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

Before I obtained a so-called permanent teaching position (I will explain in a much later post why I use the word “so-called”), I worked for a number of years as a substitute teacher (with short periods of term teaching positions). I became an executive member of the Winnipeg Teachers’ Association (WTA) (in the province of Manitoba, Canada), representing substitute teachers.

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

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

Of course, representatives should not limit themselves to such criticism but rather perform their representative function in order to enhance the democratic nature of the union or association to which they belong. To that end, I and others on the Substitute Teachers’ Committee created a survey for substitute teachers and used the results of such a survey to criticize the policy of the WTA of permitting only permanent teachers the right to apply for permanent positions (substitute teachers paid association dues and consisted of usually 700-900 paying members of around 4000 members, but they did not have the right to apply for permanent positions).

Below is a copy of the draft (written in 2007) as well as the critical summary of my educational experience.

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To the Negotiations Committee

As members of the same organization, all should be treated in the same way unless there are sufficient differential grounds for distinguishing the members and for thus treating them on a differential basis. However, that does not mean that substitute teachers should necessarily all have the same rights as permanent contract teachers.

A basic principle of political philosophy is that all should be treated the same unless there are differential conditions for treating some differently from others. There are differential conditions, at least in the case of substitute teachers who are relatively new. Would it be fair, for instance, that permanent contract teachers, who by definition generally expect to work for the same employer for years, be reduced to the same rights as a beginning substitute teacher? Attachment to a particular employer for an increasing length of time forms the basis for privileging permanent teachers over substitute teachers, just as the principle of seniority does in unions.

However, as substitute teachers are engaged in employment with the same employer for an increasing length of time, the grounds for differential treatment become less and less valid.

Of course, the reported statistics from the survey of substitute teachers do indicate that there is a substantial percentage of substitute teachers who have been employed by the Division for a number of years. Their exclusion from any consideration of whether they can apply for positions is less valid than the exclusion of shorter term substitute teachers. Of course, the exact cut off line is not easy to define, but the issue is first of all whether all substitute teachers should be banned from applying for positions. Perhaps there are counterarguments which justify such exclusion, and I would like to hear such arguments. Lacking such counterarguments, substitute teachers with a certain period of employment with the Division should have the right to apply for positions as they arise, just like permanent contract teachers.

Addressing now the issue of those with a shorter period of employment with the Division, the Division may agree to allow them to apply for positions once the third round of blue sheets have been distributed.

In other words, there would be two sets of substitute teachers, those with sufficient length of service to be able to apply for positions immediately, and those with less service, who would be able to apply for positions on the third round of job postings.

Although this two-tier system of selection may be preferable, it may not be possible during the 2009 round of bargaining; a collective agreement involves two parties, and it may be impossible to negotiate the “best” scenario in any particular year of bargaining. Consequently, there are two alternative proposals: a “bottom-line one,” and a preferred (but perhaps unrealistic) one at this stage. The important point is to have substitute teachers’ concern about the right to apply for job postings addressed.

Proposed “bottom-line clause”: All substitute teachers shall have the right to apply for job postings during the third round of postings of the blue sheets.”

An alternative would be as follows: Substitute teachers who have substituted for the Division for at least ten (10) years shall have the right to apply for job postings. Substitute teachers with less than 10 years of substitute teaching shall have the right to apply for job postings during the third round of postings of the blue sheet.”

Of course, the exact wording is irrelevant at this stage. It is the concept that matters.

Fred, chair, Substitute Teachers’ Committee

The critical summary of my educational experience (

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The Double-Bind of Teachers as Employees

On September 21 [2007], I attended a seminar on Employment Law Essentials. It covered various topics, including the difference between an employee and an independent contractor, pre-employment inquiries, employment standards and workplace harassment policies.

There were two areas of most relevance to teachers: a discussion of the nature of an employee and the issue of the age at which people can become employees.

