The Pearson Survey of the 50,000 Employees at the Toronto International Airport: A Document Expressing the Ideology of Employers

The following is based on the report Understanding the Pearson workforce: Canada’s first airport workforce survey: Summary report, October 2019. The survey consists of a sample of 3,582 employees at the Toronto Pearson airport from a variety of positions, with the statistical expectation that these employees would be representative of the 50,000 workers who work at the airport.

Of course, since this report was written before COVID, the situation has changed at the airport, but it is still useful to look at the report.

The background to the survey expresses its limitations since it was initiated by the Greater Toronto Airport Authority GTAA).

The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) is the operator of Pearson Airport.

The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) is the operator of Pearson Airport.

The GTAA undertook a workforce survey—the first survey of its kind at any airport in Canada—to provide a baseline to understand more about the airport’s complex work environment, including who the workers are and how they get to their jobs. The information obtained from the survey will inform future work to identify gaps and support planning and programming to meet the airport’s transit and workforce needs. The survey was undertaken by Northstar Research Partners (Northstar) and developed in consultation with the Toronto Airport Workers Council (TAWC), a collective
of union representatives from across the airport that work together to address issues that impact airport workers.

The report was written with the support of the Peel-Halton Workforce Development Group and Northstar.

The GTAA is itself an employer. According to its Facebook web page, “The Toronto Airport Workers Council is committed to speaking up for workers at YYZ.” According to the Toronto Pearson web page, “The Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC) is the collective voice of Pearson’s 50,000 workers and its largest unions.”

Since the GTAA is an employer, its consultations, like consultations with union reps, expresses the power of employers to define issues and to express points of view that favour their interests–and not those of the working class. Given the power of the GTAA as a representative of employers as a whole at the Toronto Pearson Airport and its power as a particular employer, it is understandable that TAWC, in order to at least have some of its concerns recognized and perhaps addressed, decided to be a consultant  in the survey.

The report implicitly uses the standard of better paying, (unionized?), stable (permanent) and full-time positions as the basis for determining inadequacies in the employment situation of the workers at the airport. These better paying (unionized?), stable (permanent) and full-time positions are, apparently, the “good jobs” or “decent work” that social democrats refer to when they justify the goals that they pursue.

Consider, for example, the situation of workers at the airport who are part-time or who receive the minimum wage (as the report notes, these two categories of workers often overlap). The report states (page 4):

As noted above, there is an opportunity to identify and support career path development, in this case to less precarious jobs. Moreover, there appears to be some mitigation of the possible impacts of these aspects of employment precarity on these employees at Pearson.

Less precarious jobs (full-time/permanent), with better pay, thus constitute the standard of evaluation in the report.

I have criticized this standard in various posts. It is, of course, better to have a permanent position for most workers. Full-time work is also often preferable for workers than part-time work if they are going to meet their financial obligations and live some kind of enjoyable life outside of work. Receiving higher wages while working the same number of hours, obviously, is also preferable. However, nowhere in the report is their a hint of criticizing this standard.

This standard fails to criticize the fact that workers are Pearson International Airport are things to be used by

400-plus companies—public and private, large and small [pages 1 and 5].

(There are multiple page references to the same passage sometimes since the report includes the executive summary.)

There is not even a hint of the treatment of workers as things in the report (see The Money Circuit of Capital for a description of how workers are mere means to be used by employers, whether private or public.)  There is also not even a hint that the workers at Toronto Pearson are controlled and exploited (see the posts The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Air Canada, One of the Largest Private Employers in CanadaManagement Rights, Part Four: Private Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario    and   Employers as Dictators, Part One).

The report in fact idealizes the working lives of 50,000 workers at Pearson. Apart from the issue of precarity, there is a lack of critical distancing from the class point of view of employers.

Thus, the report states (pages 1 and 5):

Employers include airport service providers, retail partners, airline and agency partners, to name a few, and all have a role in ensuring Pearson is a great place to work.

