The Radical Left Needs to Call into Question Existing Social Institutions at Every Opportunity, Part One

Before I obtained a so-called permanent teaching position (I will explain in a much later post why I use the word “so-called”), I worked for a number of years as a substitute teacher (with short periods of term teaching positions). I became an executive member of the Winnipeg Teachers’ Association (WTA) (in the province of Manitoba, Canada), representing substitute teachers.

The WTA had an education fund for the executive, where each member, if approved by the executive, could access up to $3,000 for educational purposes. A condition for obtaining such funds was a summary of the educational experience and its publication in the WTA newsletter.

I used this situation as an opportunity to criticize the limitations of the educational experience.

Of course, representatives should not limit themselves to such criticism but rather perform their representative function in order to enhance the democratic nature of the union or association to which they belong. To that end, I and others on the Substitute Teachers’ Committee created a survey for substitute teachers and used the results of such a survey to criticize the policy of the WTA of permitting only permanent teachers the right to apply for permanent positions (substitute teachers paid association dues and consisted of usually 700-900 paying members of around 4000 members, but they did not have the right to apply for permanent positions).

Below is a copy of the draft (written in 2007) as well as the critical summary of my educational experience.

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To the Negotiations Committee

As members of the same organization, all should be treated in the same way unless there are sufficient differential grounds for distinguishing the members and for thus treating them on a differential basis. However, that does not mean that substitute teachers should necessarily all have the same rights as permanent contract teachers.

A basic principle of political philosophy is that all should be treated the same unless there are differential conditions for treating some differently from others. There are differential conditions, at least in the case of substitute teachers who are relatively new. Would it be fair, for instance, that permanent contract teachers, who by definition generally expect to work for the same employer for years, be reduced to the same rights as a beginning substitute teacher? Attachment to a particular employer for an increasing length of time forms the basis for privileging permanent teachers over substitute teachers, just as the principle of seniority does in unions.

However, as substitute teachers are engaged in employment with the same employer for an increasing length of time, the grounds for differential treatment become less and less valid.

Of course, the reported statistics from the survey of substitute teachers do indicate that there is a substantial percentage of substitute teachers who have been employed by the Division for a number of years. Their exclusion from any consideration of whether they can apply for positions is less valid than the exclusion of shorter term substitute teachers. Of course, the exact cut off line is not easy to define, but the issue is first of all whether all substitute teachers should be banned from applying for positions. Perhaps there are counterarguments which justify such exclusion, and I would like to hear such arguments. Lacking such counterarguments, substitute teachers with a certain period of employment with the Division should have the right to apply for positions as they arise, just like permanent contract teachers.

Addressing now the issue of those with a shorter period of employment with the Division, the Division may agree to allow them to apply for positions once the third round of blue sheets have been distributed.

In other words, there would be two sets of substitute teachers, those with sufficient length of service to be able to apply for positions immediately, and those with less service, who would be able to apply for positions on the third round of job postings.

Although this two-tier system of selection may be preferable, it may not be possible during the 2009 round of bargaining; a collective agreement involves two parties, and it may be impossible to negotiate the “best” scenario in any particular year of bargaining. Consequently, there are two alternative proposals: a “bottom-line one,” and a preferred (but perhaps unrealistic) one at this stage. The important point is to have substitute teachers’ concern about the right to apply for job postings addressed.

Proposed “bottom-line clause”: All substitute teachers shall have the right to apply for job postings during the third round of postings of the blue sheets.”

An alternative would be as follows: Substitute teachers who have substituted for the Division for at least ten (10) years shall have the right to apply for job postings. Substitute teachers with less than 10 years of substitute teaching shall have the right to apply for job postings during the third round of postings of the blue sheet.”

Of course, the exact wording is irrelevant at this stage. It is the concept that matters.

Fred, chair, Substitute Teachers’ Committee

The critical summary of my educational experience (

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The Double-Bind of Teachers as Employees

On September 21 [2007], I attended a seminar on Employment Law Essentials. It covered various topics, including the difference between an employee and an independent contractor, pre-employment inquiries, employment standards and workplace harassment policies.

There were two areas of most relevance to teachers: a discussion of the nature of an employee and the issue of the age at which people can become employees.

Let us start with the last issue first. The age at which people can become employees is relevant for teachers since the age at which students can become employees then arises. Generally, it is very difficult for students under the age of 12 to become employees. On the other hand, it is less difficult for students between the ages of 12 and 16 to obtain a permit. Four people must be in agreement if those between 12 and 16 are to become employees: the student, the parent, the principal and the employer. Since being an employee may affect school work, teachers who are concerned about some of their students working as employees may consult with the principal since the latter needs to agree to such employment.

