Fair Contracts, Decent Work and Other Social-democratic or Social-reformist Clichés: The Case of the Amazon Labour Union

Introduction

The relatively recent organizing of Amazon workers into the Amazon Labour Union (ALU) is presented by the social-democratic or reformist left as an astounding success. Certainly, the organization of Amazon workers into a formal union is noteworthy because of, on the one hand, the increasing importance of such “gig” workers in a society dominated by a class of employers and, on the other, the explicit anti-union tactics of such employers as Amazon.

It can also be said that workers can learn an important lesson when faced with the difficulty of organizing in the face of an explicit anti-union employer: the actual organizing of workers in a workplace by the same workers in that workplace constitutes an inside advantage when compared to organizing from the outside by professional union organizers. As Jordan House and Paul Gray note (from https://socialistproject.ca/2022/04/amazon-workers-form-a-union/):

One of the reasons why Amazon workers in Staten Island were so successful is because they formed an independent, grassroots organization to unionize their particular workplace. Other efforts have been led by already established unions, like the RWDSU in Bessemer, Ala., or the Teamsters in Nisku, Alta.

Union organizing is ultimately about relationships and trust. Organizers from within a workplace don’t have to develop relationships from scratch the same way organizers from outside an organization do. ALU organizers emphasized that they “didn’t come from somewhere else to organize JFK8; we literally work there.”

This stands in stark contrast to the campaigns in Alabama and Alberta. In the latter case, the secretary treasurer of the Teamsters Local 362 acknowledged that “we didn’t have anybody on the inside” in the Nisku facility.

Independent, grassroots unions are able to avoid some of the baggage of more established unions. While the ALU faced specific criticisms by Amazon and its union-avoidance consultants, these largely revolved around the ALU’s upstart status. As Amazon’s anti-ALU website states, “the ALU has no track record that you can use to judge whether their representation would be worth it to you or not.”

The ALU also developed tactics that are much more effective when workers on the inside are organizing. For example, ALU worker-organizers researched Amazon’s union-avoidance consultants by scouring Labor Department reports and warehouse lists of third-party vendors. Then, in one-on-one conversations with their co-workers, they shared their research on how these consultants, whose typical rate is $3,200 (US) per day, “get rich ‘convincing poor people to stay poor’.”

The stark contrast between what Amazon was willing to pay these consultants and worker salaries persuaded many to support the ALU. These workers also organized their co-workers to fearlessly challenge anti-union talking points at the captive audience meetings, which inspired other, more cautious co-workers to do the same.

Despite the odds, the ALU succeeded where some of North America’s largest and established private sector unions have failed. The ALU has proven that one of the most powerful anti-union companies in North America can be unionized. This doesn’t mean that the already established unions can’t beat Amazon, but as the ALU has made clear, inside workers have to take the lead. 

Idealization of Unionizing 

Despite the benefits of insider organizing, the authors do not provide any critical distancing concerning the ideology expressed by both those involved in the union-organizing drive and those who defend such unions uncritically. For example, on the ALU website ( https://www.amazonlaborunion.org/), we read the following: 

How do contract negotiations work?

Negotiations are led by the ALU Bargaining Committee, made up of workers from each shift and department. We need intelligent, strong-minded workers to step forward to help negotiate a fair contract for all workers. We do all of the work, we should have a say in our working conditions. [my emphasis]
Although it is understandable that a new union, which has faced major opposition from an anti-union employer, should emphasize winning a union-organizing drive, this does not justify the use of the ideological cliche of a “fair contract.” This misleads the workers into a false sense of what collective bargaining and collective agreements can and cannot achieve. 

Another example: this time from a liberal/social-democratic point of view. From The Atlantic   https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/04/amazon-labor-union/629550/      

The egalitarian potential of the labor movement, by contrast, is very real. Unions can unite workers across ethnic, racial, religious, and linguistic barriers with a common interest in decent wages, safe working conditions, and protection from exploitation. Unions do not erase political disagreements among workers, but they model a world where those disagreements can be resolved in the name of the greater good. [my emphasis]

It is kind of difficult to achieve “decent wages”  and “protection from exploitation” when exploitation and oppression are necessary characteristics of working for an employer (see for example The Money Circuit of Capital, The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part One  and The Rate of Exploitation of Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part Two, Or: Intensified Oppression and Exploitation).

Better wages are often possible when unionized, of course. Similarly, unionized workplaces provide safer working conditions, but safe working conditions when working for an employers is a will-o’-the-wisp (see the money circuit of capital above as well as such posts as Economics for Social Democrats–but not for the Working Class, Part Four: Is There Such a Thing as a Responsible Employer in Relation to the Health of Workers? or Working for an Employer May Be Dangerous to Your Health, Part Seven: The National Day of Mourning in Canada and the Social Causes of Injury, Disease and Death  or Economics for Social Democrats–but not for the Working Class, Part Three: The Health and Safety of Workers and an Economy Dominated by a Class of Employers Are at Loggerheads). 

In a recent debate on the Marxmail listserve (  https://groups.io/g/marxmail/topic/the_social_democratic_left/96265876?p=,,,20,0,0,0::recentpostdate/sticky,,,20,2,0,96265876,previd%3D1674045053168565529,nextid%3D1673790420258174809&previd=1674045053168565529&nextid=1673790420258174809 )with Marv Gandall, Gandall wrote the following: 

“You’re not suggesting that the Amazon and other fledgling unions try to organize and strike deals with their powerful employers outside of the legally sanctioned industrial relations regime, and that is is only the “reformists” (including on this list!) who are holding them back, are you? That does seem to be the practical implications of your abundant theorizing.”

I responded: 

Hardly. Gandall cannot draw logical conclusions since his premises are faulty.

The Amazon Union should not bullshit workers about the collective-bargaining process and the resulting collective agreement to be fair. It should explicitly try to have open discussions about the limitations of the collective-bargaining process and the limitations of collective agreements. It should try to have discussions about why almost all grievances against the collective agreement arise from the union side. It should foster its members to question why that is the case. It should refer to the management right clauses in many collective agreements and what the implications of that is for the lives of workers.

I must say: Gandall’s response is certainly what I would expect from social democrats—they fail to address whether collective bargaining only limits the power of management while also legitimating it—a double-edged sword (but social democrats only recognize one edge—the positive side of collective agreements) and what, if anything, is to be done about the undemocratic economic coercion and economic blackmail that characterizes the employer-employee relation.

Perhaps Gandall can enlighten us about what he and others would do about management rights? About the continued exploitation and oppression of even unionized workers? About using workers as means for purposes undefined by them? About the dictatorship at workers by employers despite the existence of “free collective bargaining” and collective agreements? And many, many other features of an exploitative and oppressive society—which social democrats deny, of course.

Of course, unionized workers may have other ideas—than union bureaucrats and their ideological representatives.

Conclusion

The need to defend workers’ immediate interests against vicious anti-union employers such as Amazon through rank-and-file organizing certainly should be defended. However, such organizing has fallen into the trap as bureuacratic unions–it has idealized the nature of the contract or collective agreement rather than presenting it as a necessary but temporary truce in the long-term class struggle against the class of employers.

A Lack of Crticial Analysis of the Failure of the Union Movement to Generate a General Strike Against a Conservative Government

John Clarke, a radical here in Toronto, provides a general negative characterization of the union movement that opposed the reactionary effort by the Ontario Conservative government of not only legislating workers back to work even before they went on strike but also trying to use the nonwithstanding clause of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom to prevent any legal challenge to his legislation. However, apart from a very general negative characterization of the union bureaucracy, he does not delve into detail about what the limitations of unions are. For example, he does not refer at all to the connection between union bureaucracy and the idealization of the collective-bargaining process and collective agreements. His criticism remains at too high a level of criticism for it to be useful for workers and members of unions.

His most recent post on Facebook on the topic reads: 

The forms of regulated and state supervised class struggle that emerged after WW2, have played out under changing economic, social and political conditions. Their role has, therefore, also evolved over time.

1. When the deal was brokered and for decades afterwards, it allowed for gains in working class living standards to be conceded, while ensuring greatly limited forms of working class resistance and stability for the capitalist economy. Decisively, a bureaucratic layer formed in the unions that had its own independent interests based on the preservation of the compromise.

2. As the boom years that followed the war ended and profits declined, a neoliberal strategy of intensified exploitation was put into effect. This changed the nature of the regulated class compromise. Previous working class gains were being lost and unions were being weakened, yet their leaderships continued to play by the rules of the compromise deal with only rare and reluctant acts of defiance. The losses were substantial but they played out over decades and were relatively incremental.

3. The present period is one of greatly sharpened attacks on working class living standards. Economic instability is interweaving with ecological disaster and the impacts of global rivalry. These combined effects have generated a global cost of living crisis and the state is resorting to class war measures to regain stability. This means that adherence to the forms of class compromise goes from ensuring a gradual loss of ground by workers and becomes a recipe for catastrophic defeats.

In order to fight back effectively, the strike weapon will have to be used in united mass struggles that press general demands. The Ontario education workers’ struggle pointed to the incredible power that could be unleashed with such an approach. However, the fact that the forward movement was halted as soon as it possibly could be also reveals how much change is necessary, if we are to even mount an effective defence, let alone go on the offensive.
How we are to halt the halting of the forward movement remains a mystery; surely, we need to engage constantly in discussing and criicizing the limits of collective-bargaining, collective agreements and associated union rhetoric around them, such as “fair contracts,” “fair wages,” “decent work,”and “good jobs.” 
 
And what does Clarke mean by “general demands?” Your guess is as good as mine. 

We read the following the day before on Facebook by Clarke (with a posted news article explaing some of the context):

hough a major effort will be underway to present this as a great gain, it is hard to justify such a position. Factually, the wage increases won, though improved, don’t match the present rate of inflation and would mean very small increases in the following years, IF current projections are accurate. Measured up against the present cost of living crisis and the loss in real wages for education workers over a long period, this is clearly inadequate. The OSBCU president also points out herself that no gains were made in terms of services and staffing. The decision to end the strike on Ford’s terms has produced a very meagre settlement and blocked the prospects for a generalized working class fight back that could have taken its lead from the education workers’ struggle.

All this being said, the resistance taken up by these workers threw the Ford Tories into a crisis and struck a chord with working class people. The fact that such a significant number of workers didn’t ratify this, coupled with the obvious disdain coming from OSBCU, has to be taken to heart. A movement based in the rank and file of the unions and in hard pressed communities remains the only viable means of breaking out of the rituals of a failed compromise and fighting the attacks we face on equal terms.

https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/ontario-education-support-workers-vote-to-accept-new-deal-1.6180879?fbclid=IwAR1Nivoht9rlYamGTsj0iLSS1xWFabl51q6WeMxwP6BGz2AJpvhKyNS2r50

The lack of gains made by the movement–except the repeal of the repressive legislation–indicates a major problem with modern unions, but Clarke does not really engage in just how limited modern unions are in their role as representatives of the economic and political interests of workers. Furthermore, Clarke exaggerates the opposition of the rank-and-file members to the resulting collective agreement: 73 percent of .those who voted apparently voted for the collective agreement (the posted news article is somewhat unclear on this. I assume that it was 73 percent of those who voted voted to accept the resulting collective agreement, with 76 percent of elegible voters actually voting). 
 
In addition, Clarke’s reference to “the obvious disdain coming from OSBCU” (the union responsible for bargaining for the 55,000 workers at a general level rather than at a local level) probably refers to Laura Walton’s own dissatisfaction with the resulting collective agreement. Nevertheless, she herself admitted that she voted for it. Morever, does not Laura Walton, president of OBSCU, herself believe in the sanctity of the colective-bargaining process and the resulting collective agreement? 
 
Should not Clarke–and other radicals–be engaging in a more concrete critical analysis of the limitations of unions? What do you think? 
 

The CUPE Education Workers Strike: A Lesson on the Nature of the Public Sector

Introduction

Premier Doug Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause to prevent a union legal challgenge to legislation forcing education workers back to work despite the workers not even going out on strike yet should give the left pause for thought. Is not Ford’s government part of the public sector?

And yet the social-democratic or social reformsist left frequently idealize the public sector (as the good) (see for example  The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Six: The Idealization of the Nation State or the National Government in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Part One  , or  The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Seven: The Idealization of the Nation State or the National Government and Nationalization in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Part Two  or    The Expansion of Public Services Versus a Basic Income, Part Two: How the Social-democratic Left Ignore the Oppressive Nature of Public Services: Part One: Oppressive Educational Services      contrasting it with the bad (the private sector).

Of course, the social-democratic left will deny that what they mean by the public sector includes the likes of Doug Ford. However, he was elected premier of Ontario despite their wishes, and he does form part of the public sector. What the reformist left want is, however, to elect “progressive” leaders and prevent the election of such right-wing leaders as Doug Ford. However, there will always exist the possibility of the emergence of such right-wing leaders as Ford in such a system since the power of employers remains intact. Furthermore, Ford’s power comes from the hierarchical nature of government and not just from the nature of Ford’s politics.

The social-democratic left should be questioning the democratic nature of the public sector and not just Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause. That it does not do so should give one food for thought.

French History and Ford’s Use of the Notwithstaning Clause: A Lesson to be Learned

Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause (and his imposition of a maximum increase of one percent increase in wages in the public sector via Bill 124, legislated in 2019 and quashed just this week by an Ontario court, which Ford will apparently appeal) has parallels with French history in the nineteenth century.

Napoleon had followed up the plebescite with a wave of arrests that left the French branch of
the IW A disoriented and leaderless. The entire twenty-year period of Bonapartist rule, Engels [Marx’s friend] lamented to Marx on August 8, has “produced enormous demoralization. One is hardly justified in reckoning on revolutionary heroism.