Let us start with the last issue first. The age at which people can become employees is relevant for teachers since the age at which students can become employees then arises. Generally, it is very difficult for students under the age of 12 to become employees. On the other hand, it is less difficult for students between the ages of 12 and 16 to obtain a permit. Four people must be in agreement if those between 12 and 16 are to become employees: the student, the parent, the principal and the employer. Since being an employee may affect school work, teachers who are concerned about some of their students working as employees may consult with the principal since the latter needs to agree to such employment.

Addressing now the first issue—the nature of an employee—there are four criteria for determining whether a person is an employee or has her or his own business (is an independent contractor): lack of control over the work performed (how, when and where the work is to be performed), the ownership of tools, possibility of loss or gain and the extent to which the person is integrated into the employer’s operations. The criterion of loss or gain is inapplicable to the situation of teachers. The criterion of integration is only used in borderline cases. Hence, the question of the status of teachers is reduced to the two criteria of control and ownership of tools.

In the seminar, we briefly discussed whether teachers are employees. Although teachers may control the order in which the curriculum is presented, it is the Division, generally, which determines standards of performance for teachers. Another aspect of control is whether the employer determines where and when work is done. Teachers work for the Division and not for specific schools. The collective agreement may modify the power of the employer, but it does not fundamentally alter the situation—as teachers in low-enrollment schools may discover when they are transferred to other schools. In terms of control, teachers are employees.

The other criterion for determining who is an employee is the ownership of tools. In the case of teachers, although the latter may personally purchase items for use in the classroom, it is the Division which owns the buildings, the things in the building and so forth. The fact that the Division may represent the vague public because of the payment of taxes does not change the situation.

Since the situation of teachers satisfies the two major criteria for determining whether teachers are employees, it can indeed be concluded that they are employees.

The collective agreement does not change the status of teachers as employees; it modified the conditions of employment—certainly an important characteristic—but it does not fundamentally alter the employer-employee relationships as such. For example, employment standards are such that judges will take into account length of service to an employer when considering notice required, but the judge will not take it into consideration when the issue of dismissal arises. Arbitrators of collective agreements, on the other hand, do take into account length of service when considering the issue of dismissal.

The issue of control is full of interesting sub-issues. One of the issues that were brought up was whether employees who are under the control of employers are extensions of the will of the employer. They are. This situation, however, has major social implications. If employees are extensions of the will of the employer, then employees are means to the ends specified by the employer.

Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, argued that it is a categorical ethical imperative to treat all human beings as ends in themselves. If we apply the philosophical principle of the unity of the ends in the means and the means in the ends, then to treat human beings as ends in themselves is to have them participate in the process of defining their own ends. They need to be able to contribute to the formation of the ends toward which their activity tends: living democracy rather than formal democracy.

Being an employee, however, which involves being an extension of the will of the employer, clashes with the principle of treating human beings as a unity of both means and ends in the same process. Human life is split, with teachers being extensions of the will of the Division. Their personhood is suspended to the extent that they cannot formulate the ends of their own activity in conjunction with the activity of other teachers.

This clash applies to other employees in other domains, such as waiters and waitresses, bus drivers, factory workers, office workers and so forth. In the specific case of teachers, though, there is an added contradiction. Teachers are supposed to treat students as ends in themselves: the formation of character. To do so, they need to have students learn to unify the ends in the means and the means in the ends. If, however, part of their function is to prepare students for their status as employees, then their educative function clashes with their function within the school system. This is the double bind of teachers: being an employee, on the one hand, and being an educator within an economy dominated by the employer-employee relation on the other.

Are teachers in a double bind? What do other teachers believe?

Fred Harris, executive member

Worker Resistance Against Management, Part Three

This is a continuation of a series of posts on worker resistance. The following was written by Herman Rosenfeld. Since it formed part of a course that he, Jordan House and I presented for workers at the Toronto Pearson International Airport, I am including the preliminary instructions and the subsequent questions so that others can modify and make use of it in similar courses.

