Law (the Legal System) and the Coercive Power of Employers as a Class

Introduction

It is interesting how little discussion arises over the nature of the legal system and how it contributes to the exploitation, oppression and economic coercion of billions of workers throughout the world. Unions rarely if ever discuss such issues–it is considered to be utopian at best–whereas unions dealing with the “real” problems that workers face every day. Representatives of unions really need to justify their lack of interest in, on the one hand, addressing such issues and, on the other hand, in failing to incorporate a critique of the legal system into trade-union education.

All Corporations as Criminals–Not Just Some, Or: Definition of the Problem

Below is a set of quotes, along with some commentary, from Professor Harry Glasbeek’s (2018) book Capitalism: A Crime Story. Glassbeek points out in various ways that the employment contract, whether individual or collective, involves coercion:

Every contract of employment, supposedly voluntarily entered into by workers, imposes a legally enforceable duty on workers to obey, a duty to exercise reasonable skill and care, a duty of good faith and loyalty. The worker is not to talk back, let alone rebel; the worker’s only goal is to serve her employer and its goals. This is deeply embedded in our supposedly liberal legal system. As Otto Kahn-Freund put it, the lawyer acknowledges that the hallmark of employment relationships is the element of subordination to which one party, the employee, is said to agree. Canada’s Task Force on Labour Relations baldly stated that a superior-inferior nexus is the distinguishing characteristic of the employment relationship.46 Even when workers can protect themselves better by having won the right to engage in collective bargaining (obviously a departure from the individual contract model), workers are required to obey all reasonable orders the employers issue. The notionally sovereign, autonomous workers are repeatedly and expressly told that the workplace is not a debating society. Coercion of individuals and appropriation of their product remain salient features of legally enforceable contracts of employment, even when laws are passed to alleviate the burdens imposed by its judicially developed doctrines.48

Force and taking—it is the norm. It is not hard to see this if law’s pretenses are unmasked. Take our illustrative mugger who threatens a person with force: the law is sanguine. He is a criminal. The employer who threatens a worker with wage loss if she insists on having clean lungs is treated, by means of a legal pretense, as merely negotiating terms and conditions of a contract (including those of safety at work) with another equally sovereign party. This is a momentous and absurd assumption. Yet, all occupational health and safety regulation begins with this premise, that is, with the initial thought that, whenever possible, safety at work should be left to bargaining between private (if unequal) actors. I will come back to this issue, but the implications are dire for workers. For the moment, I return to my claim that it is patently false to assert that workers enter voluntarily into contracts of employment. Workers have no choice about whether to sell their labour power [their capacity to work or to use the means of production, such as computers and other machines and tools]; if they are lucky they can choose among some purchasing capitalists. They must sell parts of themselves. That is their only freedom, a freedom that is best described as a freedom they are forced to exercise, an oxymoronic idea if there ever was one.

This coercive economic system and its indirectly coercive political and legal system can have deadly consequences, to which legislators have to pay lip service (as the Westray mining murders illustrate:

Legislators may have to overcome stiff opposition from the dominant class’s opinion moulders, but will act to still the palpable public unrest. They feel under pressure to reassure the non-capitalist public that politicians, policy-makers, and the law do truly care about life and the social values by which non-capitalists want, and expect, to live.

Canada’s Westray mining tragedy provides an easy illustration. Before the mine blew up, there had been fifty-two violations of mining safety regulations detected by the inspectorate, none of them leading to punishment. In the aftermath of the deaths of twenty-six workers (no employers or managers, of course), a public inquiry was established. The findings were that the operators had been incompetent at best and, at worst, heedless of human life. Note here that, while the violations of the regulations provided evidence for such findings, it was not the lack of obedience to the resultant orders for breaches of those
standards that got everyone angry. It was the business plan and the daily modus operandi of the mine owners that was seen as repellent, as worthy of criminalization. This was explicitly supported by the authoritative commission of inquiry. Its recommendation was that, if the law did not allow for criminal prosecution of corporations and of their senior operators for this kind of conduct, it should be reformed. After a lengthy battle (capitalists, their corporations, and their ideological defenders did not like this turn of events), legislation was enacted. It makes it possible to criminalize the omission to take action when it is reasonable for some senior officers to believe that it is likely that there will be a
failure to take adequate care (calibrated by regulations or general legal principles). This gradual realization that the usual exceptional legal treatment of capitalists and their corporations needs to be reined in from time to time is not jurisdictionally specific. Analogous legal reforms have been initiated in some Australian jurisdictions and a somewhat less sweeping statute was enacted in the U.K.

These recognitions that heedless risk-creation and risk-shifting, so natural, so routine to for-profit corporations, is potentially criminal in nature and might be so treated go against the grain, go against the starting premise that capitalism’s normal workings involve virtuous actors, using innocent substances and methods that may occasionally lead to unfortunate “accidents” and “spills.” The resistance mounted by capitalists and their corporations’ cheerleaders has been forceful and, thus far, has blunted the impact of the new criminal law reforms. In Canada, after ten years of operation, there has only been one prosecution in respect of fatalities at work per year, even though the number of fatalities has remained constant. The calculation is that there is a 0.1 per cent chance that a prosecution will be launched after a workplace death. That this was always going to be true can be gleaned from the fact that all these reforms took ages to put on the statute books (in Canada close to eleven years; the Australian Commonwealth statute took a similar twelve years to be given life), despite officialdom’s caterwauling about the tragic nature of the results that had led to them.

The powers-that-be continue to believe in their internalized make-believe view that it is not unethical, not criminal, for practising capitalists to undertake actions that they know, or should know, will lead to a certainty of death or other unacceptable outcomes. Thus, when confronted by policy-makers under pressure to confirm that we still live in a liberal democratic society and should punish capitalists as if they were ordinary folk, they ask everyone not to be romantic. Pragmatism is to rule. Principle is a luxury. The liberal spirit of law must be bent to allow capitalists and their corporations (and thereby all of us) to flourish. It is not a very convincing argument on which to base a legal system. At best, it is
amoral; it asks that we should be willing to suspend our ethical goals for the sake of expediency. In any event, this demand, based as it is on the notion that the suspension of our adherence to our shared values and norms is a practical response to real-world circumstances, is not backed by any sound evidence. What is certain, however, is that the tolerance for amorality, or worse, for ethical and moral failures, does nothing for the social cohesion that any society must have to flourish.

Some Proposed Solutions to the Criminal Nature of Corporations–and the Probable Resistance of Social Democrats to Such Solutions

Academics, like Professor Glasbeek, who are critical of the legal system and are aware of its class biases sometimes naively believe that those who claim to be opposed to capitalism are in fact opposed to it. For example,  Professor Glasbeek argues the following:

It would be politically useful to shift the nature of the debate. It should become a debate about whether corporate capitalism actually delivers the good it promises and that this permits it to justify asking society to bear the occasional “malfunctioning” of the system. If this can be done, anti-capitalist activists might find themselves on a more favourable terrain of struggle. Pro–corporate capitalism advocates will have to show that the material wealth capitalists and their corporations produce outweighs the dysfunctionalities generated by their ceaseless drive for more. The uneven distribution of wealth and power, the many physical and psychic injuries inflicted by the chase for profits, the rending of the values and norms by which people other than capitalists believe they should live, all can be listed and elaborated to offset the satisfaction we are supposed to evince because, in the aggregate, monetary wealth is growing ever so nicely. Making this a focus of the attack on capitalists and their corporations can reveal that their reliance on the argument that “the most wickedest of men [doing] the wickedest of things” is a proper means to deliver the “bounty” of economic growth that we supposedly need and crave is inane, perhaps even insane. An argument that their calculation of wealth does not speak of a kind of wealth that meets the aspirations of human beings who want to live in a more altruistic, more compassionate, more ecologically nurturing society can be put on the agenda.

I fail to see how such an agenda is really being promoted here in Toronto by the so-called progressive left. The progressive left talk about “fair contracts,” “good jobs,” and the like. Indeed, it is interesting how social democrats, ultimately, idealize law and the legal system. Thus, trade unionists here in Toronto, such as Tracy McMaster (union steward, organizer, former vice president, Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) local 561 and Wayne Dealy (executive director, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 3902), who refer to a fair contract, indirectly idealize the legal system. They assume that there can be such a thing as a fair contract (including, of course, a collective agreement). The legal system, however, is not only “imperfect” (to use one of Ms. McMaster’s euphemistic terms) but riveted with biases against workers and the working class.

What are Wayne Dealys, Tracy McMasters of the world  doing to enlighten workers about the unfairness of contracts and the unfairness of a society characterized by the power of a class of employers? Or are they more concerned with idealizing collective agreements and minimizing the imperfections in collective agreements and the legal system of which collective agreements form a part?

What would the Dealy’s and McMaster’s say, not rhetorically but practically, about Professor Glasbeek’s following assertion:

This led to legislative interventions to “even up” the bargaining game. We now allow some unionization; we now provide some legislated standards if workers cannot win socially acceptable terms by their own free and voluntary dealmaking. The scope and kind of these protections wax and wane as political and economic fortunes change. When wins are recorded, they are significant worker friendly add-ons to what unmodified employer favouring law offers. But because they are add-ons, many of the legislative gains made by the working class are impermanent. The essentially coercive nature of employment remains intact. Still, the fact that there have been many reforms, that is, many interferences with free contract-making, may suggest to some that the continued significance of the ideological and instrumental impacts of the individual contract of
employment is overstated in the argument presented here. To many observers, the contention that workers are making autonomous choices when entering employment contracts holds up because, in the advanced economies where Anglo-American laws rule, many of us (after 180 or so years of fierce struggles) have some protections against the legalized right of employers to use their wealth as a bludgeon. It is fair to say that the modernized employment relationship looks more benign than it did, but this may only mean that its coercive nature is more insidious, less easily seen. This may make matters
worse….

The fact is that law maintains the basis for a deeply unequal relationship between employers and workers, even when this is sugar-coated by contingent gains made by the working class.

Social reformists and social democrats not only would likely ignore Professor Glasbeek’s analysis of the problem, but they would likely reject out of hand his proposed solutions. For instance, consider Professor Glasbeek’s following proposal:

The characterization of corporations as sovereign individuals with their own agendas is not defensible and should be confronted constantly. Conceptually and materially, they are collectives endowed with disproportionate economic and political powers that benefit the contributors of capital to their coffers. Corporations are instruments designed to satisfy capitalists’ drive for more. Their misbehaviours should be attributed to capitalism as a system and capitalists as people. Anti-capitalist activists and critics should not permit themselves to be distracted by legal proposals to reform corporations or by engaging with movements designed to persuade corporations to be more socially responsible. If, as argued here, capitalism is criminal in nature, it follows that, when they flout ethical and moral norms embedded in law or violate legally mandated standards, corporations are doing what comes naturally to red-blooded human capitalists and what they want their corporations to do. Given the frailty of the legal reasoning that bestows legal personality on an artificial being and that limits fiscal liability and removes legal responsibility from those who hide behind the novel legal person, anti-capitalist activists and critics would do well to argue for the abolition of corporations and hold their controllers’ feet to the fire. An extended and cogent argument to this effect has been made by Steve Tombs and David Whyte in their recent work, The Corporate Criminal.

Conclusion

I know of no social-democratic leftist individual in Toronto who seriously is working towards the abolition of corporations. They consider such talk to be absurd–in practice, although in theory they may pay lip-service to it. They certainly do not teach the decidedly opposite interests of workers and employers. Quite to the contrary. They often paper over such opposition by the use of such phrases as “fair contracts,” “fair collective agreements,” “fair wages,” “decent jobs” and the like.

I invite social reformists or social democrats to engage seriously in creating a movement for the abolition of corporations, in Toronto and elsewhere. Relying ultimately on the legal system to defend us is bound to end up in limited gains and the continued coercion, exploitation and oppression of millions upon millions of workers.

Of course, given my own experiences with social reformers or social democrats, I suspect that they will continue to ignore the systemic real experiences of class oppression, class exploitation and class coercion. In such circumstances, they need to be criticized constantly.

Critique of the Limited Aim (Solution)–Decent Wages–of a Radical Social Democrat: The Case of the Toronto Radical, John Clarke: Part One

Introduction

There are some people among the social-democratic left whom I can respect more than others. John Clarke, former leader of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), is one of them. Here is what one reads on Wikipedia about him:

John Clarke is an anti-poverty activist who lives in TorontoOntarioCanada. As of 2019, he was teaching at York University.

Activism

A native of Britain, he moved to Toronto, Ontario and became an organizer there.[1] He was a leading figure of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) group until he retired from it in January 2019.[2] The Globe and Mail reported in the year 2000 that Clarke’s “guerrilla activism has pitted him against police countless times during the past decade.”[3]

Clarke was arrested with three other activists and charged with inciting a riot for his role in an OCAP protest at Queen’s park in June 2000. Clarke appealed his restrictive bail conditions in August 2000.[3] In 2003, a judge stayed the charges and Clarke walked free.[4]

The Sudbury Star described Clarke in 2016 as “a 25-year veteran of activism.”[1] In 2019, he announced an online fundraiser asking people to contribute $25,000 for his retirement.[5]

Teaching

In 2019, Clarke took on the post of Packer Visitor in Social Justice in the faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies at York University. The position is for two years.[2]

References

  1. Jump up to:ab Keenan Kusan, Workers being held down, activist says in SudburySudbury Star (March 26, 2016).
  2. Jump up to:ab Levy, Sue-Ann (26 November 2019). “Poverty warrior teaching Activism 101 at York University”Toronto Sun. Retrieved 21 March 2020.
  3. Jump up to:ab Margaret Philp, Activist to fight bail termsGlobe & Mail (August 10, 2000).
  4. ^ Clarke, John (28 October 2003). “RIOT CHARGES AGAINST OCAP ORGANIZER STAYED BY TRIAL JUDGE – Statement by John Clarke, OCAP Organizer”OCAP. Archived from the original on 1 June 2005. Retrieved 21 March 2020.
  5. ^ Levy, Sue-Ann (28 January 2019). “Poverty activist John Clarke wants help funding retirement”Toronto Sun. Retrieved 21 March 2020.

Although I can admire not only Mr. Clarke’s activist stance but his willingness to engage in civil disobedience despite the possible consequences for himself, his writings persistently fall short of a socialist stance. This limitation is evident in his aims (which are, generally, solutions to specific problems). 

The Aim or Goal of His Intervention 

What is the aim or goal of his intervention? What is he seeking to achieve?

On Mr. Clarke’s blog, on June 15, 2021, he has written a post titled “A Basic Income in Waiting?” (https://johnclarkeblog.com/node/65). 

Surprisingly, Mr. Clarke’s goals are very similar if not identical to those of  Simran Dhunna and David Bush’s views.  He writes:

During the pandemic, struggles have broken out across the world, from Minneapolis to New Delhi to East Jerusalem. As the global health crisis subsides, there will be a strong determination to fight for something better. As we challenge, not just the ‘economic scarring’ left by the pandemic, but the impact of decades of austerity, we shouldn’t settle for a commodified form of social provision that makes its peace with the neoliberal order. We need to fight employers to win decent wages and to take to the streets to demand massively expanded social housing, greatly improved public healthcare, free public transit, universal child care and much else beside.

His reference to “much else beside” is in reference to an article written by Ms. Dhunna and Mr. Bush (if you click on the the “else beside,” you will be taken to their article). The “much else beside” probably refers to the following list (the social-democratic or reformist left frequently have a grocery list of demands that rarely if ever are realized in practice since they lack the power to realize them):

  1. free dental care
  2. strengthening and regularizing the new changes to EI (employment insurance–which I still call unemployment insurance)
  3. raising social assistance rates
  4. status for all (meaning presumably that immigrants and “illegal” migrants would have the same legal rights as Canadian citizens)
  5. paid sick days
  6. improving tenants’ rights
  7. universal public services.