Engels in this instance was mistaken; he underestimated the creative capacity and potential of workers. Napoleon III entered into war between 1870 and 1871 with Prussia (a part of the North German Confederation in 1867).  Napoleon lost power to the provisional government, headed by Adolphe Thiers in 1870. Early in 1871 there was a French vote for peace–but not for right-wing reaction of the Thiers provisional government (which installed itself in Versailles, outside Paris due to the radical climate that then prevailed in the capital). .From Richard Hunt (1984), The Political Ideas of Marx and Engels. Volume 2.  Classical Marxism, 1850-1895, page 112:

The overwhelming vote for peace [between Prussia and France]  in February 1871, then, had not
been a simple vote for restoration, a state of affairs which must have been appreciated at Versailles if one notes, as Marx was bound to, the zeal with which the Versaillese hermetically sealed off communication between Paris and the rest of France, immediately passed legislation which strangled self-government in all towns of more than 20,000 inhabitants, adopted a new law restricting freedom of the press, and enacted what Marx characterized as a “new-fangled, Draconic code of deportation” for political offenses. The National Assembly did not behave like a government confident of its own popular support, or one under which democracy would long survive.

Ford’s draconian measure of not only passing legislation that forced the workers back to work (even before they went out on strike) was intensified by a further draconian measure of invoking the notwithstanding clause. Draconian measures, though on a larger scale, were instituted by the provsional government in Versailles in 1871. The executive branch of the modern government will always be a threat to a democratic way of life because of its hierarchical and unelected nature.

When the French army suffered complete defeat in March 1871, first the Parisian National Guard revolted (when Thiers’s government tried to strip Paris of its cannon, then those residing in Paris revolted, setting up a government independent of the provisional government. The Parisian government was called the Paris Commune.

This government elected its administrative body and did not rely on a hierarchy of unelected civil servants or officials. Hunt, page 130:

The ninety-odd councillors who formed the communal assembly- or the “Commune” in the narrow sense Marx employs here-did their administrative work through ten commissions (for finance, public works, justice, etc.) elected from among their own numbers and responsible to the whole assembly, just as each councillor was in turn responsible to to his popular electorate in the ward, by whom he could be recalled at any time. The intent was to make all administrative posts elective and responsible,
which would have the effect, as Marx elaborated in his First Draft, of “doing away with the state hierarchy altogether and replacing the haughteous masters of the people into always removable servants, a mockresponsibility by a real responsibility, as they act continuously under public supervision.”

The potentialities of some situations give rise to the calling into question of hierarchies and power structures that have dampened the creative power of workers. From Kristin Ross (2015), Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune:

In one of his earliest essays, Rancière suggests that the poetry written by workers like Pottier, stealing time in the late night hours their schedules allowed them, was not a means of revindication—neither the form nor the thematic content of the poetry were what mattered. “It is not through its descriptive
content nor its revindications that worker poetry becomes a social oeuvre, but rather through its pure act of existing.”17 The poetry illustrates neither the misery of the worker’s conditions nor the heroism of his struggle—what it says, rather, is aesthetic capacity, the transgression of the division that assigns to some manual work and to others the activity of thinking. It is the proof that one participates in another life. When Marx says that the greatest accomplishment of the Paris Commune was “its own working existence” he is saying much the same thing. More important than any laws the Communards were able to enact was simply the way in which their daily workings inverted entrenched hierarchies and divisions—first and foremost among these the division between manual and artistic or intellectual labor. The world is divided between those who can and those who cannot afford the luxury of playing with words or images. When that division is overcome, as it was under the Commune, or as it is conveyed in the phrase “communal luxury,” what matters more than any images conveyed, laws passed, or institutions founded are the capacities set in motion. You do not have to start at the beginning—you can start anywhere.

In facing the Ford government, with its unprecedented use of the notwithstanding clause to impose directly the class power of employers on the workers, workers could, potentially, come to perceive the gross class power of the executive of the modern government or state and to understand that it could not be used to express their own class interests:

The new sentence Marx felt obliged to add to the new preface to the Communist Manifesto he wrote in 1872—”the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for their own purpose”—indicates clearly the distance that the Commune made him take toward his earlier thoughts about state centralization.25 What he now understood was that under the Second Empire, the state’s formal independence from civil society, its growth as “a parasitic excrescence” grafted onto civil society, was itself the form through which the bourgeoisie ruled.26 Attacking the separation between the state and civil society was not one of communism’s remote objectives but was instead the
practical means for its attainment, the very medium for class struggle. The form of the Commune, in turn, was less a form than a set of dismantling acts, the critique-in-act of the bureaucratic state, a critique that, in Marx’s words, amounted to the state’s abolishment. The Communards had not decreed or proclaimed the abolishment of the state. Rather, they had set about, step by step, dismantling, in the short time they had, all of its bureaucratic underpinnings. An acting, not a parliamentary body, the Commune was both executive and legislative at once. The army was eliminated; all foreigners were admitted into the Commune; state functionaries were eliminated (certain of their tasks still existed, but they were performed by anyone—at a worker’s salary, and subject to immediate recall); priests were sent off to “the recesses of private life.”

The Social-Democratic Left’s Silence About Executive Power

The social-democratic or reformist do not even mention the issue of the undemocratic nature of the exeuctive power. Their focus is on Ford–as if Ford’s use of the notwithstanding clause were not an expression of a deeper-lying problem of the undemocratic and hierarchical nature of the public sector. Of course, it was indeed necessary to criticize Ford’s undemocratic move, but there is no hint that the very structure of the executive power of government is undemocratic. The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), which supported a wildcat support strike of its own section of education workers in favour of the striking education workers, made the following press release  (https://www.baytoday.ca/local-news/opseu-workers-to-join-friday-strike-in-support-of-cupe-6049790):

“Bill 28, which is a legislative attack on workers’ constitutional right to fair and free collective bargaining, was introduced on October 31 after CUPE gave its five days’ notice for job action, with the possible start of a strike on Friday, November 4.,” says an OPSEU news release. “Bill 28 preemptively prohibits these workers’ right to strike, imposes massive fines, imposes four-year long collective agreements, and invokes the notwithstanding clause to preclude any legal action against Ford’s unconstitutional and undemocratic attempt at strong-arming.

The issue of the undemocratic nature of the executive branch of the government is not questioned, though. In other words, OPSEU presents Ford’s actions as undemocratic–but not the general nature of the executive branch of modern government, with its hierarchy of power and appointed positions–much like the dictatorial hierarchy that exists in employer-dominated workplaces (see Employers as Dictators, Part One).

Rosa Luxemburg, a Polish Marxist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, developed some points that are relevant for the issue in relation to participation in the government (rather than the participation in elections or in parlaiment or congress). From Michael Brie and Jörn Schütrumpf (2021), Rosa Luxemburg
A Revolutionary Marxist at the Limits of Marxism, page 88:

In the debate on socialist participation in government, Luxemburg established four decisive theses for her understanding of the state: (1) reforms within capitalism never transform the capitalist character of property relations so fundamentally as to bring forth elements and tendencies of a new order. Socialism cannot be ‘implemented’ as a gradual transformation, but rather must be done so by a state with an entirely socialist character. The seizure of state power by the working class is the actual goal, as this is the only way to overturn the economic order. (2) The bourgeois state is the most significant impediment to a socialist reorganisation of society. It forms the wall that must be battered down for a revolution to be initiated. (3) From the executive of a bourgeois state, only bourgeois politics can be pursued, whereas in the legislative branch, it is possible to attempt to implement social reforms while ‘simultaneously opposing the bourgeois government as a whole – something that is manifested,
among other places, in the rejection of the budget’ (Luxemburg 1979a, 485). (4) Struggling to protect bourgeois democracy and being prepared to undertake revolutionary violence go hand-in-hand.

The social-democratic or social-reformsit left, by contrast, fall all over themselves trying to elect “progressives” to government–and never question the necessarily anti-democratic nature of the exeuctive branch.

Rather, they speak like Herman Rosenfeld, when he speaks of reforming the police:

Shouldn’t that institution [the police] be thoroughly transformed, by political struggle, into a more humane, limited and less autonomous one?

Compare this with what happened during the short period of the Paris Commune: police as a separate unit controlled by a central authority independently of workers, citizens, immigrants and migrant workers was abolished and a new force was created, subject to power from below. From Marx, The Civil War in France, in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 22,  page 331:

The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, of acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time. Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes [my emphasis], and turned into the responsible and at all times revocable agent of the
Commune. So were the officials of all other branches of the Administration. From the members of the Commune downwards, the public service had to be done at workmen’s wages. The vested
interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of State disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves.b Public functions ceased to be the private property of the tools of
the Central Government. Not only municipal administration, but the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the State was laid into the hands of the Commune.

Indeed, if a general strike did in fact arise, the issue of the organization of the police and its anti-democratic nature might have arisen as well. After all, when a general strike arises, the issue of the responsibility for public safety arises. The separation of the police as a separate force to oppress workers, citizens, immigrants and migrant workers then might arise.

Since financing both the wages demanded by the striking workers and the issue of funding of extra staff separated the two sides, the an indication of an altnerative source of revenue by shifting resources from the police to schools could at least have been highlghted.

One of the issues that arose during Covid was the abolition or defunding of the police. This too could have been raised as an issue and another spoke that revolved around the hub of a general strike.

Conclusion

The lack of criticizing of the undemocratic nature of the executive power of modern government by the social-democratic or reformist left should not come as a surprise to radicals. Like much else, the social-democratic or social-reformist left lacks any intention of criticizing its own cherished assumptions–such as the implicit view that we live in a democratic society. There is some democratic aspects, to be sure, such as elections, but they are hardly matched by the dictatorial structures and processes characteristic of both the executive branch of modern government and the power of employers at work.

The idealization of the public sector by the social-democratic or social-reformist left must be criticized at every turn. The public sector is hardly the embodiment of democracy.

The Ontario Federation of Labour’s Workers-First Agenda: A Critique: Part One

Introduction

The so-called radical left here in Toronto rarely engages in any detailed criticism of unions or groups of unions. Quite to the contrary. They either make vague assertions about “the trade-union elite” or the “trade-union bureaucracy” (union bureaucrats or business unions), or they remain silent when faced with the persistent rhetoric that unions. It is hardly in the interests of the working-class to read merely vague criticisms of unions or to not read anything concerning the limitations of unions or groups of unions. 

To enlighten workers concerning such limitations, I have on a number of occasions criticized unions in various ways. The following is a further example of such criticism. It pertains to Ontario Federation of Labour’s “Workers-First Agenda” campaign.

The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL)

What is the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL)? On its website, we read the following: 

WHO WE ARE

Just as workers unite in a union to protect their rights, unions also unite in federations of labour to fight for better working and living conditions. The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) serves as an umbrella group for working people and their unions.

From our inception in 1957, the OFL has grown to represent over one million Ontario workers belonging to more than 1,500 locals from 54 affiliated unions, making us Canada’s largest labour federation. Our strong membership and constant vigilance make us a formidable political voice.

WHAT WE DO

We push for legislative change in every area that affects people’s daily lives. Areas like health, education, workplace safety, minimum wage and other employment standards, human rights, women’s rights, workers’ compensation, and pensions.

We also make regular presentations and submissions to the Ontario government and mount internal and public awareness campaigns to mobilize the kind of political pressure that secures positive change for all workers – whether you belong to a union or not.

To accomplish these goals, we work with affiliated local unions and labour councils across the province. We also partner with other community and social justice organizations to build a fairer and more inclusive society that meets everyone’s needs.

The Ontario Federation of Labour’s Worker’s-First Agenda Campaign

The Ontario Federation of Labour (Ontario is a large province in Canada) has initiated a campaign called “Building the Fight for a Workers-First Agenda” (https://ofl.ca/event/activist-assembly-2022/). 

I certainly agree that workers need to fight to create a workers-first agenda. However, I seriously question that what the Ontario Federation of Labour calls a workers’ agenda expresses a full and complete workers’ agenda. 

As is usual, I hardly oppose the fight for reforms that benefit workers. However, is what is proposed anything other than the fight for a more humanized form of capitalism? Let us see. 

On the above web page, we read: 

That means good jobs and decent work for all workers; a $20 minimum wage; high quality affordable housing; accessible and well funded health care, long term care, education, and other public services; justice for Indigenous people and racialized communities; climate justice and a livable planet; and so much more!

These are winnable demands, but only if we fight for them. That’s why we need you to help build the fight for a workers first agenda in our province.

A $20 minimum wage is certainly better than $15; high quality affordable housing is certainly better than privatized unaffordable housing, or affordable but dilapidated housing (I used to live in a dilapidated house in Calgary, Alberta), more accessible and better funded health care, long-term care, education and other public services  that are more accessible and better funded, It is certainly preferable to achieve greater justice for Indigenous and racialized communities. It is also better to reduce global warming and the destruction of our planet. 

But what is the standard used to determine 

  1. what good and decent jobs are? 
  2. high-quality affordable housing? 
  3. accessible and well-funded health care?
  4. accessible and well-funded long-term care?
  5. accessible and well-funded education?
  6. justice for Indigenous people and racialized communities?
  7. climate justice?
  8. a livable planet? 

Decent work would undoubtedly include 10 paid sick days for all workers (including gig workers and migrant workers). A more detailed treatment of what the Ontario Federation of Labour means by “decent work” can be found in their document titled Protection for Every Worker
Establishing the Future of Decent Work in Ontario, a “Submission to the Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee, Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development,” dated July 21, 2021 (see the post on the webpage https://ofl.ca/   by using the search terms “decent work”). 

