Defense of Arrested Picketers is Vital–But Not the Idealization of Collective Bargaining, Collective Agreements and Strikes

On January 20, 2020, Jerry Dias, president of a large private-sector union in Canada, and others–were arrested in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. Despite my criticism of Mr. Dias on this blog, in this instance he and others deserve support–as do the workers who are on the picket line in that city.

I am copying the details below from the Rank-and-File website–but I also have a criticism of how Rank-and-File used the situation to support an ideology of fairness if there were anti-scab legislation to prevent the situation from arising in the first place:

In a move that shocked trade unionists across the country, the Regina Police Service arrested Unifor National President Jerry Dias and thirteen other Unifor members at Gate 7 of Regina’s Co-op Refinery Complex on Monday, January 20, 2020.  About 730 refinery workers, members of Local 594, have been locked out for the past 49 days for trying to save their current Defined Benefit pension plan.

Earlier that day, Dias announced Unifor would blockade the refinery gates, challenging a court injunction which ruled workers could only delay vehicles entering and leaving the refinery by 10 minutes. The union argues this injunction interferes with workers’ constitutional right to picket.

“Let’s just say in 2019 – and so far 2020 – we’ve had enough injunctions that we could probably wallpaper a concert hall,” Dias tells RankandFile.ca. “The simple reality is that Unifor is very different than other unions. The fines, the police, the court decisions are not going to prevent us from winning justice for our members. It isn’t any more complicated than that.”

The night prior to the Unifor arrests, around 500 Unifor members from across Canada flew in to help bolster the picket lines. Because of this, Dias asserted that Unifor – not Local 594 – was blockading the refinery, and therefore not breaking the injunction leveled against Local 594.

However, the Co-op Refinery disagreed, calling the blockade “illegal” and a “bullying tactic.”

The Regina Leader-Post also reported that trucking companies lobbied the government and police to intervene the morning of the crackdown:

“C.S. Day Transport president Heather Day sent a letter Monday morning to RPS Chief Evan Bray, as well as Premier Scott Moe, Labour Minister Don Morgan, Corrections and Policing Minister Christine Tell, Mayor Michael Fougere and Regina city councillors.”

“RPS is failing to enforce the court order and other laws and bylaws by ‘not choosing sides.’ Does the presence of a labour dispute mean that laws no longer need to be followed or enforced?” she asked.”

Regina Police Chief Evan Bray stated this letter did not influence his decision to intervene.

Following Dias’ arrest around 5 PM, the Regina Police Service continued a protracted attempt to break Unifor’s blockade, bringing in several tow trucks – two belonging to the City of Regina – and a front-end loader to remove vehicles Unifor had parked as part of their blockade. Bray says about 50 police officers were deployed.

Unifor members responded by climbing in and on top of the union’s vehicles to prevent them from being towed, letting air out of the tires, or removing tires altogether. At one point, an RPS officer took control of one of Unifor’s U-Haul trucks and attempted to drive it away, hitting a worker who was then arrested by other officers. RPS also threatened to use tear gas, but the union was able to talk to the police and deescalate. The police withdrew around 11 PM and the blockade remained intact. The workers arrested throughout the night were charged with mischief.

“We don’t see the police getting involved very aggressively very often anymore,” says Charles Smith, co-author of Unions in Court: Organized Labour and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “It was much more common in the post-war period in the 50s and 60s. We don’t see it as much anymore – which is why it’s in some ways so shocking.”

Instead of jail time, courts often level major fines against unions for breaking laws or injunctions. For example, Prime Minister Trudeau legislated the Canadian Union of Postal Worker’s back to work in 2018. This broke the union’s rotating strikes under threat of $1,000 – $50,000 fines a day for individual workers and $100,000 a day for the union if found in contravention of the act. These fines are significant enough to deter union leadership from breaking the law, even if it weakens the union’s position at the bargaining table.

Unifor 594 has been fined $100,000 for breaking the injunction.