Of course, I support such efforts, but such efforts hardly make a socialist society since they are likely compatible with some form of capitalism and not with its abolition and with the abolition of all classes; they seek to humanize capitalism and not abolish it. Those who advocate such policies are anti-neoliberal but not necessarily anti-capitalist. To be anti-capitalist, such policies would have to be linked to other policies that push beyond what is acceptable to a capitalist society–such as a radical or robust basic income–which Mr. Clarke opposes. 

I have criticized Dhunna and Bush’s article in several posts on this blog (see for example A Basic Income Versus the Expansion of Public Services? Part One: Critique of the Social-democratic Idea that the Expansion of Public Services is SocialistThe Strawman of a Minimal Universal Basic Income by the Social-democratic Left in Toronto or  A Robust or Ambitious Universal Basic Income: An Impossible Dream for Some Among the Social-democratic Left), and Mr. Clarke’s uncritical reference to it is indicative of Mr. Clarke’s lack of critical distancing from his social-democratic compatriots; his rubber stamping of other social democrats’ position is quite typical of social democrats in general, it would seem (see Exposing the Intolerance and Censorship of Social Democracy, Part Two: Critique of the Standard of Canadians and Landed Immigrants Working for an Employer). 

The way in which Ms. Dhunna and Mr. Bush refer to articles written by others on the subject of basic income, for instance, gives the impression that the authors of some of the articles to which they refer find basic income to be impractical–whereas it is often the case that it is only certain forms of basic income that such authors find impractical; other forms they find feasible–but Ms. Dhunna and Mr. Bush (and Mr Clarke) neglect to acknowledge this. By referring to the article Dhunna and Bush wrote without further ado, Mr. Clarke in effect rubber stamps uncritically their own distortion of the views of others. This is hardly what the working class needs today. Mr. Clarke, despite his apparent anti-capitalist rhetoric, is anti-neoliberal but not anti-capitalist. 

Let us, however, see what Mr. Clarke himself actually proposes as an alternative–what his aims are.  The following is almost a verbatim report of the third section of Mr. Clarke’s presentation on YouTube, presented on June 21, 2021, titled Basic Income Is a Neoliberal Trap  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r40D6fU760s&t=4s):

Alternative Directions

The alternative is to rejuvenate our unions and fight for decent wages, to fight to increase minimum wages, to fight for workers’ rights–rather than extend the cash benefits and extend the reach of the marketplace. It is far better to put considerable effort into the struggle for public services.

Now, Mr. Clarke fully acknowledges that there are income-support programs that are vital and needed, and we cannot let these supports become a kind of poor cousin. We need unemployment insurance that provides adequate coverage and secure coverage. We need the disgusting attack on injured workers that has taken place to be reversed and decent benefits be provided. We need a fight to ensure that disability benefits are adequate and meet people’s needs and that they are secure. We need to challenge the intrusion and moral policing that goes on within these systems.

But to extend the cash benefit widely out into the workforce is a huge mistake. And we could do so much better. Rather than try to get what in practice would be a meager cash benefit, it would be so much better to struggle to challenge the commodification of housing, the neoliberal city, the blighting of urban space with this agenda of greed by fighting for a massive extension of social housing. So that’s a benefit that goes to working-class people and does not go into the pocket of landlords. There’s a need to fight for increases in the adequacy of healthcare. The pandemic has made that absolutely clear. We need pharmacare, dental care, a unviersal childcare program that is not an empty perennial liberal promise. We need post-secondary education to be free; we need free public transport systems. On all of these fronts, we need to take up a fight.

But people will say: We have suffered defeats. We cannot win these things. Mr. Clarke argues that the left has for a very long time forced on the defensive. The class struggle has not gone in our favour for a considerable period of time. But there is no alternative but to rebuild and to fight back and to win what we can. And to challenge this society but to fight for a different society. That’s absolutely indispensable. There in fact is not some social policy ruse that can just put things right.

Basic income is not going to solve the problem. Our lack of strength, our lack of ability to fight in the way we need to fight is the problem we have to address. We need to build that movement now more than ever. In this situation of global crisis we need more than ever to fight back, and we can do so much better in focusing our struggles than to fight for the commodification of social provision and basic income.

There is little difference between Dhunna and Bush’s call for a refurbished welfare state and Mr. Clarke’s vision of a “different society.” The society he envisions is an improved version of the welfare state established after the Second World War; it is hardly a vision of a society without classes, without exploitation and without oppression. 

I will, however, restrict my criticism of Mr. Clarke’s position in this post to his reference to decent wages–and will continue with my criticism of Mr. Clarke’s views on economic coercion–the first part of his presentation in the YouTube video in another post by referring to his apparent acknowledgement that economic coercion forms an essential element of a capitalist society–all the while ignoring the significance of that for formulating policies to counter such economic coercion.  

Decent Wages and Exploitation 

Mr. Clarke does not subject the concept of decent wages to any critical scrutiny. Ironically, Mr. Clarke often refers to exploitation as an essential aspect of a society dominated by a class of employers (and I agree with him on this view), as a basis for criticizing the impracticality of a proposal for universal basic income (see his Youtube presentation)–which I will address in relation to basic income in another post), but he isolates the concept of “decent wages” from any consideration of exploitation. 

The concept of “decent wages” in effect justifies the exploitation of workers and their continued economic coercion. That does not mean, of course, that I would criticize workers for seeking to increase their wages–increasing the standard of living does have the potentiality of improving the quality of life for those who work for employers, and I also have sought to increase my wages or salary to improve my quality of life. However, seeking to increase wages does not make the wages “decent”–given exploitation. 

By referring to “decent wages,” Mr. Clarke, despite his references to exploitation, implicitly uses the standard of working for an employer as a standard for determining what is decent work. This limitation of the left has been noted by others. Kathleen Millar (2017) has argued just that in her critique of the isolation of a set of individuals as the “precariat”. From “Toward a critical Politics of Precarity,” Sociology Compass, Volume 11,  pages 6-7: 

At the same time, translating the concept of precarity to different parts of the world has also meant recognizing that precarity is originary to capitalism. The very condition of having to depend on a wage to sustain one’s life is what makes a worker precarious—not just the specific structures of this or that job (Barchiesi, 2012a; Denning, 2010). From this perspective, precarity is capitalism’s norm, not its exception, and is shared by all workers whether employed or unemployed. We usually think of the worker with a stable, full‐time job as the model of capitalist labor—against which the numerous unemployed, informal, or wageless workers (largely in the global South) are compared. But the latter
reveal the latent precarity of all workers who must sell their labor‐power for a living. This means that the precarity of labor, far from being the exception in capitalism, is the necessary condition for the creation of capital.

To see insecurity at the heart of wage labor (rather than a condition of its absence) is to complicate the current denunciatory discourse of precarity. Critiques of precarity—whether explicitly or as another element of what Thorkelson (2016) describes as its political unconscious—uphold full‐time, wage‐labor employment as an ideal. One problem with this politics of precarity is that it ignores how wage labor can itself be an experience of insecurity, degradation, exploitation, and abuse. For example, Franco Barchiesi (2011) makes this argument through his study of wage labor as a technique of governance in both colonial and postcolonial South Africa. He shows how colonial administrators emphasized the “dignity of work” as a way to use wage labor to discipline African populations seen as “uncivilized” and “unruly.” Many African workers refused waged employment, instead opting for various forms of
subsistence labor or self‐employment that, while insecure, allowed them to avoid the discipline and indignity experienced when working in factories and mines. In this historical context, Barchiesi argues, “precarious employment was not a condition of disadvantage but enabled opposition to the labor‐centered citizenship of Western modernity” (15). Barchiesi goes on to show how today, the continued emphasis on “decent jobs” and “job creation” in postapartheid South Africa fuels the precariousness of workers by continuing to link social citizenship to full‐time wage labor at
the same time that stable employment is increasingly scarce (see also Barchiesi, 2012b). The emphasis on decent jobs also reinforces forms of masculinity, nationalism, and inequality that a social order structured around wage labor produced. In short, the demand for decent jobs, as a solution to precarity, generates a conservative politics attached to the valorization of wage labor. It also precludes the “political potentials of precarity” (Barchiesi, 2012b, 248) or what I have described elsewhere as the possibility that forms of work beyond wage labor might open up other ways of fashioning work and life (Millar, 2014).

This brings me back to the question that began this article: what are we holding onto through the ubiquitous, denunciatory discourse of precarity? One answer to this question is certainly wage labor. Or more precisely, many critiques of precarity remain attached to what Kathi Weeks (2011) has described as the taken‐for‐granted valorization of waged work as an economic necessity, social duty, and moral practice. This attachment to waged work is part of a broader response to precarity that has reaffirmed normative modes of life. For example, Lauren Berlant (2011) argues that conditions of precarity have led to deepened aspirations for and reinvestments in the normative good life—a
stable job, middle‐class home, guaranteed rewards for hard work, and the promise of upward mobility. These forms of attachment, she suggests, paradoxically become obstacles to fulfilling the very desires that are wrapped up with the aspiration for a good life. This produces what Berlant calls a “relation of cruel optimism” (170).

Alternatively, we could see the denunciation of precarity through the lens of “left melancholy.” Drawing on Walter Benjamin’s use of this term, Wendy Brown (1999) reflects on the ways leftist politics remains mournfully committed to ideals, categories, and movements that have been lost, preventing the possibility of radical change in the here and now.4 To cling to the ideal of full employment and decent jobs, rather than to question waged work as a social and economic requirement, could certainly be an example of left melancholy. But Brown is less interested in specifying the objects of attachment than in showing how the very state of melancholia replaces a political commitment to disruption with an unacknowledged pernicious traditionalism. In other words, perhaps it matters less what one is holding onto, just that one is holding on. Or as Dorothy Day (1952) insisted in her decades‐old article on precarity, “The thing to do is not to hold on to anything.”

Mr. Clarke, like so many social-democratic or social-reformist leftists, implicitly clings to working for an employer as the standard for his own goals. 

This implicit standard is kept separate from Mr. Clarke’s rhetorical references to exploitation, which serve to hide his social-democratic or social-reformist political position. 

Let me make a categorical statement: There is no such thing as a decent wage. To work for an employer is in itself degrading, exploitative and oppressive. The concept of a decent wage serves to hide this exploitative situation (see The Money Circuit of Capital). 

Mr. Clarke, apparently, only aims at refurbishing the welfare state rather than abolishing exploitation. Like Mr. Bush’s own references to exploitation, Mr. Clarke uses the concept as a rhetorical flourish (in his case, to criticize a radical policy of basic income) while conveniently “forgetting” the concept when it comes to the issue of whether wages can ever be decent.

Thus, on Mr. Clarke’s blog, on March 7, 2021, in a post titled http://WHEN YOUR ENEMY’S ENEMY IS NOT A FRIEND we read: 

  In a world based on exploitation and oppression, resistance is ever present. … 

 The US and its junior partners compete with their major rivals and pose a terrible threat to the poor and oppressed countries they seek to dominate and exploit. However, we can’t forget that those countries are themselves class divided societies and that not all the exploitation and oppression that their populations face comes out of Washington. Domestic capitalists are also the enemy and the governments of those countries, even where they clash with US objectives, still represent the interests of these home grown exploiters. [my emphases]

Despite his reference to exploitation, Mr. Clarke conveniently forgets the concept when it comes to referring to a “decent wage.” Nowhere does Mr. Clarke justify his view that there is such a thing as a decent wage. There are undoubtedly better wages and worse wages, but how any wage is decent is something that Mr. Clarke merely assumes rather than demonstrates.

The reference to “decent wages” is a social-democratic trick to hide the fact that there is no such thing as “decent wages” in a society dominated by a class of employers. How can any wage be decent when it involves at a minimum economic coercion and oppression of workers by treating them as things or means for purposes not defined by them (see The Money Circuit of Capital  and  Employers as Dictators, Part One)  but by a minority and, in addition, exploitation that involves producing a surplus (see for example  The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part One )?

Furthermore, in the case of workers in the private sector, in the case of both oppression and exploitation, the results of the previous labour of workers is used to further oppress and exploit the workers by means of previous acts of oppression and exploitation–an intensified form of oppression and exploitation (something Mr. Clarke entirely ignores). Mr. Clarke simply ignores this additional feature of exploitation and oppression.

Mr. Clarke thus uses the concept of exploitation for social-democratic purposes–an anti-neoliberal purpose and not an anti-capitalist purpose. Advocating for decent wages while using the word “exploitation” is contradictory–but exploitation is really just a word for Mr. Clarke. Alternatively, Mr. Clarke believes that workers are exploited–but that such exploitation cannot be abolished. He certainly never advocates the abolition of exploitation, and his aim of achieving decent wages simply ignores the issue. 

What I wrote in another post relation to Ms. Dhunna and Mr. Bush’s political position applies as much to Mr. Clarke:

Dhunna and Bush’s first aim–to “meaningfully improve the material realities of working class and oppressed people”–sounds both practical and radical. It is actually conservative since its focus is entirely on distributional struggles rather than struggles over control of working conditions at both the micro and macro levels. Indeed, since this is their primary goal, they practically define a socialist society as an enhanced welfare state–capitalism with a more human face.

By focusing on distributional struggles, they imply, without ever saying it, that wider struggles to control working conditions are impractical and utopian. They, the realists, know what “bread and butter issues” are relevant for the working class, and such “bread and butter issues” are purely distributional struggles. Such a stance is conservative–its aim is not to end class rule, but to perpetuate it–though in a more humanized form than at present.

Wages, Exploitation and the Accumulation of Capital 

This  becomes even more evident when we consider, not only the immediate exchange between workers and employers and the subsequent exploitation but also the antecedent processes of exploitation. When we consider the process of exploitation and oppression of workers as a process, the immediate exchange between workers and employers (whether through collective or individual bargaining) is actually the use of surplus value (symbolized by “s” produced by workers in earlier rounds of exploitation to further exploit them. I referred to this process in my critique of Dhunna and Bush’s conservative use of Marx’s theory of exploitation. From Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, volume 1, pages 727-730:

Let us now return to our example. It is the old story: Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob and so on. The original capital of £10,000 brings in a surplus-value of £2,000, which is capitalized. The new capital of £2,000 brings in a surplus-value of £400, and this too is capitalized, transformed into a second additional capital, which in its turn produces a further surplus-value of £80. And the process continues in this way.

We leave out of account here the portion of the surplus-value consumed by the capitalist. We are also not interested, for the moment, in whether the additional capital is joined on to the original capital, or separated from it so that it can valorize itself independently. Nor are we concerned whether the same capitalist employs it who originally accumulated it, or whether he hands it over to others. All we must remember is this: by the side of the newly formed capital, the original capital continues to reproduce itself and to produce surplus-value, and this is true of all accumulated capital in relation to the additional capital engendered by it.

The original capital was formed by the advance of £10,000. Where did its owner get it from? ‘From his own labour and that of his forefathers’, is the unanimous answer of the spokesmen of political economy. And, in fact, their assumption appears to be the only one consonant with the laws of commodity production.

But it is quite otherwise with regard to the additional capital of £2,000. We know perfectly well how that originated. There is not one single atom of its value that does not owe its existence to unpaid labour. The means of production with which the additional labour-power is incorporated, as well as the necessaries with which the workers are sustained, are nothing but component parts of the surplus product, parts of the tribute annually exacted from the working class by the capitalist class. Even if the latter uses a portion of that tribute to purchase the additional labour-power at its full price, so that equivalent is exchanged for equivalent, the whole thing still remains the age-old activity of the conqueror, who buys commodities from the conquered with the money he has stolen from them.