In that document, we read: 

1. THE DECENT WORK AGENDA

As we emphasized in the OFL’s extensive submissions to the Changing Workplaces Review, a job should be a pathway out of poverty. We strongly encourage the OWRAC [Ontario Workforce Recovery Advisory Committee] to review the OFL’s submission to the Changing Workplaces Review, which outlines a suite of required changes to both the ESA [Employment Standards Act{ and the LRA [Labour Relations Act]. While some Ontarians are staying home, those keeping the province running – and facing a greater risk of infection – are people working in jobs that traditionally have been the lowest paid with few benefits and no access to unionization. And it is women workers, racialized and Indigenous workers, migrant and immigrant workers, and workers with disabilities that are overrepresented in these precarious but essential jobs. A full economic recovery will require the government to legislate increases to workers’ wages and protections as well as to correct the inherent power imbalance between workers and employers.

The Limitations of the OFL’s “Workers First” Labour Agenda Campaign

The OFL admits that there is an “inherent power imbalance between workers and employers”–but fails to explain why such an inherent imbalance of power exists in the first place. Surely it is due to the workers not having a right of access to the means of producing their own lives (machines–including computers–buildings, offices, office supplies, raw material and so forth) and employers having the right to exclude workers from such right of access. Why is the OFL silent over an elaboration of the nature of such imbalance? 

I searched on the Ontario Federation of Labour’s website using the search term “power imbalance” (in quotation marks). These are the results (three of them) (my emphases): 

  1. The OFL’s submission puts forth recommendations to both the Employment Standards Act and the Labour Relations Act that will raise the minimum standards for all Ontario workers, expand access to our fundamental freedom to associate for the meaningful pursuit of collective workplace goals, correct the inherent power imbalance in the employment relationship, and protect vulnerable workers.
  2. Ontario’s outdated labour laws can do little to remedy the dramatic power imbalance that exists between well-heeled company owners and their employees

  3. “Migrant workers endure an incredible power imbalance in the face of their employers and are often gendered and racialized workers,” said Irwin Nanda, Executive Vice-President of the OFL. “To address the root of this exploitation, the province must also push the federal government to scale back the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and return to a robust national policy of permanent immigration that provides migrant workers with opportunities for permanent residency.”

The incredible lack of educational content in this reference to “imbalance of power” is typical of the social-democratic or social-reformist left here in Toronto (and the so-called radicals here rarely if ever challenge this). 

So, there is acknowledged an inherent imbalance of power between employers and employees–but the OFL fails to explain why that is so. This is the first limitation of their so-called “workers-first agenda.” 

The second limitation also relates to this inherent balance of power between employers and employees; the OFL implies that this inherent balance of power between employers and employers can somehow be overcome by “correcting” the imbalance of power. 

How is this to be done? Nowhere does the OFL really spell this out, but it can be inferred, from the typical justification for reference to “decent work” among the social-democratic or social-reformist left is free collective bargaining and the resulting collective agreement.

This is simple nonsense. As I have argued in a number of other posts (see for example Do Collective Agreements Convert Working for an Employer into Decent Work?), collective bargaining limits the power of employers over workers but hardly leads to a balance of power; oppression is inherent in both public and private employment, and exploitation is inherent in the private sector (if not in the public sector). To be an employer inherently involves more power than workers (this of course does not mean that key workers in specific industries cannot disrupt the power of employers if the material conditions are such that they form a strategic place in the chain of production of commodities. Such disruption, unless it aims to overcome the inherent imbalance of power between workers as a class and employers as a class by abolishing classes, can hardly change the ultimate class-based imbalance of power between workers and employers). 

The inadequate solution to the problem of the imbalance of power between employers and workers is linked to the inadequate definition of the problem. By failing to engage in inquiry into why workers face an imbalance of power, the OFL’s implicit proposal of correcting the imbalance of power by means of collective bargaining and collective agreements fails to address the inherent imbalance of power between employers and workers even when “fair” collective bargaining and collective agreements exist; management rights (implicit or explicit in collective agreements) give the lie to the claim that such an imbalance of power can be “corrected.” 

Conclusion

The OFL, like so many other social-democratic or social-reformist organizations, does not and cannot face the reality that unionized workers face. It itself contributes to the persistent imbalance of power between employers and workers by inadequately defining the problem and the corresponding solution. 

References to good and decent jobs are not equivalent to creating a balance of power between workers and employers.

By defining the problem the way it does, the OFL necessarily excludes the solution of developing a movement that aims to abolish the power of employers–period. For the OFL, the existence of employers is permanent; what needs to be changed for it is the power imbalance through unionization. 

Frankly, this is social-democratic ideology. It needs to be constantly challenged by the radical left (unlike the so-called radical left that fears to challenge it) and in some detail (unlike the radical left, that often refers vaguely to capitalism this and capitalism that).

As for my other questions, I will deal briefly with some of them in another post since I have already dealt with them in other posts and will refer the reader to those posts. 

 

 

 

 

The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part Three, Updated, 2020

Introduction

In two others posts I presented the twenty largest employers in Toronto according to level of employment (see A Short List of the Largest Employers in Toronto, Ontario, Canada) and the twenty largest employers in Canada according to profit (see A Short List of the Largest Private Employers in Canada, According to Profit).

I have tried to calculate the rate of exploitation of workers of workers in several capitalist companies: Magna International, Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE), ScotiaBank (Bank of Nova Scotia), Bank of Montreal (BMO), Telus, Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), Suncor Energy, Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD Bank),Rogers Communications Inc., the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) and  Air Canada,  (see for example The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part One).

I thought it might be useful to begin the comparison of rates of exploitation of the same capitalist employer for different years. Although this fails to capture the dynamic of capitalist relations of production and exchange (being two snapshots at different times), it may provide further insight into the nature of capitalist society.

The structure of the post is as follows:

  1. I outline the nature of the rate of exploitation
  2. I then provide “Conclusion first,”
    a. the 2020 rate of exploitation is indicated
    b. the 2020 rate of exploitation is compared with the 2019 rate and some possible explanations of the differences are provided
    c. a long quote of a discussion around tactics and strategies between Sam Gindin (former research director of the Canadian Autoworkers Union (CAW) (now Unifor) and me relating to  union ideology.
    d. Further brief criticisms of Mr. Gindin’s political position
    e. Consideration of an Integram Bargaining Report produced by Unifor Local 444 (Integram is a division of Magna International), dated November 8, 2020 in relation to Mr. Gindin’s views
  3. How I calculated the rate of exploitation (including adjustments) as well as a justification for interpreting the substantial decrease in the rate of exploitation in terms of “fixed costs.”
  4. The conclusions as stated in 2.

The Nature of the Rate of Exploitation

But what is the rate of exploitation? And why not use the usual rate of profit or the rate of return? The rate of profit is calculated as profit divided by investment. Since employers purchase both the means for work–buildings, computers, office supplies, raw material–and hire workers–we can classify investment into two categories: c, meaning constant capital, or the capital invested in commodities other than workers; and v, or variable capital, the capital invested in the hiring of workers for a certain period of time (wages, salaries and benefits).

The purpose of investment in a capitalist economy is to obtain more money (see The Money Circuit of Capital), and the additional money is surplus value when it is related to its source: workers working for more time than what they cost to produce themselves. The relation between surplus value and variable capital (or wages and salaries) is the rate of surplus value or the rate of exploitation, expressed as a ratio: s/v.

When the surplus is related to both c and v and expressed as a ratio, it is the rate of profit: s/(c+v).

In Marxian economics, you cannot simply use the economic classifications provided by employers and governments since such classifications often hide the nature of the social world in which we live. The rate of profit underestimates the rate of exploitation since the surplus value is related to total investment and not just to the workers. Furthermore, it makes the surplus value appear to derive from both constant capital and variable capital.

I decided to look at the annual report of some of the largest private companies in Toronto and Canada if they are available in order to calculate the rate of exploitation at a more micro level than aggregate rates of surplus value at the national or international level. Politically, this is necessary since social democrats here in Toronto (and undoubtedly elsewhere) vaguely may refer to exploitation–while simultaneously and contradictorily referring to “decent work” and “fair contracts.” Calculating even approximately the rate of exploitation at a more micro level thus has political relevance.

Conclusions First

As usual, I start with the conclusion in order to make readily accessible the results of the calculations for those who are more interested in the results than in how to obtain them.

The Rate of Exploitation

So, with the adjustments in place: s=1081; v=2,509. The rate of exploitation or the rate of surplus value=s/v=1081/2,509=43%.

I will first consider this rate in relation to the workers in 2020, and then compare this rate with the 2019 rate of exploitation.

That means that for every hour worked that produces her/his wage, a worker at Magna International works around an additional 26 minutes for free for Magna International. Alternatively, in terms of money, $1 of wage or salary of a regular Magna International worker produces around $0.43 (43 cents) surplus value or profit for free.

  1. In an 8-hour work day (480minutes), the worker produces her/his wage in 336 minutes (5 hours  36 minutes) and works 144 minutes (2 hours 24 minutes) for free for Magna International.
  2. In an 9-hour work day (540minutes), the worker produces her/his wage in 378 minutes (6  hours 18 minutes) and works 162 minutes (2 hours 42 minutes) for free for Magna International.
  3. In an 10-hour work day (600 minutes), the worker produces her/his wage in 420 minutes (7  hours) and works 180 minutes (3 hours) for free for Magna International.
  4. In an 12-hour work day (720 minutes), the worker produces her/his wage in 503 minutes (8  hours  23 minutes) and works 217 minutes (3 hours 37 minutes) for free for Magna International.

Comparison of the 2019 Rate of Exploitation with the 2020 Rate of Exploitation

2020: So, with the adjustments in place: s=1081; v=2,509. The rate of exploitation or the rate of surplus value=s/v=1081/2,509=43%.
2019: So, with the adjustments in place: s=2,258; v=2,862. The rate of exploitation or the rate of surplus value=s/v=2,258/2,862=79%.

The absolute decrease in s is substantial: 1,177, and the rate of decrease is 52% (1081-2,258)/2,258=-1,177/2,258).

By contrast, the absolute decrease in v is much less: 353, and the rate of decrease is (2509-2862)/=2509=-353/2862=12%.

The substantial decrease in the rate of exploitation is likely due to the treatment of workers as “fixed costs” as the pandemic forced employers to retain workers despite the relatively extra costs associated with it (partly offset by federal, provincial and municipal supports).

There may, of course, be other causes of the decrease in the rate of exploitation, such as problems pertaining to supply of inputs, but I will leave that issue aside.

It should be emphasized that the exploitation of workers pertains to the production of a surplus beyond the production of the value equivalent of their own costs of production. Even during the time the workers require to produce their wage, they are oppressed by employers since they are subject to the will of the employer (or her representatives) and to the control over their labour.

Political Considerations

The rapid decrease in the rate of exploitation of workers of Magna International with the onset of the pandemic will likely call for an opposite pressure to increase exploitation directly through intensification and an extension of the working day and changes in technology and organization of the production process. Pressures to increase tax breaks for such capitalist employers (and corresponding reduction in state expenditures for welfare measures) may also arise. Of course, some workers will not just lay down and accept such counter-pressures.

Why is it that workers have to put up with this situation? Should they not be organizing not only to resist exploitation and oppression and increased pressures related to those phenomena but also to abolish such pressures? Not according to the social-democratic or social-reformist left. Such organizational efforts, for them, are undoubtedly unrealistic. New structures are supposedly to arise without criticizing the old structures.

Thus, for social democrats like Sam Gindin (former research director for the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) (now Unifor), challenging the ideology of “decent jobs or work,” “fair contract,” “fair collective agreement,” “fair deal,” “fair wages” and other abstract phrases (rhetoric) is relatively unimportant. New material structures more relevant to the lives and experiences of working people are somehow to arise without constantly challenging the existing social structures–and the corresponding ideology that justifies such structures.

Frankly, I doubt that such new material structures will arise without a persistent and constant challenging of the ideological rhetoric rampant among the left in general and unions in particular.

I will include a rather long quote from a previous post. It is a conversation between Sam Gindin (a self-claimed “leader” of radical workers here in Toronto despite his probable own explicit denial of such a title) and me:

Re: A Good or Decent Job and a Fair Deal
Sam Gindin
Sat 2017-02-18 8:05 AM
Something is missing here. No-one on this list is denying that language doesn’t reflect material realities (the language we use reflects the balance of forces) or that it is irrelevant in the struggle for material effects (the language of middle class vs working class matter And no one is questioning whether unions are generally sectional as opposed to class organizations or whether having a job or ‘decent’ pay is enough. The question is the autonomy you give to language.

The problem isn’t that workers refer to ‘fair pay’ but the reality of their limited options. Language is NOT the key doc changing this though it clearly plays a role. That role is however only important when it is linked to actual struggles – to material cents not just discourse. The reason we have such difficulties in doing education has to do with the limits of words alone even if words are indeed essential to struggles. Words help workers grasp the implications of struggles, defeats, and the partial victories we have under capitalism (no other victories as you say, are possible under capitalism).

So when workers end a strike with the gains they hoped for going in, we can tell them they are still exploited. But if that is all we do, what then? We can – as I know you’d do – not put it so bluntly (because the context and not just the words matter). that emphasize that they showed that solidarity matters but we’re still short of the fuller life we deserve and should aspire to and that this is only possible through a larger struggle, but then we need to be able to point to HOW to do this. Otherwise we are only moralizing. That is to say, it is the ideas behind the words and the recognition of the need for larger structures to fight through that primarily matter. Words help with this and so are important but exaggerating their role can be as dangerous as ignoring it.

What I’m trying to say is that people do, I think, agree with the point you started with – we need to remind ourselves of the limits of, for example, achieving ‘fair wages’. But the stark way you criticize using that word, as opposed to asking how do we accept the reality out there and move people to larger class understandings – of which language is an important part – seems to have thrown the discussion off kilter.

