Confessions of a Union Representative Concerning the Real Power of Employers

In the context of the process of passing legislation related to the Westray mining disaster (ultimately diluted to satisfy the interests of employers), a union representative explicitly expressed the reality that workers face when they work for employers. The problem with this explicit admission of the power of employers is that it does not play any real role in the education of the working class. Compare what is said below with union rhetoric about “decent jobs” or a “fair wage.” From Steven Bittle, Still Dying for a Living:
Shaping Corporate Criminal Liability After the Westray Mine Disaster,
doctoral dissertation, page 202:

Another union representative expressed concern [with the proposed government legislation] that unions can be held responsible for workplace accidents, noting that unions and employees have little decision-making control with the organization:

“…basically we wanted the legislation to go after corporate bosses, basically, because
they’re the ones that make the decisions. At the end of the day any decision that’s
made on anything to do with the business comes about as a result of management’s
decision. It doesn’t come about because of a union decision. We wish, but it doesn’t.
They have the ultimate authority to manage, and that authority is only restricted by
terms of a collective agreement, and in very few cases, maybe in terms of regulations or legislation. So we were hoping that it would focus more on criminal liability for those that have the power to make decisions. But in reality what it does is that it will hold anybody accountable if the investigation shows there was any part played in any particular incident by anybody from the janitor right up to the CEO. Now some people will argue, why not? Well normally, in my experience in almost forty years, is that any decision made by the janitor is usually something that is usually handed down from above, right. And there are very few cases where you could actually cite where somebody at that level had any type of malicious intent to do anything to cause harm “(Union representative, Interview 12).

One of the distinguishing features of human beings is our capacity to choose–our capacity to be free, to make decisions. The union representative openly admits that in the context of businesses, it is management that mainly decides and that all that a collective agreement does is restrict the authority of management to decide. Regulation and legislation, in a few cases, also limit that authority. Other than that, management has dictatorial powers at work. In other words, workers are treated as things at work–as objects to be used; they are thing-like objects, without the power to participate equally in decisions that affect their lives.

And the social-reformist left repeatedly refer to “decent jobs” and “fairness.” Even the so-called radical left (see the previous post, Social-Reformist Leftist Activists Share Assumptions with the Right) engage in such rhetoric. How being treated as things can be magically converted into decent jobs and fair wages is beyond me. The religious nature of this rhetoric (most frequently expressed by trade unionists) is obvious by the lack of any critical discussion concerning whether it reflects the experience of the millions (and indeed billions) of workers worldwide.

What do you think of the above honest statement of the reality or situation of even the more privileged section of the working class (for, generally, unionized workers are more privileged) when compared to the rhetoric of “decent work” and “fair wages” or “fairness” as expressed by the social-reformist left (and even the radical left)?

Should we not start discussing these issues openly and honestly? Are we? If we are not, why are we not doing so?

A Kindred Soul: Exposing the Irrationality and Absurdity of an Economy Dominated by a Class of Employers

As the social-reformist left plan to engage in a rally tomorrow in order to defend the increase of the minimum wage to $14, to defend needed reform of employment standards and other needed reforms, they engage in a contradictory process. On the one hand, they seek to defend needed reforms–and they should be defended. On the other hand, they do not go far enough by any means. They share assumptions with the Fordist right that the present society is, ultimately, rational. This they do in practice even if they claim otherwise.

As for the so-called radical left, they seem intent on jumping on the bandwagon and following the social-reformist left; they are afraid to engage in criticism of a predominantly reformist community and union movement.

Michael Perleman, on the other hand, points to a need to expose the inherent irrationality of the present society and the impossibility of reforming such irrationality.

Michael Perelman, in his book The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism: How Market Tyranny Stifles the Economy by Stunting Workers (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), expresses the need to expose the nature of capitalist relations and their irrational, absurd and harmful nature.  This is part of the purpose of this blog.

From the introduction:

This book is intended as one among many blows that will ultimately crack the prevailing dogma that prevents the development of an economy that can nurture and tap in to people’s potential. It does not describe how this kind of economy will work. Developing the details of the future organization is far more challenging than helping to make way for the transition; however, awareness of the current wasted potential must precede the transformation of the present system of social relations.

Michelangelo’s wonderfully evocative, half-finished sculptures, known as The Slaves, made a deep impression on me when I saw them in Florence forty years ago. These works do not display the uniform delicacy and detail of his David or the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, but the very incompleteness of these four massive statues, intended for the tomb of Pope Julius, is a major source of strength. The Awakening Slave depicts a powerful body, seemingly waking, while still encased in stone. The effect of the Bearded Slave, struggling to free himself from his marble boulder, which had once completely engulfed him, is even more dramatic.

Everybody irritated by a boss’s foolish command or a corporation’s ridiculous bureaucratic demands has taken a first step toward an awakening. These annoyances are symptomatic of a much larger problem associated with an outdated system of command and control at the workplace. Once that realization kicks in, you can sense your inner Bearded Slave. I like to think that many economists are also like the Bearded Slave, deep down struggling to emerge from the self-censorship that engulfs the discipline. [I think he is too hopeful; economists have a vested interest in justifying the present economic system dominated by a class of employers.]

Capitalist society also has something in common with the Bearded Slave, except that what covers its inner potential is man-made. It is capitalist control that encrusts society with unsightly layers of waste and inefficiency. This book includes many such examples. Hammering away at this crud might make the system more productive, but more often than not the waste and inefficiency serve a purpose—to maintain the existing system of control.

With enough blows, the irrationality of this system will be exposed. An irresistible vision of a humane system with rich social relations—something more beautiful than Michelangelo’s statues—will first come into view and then replace capitalism.

Unlike Perleman, the radical left in Toronto seem bent on pursuing a tactic of silence at all costs. For example, its silence over whether it is legitimate to pair the idea of fairness, on the one hand, to an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour and needed reforms of employment law on the other, expresses a lack of any real movement towards the abolition of the power of employers as a class. The radical left does not even take itself seriously anymore. It, like the social-reformist left, in practice agrees with the TINA principle: there is no alternative to capitalism–not in practice.

Of course, the radical left will probably delude itself into believing that it is contributing to “building capacities”–as if a greater quantity of the same social reformism will somehow challenge the shared assumptions of the right and the social-reformist left.

It will be interesting to see what the radical left (and the social-reformist left) will have accomplished this time next year since they refuse to criticize the basic principles of modern society–a society dominated by a class of employers.