Getting a Shift Back to Work and Overtime Action

  • This is a Small Group Activity
  • Read both short stories and answer the questions below together
  • Be prepared to describe each collective struggle to the whole class, and report your answers
  • You have 25 minutes to complete this exercise

In the later 1980s, at an auto assembly in Toronto (closed in 1994), there were two rotating production shifts, of approximately 1,000 workers per shift. Once shift worked on days , often with a sixth day shift (Saturday), scheduled as an overtime day. Another shift worked afternoons.

The plant churned out full-sized vans that were popular with companies and recreational buyers. The vans were extremely popular across North America, and with only two plants producing them, it seemed that the jobs were secure.

The union local had a history of militancy, with wildcat strikes, overtime boycotts, and various forms of collective resistance, often in response to things like difficulties getting washroom breaks, work intensification, and excessive discipline issued for minor offenses. as well, there had been a number of collective work refusals over health and safety issues that seemed to get resolved rather quickly.

One day, the plant superintendent announced that the market for vans was softening and that they would reduce production to one shift.

After a transition period, the plant laid off the low-seniority workers, eliminated the afternoon shift and began production with the one-day shift with higher seniority workers. Soon after, at a union meeting, people were wondering if there truly was any downturn in sales. The meeting decided to strike a voluntary committee to investigate with car dealers just how large their inventory for vans really was. The committee was made up of elected committeepersons, members of the Local Union Executive, and volunteers from the group of laid-off workers. They also resolved to organize a biweekly meeting of all the laid-off workers, to regularly discuss their situation and develop a common strategy to force the boss to hire them back to work.

They found that no matter where they called, dealers all claimed that they were short in their inventories of vans, that demands for the vehicles was rising and that there seemed to be no need to cut production.

After about 2 months management announced that it would schedule a Saturday overtime shift. This caused huge debates and divisions within the membership, especially those who were working. A number of the higher seniority workers argued that they needed to have their Saturday overtime, and that it was their “right” as  a consequence of seniority. A minority threatened violence against anyone who tried to keep them from getting to work on Saturday. Others were angry, and saw it as an attack on the rights of all the workers, scheduling a Saturday overtime shift when half the local was on layoff. Further, they asked, how could they need overtime if, as they claim, they don’t have enough orders to justify full production here?

The laid-off workers, along with the union activists on the voluntary committee, also asked that question. And, collectively, they debated what they should do about the scheduled Saturday.

Doing nothing would be out of the question. Organizing a picket line to stop workers from coming into work on Saturday would make sense, but the level of opposition from the minority of workers who supported the scheduling of the overtime, might lead to sharpening divisions and even violence. After a heated discussion, a group of about 100 people decided on the following course of action: they would organize an informational picket line, explaining why it was wrong for the boss to schedule Saturday overtime while a shift was laid off–reminding people about the true state of the van market, and asking people to make their own choice about working. They would also make a push–through phone calls and personal visits–to bring out large numbers of the laid-off workers to the picket line around the plant.

As well, they made a push in the local and national media: press releases; calling up every media outlet; massive distribution of leaflets announcing the informational picket and an educational leaflet, explaining the links between the ease of management’s shutting down Canadian facilities, in the context of the looming debate over Free Trade with the U.S.

The day of the picket-demo was cold, with sleet. But there were hundreds of laid-off workers handing out leaflets to the workers entering the plant. Some turned away, and they barely had enough to work the shift. But there were discussions and no violence. There was also national and local press coverage–of the absurd reality of a plant with over 1000 people on layoff working a mandatory overtime day. People across the country read, heard about it and watched it. The laid-off workers got some recognition of their collective plight. Rank and file workers, activists and union officials were interviewed. The shift ran, but there were a number of stoppages, due to the low level of staffing for the day

A week later, the company announced that the laid-off shift would be brought back in in a couple of weeks.

Three years later, management announced that van production would end at that facility and 3 years after that announcement, the plant closed.


  1. What were some of the plans and decisions that made this action successful?
  2. What were some of the limits of this action–and things that might hold the union local back from moving forward after this action? How might these limits be addressed?
  3. What lessons can be learned from this experience for your own workplace, union and efforts to build the power of workers there?