On Sat, Feb 18, 2017 at 7:00 AM, Frederick Harris <arbeit67@hotmail.com> wrote:

I was waiting to see whether there was any dispute concerning either the primary function of language or its material nature. Since there has been no response to that issue, I will assume that the view that the primary function of language is to coordinate social activity has been accepted.

What are some of the political implications of such a view of language? Firstly, the view that “But material conditions matter more” has no obvious basis. If language coordinates our activity, surely workers need language “to reproduce themselves.”

The question is whether coordination is to be on a narrower or wider basis.

Let us now take a look at the view that a contract (a collective agreement) is fair or just and that what workers are striving for is a decent or good job.

If we do not oppose the view that any collective agreement is fair to workers and that the jobs that they have or striving to have are decent jobs, then are we saying that a particular struggle against a particular employer can, in some meaningful sense, result in a contract that workers are to abide by out of some sense of fairness? Does not such a view fragment workers by implicitly arguing that they can, by coordinating their action at the local or micro level, achieve a fair contract and a good job?

If, on the other hand, we argue against the view that the workers who are fighting against a particular employer cannot achieve any fair contract or a decent job, but rather that they can only achieve this in opposition to a class of employers and in coordination with other workers in many other domains (in other industries that produce the means of consumption of workers, in industries that produce the machines and the raw material that go into the factory, in schools where teachers teach our children and so forth), then there opens up the horizon for a broader approach for coordinating activity rather than the narrow view of considering it possible to achieve not a fair contract and a decent job in relation to a particular employer.

In other words, it is a difference between a one-sided, micro point of view and a class point of view.

As far as gaining things within capitalism, of course it is necessary to fight against your immediate employer, in solidarity with your immediate fellow workers, in order to achieve anything. I already argued this in relation to the issue of health in another post.

Is our standard for coordinating our activity to be limited to our immediate relation to an employer? Or is to expand to include our relation to the conditions for the ‘workers to reproduce themselves’?

“They turn more radical when it becomes clear that the system can’t meet their needs and other forms of action become necessary -”

How does it become clear to workers when their relations to each other as workers occurs through the market system? Where the products of their own labour are used against them to oppress and exploit them? Are we supposed to wait until “the system can’t meet their needs”? In what sense?

I for one have needed to live a decent life–not to have a decent job working for an employer or for others to be working for employers. I for one have needed to live a dignified life–not a life where I am used for the benefit of employers. Do not other workers have the same need? Is that need being met now? If not, should we not bring up the issue at every occasion? Can any collective agreement with an employer realize that need?

Where is a vision that provides guidance towards a common goal? A “fair contract”? A “decent” job? Is this a class vision that permits the coordination of workers’ activities across industries and work sites? Or a limited vision that reproduces the segmentation and fragmentation of the working class?

Fred

I guess workers’ explicit consciousness of their own exploitation and oppression and their discussion of such experiences is to arise only after the emergence of “larger structures to fight through.” It is, however, likely that such “larger structures” will simply mimic the “narrower” structures if both are not criticized. How is the CLC (the Canadian Labour Congress)  substantially different from union structures in terms of challenging the class power of employers? Or is Mr. Gindin referring to the larger structures, such as the class power of employers?

My own experience with union reps has been that they assume the necessity and legitimacy of the class power of employers–and do not do anything to raise the issue of the legitimacy of the class power of employers, the exploitation of workers and their oppression among their own members; their aim is to improve the working conditions without questioning at all such class power, exploitation and oppression. I have been a union member, a union rep (union steward and member of a collective-bargaining committee), a member of the executive of a union and a rep for an Equity and Social Justice Committee. I have seen up close the assumptions and limitations and unions–and have tried to address such limitations when and where I could.

The false nature of Mr. Gindin’s political position stands out when he claims the following:

Which brings me back to the point that the problem is not [Wayne] Dealy [union director for the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3902] or Sean [Smith,  Unifor Local 2002 Co-Ordinator and Toronto Airport Workers Council (TAWC) activist”] or others but OUR Collective inability to provide them with an effective alternative politics…They can be criticized but only if we do so with humility and part of criticizing ourselves. [my emphasis] 

Is there evidence that Mr. Gindin criticizes his own views? Are union reps (and union members) really conscious of the exploitative and oppressive nature of the class power of employers as such? If so, what are they doing about it? I fail to see evidence of it. I also fail to see evidence of Mr. Gindin engaging in self-criticism. He implicitly assumes that he knows what workers need–and that is not an explicit and real consciousness of their exploitation and oppression–with or without unions, collective bargaining and collective agreements

Let us look at an Integram Bargaining Report produced by Unifor Local 444 (Integram is a division of Magna International), dated November 8, 2020 (see  https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/uniforlocal444/pages/43/attachments/original/1604838387/Integram_Ratification_Bulletin.pdf?1604838387).

It contains such enlightening items as the following:

Our members are their most vital asset that sets the supplier bar in this industry and deserves proper compensation through pay and benefits that award them for their labour and aids the company in retaining their highly skilled workforce. [my emphasis]

I find this language both typical of union reps–and disturbing. As I pointed out above, it is likely that Magna International treated the workers as a “fixed cost” in order to retain them during the worst moments of the pandemic. However, to read a union rep write that Magna workers are “an asset” surely is both disturbing and in need of criticism. Should any human being be considered and treated as an “asset?” Consider any member of your family. Would you want them to be treated as “an asset?”

That they are “assets” is real enough–to be exploited by Magna International (and all other private companies)–but should we not be criticizing this? Is Mr. Gindin in any specific way? Apparently not–since radicals are supposed to only criticize such views in “material cents.” Perhaps Mr. Gindin can provide an example of this in his own concrete practice? I see no concrete examples of his recommendations–they are so vague.

Where is Mr. Gindin’s “humility?” Where is his “self-criticism?”

Let us continue with this Integram Bargaining Report:

deserves proper compensation through pay and benefits that award them for their labour

This is ideology frequently expressed by union reps. “Proper compensation” is a synonym for “fair wages” and, indirectly, a “fair contract.” The union rep clings to the appearance of workers selling their “labour” [labour is an activity that requires a material link between that labour and the means to be used–without those means, there is only a capacity for labour or labour-power. As Marx remarked, in Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, volume 1, page 277:

When we speak of capacity for labour, we do not speak of labour, any more than we
speak of digestion when we speak of capacity for digestion. As is well known, the latter process requires something more than a good stomach.

Workers lack the conditions for the realization of their capacity for labour–just as many in the world lack the conditions for the use of their digestive tract–they lack food. The Unifor union rep., by identifying labour with the commodity which the worker sells, simply ignores the difference between a capacity and the conditions for its exercise–and such neglect of the conditions is hardly in the interests of workers.

How workers sell “labour” that is already linked to the means of production owned by (Magna) Integram (and hence under the control of Integram is a mystery. Furthermore, by identifying compensation with labour, the exploitation of workers by Magna Integram is excluded, and the internal or necessary relation between the wage and the profit of Magna Integram becomes broken.

Does Mr. Gindin criticize this approach so typical of union reps? Not at all. Rather, he criticizes those who engage in such criticism. For him, radicals are to indulge such beliefs. After all, it is only “discourse” and has no “autonomy.” This dismissal of ideological struggles is itself arrogant and lacks humility. Mr. Gindin somehow knows what workers need without even considering in any detail how union reps aid to legitimate the existing class power of employers by constantly using such language.

Where has Wayne Dealy provided any criticism of collective agreements (not the particular provisions of collective agreements) publicly? Sean Smith? Frankly, I find it astounding that such arrogance displayed by Mr. Gindin in his assumption that we are not to engage in criticism of union reps’ views is paraded as “humility” and “self-criticism.”

Let us listen to what Mr. Gindin called “Our Tracy” (McMaster, a union steward for Local 561 of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU); who was also vice-president of the local union at one point):

Collective bargaining is limited and imperfect, but a fuck-ton better than none.

I have hardly denied that collective bargaining is better than none. I have belonged to several unions in my life, and I certainly would prefer to belong to a union when working for an employer than not belonging to one. However, I do not take seriously her claim that “Collective bargaining is limited and imperfect.” I see no evidence that Ms. McMaster takes such a view seriously. Where is the evidence that she has inquired into “the limitations and imperfections” of collective bargaining? Rather, for Ms. McMaster, collective bargaining provides an imperfect but ultimately fair contract.

Perhaps Mr. Gindin can provide evidence to the contrary it. I doubt that he will–or can.

Mr. Gindin’s tactics are as follows: Let us try to convince such union reps of our views. Frankly, I think such an effort is, for the most part, a waste of time. Of course, there are exceptions, and it is necessary to use one’s judgement under specific circumstances and in relation to specific union reps. However, my judgement was and is that it Ms. McMaster would never be really convinced of the “limitations and imperfections” of collective bargaining.

Rather than indulging such union reps, it is in the interests of workers to criticize them and to expose their lack of a critical approach to collective bargaining.

Let us continue to look at this Bargaining Report:

Your bargaining committee achieved Pay Raises, Benefits Improvements, Lowering the new higher grid, Buy-out packages, and Signing Bonus. A healthy contract that reflects a greater worth in our Integram members.

Such achievements, of course, are in the interests of the workers. But why call it a “healthy contract?” Apparently, this is a synonym for a “fair contract”–and I have shown that Canadian unions persistently use such language to justify both the collective-bargaining process and collective agreements (see, for example,   Fair Contracts (or Fair Collective Agreements): The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part One: The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)  or Fair Contracts or Collective Agreements: The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part Three: Unifor (Largest Private Union in Canada)). No collective agreement can express something legitimate–unless the necessary exploitation and oppression of workers by employers (including Magna Integram) is somehow legitimate.

In the Bargaining Report, there then follows a list of items that were obtained by the bargaining committee. Not one word of the “limited and imperfect” nature of the collective agreement or the collective-bargaining process. Not one word on the management rights clause, implicit or explicit in the collective agreement. Do not workers persistently experience the power of management in a variety of ways? Why the silence over such experiences? Does the collective agreement address such power? Or does it only address the limited areas defined by collective-bargaining legislation?

For Mr. Gindin, though, to question the “language” used by union reps, as well as the omission of any criticism of the limitations of collective bargaining and collective agreements, expresses merely “moralizing.”

I will leave Mr. Gindin with his fake humility and his fake self-criticism. I will continue to engage in “discourse analysis”–that is to say, with a criticism and exposure of the limited nature of unions, collective bargaining and collective agreements.

Data on Which the Calculation Is Based

The calculation of the rate of exploitation is undoubtedly imperfect, and I invite the reader to correct its gaps. Nonetheless, the lack of any attempt to determine the rate of exploitation at the city level has undoubtedly reinforced social-reformist tendencies.

Now, the calculation:

In millions US dollars:

Sales $32,647
Costs and expenses $31,641

Cost of goods sold 28,207

Material $19,750
Direct labour 2,498
Overhead 5,959

Depreciation and amortization 1,366
Selling, general & administrative 1,587
Interest expense, net 86
Equity income (189)
Other expense, net 584
Income from operations before income taxes $1,006

[28,207+1,366+1,587+86+584=31,830; 31,830+1006=32,836; 32,836-189=32,647]

Adjustments

As I indicated in the 2019 post, a couple of adjustments are necessary.

Adjustment on Cost Side of Direct Labour and Corresponding Adjustment of Income  from Operations Before Taxes

I wrote in the 2019 post:

On page 37 [of the 2019 annual report], there is a reference to pension benefits. I assume that this category belongs to “direct labour” since it forms part of the deferred wages of workers that is paid in the current year (but then again, it is unclear whether the category of direct labour includes this, but since it is subtracted from net income, this leads me to believe that it is not included in that category). This should be added to direct labour. Hence, direct labour would be: 2,815+47=2,862, “Costs and expenses” would be $37, 255 “Costs of goods sold”would be $34,069, and “Income from operations before taxes” should be adjusted downward accordingly.

Now the 2020 “Pension and post-retirement benefits” is  (11).

This US $11 million should be added to “Cost and Expenses,” “Direct labour” and subtracted from “Income from operations before taxes.” Accordingly:

Temporarily Adjusted Costs and Expenses: $31,652
Temporary Adjusted Costs of Goods Sold: $28,218
Adjusted Direct Labour Costs: $2,509
Temporarily Adjusted income from operations before income taxes: $995

Adjustment of income from operations before income taxes due to interest expense, net

Another adjustment relates to interest. As I indicated in my post about the 2019 rate of exploitation of workers at Magna International:

An adjustment should probably be the treatment of the payment of interest: despite being an expense from the point of view of the individual capitalist, it probably forms part of the surplus value. It should be added to “Income before income tax expense.”

Accordingly, it is necessary to add $86 “Interest expense, net” to “Income from operations before income taxes” and subtract it from “Cost and expenses.”

(“Equity income” is already subtracted from costs since it is not really a cost at all but rather income.)

Adjusted Cost and Expenses $31,566
Adjusted Direct Labour $2,509
Adjusted income from operations before income taxes $1081

The Rate of Exploitation

So, with the adjustments in place: s=1081; v=2,509. The rate of exploitation or the rate of surplus value=s/v=1081/2,509=43%.

I will first consider this rate in relation to the workers in 2020, and then compare this rate with the 2019 rate of exploitation.

That means that for every hour worked that produces her/his wage, a worker at Magna International works around an additional 26 minutes for free for Magna International. Alternatively, in terms of money, $1 of wage or salary of a regular Magna International worker produces around $0.43 (43 cents) surplus value or profit for free.

