The Case of the Possible General Strike of Ontario Unionized Workers: Critique of Conservative Radicalism or Radical Conservatism

Introduction 

The recent wildcat strike by 55,000 Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) members, represented by the Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU, who work in schools in Ontario, Canada, was stimulated by the Conservative Ford government’s Bill 28, which not only legislated workers back to work, but also used the notwithstanding clause of the Charter and Rights to Freedom to prevent any legal challenge–essentially stripping away collective-bargaining rights–including the right to strike.

The wildcat strike has resulted in two distinct political positions on what should have been done: push forward to aim for a general strike, or limit the movement to the aim of defeating the Conservative Ford government’s Bill 28 and of obtaining a collective agreement.

The two distinct political positions are expresssed in the largely Canadian social-democratic journal Canadian Dimension, with Martin Schoots-McAlpine arguing for a general strike (see https://canadiandimension.com/articles/view/the-general-strike-that-could-have-been) and Herman Rosenfeld aguing that a call for a general strike was premature and, he implies, ultra-leftist (see https://canadiandimension.com/articles/view/a-first-post-pandemic-political-victoryhardly-a-general-strike-that-could-have-been ).

I will argue that Schoots-McAlpine’s political position, at least with respect to his advocacy of a general strike before the repeal of Bill 28, is the more reasonable radical position and that Rosenfeld’s position reflects a conservative radical’s political position–or rather a social-democratic or social-reformist political position.

I will not enter into detail into Schoots-McAlpine’s article since it is more important to address the inadequacies of Rosenfeld’s social-reformist position since that position has ultimately been practically realized.

The Conservative Radical’s Political Position

The Aim of the Movement Should Be Limited to the Repeal of Bill 28

Rosenfeld paints the restriction of the victory (and it was a victory in the negative sense of forcing the Conservative Doug Ford’s government to agree to abolish Bill 28) in a very positive light: 

A determined, organized and mobilized local union, the Ontario School Board Council of Unions (OSBCU), closed down most of the main school boards in a “political protest” which doubled as a contract strike. The Ford government withdrew its Bill 28, a constitutional attack and challenge at the OLRB, and was forced to go back to the bargaining table. CUPE maintained its right to strike if an agreement was not reached.

This was a big victory for CUPE, public sector workers, and the labour movement writ large, even though, like all such wins, it is temporary, conditional, and is only one moment in an ongoing class struggle which takes both economic and political forms. It was recognized as such by most working people, union members, officials, and critics from the left and socialists across the board.

Rosenfeld obviously considered it emintently realistic to aim only at the repeal of Bill 28: 

And, of course, the main issue was not to change the Ford government’s larger political agenda all in one go, but to defend the right of the CUPE local to bargain, build support amongst the larger working class for their demands and opposition to the government, and force Ford to back off. That was the initial step in this ongoing war and workers mobilized around it and won.

Rosenfeld’s Characterization of Schoots-McAlpine’s Position as Naive, Mechanistic, Abstract Ultra-leftism–and Inconsistent to Boot 

He then turns to what he considers the dark side (the Darth Vaderian side)–what he considers to be an ultra-leftist position. He characterizes this position in negative terms: 

Yet, in a naïve, mechanistic, and abstract intellectual exercise, this wasn’t good enough for Martin Schoots-McAlpine. For him, in his article published yesterday in Canadian Dimension (and there are other activists and comrades who clearly feel the same way), getting Ford to back down on this battle didn’t matter. The promise of a larger general strike—to be led by the dreaded labour bureaucrats he so roundly attacks—developing into a greater political movement (led by whom?) targeting many of the key elements of the capitalist agenda in the city and province was in the wind and was ended unilaterally, and wrongly, by calling off the CUPE strike and the movement towards a general strike.

And, further, even though this was to be led by the dreaded bureaucrats, Schoots-McAlpine writes, it seems that the working class, and the members of the union movement were chomping at the bit to build this movement. He writes, “for a brief moment we as workers in Ontario had an opportunity to really change the direction of this province for the better…workers across the province were willing to fight.”

Rosenfeld can hardly hide his contempt for any position that is more radical than his own. I have already pointed out in a previous post how he unjustifiably characterized a more radical position than his own as “sloppy thinking” and that his own views reflect “sloppy thinking” (see Reform or Abolition of the Police, Part One)  Now he accues Schoots-McAlpine of engaging “in a naïve, mechanistic, and abstract intellectual exercise.” 

Rosenfeld further engages in character assassination with the title of one of his subsections: 

Delusions and wishes can’t substitute for materialist analysis of reality

Rosenfeld’s Justification For Limiting the Labour and Social Movements to Repealing Bill 28

How does Rosenfeld justify such a negative characterization? Apparently, by providing “a materialist analysis of reality.” What is this “materialist analysis?” Rosenfeld seems to argue under the above section title that workers and union leaders generally did not aim for anything more than the repeal of Bill 28; they were not prevented from pursuing a general strike since that was never really on the agenda. The following two sections are titled “Of leadership, bureaucracy and rank-and-file workers,” and “A word on general strikes.”

