The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Three: Collective Bargaining and the Interests of the Working Class

This is a continuation of a critique of an academic leftist (aka academic historical materialist), the philosopher Jeff Noonan.

Another example of the limitations of Professor Noonan’s analysis is the following
(from Thinkings 4Collected Interventions, Readings, Evocations, 2014-2015,page 10):

And sometimes it is necessary to struggle to protect or extend our rights as workers to help determine our conditions of work.

The context for the statement is Professor Noonan’s defense of workers’ right to strike. The problem with this argument is located in his use of the word “sometimes.” Since order-in-council 1003, enacted in 1944 during the Second World War, workers have not had the right to strike during the terms of a collective agreement in Canada. What happens during the terms of a collective agreement? Workers are generally expected to grieve an order, a procedure and so forth by management but continue to work. Is this something with which Professor Noonan agrees? His use of the word “sometimes” seems to imply that as well as his defense of the right to strike–a right that legally arises only after the expiration of a collective agreement.

But what of the need to struggle during the terms of a collective agreement? It may appear that Professor Noonan is sympathetic to the working class and to socialism, and yet his silence concerning, on the one hand, the general legitimacy of collective agreements in the context of the power of a class of employers and, on the other, his silence concerning the need to engage in struggle during the terms of a collective agreement demonstrate the limitations of his approach.Indeed, the International Workers of the World (IWW) have recognized the need to engage in struggle in various forms, with escalating consequences rather than just the strike; the strike, rather, is a high-end pressure tactic and not generally the first form of tactic to engage in in order to achieve workers’ own ends.

This does not mean that workers will engage in struggle continuously; workers of course need to pick and choose their struggles. However, the defense of the right to strike without any mention of the need to struggle against employers during the term of a collective agreement (and not just in the form of grievances) is a very limited defense of the interests of the working class.

It may seem that Professor Noonan recognizes the limitations of collective bargaining. He says the following (page 11):

Collective bargaining is a difficult process. At its best, it is a rare opportunity for workers to participate in the determination of their conditions of work, rather than simply accept whatever conditions are offered. Collective bargaining allows workers to deliberate together as a democratic body about how they think their work should be organized and compensated and to make their case to the employer. Despite what employers publicly maintain, there is no equality of power. Since employers retain ultimate legal control over the workplace, since they continue to draw full salary during any work stoppage, and since the legislative deck is stacked in their favour, without solidarity, both between members of the bargaining unity and between the bargaining unit and the wider community of labour and concerned citizens, the employer is typically in an advantaged position.

How does “solidarity, both between members of the bargaining unity [unit?] and between the bargaining unit and the wider community of labour and concerned citizens” overcome the power of employers as a class? A particular employer may have to concede relative defeat due to certain favourable conditions of a particular section of the working class, but the fact that workers still have to work for an employer involves “an advantaged position” of employers as a class–including the relatively “disadvantaged” employer.

Further evidence of the inadequacy of Professor Noonan’s position can be seen from the following (page 11):

We have only taken strike votes in the face of protracted impasses at the bargaining table over issues of fundamental importance to the membership.

Professor Noonan is trying to present the Windsor University Faculty Association as being reasonable; it does not engage in needless strike votes but only “over issues of fundamental importance of the membership.” This seems eminently reasonable–except it neglects the management rights clause, implicit or explicit, in collective agreements. What if an issue arises “of fundamental importance” to “the membership” during the term of a collective agreement that is not grievable?

Professor Noonan, further, argues the following (page 12):

Why, then, has bargaining often stretched into the fall? The answer is that both sides have too often brought so many items to the table that it took that long to work through them all in a responsible manner.

Perhaps university professors, who have greater control over what they do, how they do their work, and when they do their work than most other employees, need not bring “so many items to the table,” but the implicit or explicit management rights clause for most employees involves the general power of employers and their representatives, managers, to determine what to do, how to do it and when to do it. It is quite understandable why there are many items on the negotiating table from employees’ point of view–the collective agreement is a limiting document, restricting the power of management to exercise its right as management.

In fact, when I was a member of a negotiating team for Operating Engineers Local 858, Prince George, British Columbia, Canada, I consciously tried to show the workers how many items on the table we had to remove in order to obtain what we obtained by presenting all items desired on the left-hand side of the bargaining bulletin and either an x or check mark on the right-hand side. The union business manager had to present this format to a ratification meeting for those in Prince George (because she had asked me to draft it), but since the bargaining unit extended beyond Prince George, ratification also assumed the form of mail-in ballots. The union business manager changed the format to show only what we won before sending out an information bulletin.