The following provides information about the length of the working day:

  1. There are 3 shifts. 9 hours a shift.
  2. Typical 8 – 12 hours per shift.
  3. 8-12 hrs, 7 days a week, with very last minute overtime mandating, and i mean literally as your punching out theyll tell you that you have to stay for another 4+ hours. No work life balance and management could care less because theyre at home on the weekends. Better positions come with 100% more stress, more responsibilities that others pass off cause they dont want to do it, 1000s of strings attached and literally no way to avoid getting screwed by them. Constant harassment and belittling by management and engineers and if you report it, youre facing constant retaliation and impending termination. If your not part of the HR posse or the “good ol’ boys club”, youre nothing but a rug for them to walk across. So, if you value your sanity, health and family, this is not a place to work.
  4. I have been there for 3 years until i quit and half of the plant is doing either 10 or 12 hours 7 days a week
  5. Article 17 (page 51) of the collective agreement between Magna International and Unifor Local 2009AP: Employees normally work an eight-hour day, five days per week

Accordingly:

  1. In an 8-hour work day (480minutes), the worker produces her/his wage in 336 minutes (5 hours  36 minutes) and works 144 minutes (2 hours 24 minutes) for free for Magna International.
  2. In an 9-hour work day (540minutes), the worker produces her/his wage in 378 minutes (6  hours 18 minutes) and works 162 minutes (2 hours 42 minutes) for free for Magna International.
  3. In an 10-hour work day (600 minutes), the worker produces her/his wage in 420 minutes (7  hours) and works 180 minutes (3 hours) for free for Magna International.
  4. In an 12-hour work day (720 minutes), the worker produces her/his wage in 503 minutes (8  hours  23 minutes) and works 217 minutes (3 hours 37 minutes) for free for Magna International.

Comparison of the 2019 Rate of Exploitation with the 2020 Rate of Exploitation

2020: So, with the adjustments in place: s=1081; v=2,509. The rate of exploitation or the rate of surplus value=s/v=1081/2,509=43%.
2019: So, with the adjustments in place: s=2,258; v=2,862. The rate of exploitation or the rate of surplus value=s/v=2,258/2,862=79%.

The absolute decrease in s is substantial: 1,177, and the rate of decrease is 52% (1081-2,258)/2,258=-1,177/2,258).

By contrast, the absolute decrease in v is much less: 353, and the rate of decrease is (2509-2862)/=2509=-353/2862=12%.

Factors or Determinants of the Rate of Exploitation and Its Changes

Normally, when there is a change in the rate of exploitation, whether positive or negative, we should look at the general factors that govern the production of surplus value.  In general, there are three ways of changing the rate of exploitation:

  1. changing the real wage (the absolute amount and variety of commodities consumed by workers);
  2. changing the absolute amount of surplus value produced either by
    1. changing the length of the working day intensity of labour or
    2. changing the intensity of labour length of the working day
  3. changing (in fact, increasing) the relative amount of surplus value produced, generally through new technology, thereby decreasing the value of the commodities produced that form the real wage consumed by workers (with a fixed or constant working day and a constant amount of commodities consumed by workers, but with less labour time required to produce them, the amount of labour time required to reproduce the workers’ wages is reduced and more labour time constitutes surplus value).

As Ben Fine  and Alfredo Saad-Filho (2016) describe the factors with a view to increasing the rate of exploitation by employers in their book Marx’s Capital, pages 36-37:

Assume, now, that real wages remain unchanged. The rate of exploitation can be increased
in two ways….

First, e [the rate of exploitation[ can be increased through what Marx calls the production of absolute surplus value. On the basis of existing methods of production – that is, with commodity values remaining the same – the simplest way to do this is through the extension of the working day. …

There are other ways of producing absolute surplus value. For example, if work becomes more intense during a given working day, more labour will be performed in the same period, and absolute surplus value will be produced. The same result can be achieved through making work continuous, without breaks even for rest and refreshment. The production of absolute surplus value is often a by-product of technical change, because the
introduction of new machines, such as conveyors and, later, robots in the production line, also allows for the reorganisation of the labour process. This offers an excuse for the elimination of breaks or ‘pores’ in the working day that are sources of inefficiency for
the capitalists and, simultaneously, leads to increased control over the labour process (as well as greater labour intensity) and higher profitability, independently of the value changes brought about by the new machinery.

The desired pace of work could also be obtained through a crudely applied discipline. There may be constant supervision by middle management and penalties, even dismissal, or rewards for harder work (i.e. producing more value).

The above are general conditions for the determination of the rate of exploitation and its changes. The specific change observed in the rate of exploitation of workers at Magna International are unlikely due to these general conditions. Rather, the decrease in the rate of exploitation in 2020 relative to 2019 is likely due to the specific economic conditions that accompanied the pandemic.

One Possible Explanation for the Substantial Decrease in the Rate of Exploitation

Part of the explanation for the  substantial decrease in the rate of exploitation was probably the treatment of workers at Magna International, in part, as “fixed costs.”

Initially, Magna International laid off many of “its” workers, but it also sought to retain them by paying them additional money beyond that flowing from the government initially through federal  unemployment insurance (although it may have also been a function of provisions in the collective agreement concerning layoffs).

Magna International did lay off around 2,000 workers in Ontario during the initial wave of COVID. From https://lfpress.com/business/local-business/magna-cuts-production-2000-local-staff-amid-fallout-from-covid-19:

Magna cuts production, 2,000 local staff amid fallout from COVID-19

Magna, one of the largest automotive employers in the London region, has laid off about 2,000 workers locally as the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps through the manufacturing sector.

Article content

Magna, one of the largest automotive employers in the London region, has laid off about 2,000 workers locally as the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps through the manufacturing sector.

The Canadian auto parts giant has closed its two St. Thomas plants, Presstran and Formet, employing a combined 1,500 to 2,000, as well as Qualtech in London, which employs about 275.

“Both Formet and Presstran will be temporarily suspending operations today . . . Qualtech will also temporarily suspend its operations,” read a statement from Scott Worden of Magna’s corporate communications department.

“Magna is committed to both the health and financial well-being of our employees. We will be providing additional payments to employees beyond the minimums provided under the federal Employment Insurance program.”

The closings are not unexpected, and may not last long, as the Detroit Three automakers, Toyota and Honda have all closed plants for up to two weeks across North America as a result of the coronavirus.

Presstran is a stamping plant and Formet supplies several different parts to many automakers, including truck frames to GM plants in the U.S. Qualtech supplies seating systems.

“Magna continues to closely monitor developments related to coronavirus (COVID-19) with a focus on the health and safety of our employees and our operations. In addition, we are in daily communication with our customers, many of which have recently announced partial or full temporary production suspensions at plants in Europe and North America,” read an additional statement from Tracy Fuerst, vice-president of corporate communications at Magna.

The automaker said it will continue to follow World Health Organization protocol on cleaning the workplace and limiting contact with between people.

“We continue to assess our operations on an individual basis and are beginning to temporarily suspend manufacturing operations at a number of our manufacturing divisions around the world . . . many of our facilities are expected to suspend operations with production status re-evaluated week to week,” said Fuerst.

Further evidence for treating Magna International workers as fixed costs comes from Annual Information Form, Magna International Inc., March 25, 2021, page A-17:

Despite inevitable temporary layoffs of employees in light of the suspension of production during the first half of 2020, we took a number of steps to minimize the impact felt by our employees, including: maintaining employee benefits coverages through the temporary layoff period; …

We also engaged emergency government support programs primarily for employees to maintain compensation levels and/or benefits for a certain period, where applicable. The countries in which Magna engaged such programs included Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria and China. These programs allowed participating employees to remain on our payroll while inactive or furloughed due to mandatory stay at home orders, with Magna receiving full or partial reimbursement for such inactive labour.

The view that workers were treated more as fixed costs (probably out of fear that Magna International would lose such workers to other employers if they were not treated as fixed costs) is supported by the relatively limited decrease in v when compared to s.

Treating workers as “fixed costs” under the conditions of the pandemic is understandable since workers are not linked politically or legally to particular employers; they can work for another employer (if they can find another employer who will hire them). See Do Workers Work for a Particular Employer or for the Class of Employers? Part One: A Limitation of Some Radical Left Critiques of Capitalist Relations of Production and Exchange (A.K.A. Capitalism) and  Do Workers Work for a Particular Employer or for the Class of Employers? Part Two: Critique of Unions and the Social-Reformist or Social-Democratic Left).

This treatment of workers as fixed costs (to retain them over the short term) and the resulting decrease in the rate of exploitation is consistent with abnormal conditions that capitalist employers generally try to avoid since, on the one hand, they own means of production (c) that fail to absorb surplus value and, hire relatively more workers (v) than can be exploited under given conditions. From Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume 2, The Process of , page 111:

The point is simply that under all circumstances the part of the money that is spent on means of production – the means of production bought in M-mp [money used to purchase means of production, such as computers and other machines, raw material, buildings and other produced commodities necessary for labour to be performed] means of production – must be sufficient, i.e. must be reckoned up from the start and be provided in appropriate proportions. To put it another way, the means of production must be sufficient in mass to absorb the mass of labour which is to be turned into products through them. If sufficient means of production are not present, then the surplus lahour which the purchaser has at his disposal cannot be made use of; his right, to dispose of it will lead to nothing. If more means of production are available than disposable labour, then these remain unsaturated with labour, and are not transformed into products.

In effect, in terms of the pandemic, Magna International purchased too much labour power (the capacity to use the means of production and to produce value–a capacity sold by workers) and too many means of production. Not all of the labour power purchased could be exploited, and not all the means of production owned by Magna International could absorb labour and hence surplus labour and surplus value.

There may, of course, be other causes of the decrease in the rate of exploitation, such as problems pertaining to supply of inputs, but I will leave that issue aside.

It should be emphasized that the exploitation of workers pertains to the production of a surplus beyond the production of the value equivalent of their own costs of production. Even during the time the workers require to produce their wage, they are oppressed by employers since they are subject to the will of the employer (or her representatives) and to the control over their labour.

Conclusion

The rapid decrease in the rate of exploitation of workers of Magna International with the onset of the pandemic is likely due to the temporary) overinvestment in the purchase of labour power relative to the inability of management to use the means of production to exploit the workers. This situation will likely now call for an opposite pressure to increase exploitation directly through intensification and an extension of the working day and changes in technology and organization of the production process. Pressures to increase tax breaks for such capitalist employers (and corresponding reduction in state expenditures for welfare measures) may also arise. Of course, some workers will not just lay down and accept such counter-pressures.

Why is it that workers have to put up with this situation? Should they not be organizing not only to resist exploitation and oppression and increased pressures related to those phenomena but also to abolish such pressures? Not according to the social-democratic or social-reformist left. Such organizational efforts, for them, are undoubtedly unrealistic. New structures are supposedly to arise without criticizing the old structures.

Thus, for social democrats like Sam Gindin (former research director for the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) (now Unifor), challenging the ideology of “decent jobs or work,” “fair contract,” “fair collective agreement,” “fair deal,” “fair wages” and other abstract phrases (rhetoric) is relatively unimportant. New material structures more relevant to the lives and experiences of working people are somehow to arise without constantly challenging the existing social structures–and the corresponding ideology that justifies such structures.

Frankly, I doubt that such new material structures will arise without a persistent and constant challenging of the ideological rhetoric rampant among the left in general and unions in particular.

Where is there evidence that Mr. Gindin has contributed to the creation of material structures that question the fundamental economic, political and social structures characteristic of a society dominated by a class power of employers by indulging in the beliefs of union reps? Does the organization Green Jobs Oshawa, to which Mr. Gindin contributes, do so? Where is the evidence that it does?

What are Mr. Gindin’s fellow social democrats like Herman Rosenfeld (who worked in the education department of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) (now Unifor) doing to fight against the exploitation of workers and oppression of Magna workers? Mr. Rosenfeld wrote an article, criticizing the existence, practically, of a company union at Magna, CAW Local 88, comparing it to the independent union Unifor Local 2009 AP. The independent union is certainly preferable to a company union, but even an independent union at the local level of a particular employer in effect assumes the legitimacy of the power of employers as a class (see my criticism in the post    Do Workers Work for a Particular Employer or for the Class of Employers? Part Two: Critique of Unions and the Social-Reformist or Social-Democratic Left).

The false nature of Mr. Gindin’s political position stands out when he claims the following:

Which brings me back to the point that the problem is not [Wayne] Dealy [union director for the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3902] or Sean [Smith,  Unifor Local 2002 Co-Ordinator and Toronto Airport Workers Council (TAWC) activist”] or others but OUR Collective inability to provide them with an effective alternative politics…They can be criticized but only if we do so with humility and part of criticizing ourselves. [my emphasis] 

Is there evidence that Mr. Gindin criticizes his own views? Are union reps (and union members) really conscious of the exploitative and oppressive nature of the class power of employers as such? If so, what are they doing about it? I fail to see evidence of it.

I also fail to see evidence of Mr. Gindin engaging in self-criticism. He implicitly assumes that he knows what workers need–and that is not an explicit and real consciousness of their exploitation and oppression–with or without unions, collective bargaining and collective agreements.

:

.

For Mr. Gindin, though, to question the “language” used by union reps, as well as the omission of any criticism of the limitations of collective bargaining and collective agreements, expresses merely “moralizing.”

I will leave Mr. Gindin with his fake humility and his fake self-criticism. I will continue to engage in “discourse analysis”–that is to say, with a criticism and exposure of the limited nature of unions, collective bargaining and collective agreements.

.

