Working for an Employer May Be Dangerous to Your Health, Part Two

I thought it appropriate to post on the issue of safety and health in relation to working for an employer at this time since, in Canada, April 28 is the National Day of Mourning, or Workers’ Mourning Day, for workers killed, injured or suffering illnesses due to workplace hazards.

Why do unions and the social-reformist left often speak in terms of “fairness,” “fair contracts,” “economic justice,” and so forth in the light of persistent deaths and injuries on the job? They do so in order to justify their own practices–which generally do not question the legitimacy of the power of employers as a class. By limiting their reference to fairness and justice to social relations within the present class system, they serve as ideologues or representatives of employers (even if they do not intend to do so).

Part of the purpose of this blog is to undermine the typical ways of thinking about social problems among the social-democratic or reformist left and among radicals. It is highly unlikely that any major social changes will arise without a frontal attack on the ways of thinking of many workers (including trade unionists). Tom Dwyer points out the importance of this task (Life and Death at Work: Industrial Accidents as a Case of Socially Produced Error, pages 97-98:)

The effect whereby notions of truth and justice are undermined is of great importance for sociology, anthropology, and, as we shall see in highly complex industries, for cognitive psychology. This effect potentially modifies cultural systems, contributes to the destruction of one set of visions of truth and justice and their replacement through the building up of another

Of course, notions of truth and justice are not just undermined and others arise through ideological means. Struggles against those in power play an important part, but the explicit critique of old, upper-class expressions of truth and justice and their replacement by new, working-class expressions of truth and justice are important in unifying the direction of diverse movements consciously and in modifying the direction of each separate struggle accordingly.

The idealization of unions by the left, on the other hand, play into the hands of employers since union representatives and rank-and-file members often diverge over key concerns related to, for example, safety and health issues (from Dwyer,  pages 78-79):

Studies from the United States illustrate this last point: the union movement perceives safety in a manner different to workers. A survey by the Upjohn Institute found that unionized automobile and steel workers placed job health and safety issues at the top of their priorities. This was corroborated by a national survey which found that in “the labor standards areas . . . most important to workers were those relating principally to the general area of health and safety.”121 In the Upjohn study, union leaders and top management “both thought money rather than working conditions deserved the most attention, an almost exact reversal of the blue collar attitudes.”122 In other words, these are clear
signs that the union movement integrates an uneasy tension between political demands, which are perceived, built, and responded to by its leadership, and social demands from its base.

It is high time the radical left begin to openly criticize the persistent ideological conceptions of truth and justice characteristic of trade union reps. If they do not, they form part of the problem rather than a solution to the social problems characteristic of capitalism and the domination of our lives by the class of employers.

Working for an Employer May Be Dangerous to Your Health, Part One

The title is a variation of one of the subsections in chapter two of Jeremy Reiman’s The Rich Get Richer … and the Poor Get Prison.

In a couple of earlier posts, I pointed out that working for an employer involves needless deaths and injuries (The Issue of Health and Safety in the Workplace Dominated by a Class of EmployersGetting Away with Murder and Bodily Assault: Employers and the Law). I have decided to start writing a series of posts on the issue of health and safety in the workplace since it is a key issue for workers.

Consider the following on the Fight for $15 and “Fairness” website (Fight for $15):

We NEED fair labour laws to save lives

On Tuesday, October 23, the Doug Ford government introduced Bill 47. This legislation seeks to impose a real dollar cut in the minimum wage and eliminate most of our new workplace rights, including paid sick days, equal pay for equal work, and more. If passed, this outrageous legislation will force millions into poverty, while putting workers’ health and safety at risk.

The introduction of Bill 47 by the conservative Ford government in Ontario, Canada (and the repeal of Bill 148, which introduced an increase in the minimum wage and a number of needed reforms of employment law) is presented as preventing the institution of “workers’ health and safety.” If Bill 148 had not been repealed and if Bill 47 were not passed (it was), then “workers’ health and safety” would not be “at risk.”  This is the unconscious or implicit assumption and message of the author of the article on that website. It is also the stated or unstated assumption of the social-reformist left.

