The West-Virginia Teachers’ Strike and a Socialist Movement

The social-reformist left like to claim that what they are interested in is class struggle from below–the self-organization of the working class that opposes the power of the class of employers. In a podcast, David Camfield’s analysis of the West Virginia teachers strike is an example of such a claim by the social-reformist left (This Is How to Fight!, recorded on March 29, 2018).

There were undoubtedly innovations in the strike that make it different from other strikes. Firstly, the context is different from most other teachers’ strikes. West Virginia teachers do not have a typical collective-bargaining system since West Virginia is a “right-to-work” state, with no legal right to collective bargaining. Secondly, the degree of solidarity among teachers that was shown during the events leading up to the strike and during the strike is much deeper than normal  (such as throughthe Facebook coordination of more than 20,000 . Thirdly, the degree of solidarity between teachers and other school staff was also much deeper than normal. Fourthly, the degree of solidarity displayed by both teachers and other workers in the public sector was much deeper (by, for example, the refusal to end the strike unless all public-sector workers received the same pay raise). Finally, the recognition of the needs of the poorest sections of their students for continued provision of breakfast and lunch programs through the continued provision of food during the strike indicated a consciousness of addressing the needs of a vulnerable section of the community while they were on strike.

Undoubtedly there are other notable features of the strike that make it stand out from the typical strike.

These distinctive features of the strike should, of course, not be downplayed. In the face of a difficult situation (facing the reactionary billionaire Governor Justice, on the one hand, and a lack of collective bargaining rights on the other), the teachers and support staff stood fast and forced through an agreement that goes beyond what they would have achieved if they had engaged in collective bargaining separately and legally.

However, David Camfield, as a social-reformist leftist, idealizes this situation. Firstly, the results of the strike were mixed. The across-the-board five percent increase for all public-sector workers was certainly a win for solidarity at one level, but at another level it indicated uneven wage and salary increases since five percent for those near the top of the wage and salary schedule means a greater absolute gain than those at the bottom. A demand for an across-the-board increase for all public-sector employees, with the total amount distributed controlled by workers democratically, would have been a demand more consistent with a socialist vision. That there is no reference to such a demand in Camfield’s presentation indicates one of the limitations of Camfield’s analysis.

Secondly, the issue of adequate health-care insurance paid by the employer rather than the workers remained unresolved and was shuffled off to a “task force.” This is a typical stalling tactic by management and employers in order to diffuse a situation and often does not resolve an issue for workers, or the solution becomes watered-down and more acceptable to management.

Thirdly, although there may have been some socialists who aimed at the abolition of the power of employers as a class in the movement, there has been, as far as I am aware, no indication of any explicit expression of a rejection of the power of employers as a class by Virginia teachers. The social-reformist left do not do so, and even the radical left often fear doing so out of fear of isolation from the working class.

Mr. Camfield claims that this form of class-struggle from below makes such workers more susceptible to socialist ideas. That may or may not be the case. It would require investigation to determine whether that is true. Camfield does not investigate whether that is true, so his assertion is pure speculation. It may, however, be a convenient ideology, since it may then be used to divert attention from the need to fight against current social-reformist ideology (such as “decent jobs,” “fair wages,” “economic justice”) and other such rhetoric in the here and now. That would require opposing union ideology in its various forms consistently and more assertively.

Mr. Camfield also does not refer to and hence does not take into account the specific situation of teachers in general in relation to other members of the working class nor the specific situation of the teachers in West Virginia (and in some other states). In relation to the first point–the specific nature of teachers in relation to other members of the working class–teachers’ jobs, as Beverly Silver, in her work Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization since 1870, argues (pages 116-117), are not interdependent in their work like autoworkers technically; on the other hand, they are linked to the social division of labour via the disruptive impact of strikes on the routines of workers as parents, which in turn can have an impact on other employers. Furthermore, unlike the auto industry, it is difficult to increase productivity through changes in technology; teaching is still relatively labour-intensive. In addition, the labour of teachers is difficult to export geographically (unlike, for example, jobs in the auto industry); Consequently, teachers have, potentially, a certain kind of economic power–a spatial fix–lacking in other industries (although workers in other industries may have different forms of economic power–a technical fix in the case of auto workers, for instance).

Mr. Camfield also fails to provide any details at all concerning the specific nature of the West Virginia teachers strike. Firstly, the strikers themselves recognized that there was an imbalance between teacher demand and teacher supply: teacher demand exceeded teacher supply. Secondly, the West-Virginia teachers, as Hakan Yilmaz argues (Public Education, the State and the Crisis, 2018), there has been at least a two-pronged attack against the working class since the early 1970s, when economic crises became more prevalent. One prong has been an attack on unions, wages and benefits to shore up profit and the profit rate (the practical measurement for capitalists of how well they are doing in the economy–it is measured variously, but in general it is after-tax profit divided by total invested).

Another prong has been the shift in the tax rate. At the federal level, in the U.S. from 1981 to the end of the 1980s, the tax rate decreased from 70% to 33%. This shift in the tax rate was not that relevant directly for educational financing (since such financing occurs more at the state and local levels), but it provided the overall ideological climate for such shifts at those levels later on. The federal public debt skyrocketed, which provided the justification for federal neoliberal austerity measures (reduction of federal social services, for example).

When the great economic crisis of 2007-2008 arose, there were further attacks on the working class, including public-sector workers. As investment decreased following the crisis, tax revenues were also hit. In West Virginia, during the last quarter of 2017, for instance, state revenue was still 7% below the pre-crisis level; the state funding formula for West Virginia decreased by 11.4% between 2008 and 2018. Simultaneously, the cost of Medicare and Medicaid increased, and the costs of health care for public employees were being increased directly paid out by teachers, among others: “patient costs” increased from “zero in 1988 to over four hundred dollars a month today” (Kate Doyle Griffiths, March 13, 2018: Crossroads and Country Roads: Wildcat West Virginia and the Possibilities of a Working Class Offensive), page 2.