I fail to see how working for one or more of the 400+ employers at Pearson can ever result in Pearson being “a great place to work.” How can a workplace be a great place to work when the workers are used as a means to ends that they do not define? How can it be a great place to work when the workers are controlled, oppressed and exploited? The document is more ideology than anything else. Given that Air Canada workers are oppressed and exploited, it is undoubtedly also the case  that the other 400+ employers oppress and exploit their workers. How could it be a great place to work under such conditions?

Consider the workplace survey about workers’ attitudes towards working at Pearson. The report states (pages 2 and 23):

The majority of employees believe that Pearson provides not only a good job today, but also opportunity to grow and advance. This is especially true of younger employees who are early in their careers and see a path forward within the airport employment community.

Since the standard of evaluation for determining what constitutes a “good job” is one where work is permanent, full-time and better paying (unionized?), there is little wonder that “the majority of employees believe that Pearson provides … a good job today.”

Before becoming workers, working-class children in schools have been indoctrinated into believing that working for an employer is natural. Consider my posts concerning indoctrination of students in schools; the school history curriculum fails to provide opportunities for an historical understanding of the emergence of a class of employers and employees in Canada (see, for example, A Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part One: The Manitoba History Curricula and Its Lack of History of Employers and Employees ; this is one of several posts on the silencing of such an understanding in various Canadian provinces and territories). The lack of such an understanding is reflected in the silence concerning the power of employers to dictate to workers in various ways and to exploit them at Pearson International Airport.

Unions, in turn, have not even provided an opportunity for workers to question this dogma. Their reference to “fair contracts” and “decent work” reinforce such standards of evaluation. Is there any wonder that the majority of workers at Pearson use such low standards to determine whether their job is good or not?

Professor Tufts, a geographer professor at York University and spokesman for the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC), refers to the “data being in.” Yes, but there is no data that provides for an examination of the extent to which workers at Pearson Airport would consider that they have good jobs by working for an employer on a permanent and full-time basis with a wage somewhat higher than the minimum wage–if they also believed explicitly that they were being oppressed and exploited by the employers at Pearson Airport.

Professor Tufts has some interesting things to say about the purpose of this report. He says the following (Professor Tufts on the Pearson Airport Workforce Survey):

We want to know … how their careers are developing in the future, and how we can better help their careers develop at the airport and make Pearson a place where it’s not just a place to come to work to survive, but it’s a place where you come to build a career and thrive. And this survey is the first stop to getting something to talk about, to come together and talk about how we can better solutions.

Count on Pearson and Toronto Airport Workers’ Council to make the airport a great place to work.

I would not count on that. The Toronto Airport Workers’ Council may stimulate the improvement of working conditions at Pearson, but improved working conditions are hardly the same as “a great place to work.” Of course, workers should struggle to improve their own working conditions. However, Professor Tuft, like most union reps here in Toronto, assumes that it is really possible to create a good workplace environment on the basis of working for a particular employer in the context of the class power of employers so that the workplace is “a great place to work.” I deny that categorically.

Professor Tufts and the authors of the report assume that working for an employer and working at a great place are mutually compatible. As noted above, in referring to the money circuit of capital, workers are ultimately things to be used for the benefit of employers. They are also exploited. These facts limit improvements in working conditions–including workers’ control of their own working lives at work. These facts also means that workers necessarily lack control over a large area of their work at Pearson International Airport–a fact hidden behind the rhetoric of “a great place to work.”

These facts, on the other hand, are expressed in management rights’ clauses (explicitly in collective agreements if present but implicitly otherwise because arbitrators assume that management has dictatorial powers to direct the workforce, with the collective agreement only limiting such power). .

The report–and Professor Tufts’ commentary on it–express at best a social-democratic point of view, where it becomes possible to improve working conditions, but always within the limits of the power of employers as a class that use and exploit workers for their own benefit.

For the authors of the report and for Professor Tufts, improvement of working conditions, while leaving the power of employers generally intact, means the same thing as making Pearson “a great place to work.”

Now, TAWC may have thought that their participation in the consultation process may benefit the Pearson Airport workers’ interests. There is nothing wrong with that; in fact, the attempt to improve workers’ conditions is to be praised. On the other hand, by not engaging in a critique of the report, TAWC simultaneously–although implicitly–justifies the continued oppression and exploitation of Pearson Airport workers.