Addressing now the first issue—the nature of an employee—there are four criteria for determining whether a person is an employee or has her or his own business (is an independent contractor): lack of control over the work performed (how, when and where the work is to be performed), the ownership of tools, possibility of loss or gain and the extent to which the person is integrated into the employer’s operations. The criterion of loss or gain is inapplicable to the situation of teachers. The criterion of integration is only used in borderline cases. Hence, the question of the status of teachers is reduced to the two criteria of control and ownership of tools.

In the seminar, we briefly discussed whether teachers are employees. Although teachers may control the order in which the curriculum is presented, it is the Division, generally, which determines standards of performance for teachers. Another aspect of control is whether the employer determines where and when work is done. Teachers work for the Division and not for specific schools. The collective agreement may modify the power of the employer, but it does not fundamentally alter the situation—as teachers in low-enrollment schools may discover when they are transferred to other schools. In terms of control, teachers are employees.

The other criterion for determining who is an employee is the ownership of tools. In the case of teachers, although the latter may personally purchase items for use in the classroom, it is the Division which owns the buildings, the things in the building and so forth. The fact that the Division may represent the vague public because of the payment of taxes does not change the situation.

Since the situation of teachers satisfies the two major criteria for determining whether teachers are employees, it can indeed be concluded that they are employees.

The collective agreement does not change the status of teachers as employees; it modified the conditions of employment—certainly an important characteristic—but it does not fundamentally alter the employer-employee relationships as such. For example, employment standards are such that judges will take into account length of service to an employer when considering notice required, but the judge will not take it into consideration when the issue of dismissal arises. Arbitrators of collective agreements, on the other hand, do take into account length of service when considering the issue of dismissal.

The issue of control is full of interesting sub-issues. One of the issues that were brought up was whether employees who are under the control of employers are extensions of the will of the employer. They are. This situation, however, has major social implications. If employees are extensions of the will of the employer, then employees are means to the ends specified by the employer.

Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, argued that it is a categorical ethical imperative to treat all human beings as ends in themselves. If we apply the philosophical principle of the unity of the ends in the means and the means in the ends, then to treat human beings as ends in themselves is to have them participate in the process of defining their own ends. They need to be able to contribute to the formation of the ends toward which their activity tends: living democracy rather than formal democracy.

Being an employee, however, which involves being an extension of the will of the employer, clashes with the principle of treating human beings as a unity of both means and ends in the same process. Human life is split, with teachers being extensions of the will of the Division. Their personhood is suspended to the extent that they cannot formulate the ends of their own activity in conjunction with the activity of other teachers.

This clash applies to other employees in other domains, such as waiters and waitresses, bus drivers, factory workers, office workers and so forth. In the specific case of teachers, though, there is an added contradiction. Teachers are supposed to treat students as ends in themselves: the formation of character. To do so, they need to have students learn to unify the ends in the means and the means in the ends. If, however, part of their function is to prepare students for their status as employees, then their educative function clashes with their function within the school system. This is the double bind of teachers: being an employee, on the one hand, and being an educator within an economy dominated by the employer-employee relation on the other.

Are teachers in a double bind? What do other teachers believe?

Fred Harris, executive member

Management Rights, Part Seven: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Quebec

It is fascinating how the social-democratic or reformist left, with their talk of “good contracts,” “decent work,” a “fair deal,” and “economic justice” and so forth do not feel that they have the need to justify themselves. They assume what they must prove to workers–that a collective agreement expresses “good contracts,” and so forth.

Do you think that collective agreements as a whole, which concentrates decision-making power in a minority called management, express good contracts? Fairness? Decent work? A fair deal? Economic justice?

What do you think of the following?


Agreement concluded
the Management Negotiating Committee for English-language School Boards (CPNCA)
the Centrale des syndicats du Québec on behalf of the professionals’ unions represented by its bargaining agent, the Fédération des professionnelles et professionnels de l’éducation du Québec (CSQ)

page 12:

The union recognizes the board’s right to direct, administer and manage, subject to the provisions of this agreement.

Of course, it may be the best contract under the power relations that currently exist–but that is not the same thing as claiming that it is a “good contract.” Ideologues for unions may counter that it is implied that the power relations are unfair. But if so, why is it that the union bureaucracy does not bring it out explicitly? Are they afraid that some workers might start organizing to overthrow (abolish) those conditions?

Where and where is there discussion and debate over such issues? Certainly not in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Trying to bring such issues out into the open results in insults (I was called a condescending prick by one union representative; a Facebook friend called me “delusional” when I tried to link the issue of the power of employers to the issue of the state of Ohio prohibiting girls who were raped from having abortions).

Should we not be discussing the issue of why management rights exist? Should we not be discussing what the implications of such rights have on our working and daily lives? Should we not be discussing what we should be do about the problem of a minority dictating to a majority?

The West-Virginia Teachers’ Strike and a Socialist Movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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