The section on union bureaucracy and rank-and-file workers seems to deny that the Rand formula of automatic dues deduction interfered with the relationship between union leaders and rank-and-file members. He also argues that although there has historically been a gap between union bureaucracy and the rank-and-file, leading to constraints on what the rank-and-file can do, this is not written in stone. Socialists in particular can challenge such constraints and this is what is needed. Rosenfeld admits that there is a tendency for union leaders to be co-opted, but he denies its inevitability. On the other hand, Schoots-McAlpine’s assumption that the rank-and-file are automatically militant is questionable. Workers have contradictory views since at a bare minimum they depend economically on their employer. If workers were so militant, they would have themselves called for a general strike: 

 If workers had this understanding already, they would be challenging the agreement for CUPE to go back to the bargaining table, pushing for a general strike, and calling for a political movement arguing for the demands that Schoots-McAlpine legitimately calls for on their own. But calling for general strike plans to go ahead anyway avoids the necessary education, organization, and strategizing that socialists and radical activists in and around the union movement must bring to either force or help leaders create opportunities to make it happen. Schoots-McAlpine leaves no place for it to happen.

Furthermore, as a counter-example to the characterization of union leaders as bureaucratic, he refers to, among others, J.P. Hornick, current leader of the Ontario Public Sector Employees Union (OPSEU). Workers should definitely appreciate the militancy of Hornick, who supported a wildcat strike by section three (education workers) of OPSEU who themselves supported the striking CUPE members (see https://socialistaction.ca/our-initiatives/the-red-review/ for details), we should not fail to recognize the limiations of Hornick’s own views (see my criticisms of her views in May Day 2022 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada: The Case of the President of the Ontario Public Services Employee Union (OPSEU), J.P. Hornick, Part One: A Fair Contract  and May Day 2022 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada: More Rhetoric from a Union Rep: The Case of the President of the Ontario Public Services Employee Union (OPSEU), J.P. Hornick, Part Two: Do Corrections Officers Protect Us?  ). Rosenfeld does not address such limitations and thus remains quite abstract. 

Let us add one more quote, from the section about delusions: 

Moments of struggle always provide openings to build and move forward, and for workers who are participating, to learn key lessons and develop deeper consciousness and understanding. But every struggle and every moment aren’t necessarily similar. As a socialist, one has to look at the particularities of the experience and the potentials, and build on them.

Let us stop here. We need, according to Rosenfeld, base our analysis on a materialist realiy and focus on the particularities (specifities) of the experience and potentials. However, Rosenfeld does not even go into the material reality of the peculiarity of Ford trying to use the notwithstanding clause to impose a unilateral contract (to call it a collective agreement would be an oxymoron). Nor does he enter into analysing the potential of this peculiar situation to build up a movement in a short period of time. It is in such circumstances that workers may well go beyond their representatives and even their union leaders.

The Unique or Peculiar Situation of an Attack on the Union Movement in General: A Materialist Analysis of the Situation 

Rosenfeld does not engage in the specific nature of the use of the notwithstanding clause as an impulse for union leaders, union rank-and-file and probably social movements to engage in protests, picket-line walking and rallies.  

In normal times, it would be inconsistent  to rely on the bureaucratic union leadership to lead a general strike. However, the Ford government’s  use of the notwithstanding clause to preempt a strik indicated  abnormal times. The bureuacratic union leadership might have felt forced to move towards in a general strike for two reasons. Firstly, they themselves identified with “free collective bargainng” as a principle, and that principle was being threatened. Secondly, they might have been subject to pressure from below. It would of course be necessary to determine if there was such pressure, but the willingness of many workers to engage in an illegal strike/political protest and be subject to $4000 fine a day, as well as the support of the strike by Unifor national, CUPE national and OPSEU, as well as the support of some parents, indicates a willingness to support a move towards a general strike. 

Indeed, in a press conference following the agreement by the Ford government that it would rescind Bill 28, Mark Hancock, president of CUPE National, had this to say when asked about what preparations had been made for a general strike: 

I think part of it is: Nobody really knew. That was the beauty of what’s happened over the last number of days leading into the legislation being enacted that…this grew a movement of its own in some ways. And you heard very clearly from private-sector unions and public-sector unions that everybody was very serious on that. And what that looked like on Saturday at the rally and on Monday, I think we had a pretty good idea. But beyond that I have no idea. This has got legs of its own.

There is such a thing as the “logic of events.” The need for union bureaucrats to appear to represent the will of their members, especially in the context of such a public and political event as Ford’s open use of the cudgel of the notwithstanding clause might well have forced them to take measures that they would not normally take. Furthermore, their own evident belief in the sanctity of collective bargaining  might have reinforced this pressure to engage in more radical measures. 

Rosenfeld’s “materialist analysis of reality” simply ignores the “particularities” of the situation. But the particularities of a situation do not just involve facts–but potentialities. Rosenfeld also ignores the potentialties of the situation. 

Underestimation of the Potentialities of the Situation

Underestimation of the Potentialities of Unifying Unions Across Canada

Furthermore, Rosenfeld’s statement: “As a socialist, one has to look at the particularities of the experience and the potentials, and build on them” is empty. The use of the notwithstanding clause by Ford opened up the potentiality for a national struggle and not just a provincial struggle. That is why Unifor national president spoke at the press conference as did the president of the Canadian Labour Congress. That is why even unions that supported Ford criticized him. The potential to unify unionized workers across the public and private sectors existed because of Ford’s imposition of the notwithstanding clause. 

Union bureaucrats themselves realized the potential threat to their ideology of free collective bargaining so often expressed by them. At the press conference, we hear the following from Mark Hancock: 

National Secretary Treasurer, Candace Renick [of CUPE], Fred Hahn, the Ontario division president, and many CUPE leaders from all across the country. Friends who have joined him from the labour movement today up front. We have leadership from the Canadian Labour Congress, the Ontario Federation of Labour, ATU Canada, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, the Ontario Secondary Schools Teacher Federation, the AEFO, the United Steel Workers, UFCW, Unifor, the Ontario Building Trades, the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, the Sheet Metal Workers, Unite Here, IATSE, the National Union of Public and General Employees, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, the Ontario Nurses Association, SEIU Health Care, the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union, the Society of United Professionals, the Toronto and York Regional Labour Council. Today we represent millions of private and public sector workers all across the country.