“You know, if you want to win these battles, sometimes you’re going to have to pay a bit of fines,” Unifor 594 President Kevin Bittman explains to RankandFile.ca. “Because really, if you’re going to just stand out here and walk back and forth, you’re probably not going to win it against somebody that’s willing to spend a billion dollars just to try and break you.”

Smith argues Co-op’s injunction escalated tensions on the line because it took away the workers’ key bargaining chip – putting economic pressure on the employer by withholding their labour.

“There’s no way we can call it an equal struggle,” he states. “Now imagine if we had anti-scab legislation, which meant the employer couldn’t use replacement workers. Then it becomes much more of a fair fight, but of course we’re not willing to have that sort of negotiation in Saskatchewan, because the government isn’t interested in evening the playing field.” [my emphasis] 

“Because we have this situation where employers can weaken lines through these legal instruments,  why would we be surprised that tensions ramp up like this?” Smith continues. “It easily could have not happened, we easily could have avoided this had there been some sort of semblance of fairness by the employer or the state.”

SOLIDARITY RALLY HIGHLIGHTS NEED FOR WORKING CLASS UNITY

Unifor 594 President Kevin Bittman speaks at Wednesday’s solidarity rally.

Following Monday’s arrests, labour unions across the country condemned the police intervention and called for Co-op to return to the bargaining table.

Notably, Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff flew in for a solidarity rally on January 22, alongside CUPE National President Mark Hancock, OPSEU President Warren “Smokey” Thomas and Seafarers’ International Union President James Given. Canadian Federation of Nurses’ Unions President Linda Silas and Saskatchewan Federation of Labour President Lori Johb were also present.

Representing Unifor was Local 594 President Kevin Bittman and National Secretary Treasurer Lana Payne. Dias was barred from the picket line, a condition of his release. Payne told the crowd Dias faces a two year prison sentence if he returned to the refinery.

“You cannot allow an employer, whether it’s a government, or private business to be allowed to destroy workers hopes and dreams to build a better life,” Yussuff tells RankandFile.ca. “I’m here to show solidarity with these workers – regardless of course of anything else – and to make sure they know the entire labour movement is with them to ensure they can get a fair settlement to resolve this dispute.” [my emphasis] 

In 2018, Unifor disaffiliated from the CLC following an attempted raid of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113. Unifor and the CLC disagreed over the interpretation of Article 4 of the CLC constitution. According to Larry Savage, Article 4 “governs the disputes between affiliates and provides a pathway for workers to switch unions.”

The disaffiliation created tension between Unifor and the broader labour movement, impacting organizing & resource distribution all the way down to the labour councils. Given this history, Yussuff’s presence at the Unifor picket line is significant.

“I think this should remind us all we’re stronger together. When we’re together, we’re a stronger movement, because we need each other,” he continues. “Without that, of course, any employer or government could take advantage of us. This again demonstrates why we need solidarity and to build together to build the entire labour movement in this country.”

CUPE National President Mark Hancock not only showed up to Wednesday’s rally, but actively intervened in de-escalating Monday night’s police crackdown. The police had brought two City of Regina tow trucks and a front-end loader operated by CUPE members. Hancock let his members know they had the right refuse unsafe work, which they did, leaving Gate 7.

“We all have our differences,” Hancock tells RankandFile.ca. “Every union is different…they all bring different things to the Canadian Labour Congress…and sometimes, you know, we have our disagreements, we have our fights – and that’s okay. But when it comes to workers, being treated the way that these workers are, the attack on their pensions, the labour movement needs to be united. Whether it’s Unifor, whether it’s OPSEU, whether it’s CUPE, we all need to support each other – and that’s why CUPE is here.”

President of the Seafarer’s International Union James Given said SIU would donate $10,000 to Unifor, and challenged all other unions present to do the same.

“If they wanted a fight, if they’re looking for a fight, they’ve got themselves a fight” Given said about Co-op at the rally, “…11.5 million union members are now focused on Regina.”

Shobna Radons, President of the Regina and District Labour Council, believes it is important to remember this dispute is about real people.