If the additional capital employs the person who produced it, this producer must not only continue to valorize the value of the original capital, but must buy back the fruits of his previous labour with more labour than they cost. If we view this as a transaction between the capitalist class and the working class, it makes no difference that additional workers are employed by means of the unpaid labour of the previously employed workers. The capitalist may even convert the additional capital into a machine that throws the producers of that capital out of work, and replaces them with a few children. In every case, the working class creates by the surplus labour of one year the capital destined to employ additional labour in the following year.5 And this is what is called creating capital out of capital.

The accumulation of the first additional capital of £2,000 presupposes that a value of £10,000 exists, advanced by the capitalist, and belonging to him by virtue of his ‘original labour’. The second additional capital of £400 presupposes, on the contrary, only the prior accumulation of the £2,000, of which the £400 is the capitalized surplus-value. The ownership of past unpaid labour is thenceforth the sole condition for the appropriation of living unpaid labour on a constantly increasing scale. The more the capitalist has accumulated, the more is he able to accumulate.

The surplus-value that makes up additional capital no. 1 is the result of the purchase of labour-power with part of the original capital, a purchase which conformed to the laws of commodity exchange and which, from a legal standpoint, presupposes nothing beyond the worker’s power to dispose freely of his own capacities, and the money-owner’s or commodity-owner’s power to dispose freely of the values that belong to him; equally, additional capital no. 2 is merely the result of additional capital no. 1, and is therefore a consequence of the relations described above; hence each individual transaction continues to conform to the laws of commodity exchange, with the capitalist always buying labour power and the worker always selling it at what we shall assume is its real value. It is quite evident from this that the laws of appropriation or of private property, laws based on the production and circulation of commodities, become changed into their direct opposite through their own internal and inexorable dialectic. The exchange of equivalents, the original operation with which we started, is now turned round in such a way that there is only an apparent exchange, since, firstly, the capital which is exchanged for labour-power is itself merely a portion of the product of the labour of others which has been appropriated without an equivalent; and, secondly, this capital must not only be replaced by its producer, the worker, but replaced together with an added surplus. The relation of exchange between capitalist and worker becomes a mere semblance belonging only to the process of circulation, it becomes a mere form, which is alien to the content of the transaction itself, and merely mystifies it. The constant sale and purchase of labour power is the form; the content is the constant appropriation by the capitalist, without equivalent, of a portion of the labour of others which has already been objectified, and his repeated exchange of this labour for a greater quantity of the living labour of others.

The immediate exchange between workers and employers is an exchange of equivalents, so that workers receive the value of their cost of production. However, when considering the larger context of previous production, then the immediate exchange between employer and workers is a semblance . The employer uses a part of the surplus produced by the workers in a previous round as means of production (machines, raw material, buildings, etc.) and another part (socially as money and physically as means of consumption, such as food, clothing, shelter) to further employ them (in addition to the initial investment). 

If this is the case, how can anyone who believes in the existence of class exploitation refer to wages as decent wages? There is no such thing. Wages used to control the working class and to exploit them in the present, when conceived in the continuous process of production and exchange, are derived from surplus value produced in antecedent rounds of production so that the wage they receive today is the result of past exploitation and oppression.

The present domination of workers at work by employers is a consequence of past accumulation of surplus value and its investment in the further exploitation of workers.  How anyone who is anti-capitalist could refer to wages as “decent” is beyond me–unless they are really only anti-neoliberal (a particular form of capitalism but not capitalism as such) and not anti-capitalist, despite the rhetoric to the contrary. 

Again, the issues of exploitation and the accumulation of capital need to be linked together when determining whether there is such a thing as a decent wage. The following couple of long quotes by  Teinosuke Otani (2018) points to this need –a need that Mr. Clarke ignores by referring to decent wages as a primary aim without even engaging into inquiry into the nature of capitalist relations of production and exchange.

The first long quote has to do with what is called simple reproduction, where the private employer exploits workers by obliging them to work for more time than they themselves cost to produce, thereby enabling the private employer or capitalist to appropriate and then consume the entire surplus value (profit) produced. Since the entire surplus value (profit) is consumed, each year the same level of investment arises–simple reproduction. 

From  Teinosuke Otani (2018),  A Guide to Marxian Political Economy: What Kind of a Social System Is Capitalism?, pages 218-224 ( emphases in the original):   

8.4 Capital as the Materialisation of Unpaid Labour of Others

Under simple reproduction, it is assumed that the capitalist consumes the entirety of the surplus-value appropriated from the worker year after year. Now let’s assume that during a period of 5 years, a capital value of 1000 brings the capitalist a surplus-value of 200 every year and that the capitalist consumes this entire amount. At the end of the 5 years, he still has the 1000 in capital value that he possessed at the outset, but over the 5 years, he has appropriated 1000 in surplus-value from the worker and consumed this 1000 in value.

The capitalist would likely say: «It is precisely because I initially possessed 1000 in value, as the fruit of my own labour, that I was able to appropriate and consume 200 in value every year. The 1000 in value that I advance each year—no matter how many years this is repeated—is the initial value created by my labour».

The situation appears quite different, however, if we carefully observe the process as repeated reproduction.

Let’s take our capitalist at his word here and assume that the 1000 in value he started off with was appropriated through his own labour, so that it is the materialisation of his own labour.

During the 5-year period, the capitalist consumes a sum of value equal to the value he initially possessed. Yet after the 5 years, he is still in possession of a sum of value equal to what he started off with. Why? What is clear is that it is precisely because the capitalist has received the 1000 in surplus value for free that he can still have 1000 in value despite having consumed that amount. The 1000 that he holds after 5 years is thus the result of the 1000 in surplus-value appropriated during the 5 years, merely representing the total sum of 1000 in surplus-value obtained for free. This point can be well understood if we consider what would happen to the capitalist, who consumes 200 in value every year, if he did not appropriate any surplus-value during those years. In such a case, even if he had 1000 the first year, he would have no alternative but to consume 200 every year, reducing by that amount the sum of money that could be advanced as capital. After 5 years, the sum would reach zero and he would cease to be a capitalist. The fact that he is able to still exist as a capitalist at the end of 5 years, with 1000 in capital, is clearly the outcome of appropriating 200 surplus-value every year over the course of that period.

The capitalist in our example has appropriated the materialisation of 1000 in value from another person’s labour during a 5-year period. Since the capitalist is still in possession of 1000 in value after 5 years, having lived by consuming 200 per year, his 1000 is nothing but the materialisation of the labour of others. Even if the capital value the capitalist initially possessed was the materialisation of his own labour, the capital value he is now in possession of after 5 years is the materialisation of the worker’s surplus-value, which is to say, thematerialisation of the labour of others. Starting from the sixth year, the capitalist appropriates further surplus-value that is the materialisation of others’ labour by means of capital value that is also purely the materialisation of the labour of others. 

8.5 Reproduction of Capital-ownership Through Appropriating the Labour
of Others

At first glance, the capital relation, which is the relation of production between capitalists and workers, seems to continue to exist, as is, year after year. In particular, it seems that the pivot of this continuity is the capitalist’s continued possession of capital, which he owned from the outset. In fact, however, as noted in the previous section, the capital relation is not an inorganic entity like a cornerstone, which cannot collapse once put in place unless some outside force is applied, but rather is maintained by being constantly reproduced and formed through the labour of labouring individuals within the production process. This is similar to how the human body is maintained by the infinite number of cells that compose it being replaced every day by newly created ones.

… 

Now let’s imagine that a person with no money borrows 1000 in value from someone (assuming that the loan is free of interest) and makes it function as capital for a 5-year period, during which he appropriates 200 in surplus-value every year and that after 5 years he repays the 1000. Once the loan had been repaid, he would return to his penniless state and cease to be a capitalist. In this case, the fact that he was able to exist as a capitalist for 5 years was not because he held on to 1000 in value during the 5 years. Indeed, if the 1000 had not functioned as capital, he would have consumed the 1000 during the 5 years, leaving him with nothing but the debt for that amount. The reason the capitalist is instead able to still have 1000, and was able to consume 200 in value every year, is that during those 5 years, he made the 1000 in value function as capital and was thus able to appropriate 200 in surplus-value from workers each year. It is precisely because of appropriating this unpaid labour that the capitalist is able to exist as a capitalist for a period of 5 years.

Even if, during the 5-year period, he had been able to live without consuming the 200 of surplus-value or had somehow been able to procure a separate consumption fund to last the 5 years, so that even after repaying the 1000 by the end of that period he would have a total of 1000 in value appropriated from workers, it would still be clear that this value is the mass of surplus-value appropriated from the workers.

In short, the capital value owned by the capitalist must sooner or later, through the progression of reproduction, be transformed into the materialisation of the appropriated labour of others, so that the ownership of capital value by the capitalist (even if initially the result of his own labour) is transformed into the outcome of the appropriation of others’ labour, i.e. transformed into the outcome of exploitation carried out in the production process.

In simple reproduction, it is assumed that the original investment came from the labour of the purchaser of the labour power of workers and of the means of production (machinery (such as computers), buildings, raw material, and other such products), but on the basis of that assumption the preservation of the same initial investment arises through the constant exploitation of workers.

In simple reproduction the preservation of the original value of the investment year after year, therefore, is due to the continued exploitation of workers year after year. Can the wages the workers receive then be considered in any way decent under such circumstances? Let Mr. Clarke and other social democrats explain this. 

When we consider the real accumulation of capital, where part of the surplus value (profit) produced for free by workers and appropriated by private employers (capitalists) for no equivalent is not consumed but ploughed back into further investments, not only is the original value of original capital preserved through the continued exploitation of workers but the relation between the original capital invested and the new capital invested due to the exploitation of workers increasingly becomes smaller and smaller relatively as the accumulation of capital and the continuous exploitation of workers proceed. From Otani, pages 228-234:  

Our assumption here again will be that a capitalist has advanced 1000 in value and then appropriates 200 in surplus-value, all of which is subsequently advanced as additional capital.

Where does the capitalist get this 1000 in capital? The capitalists and the economists who defend their interests respond in unison that this capital was the fruit of the capitalists’ own labour or that of their forbearers. But we have already seen that, even seen from the perspective of simple reproduction, all capital is transformed into a mass of unpaid labour of others through the recurrence of reproduction and that capital-ownership is also reproduced through the appropriation of unpaid labour. But, for now, let us accept the capitalist’s view of the situation.

… commodity holders in the sphere of commodity exchange recognise each other as private owners, but in so doing, they do not concern themselves with how the other person came to possess his commodity. Instead, they can only assume that this other person obtained it through his own labour. This socially accepted assumption that a private owner’s property title stems from own labour is the property laws of commodity production.

When the capitalist initially appears on the market with 1000 and purchases means of production and labour-power at their value, those involved in the commodity and labour markets do not care how he came into possession of the 1000 in value, provided he is the proper owner of that sum. Those involved in the transaction all assume with regard to each other that commodities and money were obtained through their own labour, with each quite content to declare: «I worked to save up this 1000» or «It was obtained through my parents’ hard work». And it seems that this is the only assumption that could be made, according to the property laws of commodity production.

The situation is completely different, however, in the case of the 200 that the capitalist seeks to advance as additional capital. We are perfectly familiar with the process that generates this sum of value, knowing that it was originally surplus-value. This means that the 200 in its entirety is the objectification [materialisation] of the unpaid labour of others. The additional means of production and additional labour power purchased with this sum are nothing more than a new form taken by this value qua [as] objectification of unpaid labour.

Viewed as a transaction between the capitalist class and working class, we have a situation where the working class, through its surplus-labour in the current year, creates the new capital that becomes the additional means of production and additional labour-power the following year.

Now let us assume that the 200 is advanced in the second year as additional capital and yields 40 in surplus-value [the same rate of profit as the initial investment of 1000 with a surplus value of 200: 200/1000=40/200=1/5=20 percent]. Since the original capital also generates 200 in surplus-value in the second year, by the third year, there is 440 (in addition to the 1000) that can be advanced as capital [First year: 200s from the initial exploitation of workers+ second year, an additional 200s  from the 1000 again invested and used to exploit the workers +the 40s produced in the second year by the workers and used for further investment in the third year=440]. Not only is 400 unmistakably the objectification of unpaid labour, 40 is the objectification of unpaid labour appropriated through the additional capital, which itself is the objectification of unpaid labour. If this process of accumulating all the surplus-value is repeated for the subsequent 4 years, by the end of that period the capitalist will have—in addition to his original capital of 1000, which we could call the «parent»—the surplus-value appropriated through the parent capital during the 4 years… Together this forms an «offspring» of 1074. So if the capitalist advances the aggregate capital in the fifth year, there will be 2074 of capital («parent» and «offspring») in operation that year. [The capitalist is assumed to exploit workers to the extent of 20 percent per unit. At the end of the first year, 1000×1.2=1,200; this is invested in the second year, and at the end of the second year, 1,200×1.2=1,440; this is invested at the beginning of the third year, and at the end of the third year, 1,440×1.2=1,728; this is invested at the beginning of the fourth year, and at the end of the fourth year, 1,728×1.2=2074, which again can be invested at the beginning of the fifth year…]. 

Even if we assume that the capitalist possessed the 1000 of the 2074 to begin with, he certainly cannot claim that the remaining 1074 in value was created through his own labour. As long as it is recognised that the 200 in surplus-value appropriated every year from the 1000 in capital is the objectification
of surplus-labour, then this 1074 in value is, from top to bottom, the surplus-value transformed back into capital and thus the objectification of labour of others. … In other words, we are dealing with a mass of surplus-labour appropriated through a mass of surplus-labour.

The more the reproduction of capital is repeated, the smaller the original capital advanced, until it becomes an infinitesimal amount. The surplus-value transformed back into capital, whether it is made to function as capital in the hands of the person who accumulated it or in the hands of someone else, comes to represent the overwhelming part of the capital that currently exists.

The capitalist every year buys the means of production and labour-power on the commodity market and labour market in accordance with the property laws of commodity production in order to repeatedly carry out production. The result of this is that the capitalist appropriates unpaid living
labour on an increasingly large scale by making the unpaid surplus-labour of others function as capital. Marx refers to the capitalist’s appropriation of unpaid labour in this manner as the laws of capitalist appropriation.

In the market, which is the surface layer of capitalist production, the property law of commodity production operates. But if we consider the production of capital that underlies this in terms of social reproduction, it becomes clear that the law of capitalist appropriation is in operation. Where the capital relation exists, the law of capitalist appropriation is the necessary consequence of the property laws of commodity production. Marx expresses this reality by referring to the inversion of the property laws of commodity production in the laws of capitalist appropriation.

The surplus-value qua ]as] objectification of the surplus-labour of another person, which the capitalist appropriates in the production process, is turned into capital; and the ownership of this capital value is thus the result of the appropriation of surplus-value in the production process. The capitalist’s
appropriation of surplus-value in the production process precedes, and brings about, his ownership of capital. Here it is precisely the production of surplus-value by the labouring individuals first. Rather, it is precisely the behaviour of the labouring individuals within the production process that is always generating the ownership of the means of production by the capitalist within the production process that generates capital ownership.

At first glance, there seemed to be a vicious circle with regard to capitalist ownership of the means of production by the capitalist and his appropriation of surplus-value, wherein the latter is only possible through the former, but the latter always generates the former. However, within this relation,
the active determining moment that continues capitalist production as such is the constant reproduction of products within the production process by the labouring individuals and the constant production of surplus-value. Labouring individuals are the active subject of continual production,
regardless of the form of society, but under capitalist production, we have a situation where labouring individuals completely separated from the conditions of labour come into contact with the means of production in the production process as things belonging to others, which means that the resulting
surplus-labour always belongs to others as well, and through this there is the continual reproduction of capital and wage-labour and the relation between them. Thus, in terms of the
capitalist ownership of the means of production, and the capitalists’ appropriation of surplus-value, it cannot be said that the former is the immovable premise or even that it is a vicious circle where it cannot be said which of the two comes first. Rather, it is precisely the behaviour of the labouring individuals within the production process that is always generating the ownership of the means of production by the capitalist.