Professor Noonan says, further (page 12):

Nevertheless, despite the nightmares of right-wing pundits, university faculties are not full of rabid leftists chomping at the bit to prosecute the class struggle (there are a few of us still left, but I can assure everyone we are in a small minority). Most faculty members care most about their research and their teaching, they do not want either interrupted by either lockouts or strikes, and most are loath to engage in struggles that might harm the reputation of the institutions in which their own reputations as academics are forged. You really have to push academics hard to anger them enough as a collective to make them want to strike (or a strongly resist an imposed lockout).

Although some or even many or even most university professors may find doing research and teaching meaningful in itself, as you go down the line of jobs, with less and less control and more precarious work, the extent of a job being meaningful probably decreases correspondingly. Even jobs in schools, with some control over pedagogy can be less important than other aspects of the job (such as pay and vacation). Although workers try to find meaning in their work in various ways (in the brewery, for example, some workers would play “ball” with beer bottles when the foremen were not looking), many workers have families and find the work more a means to an end rather than an end in itself. (This is the “decent work” that social democrats and reformers persistently talk about–without discussion–such clichés).

In the context in which Professor Noonan is speaking–a union of university professors–it may make sense to speak of striking as a last ditch effort by them to avoid a strike if at all possible–it makes less sense as the work becomes less and less meaningful. Workers in various sectors (whether public or private) may not like to strike–it interrupts their own lives and makes life difficult in various ways–but even when a collective agreement is signed, they are more prone to strike and engage in covert (and, if necessary, overt) actions that express their treatment as things to be used by employers.

Professor Noonan’s neglect of the relatively privileged status of university professors in relation to other workers leads him to assert the following:

Whether or not it was ever practiced in reality, the principle of collegial self-governance is the goal to which universities should aspire. Unlike for profit businesses, universities do not have owners whose goal is to maximise profits. Instead, all members of the institution– faculty, librarians, learning specialists, lab technicians, students, support workers, and administration have the same goal—the advance of human knowledge and creativity in the widest and most comprehensive sense. If that claim is true, then it should follow that all the groups who together make up the university ought to cooperate (not without respectful disagreement) in the determination of the budgets, policies, rules, and goals that guide the institution’s mission. The best ideas emerge through deliberative and democratic argument—no one group knows best just because of the position they occupy in the hierarchy.

This view is ideology in the worst sense of the term. In a society dominated by employers–including public-sector employers like universities, it is highly unlikely that such workers as “lab technicians, students and support workers” have the same goal–“the advance of human knowledge and creativity in the widest and most comprehensive sense.” Such a view may apply in a socialist organization, but to assume such a situation in universities, which function in a capitalist context, is bound to lead to inadequate policies and theories.

Consider support workers. I worked twice at a university library, once doing my practicum to obtain a library and information technology diploma from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) at the University of Calgary main library, in the cataloguing department. At the University of Calgary, I noted that the work situation was characterized by a very hierarchical, top-down power structure. One worker commented that she would prefer a benevolent dictator to a mean one; of course, but why have a dictator at all? At least this worker recognized that there was a dictator–unlike Professor Noonan.

At the University of Manitoba Dafoe Library, the same hierarchy existed, but there was even more repression (including racist oppression). Was “the left” at the University even aware of this? Not that I could see. Has Professor Noonan even inquired about the working conditions of subordinates at the University of Windsor? Has he tried to criticize trade unionists who adopt an ideology of “decent work?”

It is much easier to criticize from afar than near at hand–much less dangerous. Talk of “democracy” that does not threaten one’s own work position is pure rhetoric.

As I wrote in my previous post:

Furthermore, a few privileged sets of workers (such as tenured university professors) may seem to have “decent jobs,” but even that situation has eroded over time. It should not be forgotten that such relatively privileged workers exist in a sea of workers, whether unionized or not, who are things to be used by employers systematically and legally. University professors cannot engage in research, teaching and administrative activities unless there are other workers who produce their food, clothing, cars and so forth.

This division of labour is implied in a poem by one of the most famous poets of Gutemala, Otto Rene Castillo (from Apolitical Intellectuals):

Apolitical Intellectuals

One day
the apolitical
intellectuals
of my country
will be interrogated
by the simplest
of our people.

They will be asked
what they did
when their nation died out
slowly,
like a sweet fire
small and alone.

No one will ask them
about their dress,
their long siestas
after lunch,
no one will want to know
about their sterile combats
with “the idea
of the nothing”
no one will care about
their higher financial learning.

They won’t be questioned
on Greek mythology,
or regarding their self-disgust
when someone within them
begins to die
the coward’s death.

They’ll be asked nothing
about their absurd
justifications,
born in the shadow
of the total lie.

On that day
the simple men will come.

Those who had no place
in the books and poems
of the apolitical intellectuals,
but daily delivered
their bread and milk,
their tortillas and eggs,
those who drove their cars,
who cared for their dogs and gardens
and worked for them,
and they’ll ask:

“What did you do when the poor
suffered, when tenderness
and life
burned out of them?”