As Yilmaz points out, “lower state revenues and higher state costs have led to significant declines in teachers’ salaries and benefits” (page 22). This has often had implications for teachers salaries. In the case of West Virginia, teacher salaries declined “from $49,999 to $45,701” between 2003 and 2016 (page 23). With rising health costs and absolutely decreasing salaries, the pressure on teachers’ own livelihoods was increasing. Undoubtedly the movement gained momentum and reached the level of solidarity it did in part because of these circumstances These circumstances, although they may aid in developing class consciousness, a rejection of capitalism and the power of employers as a class and for socialism, need not do so. To do so requires sustained criticism of the power of employers as a class, criticisms of justifications of that power (such as “fair wages,” “decent work,” “a fair contract,” and similar clichés, and a vision of an alternative kind of society.

However, I remember Mr. Camfield being the keynote speaker at one of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society’s meetings (the Manitoba Teachers Society is an organization, according to its own website, that “is the collective bargaining and professional development organization for all of Manitoba’s 15,000 public school teachers”). What Mr. Camfield said was hardly radical. This is not surprising given not only the reformist nature of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society but also its conservative nature. When I was attending the French university in Winnipeg (College universitaire de Saint-Boniface) to obtain a bachelor of education degree, the Manitoba Teachers’ Society presented its services to teacher candidates. It provided scenarios to show what teachers should do in various situations. In one scenario, a teacher could have criticized its employers, but the presenter indicated that under no circumstances should teachers do so.

All in all, Mr. Camfield’s podcast presentation is an example of idealizing the struggle of workers and claiming that such struggles are somehow socialist. He nowhere indicates the need for socialists to make explicit and to challenge those in the labour movement in general and the union movement in particular concerning their persistent justification of the power of employers as a class.

Although such struggles undoubtedly need to be supported, they are insufficient. Such struggles need to become more explicitly aimed at ending the power of employers as a class. Struggles against a particular employer, in other words, need to be generalized and become indeed a class struggle explicitly. Such struggles need to become radicalized through the goal of ending of the power of employers as a class being made explicit and using that goal in the present to organize for the goal of overthrowing that power.

Such a goal requires that socialists–including academics–risk being oppressed in various ways by the diverse powers of the class of employers and their representatives inside and outside the state. It demands that socialists be thoroughly critical, challenging the power of employers any way they can–including their ideology–and that includes challenging the ideology of union representatives. What kind of a socialist is that who does not do that but demands that workers risk their lives? To refer to class struggle from below without risk is hypocritical because it demands that workers risk their lives–but not socialists.

Or are there not objective and subjective conditions required for challenging the power of employers as a class?

The Poverty of Academic Marxism, Part One

I had a short debate with the academic philosopher Jeff Noonan on his blog. I am pasting it here since there was no further reply to my criticisms on his post.

[Jeff’s reply] Hi Fred,
Thanks for the detailed and thoughtful comments. Some brief replies:

[My initial reply]: Some of the above post is dead on, but there are some points that are debatable.

[Jeff’s initial post] “If another equally well-paying job could immediately replace the one they lost, then change would just be that: change, neither better nor worse. But as manufacturing jobs in old plants and industries disappear, they are not replaced with equally good manufacturing jobs in new industries that locate in historical working class communities. Workers suffer.”

[My initial reply] Undoubtedly workers suffer, but it would be more accurate to say that they suffer more. Relatively high-paying jobs do not mean that they do not suffer. Having worked at a brewery for around four years, where the wage was relatively high, I certainly suffered by being treated as a thing for the benefit of employers.

[Jeff’s reply] True enough, I did not intend to supply a complete critique of the problems of work under capitalism, but to speak to the immediate situation on the ground when well-paying jobs are lost.

[Jeff’s initial post] “Localised struggles, on the other hand, while they are demanded by the dignity of the affected workers, cannot succeed. So long as investment decisions are driven by calculations of profitability, and profitability depends on competitive forces, workers in older industries will eventually have to pay the price that creative destruction demands: unemployment and then re-employment in lower paying service industry work.”

[My initial reply] Localised struggles are part and parcel of global struggle.

[Jeff’s reply] Yes, true again: I should have said: isolated and reactive local struggles.
Where else do struggles take place except “locally.” The issue is how such local struggles are handled. If workers consciously link such struggles to a struggle against the class of employers and attempt to link with other workers across industries (and across the private/public divide), then they cannot succeed immediately but do have a better capacity to succeed globally and in the longer term.

[Jeff’s initial post] ” part of the problem with capitalism is that there really is not any one to blame.”

[My initial reply] True in an abstract sense since no particular individuals are responsible for structural conditions that exceed particular individuals. However, three points can be made against such a view. Employers, although they cannot be identified with the structural conditions of capitalism (eliminate all employers and workers themselves still may perform that role structurally) are the immediate set of persons who can be considered responsible agents for those structural conditions.

[Jeff’s reply] True, but changing them does not change anything: case in point: the obsession in the US liberal left today with the gnder and coloiur of the boss: it does not matter to their function as bosses).

[My initial reply] Then there are the direct and obvious ideologues and representatives of the interests of employers. There is also the social-reformist left, who categorically refuse to consider any changes to the present social structure except those that are consistent with the general structure.