Management Rights Clause in a Collective Agreement in France: Progressive Discipline Is Better Than Arbitrary Discipline–But It Is Still Oppressive

Introduction

Discipline permeates our world–family. school and work. In an earlier post, in the context of schools, I have already explored, briefly, the difference between intrinsic or internal discipline and external discipline (see  Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Ten: Intrinsic or Internal Discipline Versus Extrinsic or External Discipline). I have also, indirectly, explored discipline within the family in the personal context of the physical abuse of my daughter, Francesca, by her mother and the official response of a government body of the capitalist state (see, for example, A Personal Example of the Oppressive Nature of  Public Welfare Services).

In this post, I look at, briefly, discipline at work in the context of working for an employer. It also begins to widen references to collective agreement outside Canada in order to show that collective agreements in other countries do not somehow magically transform the employer-employee relation into “decent work” or “a decent job.”

Progressive Discipline in a French Collective Agreement

It was difficult to find a collective agreement from France that explicitly expressed the managerial power of the employer over employees. The following clause in a collective agreement, however, does express one aspect of that power–the power to discipline if employees do not follow the rules set out by management. The collective agreement is between Employers of Social and Family Cohesion (Employeurs du Lien Social et Familial (ELISFA)) and several unions (for example, National Federation of Health and Social Services (NFHSS) of the French Democratic Federation of Labour (FDFL)) (Fédération Nationale des services de santé et des services sociaux (FSSS), de la Confederation francaise democratique du travail (CFDT).

The clause outlines what has come to be known as “progressive discipline,” or discipline that begins with  the least amount of discipline and, progressively, becoming more severe.

The following is a rough translation of the clause (the original French is provided at the end of this post). From page 24:

Article 5

General conditions of discipline 

5.1 In accordance with law 16, the disciplinary measures applicable to the personnel of the enterprises or services are exercised under the following forms, which constitute the scale of sanctions [disciplines]:

–Observation (Remark)
–Warning
–Suspension with or without salary (in the last case [without pay] for a maximum of             three days
–Dismissal

Progressive discipline is certainly better than the arbitrary discipline that non-unionized employers have, but it is still discipline from an authority that originates from an economic structure characterized by, on the one hand, an impersonal and oppressive system that involves the use of workers as means to ends that they do not define and, on the other, by a class of employers (and their managerial representatives) that try to ensure that those impersonal and oppressive structures function independently of the will of the majority of workers (see The Money Circuit of Capital). As such, however “progressive” progressive discipline, it is still oppressive and hardly justifiable–unless using workers as means for purposes which they do not define is itself justifiable.

Article 5

Conditions générales de discipline

5.1
Conformément à la loi16 , les mesures disciplinaires applicables aux personnels des entreprises ou services s’exercent sous les formes suivantes, qui constituent l’échelle des sanctions :
– l’observation ;
– l’avertissement ;
– la mise à pied avec ou sans salaire (dans ce dernier cas pour un maximum de trois jours) ;
– le licenciement.

Conclusion

What do social democrats or social reformers have to say about such clauses in collective agreements? Here in Toronto there is no or little open discussion about such clauses or the power of managers, a minority, to dictate to workers, the majority. Do union members agree with the view that progressive discipline is indeed progressive? That it is fair? That such progressive discipline contributes to the transformation of the employer-employee relation into a relation among equals?

Such is the nature of social “democracy.”

Frankly, I doubt that social democrats and social reformers really want to discuss these issues. Nor do union officials. They hide behind such euphemistic phrases as “decent work,” “decent jobs,” “fair collective bargaining,” “fair wages,” and the like in order to prevent discussion of issues relevant to the interests of workers as a class.

Progressive discipline is better than the arbitrary discipline characteristic of non-unionized settings–but it is still oppressive and external discipline. To achieve internal or intrinsic discipline at work, it would be necessary to abolish the class power of employers.

Fair Contracts or Collective Agreements: The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part Four: The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) (The Second Largest Union in Canada)

Since in this blog I have often referred to particular union reps referring to collective agreements as fair in some way, I thought it would be useful to provide further examples of this rhetoric to substantiate the view that unions function as ideologues for the continued existence of employers–even if the unions are independent of the power of particular employers and hence represent independently the workers in relation to the particular employer of the workers.

I have already provided a series of examples in this series on their view of the fairness of collective agreements and collective bargaining, implied or expressed explicitly, specifically the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) (the largest union in Canada) and Unifor (the largest union of workers who work for employers in the private sector) (see Fair Contracts (or Fair Collective Agreements): The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part One and Fair Contracts or Collective Agreements: The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part Three: Unifor (Largest Private Union in Canada)).

I now proceed to provide evidence for the ideological role of The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), which was, in 2015, the second largest union in Canada, with 360,000 members.

  1. The following is dated December 15, 2011 https://ww.nupge.ca/content/opseu-developmental-service-workers-demand-fair-contract):

Members of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU/NUPGE) who work at Montage Support Services voted 100 per cent in favour of strike action if the employer refuses to offer a fair contract at the bargaining table [my emphasis].

The employer has proposed a large reduction to the payment of benefit premiums for full-time workers, unreasonable increases in probationary periods for new hires, language that would dismiss a worker for missing a single shift and increasing the length of time that discipline can be imposed. The Union is asking for pay equalization for its members who do equal amounts of work and only very small wage increases to offset the cost of living.

2. Dated September 6, 2012: The following is taken from https://nupge.ca/content/campaign-launched-support-women-working-elizabeth-fry-toronto-negotiate-contract

Toronto (06 Sept. 2012) – Workers at Elizabeth Fry Toronto have been without a contract since March 31, 2011. The employer is insisting on concessions that will cut benefits and job security for casual and contract workers.

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU/NUPGE), the union which represents the workers, is encouraging the concerned public to contact Elizabeth Fry Toronto’s executive director Michelle Coombs with the message, “stand up for women at Elizabeth Fry Toronto!”

These workers have been trying to negotiate a fair and reasonable contract for over 15 months. [my emphasis]

3. Dates 2014 (https://nupge.ca/content/mgeu-members-uwsa-heading-conciliation-amid-concessionary-bargaining):

MGEU members at UWSA heading to conciliation amid concessionary bargaining

MGEU/NUPGE members hope conciliation will help achieve a fair and reasonable settlement.

Winnipeg (14 April 2014) — Members of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union (MGEU/NUPGE) who work at the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association have requested the help of a conciliation officer to reach a new contract.

UWSA looking for major concessions in bargaining

Members began negotiations with UWSA Inc. on February 12, 2014. However, it was immediately clear from the employer’s proposals that they were intent on attacking the rights of workers covered by the collective agreement.

Among the many proposed cuts to benefits and changes inn contract language, the UWSA is seeking to remove maternity leave top-up, respite days, and bereavement leave travel time. At the same time, they want to increase hours of work and reduce sick leave and vacation benefits. The employer’s representatives have defined this process as “normalizing” or “resetting” the current contract. MGEU/NUPGE negotiators say it represents the elimination of years of hard work and fair negotiation by severely weakening the rights of members covered by this agreement. [my emphasis]

Looking to conciliation for assistance in reaching a fair deal

In response, the MGEU/NUPGE bargaining committee presented a package to the employer on April 9, identifying what members felt was a fair deal [my emphasis]. The employer rejected the deal that same day and asked if the union members would be willing to submit a joint request for conciliation. MGEU/NUPGE representatives agreed and both parties made separate applications to the Minister of Labour and Immigration to appoint a conciliation officer to help reach a new collective agreement.

The date for conciliation has been tentatively set for April 24.

NUPGE

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada’s largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE

NUPGE Components

4. Dated October 13, 2015 (https://ww.nupge.ca/content/gawronsky-delivers-%E2%80%9Cstill-without-contract%E2%80%9D-petitions-provincial-ministers). The following attributes to members the desire for a fair collective agreement. It is of course possible that members do attribute fairness to a collective agreement–but it is possible that they may not. Union leaders may simply ascribe–falsely–their own beliefs to the beliefs of the members. Furthermore, even if most members did believe that a collective agreement was fair, did they discuss the issue thoroughly in order to have an informed judgement? Did they discuss whether it was fair to work for employers in general? Did they discuss why workers have to work for employers? If not, should there not be such discussion before claiming that union members want a fair contract? 

Gawronsky delivers “Still Without a Contract” petitions to provincial ministers

“MGEU members have been very frustrated by the government’s ongoing foot dragging in negotiations.” — Michelle Gawronsky, MGEU President

Michelle Gawronsky (centre) presents Greg Dewar, Minister of Finance, and Kerri Irvin-Ross, Minister responsible for the Civil Service, with the MGEU’s “Still Without a Contract” petition signatures.

Winnipeg (13 Oct. 2015) — This past summer the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union (MGEU/NUPGE) turned up the heat on the provincial government to get a fair deal for thousands of its members who have been without a contract for more than a year — and, in some cases, more than two years. [my emphasis]

Members want a fair and reasonable offer

“MGEU members have been very frustrated by the government’s ongoing foot dragging in negotiations. It’s been an issue at our largest table (Civil Service), as well as at many other bargaining tables,” says MGEU President Michelle Gawronsky.

“Members are tired of it. They want to see some action; they want to see a fair and reasonable offer.” [my emphasis]

Strong support for online petition

In response, the MGEU developed an online petition this summer, collecting 5,787 signatures in support.

On October 9, 2015, Gawronsky and MGEU 1st Vice-President Wayne Chacun, delivered those petition signatures to Greg Dewar, Minister of Finance, and Kerri Irvin-Ross, Minister responsible for the Civil Service (both pictured above), as well as to Erna Braun, Minister of Labour and Immigration, and Drew Caldwell, Minister of Municipal Government.

“The government has said they’re willing to return to the Civil Service bargaining table. But returning to the table, and returning to the table with a fair and reasonable offer, are two very different things and it’s our job to make sure that message is sent loud and clear.”

NUPGE

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada’s largest labour organizations with over 360,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE

5. Dated August 18, 2017   (https://ww.nupge.ca/content/nsgeu-members-sherbrooke-village-rally-fair-contract-0):  

NSGEU members at Sherbrooke Village rally for fair contract

“They are proud to be part of the fabric of the local community and the nearby counties. It’s time their hard work and dedication to their jobs be acknowledged with a fair collective agreement.” — Jason MacLean, NSGEU President [my emphasis]

Halifax (18 Aug. 2017) — The people who help bring Sherbrooke Village to life for residents and visitors to come, learn, and explore the history of this community held an information picket at the entrance gate to Sherbrooke Village on August 17. 

Sherbrooke Restoration Commission hasn’t addressed members concerns at bargaining table

 As members of the Nova Scotia Government & General Employees Union (NSGEU/NUPGE), they wanted to raise awareness of their fight for a fair contract with their employer.

“Our members provide a one-of-a-kind, authentic historical experience for visitors to the area with their historical knowledge and skills,” says Jason MacLean, NSGEU President. “They are proud to be part of the fabric of the local community and the nearby counties. It’s time their hard work and dedication to their jobs be acknowledged with a fair collective agreement.” [my emphasis]

The 73 members work in administration, historical interpretation, costumes, crafts, marketing and promotions, trades, security, and maintenance, and many other occupations at the Village.

The Sherbrooke Restoration Commission, the employer, put forward a final offer at the bargaining table on July 20 without addressing many of the members’ concerns.

The NSGEU/NUPGE filed for conciliation and both sides met with a Conciliation Officer on August 16. 

6. Dated November 2, 2017 (https://ww.nupge.ca/content/new-brunswick-union-supports-introduction-first-contract-arbitration): 

New Brunswick Union supports introduction of first contract arbitration

We applaud government for coming forward with these changes. We believe this is a reasonable approach, one that will help both employers and workers alike.” — Susie Proulx-Daigle, NBU President

Fredericton (02 Nov. 2017) — The New Brunswick Union (NBU/NUPGE) is pleased to see that the provincial government has committed to bringing changes to the Industrial Relations Act to usher in first contract arbitration.

First contract arbitration will no longer allow management to prolong negotiations

In New Brunswick, arbitrations are not available to unions seeking a first contract if a deal cannot be reached with management.

First contract negotiations are often prolonged, so having the legal ability to use an independent third party to help resolve outstanding issues will help both the employer and union negotiate a fair first contract in a timely manner. [my emphasis]

The NBU/NUPGE has been pushing for this change for quite some time. During its most recent biennial convention, delegates voted unanimously in favour of a resolution for the union to advocate legislation on first contract arbitration.

The change would bring New Brunswick in line with the rest of the country, with the exception of Prince Edward Island.

“We applaud government for coming forward with these changes,” said Susie Proulx-Daigle, NBU President. “We believe this is a reasonable approach, one that will help both employers and workers alike.”

7. This is taken from a June 11, 2018 post (https://ww.nupge.ca/content/workers-vote-strike-gateway-okanagan-casinos-bcgeu): 

Workers vote to strike at Gateway Okanagan Casinos: BCGEU

An astounding 93.1 per cent vote in favour of strike action.

Vancouver (11 June 2018) — Over 675 members of the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU/NUPGE) working at Gateway Casinos in the Okanagan voted overwhelmingly in favour of taking strike action against their employer.

In a vote held from June 4 to 6, over 88 per cent of Gateway staff in casinos in Kelowna, Kamloops, Penticton and Vernon came out and voted 93.1 per cent in favour of taking strike action.

“Gateway workers in the Okanagan are sending a clear message to their employer: they will not settle for less than the fair wages, benefits and respect they deserve,” says Stephanie Smith, BCGEU President. [my emphasis]

Gateway Casino refuses to offer comparable wages

Negotiations for a new collective agreement broke off in May after the employer refused to offer wages and benefits that are industry standard at comparable casinos.

Smith says the employer’s offer is unacceptable. “The wages Gateway are offering won’t even keep ahead of the planned minimum wage increases.”