When conceived as a continuous process of exploitation and accumulation of capital, the idea of “decent wages” sounds and is hollow. The idea of “decent wages” completely ignores the whole process of exploitation founded on previous exploitation. Mr. Clarke, practically, by referring to “decent wages,” converts his references to exploitation into mere words, emptied of content. 

What is necessary is to criticize the claims of capitalist society’s own ideologues. From Elena Lange (2021),  Value without Fetish: Uno Kōzō’s Theory of ‘Pure Capitalism’ in Light of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy, page 33: 

… Marx was less interested in contrasting the capitalist mode of production with the utopias of socialism, but in contrasting the bourgeois mode of production with its own claims.

Mr. Clarke, despite his nod towards Marx’s theory of exploitation, seems to have little interest in critiquing the claims of the ideologues of employers when he refers to decent wages. 

The Parallel of Decent Work and Decent Wages: The Case of the Social-Democratic International Labour Organization (ILO) 

Mr. Clarke has more in common with the social-democratic rhetoric of the International Labour Organization (ILO) than with any Marxian critique of capitalist society. The ILO talks about “decent work” and the like, and it claims that labour should not be treated as a commodity–but workers need to treat themselves necessarily as commodities, and euphemisms about “decent wages” and “decent work” serve to hide that fact. From Gerry Rodgers, Eddy Lee, Lee Swepston and Jasmien Van Daele (2009),  The International Labour Organization and the Quest for Social Justice, 1919–2009, page 7: 

Key passages from these documents are reproduced in Appendix II. Together, they identify the principles, issues and means of governance that lie at the heart of the ILO ’s work.

Five basic principles can be distinguished in these texts.

  • Lasting peace cannot be achieved unless it is based on social justice, grounded in freedom, dignity, economic security and equal opportunity.
  • Labour should not be regarded merely as a commodity or an article of commerce.
  • There should be freedom of association, for both workers and employers, along with freedom of expression, and the right to collective bargaining.
  • These principles are fully applicable to all human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex.
  • Poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere, and must be addressed through both national and international action.

These moral and political principles guide the action of the ILO , and provide the cognitive framework for its work – the spectacles through which the ILO sees the world. The first of these, that peace must be based on social justice, has been considered above. It lays out the overriding reason for the existence of the Organization. The second provides the fundamental principle guiding its action. It expresses the dignity of labour and the recognition of its value, in contrast to the Marxian notion that, under capitalism, labour becomes a commodity. In the ILO ’s vision, all forms of work can, if they are adequately regulated and organized, be a source of personal well-being and social integration. Of course, labour is bought and sold, but market mechanisms are subordinate to higher goals. The original 1919 Constitution states that “labour should not be regarded merely as a commodity”. By the time of the Declaration of Philadelphia, the same idea is expressed more strongly: “Labour is not a commodity.”

Labour in Marxian economics is certainly not a commodity, but labour power is–the capacity to work or to use means of production to produce a product. The ILO simply denies that it labour (power) should be a commodity–all the while denying the reality that it is in fact a commodity and must be a commodity if capitalist society is to emerge and to continue to exist. (Of course, unfree forms of labour (so that workers cannot freely choose a particular employer) can exist side by side with free labour–but the existence of free labour power as a commodity is still necessary. It may not be very pleasant to think about the social implications of the necessary existence of labour power as a commodity, but it is necessary to do in order to enable the working class to formulate policies that will more likely enable them to control their own lives by abolishing all class relations. 

Just as the ILO places a veil over the eyes of workers by arguing that labour (power) should not be a commodity–whereas it is necessarily a commodity in a society dominated by a class of employers, with the associated economic, social and political structures–so too do Mr. Clarke’s references to decent wages place a veil over our eyes by implicitly denying that workers are necessarily and continuously exploited. 

I would like to know what Mr. Clarke means by decent wages. Are the wages received by the unionized workers for Magna International, Air Canada, Rogers Communication, Suncor Energy or Telus decent wages? (see various posts that attempt to calculate the rate of exploitation for these unionized workers). If so, how does Mr. Clarke square such a view with the fact of exploitation? If not, then the concept of decent wages has no relevance for workers other than as an ideological cloak for their continued exploitation.

Or are the wages that I received as a brewery worker in the early 1980s decent wages? For example, at the brewery where I worked in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, in the collective agreement between the Brewery Employers Industrial Relations Association (BEIRA) (for Carling O’Keefe) and the Western Union of Brewery, Beverage, Winery and Distillery Workers, Local 287, dated April 1, 1980 to March 31, 1983, bottling operators received a base wage of $13.20 on April 1, 1982. Sick pay was 12 days per year, a guaranteed wage plan, life insurance up to $20,000, a long-term disability plan, paid basic Alberta Health Care Insurance Plan, hospital expenses to a maximum, major medical expenses (with a yearly deductible of $10 for an individual and $20 for a family)), a dental plan, etc. In fact, many of the benefits specified by Mr. Clarke in his reference to Dhunna and Bush’s article (“much else beside”) are included in the collective agreement. ,

(I ended up operating a machine, at first part of the soaker from the end where the cleaned bottles come out of the soaker as well as the EBI (electric bottle inspector), and then when there was technological change, just the EBI unit (and maintaining the line going into the filler free of glass).

Did I receive a decent wage? What of the surplus value that had been used in previous rounds of accumulation that were used to further exploit us? Should not these facts be  taken into account when judging whether there is anything like a decent wage? Apparently not. 

Conclusion

Mr. Clarke refers to exploitation and capitalism often enough, but he then conveniently forgets about it when he refers to “decent wages.” Mr. Clarke is anti-neoliberal but not really anti-capitalist–despite the rhetoric to the contrary. A real anti-capitalist perspective would never refer to any wage as decent–or for that matter any work that involves working for an employer as decent work. 

In a follow-up post, I will critically analyze Mr. Clarke’s references to “economic coercion.” I may or may not integrate such  an analysis with a critique of Mr. Clarke’s criticisms of a basic income. 

 

A Short List of the Largest Swedish Employers by the Number of Employees, Profits and the Profits per Worker

The following provides a few statistics about the number of employees, the profit produced by the Swedish workers and the profit produced per worker of the largest employers in Sweden–often one of the idealized countries of the social-democratic left, where free public services are more extensive than in many other developed capitalist countries. 

It can be found at the following site: The Twenty Largest Swedish Employers by the Number of Employees, Profit and Turnover (Revenue).

Please note that the specific employers, the order of employers and the statistics may be different from those indicated below since the website is occasionally updated. Between the time I  started to work on this post and its posting, some of the employers had changed and so too had the numbers; I had to add some employers’ names and delete others as well as recalculate everything,

I will start with conclusions first and then proceed to the statistics and calculations on which the conclusions are based.

Conclusions First

The above workers in the last table, then, on average, produced $62,893 free of charge to the Swedish employers in one year. Sweden, despite greater access to free public services, is characterized by systemic exploitation of the working class. Furthermore, it is characterized by oppression of these workers even when workers are producing the equivalent of their own wage rather than producing a profit (or surplus value) for the employer (see The Rate of Exploitation of Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part Two, Or: Intensified Oppression and Exploitation).  

The purpose of the above is mainly to highlight that the social-democratic heaven of Sweden is hardly the heaven painted by social democrats or social reformers. In Sweden, like other capitalist countries, workers are used as means to obtain more money (see The Money Circuit of Capital). They are both exploited (perform more work than is necessary to produce the equivalent of their own wage), and they are oppressed (subject to the dictates of their employer–both when they produce the equivalent of their wage and when they produce a surplus value for free for the employer (see The Rate of Exploitation of Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part Two, Or: Intensified Oppression and Exploitation). 

The expansion of free public services and systematic exploitation of workers can go hand in hand. Social democrats, however, often present the expansion of free public services as the solution to the social problems that we face (see, for example, A Basic Income Versus the Expansion of Public Services? Part One: Critique of the Social-democratic Idea that the Expansion of Public Services is Socialist). However, the expansion of free public services could form part of the solution–if it is linked to a movement for the abolition of the power of the class of employers and not just as the solution to the problems we face. 

Data on Swedish Employers

The Largest Employers in Sweden According to the Number of Employees

 
  Company       Number of employees  
 

1

Securitas AB   302 055 ChangeValue
 

2

H & M Hennes & Mauritz AB   126 376 ChangeValue
 

3

Ericsson, Telefon AB LM     94 503 ChangeValue
4 Volvo, AB   93 731 ChangeValue
5 Assa Abloy AB   48 992 ChangeValue
6 Electrolux, AB   48 652 ChangeValue
7 Scania CV AB     47 489 ChangeValue
8 Scania AB     47 489 ChangeValue
9 Essity AB   45 980 ChangeValue
10 SKF, AB   41 559 ChangeValue
11 Volvo Car AB     41 517 ChangeValue
12 Sandvik AB   41 120 ChangeValue
13 Atlas Copco AB     37 805 ChangeValue
14 Skanska AB   34 756 ChangeValue
15 Carl Bennet AB     28 825 ChangeValue
16 PostNord AB   28 627 ChangeValue
17 Loomis AB   24 895 ChangeValue
18 ICA Gruppen AB     23 125 ChangeValue
19 Trelleborg AB   22 952 ChangeValue
20 Axel Johnson Holding AB   22 291 ChangeValue

Some explanations are in order since some of the companies seem to be repeated.

  1. From Wikipedia: “The heavy truck and construction equipment conglomerate AB Volvo and Volvo Cars have been independent companies since AB Volvo sold Volvo Cars to the Ford Motor Company in 1999.”
  2. According to Prospectus Scania (1999): “The principal subsidiary of Scania AB is Scania CV AB. It is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Scania AB and comprises all Scania operations outside Latin America.” Hence, it would seem that for the purposes of the statistics Scania CV AB and Scania AB are identical. That is why I included 21 companies–they ar

A further measure is according to profit on the same webpage: I modify it somewhat to make it more meaningful for Canadian workers.

The Largest Employers in Sweden According to the Amount of Profit

 
  Company       Net profit (×1000) SEK (SEK is the Swedish Krona or unit of money,  around $0.14 Canadian, $0.11 US,  $0.10 Euro-, 0.08 pounds, -so roughly divide by 7, 9, 10, or  12.5, respectively, to get a Canadian, US, Euro or pound  equivalent), Net profit, billions of Canadian dollars  (dividing net profit in kronas by 7 and x 1000)
 

1

Investor AB   102 650 000 $14.664286ChangeValue
 

2

Volvo, AB   46 832 000 ChangeValue$6.6690286
 

3

AstraZeneca AB   37 436 000 ChangeValue$5.348000
4 Industrivärden, AB   29 930 000 $4.275714ChangeValue
5 L E Lundbergföretagen AB   23 335 000 ChangeValue$3.333571
6 Kinnevik AB   21 573 000 ChangeValue$3.081857
7 Atlas Copco AB     21 572 000 ChangeValue$3.081714
8 Melker Schörling AB   20 013 000 ChangeValue$2.859000
9 Melker Schörling Tjänste AB   20 013 000 $2.859000ChangeValue
10 SCA, Svenska Cellulosa AB   19 539 000 ChangeValue$2.791286
11 Lundin Energy AB   18 885 500 ChangeValue$2.697929
12 Arrow AB   18 725 220 ChangeValue$2.675031
13 Vattenfall AB     18 322 000 ChangeValue$2.617429
14 H & M Hennes & Mauritz AB   17 391 000 ChangeValue$2.484429
15 Scania CV AB     16 476 000 ChangeValue$2.353714
16 Scania AB     16 476 000 ChangeValue$2.353714
17 Erik Selin Fastigheter AB     16 289 589 ChangeValue$2.327084
18 Assa Abloy AB   13 571 000 ChangeValue$1.938714
19 Volvo Car AB     13 168 000 ChangeValue$1.881143
20 Essity AB   13 040 000 $1.862857ChangeValue
 

If we combine the two tables and add some readily available data from the website that is not indicated in the two tables above–that is to say, look at companies where information is readily available both for the number of employees and for the net profit (some of the companies lack data for both the number of employees and the amount of net profit)–we can get an idea of the extent of exploitation in terms of the amount of profit generated per worker for each company as well the average amount of net profit produced (or appropriated) per worker.

I address some objections to this calculation after the tables. I calculated the Canadian equivalent (far right).

The Largest Employers According to Profit Produced or Appropriated Per Worker in Sweden

 
  Company Net profit (×1000) SEK   Number of employees Net Profit per worker SEK  Net Profit per worker (in Canadian dollars) (dividing net profit in Kronas by 7)
 

1

Investor AB 102 650 000 15,560 6,597,000ChangeValue ChangeValue$942,429
 

2

AstraZeneca AB 37 436 000 6,150 6,087,000ChangeValue ChangeValue$869,571
 

3

SCA, Svenska Cellulosa AB 19,539,000 4,253 4,594,000ChangeValue ChangeValue$656,286
4 Vattenfall AB 18,322,000 19.997 916,000ChangeValue ChangeValue$130,857
5 Atlas Copco AB 21,572,000 37,805  571,000ChangeValue ChangeValue$81,571
6 Volvo, AB 46,832,000 93,731 500,000ChangeValue ChangeValue$71,429
7  Scania CV AB 16,476,000   47,489 347,000 ChangeValue$49,571
8 Volvo Car AB 13,168,000 41,517  317,000ChangeValue ChangeValue$45,286
9  Sandvik AB 12,150,000 41,120 295,000ChangeValue ChangeValue$42,143
10 Essity AB 13,040,000 45,980 284,000ChangeValue ChangeValue$40,571
11 Assa Abloy AB 13,571,000  48,992  277,000ChangeValue ChangeValue$39,571
12  Skanska AB 7,340,000 34,756 211,000ChangeValue ChangeValue$30,143
13  SKF, AB 8,469,000   41,559 204,000ChangeValue ChangeValue$29,143
14 ICA Gruppen AB 4,402,000 23,125 190,000ChangeValue ChangeValue$27,143
15 Carl Bennet AB 5,,124,000   28,825 178,000ChangeValue ChangeValue$25,429
16 H & M Hennes & Mauritz AB 17,391,000    126,376 138,000ChangeValue ChangeValue$19,714
17 Axel Johnson Holding AB 2,237,000 22,291 100,000 ChangeValue$14,286ChangeValue
18 Ericsson, Telefon AB LM 8,762,000 94,503 93,000ChangeValue ChangeValue$13,286
19 Loomis AB 2,210,000   24,895

89,000

ChangeValue

ChangeValue$12,714
20 Electrolux, AB 2,456,000 48,651  50,000 ChangeValue$7,143

In terms of total profit per worker for all the above workers, if we sum up total profits and total employees and divide total profits by total employees, we obtain: 

Total profit: 373,147,000×1000 SEK; /7=$53.306714290 billion Canadian dollars 
Total #Employees: 847,575
Total profit per worker: 53.30671429/847,575=$62,893 per worker. The above workers in the last table, then, on average, produced $62,893 free of charge to the Swedish employers in one year. Sweden, despite greater access to free public services, is characterized by systemic exploitation of the working class. Furthermore, it is characterized by oppression of these workers even when workers are producing the equivalent of their own wage rather than producing a profit (or surplus value) for the employer (see The Rate of Exploitation of Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part Two, Or: Intensified Oppression and Exploitation).  