[Jeff’s reply] I think we need to forget about revolution/reform as a fundamental and meaningful political difference today and start to think about working out a common agenda of structural change that can take us from where we are to a democratic life-economy (where we need to be) The social-reformist left has problems, but the ‘revolutionary’ left suffers from the problem of not existing as in any sense a meaningful political force, and has no model (save archaic Leninist ideas) about how to build. If nineteenth and early twentieth century ideas about revolution were going to work they would have worked 100 years ago. Historical materialism requires new political thinking in new times. The organizational forms that will attract and unify people have yet to be found. Most times I worry they never will be.

“Reducing that dependence means reducing the social and personal costs of plant closures and job losses.”

[My reply] This statement is consistent with social-reformist positions. See above.

When I was younger, unemployment insurance was 66% of wages and there was no issue of eligibility if you quit or were fired. We workers were less dependent economically on employers in general. That does not mean that we lived in a socialist society.

Admittedly, the context seems to be a socialist economy, but given the predominance of social-reformist thinking among the left these days, to prevent any misinterpretation, it would be necessary to make more explicit the distinction between reducing economic dependence as part and parcel of a larger project of eliminating capitalist relations and reducing economic dependence as the goal of the social-reformist left.

[Jeff’s initial post] “Sadly, imagination does not pay the bills. Hence the political paradox that bedevils all efforts to solve the underlying structural problems that manifest themselves as local tragedies. In order to survive, people are forced to think short term. Desperate times make some prey to the illusions spun by right-wing populists that their problems are due to political enemies or other (foreign) workers. In order to free themselves from the capricious destructiveness of capitalism, people must think long term about how to build new economic values and institutions rooted in and growing up from our shared fundamental needs. But then those needs call out, from the stomach and the head, and people have to shelve their imaginations and find another job.”

[My initial reply] From a political point of view, it is hardly accurate. The social-reformist left goes out of its way to focus on short-term goals, thus contributing to the need to focus on immediate bread-and-butter issues. The pairing of the Fight for $15 with the idea of fairness expresses such a limitation. It ideologically implies that working for an employer, with the changes corresponding to Bill 148, somehow constitutes a fair system. The social-reformist left constantly contributes to short-sightedness by becoming ideologues for the present system.

[Jeff’s reply] But calling for radical change in a political vacuum without any coherent organization will not mobilise anyone.

[My initial reply] But then again, I am a condescending prick according to Wayne Dealy, union rep for CUPE 3902. All the above should be discounted. Unions and union reps know best.

My response to Jeff’s intervention (to which Jeff did not reply. References like “Jeff’s reply” refer to his reply, to my initial reply and not to any further reply by Jeff to my intervention]:
Fred Harris on December 4, 2018 at 4:24 pm said:
[Jeff’s reply] “Yes, true again: I should have said: isolated and reactive local struggles.”
[My reply] This is related to further arguments provided below:

[Jeff’s reply] “I think we need to forget about revolution/reform as a fundamental and meaningful political difference today and start to think about working out a common agenda of structural change that can take us from where we are to a democratic life-economy (where we need to be) The social-reformist left has problems, but the ‘revolutionary’ left suffers from the problem of not existing as in any sense a meaningful political force, and has no model (save archaic Leninist ideas) about how to build. If nineteenth and early twentieth century ideas about revolution were going to work they would have worked 100 years ago. Historical materialism requires new political thinking in new times. The organizational forms that will attract and unify people have yet to be found. Most times I worry they never will be.”

[My reply] ] I do not think that the reform/revolution divide is archaic. I see no point in even referring to revolution as a term–it puts workers off and is a distraction from real tasks. However, the idea of radical change as opposed to reformism is certainly relevant.

[Jeff’s reply] “think about working out a common agenda of structural change that can take us from where we are to a democratic life-economy (where we need to be) The social-reformist left has problems”

[Fred] My view is that there is no common agenda of structural change since most so-called leftists have simply thrown in the towel and, at a practical level, believe in the TINA syndrome. When, for example, the Fight for $15 and “Fairness” campaign was introduced, was there any discussion of the appropriateness of pairing the fight with the concept of fairness? How democratic was such discussion? The social-reformist left really do not want to discuss structural change but prefer to pat themselves on the back and think they are progressive and righteous.

Are there not conditions for structural change? Are the social-reformist left willing to take seriously the requirements for structural change? Why did OCAP, in arguing against basic income, point out that capitalism is characterized by economic coercion and then, in the same breath, ignore this fact throughout its pamphlet? Why did David Bush, an activist in Toronto, argue that the fight for $15 was fair and yet provided no argument for such fairness? Why did Jane McAlevey, in her most recent book, constantly refer to “a good contract?” On ideological and practical grounds, many who identify as the left act as if there was such a thing as fairness within capitalism.

If that is so, then are they really not an impediment to structural change? Do they not share some of the same assumptions as the right?

What should one do when an activist refers to “decent work” and “fair wages,” as Tracy McMaster did when calling out support for striking brewery workers? Not bring up the issue at all?

There is little discussion among the so-called left in Canada about such issues–and that is part of the problem.

So, I fail to see how the reform/structural change issue is irrelevant. If it were irrelevant, I would still be attending the Toronto Labour Committee, headed by Sam Gindin, Herman Rosenfeld and Paul Gray. However, the reaction of these and others within the committee when I called into question Tracy McMaster’s use of the concepts of “decent work” and “fair wages” reflected, as far as I can see, an attitude that does not reflect my experiences in this world and my attitude towards employers. They reacted as if it did not matter.

It certainly matters to me. How can any socialist not object to the use of such terms? And yet there is a decided lack of discussion about such terms and what they mean in the context of the power of a class of employers.

So, the social-reformist left not only have problems–they are one of the problems. They categorically refuse to take seriously the need for addressing the issue of structural change now, not as somehow immediately capable of being addressed, but at least of making the issue public and out in the open.