The social-reformist left must absolutize the reforms which they seek. By absolutize, I mean that they must claim that there is somehow a fair situation that results if what they seek is realized. It is not, for them, a question of something fairer be realized but rather something that is fair.

The article mentions the community and union opposition that emerged against Bill 147, as well it should.

A little further down in the article, the recent death of a temporary worker at Fiera Foods is mentioned, and a vigil is called for. The vigil is to be lauded, and the article emphasizes that this is the fourth temporary worker killed working for the same food-processing plant.

However, the following is then claimed:

We know this heartbreaking death is not an isolated event…. It is what happens – and what will happen in the future – if workers are treated as disposable and if the laws meant to protect us are weakened, or not enforced at all.

Labour laws, like collective agreements, can certainly contribute to the improvement of workers’ lives, but can labour laws really prevent workers from being “treated as disposable?” It is the very nature of a society dominated by a class of employers that workers are disposable; to think otherwise is to not understand the basic nature of such a society (see   The Money Circuit of Capital)  for a characterization of workers as means or things for ends defined by employers).

The article then provides some probable consequences of instituting Bill 47, but it fails to consider whether, even if Bill 47 were withdrawn (it was not, and it passed), whether this would be sufficient to protect workers in an economy structured on the basis of the control of billions of workers throughout the world by a class of employers:

Let’s be clear about the serious implications of Bill 47:

  • When the government says freeze the minimum wage for 33 months, it means a real dollar cut in earnings for the lowest-paid workers in the province. After that wage cut, the minimum wage would only be adjusted in accordance with the previous year’s price increases (Consumer Price Index). It could be 2025 by the time the minimum wage reaches $15, and by then, a $15 wage will, once again, fall below the poverty line. This government wants to reimpose poverty on millions of workers in this province.

  • When the government says it wants to cut paid sick days, it is saying it has no problem forcing workers to work while they are sick or injured. It is saying they have no problem with parents having to send their sick child to school where they might spread illness to other children and education workers. It says this government has a complete disregard for the health and well-being of the people who keep this province functioning.

  • When the government says it wants to re-impose a requirement for Doctors’ notes, it is saying it has no problem forcing sick workers into hospital waiting rooms and risk spreading disease to others. It has no problem clogging up our health care system for visits that the Ontario Medical Association has said are unnecessary, wasteful, and costly. It says this government has no problem imposing red tape on workers and health providers.

  • When this government reduces penalties for employers who openly disregard the law – as Bill 47 seeks to do – this government is telling Ontario’s most unscrupulous employers that it is open season on the most vulnerable workers in this province. Especially those who work in temp agencies.

It is good to expose the extreme business-oriented position of the Conservative government, and the article is to be lauded for that. However, the following undermines this by implying that fair labour laws can somehow be achieved in the context of the present structure of the economy:

We need your help to deliver a message to Premier Doug Ford and his government: Fair labour laws, save lives. Bill 47 has not been passed, and it needs to be withdrawn immediately. Our elected officials must ensure our safety and well-being on the job, not jeopardize it.

Labour laws may increase the workers’ power by limiting further the power of employers as a class, but unless the labour law somehow challenges the principle of the power of employers as a class, it cannot be the sole basis for protecting workers from being used as disposable means for the benefit of employers. Workers should fight for labour laws that can serve as means to protect them from some of the ravages of employer-dominated establishments, but they should also organize initially at the local level on the shop floor as a fighting force that can oppose the power of management to treat them  as things to be used for goals not of their own making. Furthermore, they should realize that no labour law and no local level organization can protect them from the ravages of an economy in which they are economically dependent on employers; labour laws and local organizations can only reduce the likelihood of injury and accident but not eliminate it. The very nature of their economic dependence and their treatment as things includes the very real possibility of workplace injury and accident.