Apolitical intellectuals
of my sweet country,
you will not be able to answer.

A vulture of silence
will eat your gut.

Your own misery
will pick at your soul.

And you will be mute in your shame.”

Collective agreements do not exist in a vacuum but form part of interrelated social relations; to exclude such relations when considering the nature and legitimacy of collective agreements is to empty collective agreements of the background conditions which give them meaning in the first place.

What Kind of Organization or Structure does an Anti-Capitalist Struggle Require?

The following is a critical look at a leftist conference held on April 26, 2014 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, entitled Building Solidarity Against Austerity. Session 3. Fighting Austerity Today. Specifically, it looks critically at the presentation by Dave Bush, a leftist activist in Toronto, who argues that it is necessary to create an organization for the long-term struggle.

Mr. Bush implies that we need something beyond the New Democratic Party (NDP), which is a social-reformist political party, but he does not explicitly explain why we need something beyond it. Implicitly, though, he argues that a new organization is needed to fight against the neoliberal austerity program.

The new organization required seems to be a purely negative organization since its main purpose is to fight against austerity. Fighting against austerity, however, is not necessarily the same as abolishing the class relation between employers and employees.
Indeed, fighting against austerity is perfectly consistent with the stated aims of the NDP and other social democratic organizations. On the federal NDP website , it states:

Canada’s NDP has a proud history of fighting for ordinary Canadians and delivering results. Over the last 50 years, New Democrats have helped ensure the introduction of universal medical care, public pensions, and the expansion of Canada’s social safety net.

New Democrats are champions for people – not corporations or the ultra-rich. We believe in building a society that is more equal and more just for everybody. We are determined to fight for solutions people urgently need right now. From skyrocketing housing prices to soaring out-of-pocket healthcare costs – Canadians haven’t received the help they need.

Mr. Bush perhaps advocates for a new organization because the NDP does not, in practice, live up to its own claims. This interpretation is justified since Mr. Bush points out that we need to think about what is needed to the left of the NDP. Yes, we do. Unfortunately, his references to “ripping apart our collective services” seems to assume that public services are our services. Public services are hardly democratic, as he undoubtedly knows, and yet his vocabulary leads to a false image of the public sector as a collectivity of some sort. Workers in the public sector are employees just as much as employees in the private sector. How being “public services” magically converts being a public employee into a collective organization that provides “our collective services” is never explained.

Mr. Bush also refers to “making gains beyond a specific campaign” as being strategic. In what sense is it strategic? One campaign to which he refers in Halifax was to fight for converting hydro from a private corporation and monopoly into a public one. I certainly agree that privatization should be fought against, but the left then tends to limit its demands to its opposite–make it public, which is exactly what Solidarity Halifax advocated. Nationalizing utilities, however, is hardly a socialist measure if by a socialist measure you mean increased control over our lives at work and in life generally.

Nationalizing hydro does not even take it to the same level as education (at the public school level) and health services in that, at least theoretically, the use of the services do not require money. To use hydro that is publicly run by the capitalist state still requires that the users have money. How is that a major socialist gain? From the point of view of public workers, how is it a gain? Do they not have “jobs” working for an employer (the capitalist state)? Is that what is meant by socialism? How is that a enriching life, to have to work for the capitalist state as your employer?

Mr. Bush argues that advocating for the nationalization (or rather provincialization) of hydro was strategic for two additional reasons than just the need to protect public services as public: firstly the private corporation would raise rates whenever it wanted to do so, so there was a potential large opposition to it and hence for conversion to a public corporation. Secondly, none of the regular political parties, including the NDP, were making it an issue. Hence, Solidarity Halifax could distinguish itself by focusing on a large potential need.

However, It could in fact be said that Mr. Bush and the rest of the left is now in fact a purely anti-austerity movement. It considers, practically, that fighting against austerity is the only practical thing to do. To challenge the power of employers as a class is off the agenda forever for the left here in Toronto and indeed in most parts of Canada. At best, Mr. Bush illustrates the limits of the social-reformist left, which cannot envision a world beyond the power of employers as a class.

Mr. Bush also says that we need to engage in coalition building. On what basis? There was little discussion about what the goals of such coalition building would be,

Coalition building perhaps was supposed to be centered around the fight against privatization in general and the privatization of Canadian postal services in particular. This seems to be some of what Mr. Bush is aiming to achieve. However, having services performed by state employees rather than the private sector may be preferable in that, on the one hand, more employees are proportionately unionized in the public sector than in the private sector and, on the other, at least on the side of consumption workers who receive services do not need to pay directly out of their pocket; consumption is socialized and made available to all (in theory if not always in practice).

