A Private Employer’s “Humanism” in Sweden: The Dream of Social Democrats Everywhere

As I pointed out in my critique of Jane McAlevey’s reference to Sweden’s so-called ‘leveling of the playing field for children’s opportunity for success from birth onward,” (see   Review of Jane McAlevey’s “A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy”: Two Steps Backward and One Step Forward, Part Two), social democrats tend to idealize the Scandinavian countries. I began to more directly debunk this social-democratic myth in the post  A Short List of the Largest Swedish Employers by the Number of Employees, Profits and the Profits per Worker ).

Let us look at the behaviour of one private employer in Sweden, which supposedly instituted humanistic methods for helping workers to become more healthy: the private employer Scania, a multinational capitalist manufacturing firm (from page 140, Christian Maravelias, Torkild Thanem, Mikael Holmqvist. “March Meets Marx: The Politics of Exploitation and Exploration in the Management of Life and Labour”. Published online: 2012; pages 129-159):

Scania is an internationally leading manufacturer of heavy trucks, buses and coaches, and industrial and marine engines. It operates in some 100 countries with approximately 34,000 employees [in another source, it says 45,235].. Scania was founded in the late nineteenth century and has built and delivered more than 1,500,000 trucks, buses and engines.

Scania is well known both for its products and for its stable and long-term strategic focus. It has grown organically, primarily through internal financing, and it has remained in the same product category for more than 80 years. This conservatism has been successful, yielding annual profits for more than seven consecutive decades and helped avoid regular lay-offs since the 1940s. Today Scania is regarded a stable and attractive employer known for combining continuous improvement in production with safe and professionally stimulating working conditions.

Workers in Scania were subject to a scientific management system, with a top-down management style. As a consequence, (page 145):

the previous system was associated with high levels of personnel turnover (30%) and illness absenteeism (25%),

To deal with this problem, the union pressured for the development of a lean production model in the style of Toyota (pages 145-146):

the union was able to exercise considerable bargaining power, almost forcing the firm to accept a version of lean production that was aligned with principles of health and well-being.

However, Scanian management turned the situation to its advantage by coopting the process of a move towards  so-called health and wellness:

Like many lean production initiatives, Scania’s turn to this kind of system in the 1990s implied an emphasis on self-managing teams, continuous improvement and individual responsibility (see, e.g. Adler, 1993; Adler, Goldoftas, & Levine, 1999; Delbridge, 1995; Delbridge, Turnbull, & Wilkinson, 1992). Despite an emerging concern with well-being, the most apparent aspect of this related to the objective dimension of exploiting labour. As new tasks and responsibilities were added to all factory jobs, Scania was able to extract more value from the salary they paid workers. Making workers take individual responsibility for constantly improving the production process intensified work, as it meant that they had to do more for the same salary: in addition to take responsibility for executing predefined tasks, workers in self-managing teams were expected to set goals and find ways of reaching these goals.

This meant that each team member had dual roles: both as an operator and as a reflective practitioner. As operators, team members carried out more or less pre-defined tasks according to standard operating procedures. As reflective practitioners, they stepped out of these same processes and observed them from a distance to identify opportunities for improvement.

As reported through previous studies of lean production (e.g. Delbridge, 1995; Delbridge et al., 1992; Parker & Slaughter, 1990), the enhanced exploitation of labour and consequent work intensification was deeply related to speed, posing production speed in a tight relationship to production error.

The shift from strictly hierarchical managerial structures to more horizontal managerial structures (with, of course, the hierarchical managerial structure still prevailing “in the last instance”) led to the employer engaging in the exploration of new organizational structures to exploit its working force, a feature characteristic of capitalist firms as they are subject to the dual constraint of the need to exploit their working force while being subject to competitive rivalry from other capitalists (page 132):

The basic problem facing firms subject to increasing competitive pressures is to balance exploitation, which is incremental and may facilitate short-term competitiveness, with exploration, which is radical and might enable long-term competitiveness. The reason for this balancing act is that exploitative pursuits tend to undermine explorative pursuits.