Do not the workers at Toronto Pearson International Airport deserve more? Do they not deserve a critical analysis of the report? Does TAWC provide such a critical analysis to the workers?

What do you think?

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

This is a continuation of commentary on an article written by Professor Tufs (geography professor, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada) (see

In my last post, I pointed out that Professor Tuft’s reference to Sam Gindin’s call for restructured and more radical unions is inadequate. Rather than addressing directly the issue of the inadequacy of modern-day unions in addressing the problems which workers face, Professor Tuft shuffles off the issue to Mr. Gindin. This shift permits Professor Tuft to focus almost exclusively on the creation of stop-gap measures to address the possible crisis in unions as a result of the pandemic.

Let us now turn to his discussion of reformed unions. He points out that many unions are not created by the members themselves in any real sense of the workers organizing themselves into  a fighting unit that functions to protect the common interests of its members I take it that that is what he means by the following:

There is also the reality that the current structures of the labour movement are limited. Rank-and-file members are not mobilized to self-organize.

Such a criticism needs elaboration, but Professor Tuft fails to do so. The very nature of modern unions (at least in Canada and the United States) as organizations whose primary function is to negotiate collective agreements, sets limits to the self-organizing capacity of unions–as long as they accept the model of “free collective bargaining” as somehow beyond criticism. Unions could develop the capacity to see collective bargaining and collective agreements as merely contracts forced upon them due to the inevitable power imbalance between the working class and the class of employers rather than somehow being “fair,” and they could also come to see such expressions as “decent work” as ideological in the bad sense of the word–of covering up the reality of the exploitation and oppression of workers.

By being vague, Professor Tuft fails to specify what he means by self-organize, and he thereby permits himself the luxury of not confronting the general limitations of unions, of collective bargaining and collective agreements. To openly call into question the center around which modern unions revolve–collective bargaining and collective agreements–would threaten the interests of many representatives of modern unions and thereby expose Professor Tuft to insults and ridicule by the social-reformist left.

Professor Tuft mentions another limitation of unions–they address mainly only the interests of their immediate employed members and not the unemployed. He mentions the construction trades as an exception:

 But there is the larger problem that labour organizations are simply not oriented toward the unemployed. Some unions such as the building trades maintain relationships with unemployed workers through hiring-hall ‘lists’. But this is an exception.

Professor Tuft fails to show how the lack of orientation towards the unemployed by unions is a larger problem. Rather, the lack of orientation towards the unemployed is interrelated with the focus on collective bargaining and the collective agreement.  Since unions focus on collective bargaining and collective agreements, and since unemployed workers have limited or no rights under such agreements (such as call-back rights), workers covered by a collective agreement who lose their job generally “vanish” or cease to exist as far as unions are practically concerned. The issue of unions not being oriented towards the unemployed is thus linked to the issue of their focus being collective bargaining and the collective agreement.

To be sure, workers in construction unions do not vanish from the union; they form part of a list to be hired. Professor Tufts does not explore this exception at all to determine whether it overcomes the limitations of traditional unions. (My brother, by the way, worked as a construction labourer in Calgary and a few other places in Alberta, Canada, when he was younger, and he evidently found the work not only difficult but exhausting.)

The construction industry is seasonal , and therefore many workers have only temporary jobs. Once their work for a particular employed has ended, they form part of a list to be hired by a pool of employers in the construction industry. The reason why the relation of the laid off member to the union is maintained, therefore, is because the worker is potentially employable by many different employers.

The hiring-hall list converts unions in the construction industry into, in some ways, a temporary job agency. From Michael Duke, Luke Bergmann, Genevieve Ames (2010), “Competition and the Limits of Solidarity among Unionized Construction Workers,” in Anthropology of Work Review, Volume 31, Number 2, page 85:

…the union serves as a job broker between workers and employers. In this capacity, union representatives from a given Local receive notice of job openings at particular job sites, and are tasked with providing those employers with workers from the union’s membership roster. The duration of these jobs varies widely, from 1 or 2 days to more or less permanent employment, resulting in many workers facing a continual struggle to receive a steady paycheck, and a continuous jockeying among members for jobs.