“One of the things that’s just amazing to me is coming out and spending time with folks on the line and talking with real people,” she tells RankandFile.ca. “Everyone knows there’s been a disaffiliation of Unifor and that affects us even at the municipal level and the labour councils. It’s pretty powerful having [Yussuff] here supporting workers, the fact that we can put our differences aside and fight the fight.”

Bittman is thankful for the support, and emphasizes the outcome of this pension fight with the Co-op impacts workers across the country, not just his members.

“It just keeps building and building, every day there’s more people on the lines, there’s more unions coming out to support, everybody knows what’s at stake here,” he says. ”This is just old fashioned union busting and we’re not going to let it happen. If you can let a company that’s making 2.5 billion dollars over 3 years take away pensions, it’s really okay for companies to take anybody’s pension away. This is a stand that we’ve got to put down and say it’s not okay.“

The call for solidarity is indeed welcome. Anti-scab legislation, furthermore, is certainly preferable to a lack of such legislation. However, alongside this call in the article for such legislation, it is argued that anti-scab legislation can somehow magically transform the struggle between the working class and the class of employers into “an equal struggle,” that anti-scab legislation can miraculously transform such struggles into a “much more fair fight,” thereby “evening the playing field,” leading to a “fair settlement?”

Is there evidence that any collective agreement expresses “a fair settlement?” Is there evidence that anti-scab legislation leads to a much more level playing field between employers and workers?

Anti-scab legislation does exist in two other provinces–Quebec and British Columbia (see “A Federal Anti-Scab Law for Canada? The Debate over Bill C-257,” Larry Savage and Joseph Butovsky, 2009, in Just Labour: A Canadian Journal of Work and Society , Volume 13 , Spring 2009). Such legislation does not prevent the economic power of employers from taking precedence; therefore, such legislation does not by any means tip the relation between unionized members and their employers in such a way that they are equals (page 20):

Unions are not interested in negotiating an employer out of business. For that reason, economic conditions rather than the presence of anti-scab laws, continue to dictate the tone and content of negotiated agreement.2 … anti-scab laws may provide modest improvement in settlements…

Furthermore, as shown on this blog, collective agreements in Quebec and British Columbia express, implicitly and often explicitly, the power of management (a minority) to dictate to workers (a majority) in a particular firm or state organization (see Management Rights, Part One: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia,  Management Rights, Part Six: Public Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia  and Management Rights, Part Seven: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Quebec).

The social-democratic left, it can be seen, must idealize legislation and  the collective-bargaining regime because, if they did not, they would then have to openly recognize that the working class can never possess equal power to the power of employers as long as the economic power of employers as a class is not challenged as such (and not just the particular powers of particular employers).

(I will critique Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff’s views in another post when I review Jane McAlevey’s book A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy.) 

What has been the response of some leftists here in Toronto? If the response by the Steering Committee of the Socialist Project is any indication, then there is obviously condemnation of the arrests, but the Steering Committee then makes a vague criticism of the rule of law:

While the employer crows on about how wonderful the “rule of law” is – a trumped-up law that prevents workers from protecting their futures and jobs – Unifor Secretary-Treasurer Lana Payne commented, “[t]his will not be settled in the courts. This will not be settled by police. We’re holding the line. I don’t know how much more clear I can be.”

The Socialist Project stands in support and solidarity with the members of Unifor 594 and the union’s national leadership in this struggle. We support the union’s demands for an end to the prosecution of workers exercising their right to picket, removal of the trumped-up charges and injunctions, stopping the use of scabs and demand that Co-op return to the bargaining table and withdraw their efforts to change workers’ pensions. •

Reference to the “rule of law” in quotation marks, I assume, uses the quotation marks as “scare quotes.” But what is the Steering Commitee’s position on the rule of law? Silence. (See, by contrast, the posts Socialism, Police and the Government or State, Part One). What is the Steering Commitee’s position on the idea that collective bargaining is a fair process and that the collective agreement is a fair contract? That unionized workers have a “decent job” because of the existence of a collective agreement? What is the Steering Committee’s position on the implicit or explicit management rights clause that exists in collective agreements?