This exploration of new ways of exploiting labour led to a focus on managing the health of workers (page 140):

To deal with problems of high costs and accident levels as well as high levels of production error, illness absenteeism and employee turnover, Scania decided to implement a lean production system inspired by the justin- time and total quality management principles of Toyotaism. This was later combined with investments in health promotion, and it is the emphasis on health in particular which makes this case distinct from previous studies of lean production.

The exploration of control over the health of the workers led, on the one hand, to attempts to control their subjectivity (their “mind set” or their “attitude”) (page 142):

Having the right job skills was only seen to constitute one part of this. Perhaps more reminiscent of previous research on service work (e.g. Callaghan & Thompson, 2002), high performance was just as much about having the right mind-set, that is having the motivation to be an active, committed and ambitious employee. It was acknowledged by managers and workers that this was not an easy task, because a partly new type of employee was required for the lean production system to work properly. Since working the production line was hard work, workers needed to be in
good shape. But since this also involved efforts to enhance output and quality, it required a particular person who was motivated and committed to change and improvement.

On the other hand, the attempt to control the subjectivity of the worker also led to attempts to control life after work through what programs that seemed to benefit workers (pages 142-143):

This approach blurred the boundaries between work and life. In the words of one team leader, ‘being active and motivated is not a capacity you can switch on and off, [y] it comes down to who you are and how you live your life’. Hence, workers were expected to go far in adapting to the system. But if Scania was to live up to its goal of being a ‘responsible and caring employer’ as well as a lean firm, this obliged them to make far-reaching adaptations, which go beyond what has been reported in previous studies (e.g. Adler, 1993; Adler et al., 1999; Delbridge, 1995; Delbridge et al., 1992). The mutual responsibilities of employees and employer were expressed through two company programmes known as the Employeeship and the 24 Hour Employee. These programmes were also pinnacles in the firm’s integration of lean production and health promotion, involving anything from safe machinery to helping employees lose weight.

These programs were not just window dressing; workers were conceived as resources in a similar fashion to the machines and buildings that Scania owned; workers were expected to take care of themselves outside work and inside work in order to increase the productivity of the company, and if they did not productivity would suffer (page 143):

Scania’s objective exploration of labour, which was aimed to enhance productivity, improve quality and increase profits, required them to re-socialise workers by subjectively exploring their lives, bodies and personalities and what potential they offered in terms of being exploited as labour. This was expressed in rather explicit expectations and norms concerning employee lifestyle. To be physically, mentally and technologically equipped to handle their work, one nurse emphasised that workers were expected to keep themselves in a ‘healthy workable condition’ and
show competence in ‘health-related things such as physical fitness [and] mental strength’.

Although there was no formal right for Scania to control the workers’ lives outside work, on a practical level the two programs did lead to pressure to conform to the requirements of Scania to exploit the workers (page 144):

Of course, Scania had no formal right to interfere with what workers did in their spare time, but when a worker’s private life started to impact
negatively on their work, the firm was able to intervene in the opposite
direction, subordinating life to labour. As argued by one line manager:

If one of my employees doesn’t get enough sleep because he plays poker all night, it is his own business – as long as it doesn’t affect his ability to work. But if it  does  […] – and most likely it will – it is not just his business but my business as  well.

Workers were somewhat ambivalent about how they experienced this. In the words of an IT specialist:

a couple of years ago I went through a divorce. I started drinking a little bit too            much and somehow my boss found out about this. At first, he didn’t say  anything,  but after some time he did, and he also explained that he had spoken to a counsellor at the Health Office who he wanted me to contact. I did, and the therapy helped. But it was somewhat creepy to see how my family problems  were turned into a work problem.

This worker’s life, then, was subjectively re-socialised and explored to fit the new organisation of production which Scania was objectively exploring in the interest of more intensely exploiting labour.

The far-reaching nature of the employer–employee contract, their shared responsibilities and the blurring of the objective exploration of labour contra the subjective exploration of life was further reflected in the 24 Hour Employee programme. More specifically, this involved a mutual sense of caring, where the programme aimed to show how much the firm cares for its employees, on and off the job, by helping them live healthier. However, this programme also emphasised how workers were expected to take care of themselves during and after working hours. Workers did not necessarily view this contract as consensual, and some workers called it ‘a give-and-take thing’. While Scania promised a safe work environment and helped workers take care of themselves, the firm was seen to expect ‘an awful lot’ in return – that workers ‘live in accordance with its standards’.