Some Marxists will claim that this is unscientific since many factors are excluded from consideration(such as the difference between values and prices of production, a difference that I addressed, in a preliminary way, in my comment to the post The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Air Canada, One of the Largest Private Employers in Canada. Given the large difference in profit per worker in the first and twentieth company, divergences may be great, but without further data (the level of investment in means of production, raw materials, auxiliary materials and the like), any further refinement is impossible.

Objections to the limited nature of the data are valid.

However, my answer to its limited nature is; it is better to estimate profit per worker than not provide anything. If more accurate calculations are then provided later on, all the better. But in the meantime, at least we have an idea of the extent of exploitation of workers. Calculation of the rate of exploitation, which involves profit divided by wage, of course, would require data on wages in these companies. More accurate statistics and more refined analyses would be most welcome.

The purpose of the above is mainly to highlight that the social-democratic heaven of Sweden is hardly the heaven painted by social democrats or social reformers. In Sweden, like other capitalist countries, workers are used as means to obtain more money (see The Money Circuit of Capital). They are both exploited (perform more work than is necessary to produce the equivalent of their own wage), and they are oppressed (subject to the dictates of their employer–both when they produce the equivalent of their wage and when they produce a surplus value for free for the employer (see The Rate of Exploitation of Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part Two, Or: Intensified Oppression and Exploitation). 

The expansion of free public services and systematic exploitation of workers can go hand in hand. Social democrats, however, often present the expansion of free public services as the solution to the social problems that we face (see, for example, A Basic Income Versus the Expansion of Public Services? Part One: Critique of the Social-democratic Idea that the Expansion of Public Services is Socialist). However, the expansion of free public services could form part of the solution–if it is linked to a movement for the abolition of the power of the class of employers and not just as the solution to the problems we face. 

Unions and the Coronavirus Pandemic: A Critique of a Social-Democratic View, Part One

Professor Tuft (geography professor, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada), in an article published on the Socialist Project’s website (Covid-19 and ‘Actually Existing’ Unions), argues that unions will be in crisis as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Unions exist financially because of union dues, and with the increased level of unemployment among unionized workers, unions have experienced substantial reductions in the flow of union dues, at least here in Canada. As a consequence, they have begun to lay off union staff.

I will address Professor Tuft’s solution to this problem in a follow-up post, but in this post I will address his reference Sam Gindin’s call for a restructuring of unions. Mr. Gindin was the former research director of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union

Before looking at Professor Tuft’s analysis and recommendations, let us pause to look at Professor Tuft’s reference to Mr. Gindin’s call for a renewed union movement (The Coronavirus and the Crisis This Time).  The union movement, Mr. Gindin argues:

The failure of unions over the past few decades both in organizing and in addressing their members’ needs is inseparable from their stubborn commitment to a fragmented, defensive unionism within society as it currently exists, as opposed to a class-struggle trade unionism based on broader solidarities and more ambitiously radical visions. This calls for not just ‘better’ unions, but for different and more politicized unions.

The view that unions need to develop “broader solidarities” and “more radical visions” certainly forms an essential element of the renewal of organized labour’s contribution to a new socialist movement. However, I have indicated before that Mr. Gindin seems opposed to questioning the limitations of present unions in relation to the limitations of collective bargaining and collective agreements (see The Contradictions of Social Democracy: Mr. Gindin’s Musings on the Closure of GM’s Oshawa Plant). Broader solidarities can arise without becoming radical; an example of that is the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC), an organization that cuts across unions at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. Such an organization, of course, should be welcomed since it does have the potentiality to create common bonds among workers who belong to different unions. However, there is no basis for assuming that such common bonds will generate a more radical vision (see The Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC): One Step Forward and Two Steps Backward?).

Mr. Gindin also asserts the following:

Andrew Murray, chief of staff at the British/Irish union UNITE has noted the difference between a left that is ‘focused’ on the working class and one that is ‘rooted’ in it. The greatest weakness of the socialist left is its limited embeddedness in unions and working-class communities. Only if the left can overcome this gap – which is a cultural gap as much as it is a political one – is there any possibility of witnessing the development of a coherent, confident, and independently defiant working class with the capacity and capacity-inspired vision to fundamentally challenge capitalism.

There is undoubtedly much to be said of such an analysis. Radicals who cannot find a way to address the concerns, interests and needs of regular working people will stand on the sidelines and have little impact on the working class. However, Mr. Gindin fails to see the need to do the opposite–to stand with one foot outside of working-class communities, who for so long have been shaped by the concerns, interests and needs of the class of employers. Being too close to working-class communities and working-class organizations (like unions) can easily limit the development of the capacities of workers to develop a radical vision that contributes to the creation of an effective movement against the class of employers. Mr. Gindin himself, as I have argued elsewhere (see The Socialist Project’s Critique of Doug Ford’s Attack on Local Democracy Falls Short), has been too close to the union movement, failing to engage in its criticism when it is warranted. We need to develop an environment in the labour and union movements where discussion of important issues–such as whether working for an employer can ever really be characterized as “decent” or whether any wage or contract can ever really be considered “fair”–can emerge without heaping abuse on those who raise such issues.

Mr. Gindin’s reference to “inward development” following on the coronavirus–focusing on organization at the local and national level rather than at the international level–may or may not turn out to be radical (see his article Inoculating Against Globalization: Coronavirus and the Search for Alternatives). Those who look only to international developments to resolve our problems without connecting them to organization and action at the level of the city, the region and the nation will likely vastly underestimate the difficulties that lie ahead. The basis for a powerful international working-class movement must have deep roots in the working class at the local level. Indeed, the local level itself is relative and, unless artificially separated off from the wider world and context, must lead to that wider world and context if we are to come to grips with that local level theoretically and practically. From John Dewey (2004), Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education,  pages 229-230):

… local or home geography is the natural starting point in the reconstructive development of the natural environment, it is an intellectual starting point for moving out into the unknown, not an end in itself. When not treated as a basis for getting at the large world beyond, the study of the home geography becomes as deadly as do object lessons which simply summarize the properties of familiar objects. The reason is the same. The imagination is not fed, but is held down to
recapitulating, cataloguing, and refining what is already known. But when the familiar fences that mark the limits of the village proprietors are signs that introduce an understanding of the boundaries of great nations, even fences are lighted with meaning. Sunlight, air, running water, inequality of earth’s surface, varied industries, civil officers and their duties–all these things are found in the local environment. Treated as if their meaning began and ended in those confines, they are curious facts to be laboriously learned. As instruments for extending the limits of experience, bringing within its scope peoples and things otherwise strange and unknown, they are transfigured by the use to which they are put. Sunlight, wind, stream, commerce, political relations come from afar and lead the thoughts afar. To follow their course is to enlarge the mind not by stuffing it with additional information, but by remaking the meaning of what was previously a matter of course.

Starting at the local level does not end there but gains in meaning as the conditions for the existence of that local level become more evident, just as the larger picture gains in depth by being routed in diverse ways to our immediate lives (page 143):

Nor are the activities in which a person engages, whether intelligently or not, exclusive properties of himself; they are something in which he engages and partakes. Other things, the independent changes of other things and persons, cooperate and hinder. The individual’s act may be initial in a course of events, but the outcome depends upon the interaction of his response with energies supplied by other agencies.

However, that means that taboo issues that unions and the so-called progressive left either ignore or actively suppress need to see the light of day–such as just how legitimate any person or organization can claim that they represent “fairness” in the context of an economic and political system dominated by a class of employers.

To make good on the simultaneous focusing on the local and the global, it is necessary to begin to develop class analysis at the local level such as the local, regional and national class structure as well as local conditions of exploitation (rate of exploitation) and class oppression. Class organization also involves class analysis.  Let us hope that Mr. Gindin (and others) start this important analysis. Otherwise, reference to the local is just rhetoric.

Professor Tuft’s brief reference to Mr. Gindin’s call for a radical restructuring of unions, then, is far from adequate. By merely referring Mr. Gindin’s call for a radical restructuring of unions without analyzing the adequacy of such a call, Professor Tuft skirts the issue of the nature of such radical reconstruction. By doing so, Professor Tuft can then proceed to focus on what is typical of his approach: reform of unions and the nature of such reformed unions rather than radically reconstructed unions and the nature of such radically reconstructed unions. Unfortunately, then, Professor Tuft’s call for reformed unions already has limitations.

A further post will shift to investigating Professor Tuft’s analysis of the probable situation of unions in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic here in Canada as well as his proposed solution.

Basic Income, Public Ownership and the Radical Left in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic: A Critique

In a couple of posts, I criticized John Clarke’s opposition to a particular form of basic income. Mr. Clarke is a former leader of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Mr. Clarke continues to oppose any alternative universal  basic income scheme (see  ‘Pandemic Basic Income’ Gets It Wrong). He has ignored my criticisms, of course. As I pointed out in one of the posts, his opposition then turns into a social-democratic or social-reformist criticism; he ignores entirely his own observation that capitalist society necessary involves economic coercion, which forces workers to work for employers. At the time, he offered no alternative solution–other than an implicit return to the welfare state of the earlier post-war era. In his new post, he does offer an apparent solution. Before looking at his proposed solution, let us briefly look at his analysis of the problem of universal basic income.

Rather predictably, this situation has led to a bit of an upsurge in calls for a Universal Basic Income (UBI). To the liberal and left thinkers who promote this idea, it naturally makes particular sense to put it into effect at a time such as this. Of course, the last thing I want to oppose is the idea of emergency payments to those without adequate income, as COVID-19 impacts our communities. However, the ‘pandemic basic income’ solution of simply distributing state payments to everyone ($1,000 a month has been suggested) puts into exceptionally clear focus the basic problem with UBI. In more normal times, the scheme represents an ill considered effort, as I’ve argued elsewhere, ‘…to make its peace with (the) neoliberal order and accept a commodified form of social provision.’ It doesn’t challenge low wage precarious work or the degrading and privatizing of the social infrastructure but asks only for a basic payment, paid out of general revenues, and it is taken on faith that the adequacy of this can somehow be assured.

Mr. Clarke still remains riveted to proposals for a basic income that remain well within limits acceptable to employers. However, what if a movement for a minimum basic income of $3000 per month per household member (or even more) emerged? Why limit such a movement to $1000 a month? A universal income that threatens the existence of the supply of workers on the market would not only “challenge low-wage precarious work” but would challenge in many instances the very employer-employee economic structure. Mr. Clarke simply implies through his silence that such a movement is not feasible.

What is his alternative proposal, or his alternative solution?

A fight for no bailouts without public ownership is the only approach that makes any sense if the current period is not to become the greatest free ride for the rich in history and a prelude to austerity on an unprecedented scale.

Mr. Clarke’s reference to a move towards “austerity on an unprecedented scale” is likely true if experience from the 2008 economic crisis is to be our guide. However, the idea that bailouts tied only to “public ownership” is a sufficient solution to the problems that workers and communities face. This reference to “public ownership” or nationalization is a staple of the social-democratic left. How does public ownership solve the problem of a society out of control by those who work and live in it?

The view that public ownership or nationalization by itself implies that  the state is a neutral instrument which merely needs to be captured by the left in order for social problems to be solved. I criticized this view in another post  (see The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Seven: The Idealization of the Nation State or the National Government and Nationalization in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Part Two).

Public ownership certainly addresses some of the concerns of workers and communities–specifically, the need for certain services without having to pay money for them. However, as long as the general process of producing our lives is out of our control, public ownership is bound to result in distorted and inadequate satisfaction of our needs.

This call for public ownership as a solution to the problems that we currently face is also proposed by other social democrats. For example, a social-democratic organization–Rankandfile.ca (“Canadian Labour News and Analysis from a Critical Perspective”) Emily Leedham refers to Tony Leah (ex-worker at GM Oshawa), who calls for public ownership of the plant:

While many workers are encouraged by GM’s decision, Leah says Green Jobs Oshawa will continue to push for public ownership of the plant.

“If it’s under public ownership, then it can be the basis for expanding and becoming an important manufacturing centre that provides a security of supplies for future crises,” he explains.“That can’t happen if it’s left up to a corporation that’s always driven by maximizing their own profit.”

In one sense, public ownership can overcome some of the problems associated with the limitations of private capitalist employers: production need not directly be produced for profit. However, if it is not produced for profit, what of its inputs? Public ownership exists alongside private corporations in a world market, which is the main driver of our lives

Neither Mr. Clarke nor Mr. Leah discusses at all the limitations of public ownership. They do not discuss the nature of the modern state and how it, magically, is to enable us to control our own lives. Should we not be discussing the adequacy of the modern state and public ownership or nationalization to enable us to control our own lives rather than assuming that it satisfies our needs?

When we look at the modern government or state, we see a political organization designed to ensure the continued maintenance of a society characterized by classes, specifically, on the one hand, the class that owns and controls the means for us to produce our lives–buildings, factories, computers, raw materials and so forth–the class of employers–and, on the other, those who work for them, the class of workers. Of course, in the real world it is more complicated, but such complications should not blind us to the basic class structure.

Werner Bonefeld (2014) in his Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy: On Subversion and Negative Reason, points out how the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel characterized both modern “civil society” or a society characterized by an antagonism of individuals and modern classes, and it was this specific antagonism that required the modern political form (pages 166-167):

Hegel conceived of bourgeois society as antagonistic in character. It was because of its antagonistic character that it required a political form. He develops the necessity of the state from the innate character of bourgeois society. … He then argues that the division of labour crystallizes ‘into systems, to one or another of which individuals are assigned – in other words, into class divisions’.

These divisions are antagonistic in character as the development of bourgeois society leads to its polarization into antagonistic class relations. According to Hegel, the polarization of society into two opposing classes is an innate necessity of bourgeois society. It belongs to its constituted dynamic. As he sees it, bourgeois society ‘results in the dependence and distress of the class tied to [work]’. Dependence and distress are also entailed in the ‘inability to feel and enjoy the broader freedoms and especially the intellectual benefits of civil society’. Moreover, the expanded reproduction of bourgeois society results ‘in the creation of a rabble of paupers’ and the ‘concentration of disproportionate wealth in a few hands’. What to do ‘when the masses begin to decline into poverty’ and start to rebel? He rejects redistribution of wealth as this ‘would violate the principle of civil society’. He also rejects what today is called a policy of full-employment as contrary to its logic. Rather than solving the problem, it would intensify it. Thus, ‘despite an excess in wealth, civil society is not rich enough, i.e. its own resources are insufficient to check excessive poverty and the creation of a penurious rabble’. There is no economic answer to the polarization of society. Economy does not provide order, nor does it curb the ‘rabble’. In fact, ‘the inner dialectic of civil society . . . drives it . . . to push beyond its own limits’. How to keep the class antagonism within the limits of its bourgeois form? For Hegel, there is only a political answer. He saw the state as the political force of bourgeois society and charged it with containing the class antagonism.

The modern form of government, or the modern form of state, emerges simultaneously with the emergence of the class of employers and the class of employees or workers. To treat this modern political institution or modern political form as somehow capable of realizing our class interests as workers seems far fetched–and yet this is what the social-democratic left do when they call for public ownership or nationalization without further ado.

Note how the call for public ownership or nationalization is often not linked to the critique of the general class relation between employers and employees. It is seen as a solution to specific problems–a stop-gap measure needed to address specific problems that workers face. In such a situation, there is no challenge to the general power of employers.

What of the more general call for the nationalization of industry, means of communication and the like? This often has reactionary overtones since there is then an alliance between workers and employers within one country against workers and employers in other countries (Bonefeld, page 151):

The notion, then, of a ‘national economy’ makes little sense; it is a regressive concept that lends itself, at best, to ideas of national developmental methods associated with the theory and practice of economic nationalism or, at worst, and as Chapter 9 sets out, to the reactionary ideas and practices of nationalism that in reaction to world-market disturbances assert the regressive equality of the imagined national community as the rallying cry against the external enemy within. Of course, protectionism remains a very powerful device to protect a ‘national economy’. However, the national economy is neither independent from the world market nor does it merely exist in relation to the world market. Rather, the national economy subsists in and through the world market. Protectionism, then, amounts to a ‘measure of defence within free trade’.