This is an unprecedented gathering of labour leaders because the attack against workers’ rights that we’ve seen from this government—the attack on the rights of all Canadians which has been unprecedented. Bill 28 was a direct threat to workers’ rights and to the Charter rights of all Canadians. It invoked the notwithstanding clause to undermine some of our most fundamental rights. That regressive attack on workers united the labour movement like never before.

Hancock used the term “unprecedented” to chaacterize the situation. Karen Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO), also used the same term: 

The Draconian legislation the Ford government passed to impose a collective agreement on CUPE and remove their Charter Rights to free and fair collective bargaining and to strike was an unprecedented attack on collective-bargaining rights the likes of which we have never seen in Canadian history. Rest assured, we, our members, my colleagues, people of Ontario, we will hold Premier Ford to his word to rescind Bill 28. We stand in stead-fast solidarity with you. You can count on us. You can count on ETFO. Solidarity.

Rosenfeld neglects to take into consideration the “unprecedented” threat to the Canadian union movement of Ford’s actions. He wants to restrict it to the issue of repealing Bill 28. Such radical conservatiism. Such conservative radicalism. Such naivety. Such mechanical thinking. Such abstract thinking. 

Of course, like Schoots-McAlpine, I would hardly interpret this rhetoric in a radical sense. Hancock and others, since they sell unions on the basis of the principle of free collective bargaining, rightly saw what Ford did as a threat to their own economic, political and ideological positions. They likely wanted to get back to the status quo as quickly as possible–trade-union cretinism similar to parliamentaty cretinism, which uses voting and social movements as means to pressure the government to obtain limited reforms independently of linking up such reforms with the aim of abolishing the class power of employers. 

This potentiality to unify union forces across Canada and not just in Ontario was there–and squandered. Rosenfeld agress with such a waste of potentiality. 

Underestimation of the Potentialities of Accelerating Worker Creativity, Organization and Class Consciousness  

Rosenfeld also underestimates the potentiality of workers for accelerating their creativiy and class consciousness in such situations. Indeed, Marx criticized those who failed to recognize the creativity of the working class. From Daniel Gaido (2021), “The First Workers’ Government in History: Karl Marx’s Addenda to Lissagaray’s History of the Commune of 1871,” in pages 1-64, Historical Materialism: Research in Critical Marxist Theory, page 42: 

In the extensive section inserted by Marx to criticise the leaders of the Paris Commune, he delved into the question of revolutionary leadership …,  pointing out how the enormous potential power of the working class had ‘always been squandered, diverted, annihilated … by a swarm of declaimers and sectarians … others who are only anxious to climb up the social ladder … [and] a bunch of blind hotheads…’

Marx insisted that ‘If a party needs wisdom, clarity, reason, leadership, it is the revolutionary party.’ [and by party marx did not necessarily mean a formal political party but a group of those who oppose the class power of employers].

Nowhere does Rosenfeld address this potentiality. Indeed, for him the concept of potentiality is limited to the conscious immediate aims of all participants indepdently of the peculiar situaiton of Ford’s invocation of the notwithstaning clause. . Why else does he not refer to the unprecedented situation of an elected official using the notwithstanding clause to break not only a particular union but trying to abolish the right to strike and the potential of that situation? He acknowledges that the right to strike was at issue, and so was the entire union movement not only in Ontario but throughout Canada (since any provincial government could then use the notwithstanding clause at any time to break a union). This fact was initated by the Ford government, and it threatened (had the potential) to unify different union movements thoughout Canada over the issue (and provide a focal point for community organizations to link their demands to that issue as well). 

The potentialities of the situation, however, should not lead us to the conclusion that workers will spontaneously come to the conclusion that we need to go beyond the collective-bargaining regime. This is where previous socialist criticisms of the limtiations of collective bargaining and collective agreements can play a role. Without such criticism, the extent to which workers will be willing to go beyond such a situation will likely be limited. The negative work required to undermine faith in the fairness of the collective-bargaining system needs to become more general if the potentialities of the system are to be realized in such a way that the workers go beyond such a situation. The danger of co-optation is ever present as a limitation to an expansion of the movement in a socialist direction of the abolition of the class power of employers. (For a short critique of the exaggeration of the implied spontaneous leap in class consciousness in such situations, see The Illusions of Radical Social Democrats or Social Reformers about the Extent of the Impact of the Current Educational Workers Strike Wave in Ontario). 

Overestimation of Rosenfeld’s Own Political Position and Actions

Rosenfeld’s implied claim that only if the workers defeated Bill 28–and then subsequently built on that short-term victory–is consistent with his gradualist approach. Only one step at a time–baby steps. The problem with that approach is that the goal of abolishing the class power of employers is most often forgotten in the process. 

Another problem is that it allows the represenatives of employers to figure out strategies that co-opt the movement (a danger that Roesnfeld simply ignores). I pointed Rosenfeld’s neglect of this in another post:

In relation to capitalism, I first became aware of the idea of proposing the abolition of prisons when I read Thomas Mathiesen’s works The Politics of Abolition and Law, Society and Political action: Towards a Strategy Under Late Capitalism. Mathiesen argues that the capitalist state has become particularly adept at co-opting or neutralizing more radical movements so that it is necessary to emphasis the abolition of structures rather than their reform in order not to contribute to the continuation of repressive structures. From page 73:

In the fourth place, we have seen that legislation which breaks with dominating interests, legislation which in this sense is radical, is easily shaped in such a way during the legislative process that the final legislation does not after all break significantly with dominating interests, as the examples from political practice of trimming, stripping down, the creation of pseudo alternatives, and co-optive co-operation, show.