Should we not take seriously the following (from Bob Barnetson, The Political Economy of Workplace Injury in Canada, page 2):

Perspectives on workplace injury

How you react to the vast number of workers injured and killed each year reflects your values and beliefs. Are these injures inevitable? Are they just the cost of doing business? One way to look at workplace injuries is from an economic perspective. This view sees the risk of injury as minimal, unavoidable and, ultimately, acceptable. Is it the price we (or at least workers) must pay for a “healthy” economy? If we are going to lower the risk of injury, we need to ensure the cost is less than the benefit we’ll receive. And the people best positioned to decide that are employers.

This economic perspective dominates the debate about workplace health and safety. It is the lingua franca of employers, bureaucrats, politicians, and most academics. There are, of course, alternative perspectives. An alternative advanced by workers views workplace injuries as the result of choices employers make in order to maximize profitability. Contrary to the slogan “safety pays,” it is usually cheaper for employers to organize work unsafely. This is especially true if employers can (with the tacit consent of government) pass along the cost of occupational injuries and disease to workers.

Should any leftist claim that any possible reform in the context of an economy dominated by a class of employers is fair? We certainly need to fight for reforms, but why bullshit the workers by calling such reforms fair? They are fairer or less fair, to be sure. To have labour laws that enable workers to protect themselves more is better than no labour laws or less effective labour laws. But how does this translate into fairness?

Why does the social-reformist left find it necessary to claim that such reforms express “decent work,” “fair wages,” “a fair contract,” “fairness,” or “economic justice”?

What do you think?

Workers and Community Members Need to Discuss Their Experiences and Lives Openly

John Dewey, one of the greatest philosophers of education of the twentieth century, argued that we need to take seriously our experiences in this world–because our experiences are really all that we have in this world. He did not mean by this that all experiences are on the same level of accuracy, but he did mean that our experiences are the only source of who we are and how we can improve our lives. If we increase our control over our experiences, then we can direct our lives in a more fulfilling manner rather than having our lives directed forces beyond our control.

However, as Michael Perleman implies in the following quote, the experiences of many in a world dominated by a class of employers escapes their own control and understanding:

Working hours keep increasing, and virtually everyone but the wealthy has an increasingly hard time making ends meet. In addition, global economic forces are making more and more people within the advanced market economies redundant, replacing them with much cheaper labor from the poorer regions of the world. Even people with professional skills are coming under intense pressure.

Reason should dictate that the people who are falling under the wheels of this juggernaut would question the prevailing Procrusteanism, but for the most part they have not yet succeeded in identifying their underlying problem. Alas, despite the fact that the existing economic system is not working for the benefit of the majority, Procrusteanism now has a tighter hold on society than Keynes could ever imagine.
The underlying force preventing the transition Keynes envisioned is not, as he thought, one of economic necessity, but rather a system of power and class, which consigns the majority of people to constrained lives that block the mobilization of their potential, whether to create a better way of life or to meet the growing challenges that endanger humanity.

I recently experienced the grip of “Procrusteanism” (fixed ideas that are not subject to revision in light of experience) by a member the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU)  Local 113 here in Toronto, when I responded to the claim of a socialist here in Toronto that an article in the Jacobin on the Democratic Socialists of America was a good statement. The unionist claimed that I was an abrasive person and that, therefore, she would not bother looking at my blog.

My suspicion is that anyone who criticizes the assumptions of social-reformist unionists are subject to insults. No arguments are provided. The insult is a method by which to divert attention so that “Procrusteanism” can prevail.

There is very little discussion promoted among the so-called left about the increasingly oppressive lives that most of us now lead. Many are, in fact, anti-democratic in their outlook since they have no desire to open up discussions about the many social ills that many experience and what to do about them. They consider that they have the solution at hand–more unionization, for example. Any questioning of such “Procrusteanism” is met with hostility.

Ultimately, the attitude among the social-reformist list is–TINA–there is no alternative. They believe that reform is possible, but the dominance of employers is inevitable.

There is, then, a general lack of democratic discussion, and one of the reasons (of course not the only reason) is the hostility of the social-reformist left to any real discussion of issues that affect the working class.

 

 

 

 

 

A Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part One: The Manitoba History Curricula and Its Lack of History of Employers and Employees

I submitted a longer essay to the popular Canadian educational journal Our Schools Our Selves for publication. It was never published.