The more general view that somehow public ownership leads to control over our lives and thus to freedom simply ignores the nature of the modern state.

Mr. Clarke’s solution to the problem of the current crisis idealizes the modern state. A call for a radical basic income, on other hand, pushes beyond the existing society by challenging on the one hand the power of the class of employers over the class of workers. As workers become more independent of the class of employers, they will be required to change the nature of the modern state since the latter is, by its very nature, designed to ensure their continued real subordination to the power of employers while making it appear that workers freely subordinate themselves to that power (Bonefled, pages 176-177):

Liberalism therefore does not demand ‘weakness from the state, but only freedom for economic development under state protection’.58 In this sense, the state of the free economy does not really govern over society. Rather, it governs through the individuals. There is no freedom without the order of freedom, and order is not only a matter of law. It is also a matter of morality. The order of freedom entails surveillance as a means of freedom. The premise of government is that economic ‘security is only to be had at a price of constant watchfulness and adaptability and the preparedness of each individual to live courageously and put up with life’s insecurities’. There really is only one freedom, and that is the freedom of the self-responsible economic agents who adjust to the price signals with the will of and for enterprise, the one buying labour power with the expectation of making a profit, the other selling labour power as the dispossessed producer of surplus value, seeking to make ends meet. That is, poverty is neither unfreedom nor is it primarily material in character.60 Rather, poverty expresses a moral form of deprivation that is characterized by a poverty of aspiration, requiring state action to transform the sellers of labour power from quarrelsome proletarians into citizens of private property. As such a citizen the worker personifies labour power, which she takes to the market to trade for a wage. She appears thus as an entrepreneur of labour power, always ready to compete for a contract of employment. She thus perceives poverty as an incentive to do better, sees unemployment as an opportunity for employment, prices herself into jobs willingly and on her own initiative and takes her life into her own hands, gets on with things, lives courageously and puts up with life’s insecurities and risks. For the neoliberals, unemployed workers are fundamentally entrepreneurs of labour power in transit, ‘floating’ from one form of employment to another. However, the sociological condition of the worker is based on ‘the transformation of labour power into a commodity, which results from the separation of the worker from the means  of production’. There is thus a ‘natural tendency towards proletarianisation’, and government is therefore required to counteract this tendency, time and time again, to secure the order of freedom. Government over society is government in and through society to ensure ‘the will’ for enterprise and labour market competition, integrating the free labourer into the capitalist relations of ‘coined freedom’ as a willing employer of labour power.

By labour power is meant what the worker sells to the employer. Labour power is what workers sell to employers, not their labour. Labour is what workers do when they work, and it is already controlled by employers when workers work.

Proletarianization here means the formation of workers into organized opposition to the class of employers (in other contexts it has a different meaning). The modern state not only attempts to monopolize the physical forms of violence (police, courts, prisons, military) but also attempts to forge the hearts and minds of workers so that they accept their situation as “entrepreneurs” or vendors of their labour power. In other words, it indoctrinates workers and their children into accepting their unfree status as somehow free.

Mr. Clarke’s assumption that public ownership, then, is a solution to the current crisis is conservative. It does not really address the class nature of modern society nor the class nature of the modern state.

Such is the nature of the social-democratic or social-reformist left.

The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Six: The Idealization of the Nation State or the National Government in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Part One

Professor Noonan, a self-declared historical materialist and teacher of Marxism, continues to argue a political position that ignores the reality of capitalist society. In his post Back to the Magic Mountain, he argues the following:

No one should fetishize the nation state, but it remains the dominant form of political society and, when it chooses to, it can marshal the power to override capitalist market forces. The dependence of human life on market forces has been suspended in large parts of the world during this crisis. The state has effectively taken over the direction of economic activity and positioned itself as the guarantor of people’s income. We have been re-acquainted with a truth that capitalism works hard to suppress: our lives depend upon collective labour and nature, not market forces. This truth has to become the basis for post-pandemic reconstruction.

Professor Noonan’s opening part of the first sentence, “No one should fetishize the nation state,” is supposed to prevent any criticism of what follows. Professor Noonan, he implies, does not fetishize the nation-state.” The use of the conjunction “but” then is used to do just that.

In a Canadian context, Professor Noonan, in his statement: “The dependence of human life on market forces has been suspended in large parts of the world during this crisis. The state has effectively taken over the direction of economic activity and positioned itself as the guarantor of people’s income,” can refer to the provisions for workers to receive $500 a week for up to sixteen weeks through the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), a federal program. From workers’ point of view, such economic relief is of course welcome–if they qualify (they must have worked a certain number of hours, for example–although some of the gaps are being addressed).

Professor Noonan forgets that workers are means to employers’ ends (see The Money Circuit of Capital). Consider things that you own, use and need. Do you take care for them in some way? They are means to the end of your goals, but you do care about preserving their existence in order to achieve your goals. Professor Noonan idealizes (and fetishizes) the modern state. The Canadian federal government, like other governments, instituted income policies because the workers could not temporarily work for employers–and because they lack their own independent means by which to produce and hence to live.

Employers need employees in one way or another if they are going to continue to be employers. The modern state intervenes in the capitalist market, if necessary, because that market needs the continued existence of workers as employees. The dependence of employers on employees can be seen from the following issue that arose in the 1860s in England in relation to the possible emigration of skilled English workers (from Karl Marx, Marx-Engels Collected Works, volume 35, Capital:

The reproduction of the working class carries with it the accumulation of skill, that is handed down from one generation to another.1′ To what extent the capitalist reckons the existence of such a skilled class among the factors of production that belong to him by right, and to what extent he actually regards it as the reality of his variable capital, is seen so soon as a crisis threatens him with its loss. In consequence of the civil war in the United States and of the accompanying cotton famine, the majority of the cotton operatives in Lancashire were, as is well known, thrown out of work. 471 Both from the working class itself, and from other ranks of society, there arose a cry for State aid, or for voluntary national subscriptions, in order to enable the “superfluous” hands to emigrate to the colonies or to the United States. Thereupon, The Times published on the 24th March, 1863 [p. 12, col. 2-4], a letter from Edmund Potter, a former president of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. This letter was rightly called in the House of Commons, the manufacturers’ manifesto.2′ We cull here a few characteristic passages, in which the proprietary rights of capital over labour power are unblushingly asserted.

“He” (the man out of work) “may be told the supply of cotton workers is too large … and … must … in fact be reduced by a third, perhaps, and that then there will be a healthy demand for the remaining two-thirds…. Public opinion … urges emigration….The master cannot willingly see his labour supply being removed; he may think, and perhaps justly, that it is both wrong and unsound…. But if the public funds are to be devoted to assist emigration, he has a right to be heard, and perhaps to protest.”

… He [Mr. Potter] then continues:

“Some time …, one, two, or three years, it may be, will produce the quantity…. The question I would put then is this — Is the trade worth retaining? Is it worth while to keep the machinery (he means the living labour machines) in order, and is it not the greatest folly to think of parting with that? I think it is. I allow that the workers are not a property, not the property of Lancashire and the masters; but they arc the strength of both; they are the mental and trained power which cannot be replaced for a generation; the mere machinery which they work might much of it be beneficially replaced, nay improved, in a twelvemonth.’: Encourage or allow (!) the working power to emigrate, and what of the capitalist?”a “…Take away the cream of the workers, and fixed capital will depreciate in a great degree, and the floating will not subject itself to a struggle with the short supply of inferior labour…. We are told the workers wish it” (emigration). “Very natural it is that they should do so…. Reduce, compress the cotton trade by taking away its working power and reducing their wages expenditure, say one-fifth, or five millions, and what then would happen to the class above, the small shopkeepers; and what of the rents, the cottage rents…. Trace out the effects upwards to the small farmer, the better householder, and … the landowner, and say if there could be any suggestion more suicidal to all classes of the country than by enfeebling a nation by exporting the best of its manufacturing population, and destroying the value of some of its most productive capital and enrichment…. I advise a loan (of five or six millions sterling), … extending it may be over two or three years, administered by special commissioners added to the Boards of Guardians in the cotton districts, under special legislative regulations, enforcing some occupation or labour, as a means of keeping up at least the moral standard of the recipients of the loan … can anything be worse for landowners
or masters than parting with the best of the workers, and demoralising and disappointing the rest by an extended depletive emigration, a depletion of capital and value in an entire province?”

Potter, the chosen mouthpiece of the manufacturers, distinguishes two sorts of “machinery”, each of which belongs to the capitalist, and of which one stands in his factory, the other at night time and on Sundays is housed outside the factory, in cottages. The one is inanimate, the other living. The inanimate machinery not only wears out and depreciates from day to day, but a great part of it becomes so quickly
superannuated, by constant technical progress, that it can be replaced with advantage by new machinery after a few months. The living machinery, on the contrary, gets better the longer it lasts, and in proportion as the skill, handed from one generation to another, accumulates.

…the factory operatives are part of the movable fittings of a factory. Their emigration was prevented.1; They were locked up in that “moral workhouse”, the
cotton districts, and they form, as before, “the strength” of the cotton manufacturers of Lancashire.

With millions of workers being sent home in order to prevent damage to human beings as employees–a necessary part of the process of capitalist production and exchange as well as governmental processes– the government’s intervention in being “the guarantor of people’s income” looks much less positive. The government or state (here the distinction is not important) is not the benevolent, neutral institution that Professor Noonan makes it out to be. It is providing income as a stop-gap measure until the capitalist and governmental processes can once again operate normally.

Indeed, Professor Noonan implies as much when he writes:

The danger, of course, is that the state is currently acting under emergency powers, but will revert to its standard function of enframing and protecting capital, if we let it.

Professor Noonan sees the provision of income by the state that is supposedly independent of market forces as something positive–but as we have already seen, the preservation of workers independent of the market in the sense that they can obtain money without having to work for an employer–is only a temporary measure that in no way is in opposition to the interests of the class of employers.

As the pandemic recedes in intensity, at least two issues will arise concerning the opposition of the working class to the nation-state. Firstly, there will be increased intensification of calls for workers to go back to work for employers despite the health risks. After all, around 1000 workers die and 600,000 workers are injured every year in Canada; health and safety are not a priority for the Canadian state.

Secondly, the issue of who will pay for the temporary income of workers and the subsidies for employers during the pandemic will arise. Although calls for cutbacks in health care will undoubtedly be more difficult to justify, cuts in other areas (such as education) will probably intensify.

Without a movement that expressly or consciously opposes the treatment of workers as things to be used by employers, the temporary measure taken by the Canadian (and other capitalist) government(s) is just that–a temporary measure. There will likely be opposition from the labour movement and from communities to the treatment of such measures as temporary, but since the labour movement and communities, for the most part, share Professor Noonan’s view that the state can somehow overcome its own nature as a capitalist state, the tasks required for converting such temporary measures into permanent measures cannot be addressed.

Professor Noonan refers to “we.” But who is this “we?” The “we” is a figment of his social-democratic imagination. In order for there to be a “we,” there would have had to have been much prior preparation. Has Professor Noonan engaged in such preparation? Not at all. He has engaged in the idealization of the collective-bargaining process and promoted class harmony (see earlier posts, such as  The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Five: Middle-Class Delusions).

Surely an essential part of the process of our preparing for a society where we all have our biological, social, intellectual, emotional and aesthetic needs met is a negative process–a process of coming to understand that the present social relations inside and outside work are in opposition to our interests and nature and that we therefore need to organize to change the situation by abolishing all class relations and relations of oppression.

However, my experience here in Toronto has been that most of the so-called left simply do not want to deal with the issue and attack those who do, such as calling them “a condescending prick,” ridiculing them and so forth. Alternatively, they ignore the issue by remaining silent over the issue. For example, John Clarke and other so-called radicals here in Toronto opposed calling for a basic income; I called for a radical basic income in opposition to Mr. Clarke’s rejection of any consideration of a basic income (see Basic Income: A Critique of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Stance). It has been largely ignored by the left here in Toronto; there has been no real discussion or movement for establishing a radical basic income here in Toronto.

Professor Noonan’s reference to “if we let them” is, therefore, utopian thinking. My prediction is that at best there will be some pressure from the organized social-democratic left for the maintenance of some kind of improvements in the welfare state, but that is all. Of course, there will be counter-pressure by the government or state and the class of employers to such improvements.

Professor Noonan’s further utopian social-democratic thinking can be seen in the following:

The alternative is to use this crisis as a basis of legitimacy for the state– under the control of democratic political forces acting in our shared life-interest– to assume control over the productive basis of society and re-orient production to serving life-needs.

I certainly share the goal of having “the productive basis of society…serving life-needs,” , but Professor Noonan has not shown how he or other members of the so-called progressive left have engaged in the preparatory work necessary to take advantage of a crisis.

Professor Noonan’s reference to using

“this crisis as a basis of legitimacy for the state–under the control of democratic political forces acting in our shared life-interest–to assume control over the productive basis of society and re-orient production to serving life-needs”

follows in the footsteps of another post by Professor Noonan, a post that assumes the present existence of certain social relations that are required if other social relations are to arise. In the previous post already referred to above, I pointed out how contradictory Professor Noonan’s theoretical position is with respect to the interests of most workers at universities; Professor Noonan assumed that there was already democracy at universities and thereby assumed what in fact needs to be accomplished.

The same logic applies here. If we already have democratic control of forces “acting in our shared life-interest,” then we already have “control over the productive basis of society” and have already “reoriented production to serve life-needs.” The reconstruction of the economy is democratic control. We need to reconstruct the political and the economic simultaneously and not the so-called political seizure of power occurring before and then democratic control of the economy somehow following afterwards.

Professor Noonan’s call for nationalization by the present state ignores this problem altogether by assuming that nationalization by the modern state will somehow magically lead to control over our own life process and life needs:

 Nationalization can pre-figure democratic socialization, and democratic socialization can re-focus economic life on collective work to provide each and all that which we really need, and freeing our time for the– real-life, multidimensional– experiences, actions, and interactions that make life worth fighting for, protecting, and living.

The call for nationalization as a prelude to socialism is typical of social democrats; they idealize and fetishize the modern state–contrary to Professor Noonan’s disclaimer–and thereby short-circuit what needs to be done–expose the anti-democratic and alienated nature of the modern state–a nature that has its parallel in the modern economy dominated by a class of employers or what some call civil society (see Employers as Dictators, Part One).

This issue, however, is somewhat complicated and will be dealt with in the next post. Professor Noonan’s position, ironically, is similar in some ways to the Leninist view of the modern state–a view that Professor Noonan supposedly finds unsatisfactory.

 

 

Health Care: Socialist versus Capitalist Nationalization

Since the coronavirus and health care are undoubtedly on the minds of many people throughout the world, I thought it appropriate to do a bit of research on socialist health care versus present capitalist health-care systems.

Health care even in a nationalized context can easily be an expression of oppression and exploitation. The idealization of nationalization often goes hand in hand with an argument  that we need to extend public services in health and education (as Sam Gindin has argued). However, nationalized health care can easily become an oppressive experience for workers (as well as patients). From Barbara Briggs (1984), “Abolishing a Medical Hierarchy: The Struggle for Socialist Primary Health Care,” pages 83-88, in the journal Critical Social Policy, volume 4, issue #12, page 87:

GPs AND SOCIALISM

Socialists have traditionally argued for state control of key areas of the economy and of the provision of welfare services such as health and education. Socialist health workers have argued for general practitioners to become salaried employees of the Area Health Authorities, along with the ’ancillary workers’, instead of continuing to enjoy the independent self-employed status that they insisted on to protect their status when the NHS [National Health Service of the United Kingdom] was set up.