In addition to the seasonal nature of construction work, there is the additional but related fact that workers in the construction industry often work for a number of employers during a year and not just one employer. Construction workers go from periods of employment with one employer to periods of unemployment and then periods of employment with, possibly, a different employer.

There is, however, a major difference between this function as performed by construction unions and temporary agencies. Construction unions try to smooth out the distribution of work so as to make the system fairer as a whole for the construction workers in the union. Page 89:

There is little doubt that the hiring list benefits job seekers by reducing the influence of
favoritism, connections, and other influences that privilege some workers over others, and by spreading the risk of joblessness more or less equally among those on its roles.

Like most features of worker organizations in a capitalist society, though, the hiring-hall list is a double-edged sword. Being on the list is an expression of being unemployed, and in particular being at the bottom of the list expresses the likelihood of being unemployed for a longer period of time than many workers can afford. Page 89:

At the same time, the list represents a potent symbol of this alienation for these workers, in
that it provides a constant reminder of the temporary nature of their employment, and of the ephemeral quality of relationships on the job site.More centrally, the list represents for members the limits of union solidarity, the loss of a common stake in work and job security, and, ultimately, the alienation of laborers from the work they produce and the relationships that develop through that work.

A hiring-hall list does indeed maintain a relationship between workers and the union even when there is no specific employment relationship–but because the union functions in part as a temporary work agency, it also functions in part as an oppressive mechanism. A union that overcomes one of the limitations of collective bargaining–being connected to the union only by being connected to an employer (or set of employers in the case of more centralized bargaining)–often involves contradictions in other areas (such as the oppressive function of a temporary hiring agent).

Therefore, even when unions expand their functions to those beyond collective bargaining and collective agreements, they become involved in further contradictions that they cannot resolve. They are limited institutions for the self-organization of the working class. These limitations should be admitted and addressed.

Nevertheless, the issue of the unemployed not being organized by unions is certainly important. Employed and unemployed workers form, in general, part of one and the same working class.

Employed workers are united (temporally, during the working day) with the means of their work (buildings, machines, tables, floors, raw material, computers, and so forth). After work, they too , like their unemployed counterparts, become separated not only physically but also socially from those means (they do not own and control them).

The unemployed are separated physically and socially from all means of production for a shorter or longer period of time. Of course, some who work for employers may become unemployed, and some who are unemployed may become employed again. There is a often a change of who is employed and who is unemployed, due in great part to the changing needs of employers and, to some extent, the changing needs of workers (workers are not tied to a specific employer but can quit and try to find another employer to hire them).

Both groups of workers form part of the working class as class. As members of a class, those who work for a particular employer also are working for the class of employers.  No particular worker can work at any particular activity for any length of time without other workers producing both the means of production (machines, computers, phones, raw material, pens, pencils, tables and so forth) with which the worker works. In other words, there is a division of labour, where other workers are working for other employers in a system of interdependence. (Such interdependence has recently been experienced by some workers because of the coronavirus epidemic–as some workers stopped working, so too did others since they depended on other workers for the resources or means of production required to produce in their particular sphere). Or, as Thomas Hodgskin (1825), in his Labour Defended Against the Claims of Capital, remarked (page 45):

If we push our inquiries still further, all that we can learn is, that there are other men in existence who are preparing those things we need, while we are preparing those which they need.

The source of the active army of labour, at least in Canada, is the continued births of children within Canadian borders, on the one hand, and immigrants on the other.

The workers themselves, or the active army of workers of the class of employers, however, are subject to various levels of precariousness, some more and some less since changes in technology, rates of accumulation, taxes, state expenditures and its composition, intensity of work and so forth  can change employment levels. The precise composition of the active army of workers can of course also vary according to kinds and degrees of racism, sexism and so forth prevalent in and outside work.

In the world, there are “around 1.65 billion in the active labor army” (R. Jamil Jonna and John Bellamy Foster (April, 2016), “Marx’s Theory of Working-Class Precariousness – And Its Relevance Today,” in Monthly Review, page 38). 

The active army of labour is always subject to more or less unstable working conditions since the workers do not control the machines, buildings, resources, raw materials and so forth that they use, but are rather subject to the immediate control of particular managers and employers and, ultimately, to the control of the pressures of the world market.