Such is the left in Toronto these days. Is there any wonder that there is a rightward drift of workers when the left simply ignores such issues?

 

Management Rights and the Crisis in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada: Limitations of the Reformist Left, Part Two

In an earlier post, I questioned the Socialist Project’s characterization of the problem that workers in Oshawa face (Management Rights and the Crisis in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada: Limitations of the Reformist Left, Part One).   I also, implicitly, questioned their proposed solutions.  In this post, I will question their proposed solutions explicitly.

The Committee then proposes some things to be done to resolve the problem:

What’s needed are efforts to provide challenging education programs about the potential for workers to demand that the facilities in which they work produce environmentally responsible products, publicly owned, and not dependent on the whims of the fickle and brutally competitive consumer private vehicle market. Without a leadership that points the way forward and questions the hyper-competitive private marketplace workers remain dependent on corporate employers and look to them to provide for their future.

The demand for educational programs ought to shift workers’ consciousness to production that: 1. changes what is produced (environmentally unfriendly private vehicles vs. environmentally friendly vehicles); 2. and for what purpose (competitive and, implicitly, for profit rather than for need).

This demand is unlikely to have much immediate impact at Oshawa. To have an impact it would have been necessary to develop educational programs that call into question various aspects of the capitalist economy, both at the micro level of the plant and at the macro level of the structure of production and exchange. Has such an educational program been developed? Judging from my own experience in an educational program developed by Herman Rosenfeld, Jordan House and me and presented mainly to airport workers at Toronto Pearson airport, such an educational program has had severe limitations placed on it.

Firstly, we did not have many opportunities to provide educational course for such workers. In fact, after we presented three times, we did not present again for around two years.

Secondly, of those three times, only once did we present a critical macro approach, with three sections on the capitalist class, the working class and the capitalist state. The other two times, these sections were eliminated. Herman and Jordan did present to the airport afterwards–probably without the critical macro aspect.

Thus, to have an impact, there would have had to exist many educational opportunities for the workers, and the content of the courses would have had to include a critical approach at both the micro and macro level. Since there has not been such opportunities, a call for such a modified educational program at this stage is wishful thinking. It is highly unlikely to occur.

This leads into the last part of the article. The Committee demands the following:

Political Struggle, Community Control

The Socialist Project supports serious efforts by the union and the membership to organize collective actions that challenge GM’s decision and calls for new products to be allocated to Oshawa.

We also call for the union to build a movement inside Local 222, the surrounding community and across the union movement and the Canadian working class, to:

  • Pressure governments to ensure the survival of the productive facilities in Oshawa by taking ownership, after a community seizure of the plant. Productive facilities, like what remains of GM Oshawa were paid for by the community need to be owned and further developed by the community. The federal government didn’t hesitate to take ownership of the Trans Mountain pipeline project, and there is an historical precedent for the conversion of auto production during World War II to needed war materials.

  • Along with the workers and their surrounding communities, come up with a plan to produce needed mass transit equipment and other environmentally and socially necessary products. It would require and could lead to new capacities for research, development, production and distribution, that could create jobs, help stem the tide of climate change and foster the growth of a challenge to neoliberal capitalism.

  • Investment can be provided by a publicly owned municipal, provincial or federal development bank. More could be provided by taxing the assets of banks or other private investment institutions. •

It is of course necessary to try to address the immediate decision of GM to close the plant. A call for community seizure of the plant may be immediately needed to prevent GM from carrying out its plans. However, this is mixed up with the call for the federal government to take over ownership. Why would there not be a call for ownership to be located at the community level after the seizure? Why this shift to ownership by the federal government? Would it not be more democratic if the community owned the plant and workers made decisions within a framework provided by the community? Would not a community board of directors, with representatives from various community organizations being the ultimate owner, be more democratic than ownership by the federal government? (Tony Smith, in his book Globalisation: A Systematic Marxian Account) argues for such community ownership and organization, with workers having the right of use of the facilities owned by the community.)