But the NHS, the largest employer in the country, has shared with nationalised industries the failure to demonstrate any evidence of ’belonging to the people’: because of the backing of the state it has proved a ruthless and powerful employer, keeping the wages of unskilled and many skilled workers also at uniquely low levels; time and again, union members seeking improvements in pay and amelioration of very poor working conditions have been defeated. Nor has the NHS shown any kind of effective accountability to its users. Public spending constraints have hit the NHS not only by causing a decline in working conditions and in the services provided, but also by imposing even more centralised planning priorities based on the need to save money whatever the cost.

This situation likely characterizes the Canadian public health-care system as well.

A word about the Canadian health-care system. One inadequate view on the Canadian health-care system is the social-democratic or social-reformist perspective, which certainly exists in Canada. One definitely inadequate view considers the Canadian health-care system to be socialist (Mary E. Wiktorowicz, pages 264-262, “Health Care Systems in Evolution,” in Staying Alive:  Critical Perspectives on Health,
Illness, and Health Care (2006), page 243):

In many ways, national health insurance symbolizes the great divide between:
liberalism and socialism; the free market and the planned economy (see Box 10.1).

Nationalized health care in no way represents the great divide between liberalism and socialism. An apparently critical form of the analysis of health care–but in reality a variant form of social democracy or social reformism–looks at the inequality in access to health care, according to level of income. Thus, in the edited work Health Promotion in Canada: Critical Perspectives (2007), Denis Raphael, in his article (pages 106-122) “Addressing Health Inequalities in Canada: Little Attention, Inadequate Action, Limited Success,” refers to levels of income as the major social determinant of the level of health. Since income inequalities in Canada are increasing, it follows that health inequalities are also increasing. However, this view defines a social determinant purely in terms of level of income–a typical social-democratic or social reformist method (I will deal with this issue in another post). As Glenn Rikowski (2001) points out (“After the Manuscript Breaks Off: Thoughts on Marx, Social Class and Education”, though, level of income is used instead of social class, or rather level of income is often used as a substitute by the social-democratic left:

… we witness the virtual abandonment of the notion of the working class…. Most people who analyse social class today do no such thing; rather, they have social inequality and stratification in view.

This use of the level of income to evaluate access to adequate health care is useful to a certain extent, but if it is the prime definition of class and inequality, it is far from adequate. It ignores entirely the source of income and exaggerates differences within the working class rather than a shared economic and social situation of being employees (or unemployed or temporary employees) and subject to a hierarchy of power at work (of course, managers are also subject to control from above, but in general it can be safe to assume that they form part of the middle class if not subordinate members of the ruling class).

The situation of the British NHS is typical of what happens when so-called socialist principles are realized in a capitalist context. Two socialist principles in particular fall by the wayside. From Bob Brecher (1997), (pages 217-225), “What Would a Socialist Health Service Look Like?,” in the journal Health Care Analysis,  volume 5, issue #3, page 219:

These principles are: (a) that there by a reasonable degree of equity in respect of outcome concerning the distribution of basic resources, and (b) that people treat each other as ends and not merely as means. The first may perhaps be understood as a political and economic dimension of socialism, while the second constitutes a moral and social element.

The first principle considers that social equity is itself a good in itself or an end at which we should aim. The second principle considers that people deserve to be treated as people in all circumstances and not just outside work or as “consumers.” This second principle, of course, can never be realized in a capitalist society since human beings are necessarily treated as things or objects to be used as means by a class of employers (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

Health care would be just that: health care–not health service. From Brecher, page 221:

‘Service’ implies server and served; consultant and client; provider and consumer. But none of these describes the sort of relationship between carer and person carefd for that the two principles outlined suggest. To take the example of the NHS again: despite the intentions of its founders, it was the connotations of service–by turn beneficently providing for patients and ‘servicing’ them as though they were objects–which helped provide amply justified dissatisfactions with the resultant shortcomings of the NHS treatment: and these have been used to undermine its founding principles. The combination of professional paternalism, especially in respect of senior doctors; an inability or unwillingness to treat people rather than their symptoms; and an attitude of ‘servicing’ and being ‘serviced’ all helped alienate people from what was supposed to be ‘our’ NHS, enabling successive conservative governments to turn what was at its inception at least a ‘social’ health service into an expliictly anti-socialist one. … these are not accidents of the British context: such terms and the attitudes and mores they describe are inimical to a socialist structure, based as that must be on considerations of equity and respect.

It is important to emphasize, as Brecher points out, that the assumption that nationalization is somehow socialist without further ado itself contributes to the Conservative backlash and the emergence of neoliberalism. By indulging the social-democratic or social-reformist left, with their talk of “decent work,” “fair contracts,” “fair share of taxes,” “$15 Minimum Wage and Fairness,” and the like, the so-called radicals have in reality contributed to the neoliberal backlash. What is needed is not indulgence of such talk, but continuous critique of such talk. What is needed is a critical attitude towards the so-called “left” and its associated idealized institutions.

What is needed is critical and hence democratic analysis and discussion of health-care systems. What is absolutely unnecessary is the defense of flaws in various social systems. If we are going to create a socialist society worthy of human beings, we need to be honest about the inadequacies of current social structures and systems.

Review of Jane McAlevey’s “A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy”: Two Steps Backward and One Step Forward, Part Two

This is the continuation of a post that reviews Jane McAlevey’s latest book entitled A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy. 

In the last post, I showed that Ms. McAlevey exaggerates the extent to which strikes and collective bargaining can offset the power imbalance between the class of employers and the working class. In this post, I will show that Ms. McAlevey’s point of view is definitely social democratic or social reformist.

She writes the following in her book:

There’s nothing neutral about suicide nets; there’s nothing inevitable about creating a greater climate crisis by offshoring jobs so ships bigger than small towns cross oceans, killing the ecosystem and creating a need for more fuel; there’s nothing comforting about creating millions of close-to-slavery working conditions in faraway lands that Americans can’t see when they happily upgrade to the latest phone. We don’t need robots to care for the aging population. We need the rich to pay their taxes. We need unions to level the power of corporations.

This call for corporations to pay taxes–certainly, corporations should be forced to pay more taxes, but the implication here is that if corporations did pay more taxes, there would be a fair system. I will criticize this social-democratic view in another post, where I will criticize the Canadian social-democratic call for corporations to pay their “fair share” of taxes? Corporations need to be taken over by workers if they are to control their own lives since corporations form part of the economic structure that expresses a kind of economy where workers are controlled by their own products rather than the workers controlling their own products.

In the quotation above,there is a further problem that illustrates Ms. McAlevey’s social-democratic approach. She refers to the need for “unions [in order] to level the power of corporations.” How does the existence of unions “level the power of corporations?” To conclude this is to exaggerate the capacity of unions to challenge the employers as a class. The unions in the 1930s did not “level the power of corporations.” Ms. McAlevey provides no evidence that they did. They limited the power of corporations, but it is bullshit to say that unions have or can level the power of corporations. Such a view ignores the power of employers to dictate what to produce, how to produce, when to produce and so forth. I worked in several unionized environments, both private and public, and I failed each time to see how unions even approached the power necessary to “level the power of corporations.

As I showed in my review of Ms. McAlevey,’s  earlier book, No Short Cuts: Prganizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (found in the Publications and Writings section of this blog), Ms. McAlevey claims incorrectly that, when workers organize at the firm level, there is no difference between structural power and the power of agents. She confuses the micro level of organizing with the macro level of the capitalist economy as a whole. In her most recent book, she ignores altogether the difference and merely assumes what she needs to prove: that organized workers at the level of the firm or corporation somehow magically control their own lives and are equal in power to corporations.

Ms. McAlevey’s view concerning unions and their supposed power to level the playing field merely echos Canadian liberal sentiments, such as expressed in the work Reconcilable Differences: New Directions in Canadian Labour Law, by Paul Weiler (1980).

Furthermore, as a number of posts have shown (see for example Management Rights, Part One: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia), the management rights clause in collective agreements provides management, as the representatives of employers, with wide powers; collective agreements do not question such power but only limit it. Even when a collective agreement does not have an explicit management rights clause, arbitration boards have indicated that there is an implicit management rights clause. Ms. McAlevey conveniently ignores such facts and thereby idealizes the power of unions, the power of collective bargaining and the power of collective agreements.

In another post, I pointed out how, in the context of health and safety, one union representative admitted the limited power of unions (see Confessions of a Union Representative Concerning the Real Power of Employers).

Ms. McAlevey’s confusion of the micro and the macro extends to her exaggerated claims concerning the extent to which workers gain from strikes directed against a particular employer. She often uses the term “big” when referring to wins by workers and unions. From the introduction:

Chapter 1 discusses three such examples of women winning big.

To win big, we have to follow the methods of spending very little time engaging with people who already agree, and devote most of our time to the harder work of helping people who do not agree come to understand who is really to blame for the pain in their lives. Pulling off a big, successful strike means talking to everyone, working through hard conversations, over and over, until everyone agrees. All-out strikes then produce something else desperately needed today: clarity about the two sides of any issue. Big strikes are political education, bigly.

It is certainly an innovation to focus on winning over those who disagree with us–the left often are a clique that simply address themselves. However, this constant reference to winning big hides the fact that even more important and wider successes are considered big wins rather than skirmishes that should lead towards the overthrow of corporate power. Divorced from such a movement, they can hardly be considered “big wins.” Only those who have faith in the legitimacy of the collective bargaining system to produce fair results could use such a term as “big.”

Nowhere does Ms. McAlevey question corporate power as such but assumes its legitimacy.

Just as Ms. McAlevey confuses power at the micro level with power at the macro level in relation to unions, collective bargaining and collective agreements, she confuses the levels of power when it comes to identifying problems related to the environment. She writes:

There’s plenty of money to make a Green New Deal happen. Investigative journalist Christian Parenti has recently pointed out that corporations are currently sitting on $4.8 trillion in cash—a subset of $22.1 trillion they hoard. That money could be used to quickly transition the economy to a robust unionized green economy, one that can reproduce a dignified quality of life for workers of the future and end the destructive jobs-versus-the-environment debate. But to access that money, it takes real power and know-how—the kind of authority that unions in New York still have, along with a few other major states. To rebuild union power elsewhere, the environmental movement will have to stand up and fight alongside them—really fight, not just talk about green jobs. That means actively throwing their support behind workers’ right to strike and actively backing workers. That kind of organizing and the power it builds will be necessary to raise taxes on the rich (versus just talking about it) [my emphasis] and make progress on shifting federal subsidies away from fossil fuels and toward a safe, resilient economy that works for humans and our planet.

Just as the British Labour Party, in its Manifesto It’s Time for Real Change, jumps on the bandwagon of climate change, so too does Ms. McAlevey. The view that climate change will be solved on the continued basis of the existence of a class of employers–a capitalist basis–by only making the rich pay more taxes is typical of social democrats these days (for my criticism of such a view, see The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One).

Ms. McAlvey’s social-democratic position finds expression as well in her idealization of other capitalist countries:

There is a third option: the kind of income supports that come with the social democratic policies found throughout much of Western Europe. This would allow greater labor-force participation by both parents, but it would require radical changes to the fabric of our economy. In Sweden, people have generous paid parental leave—two back-to-back years, one for each parent—so that each baby born has a parent as its primary full-time caregiver for the first two years of life. When this parental leave is exhausted, Swedish toddlers enter a nationalized child-care system that is essentially free: paid for with a fairer taxation system that levels the playing field for children’s opportunity and success from birth forward.

The idealization of Sweden and other Scandinavian countries is another ploy used by social democrats to prop up their own reformist tendencies.

Let us look for a moment at Sweden. The consensus between employers and unions started to break down in the 1980s, and accelerated during the 1990s, when there was an economic crisis. (From “Education and Inequality in Sweden: A Literature Review,”
Carl le Grand, Ryszard Szulkin and Michael Tåhlin; in Editors: Rita Asplund and Erling Barth, Education and Wage Inequality in Europe: A Literature Review, 2005, page 355):

However, since the beginning of the 1980s, the consensus around the
solidarity wage policy has been undermined. The national federation of
employers has adopted new policies aiming at wage determination at the
firm level, while the attitudes among the trade unions have been mixed.
This new situation has resulted in a decentralisation of wage negotiations, giving more space for local agreements. Hence, the scope for variation in earnings, both between and within groups, has increased markedly in Sweden during the last decades.

The increase in within-group inequality is connected to two developments
in the Swedish labour market that have important policy implications. First,
the gender wage gap has been stable in the last two decades although the
gender differences in years of experience have diminished markedly. This
lack of improvements in the gender wage differentials is closely related to the
fact that the returns to education have decreased for women in relation to
those for men. Thus, the trend towards increased within-group wage inequality
seems to be to the disadvantage of women in Sweden. …

Second, the relative wages for public sector employees have fallen drastically
in the last decades. This development is closely related to a decrease
in the returns to education for public sector employees in relation to those
for private sector workers. This trend is, of course, related to the first
trend, as women dominate strongly in the public sector. Reasonably, the
main explanation for the rise of earnings inequality between public and
private sector employees is the increasing financial problem of the public
sector, as well as the decentralisation of the wage-setting processes that has
taken place in Sweden since the first half of the 1980s.

Changes in the labour market were followed by changed in education in the 1990s, characterized by a shift in governmental policy towards management by objectives–including education. (From Anne Berg  and Samuel Edquist, 2017, The Capitalist State and the Construction of Civil Society: Public Funding and the Regulation of Popular Education in Sweden, 1870–1991 , page 173):

However, as a consequence of the turmoil surrounding the oil crisis in 1973, the digital revolution, and the rise of finance capitalism and global outsourcing, many classic Swedish industries, such as shipbuilding and clothing manufacturing, started to go out of business. Unemployment rates rose and consumption stagnated. Sweden
managed to hold off the worst consequences of the crisis, but the path towards a change in policy and governance had been set. The reform of 1991 was part of a general shift in government policy from traditional rule by guidelines and directives to management by objectives. It followed a broader trend of reforms inspired by neo-liberalism, which called for decentralisation and marketisation of welfare services: education, health care and social security. The neo-liberal ideology had gathered strength in the 1980s, encompassing all the major political parties including the Social Democrats. The neo-liberal programme was set out to solve the problem of how to manage society and the bureaucratic system of government while saving resources. The market, not government, was to handle issues such as social security and education.13 In 1988, there was a decision in principle to implement management by objectives and results throughout the Swedish government apparatus. Soon, such a reform was decided on for the compulsory and upper secondary school system, combined with a move to decentralisation, both of which were to be particularly important for the subsequent changes in popular education policy.14 Interestingly, this policy change, mainly intended to make public administration more efficient, was also suggested for the administration of popular
education and its grant system. Goal-oriented management was seen at the government level as a way of safeguarding and strengthening the independence of popular education.

According to management by objectives, education can be taught according to discrete objectives that are then somehow magically integrated. I will critique in a future post management by objectives (outcome-based education, or OBE) via a critique of several articles of a former professor of mine (Robert Renaud) concerning Bloom’s taxonomy, which forms a ground for outcome-based education. (From Qin Liu (2015), Outcomes Based Education Initiatives in Ontario Postsecondary Education: Case Studies, page 7):

OBE’s precursors can be found in the earlier objectives movement, as represented by Tyler’s (1949) Basic Principles of Curriculum and Design, Bloom’s (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, and Mager’s 1962) Preparing Instructional Objectives, as well as in mastery learning (Block, 1971; Gusky, 1985), criterionbased assessment (Masters & Evans, 1986) and competency-based education (France, 1978). From these sources, it becomes apparent that OBE stemmed from and is rooted in efforts to address pedagogical concerns.