I have referred, in another post, to the whittling down of the criminalization of employer actions following the murder of the Westray miners in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1992 (see  Working for an Employer May Be Dangerous to Your Health, Part Three). Co-optation is a real danger for the left–and Mr. Rosenfeld minimizes the power of the capitalist state to co-opt movements through reforms.

Rosenfeld’s strategy leads the left down the path to nowhere but reformism and to limits to class struggle that fail to realistically organize to aim for the abolition of the class power of employers. 

Rosenfeld, by arguing that we must create 

the necessary education, organization, and strategizing that socialists and radical activists in and around the union movement must bring to either force or help leaders create opportunities to make it [a general strike] happen.

adopts a conservative stance. We must take baby steps, always being cautious, never assuming that certain situations may have the potential to accelerate class creativity, class organizing and class consciousness. 

The following is another piece of abstract and mechanical thinking (sloppy thinking–a term Rosenfeld used in another atticle to characterize another radical–see my criticism of his views on this in Reform or Abolition of the Police, Part One): 

The education necessary to eventually organize more widespread, radical, and concerted actions still needs to be done within unions, locals, and communities in the education, health care, and other sectors. Is the author of this article willing to contribute to this, or would he prefer to sit on the sidelines and criticize the main protagonists?

This is hardly realistic. Rosenfeld, Jordan House and I presented “educationals” to workers at the Toronto Pearson Airport in the mid 2010s (and, I will admit, they did more work on the course than I did–I never have liked speaking in public). However, at one point, we had to wait almost two years to provide one course. Such educationals hardly provide a dent in the armour of the class of employers. Something much more is needed–and the situation which developed was far more important for providing an educational context than such educationals. 

Let Rosenfeld provide an account of just how he has educated the workers about their exploitation and oppression. Let him enlighten us on just how effective he and his fellow radical conservatives or conservative radicals have educated the workers on their class situation. 

Frankly, his abstract and mechanical thinking leads to a situation of just talking and talking rather than taking bold steps that may indeed fail–but are better than just chattering about socialism without really advancing it at all. His approach reminds me of one part in the Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, where a woman indicates that Brian is going to be crucified  (see   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55fqjw2J1vI ). Chatter, chatter and more chatter. And hardly ever any real critical discussion.

Indeed, when we had three educationals at the airport, the first of them was without hand-picked trade union reps. The educational lost its focus (our curriculum) because the session turned into a series of long complaints about the employer and the union. None of us really had an idea about what to do with the situation. Finally,, I perceived that one of the workers attending had an exaggerated understanding of the power of collective bargaining and collective agreements and did at least manage to point that out. The following two educationals were with hand-picked trade union reps who were more “docile.” Thus, when these hand-picked union reps were presented with the situation at the brewery where I worked (I was not identified in the exercise personally), in which I refused to carry out an order by the foremen, most stated that the person should have grieved the issue and acquiesced–hardly a dignified response and also a response that would have prevented workers to engage in solidarity at the actual workplace–which is what happened. 

Conclusion

I will end here, for now. Rosenfeld obviously believes that limiting the illegal political protest/strike by CUPE education workers to the repeal of Bill 28 was justified under the circumstances. To that end, he engages in name calling by claiming that Schoots-McAlpine’s defense of a general strike expressed a naive, mechanistic and intellectualist point of view. In fact, such a defense is delusional for Rosenfeld. 

Despite his claim to engage in a matrialist analysis of reality, he fails to engage in an analysis of the unique or peculiar situation which not only workers but union leaders faced when Ford passed Bill 28. His materialist analysis is wanting. The same could be said of his lack of analysis of the potentialities of that situation. Bill 28 threatened unions across Canada, and it had the potential to create more permanent links between unions across Canada. In such a situation, workers’ own creativity, organizing capacity and class consciousness could have developed further–if the strike had not been called off on Monday, November 7. Finally, Rosenfeld greatly overestimates his own political postion and actions; his analysis and actions remain puny beside the rage, the actions, the unity and the solidarity of union members, parents and others when Ford passed Bill 28. 

One can only wonder who is delusional in such a situation. 

There are undoubtedly many other issues that have arisen that are relevant to Ford’s attempt to impose a preemptive contract on workers, with the help of the notwithstanding clause. I may or may not write further on this topic and, if I do, I may then convert this into the first part of a two-part series, or I may simply write another post about some related topics on the issue. Or I may just modify this post. 

 

The Call for the Conversion of the GM Oshawa Plant to a Facility for the Production of Medical Equipment in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic

On April 19, 2020, on the Socialist Project website–Retool Oshawa GM Complex to Combat Covid19–there is a press conference by five individuals–Tony Leah (facilitator), Michael Hurley, Rebecca Keetch, Patty Coates and James Hutt–calling on the Canadian government (and the Ontario provincial government) to take over the GM Oshawa plant, which closed on December 19, 2019, in order to facilitate the production of medical equipment, including masks, ventilators, gloves and tests–all of which are in short supply due to the international competition for such equipment as well as the Trump government’s ban on exporting medical equipment into Canada.

Some of the following is taken verbatim from the five presenters without quotes in order to facilitate reading whereas some of it is paraphrased. After a description of what they say, I make some critical comments in relation to the call for public ownership and other issues.