The federal government may be needed to prevent GM from taking away the physical assets and accounts of the plant; it may also be needed in various ways to support the community. However, since the federal government is unlikely to be democratic in structure if it owned the plant. Workers would still be treated as things since the federal government would be the employer. Undoubtedly, given the macro environment of a capitalist economy dominated by employers, community organization would also tend in that direction. However, there would be less of tendency in that direction than would be the case if the federal government owned the plant.

In relation to the second point–a plan for democratically producing environmentally-friendly output, the emphasis seems to be more on the kind of output rather than the kinds of relations between human beings at work. Admittedly, creating environmentally-friendly vehicles does express a positive relation between individuals, but this relation would be between the set of workers producing the environmentally-friendly objects and other workers and institutions who buy the vehicles.

What should have been included is a characterization of the preferred internal relations between workers–democratic–and how such a form could at least have been begun (although hardly achieved since the Oshawa plant would exist in a sea of capitalist relations of production and exchange).

The two bulleted points, with the suggested modifications, will however very unlikely be realized; GM will in all likelihood be closed down, with the Oshawa workers and community experiencing the immediate brunt of the shut down. What would have been required was persistent preparation of both the community and the workers (of course, not exclusionary since Oshawa workers can also be inhabitants of Oshawa) for a democratic takeover of the plant through a criticism of the employer-employee relation as such. Given the lack of such criticism, workers are likely unprepared ideologically and psychologically  (in terms of their attitude towards what needs to be done and what goals to pursue) for a democratic break with the structure of capitalist production and exchange.

An example of the inadequate preparation of workers: I heard Chris Buckley, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, give a speech at a rally in support of striking airport workers in 2017. He used several times the term “decent job” and “decent work”–by which he meant a job subject to a collective agreement. The social-reformist and radical left did not question him anymore than they questioned Tracy McMaster, president of Greater Toronto Area Council, to which are affiliated 35 local unions of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU)), who also referred to “decent work” and “fair wages.”  They are afraid to alienate union reps and heads, but it is difficult to see how such alienation can be prevented given the acceptance of the power of employers as a class by such reps and heads of unions

Coming to the final point of the article is also wishful thinking. To create a developmental bank would require a fighting organization–a set of unions that are designed to engage in systematic attacks at the municipal, provincial and federal levels against the power of employers as a class and not the rhetorical flashes of engaging in struggles (see Chris Buckley’s letter to Premier Doug Ford, Letter From OFL President Chris Buckley to Premier Doug Ford Regarding GM Oshawa). The recent indication by Jerry Dias, national president of Unifor, and Warren (Smokey) Thomas, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), that they are going to fight Ford’s agenda, will unlikely be sufficient to change the situation in Oshawa   (OPSEU and Unifor Join Forces Against Doug Ford); both accept the premise that collective agreements express a relation of fairness or justice. Expanding alliances across the public and private sector may or may not constitute structural change within unions. If such alliances are merely extensions of the existing union structures, it is unlikely to be an effective fighting force since such structures are not designed to question the legitimacy of the power of employers as a class; they assume the legitimacy of the power of employers as a class and seek only to limit such power–a necessary part of working-class struggle, but hardly sufficient. To become fighting organizations (with purposes that go beyond the limits of the power of employers as a class) and not merely defensive organizations, they need to question the legitimacy of collective agreements while still engaging in collective bargaining as a necessary evil.

We can see this on the OPSEU website for example. The title of one article is  Ford in bed with business, won’t save good GM jobs ; as noted in the first part of the post (see the link to that post above), the logic of this is that before GM announced its decision to close the plant, GM jobs were “good jobs,” but after the announcement, what were they? Bad jobs? The right of employers to close down may be fought on a particular basis, but generally employers as a class have the right to close businesses based on business criteria (generally, profitability in the private sector and public efficiency and political expediency in the public sector). This applies to jobs such as the jobs at GM. To call any job controlled by employers as good, therefore, is contradictory; jobs apparently are both good (when they are not eliminated) and bad (if they can be eliminated).