The same could be said of the unemployed: they too are subject to varying levels of precariousness and subject to varying connections to particular employers and to the class of employers in general.

There are, in general, four kinds of groups that constitute the unemployed or the reserve army of labour: floating, latent, stagnant and pauperized. From R. Jamil Jonna and John Bellamy Foster, page 26:

… the floating population consisted of workers who had a connection – if a precarious one – to the active labor army, with a recent history of employment; they constituted those who would likely be the first to be re-hired in an expansion.

A section of the unemployed that has more precarious roots in the working class is the latent surplus population. From page 26:

The next layer of the reserve army, in Marx’s description, is the latent surplus population. For the most part this refers to the (self-sustaining) segments of the agricultural (or rural) population. This population served as a vast source of potential labor for capitalist industry (hence, “latent”).

In Canada, one of the sources for this form of unemployment is probably overseas in the form of the The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). From the Canadian government’s website:

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) allows Canadian employers to hire foreign nationals to fill temporary labour and skill shortages when qualified Canadian citizens or permanent residents are not available.

In other countries, similarly, the temporary immigrant population also form part of the latent reserve army of labour. Many students can now be considered to form part of the latent reserve army of labour.

In earlier times, women also formed part of the latent part of the reserve army of labour; employers eventually hired women, for example, for weapons factories during the Second World War. (My mother worked in a weapons factory in Toronto during  part of the War.)

The third form of the unemployed or the reserve army of labour is the stagnant group: it is a very precarious section of the reserve army of labour, characterized by very low wages and superexploitation. Some workers in short-term positions, some workers for temporary agencies, day workers, workers in the informal economy and the like constitute this layer of the reserve army of labour, which is subject to very irregular work. Even some substitute teachers may form part of this group since they are effectively shut out of obtaining a permanent position as teachers and often have no hiring rights at all (as is (or was) the case for substitute teachers as members of the Winnipeg Teachers’ Association, or WTA).

Finally, the pauperized layer of the reserve army of labour constitutes the lowest layer of the reserve army of labour, which includes those incapable of working for an employer, those who live from social assistance (and who, occasionally, can be obliged to work if they are to continue to receive social assistance), those who live from petty thefts and the like. Part of those workers in the informal economy (including children) form part of this layer, including those who try to sell small amounts of commodities at an individual level.

The distribution of the active and reserve army of labour (with their various layers) can be seen from the following (page 38):

In 2013, according to International Labour Organization (ILO, 2015b) figures, the global reserve army consisted of some 2.3 billion people, compared to around 1.65 billion in the active labor army, many of whom are precariously unemployed. The number of officially unemployed at that time (corresponding roughly to Marx’s floating population) was 200 million workers. Some 1.5 billion workers were classified as “vulnerably employed” (related to Marx’s stagnant population), made up of workers working “on their own account” (informal workers and rural subsistence workers) and “contributing family workers” (domestic labor). Another 600 million individuals between the prime working ages of 25-54 were classified as economically inactive. This is a heterogeneous category but undoubtedly consists preponderantly of those of prime working age who are a part of the pauperized population.

Unions, indeed, are limited since their focus is mainly on the organized sections of the active army–although we should not forget that unions have, in various ways, fought, indirectly if not directly, for the interests of various layers of the unemployed at specific periods in their history in the form of a national pension system, part of a pension system based on the duration of residence in Canada (Old Age Security), rather than on length of employment and level of contribution, medicare and so forth.

Professor Tuft’s  reference to the need for an organization dedicated to addressing the needs of the unemployed in the face of a possible decrease in the power of organized unions makes some sense–but it made sense even before the pandemic since unions often tooted the mere organization of workers into a union (and the effective enforcement of a collective agreement) as sufficient for ensuring “decent work,” a “fair contract,” “fairness” and the like.