Mr. Hurley, president of the Hospital Division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), emphasizes the urgency of the need for medical equipment for front-line workers. Medical equipment is in short supply to deal with the coronavirus pandemic,  and such equipment is vital if front-line workers are not to succumb to the virus themselves, as many paramedics did in New York.

Ms. Keetch, a former autoworker at GM Oshawa, calls on the Canadian and provincial governments to convert the closed-down GM Oshawa assembly plant into a publicly-owned site in order to use it to produce much needed medical equipment. She points out that other countries and companies have converted car factories into plants for producing medical equipment: the Chinese capitalist company BYD producing masks and hand sanitizers; GM having its workers produce ventilators at its Kokomo Indiana plant; and Ford Canada having its workers produce face masks at its Windsor Ontario plant. She justifies taking over the plant on the basis of putting social need in general before the interest of profit and the particular health and safety needs of workers who have been declared essential, such as hospital workers and grocery workers. There already exists a skilled workforce available to produce the needed medical equipment–the workforce of the former GM plant and the workers of its former suppliers.

Ms. Coates, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour (representing 54 unions and a million workers) indicates her support for the initiative and points out how the Conservative government of Doug Ford had reduced the health-care budget before the pandemic. Health-care workers, patients and community members need vital medical equipment that are currently lacking. She also supports a proposal for workers having 21 paid sick days so that they can stay home if sick without financial hardship and free healthcare for all regardless of immigration status. Workers themselves are calling for such protective measures.

Mr. Hutt does climate and labour justice with the Leap. On the Leap website, it says:

Mission

The Leap’s mission is to advance a radically hopeful vision for how we can address climate change by building a more just world, while building movement power and popular support to transform it into a lived reality.

Since our launch, we’ve drawn heavily on the ideas and networks of our co-founders, Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis.

Mr. Hutt notes that Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, called for manufacturing companies to retool to produce medical equipment, but it is not enough to rely on the goodwill of CEOs and manufacturers to produce what is needed at this time. There is a textile manufacturer, Novo Textile Co, based in Coquitlam, British Columbia, that has ordered machinery from China in order to produce masks, but it has not yet received the equipment. What we need now is fast production of medical equipment.

This shows that we need the government to play a strong role in ensuring that we increase production of medical equipment in order to meet the demand for medical supplies in Canada. This is where GM Oshawa can play a role. The auto assembly plant is one of the largest plants in North America, and yet 90 percent of its capacity is currently going to waste. Furthermore, there are available 5,000 workers who lost their jobs directly through the closing of the factory and 10,000 more workers who, indirectly, became unemployed.

The workers should be hired back in good, well-paying unionized jobs. After all, it is they who produce the value and services needed  by society.

What we need is a people’s bailout, which includes both workers and the environment, instead of a bailout of corporations and banks. The people’s bailout contains three components. Firstly, it responds to the immediate life-and-death needs of front-line workers and by all those whose lives have been turned inside out by the pandemic. Secondly, it helps to recover our lives, but in a new way, through government stimulus in creating a zero-carbon and full employment economy. Thirdly, it helps to reimagine our society. The economy must be transformed to ensure that safety and stability are the priorities for all and not just the 1%.

Nationalizing the plant, or converting it into public ownership, would create 13,000 unionized, well-paying jobs to produce the things that we need, initially in the first component or phase of producing medical equipment and, in the second phase, the production of electric vehicles for, for example, Canada Post, the single largest user of vehicles in Canada, and electric buses across Canada.

The third component or phase would involve the creation of a more just society for all, which entails public ownership of the plant, the provision of production facilities in Canada that would involve internal production of medical equipment throughout Canada.

Mr. Leah then points out that there is a petition that viewers of the Conference can sign, which will be sent to Premier Ford of Ontario and Prime Minister Trudeau (Petition–Order GM to Make Needed PPE).

There was then a question and answer session, with Valerie McDonald (? unsure if this is the name) asking the question of how quickly could the Oshawa plant fully employ the former workforce, whether directly or indirectly, and use the plant to capacity. Another question by Kate (I could not make out her last name) was who would paid for the retooling, the federal or provincial governments, and how much would it cost and how long it would take. Mr. Hurley pointed out that China set up factories within two weeks for the production of fiber masks. Given that the Canadian governments have adopted emergency powers, they could start producing almost immediately. As for the cost, currently Canada is paying almost three times the normal price for medical supplies on the open market; consequently, there would actually be considerable savings by shifting to local production. Ms. Leetch added that in the United States, in Warren, it took about two weeks to be converted and a total of a month for thousands of masks to be produced. She also points that, in relation to costs, it would be necessary for the government to provide aid for retooling. Ms. Coates adds that we need to think about the future beyond this pandemic: we need to have the capacity to produce ventilators and other medical equipment. As for the cost, the issue of cost has little to do with the issue since lives are priceless, and the cost of retooling to save lives not just now but also for the foreseeable future–since there will still be demand for personal protective equipment for some time to come even in the case of the current pandemic. We need a permanent solution to the problem and not a temporary one.

Another couple of questions were: The federal government had no problem purchasing a U.S. owned pipeline company, but now that such a company will be idled, why would the federal government not step in and purchase the plant from GM and retool it? A follow-up question is: Is the plant too large, and can it be adapted to produce medical equipment and other things [unclear if this is the exact question]. Another question is whether the machinery already exists in the plant or must it be imported?

Mr. Hurley indicated that neither the provincial Ontario government nor the federal government has responded in an urgent fashion to the pandemic by forcing employers to retool to produce medical equipment despite hundreds and even thousands of Canadians dying due to the pandemic. It is time that the Trudeau government institute wartime measures to force employers to retool in order to save lives by producing tests, ventilators and other medical equipment that are fundamental to the protection of workers.