As John Dewey pointed out, a goal or aim in view, if it is a real goal, is used in the present as a means of organizing present activity in order to achieve the goal in the first place. A goal that is divorced from organizing the present is a fantasy.

Does the social-reformist left really organize its activities with the goal of “working out a common agenda of structural change that can take us from where we are to a democratic life-economy (where we need to be)?”

I withdrew from the Toronto Labour Committee because it became clear to me that its members are too closely tied to unions and fear alienating them. Structures are somehow going to be created from within without calling into question from the beginning exploitative and oppressive social structures. And yet, just as change can only occur spatially initially at the local level, it can also only occur in the present and not in some distant future.

“but the ‘revolutionary’ left suffers from the problem of not existing as in any sense a meaningful political force, and has no model (save archaic Leninist ideas) about how to build. If nineteenth and early twnetieth centiury ideas about revolution were going to work they would have worked 100 years ago. Historical materialism requires new political thinking in new times. The organizational forms that will attract and unify people have yet to be found. Most times I worry they never will be.”

To be a meaningful political force in a structural sense at least requires an attempt to aim at addressing structural conditions of oppression and exploitation in the present and to transform them into something else. The first thing to be done is to recognize that it is necessary to stop justifying those very structures with such platitudes as “fairness” and so forth. The issue of fairness, etc. is hardly irrelevant, and yet the social-reformist left act as if it either does not matter, or that the issue has already been settled.

This romanticism of the concept of “revolution” sounds realistic, but for anyone who works for an employer and hates it, the issue is not about “revolution” but how to stop being treated as a thing. Does the social-reformist left really address this issue? Why did not the so-called social-reformist left criticize Pam Frache and others for pairing the Fight for $15 with “fairness”? I tried to at a meeting (chaired by Sean Smith), raised my hand maybe four times (I was going to ask that very question) and was never recognized by the chair.

The issue is not “revolution.” The issue is–not bullshitting workers with such rhetoric as “fairness.” It is to treat their suffering and their class hatred as real (if hidden) and to address their being subjects who are simultaneously treated as objects (who may not want to admit that fact to themselves but who experience degradation of themselves in various ways. What of Tim Horton’s workers not having the right to sit down on the job? Why not? What of the many, many other ways in which the daily oppression and exploitation of workers was simply ignored? All the focus on Bill 148 left the entire structural power of employers out of the discussion–by pairing that Bill with fairness? Or what of JFAAP and unions using the slogan “Fair Labour Laws Save Lives.”

And so forth.

Structural change is not on the agenda for most of the so-called left in Toronto–and structural change is revolutionary, even if the word is not used. The reformist left reject any real organization and practice in the present with the end-in-view of realizing structural change that results in a movement “that can take us from where we are to a democratic life-economy (where we need to be).”

The first requirement, as far as I can see, is to openly discuss what regular workers who work for employers experience (and not what union reps claim they experience) and why they experience it with the purpose of doing something about ending such experience. Openly discussing such issues itself requires struggle–for the social-reformist left does not engage in such discussion nor does it seem to want to do so. In fact, its attitude is that openly discussing such issues is a waste of time and is generally hostile to such open discussion. What is required is pure practice–out on the streets for whatever reason–or pure rhetoric, without really addressing the vast gap between such rhetoric and the daily experiences of regular working people. One of the reasons that the so-called left is no political force, as I maintained, is because it itself does not call into question its own assumptions.

As for the “revolutionary” left: again, the idea of revolution is unimportant, but the idea of structural change–is that not revolutionary? But structural change must address the conditions that impede structural change and overcome them. Is that not–revolutionary?

End of my response on Jeff’s blog]

Since Jeff did not bother responding to my second response, it can be assumed that he agrees with the social-reformist left. He would probably then have remained silent when Tracy McMaster referred to “decent work” and “fair wages” in relation to the goals of striking brewery workers and a call for support. He would remain silent when he read Jane McAlevey’s new book, No Shortcuts: Organizing Power in the New Gilded Age although he noted many times her reference to good contracts. He would have remained silent when the Fight for $15 in Ontario was paired with the concept of “Fairness.”

Perhaps he has the same attitude as Tim Heffernan, a member of the Toronto Labour Committee and a member of the political organization, Socialist Alternative. I quote from part of a debate I had with him as a member of the Toronto Labour Committee:

Fred raises some interesting points. However, I think he’s confusing social-democratic/reformist demands with transitional demands. There’s a difference which I can elaborate on if needed but the practical contrast between them can be seen in Seattle itself where I would argue that Rosenblum encapsulated an honest and militant social democratic approach while Kshama Sawant & Socialist Alternative (also militant and honest) pushed the movement to its limits by raising the demand for 15/taxing the rich to the need for a socialist transformation of society. But I will concede that there are some in the US left who label SA as reformist too.

Also, we need to look at the concrete not the abstract. The “15 movement” in North America has seen different manifestations and the slogans/demands put forward have varied in time and place. So in Seattle in 2013-14, it was “15 Now”, in other parts of the US it became “15 and a union” and in Ontario it was ” 15 & Fairness”. Fred objects to the term “fairness” presumably because of its association with the old trade union demand of “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay”. Engels dealt with this demand back in 1881 where he recognized the usefulness of it in the early stages of developing class consciousness of the British working class, in the first half of the 19th Century, but saw it as an impediment at the time he was writing.

To today and “15 and Fairness”. I think the addition of “fairness” to the straight “15” demand was an excellent move. Fairness wasn’t understood as an airy fairy, feel good notion but came to be seen as shorthand for a series of extra and linked demands that could mobilise low paid and exploited workers:
– paid sick days
– equal pay for equal work (full time vs part time)
– the right to a union
– the fight against racism and discrimination
and more

If the above be bullshit, so be it. I like to think that Engels, were he alive today, would have his criticisms of the limitations of 15 & Fairness but would be overwhelmingly positive about what it has achieved so far.