The article on the OPSEU website has Warren (“Smokey”) Thomas specifically claiming the following: ““At least Ontario has strong unions who stand united to fight for good jobs, even if the premier won’t.” In addition to calling such jobs good (and, by implication bad when they can be eliminated)–in addition to this contradiction–Smokey’s argument ignores how workers at Oshawa are used as means for the benefit of obtaining more and more money by GM (see the  The Money Circuit of Capital, which calls into question any characterization of working for employers as good or decent since workers are necessarily things or means for ends not defined by them but by a class of employers).

We can get an idea of Jerry Dias’ views on “good jobs” from the following article on the Unifor website, entitled   Unifor to hold national ‘Good Jobs Summit’.  Mr. Dias states the following:

“We need elected officials to help chart a path towards a good jobs future,” Dias wrote. “We need to start raising expectations that we can win jobs that pay fair wages, are safe and stable. And we want all workers in Canada to join in.”

Working for an employer, who generally has the legal right to close a factory, a department and so forth without democratic control by those effected by the decision, is somehow still a “good job.” It somehow results in fair wages (whereas wages, in the private sector, result from previous surpluses produced by workers and therefore are used to further exploit workers. See my post Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part Two , criticizing David Bush’s one-sided analysis of capitalist relations of production and exchange).

The idea that jobs within a capitalist society are somehow safe also is questionable, as a number of posts have tried to make clear (Confessions of a Union Representative Concerning the Real Power of EmployersUnions and Safety on Jobs Controlled by EmployersGetting Away with Murder and Bodily Assault: Employers and the Law).

As for stable jobs: Where does Mr. Dias question management rights clauses in collective agreements, which implicitly or explicitly express the right of employers to reduce the number of positions or close factories or departments? That unions can and have limited such a right is certainly preferable to letting management have carte blanche, but limitations on that right hardly involve stability–as the Oshawa workers have experienced first hand. In any case, in a system characterized by capitalist accumulation, where a minority make decisions about what to invest, where to invest, when to invest and so forth, stability is possible for awhile but subject to constant disruption as investors seek new profits and new means to accumulation across the globe. Stability was possible after the Second World War, for instance, for some time because of the substantial destruction of means of production during the Second World War, the opening up of new areas for investment, the expansion of demand for workers and relative increases in wages. Given that a global war is hardly in the workers’ best interests, it is likely that more and more workers will be subject to increasingly precarious jobs until a global slump much wider and deeper than the one in 2007-2008 reduces the value of many means of production, leading to a vast upsurge in unemployment–in either case hardly a stable future.

So, the alliance of a public-sector union and a private-sector union is unlikely to provide the basis for the realization of the third point in the Socialist Project’s Steering Committee: neither the emergence of a development bank at the municipal, provincial or federal level, nor taxing the banks and other investment institutions is likely to be realized in the near future. (It is to be wondered why taxing is limited only to investment institutions and excludes taxing corporations involved in production. But that only in passing.)

The article fails to address the issue of preparing workers to develop a working-class attitude that would be conducive to engage in action that reflects an understanding of their class interests. It may or may not be too late to engage the workers at the Oshawa plant with such an approach, but such an approach should have been started long ago in order to address democratically the power of this particular employer to exert its class right to determine what to do with the means of production.

As it stands, there will probably be knee-jerk reactions to an immediate crisis–which is a typical response of an approach that fails to take into account the class nature of working for an employer but rather assumes that there are such things, within the confines of the employer-employee relation, as “good or decent jobs,” “fair wages,” “a fair contract,” “economic justice” (given collective agreements), “fairness,” “Fair Labour Laws Make Work Safe” and other such half-truths and platitudes. Perhaps the workers in Oshawa will learn the hard way this lesson, but it is more likely to do so if a critical working-class organization exists which questions such half-truths and platitudes and enables workers to understand their own experiences in a wider social context.