Ms. Coates added that not only healthcare workers do not have sufficient protection but also grocery workers, bus drivers and municipal workers are still working and need to be protected during this pandemic.

Ms. Keetch points out that what they are demanding is that the government order production because that will then allocate resources that permit things to happen. As for the plant being too big: not really. We can use whatever space is necessary at the plant right now to address immediate needs. In relation to parallels between the federal government purchasing a pipeline company and purchasing the GM Oshawa plant, but the issue now is to prioritize what needs to be done, and the priority should be to protect Canadian citizens, and both money and the political will need to be found to do that. She does not know whether the machinery is on site, but she does know that Ontarians are experts in manufacturing and have been for decades.

For closing remarks, Ms. Keetch pointed out that the pandemic is an interdependent phenomena, with both the public coming into contact with workers and workers coming into contact with the public, so that both need to protect each other through the use of protective equipment. The use of present resources to meet this need is a common-sense approach.

Tony Leah stated that what happened in the United States in Kokomo and other places in the United States, when the government ordered production, shows that medical equipment can be relatively quickly produced, within a week or two, depending on the complexity of the equipment. He judges GM’s inaction to be shameful, especially since GM took $11 billion in Canadian bailout money during the last economic crisis.

As an emergency measure, it makes sense to convert the idle GM Oshawa plant into a plant where workers could produce much needed medical equipment. As a longer-term measure, it also makes sense to convert the idle plant into a permanent facility for the production of medical equipment in order to prevent any future shortage of medical supplies. Alternatively, once the pandemic has past, it could make sense to convert the plant  into an electric-vehicle factory as originally planned.

From the point of view of the workers who lost their jobs when GM Oshawa closed the plant, it also makes sense to try to be employed again; they could resume the same kind of life that they used to live rather than joining the unemployed.

I did sign the petition, but mainly because it makes sense to pressure the governments to convert the plant into a factory to deal with the pandemic crisis. Given the urgency of the situation, however, there could at least have been reference to seizing the plant by the workers. Seizing the plant could easily have been justified as necessary in order to save lives.

Such seizure, it seems, is probably impractical for a number of reasons. Firstly, the workers themselves have probably been demobilized (moved on to other jobs if they can find them), or they may have abandoned any hope of working at the plant again; others may have accepted a retirement package. Secondly, even if they seized the plant, financing for retooling seems to be beyond their collective means–hence, the need to rely on the government for funding.

However, at least the possibility of seizing the plant and the legitimacy of doing so should have been raised in order to highlight the discrepancy between the real needs of people, the lack of action by the governments and the class power of employers. After all, in normal times, the needs of those who cannot pay are neglected, and the needs of workers for safe working conditions are often neglected as well. Focusing exclusively on what is practical in the situation resulted in another lost opportunity to open up a conversation about the legitimacy of the current economic and political structures.Rather than using the situation as an opportunity to at least point out the legitimacy of seizing the plant–they focus exclusively what is immediately practical. Such “realism” is hardly in the best interests of the working class and of the community.

Mr. Hurley is the person who comes closest to showing such discrepancy, but he limits his criticism to the present governments of Ontario and Canada rather than to the limits of an economy characterized by a dictatorial structure and a modern state characterized, on the one hand, by merely formal equality between “citizens” that often assumes a repressive form (by the police and the courts, for example) and, on the other, a hierarchical dictatorship characteristic of the employer and employee relation within government or the modern state.

The presenters did not use the situation as an opportunity to link the particular–and urgent–problem of a society capable of producing needed medical equipment–to the general problem of a society that excludes not only the needs of people for various goods and services–but also the needs of workers to control their own working lives.

It is true that Mr. Hutt does refer to a third component of a people’s bailout–a reimagined society–but it is more like a social-democratic reimagining more than anything else–and it is utopian. To call for a society that is safe would require the elimination of the power of employers as a class. After all, workers are means for the benefit of employers, and as means their safety is always in jeopardy (for the necessary treatment of workers as means for the benefit of the class of employers, see The Money Circuit of Capital; for the issue of safety, see for example Working for an Employer May Be Dangerous to Your Health, Part One).

As for Mr. Hutt’s call for stability, that too would require the elimination of the power of the class of employers since investment decisions are made for the purpose of accumulating more profitable capital, and such an accumulation process often leads to crises in production and exchange (through overproduction and hence unemployment. Employers also introduce machinery into workplaces, reducing the demand for workers. Since workers are the basis for profit, though, the situation is again ripe for an economic crisis since the production of such a profit requires increasing the exploitation of workers who do work while keeping down their wages through increasing unemployment–overwork for those who work and little work for the unemployed.

Furthermore, given the repressive nature of the employers (see, for example, Employers as Dictators, Part One) and the government (see for example Socialism, Police and the Government or State, Part Two), many peoples’ lives are hardly experienced as stable.  Mr. Hutt’s reference to stability rings hollow.

Does Mr. Hutt really believe in the elimination of a class of employers? The elimination of classes would be what is needed to live a safe and stable life within the limits of the natural world and the limits of our own created world, He nowhere says so. In fact, it is probable that Mr. Hutt believes in the reconstruction of a welfare state–capitalism with a human face. His reference to “good, well-paying unionized jobs” is what is probably the aim–“decent work,” “a fair contract,” and “free collective bargaining.” I have criticized these ideas in earlier posts, so readers can refer to them in order to see their limitations.