Tim

To which I responded:

Hello all,

Tim’s justification for “fairness” is that it is–somehow–a transitional demand. Let him elaborate on how it is in any way a “transitional” demand. I believe that that is simply bullshit.

He further argues the following:

“Fairness wasn’t understood as an airy fairy, feel good notion but came to be seen as shorthand for a series of extra and linked demands that could mobilise low paid and exploited workers:
– paid sick days
– equal pay for equal work (full time vs part time)
– the right to a union
– the fight against racism and discrimination
and more”

How does Tim draw such conclusions? It is a tautology (repetition of what is assumed to be true) to say that it is fair if “paid sick days, equal pay for equal work (full time vs part time), etc. is considered “fair.”

Why should these goals be tied to “fairness”? I had paid sick days at the brewery, I belonged to a union (there was, however, evident racism among some of the brewery workers and there was also a probationary six-month period before obtaining a full union-wage). Was that then a “fair” situation? I guess so–according to Tim’s logic. Why not then shut my mouth and not complain since I lived a “fair” life at the brewery? But, of course, I did not shut my mouth.

But does Tim believe that merely gaining “paid sick days, equal pay for equal work (full time vs part time), the right to a union, the fight against racism and discrimination and more” is fair? If he did, he would then presumably cease being a member of Socialist Alternative since he would have achieved his goals. However, he likely does not believe that it is fair. What he proposes, then, is to lie (bullshit) to workers by not revealing what he really believes as a “transitional” demand. He does not really believe that it is fair, but he believes that such rhetoric is a useful tool in developing a movement. Frankly, I believe that such a view is both dishonest and opportunistic. Workers deserve better–it is they who continue to be exploited despite “paid sick days,” etc. Receiving paid sick days is better than not receiving paid sick days, but all the demands obtained cannot constitute “fairness.” And yet workers who buy into the rhetoric (bullshit) of fairness may believe this fairy tale (it is, after all, a fairy tale presented by social democrats often enough, among others). Rather than enlightening the workers about their situation, such rhetoric serves to obscure it and to confuse workers–support for the Donald Trump’s of the world in the making.

Such low standards. Rather than calling into question the power of employers to direct their lives by control over the products of their own labour, it implicitly assumes the legitimacy of such power. Ask many of those who refer to the fight for $15 and Fairness–are they opposed in any way to the power of employers as a class? Not just verbally, but practically? Or do they believe that we need employers? That we need to have our work directed by them? That working for an employer is an inevitable part of daily life? That there is no alternative? That working for an employer is not really all that bad?

When working at the brewery, I took a course at the University of Calgary. The professor was interested in doing solidarity work for the Polish organization Solidarity at the time. I told him that I felt like I was being raped at the brewery. He looked at me with disgust–how could I equate being raped (sexually assaulted) with working for an employer? I find that radicals these days really do not seem to consider working for an employer to be all that bad. If they did, they probably would use the same logic as their opposition to sexual assault. Sexual assault in itself is bad, but there are, of course, different degrees of sexual assault. Those who sexually assault a person may do so more violently or less violently; in that sense, those who sexually assault a person less violently are “better” than those who are more violent. However, sexual assault is in itself bad, so any talk of “fairness” in sexually assaulting someone is absurd. Similarly, any talk of fairness in exploiting someone is absurd. But not for the “radical” left these days, it would seem.

Fred

Since Jeff chose not to indicate how he would respond to concrete developments within the labour movement, it is of course impossible to know whether he would simply accept Tim’s argument. On a practical level, the Toronto Labour Committee did.

Just one final point. Jeff identifies the splitting of reform and “revolution” with Lenin. Was Rosa Luxemburg then a Leninist?She wrote on the issue as well, criticizing the reformism of Eduard Bernstein, among others. So did Bebel and Parvus, etc.

By referring to Lenin, Jeff is in fact red-baiting. The typical red baiter tries to, implicitly or explicitly, link sweeping rejections of the radical left by linking them to Stalin and other dictators. Since Lenin and Stalin are linked historically (Stalin ultimately succeeded Lenin as leader of the Bolshevik party), then referring to Lenin without further ado is a red-baiting method of simply dismissing the opponent without providing any further argument.

I will leave Professor Noonan with his call for structural change since he, apparently, refuses to make any distinction between changes that challenge the structure of the system and those that do not. I predict that his view will not address the problems the working class face at this time. He, like Sam Gindin, speak of structural change–within the confines of capitalist relations of production and exchange–despite rhetoric to the contrary. The left, according to this view, is just one happy family that involves no internal conflicts and no divisions. It is, to paraphrase the German philosophy Hegel, a left where all cows are black (or, alternatively, all white).

In a later post, the issue of Professor Noonan’s position on collective bargaining will be addressed.

 

 

 

Once Again on the GM Plant Closure in Oshawa and the Limitations of the Social-Reformist Left

Sam Gindin published an article on the Socialist Project website entitled  GM Oshawa: Making Hope Possible. The following is a continuation of two previous posts on the closure and the inadequate nature of the social-reformist left in dealing with such closures (see Management Rights and the Crisis in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada: Limitations of the Reformist Left, Part One and  Management Rights and the Crisis in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada: Limitations of the Reformist Left, Part Two).

He divides his article into seven sections: 1. an introduction, 2. Workers as Collateral Damage; 3. Lame Politicians 4. The Union 5. Searching for Alternatives 6. Plan B. 7. Conclusion: Is This Really Feasible?

An implicit common thread throughout the various sections is the unfairness of GM’s actions and what to do about them. If the GM closure were not considered unfair, why would there be any concern at all? However, there is no explicit discussion about why it is unfair. This is characteristic of Mr. Gindin’s approach to working-class politics.