“These workers are the heart of their casinos. Gateway is a successful company in a highly profitable industry — they can afford to pay their workers what they are worth.”

Workers just want a fair contract

Strike preparations are now underway, and workers are set to walk off the job unless they receive a new proposal from the employer. 

“Gateway Casino workers in the Okanagan are ready to do whatever it takes to get a fair contract with their employer — including strike, if necessary,” says Smith. [my emphasis]

Gateway’s Okanagan staff have been trying to negotiate a new collective agreement since the last one expired in September 2017. 

8. Like an earlier reference, the following claims that the members are seeking a fair agreement–a debatable claim. Dated August 2, 2018 (https://ww.nupge.ca/content/strike-mandate-given-sgeus-public-servicegovernment-employment-negotiating-committee): 

Strike mandate given to SGEU’s Public Service/Government Employment Negotiating Committee

Upon returning to the bargaining table, the government was unwilling to negotiate. It was their unwillingness that brought about the need for a strike vote.

Regina (02 Aug. 2018) —  Saskatchewan Government and General Employees’ Union (SGEU/NUPGE) members of the Public Service/Government Employment (PS/GE) bargaining unit have given their Negotiating Committee a strike mandate. The vote was conducted across the province throughout July.

SGEU/NUPGE public service members looking for fair agreement

“This mandate sends a strong, clear message to government that our members are serious about achieving a fair and reasonable collective agreement that protects their rights and improves their wages and benefits,” said Barry Nowoselsky, Chair of the PS/GE Negotiating Committee. [my emphasis]

“A mandate from the members to strike does not mean there will be immediate job action. The negotiating committee is willing to return to the bargaining table as long as the employer is willing to negotiate,” he added.

Agreement expired in 2016

The collective agreement covering approximately 12,000 workers, including social workers, wildfire fighters, highways workers, lab technicians, administrative professionals, agrologists, corrections officers, and many others, expired September 30, 2016.

Bargaining for a new contract for government employees began in October 2016. In February 2018, members were asked to vote on a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA). The tentative deal was rejected in April. Upon returning to the bargaining table, the government was unwilling to negotiate. It was their unwillingness that brought about the need for a strike vote.

“Hopefully, with this mandate, government will now return to the bargaining table ready to show they value the work performed by people who live and work right here in our province,” Nowoselsky said.

9. The following is dated September 14, 2018:   (https://ww.nupge.ca/content/new-contract-nbu-college-instructors): 

New contract for NBU College Instructors

“Negotiations are successful when both sides come to the table with mutual respect and a willingness to work together.” — Susie Proulx-Daigle, NBU President

Bathurst (14 Sept. 2018) — Instructors in the Collège communautaire du Nouveau-Brunswick system, represented by the New Brunswick Union (NBU/NUPGE), officially signed a new contract on September 7, 2018, during a ceremony in Bathurst. Instructors with CCNB educate and prepare students for careers in a variety of areas. Instructors are located on 5 different campuses across the province.

The newly signed collective agreement is for 5 years and 3 months covering the time period of May 1, 2015, through July 31, 2020. The terms and conditions of the contract came into effect upon signing. Membership had voted in favour of the deal on May 22, 2018.

A fair deal for both sides

“Negotiations are successful when both sides come to the table with mutual respect and a willingness to work together,” said NBU President Susie Proulx-Daigle. “That was the case during this round of bargaining, and I’m pleased we’ve come away with a fair deal for both sides.” [my emphasis]

10. The following is dated October 18, 2019 (https://ww.nupge.ca/content/nsgeu-calls-mcneil-govt-respect-collective-bargaining).  Of course, the McNeil government’s heavy-handed tactics should be criticized (I l already indicated that in one of my articles that in the ??? section of this blog–but not by claiming that the process of collective bargaining represents something fair or that the resulting  collective agreement in any way expresses something fair. 

NSGEU calls on McNeil govt. to respect collective bargaining

“By continuing to meddle with this long-standing practice, the McNeil government threatens to throw the already-overwhelmed legal system into chaos.” — Jason MacLean, NSGEU President

Ottawa (18 Oct. 2019) — The Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU/NUPGE) is deeply disappointed to see the McNeil government once again employing heavy-handed tactics to skew the collective bargaining process in their own favour.

On Wednesday, October 16, Finance Minister Karen Casey introduced essential services legislation that takes away Crown attorneys’ right to arbitration and replaces it with the “right to strike.” The NSGEU/NUPGE argues that this harms workers and the services they deliver.

All workers have the right to collective bargaining

The NSGEU/NUPGE does not represent Crown attorneys. But, it unequivocally support the rights of all workers to bargain free from government interference that will unfairly tilt the process in favour of either the employer or employee.

“Collective bargaining is a deliberate process that is designed to yield a fair and balanced outcome,” said NSGEU President Jason MacLean. “By continuing to meddle with this long-standing practice, the McNeil government threatens to throw the already-overwhelmed legal system into chaos.” [My emphases]

Legislation could have ripple effect on other public sector workers

Furthermore, this only serves to put all other unions representing public sector workers on notice that this government is still squarely opposed to bargaining in good faith, setting a negative tone for all upcoming contract negotiations.

“We’ve seen government make similar arguments about many other important public sector workers in this province: health care and home care workers, and doctors,” MacLean said. “These continued attacks have negatively impacted recruitment and have pushed health care into crisis, leaving important public services in peril.”

The NSGEU/NUPGE is calling on this government to withdraw the legislation it has tabled to interfere with the Crown attorneys’ bargaining process, and to begin to bargain in good faith. It is only when the government begins to respect the process that we can achieve labour peace.

Political Implications

Unions evidently use the rhetoric of fair contracts, fair agreements and the like to justify their limited approach to the issues facing workers. This attempt to justify their own implicit acceptance of the power of the class of employers needs to be constantly criticized by being brought out into the open and discussed. 

However, the social-democrat or social-reformist left often see no point in such open and direct criticism–despite claims to the contrary. 

I will conclude this post with a conversation between Sam Gindin (a self-claimed “leader” of radical workers here in Toronto despite his probable own explicit denial of such a title) and me: 

Re: A Good or Decent Job and a Fair Deal
Sam Gindin
Sat 2017-02-18 8:05 AM
Something is missing here. No-one on this list is denying that language doesn’t reflect material realities (the language we use reflects the balance of forces) or that it is irrelevant in the struggle for material effects (the language of middle class vs working class matters). And no one is questioning whether unions are generally sectional as opposed to class organizations or whether having a job or ‘decent’ pay is enough. The question is the autonomy you give to language.

The problem isn’t that workers refer to ‘fair pay’ but the reality of their limited options. Language is NOT the key doc changing this though it clearly plays a role. That role is however only important when it is linked to actual struggles – to material cents not just discourse. The reason we have such difficulties in doing education has to do with the limits of words alone even if words are indeed essential to struggles. Words help workers grasp the implications of struggles, defeats, and the partial victories we have under capitalism (no other victories as you say, are possible under capitalism).

So when workers end a strike with the gains they hoped for going in, we can tell them they are still exploited. But if that is all we do, what then? We can – as I know you’d do – not put it so bluntly (because the context and not just the words matter). that emphasize that they showed that solidarity matters but we’re still short of the fuller life we deserve and should aspire to and that this is only possible through a larger struggle, but then we need to be able to point to HOW to do this. Otherwise we are only moralizing. That is to say, it is the ideas behind the words and the recognition of the need for larger structures to fight through that primarily matter. Words help with this and so are important but exaggerating their role can be as dangerous as ignoring it.

What I’m trying to say is that people do, I think, agree with the point you started with – we need to remind ourselves of the limits of, for example, achieving ‘fair wages’. But the stark way you criticize using that word, as opposed to asking how do we accept the reality out there and move people to larger class understandings – of which language is an important part – seems to have thrown the discussion off kilter.

On Sat, Feb 18, 2017 at 7:00 AM, Frederick Harris <arbeit67@hotmail.com> wrote:

I was waiting to see whether there was any dispute concerning either the primary function of language or its material nature. Since there has been no response to that issue, I will assume that the view that the primary function of language is to coordinate social activity has been accepted.

What are some of the political implications of such a view of language? Firstly, the view that “But material conditions matter more” has no obvious basis. If language coordinates our activity, surely workers need language “to reproduce themselves.”

The question is whether coordination is to be on a narrower or wider basis.

Let us now take a look at the view that a contract (a collective agreement) is fair or just and that what workers are striving for is a decent or good job.

If we do not oppose the view that any collective agreement is fair to workers and that the jobs that they have or striving to have are decent jobs, then are we saying that a particular struggle against a particular employer can, in some meaningful sense, result in a contract that workers are to abide by out of some sense of fairness? Does not such a view fragment workers by implicitly arguing that they can, by coordinating their action at the local or micro level, achieve a fair contract and a good job?

If, on the other hand, we argue against the view that the workers who are fighting against a particular employer cannot achieve any fair contract or a decent job, but rather that they can only achieve this in opposition to a class of employers and in coordination with other workers in many other domains (in other industries that produce the means of consumption of workers, in industries that produce the machines and the raw material that go into the factory, in schools where teachers teach our children and so forth), then there opens up the horizon for a broader approach for coordinating activity rather than the narrow view of considering it possible to achieve not a fair contract and a decent job in relation to a particular employer.

In other words, it is a difference between a one-sided, micro point of view and a class point of view.

As far as gaining things within capitalism, of course it is necessary to fight against your immediate employer, in solidarity with your immediate fellow workers, in order to achieve anything. I already argued this in relation to the issue of health in another post.

Is our standard for coordinating our activity to be limited to our immediate relation to an employer? Or is to expand to include our relation to the conditions for the ‘workers to reproduce themselves’?

“They turn more radical when it becomes clear that the system can’t meet their needs and other forms of action become necessary -“

How does it become clear to workers when their relations to each other as workers occurs through the market system? Where the products of their own labour are used against them to oppress and exploit them? Are we supposed to wait until “the system can’t meet their needs”? In what sense?

I for one have needed to live a decent life–not to have a decent job working for an employer or for others to be working for employers. I for one have needed to live a dignified life–not a life where I am used for the benefit of employers. Do not other workers have the same need? Is that need being met now? If not, should we not bring up the issue at every occasion? Can any collective agreement with an employer realize that need?

Where is a vision that provides guidance towards a common goal? A “fair contract”? A “decent” job? Is this a class vision that permits the coordination of workers’ activities across industries and work sites? Or a limited vision that reproduces the segmentation and fragmentation of the working class?

Fred

The bottom line is that many who consider themselves radical socialists here in Toronto (and undoubtedly elsewhere)  indulge working-class organizations, such as unions. They are, ultimately, afraid to alienate social-democratic or reformist organizations. Consequently, they themselves, objectively, function as social democrats or social reformers and fail to engage workers in the necessary delegitimisation process of the class power of employers. 

The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE), One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto

Introduction

In two others posts I presented the twenty largest employers in Toronto according to level of employment (see A Short List of the Largest Employers in Toronto, Ontario, Canada) and the twenty largest employers in Canada according to profit (see A Short List of the Largest Private Employers in Canada, According to Profit).

I have tried to calculate the rate of exploitation of workers of Magna International in an earlier post (see The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part One); Magna International is one of the largest employers in Toronto. I also calculated the rate of exploitation for Air Canada workers and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) workers. 

The Nature of the Rate of Exploitation

But what is the rate of exploitation? And why not use the usual rate of profit or the rate of return? The rate of profit is calculated as profit divided by investment. Since employers purchase both the means for work–buildings, computers, office supplies, raw material–and hire workers–we can classify investment into two categories: c, meaning constant capital, or the capital invested in commodities other than workers; and v, or variable capital, the capital invested in the hiring of workers for a certain period of time (wages, salaries and benefits).

The purpose of investment in a capitalist economy is to obtain more money (see The Money Circuit of Capital), and the additional money is surplus value when it is related to its source: workers working for more time than what they cost to produce themselves. The relation between surplus value and variable capital (or wages and salaries) is the rate of surplus value or the rate of exploitation, expressed as a ratio: s/v.

When the surplus is related to both c and v and expressed as a ratio, it is the rate of profit: s/(c+v).

In Marxian economics, you cannot simply use the economic classifications provided by employers and governments since such classifications often hide the nature of the social world in which we live. The rate of profit underestimates the rate of exploitation since the surplus value is related to total investment and not just to the workers. Furthermore, it makes the surplus value appear to derive from both constant capital and variable capital.

I decided to look at the annual report of some of the largest private companies in Toronto and Canada if they are available in order to calculate the rate of exploitation at a more micro level than aggregate rates of surplus value at the national or international level. Politically, this is necessary since social democrats here in Toronto (and undoubtedly elsewhere) vaguely may refer to exploitation–while simultaneously and contradictorily referring to “decent work” and “fair contracts.” Calculating even approximately the rate of exploitation at a more micro level thus has political relevance.

Conclusions First

As usual, I start with the conclusion in order to make readily accessible the results of the calculations for those who are more interested in the results than in how to obtain them.

Adjusted Net Income: 5587.3=s
Adjusted Total labour Costs: 5611.7=v

The rate of exploitation or the rate of surplus value=s/v=5587.3/5611.7=100% (after rounding).

That means that for every hour worked that produces her/his wage, a worker at BCE works around an additional hour for free for BCE. Alternatively, in terms of money, $1 of wage or salary of a regular BCE worker produces around $1 surplus value or profit for free. 

