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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We NEED fair labour laws to save lives

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

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

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

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

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

However, the following is then claimed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perspectives on workplace injury

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

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.