1. Introduction

Mr. Gindin claims that the typical measures to address such closures, such as traditional protests, simply will not work. What may work is, rather, democratic control through “community and national planning.” Before elaborating on this in section 6, , Mr. Gindin looks at the probable causes and consequences of the closure and the responses by politicians, the union and possible alternative solutions.

2. Workers as Collateral Damage

Mr. Gindin correctly points out that no matter what concessions workers make to employers, employers will try to find ways to move to places where it is more profitable. Despite the Oshawa plant being  productive materially and profitable in the production of cars and trucks, profitability is located more in truck production than in car production. Since GM has excess capacity in truck production, and the Oshawa plant only assembled trucks when the US plants could not keep up to demand, the decision to close the GM Oshawa plant makes sense from the perspective of GM.

The irony of a materially productive plant being closed down can be explained in Marxian terms (for further details, see my article, Dewey’s Materialist Philosophy of Education: A Resource for Critical Pedagogues? , page 278).

The purpose wealth in a capitalist society is hardly to serve the needs of workers and the community but to serve the needs of the accumulation of capital or more and more money as its own end. Given the need to accumulate capital constantly, it is hardly surprising to find closures occurring in various parts of the world as capital moves from one place to another in search of more surplus value (and profit).

It is interesting to note that the title of this section implies that workers are really mere means for the benefit of the class of employers, as outlined in The Money Circuit of Capital. Unfortunately, Mr. Gindin did not consider this to be characteristic of the experiences of workers on a daily basis in his practice in Toronto. For example, as one of the heads of the Toronto Labour Committee (an organization to which I belonged and from which I withdrew), Mr. Gindin did not find it useful to question the pairing of the Fight for $15 (a fight for the establishment of a minimum wage of $15 and changes in employment law beneficial to the working class, especially the poorer sections) with the idea of “fairness.” Indeed, he seemed opposed to bringing up the issue at a public forum. Moreover, when I questioned Tracy McMaster’s reference to “decent work” and “fair wages” in the context of a call for supporting striking brewery workers,  Mr. Gindin did not support my criticism of such terms. Quite to the contrary. He became quite apologetic of the term “decent work,” arguing that workers were using it as a defensive maneuver in these difficult times. Frankly, I think that that is bullshit–and I said so explicitly.

Mr. Gindin claimed that the Toronto Labour Committee should have a discussion some time about the nature of decent work and what it means–but I doubt that there has been much discussion about this. He himself indicated that he was afraid to become isolated–which meant being afraid of alienating too much trade-union representatives.

Now, Mr. Gindin sings a different tune, implying that workers are expendable no matter what they do.

In any case, Mr. Gindin’s rejection of my argument that we need to bring out into the open and discuss the idea that working for employers is somehow decent, or that employment laws and labour laws are somehow fair undermines his own claim that workers are “collateral damage”–even when there is a collective agreement. By rejecting democratic discussion of such ideology, workers are less likely to be prepared to address the problems that they now face in an adequate manner.

The third section of Mr. Gindin’s article, entitled Lame Politicians, should be aimed at Mr. Gindin, the Toronto Labour Committee and the social-reformist left characteristic of Toronto (and probably in other cities in Ontario and in Canada).

I will skip over that section since Mr. Gindin shares in the politicians’ lame response to the power of employers as a class.

4. The Union

Mr. Gindin rightly criticizes the union for making concessions in hope that jobs would be somehow guaranteed. However, as noted above, it is not just the particular union strategy of bending over backward to retain jobs but the whole union view of claiming that collective agreements somehow convert working for an employer into decent work despite the employer-employee relationship inherently making workers “collateral damage” even during the terms of the collective agreement. I have not seen Mr. Gindin once criticize explicitly the collective-bargaining process and its result, collective agreements. He and the Toronto Labour Committee have been too afraid of isolating themselves from the trade-union leadership–but that is surely what is necessary if typical trade-union rhetoric is going to be challenged.

5. Searching for Alternatives

Mr. Gindin outlines some possible alternative strategies open to Unifor (the union that represents the Oshawa workers at GM) in order to achieve the goal of maintaining the status quo (retention of jobs according to the signed collective agreement). Such strategies, such as boycotts or placing high tariffs on the import of cars from Mexico are unlikely to arise under the given circumstances. He mentions an occupation of the plant, but as he points out, an occupation without a plan is merely only a protest and not a solution to the problem facing the Oshawa workers.

This leads to his own preferred solution.

6. Plan B

Mr. Gindin claims that the only practical alternative is radical or revolutionary: it must break with previous models and focus on production for need and not for profit and competition. This would ignite the working-class imagination across the country, constituting a rallying point for working-class unity.

He correctly points out that GM will likely try to buy off some of the Oshawa workers through “pension top-ups and buyouts.” Unfortunately, he underestimates what would be required to counter such a strategy. My prediction is that such a strategy will work because of the lack of any effort to counter union rhetoric about “decent work,” “fair contracts,” “fairness,” “economic justice” and “fair labour laws.”

As already pointed out in various posts as well as this post, union leaders have generally become ideologists of employers by claiming that collective agreements, labour law and employment law are somehow fair. Workers have been spoon-fed the pabulum of “decent work,” “fairness” and “fair wages” for decades. Now, all of a sudden, they are supposed to shift gear and practically treat GM as unfair, their former jobs as indecent? They are supposed to become class conscious and act as a class despite the indoctrination that they experienced at school (see A Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part Two: The Ontario History Curriculum and Its Lack of History of Employers and Employees)?Similarly, they are supposed to envision all of a sudden a radical alternative without any discussion whatsoever of the nature of such a radical vision (see Socialism, Part One: What It May Look Like   , Socialism, Part Two: What It May Look LikeThe Canadian Left’s Lack of a Vision of the Good Life Beyond a Class of Employers  , Socialism, Part Three: What It May Look Like, or Visions of a Better Kind of Society Without Employers)?