The idea for the following has a personal basis: when my daughter was studying grade 11 Canadian history in Manitoba (Manitoba is one of 10 provinces in Canada, with three additional territories), I decided to look at the history curriculum in case I could provide some supports for her studies. In the process, it became evident to me that the entire curriculum left a gaping hole that failed to address my experiences in this world. Thus, I have generally worked for an employer in order to obtain money, which in turn enabled me to buy the things that I needed to live. The Manitoba Canadian history curriculum is devoid of any historical explanation of such an experience.

My experience is hardly unique. How many of those who now are reading this have worked for an employer or are now working for an employer? Is it not a little odd that a course on history fails to explain how and why employers—and their counterpart employees (employers cannot exist without economically dependent employees)–arose?

This is my research question.

Manitoba has a curriculum that does not answer the question of why employers and employees exist. Using the term “employ,” there was a reference to the super-exploitation of Chinese workers by employers. On page I-20 concerning possible inequities in employment. There is no reference to having students inquire about the possible inequity of the employer-employees relationship as such, that is to say, whether that relation necessarily involves inequities that cannot be resolved within the terms of that relation. When using the search term “work” some relevant hits for the history of the working class came up, such as the On-to-Ottawa trek (1935) or the Regina riot (1935), the trade union movement or the Workers’ Unity League, but the reason why employers and employees exist is nowhere to be found.

Using the search term “work,” I came upon a reference on pages II—28 and IV-5 to a possible exploration of the significance of the life of a worker in 1918 Winnipeg in terms of a wider concern about workers’ struggles, economic development or post Second World War events and discontents. There is a—very slight—chance that students would be able to explore the issue of why employers and employees exist, but inquiry could just as easily be carried out without determining why and how they exist.

Using the search term “class,” on page I-8 I found a reference to exclusion of citizenship was partially based on class. (On the same page, using the search term “capital,” I found the only reference to capitalism—that the Canadian economy, though a mixed economy, was mainly a capitalist economy.) On page I-9, it is argued that Canadian citizens continue to face fighting inequality based on class. Does this mean that the authors are referring to the capitalist class and the working class and are arguing that Canadian citizens are fighting to eliminate the employer-employees relation? Not at all. On page II-10, it is noted that trade unionists and socialists rejected the single narrative approach to Canadian history, but so far there is a decided singular attitude towards the employer—employees relation—it is presumed rather than being a subject of inquiry for students of Canadian history. On page II-46, there is a reference to socio-economic class, but what that means is never developed. Social democrats frequently use such a term to refer to level of income, and define the “middle class” as the socio-economic class that is above the poverty line (however defined). This way of defining class does not address the power of employees in relation to the situation of employees. Nothing else of relevance was found using this search term. The results of using the various search term show that students would not be capable of answering the question of why employers and employees exist. The document is a document in indoctrination—a document that implicitly has students accept the employer-employee as natural rather than an historical creation (and that, therefore, has an end).

According to the grade 11 Manitoba history curriculum, then, the issue of how and why employers emerged and how and why employees subordinate their will to employers is irrelevant. Is this silence an expression of social justice? On page II-31 33, there is reference to Chinese workers in 1887 and the fact that they were paid a substantially lower wage than other workers.

Again, the issue of why the wage relation exists on a large scale nowhere is to form a focus for inquiry within the curriculum. Wage work is assumed to be ahistorical through such an omission. That means, implicitly, that some people are born to be employees and some are born to be employers; it is not of course stated, but the assumption is there through the omission of any exploration of the wage relation. Or did workers freely become wage workers? Do not wage workers as a class require that another class control access to the means for them to produce their own lives? Did you freely choose to work for a wage or salary? When did you make this choice?