Lean production did result in some workers feeling stressed out, but rather than attributing the problem to lean production itself (and the nature of the capitalist firm as capitalist firm), the problem is identified as an individual problem (a similar approach is the current psychological fad called “mindfulness”–a variant of the ancient Stoical philosophy of disregarding the real objective social constraints on our lives); used by management, this led to manipulation (pages 148-149): 

Through a therapeutic and reflective approach, the Health School sought to help workers gain better self-knowledge, set limits and prioritise. Again, this was anchored in an emphasis on individual responsibility, where participants had to accept responsibility for their own life and work. This was important since many participants initially tended to associate stress with outside factors, such as their job being too demanding or managers expecting too much. Hence, the therapeutic process was embedded in a somewhat contested terrain where therapists and participants tried to allocate responsibility and blame in opposite directions. Although therapists sometimes relaxed the responsibilities and performance targets for individual workers in the short term, there was never any doubt that participants were required to adapt to the system should they continue to work for the firm. Indeed, therapy made most participants accept individual responsibility for adapting to the system, who thereby ended up subjectively participating in their own exploitation (cp. e.g. Burawoy, 1979; Delbridge, 1995; Thompson, 1989).

The first step in the therapeutic process was to establish a trustful atmosphere where participants were ready to accept and commit to ‘the fact’ that they have a problem with stress. The second step involved mapping out the daily routines of individual participants and their colleagues. Participants were then taught how to become more aware and reflective about their own behaviour and attitudes, and taught to think in more strategic terms about all parts of their lives. While the integration of lean production and health promotion blurred the work–life boundary, this particular task encouraged participants to make distinctions between work, self and private life, and to define goals for all three areas. According to one health coach, this mindset was pursued in the spirit of helping participants gain control over their lives and ‘feel that their lives were the result of their own conscious and informed choices’ rather than forces beyond their control.

Failing to cope, then, was seen as an outcome of limited self-management skills. Incidentally, life became just a bit more like work. Although this might be seen as an example of skill expansion, we would argue that this chimes less with Adler’s (2007) upgrading thesis than with Thompson’s (2007) argument that multi-skilling does not necessarily lead to up-skilling. Here, the subjective exploration of life did not unequivocally make work more varied, diverse and interesting; it also involved a division, simplification and management of life to make it more appropriate for work.

It should be evident now that working for Scania is a double-edged sword since workers’ health, which involves the whole life of workers and not just the working part of their lives, is used as a means for enhancing the company’s bottom line. Ultimately, Scania follows the same process of subordinating workers’ lives to the pursuit of  more money on an ever increasing scale (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

The idealization of the Scandinavian countries by Ms. McAlevey and other social democrats thus does not stand up to scrutiny. Even on the assumption that children have equal opportunity at birth (as Ms. McAlevey claims–without further evidence), when they grow up many become employees–and as employees, they are used by employers as things for obtaining more and more money.

Working lives may in some ways be better in Sweden but in many ways they also may be worse under the social-democratic approach that co-opts workers’ own subjectivity.

This case also illustrates the importance of ideological struggle since employers have many resources to co-opt workers into their own schemes. Organizational struggle in itself is insufficient; it is necessary to engage in a simultaneous struggle both organizationally and ideologically.

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions First

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

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

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

Data on Swedish Employers

The Largest Employers in Sweden According to the Number of Employees

 
  Company       Number of employees  
 

1

Securitas AB   302 055 ChangeValue
 

2

H & M Hennes & Mauritz AB   126 376 ChangeValue
 

3

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

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

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

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

The Largest Employers in Sweden According to the Amount of Profit

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

1

Investor AB   102 650 000 $14.664286ChangeValue
 

2

Volvo, AB   46 832 000 ChangeValue$6.6690286
 

3

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

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

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

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

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

1

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

2

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

3

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

89,000

ChangeValue

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

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

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

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

Objections to the limited nature of the data are valid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She writes the following in her book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 1 discusses three such examples of women winning big.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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