It is certainly an occasion to reflect on a possible alternative vision of production based on need and not on profit, but to be effective it is required to combine such a vision with a critique of the present structure of production, distribution, exchange and consumption–and with that the union rhetoric of “decent work/jobs,” “fair wages,” “fairness,” “fair labour laws,” or “economic justice.” Workers would need to prepare themselves ideologically for taking such measures and for a battle along class lines. Mr. Gindin has done nothing to prepare them for such a shift.

So, my prediction is that Mr. Gindin’s alternative vision of production in Oshawa shifting to production for need will falter because it is utopian. On the one hand, it would be necessary to criticize the current union leadership much more thoroughly than Mr. Gindin’s is willing to do. On the other hand, it lacks any plan for shifting the attitude of workers to a class attitude, grounded in an explicit understanding that they are mere means for the purposes of obtaining more and more money and that process is unfair to the core and needs to be rejected.

One final point. Mr. Gindin recommends that the Oshawa plant be seized without compensation. That sounds fair since GM received a substantial bailout without repayment. However, is it realistic? Mr. Gindin does not even consider how the US government would react to such a move. One historical incident illustrates the problem. The democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz, in Guatemala (a country just south of Mexico), in 1954, nationalized the United Fruit Company’s land (the United Fruit Company (UFC) was an American multinational). He offered compensation according to the value of the land claimed by the UFC on its taxes–around $600,000 according to some. UFC wanted $25 000 000. Arbenz refused to pay the sum. The United States government, through the CIA, overthrew Arbenz and installed a military dictatorship through Castillo Armas.

Why did Mr. Gindin not take into account the possible reaction of the United States government? Furthermore, given the ideological paablum of “decent work,” etc. across the country as well as economic indoctrination across the country (see  A Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part One: The Manitoba History Curricula and Its Lack of History of Employers and EmployeesA Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part Two: The Ontario History Curriculum and Its Lack of History of Employers and Employees), would other workers support such a seizure without compensation? This does not mean that there should be no seizure without compensation, but it is necessary to take into account the possible reaction of the United States government in proceeding with seizure with no compensation. Mr. Gindin fails to provide any consideration of this in his article.

So, Mr. Gindin’s conclusion that it is impossible to determine whether his proposed alternative is feasible is incorrect. It is likely utopian since it fails to break definitively with a one-sided union model that continues to justify the power of employers as a class. It also fails to realistically assess the level of support needed to protect the seizure of assets without compensation.

The title of Mr. Gindin’s article should read: GM Oshawa: Making False Hopes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ontario Looks Right–With Some Help From the “Left”

Herman Rosenfeld recently wrote an article on the election of the right-wing government of Doug Ford in Ontario, Canada (Ontario Looks Right). I would like to take issue with some of his analysis, specifically in relation to unions (and, to a less extent, to community organizations).

He writes:

 

Still, noticeably weak in the campaign was the labor movement. Three different unions waged competing anti-privatization campaigns in the year leading up to the election and were in no position to wage a sustained anti-Ford campaign with its own agenda. They did little or no education in most unions with their members, let alone in their communities, about the underlying issues, other than official appeals to vote for the NDP. Without any socialist political party or movement with roots in working-class communities or institutions, this is not surprising. …

There are several lessons that one can quickly draw from the experience of the Days of Action and the fightback against right-wing populist regimes elsewhere. Clearly, without engaging the working class as a whole, in unions as well as communities, you can’t build a movement that can confront both employers and the government. Simply taking verbal pot shots at the obvious buffoonery of Ford (or Trump for that matter) doesn’t change anything. It simply emboldens their base.

There has be a series of alternative policies and approaches popularized across the working class that can address many of the workers who supported Ford and his party. Mass democratic movements of workers, women, indigenous, LGBTQ people, tenants, and more need to be ready to disrupt the workings of the system that Ford looks to impose. This won’t be easy.

The NDP (like the Democrats in the US) will include elements that can be part of any resistance movement. Some of the newly elected MPPs have excellent activist histories that have placed them decidedly to the left of the party’s leadership. They should be welcomed as allies.

On the other hand, the NDP has a history of limiting the space for left critiques and activism within its caucus. Leader Horwath has already made moves to limit the party’s role to being an official parliamentary opposition and a government-in-waiting. This doesn’t bode well for the NDP’s potential role in any movement.
But it is critical not to subordinate any movement’s autonomy or leadership to that of a moderate, electoral political party like the NDP. It is important to keep in mind that the latter only became the center of electoral opposition to Ford because of the collapse of the Liberals and the lack of any real left alternative.

Most important is to build what was completely lacking in the last major popular push against the Harris years: socialists have to work with allies to change the opinions and understanding of working people who look to the false solutions of Ford. This can’t be done in isolation, but as part of building an alternative resistance in unions, communities, and other working-class spaces and institutions.

It means combining socialist principles with deeper education about the causes and solutions to challenges posed by neoliberalism, along with learning about right-wing populism and its agenda. Socialists need to argue that a clear analysis of the conjuncture and of the nature of our forces and those on the other side is essential in building solid resistance. This has to be done inside and alongside unions and working-class institutions and spaces and social movements, around all kinds of issues that have a class component: housing, transportation, education, workplace issues, jobs, social programs, racism, sexism, homophobia, and more.
Upcoming municipal elections across Ontario in October provide a potential space to mobilize resistance across the province if the left can build sectoral networks around the above issues, in alliance with elected officials, candidates, and community and labor activists.