With the emergence of the pandemic and the likely decrease in the working effectiveness of unions to protect the immediate interests of their members, on the one hand, and the increase in the need for stop-gap measures as more workers remain unemployed for a longer period of time, a gap arises that can be filled by former union representatives who also may well lose their jobs. According to Professor Tufts:

Most important, union representatives know the workers that will require a range of labour market adjustment services such as: assessment of the mental and physical health impacts of COVID-19; help with navigating emergency assistance, the CERB, and EI bureaucracies; assistance with resume writing; ensuring licenses and certifications are maintained during unemployment; counsel for workers considering early retirement; and guidance for workers considering re-training options. If the pandemic reoccurs in waves, as some have predicted, workers will shift in and out of employment and require training in COVID-19 health and safety measures. Who is going to do this work?

The federal government has allocated $350-million to help keep afloat the not-for-profit agencies providing needed services. These funds should be expanded and target labour organizations to deliver labour market adjustment services to unemployed workers. Economically, it makes sense as union communications infrastructure and staff can be efficiently deployed to assist workers. The social benefit of providing successful labour market adjustment and support is self-evident as it reduces hardship and the period of unemployment.

This solution seems to be reasonable  in the face of the likely increased instability of both the active army of workers and the reserve army of labour in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, on the one hand, and the likely decreased power of unions on the other. This situation will, of course, vary between sectors of the economy and over time; in other words, some groups of the active working class will be more subject to increased precariousness as will some groups of the reserve army when compared to their situation before the pandemic and when compared to other groups of workers in the active army or in the reserve army.

Professor Tuft’s solution is to call for Workers’ Resource Centres  to address the problem of the unemployed. Such centres would link active workers with unemployed workers and the community:

Politically and practically, resource centres make sense. ‘Actually existing’ unions have been in decline for decades. Serving all working people and entire communities rather than just employed members is fundamental to making unions relevant during the crisis. It also gives union staff work to do during a slow recovery that might preserve some institutional integrity that will be needed to fight inevitable workplace restructuring and austerity. As sectors recover, unions will be crucial in advocating for sufficient staffing levels and new COVID-19 related health and safety protocols.

This solution is certainly worthy of consideration–but of course it is hardly sufficient. The present-day workers’ action centres are entirely reformist and aim to address the immediate needs of workers without taking into consideration their long-term needs.

Professor Tuft then shifts to wishful thinking: such resource centres might serve as transitional organizations for a “green economy”:

A workers’ resource centre approach is admittedly full of contradictions and compromises. But we need realistic options for presently insufficient unions to survive in the short-term and meet workers material needs. Indeed, such efforts should be seen as part of building capacities for more transformative demands and actions. This may very well include expanding resource centre mandates in the future to administrate ‘just-transition’ supports for workers as economies adapt to green production. COVID-19 is a potentially transformative event for organized labour, but a sober analysis of what is possible to meet the needs of unemployed workers at this moment is required alongside aspirational calls.

He pays lip service to the “contradictions and compromises” that such workers’ resource centres would experience since funding for such centres would likely come from government coffers by way of funding community organizations and other non-governmental organizations:

It would not cost the government a great deal as these services will, in any case, need to be delivered by community organizations.

Professor Tuft implies that such organizations could somehow be self-organizations of the working class. What is more likely is that they will become at best reformist organizations like their trade union counterparts or, worse, even more restricted in their functions because of their dependence on the government for their continued functioning. Such a situation is hardly an expression of self-organization. Professor Tufts, like his social-reformist comrades, fails to address the limitations that workers’ resource centres would likely face that would prevent them from being institutions of self-organization. Professor Tufts, then, like his social-democratic or social reformist comrades, fails to address the limitations of such institutions.

Furthermore, the idea that such centres could be the stepping stone to “green production” is wishful thinking since a really green economy could only arise through the abolition of a society characterized by the class power of employers and the infinite increase of money–at the expense of human beings and this planet (see  The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One).

Professor Tuft’s proposal for workers’ resource centres, from his point of view, then, undoubtedly express a “realistic option” for the self-organization of workers.

From my point of view, by contrast, his proposal will foster illusions of the self-organization of the working class while, in reality, perpetuating the exploitation and oppression of the working class by employers. His proposal is only realistic for social reformers and not for workers who reject the legitimacy of working for any employer.