Mr. Hutt’s reference to a zero-carbon economy also fails to meet the problem of the infinite nature of the nature of the capitalist economy and the limited earth on which we live. Even if the capitalist economy moves to a zero-carbon economy (free of the use of fossil fuels), the infinite nature of capitalist accumulation would undoubtedly continue to rape the planet (see The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One).

One final point to reinforce the previous post: nationalization and reliance on the modern government and state, typical of the social-democratic left, are hardly democratic. For real democracy and not just formal democracy to arise, it would be necessary to dismantle the repressive nature of the modern government or state. As George McCarthy (2018) remarks, in his book Marx and Social Justice Ethics and Natural Law in the Critique of Political Economy, page 279:

Following closely the military and political events surrounding the [Paris] Commune, Marx recognised very quickly that some of his earlier ideas about the socialist state contained in the Communist Manifesto (1848) were no longer relevant: ‘[T]he working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’.18 The state is not an independent and neutral political organisation capable of yielding power for one class and then another; it is not simply an issue of gaining control over the state and then implementing economic and social reforms. Rather, the republican state, utilising its political and legal apparatus, is an oppressive mechanism of social control preserving the class interests of the bourgeois economic system, and this, too, would also have to be restructured. Continuing arguments from On the Jewish Question (1843), Marx contends that the role of the French state was to maintain the economic and political power of the propertied class: ‘[T]he state power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labour, of a public force organised for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism’. Therefore, with this in mind, the Commune’s first actions were to dismantle the various component parts of the French state, including the army, police, bureaucracy, clergy, and the judiciary. Thus an entirely new form of government would have to be constructed that conformed to the socialist ideals of human emancipation and political freedom.

To talk of “democratic public ownership” in the context of a sea of economic dictatorship both within and outside the modern government or state stimulates high expectations that are bound to be dashed in the real world.

The earlier call by Green Jobs Oshawa was to nationalize the plant and to produce electric vehicles may seem also to make sense, but I will address this issue in another post in reference to the Socialist Project’s pamphlet Take the Plant–Save the Planet: The Struggle for Community Control and Plant Conversion at GM Oshawa. 

Addendum:

The above post was posted at 1:00 a.m., Friday, April 24. In the afternoon, it was announced that the GM Oshawa plant would indeed be retooled to produce a million masks a month for essential workers (see GM Oshawa plant will now produce millions of masks following worker mobilization: CUPE Ontario). The federal Trudeau government and GM signed a letter of intent to that effect. The response from one of the unions that represent front-line hospital workers–the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE):

 “We mobilized our community through a petition and public events and it goes to show that collective action works. This unprecedented victory is now an opportunity to push the Ford Conservatives to also retool private companies to produce what Ontarians need.”

To produce what Ontario needs: What does that mean? They are probably  referring to the production of needed medical equipment:

“The Ford Conservatives need to learn from this example and order the private sector to ramp up production of these supplies – or retool factories if necessary,” said Fred Hahn, President of CUPE Ontario, highlighting feeder plants and other manufacturing facilities across the province. “They’ve had no problem unilaterally issuing orders that override the freely-negotiated collective agreements of front-line workers. They now need to use their power to order the immediate production of PPE for everyone who needs it.”

The use of the abandoned GM Oshawa plant for the production of medical equipment is indeed a victory–this is vital if frontline workers are to be protected from the coronavirus.

It should be noted, though, that this victory is probably a short-term victory. The urgent need for masks for frontline workers, as I pointed out above, could have been used to justify at least theoretically the seizure of the GM Oshawa plant by the workers who used to work there. Since the call for using the GM Oshawa plant and the retooling needed are separated from any reference to the legitimate right of the workers to seize the plant, when the need for the production of masks no longer exists, the plant will probably revert to its former status as an abandoned capitalist factory. The workers will have a difficult time justifying the continued maintenance of production at the plant given their short-term victory. Indeed, given that the form of the announcement is a letter of intent between the federal government and GM, shifting production to masks, in the eyes of many, will probably be viewed as a result of actions by government and employer rather than by workers and unions.

Another problem is that it is unclear who will be rehired to produce the masks, and how many will be rehired.

The urgency of the need for medical equipment is short-term–but it should have been used for long-term gains. Instead, an opportunity for shifting public opinion towards the legitimization of the seizure of workplaces by workers has been squandered.

The Silences of the Social-Democratic Left on the Standards They Use in Relation to Health and Safety

I had a debate on the Facebook page of the Toronto Airport Workers Council (TAWC), an organization designed to facilitate communication and common actions among unions at the Toronto International Pearson Airport. The issue was health and safety and workers’ compensation. In Canada, most workers who work for an employer are covered by workers’ compensation–a fund derived from premiums that employers pay, based on the rate and extent of accidents in the particular industry as well as the accident record of particular employers. Being covered by workers’ compensation means that, if an injury (or disease) is work related, then the worker has the right to be compensated.

The following conversation occurred on October 18, 2019, first with an anonymous member of TAWC and then with the TAWC member Mike Corrado (who is also the general chairperson of the central region of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW):

Premier Ford [of Ontario,Canada] says he cares about safety, but after the 5th temp agency worker death at Fiera Foods Company, he still refuses to take action. Legislation already exists to stop companies from treating temp workers’ lives as disposable. Tell FordNationto implement this law, now! VISIT: www.15andFairness.org

Fred Harris Are there any statistics about now many non-temporary agency workers have died since 1999? Or even during Doug Ford’s term as premier? Is one death one too many in that situation? If so, what is being done about it? Why the focus exclusively on temporary workers? Certainly, that issue should be addressed–but what about those who supposedly have :”good jobs” (unionized, for example)? Do they not still die needlessly in the context of an economy dominated by a class of employers?