The idea that Sweden “levels the playing field for children’s opportunity and success from birth forward” is a myth.

Furthermore, I will, in a future post, criticize the idea that there is such a thing as “a fairer taxation system that levels the playing field for children’s opportunity and success from birth forward” in relation to schools. This idea of “leveling the playing field” is pure rhetoric, and presents a completely false picture of the decidedly uneven playing field characteristic of a society dominated by a class of employers–whether unionized or not.

I will also further argue that even if equal opportunity did exist, it would not change the hierarchical nature of the division of labour and the class structure since competition between workers, inheritance laws and the hierarchical ownership of the conditions of lives would be recreated as workers competed (with some losing and others gaining in the process–thereby merely mirroring the present class structure).

I started out, in the first post, by quoting Sam Gindin, with Mr. Gindin pointing out how popular Ms. McAlevey is these days. Her popularity is undoubtedly due in part to her own innovations in organizing. It is, however, also due to her exaggerated claims concerning the efficacy of her own approach to collective bargaining in eliminating power, wealth and income differentials between the class of employers and the working class.

In the next post, I will refer to how the president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC)–a social-democratic organization of unions federated to it and representing more than three millions Canadian workers– idealizes collective bargaining–like Ms. McAlevey.

 

Review of Jane McAlevey’s “A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy”: Two Steps Backward and One Step Forward, Part One

Jane McAlevey is everywhere these days. Recently appointed a senior fellow at Berkeley’s Labor Center, she is now also a regular columnist for both the Nation and Jacobin. Her webinar (“Organizing for Union Power”) has a global audience. She continues to be called on to address unions and run training sessions in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Scotland, and Germany. In the midst of all this, McAlevey has just come out with a third book on unions and working-class struggles, A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing and the Fight for Democracy (and a fourth is not far behind).

So writes Sam Gindin in an article published on the Socialist Project’s website (“Workplace Struggles and Democracy: Challenges for Union Organizing,” December 13, 2019). Her popularity is undoubtedly due to her skills as an innovative union organizer and collective bargainer. It is, however, undoubtedly also due to her idealization of collective bargaining (and, implicitly, collective agreements)–which is a favourite tactic of the social-democratic left.

I reviewed Ms. McAlvey’s previous book, No Short Cuts: Prganizing for Power in the New Gilded Age before (see the section “Publications and Writings” on the home page of this blog). In that work, at least, Ms. McAlevey had an explicit section on the issue of the relationship between social structure and social agency (or conscious social action). I pointed out, in my review, that Ms. McAlevey, far from solving the problem, not only ignored the issue of the relationship between micro-organizing and the macro social structure but short-circuited the issue by identifying the solution to be micro-organizing at the level of the workplace. As a consequence, she idealized workplace organizing, collective bargaining and collective agreements.

In her latest book, she does not even seek to address explicitly the issue of the relationship between social structure and social agency. As a result, she continues to idealize local workplace struggles, collective bargaining and collective agreements. She also confuses the power of employers as persons and the power of employers as a class.

Rather than look first at some of the strengths of her latest book (which I already looked at in my review of her earlier book), I will look at the weaknesses of her book.

From Chapter 1 of her book:

Despite the weakened state of most unions, workers today who are either forming new ones or reforming older ones point us in the direction of how to solve the crisis engulfing our society and our politics. In the midterm elections in 2018—dubbed the year of the woman—the misogyny oozing from the White House was somewhat rebuked at the polls. Yet the year before, working women scored a series of thoroughly impressive wins, just after Donald Trump lost the popular vote but eked out a win from the Electoral College. Many of those victories received far less media attention. As in the midterm elections, men contributed to these wins, certainly, but the central characters were women—often women of color—who waged tireless campaigns of which the outcomes would have drastic consequences. Chapter 1 discusses three such examples of women winning big.

The arena for these battles was the workplace, in the mostly female sectors of the economy such as health care, education, and hospitality, but also in the tech sector, where sexual harassment and the gender pay gap serve as a stark reminder that, despite the tech elite’s rhetoric of building a new society, nothing much has changed, unless you count the creation of the new generation of Silicon Valley billionaires as progress. Women worker-led policy changes included people wresting control of their schedules away from tone-deaf managers, most of whom have never had to pick up their kids at the bus stop; securing fair and meaningful pay raises; achieving bold new safeguards from sexual predators; and ending racism and other discriminatory practices in their salary structure. The mechanism for securing these victories was the collective bargaining process [my emphasis], and each involved strikes—the key leveraging mechanism of unions.

Strikes are uniquely powerful under the capitalist system because employers need one thing, and one thing only, from workers: show up and make the employer money. When it comes to forcing the top executives to rethink their pay, benefits, or other policies, there’s no form of regulation more powerful than a serious strike. The strikes that work the best and win the most are the ones in which at least 90 percent of all the workers walk out, having first forged unity among themselves and with their broader community. To gain the trust and support of those whose lives may be affected, smart unions work diligently to erase the line separating the workplace from society.

Strikes (and well-organized and well-strategized strikes at that) will certainly form a part of a movement for the creation of a different kind of society, but already Ms. McAlevey idealizes the collective bargaining process. She never specifies how the collective bargaining process actually expresses anything more than some gains made by workers in the face of the overwhelming economic (and political) power of the class of employers.

I have persistently referred to management rights clauses in collective agreements–and collective bargaining and the resulting collective agreement do not address this issue except as a limitation (and not as a negation) of the power of any particular employer as a member of the class of employers (and that applies to both the private and public sector). See the various management rights clauses on this blog (for example,     Management Rights, Part Eight: Private Sector Collective Agreement, Quebec).

This exaggeration of the efficacy of the collective-bargaining process forms part of the exaggerated rhetoric of the social-democratic left–such as “fair contracts.” It is a sell job in order to get workers to support unions. This may have short-term gains, but when workers then experience the day-to-day grind of working for an employer (even a unionized worker and even deeply organized workers), the rhetoric of “securing victories” starts to wear thin. So does such rhetoric as the following:

The women-powered collective bargaining wins described in chapters 1, 5, and 6 represent monumental improvements to worker and community lives[my emphasis]  that happened much faster than traditional policy changes—unless, perhaps, you are the billionaire class.

What are these “monumental improvements?” In her previous book she often refers to “good agreements.” I compared one of her “good agreements” with a collective agreement between the brewery union to which I belonged and the employer. I concluded that the brewery collective agreement was probably slightly better–but that it hardly expressed a “good agreement.”

The reference to the billionaire class sounds very “class-like”–but there are also millionaires who are capitalists, and of course there are many workers in the public sector, many of whose bosses are not capitalists at all in the strict sense.

Although it is certainly necessary to personalize the employer class rather than always referring to such generalities as the “capitalist class,” the “employer class” and the like, the problem is not just billionaires but the economic, social and political structures that constitute the mechanisms by which workers are maintained as employees (and as unemployed and underemployed for a section of the working class). To reduce the problem to the “1%” may be legitimate as a short-hand for those structures, it may also hide the need to challenge these macro structures at every opportunity. By idealizing collective bargaining and collective agreements, on the one hand, and by reducing the power of the class of employers to “the 1%,” on the other, Ms. McAlevey simply ignores the problem of the relationship between social structure and social agency.

How are we going to solve that problem and control our lives by ignoring such a problem? How are we going to do when we read such rhetoric as:

It is precisely because unions can produce these kinds of gains, even in their emaciated state, that they have been the targets of sustained attacks from the corporate class. Unions’ track record of redistributing power—and therefore wealth—and changing how workplaces are governed is what led to a war waged against them by the business class. In just twelve years in the private sector, from 1935 to 1947, with massive strikes at the core of their strategy, workers made huge breakthroughs that benefited most people and created the concept of the American Dream—that your kids will do better than you, along with home ownership for workers and a right to retire and play with those grandkids.

“huge breakthroughs?” Ms. McAlevey is prone to exaggeration–as are many social democrats. Improvements there were, and such improvements as a rising standard of living in various domains are to be welcomed through struggling against the employer class, but this reference to the “American Dream” was hardly generalized, and one of the reasons why this Dream has increasingly vanished for the working class is the exaggeration of the gains achieved through collective bargaining, collective agreements and the union movement. Workers were still used as things for the benefit of employers-something which Ms. McAlevey never addresses (see  The Money Circuit of Capital).

Ms. McAlevey’s standard for improvement is rather low. Workers deserve much better–they deserve to control their own life process, and no collective agreement can ever do that.

Ms. McAlvey exaggerates often:

The methods organizers use to achieve these kinds of all-out strikes require the discipline and focus of devoting almost all of their time and effort reaching out to the workers who don’t initially agree, or even may think they are opposed to the strike, if not the entire idea of the union. This commitment to consensus building is exactly what’s needed to save democracy. To win big, we have to follow the methods of spending very little time engaging with people who already agree, and devote most of our time to the harder work of helping people who do not agree come to understand who is really to blame for the pain in their lives. Pulling off a big, successful strike means talking to everyone, working through hard conversations, over and over, until everyone agrees. All-out strikes then produce something else desperately needed today: clarity about the two sides of any issue. Big strikes are political education, bigly. [My emphasis] 

Strikes can indeed contribute to political education, but since there is evidence that Ms. McAlevey’s political education is drastically incomplete (ignoring the issue of the relationship between social structure and social agency and how to bridge the gap indicates a drastic lack of political education–as does the idealization of collective bargaining), “big strikes” do not necessarily generate certain kinds of political education.

As for saving democracy–political democracy has more or less existed (although even that is debatable), but the dictatorship which characterizes most workplaces–even unionized and radical ones–forms part and parcel of political democracy (see, for example, my post Employers as Dictators, Part One on economic dictatorship).

Ms. McAlevey refers to “working through hard conversations,” but when I tried to engage in such a conversation about the reference to “decent work” and “fair contracts,” with what I believed were the radical left in Toronto, I was insulted and ridiculed. I decided that such “hard conversations” had to occur without such insults and ridicule. I also decided to start this blog because, when I submitted an article for possible publication to the Canadian journal Critical Education, three anonymous reviewers rejected the article as it was and recommended extensive revisions. Since I did not consider their criticisms to be valid, I sought an alternative venue for expressing my views–hence this blog. (I will be posting their criticisms as well as my critical analysis of their criticisms in future posts.)

Ms. McAlevey often refers to winning “big”–while ignoring the impossibility of really winning control over our lives unless we address the macro issue. It is a definite limitation of her approach:

Chapter 1 discusses three such examples of women winning big.

The first chapter’s title is “Workers Can Still Win Big.” Ms. McAlevey refers to the strike of Local 2850 of Unite Here against Marriott Hotels in 2018. I tried to find the collective agreement but was unable to do so (if someone finds it, please send a commentary with the link). I looked at the UNITE HERE Local 2850 website, the American site for private-sector collective agreements, the following site Collective Bargaining Agreements File: Online Listings of Private and Public Sector Agreements – OLMS (Office of Labor-Management Standards), Department of Labor, United States) and the UNITE HERE Local 2850 Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/UniteHere2850/.

On the Facebook page, one reference to the strike provides some idea of what was won:

Today members of UNITE HERE Local 2850 at the Oakland Marriott City Center ratified an agreement with Marriott and will end our strike as of tomorrow. We thank our allies who supported us in our fight for jobs that are enough to live on in Oakland.

The collective agreement, then, in this judgement, permits the workers represented by the Local sufficient wages to be able to live in Oakland.

She does refer to the persistent sexual harassment to which many hotel workers have been subject and the measures that have been taken to address the issue–as indeed the Local should. The Local, through such representatives as Irma Perez, has expanded its work to include organizing to push for (and pass) legislation that addresses sexual harassment at work.

In a footnote, Ms. McAlevey writes:

Irma Perez, author interview. Irma is what’s called a shop steward in her hotel, so she’s deeply familiar with her own contract and the standards in her area. She states, “We have to clean 15 rooms a day at my job. But at hotels that are not unionized, workers have to clean 28 rooms a day, or sometimes even 30.” From my time working in Las Vegas, the same union versus nonunion standard applied to number of rooms cleaned per day, fifteen in a unionized hotel versus upward of thirty in a nonunion casino.

Cleaning 15 rooms rather than 28 or 30 rooms is certainly a large improvement in working conditions for those who clean hotel rooms. I remember my mother, a small woman (4′ 9″ or around 145 cm) working at a hotel in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, at a hotel. She found it difficult. She finally quit when her supervisor (a Yugoslavian woman) slapped her in the face. A reduction in the intensity of labour by almost 100 percent indeed is significant.

However, let us not exaggerate such a change. The hotel workers still must do what management wants in general–there is no dignity in that–nor equity.

The strike, implicitly, was about better pay in order to eliminate the need to have two jobs to make ends meet:

has the kind of energy that can motivate everyone on the picket line for days on end, dancing as she’s [Irma Perez] chanting to remind the workers and their supporters that they are fighting for a better life, for the freedom from having to work two full-time jobs. Every picket sign has the strike slogan and the worker’s demand, ONE JOB SHOULD BE ENOUGH!

The standard of having only one job that pays sufficiently well to make ends meet is certainly a standard worthy to fight for. However, this does not meet that it is an adequate standard to justify writing such things as the following:

In addition to the wins I’ve already listed, the three unions in the case studies here have secured the right to affordable, high-quality health care; equitable pay [my emphasis]; pay policies that eliminate gender and racial disparities, and favoritism; the right to keep control over your own schedule; improvements in safety on the job, for the workers as well as the patients, students, or guests; effective tools to combat sexual harassment; advances in paid time off, whether to have and get to love a baby, to take vacation, or get sick and avoid getting everyone else sick by going to work. Part of what makes unions and collective bargaining so effective is that workers themselves pull up to the negotiation table to decide how to redistribute the profits they make for others and design rules that actually solve their immediate problems. No other mechanisms engage the ingenuity of workers themselves.

Ms. McAlevey now engages in social-democratic ideology–“equitable pay,” “fair contracts,” “decent work” and the like are catch phrases used by the social democratic left to hide the continued dictatorship of employers over the lives of workers–whether unionized or not.

I probably received higher pay in the unionized jobs that I worked than the UNITE HERE Local 2850 workers, but to claim that what I received was “equitable” in any way simply ignores the issue of how it is equitable. On what basis does Ms. McAlevey justify her claim of equitable pay? She simply ignores the issue.

Furthermore, her reference to “redistribute the profits they make for others” assumes that it is legitimate for employers to use workers to produce a profit in the first place; fighting for complete control over the workplace (and the massive class struggle that that would entail) is simply ignored.

Of course, Sam Gindin and other social-democratic activists consider such explicit aims as “taking control of the economy” (at the grassroots level) as unrealistic under existing conditions. They believe in some magical future where the issue of the power of employers as a class will be addressed–they will always push such an issue to the waited-for future.

How any aim is to be achieved except by using it in the present to organize our present activities is a mystery to me–for that is what a real aim is and not a pseudo-aim. (Among children, the inductive approach of realizing an aim less explicitly may be more appropriate, and adults may even formulate more explicit aims of what they are trying to achieve after engaging in practice for a certain time–but then again, they may never do so). This does not mean that the aim has to be clear from the outset–far from it since aims are often clarified as they are put into effect. Nevertheless, an explicit aim of eliminating the power of employers as a class is certainly a legitimate aim to be put on the agenda of the working class and discussing it in the present–rather than putting it off to the distant future that social democrats are accustomed to doing.

I will continue a critical review of Ms. McAlevey’s book in another post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open Letter to Premier Ford
October 8, 2019

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

Dear Premier Doug Ford,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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