It is necessary to link the interests of the unemployed and the employed by creating a common goal of controlling their life process through controlling the conditions of that life process–which is currently owned and controlled by the class of employers and protected by a government responsive to the need to reproduce itself in and through the protection of such forms of property and control. That common goal cannot arise without critiquing workers’ organizations that may have some independence from the class of employers locally or at the micro level but that operate at the macro level to confine the class struggle to limits set by the structural economic, political and social conditions characteristic of a society dominated by a class of employers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Gindin also asserts the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Contradictions of Unions: Reformist and Radical Assessments

Steven Tufts, in an article first published on Wednesday, September 11, 2019, on The Star website, and republished on the Socialist Project website on September 25 (Pension Plans Should Not Invest in Companies That Harm Working People), tries to show that, despite unions consciously disassociating themselves from investments that harm workers, their own pension fund managers may pursue policies that contradict such conscious disassociation.

(As an aside, Professor Tufts is a representative of the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC).

He writes:

For example, Caesar’s Entertainment partnered with Oxford Properties, the real-estate investment arm of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS). Community groups lead by No Casino Toronto did successfully mobilize against these proposals, which divided council at the time. Members of CUPE Local 79 also deputed against the proposals as front-line city workers would have had to deal with the negative social and economic impacts of gambling.

At the same time, fund managers at OMERS, the pension fund of Local 79 members, deputed on the economic virtues of casino development. Here we see the contradictions of pension fund investments that negatively impact the very workers making contributions.

However, Professor Tufts does not question how unions can escape this situation. Pension funds generally have to invest money in some capitalist companies, and those companies are expected to obtain a profit. If this is the case, then there is a typical social-reformist strategy of opposing particular kinds of investments or particular kinds of employers while implicitly accepting the need for capitalist investments in general or the need for a set of employers.

In other words, does not any investment “harm workers?” Professor Tuft remains silent on how workers can escape this contradiction. Of course, there are degrees of harm of workers by employers, with some employers definitely treating workers worse than other employers. However, do not all employers harm workers by necessarily treating them as things to be used to obtain more money (private sector) or by excluding them from the right to determine the purpose of their work (public sector)? (See The Money Circuit of Capital).

Professor Tuft further states:

All workers deserve pensions, but pension funds for some built on tax cuts and privatization schemes are neither just nor sustainable over the long term. Unions continue to shield themselves against efforts to politicize pension investments, but this has a cost.

This criticism aims at the neoliberal model of “tax cuts and privatization schemes.” What if the pension schemes did not rely on such tax cuts and privatization schemes? What happens if they relied on merely–exploiting other workers in a non-neoliberal way (as they did before the emergence of neoliberalism)? Would that eliminate the contradiction between workers’ interests as workers and their interests as future retirees? I fail to see how it would.

Indeed, Professor Tuft states:

It is time for union leaders to confront pension plans that seek to transform our cities in ways that harm working people.

Surely, all pension plans, whether private or public, are riveted with the basic contradiction of being funded by workers while being used to exploit and oppress other workers. This contradiction cannot be abolished without abolishing the situation where a class of employers exploits and oppresses a class of workers called employees.

If this basic contradiction is acknowledged, then variations in levels of harm to working people can then be assessed. However, as it stands, Professor Tufts’ article implies that there can be “pension plans that seek to transform our cities in ways that” do not harm working people. Such a view is typical of reformist policies that fail to address the harm necessarily caused to workers because of the existence of a class of employers and the accompanying economic and political structure.

By not acknowledging the general harm that all employers pose for working people, Professor Tuft does not acknowledge the need to create organizations that oppose the class power of employers as such.

Obviously, some employers are better than others. However, the social-democratic left never get around to criticizing employers as such. They remind me of movies and television programs. Often, particular police officers or particular companies are presented as bad–but not the police function as such or employers as such.

Despite Professor Tuft’s evident desire to go beyond the limitations of union principles, he evidently operates within them implicitly since he assumes that workers’ pension plans can somehow magically overcome the contradiction of exploiting and oppressing workers by not following the neoliberal model–as if the capitalist relations of exploitation and oppression did not exist before the emergence of neoliberalism.

Should we not go beyond the limits of neoliberalism and challenge the economic and political power of the class of employers?