Tawc Yyz Thats far too many questions to realistically answer on this post.

Fred Harris Let us assume that this is the case. There are six questions in the above post. Take any question and answer it. Or perhaps one question per week? Or per month? Every two months?

Should not at least one question be answered now? If not, why not?

Take any of the six questions and answer it. Or is one quetion “too much” to realistically answer on this post?”

I remember when I worked at one of those so-called “decent jobs” that much of the social-democratic left talk about. One night, a few days after the brewery was “inspected” (mysteriously the brewery was advised of the inspection beforehand so that the machinery, etc. could be cleaned), a worker lost a couple of fingers when his glove got caught in a chain on the conveyor belt. Not long afterwards, we started to produce beer again.

I guess non-temporary workers have it so good that the issue of whether workers will ever be safe under working conditions controlled in large part by employers should not be brought up? That the general issue of the unsafe working conditions in various forms should not be brought up? Or is that too many questions to answer in a post? If so, then feel free to answer it on my blog.

That temporary workers are more subject to the possibility of unsafe working conditions than regular working conditions is probably true (I worked as a substitute teacher–a temporary worker–though not for a temp agency) for a number of years. That did not prevent me from questioning the more general question.

Mike Corrado The brewery workers were fully covered under worker’s compensation or WSIB whereas temp workers aren’t afforded with the same rights!

Open Letter to Premier Ford
October 8, 2019

RE: Urgent action required after fifth temp worker death at Fiera Foods

Dear Premier Doug Ford,

As you know, on Wednesday, September 25, Enrico Miranda, a father of two, was killed on the job. As you also know, Mr. Miranda is the fifth temporary agency worker who has died on the job at Fiera Foods or an affiliated company.

Shockingly, it has been almost two weeks since his death and yet we have heard nothing from you. You have chosen to remain silent, despite having the power to implement legislation that could have prevented this tragedy.

Mr. Ford, this is the second worker killed at Fiera Foods under your watch.

Had you implemented Section 83(4) of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act – legislation which has already passed, but simply needs your signature – Mr. Miranda might still be alive today.

That’s why we are writing to you to demand that you immediately enact this existing law that will make companies using temp agencies financially responsible under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act for workplace deaths and injuries.

Laws like this will make companies like Fiera Foods think twice before putting temp workers into harm’s way.

There’s no more time to waste, and we need you to take action to make sure this is the last temp agency worker death.

Implement Section 83(4) of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act – right now!

We expect to hear from you right away, and certainly no later than Friday, October 11.

Ontarians deserve to know whether their premier will stand up for workers – or whether he will remain silent and continue allowing companies to treat their workers’ lives as disposable.

Fred Harris Yes, the brewery workers were “fully covered under worker’s compensation or WSIB”–and is this compensation for the man who lost his two fingers?

Furthermore, substitute teachers (at least in Manitoba) are not covered by workers compensation.

In addition, the answer that “being fully covered under workers’ compensation” (or not) skirts the question of whether workers, whether covered or not, can ever be safe under conditions that are dominated by a class of employers.

Why shift the issue to being “fully covered under worker’s compensation or WSIB” or not to the issue of whether human safety is really possible under conditions dominated by a class of employers?

Of course, this does not mean that workers who are not covered by worker’s compensation should not struggle to obtain coverage (and others should support such struggle). However, the standard is itself ‘workers who are covered by worker’s compensation or WSIB”–an inadequate standard,.

Let us assume that all workers who work for employers are covered by worker’s compensation. On such a view, then workers would be safe? If not, why not? How many workers have suffered injury at the airport in the last five years? Two years? One year? Do they qualify for worker’s compensation?

Finally, legislation can prevent some injuries and deaths–but hardly all injuries and deaths under existing conditions of domination of the economy by a class of employers and the social structures that go along with that domination. Human beings are things to be used by employers–like machines. Given that situation, there are bound to be injuries and deaths. Or why is it that there around 1000 deaths at work a year in Canada and over 600,000 injuries?

No further response was forthcoming. Was my question about whether being covered by workers’ compensation was an adequate standard out of line? Do not workers deserve an answer to the question? Why the silence?

To be fair to Mike Corrado, at least he broke the silence typical of much of the social-democratic left. Unfortunately, he chose to then revert back to the silence so typical of the social-democratic left when it comes to the power of employers as a class.

Furthermore, Mr. Corrado’s position with respect to the power of employers as a class shines through on the same Facebook page just prior to the Canadian federal elections held on October 21, 2019:

Election Day is Monday. Family values, workers rights, healthcare, pharmacare, the economy, privatization, electoral reform, the environment and the wealthy paying their fair share are at stake and so is my child’s future!

I too am for workers’ rights, healhcare, pharmacare, etc. But what does Mr. Corrado mean by “the wealthy paying their fare share?” This is a social-democratic slogan or cliche. What does it mean? There is no elaboration about what it means. The slogan implies that the wealthy should continue to be wealthy–but only that they should “pay their fair share.” As long as they pay “their fair share,” they can continue to treat workers as things at work. They can continue to make decisions about what to produce, how to produce, when to produce and where to produce. They can continue to dictate to workers (subject to the collective agreement). They can continue to make decisions concerning how much of their wealth will be reinvested and how much will be personally consumed (determining thereby the rate of accumulation and the level of economy growth and the quality of that growth).

Just as the social-democratic left are silent concerning the adequacy of the standard of workers’ compensation, so too they are silent concerning the legitimacy of the existence of a class of persons who make decisions that affect, directly and indirectly, the lives of millions of workers.

Why the silence? Why are not workers constantly talking about these issues?