The reformist left share the same assumptions as the designers of this curriculum. On a listserve for the Toronto Labour Committee (to which I belonged), for example,  here in Toronto (the largest city in Canada), the regional coordinator for OPSEU (Ontario Provincial Service Employees Union) and president of GTAC (Greater Toronto Area Council), called for other workers to support striking brewery workers because, according to her, the brewery workers wanted a fair wage and decent work. I responded by agreeing that we should support them. However, when I questioned especially the idea of decent work, , a representative from the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3902 eventually called me a condescending prick. A member of the Toronto Labour Committee responded that both the representative of CUPE 3902 and I were right and wrong. It is nice to be able to eat your cake and eat it too. The practical head of the Toronto Labour Committee then intervened, but the issue of decent work never got addressed.

The idea that working for an employer is somehow decent work is indoctrination–and the radical left is afraid to challenge such indoctrination.

The head of the Toronto Labour Committee stated that there should be a “discussion” about what decent work means. I doubt that there ever will be such a discussion that will emerge from the so-called radical left since the so-called radical left in Toronto (and probably elsewhere) is too afraid of upsetting its union contacts. It is too close to reformist unions to see that what is needed is a much more critical stance towards unions than what the Toronto Labour Committee displayed if the indoctrination characteristic in schools, in the economy, by unions (see an example of my critique of a management rights clause in collective agreements in   Management Rights, Part One: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia , in courts, and in social services (see my critique of the position of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty:  Basic Income: A Critique of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Stance )  is to be challenged.

 

 

Ontario Election of Conservatives: Will the Social-Reformist Left Learn?

Now that the “Progessive” Conservatives have won a clear majority of seats in the provincial legislature, should not the social-reformist left reflect on the extent to which they are responsible for this disaster?

The social-reformist left does not question the legitimacy of the class of employers to exist; it assumes that they will continue to exist and that all that is necessary is to struggle to institute reforms of the power of employers in order to arrive at a fair economy.

David Bush, an organizer, writer for Rank-and-File.ca and a doctoral student, for instance, has the following to say just before the election, under the caption “Clear Class Choices”:

The choice is between Ford and his folksie factory owner rhetoric of “for the little guy” or an NDP that, while flawed, is still seen as representing the interests of workers. The former will assuredly be a boon for bosses and blow for workers, while the latter will raise expectations of workers across the province.

Over the next three days the political fight for ideas in the workplace, on the streets, at the kitchen table will set-up the struggle for the next four years. With the class choices at the ballot box clearer than they have been in a long-time, the stakes for Ontario’s workers are sky high. •

The argument that the NDP, “while flawed is still seen as representing the interests of workers” is typical of the social-reformist left.

I voted for the NDP this election–mainly because their election would at least permit a more organized and effective struggle against the class of employers.

To say that the NDP is flawed and is seen as representing the interests of workers–flawed in what way? Seen by whom? That the NDP is seen by many unionists as representing the interests of workers is probably true–but unionists hardly represent the class interests of workers unless they oppose the power of employers as a class. Where is there evidence that they do so?

For example, John Cartwright, president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, in his open letter of January 30, 2018 (An open letter to our movement) , wrote the following:

“We need to fight for labour law reform including broader based bargaining so that precarious workers can have a vehicle in which to achieve dignity and economic justice.”

Does Mr. Cartwright mean by “economic justice” the abolition of the power of employers as a class? Or does he mean the signing of a collective agreement, which still involves the subordination of workers to the power of employers and their treatment as things? I suspect that Mr. Cartwright equates economic justice with collective agreements. In other words, the representation of the interests of workers for social reformists involves belonging to a union but not opposing the power of employers as a class.

And the NDP represents, in part, unions.

The NDP does not represent the interests of workers as a class. However, by implying that it does, the social-reformist left fail to capture the anger of workers (among others) over their lack of control over their own lives.

The social-reformist left is itself partially responsible for the electoral fiasco in Ontario. It does not question the power of employers as a class, but only wants to humanize that power–an impossible task. It opposes, not the power of employers as a class, but neoliberalism. It wants to return to the “golden age” of the welfare state.

David  Bush, for instance, has indicated on Facebook that the fight for a $15 minimum wage and various necessary changes in employment standards are fair. This view is hardly in the interests of the working class as a whole. Such changes are better than no changes, but they are short-term gains. By claiming that they are fair, the social-reformist left sacrifice the long-term interests of workers to control their own working lives by eliminating the power of employers as a class for short-term gains.