Socialist organizations and individuals are small and isolated. We can’t control the larger course of events, but we can contribute towards building a countermovement against Ford and the broader right-wing populist push he represents — a movement that can ultimately move from playing defense against these forces to offense.

He rightly points out that the NDP limits leftist criticism and activism, but he does not extend this to the unions in any detailed way. Why not? General criticisms of unions are hardly what is needed at this point.

For example, John Cartwright, president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, speaks of economic justice, in his open letter of January 30, 2018 (an open letter to our movement):

 We need to fight for labour law reform including broader based bargaining so that precarious workers can have a vehicle in which to achieve dignity and economic justice.

It is unlikely that he means by economic justice the creation of a working-class movement organized to abolish the treatment of workers as a class. He probably means the signing of a collective agreement, with its management rights clause. (For an example of a management rights clause.  Management Rights: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia

Compare this with the money circuit of capital (The Money Circuit of Capital) to determine whether workers experience economic justice even in the best-case scenario of a collective agreement. Or do not socialist principles include opposing treating human beings as things, as mere means for others’ purposes?

What are these socialist principles of which Herman speaks? Do they not contradict many of the principles of what union leaders and representatives express these days? Does not resistance against the right include criticizing the rhetoric that many union leaders and representatives express?

As for issues that have a class component: Where was this component when the wisdom of the social-reformist left linked the fight for a minimum $15 with the idea of “fairness”? As I argued in another post, the radical left abandoned any class view and simply jumped on the bandwagon of “Fight for $15 and Fairness.” (The Limitations of the Social-Reformist Left).

What of CUPE 3902 and its reference to a fair contract (CUPE 3902)? Do socialist principles indicate that there can be such a thing as a fair contract given the power of employers as a class? Should socialist then remain silent over the issue?

As for the right-wing drift in many countries, one contributing factor may be the acceptance of social-reformist rhetoric, that is to say, the lack of criticism of the so-called progressive left.

It would be necessary to develop a socialist organization that is willing to criticize both unions, with their persistent vague references of social justice, and community organizations that do the same (see for example my criticism of OCAP, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty). Basic Income: A Critique of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Stance). 

What is needed is—a more specific idea of what socialist principles mean. I thought I tried to live socialist principles by criticizing union rhetoric—and was abused because of it.

What, then, are these socialist principles? How do they relate to collective agreements? How do they relate to unions? How do they relate to ideas like the Fight for $15 and Fairness? How do they relate to working for employers as a class?

So many questions—but no answers to be found in Herman’s article. A pity.

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.

 

 

A Radical Basic Income as a Radical Reform

Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) argues against any kind of Basic Income (Basic Income in the Neoliberal Age ). I have argued against their opposition on their own terms in two previous posts.

Others, too, argue for a radical basic income as a proposal that breaks the “economic coercion” required by the class of employers and its representatives by breaking the link between need and entrance into the job market.

I remember reading somewhere (I cannot remember the author or title) of a proposal for a basic income of 45 000 euros a year. Of course, such a proposal could not be realized within the job market of capitalism. That, however, is just the point. Aiming for a goal that cannot be realized in terms of “economic coercion” prescribed by the job market would question the need for such economic coercion. It would also promote discussion about the need for the creation of alternative economic relations and processes. Of course, the exact level of basic income proposed would be open for debate, with variations according to needs, but the principle of making demands that the capitalist job market cannot satisfy permits a policy for organizing and for going beyond a society characterized by the power of a class of employers.

A radical basic income, therefore, needs to become part of the process of questioning the economic coercive power of employers as a class and the associated economic, social and political structures that support such economic blackmail. It is not, in itself, the goal but part of the means for creating a world free from such economic blackmail.

That it is impossible to realize a basic income that threatens the job market within the social relations characterized by a society dominated by a class of employers is hardly a reason to abandon a demand for such a basic income; it is, rather, a reason for making this and other proposals that begin to question economic coercion.

Several writers have argued for basic income, not as a cure-all, but as a means of addressing that economic coercion. For example, Tony Smith, in his book Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism: Marx and Normative Social Theory in the Twenty-First Century (Leiden: Brill, 2017, page 346:

It is not the mere presence of markets that establishes the alien power of
capital. What makes capitalist market societies so different from pre-capitalist
societies with markets is the society-wide compulsion to place the accumulation
of surplus value above all other ends. The democratising of decisions regarding
the levels and priorities of new investments, combined with full employment
and basic income guarantees that are not feasible in capitalism, removes the
compulsion.

The alternative is to delude yourself by using such rhetoric as “economic justice,” “decent work,” “fair contracts,” “good contracts,” a “fair wage” and “fairness” (as much of the social-reformist left does in Toronto). This is what the social-reformist left has done and continues to do. Should not those who claim to be radical break with such reformist ideology and begin the long road towards the construction of a society worthy of human beings.

Unless of course human beings deserve to be “economically coerced.” That is the hidden assumption of the social-reformist left.

The social-reformist left (and much of the radical left, at least in Toronto) certainly fails to question such economic coercion. It seeks reforms entirely in terms of economic coercion and economic blackmail. Is that rational?

The social-reformist left, however, do not see it that way since they assume that it is possible to achieve economic justice, decent work, fair wages and fairness in a society dominated by a class of employers.

Should not the social-reformist left listen to OCAP’s very realistic description of the nature of social world in which we live in their pamphlet mentioned above: “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (page 6)? Should they not take that fact seriously? Given that fact, should they not aim to abolish such a situation by advocating measures that question the need for such coercion? Or should the so-called radical left at least start to openly criticize the absurd rhetoric of “decent wages,” “fairness,” a “good contract,” and a “fair contract?” Unless the racial left are really social reformists and do not, in practice, question the economic coercion that characterizes the job market.