Although these two reasons form a basis for fighting against austerity, they hardly question the principle recognized theoretically but not practically by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) (a leftist organization that resists policies that lead to “immiseration and destitution”): that economic coercion forms the necessary base of class relations in a capitalist society. State employees are subject to economic coercion like their private-sector counterparts (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

Fighting against austerity through nationalization and other measures should be a means towards the end of abolishing the power of employers as a class; fighting austerity should not be an end in itself–which is what Mr. Bush seems to seek.

Mr. Bush further argues that the community’s role is mainly one of support. Admittedly, he makes this assertion in the context of the potential privatization of postal services, but is that the major role of the community? Is the community merely to be a reflective support for “labour” (actually, unionized workers), or can it not be both supportive and critical? Or can it be supportive by being critical? The view that the community’s main role is to be supportive assumes that the union movement represents a standard that is sufficiently robust and powerful to justify subordinating the community to it.

Why should we accept that assumption? The open letter by John Cartwright, president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council to the union movement on January 30, 2018,  refers to economic justice, and yet in another post (see Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part Two), it was pointed out just how inadequate is Cartwright’s implicit claim that the union movement has as its goal economic justice when the power of employers as a class is not questioned.

It can be further added that the nationalization of hydro involves its own set of problems that the social-democratic left do not seem to want to address. For example, public sector workers are employees. Being employees, they lack freedom in various ways. How does the fact that public sector workers are employees relate to socialism? Is socialism consistent with the existence of employees? If so, then it is consistent with using human beings as things, is it not? Is that then socialism or capitalism?

What is more likely meant by socialism is what existed before the emergence of what is called neoliberalism: a truce between unions, employers and government and the resurgence of the old welfare state.

What I call socialism would include the abolition of the employer-employee relation–period. It is not about nationalizing utilities and converting institutions merely from private to public government; it would involve the democratization of the economy (see Socialism, Part One: What It May Look Like,  Socialism, Part Two: What It May Look Like,   Socialism, Part Three: What It May Look Like, or Visions of a Better Kind of Society Without Employers).

Despite these many limitations of Mr. Bush’s presentation of what an anti-capitalist movement needs to become, his idea of having an organization as a membership based organization does have merit. The idea is that membership will determine what is feasible in terms of human capacity. If there are only four members, then only four-member actions should be taken. If 400 members, then larger actions, or more coordinated actions, can emerge. Mr. Bush’s recognition of some of the limitations placed on leftist organizations, unfortunately, does not extend to any recognition of his own views on leftist organization.

Mr. Bush claims that it is necessary to build a non-sectarian left, but what that means he fails to spell out. His own brand of anti-capitalism is really only anti-austerity and is itself sectarian.

Management Rights, Part Five: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario

There are some among the left who idealize the public sector. They fail to address how the public sector magically treats workers in the public sector, who are employees, as human beings rather than as things. They have no solution to the problem of the employer-employee relation in general except–nationalization. Such nationalization hardly implies democratization and humanization of the workplace, and yet the left continue to idealize the public sector.

From page 1, Collective Agreement:

THIS AGREEMENT made this 16th day of September, 2016
BETWEEN:
UNIVERSITY OF WINDSOR, hereinafter called the ‘Employer
OF THE FIRST PART
and
UNIFOR LOCAL 2458 –
(FULL TIME OFFICE & CLERICAL UNIT) hereinafter call the “
Union”
OF THE SECOND PART:

ARTICLE 2 -MANAGEMENT RIGHTS

2:01 The Union acknowledges that all managerial rights of the Employer hitherto exercised by the Employer shall be reserved to it, except to the extent herein limited; and without limiting the generality of the foregoing, the Union acknowledges that it is the right of the Employer to:

(a) Manage, conduct and operate the University of Windsor;

(b) Maintain order, discipline and efficiency;

(c) Establish and enforce rules and regulations consistent with the provisions of this Agreement, governing the conduct of the employees;

(d) Hire, classify, direct, transfer, lay off, promote, demote, suspend, discipline or discharge employees for just cause provided that a claim of direction, transfer, promotion, demotion, lay off, suspension, discipline or discharge without just cause may be the subject of a grievance under the orderly procedure as outlined in this Agreement.

2:02 The Employer agrees that such rights shall be exercised in a fair manner consistent with the terms and provisions of this Agreement.

2:03 The Employer will inform the Union and the Chairperson, in writing, with at least one (1) month notice, prior to any changes concerning rules and regulations as referred to in 2:01 (c) above.

Should the radical left not develop a more critical approach to the public sector? Should it not also develop a more thoroughgoing critical analysis of this sector (as Marx did for the private sector)? What of public financing? What is the left’s analysis of such financing? In relation to the employer-employee relation and the power structure at work in the public sector?

Should the left engage in self-criticism–including its own theoretical, empirical and practical limitations?