The social-reformist left often claims to be anti-capitalist whereas in fact it is anti-neoliberal. It is not opposed to the power of employers as a class but only to the neoliberal brand of such power.

If the NDP had won the election in Ontario with a clear majority, would it have opposed the power of employers as a class? Of course not.

The social-reformist left: Will it learn that by not explicitly opposing the power of employers as a class it contributes to its own defeat? That by not explicitly opposing the power of employers as a class, it comes to share the same beliefs as its own supposed enemies? The “Progressive” Conservatives certainly believe in the sanctity of the power of employers. But so too do the reformist left.

Will the social-reformist left learn to begin to challenge the power of employers as a class? Or will it continue to share the same beliefs as its supposed enemies, the “Progressive” Conservatives?

 

A Radical Basic Income as a Radical Reform

Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) argues against any kind of Basic Income (Basic Income in the Neoliberal Age ). I have argued against their opposition on their own terms in two previous posts.

Others, too, argue for a radical basic income as a proposal that breaks the “economic coercion” required by the class of employers and its representatives by breaking the link between need and entrance into the job market.

I remember reading somewhere (I cannot remember the author or title) of a proposal for a basic income of 45 000 euros a year. Of course, such a proposal could not be realized within the job market of capitalism. That, however, is just the point. Aiming for a goal that cannot be realized in terms of “economic coercion” prescribed by the job market would question the need for such economic coercion. It would also promote discussion about the need for the creation of alternative economic relations and processes. Of course, the exact level of basic income proposed would be open for debate, with variations according to needs, but the principle of making demands that the capitalist job market cannot satisfy permits a policy for organizing and for going beyond a society characterized by the power of a class of employers.

A radical basic income, therefore, needs to become part of the process of questioning the economic coercive power of employers as a class and the associated economic, social and political structures that support such economic blackmail. It is not, in itself, the goal but part of the means for creating a world free from such economic blackmail.

That it is impossible to realize a basic income that threatens the job market within the social relations characterized by a society dominated by a class of employers is hardly a reason to abandon a demand for such a basic income; it is, rather, a reason for making this and other proposals that begin to question economic coercion.

Several writers have argued for basic income, not as a cure-all, but as a means of addressing that economic coercion. For example, Tony Smith, in his book Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism: Marx and Normative Social Theory in the Twenty-First Century (Leiden: Brill, 2017, page 346:

It is not the mere presence of markets that establishes the alien power of
capital. What makes capitalist market societies so different from pre-capitalist
societies with markets is the society-wide compulsion to place the accumulation
of surplus value above all other ends. The democratising of decisions regarding
the levels and priorities of new investments, combined with full employment
and basic income guarantees that are not feasible in capitalism, removes the
compulsion.

The alternative is to delude yourself by using such rhetoric as “economic justice,” “decent work,” “fair contracts,” “good contracts,” a “fair wage” and “fairness” (as much of the social-reformist left does in Toronto). This is what the social-reformist left has done and continues to do. Should not those who claim to be radical break with such reformist ideology and begin the long road towards the construction of a society worthy of human beings.

Unless of course human beings deserve to be “economically coerced.” That is the hidden assumption of the social-reformist left.

The social-reformist left (and much of the radical left, at least in Toronto) certainly fails to question such economic coercion. It seeks reforms entirely in terms of economic coercion and economic blackmail. Is that rational?

The social-reformist left, however, do not see it that way since they assume that it is possible to achieve economic justice, decent work, fair wages and fairness in a society dominated by a class of employers.

Should not the social-reformist left listen to OCAP’s very realistic description of the nature of social world in which we live in their pamphlet mentioned above: “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (page 6)? Should they not take that fact seriously? Given that fact, should they not aim to abolish such a situation by advocating measures that question the need for such coercion? Or should the so-called radical left at least start to openly criticize the absurd rhetoric of “decent wages,” “fairness,” a “good contract,” and a “fair contract?” Unless the racial left are really social reformists and do not, in practice, question the economic coercion that characterizes the job market.