitted guilt since arbitrators recognize remorse as a mitigating factor in determining the level of discipline. However, there is a difference between suggesting that the employee, out of prudence, should have outwardly acted remorsefully and actually feeling remorse. There was no discussion of why an employee would want to pie the CEO or whether many other employees in many work places would want to—secretly—pie the CEO or at least some of the supervisors and managerial staff.
This case exemplifies the limitations of the Conference.

Fred Harris, executive member



The Contradictions of Unions: Reformist and Radical Assessments

Steven Tufts, in an article first published on Wednesday, September 11, 2019, on The Star website, and republished on the Socialist Project website on September 25 (Pension Plans Should Not Invest in Companies That Harm Working People), tries to show that, despite unions consciously disassociating themselves from investments that harm workers, their own pension fund managers may pursue policies that contradict such conscious disassociation.

(As an aside, Professor Tufts is a representative of the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC).

He writes:

For example, Caesar’s Entertainment partnered with Oxford Properties, the real-estate investment arm of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS). Community groups lead by No Casino Toronto did successfully mobilize against these proposals, which divided council at the time. Members of CUPE Local 79 also deputed against the proposals as front-line city workers would have had to deal with the negative social and economic impacts of gambling.

At the same time, fund managers at OMERS, the pension fund of Local 79 members, deputed on the economic virtues of casino development. Here we see the contradictions of pension fund investments that negatively impact the very workers making contributions.

However, Professor Tufts does not question how unions can escape this situation. Pension funds generally have to invest money in some capitalist companies, and those companies are expected to obtain a profit. If this is the case, then there is a typical social-reformist strategy of opposing particular kinds of investments or particular kinds of employers while implicitly accepting the need for capitalist investments in general or the need for a set of employers.

In other words, does not any investment “harm workers?” Professor Tuft remains silent on how workers can escape this contradiction. Of course, there are degrees of harm of workers by employers, with some employers definitely treating workers worse than other employers. However, do not all employers harm workers by necessarily treating them as things to be used to obtain more money (private sector) or by excluding them from the right to determine the purpose of their work (public sector)? (See The Money Circuit of Capital).

Professor Tuft further states:

All workers deserve pensions, but pension funds for some built on tax cuts and privatization schemes are neither just nor sustainable over the long term. Unions continue to shield themselves against efforts to politicize pension investments, but this has a cost.

This criticism aims at the neoliberal model of “tax cuts and privatization schemes.” What if the pension schemes did not rely on such tax cuts and privatization schemes? What happens if they relied on merely–exploiting other workers in a non-neoliberal way (as they did before the emergence of neoliberalism)? Would that eliminate the contradiction between workers’ interests as workers and their interests as future retirees? I fail to see how it would.

Indeed, Professor Tuft states:

It is time for union leaders to confront pension plans that seek to transform our cities in ways that harm working people.

Surely, all pension plans, whether private or public, are riveted with the basic contradiction of being funded by workers while being used to exploit and oppress other workers. This contradiction cannot be abolished without abolishing the situation where a class of employers exploits and oppresses a class of workers called employees.

If this basic contradiction is acknowledged, then variations in levels of harm to working people can then be assessed. However, as it stands, Professor Tufts’ article implies that there can be “pension plans that seek to transform our cities in ways that” do not harm working people. Such a view is typical of reformist policies that fail to address the harm necessarily caused to workers because of the existence of a class of employers and the accompanying economic and political structure.

By not acknowledging the general harm that all employers pose for working people, Professor Tuft does not acknowledge the need to create organizations that oppose the class power of employers as such.

Obviously, some employers are better than others. However, the social-democratic left never get around to criticizing employers as such. They remind me of movies and television programs. Often, particular police officers or particular companies are presented as bad–but not the police function as such or employers as such.

Despite Professor Tuft’s evident desire to go beyond the limitations of union principles, he evidently operates within them implicitly since he assumes that workers’ pension plans can somehow magically overcome the contradiction of exploiting and oppressing workers by not following the neoliberal model–as if the capitalist relations of exploitation and oppression did not exist before the emergence of neoliberalism.

Should we not go beyond the limits of neoliberalism and challenge the economic and political power of the class of employers?