In terms of varying lengths of the working day: 

  1. In a 7.5-hour work day (450 minutes), the worker produces her/his wage in 225 minutes (3 hours  45 minutes) and works 225 minutes (3 hours 45 minutes) for free for BCE.
  2. In an 8-hour work day (480 minutes), the worker producer her/his wage in 240 minutes (4 hours) and works 240 minutes (4 hours) for free for BCE.
  3. In a 10-hour work day (600 minutes), the worker producers her/his wage in 300 minutes (5 hours) and works 300 minutes (5 hours) for free for BCE.
  4. In a 12-hour work day (720 minutes), the worker produces her/his wage in 360 minutes (6 hours) and works 360 minutes (6 hours) for free for BCE.

Of course, during the time that the worker produces her/his own wage, s/he is subject to the power of management and hence is also unfree during that time (see The Rate of Exploitation of Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part Two, Or: Intensified Oppression and Exploitation and   Employers as Dictators, Part One).

Do you think that these facts contradict the talk by the left and unionists of “fair wages,” “fair contracts” (see  Fair Contracts (or Fair Collective Agreements): The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part One for the rhetoric of the largest union in Canada, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)) and “decent work?” Do they ignore the reality of life for workers, whether unionized or non-unionized? If exploitation and oppression of workers is a constant in their lives, even if they are only vaguely aware of it, should this situation not be frankly acknowledged by their representatives? Do such representatives do so? If not, why not?  Do workers deserve better than neglecting the social context within which they live and work? Should such problems be addressed head on rather than neglected? 

Even if workers were not exploited, they would still be oppressed since they are used as things (means) for purposes which they as a collectivity do not define (see The Money Circuit of Capital). Does that express something fair? Management rights clauses (implied or explicit in collective agreements give management as representative of employers–and as a minority–the power to dictate to workers what to do, when to do it, how to do it and so forth–and is not the imposition of the will of a minority over the majority a dictatorship? (See  Employers as Dictators, Part One). Is that fair? Do union reps ever explain how a collective agreement somehow expresses something fair? Is that fair?

Is the following an example of what union reps mean by a “fair contract?”

COLLECTIVE AGREEMENT
BETWEEN
UNIFOR
AND
BELL CANADA

CRAFT AND SERVICES EMPLOYEES
EFFECTIVE FEBRUARY 23, 2017 

ARTICLE 8 – MANAGEMENT RIGHTS

8.01 The Company has the exclusive right and power to manage its operations in all respects and in accordance with its commitments and responsibilities to the public, to conduct its business efficiently and to direct the working forces and without limiting the generality of the foregoing, it has the exclusive right and power to hire, promote, transfer, demote or lay-off employees, and to suspend, dismiss or otherwise discipline employees.

8.02 The Company agrees that any exercise of these rights and powers shall not contravene the provisions of this Agreement.

Should workers not be discussing why management has these rights? Should workers not be discussing whether an unelected management should have such rights? Should workers not be discussing how to organize to abolish this dictatorship? Should workers not be criticizing any union rep who claims that a collective agreement somehow expresses a “fair contract?” A “good contract?” All other such platitudes? 

Data on Which the Calculation Is Based

The calculation of the rate of exploitation is undoubtedly imperfect, and I invite the reader to correct its gaps. Nonetheless, the lack of any attempt to determine the rate of exploitation at the city level has undoubtedly reinforced social-reformist tendencies.

Now, the calculation: 

In millions of Canadian dollars:

Page 113:

Operating revenues 23,964

Costs
Operating costs 13,858
Severance, acquisition and other costs 114
Depreciation 3,496
Amortization 902
Finance costs
Interest expense 1,132
Interest on post-employment benefit obligations 63
Other expense 13
Total costs: 19,578

Net income: 4386 [23,964-19,578=4386] [the 3253 is after taxes; if you add taxes, you get 4386 as well]

Operating costs need to be broken down further since costs for maintaining workers as wage workers form one of the two considerations for the calculation of the rate of exploitation.

Labour costs
Wages, salaries and related taxes and benefits 4,303
Post-employment benefit plans service cost (net of capitalized amounts) 247
Other labour costs 1,005
Less:
Capitalized labour 1,032
Total labour costs: 4,523

Adjustments

In Marxian theory, it is necessary to question whether some expenses are expenses for both the individual employer and for the class of employers (and fractions of their class, such as those who live on interest); in such a case, the expense is deducted from total revenue. On the other hand, there are expenses that are expenses for the individual employer but are not expenses when looked at from the point of view of the class of employers; in such an instance, they are paid out from the surplus value produced or obtained by workers and are to be included in income before taxes.

Adjustment of Total Labour Costs

Capitalized Labour

It is necessary to consider the category “Capitalized labour” since it is not treated as a labour cost by BCE whereas here it will be so treated. Capitalized labour involves the following:

CAPITALIZED LABOR means all direct costs of labor that can be identified or associated with and are properly allocable to the construction, modification, or installation of specific items of capital assets and, as such, can thereby be written down over time via a depreciation or amortization schedule as capitalized. 

I have chosen to treat capitalized labour as part of labour costs since it is current labour that is involved in the operations of BCE; the work performed by workers in installing and assembling machinery includes surplus value.

Temporarily Adjusted Total labour Costs: 5555

Severance, acquisition and other costs

It is necessary to make adjustments for this category since part of the money expended relates to costs destined to be received by workers. To take this into account, it is necessary to break the category down further.

Severance 63
Acquisition and other 51
Total severance, acquisition and other costs 114

I assume that “Acquisition and other” are non-labour expenses.
In a note, it states:

Severance costs consist of charges related to involuntary and voluntary employee terminations. In 2018, severance costs include a 4% reduction in management workforce across BCE.

Given that the severance package for management is likely to be much higher than for regular employees, the 4 percent reduction in the management workforce likely results in a higher percentage of severance pay to that 4 percent. It is impossible to determine with precision how much higher. I will assume 10 percent. The reason for taking into consideration such a difference is that the severance for management is likely to be a function of its exploitation of other workers and not its own exploitation.

Ten percent of 63 is 6.3; therefore, this 6.3 needs to be added to net income and subtracted from 63.
Temporarily adjusted Net income: 4392.3

This shift from considering part of severance pay from a cost to a part of net income also changes the total costs by reducing it by 6.3. Therefore:

Temporarily adjusted Total Costs: 19,571.7

The remaining severance is 56.7. This needs to be added to the category “Post-employment benefit plans service cost” since it forms part of the income of workers and costs for BCE. Accordingly:
Adjusted Total labour Costs: 5611.7

Adjustment of Finance Costs

Another adjustment relates to interest. As I indicated in my post about the rate of exploitation of workers at Magna International:

An adjustment should probably be the treatment of the payment of interest: despite being an expense from the point of view of the individual capitalist, it probably forms part of the surplus value. It should be added to “Income before income tax expense.”

As for the category “Interest on post-employment benefit obligations,” from the point of view of BCE, it is an expense or cost because, presumably, BCE had to borrow money (and pay interest) to meet its financial obligations to its retired workers; this interest comes from the surplus value produced by the workers and is therefore included as part of profit.

Accordingly, both “Interest expense” and “Interest on post-employment benefit obligations” are deducted from “Total costs” and added to “Net income,” and “Total costs” are therefore also adjusted.

Operating revenues 23,964
Adjusted Total Costs: 19,571.7- 1,132 – 63=18,376.7
Adjusted Net Income: 5587.3=s
Adjusted Total labour Costs: 5611.7=v

The Rate of Exploitation

The rate of exploitation or the rate of surplus value=s/v=5587.3/5611.7=100% (after rounding).

That means that for every hour worked that produces her/his wage, a worker at BCE works around an additional hour for free for BCE. Alternatively, in terms of money, $1 of wage or salary of a regular BCE worker produces around $1 surplus value or profit for free. 

The length of the working day at BCE, like most places, varies. Here are a sample of working days from the Internet:

I worked, on average, twelve hours a day.
I worked about 8 hours a day on the average.
10 hours per and about 50 hours weekly and was paid for only 37.5 weekly.

The collective agreement between Bell Canada and Unifor Atlantic CommunicationLocals (Unifor ACL) states: 

(c) Employees whose standard hours of work are eighty (80) hours in a scheduling period, will normally work either ten (10) scheduled tours of eight (8) hours. Employees whose standard hours of work are seventy-five (75) hours in a scheduling period, will normally work ten (10) scheduled tours of seven and one-half (7.5) hours. …

(d) Tours can be scheduled for a maximum of ten (10) hours with mutual agreement between the employee and their direct supervisor.

(e) Longer tours, to a maximum of twelve (12) hours per tour, may be scheduled with the mutual agreement of the employee(s), their direct supervisor, Labour Relations and the Council. Such special
arrangements must be committed to in writing and signed by the parties prior to implementing. These arrangements can be cancelled by any party with eight (8) weeks notice.

Since Bell workers are exploited 100 percent, the calculation of the number of hours they work to produce the equivalent value of their wage and the number of hours they work for free for Bell is relatively easy.

  1. In a 7.5-hour work day (450 minutes), the worker produces her/his wage in 225 minutes (3 hours  45 minutes) and works 225 minutes (3 hours 45 minutes) for free for BCE.
  2. In an 8-hour work day (480 minutes), the worker producer her/his wage in 240 minutes (4 hours) and works 240 minutes (4 hours) for free for BCE.
  3. In a 10-hour work day (600 minutes), the worker producers her/his wage in 300 minutes (5 hours) and works 300 minutes (5 hours) for free for BCE.
  4. In a 12-hour work day (720 minutes), the worker produces her/his wage in 360 minutes (6 hours) and works 360 minutes (6 hours) for free for BCE.


Academic Narrow-mindedness: A Reason for Starting a Blog, Part Three

This is a continuation of a previous post.

Before I started this blog, I had sent an article critical of the implied concept of “free collective bargaining.” The article was rejected for publication. Given that the reasons for rejecting the article seemed absurd, I decided to skip the academic process and post directly my views. This seemed all the more necessary since the journal that rejected my article is called Critical Education.

Since I believe in the politics of exposure (exposing the real nature of social processes and not the rhetoric of such processes), I thought it would be appropriate to post my proposed article, the criticisms of my article by the reviewers and my commentary on their criticisms.

The proposed article is found in the Publications and Writings link on my blog, entitled “Critique of Collective Bargaining Models in Canada.” (There is a slight difference between the article submitted to Critical Education and the one found at the link: the article submitted to Critical Education contains an abstract, which I include below, and the title of the proposed article was changed to: “A Critique of an Implicit Model of Collective Bargaining: The Nova Scotia Teachers’ Strike and a Fair Contract.”

Abstract

This paper looks at Brian Forbes’ presentation of the recent Nova Scotia teachers’ strike in order to analyze critically the nature of collective bargaining in a capitalist context. Forbes shows the underhanded nature of the McNeil government’s supposed negotiations, but he implies (like many trade unionists) that collective bargaining, in its normal form, results in a fair contract. The paper argues against this view. It does so in two ways. Firstly, it looks at Jane McAlevey’s alternative method of collective bargaining. Secondly, it looks at the limitations of her method in terms of the capitalist economic structure—especially as am exploitative and oppressive structure that transforms workers into means for others’ ends. A humanist view, by contrast, requires that human beings need to be treated as ends in themselves in a democratic fashion at work. Such a view, however, is rarely discussed precisely because the rhetoric of a fair (collective) contract in the context of the collective power of employers prevents such discussion from occurring.

Key words: teachers, collective bargaining, capitalism, exploitation, oppression, strikes, justice, fairness, Nova Scotia, Jane McAlevey

The decision to reject the article, the short version of the third review (there is a long version of the third review, but I will not post that–it would be tedious to reply to all of reviewer C’s comments) as well as  my comments on the third review.

We have reached a decision regarding your submission to Critical Education,
“A Critique of an implicit model of collective bargaining: The Nova Scotia
teachers’ strike and a fair contract”.
Our decision is to: Decline submission.

Three external reviewers supplied reports (see below); I have also attached
the file with the marginal comments of Reviewer C.

All three reviewers see potential in the manuscript and each recommends
major revisions are necessary before the manuscript is ready for
publication. The comments are the reviewers are quite detailed, but in short
I believe it’s fair to say they all agreed that further theorizing and
deepened/more sustained analysis of events are necessary.

I hope you find the feedback from the readers helpful as continue to work on
this project.

Yours truly,

E Wayne Ross
Co-Editor, Critical Education
University of British Columbia
wayne.ross@ubc.ca

Reviewer C begins his comments as follows:

Reviewer C:

“Please see the uploaded document for my complete review of the manuscript. Review of manuscript: “A Critique of an Implicit Model of Collective Bargaining: The Nova Scotia Teachers’ Strike and a Fair Contract”

The manuscript has potential; however, it requires major rewriting. The present manuscript lacks a clear focus and coherence. The author implies that the focus of the paper is the Nova Scotia teachers’ strike and Brian Forbes’ perspective about collective bargaining in relation to that struggle. However, there is very little content in the article that addresses the NS teachers’ struggle, the collective bargaining process, or the ‘collective agreement’ that was the outcome.”

The academic did not even understand the point of the article. I hardly implied “that the focus of the paper is the Nova Scotia teachers’ strike and Brian Forbes’ perspective about collective bargaining in relation to that struggle.” The focus of the article is on Brian Forbes’ perspective on collective bargaining in general as illustrated by his implied view of the fairness of collective bargaining in the case of bargaining and the breach of that form of what he considers fair collective bargaining by the Nova Scotia government.

The Nova Scotia teachers’ strike was an occasion to critically analyze a general perspective on collective bargaining by a former head of the Nova Scotia teachers’ union. This perspective, in turn, is illustrative of many trade-union representatives in Canada, such as Tracy McMaster, president of Greater Toronto Area Council (GTAC), to which are affiliated 35 local unions of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU)), who referred to “decent work” and “fair wages” as something realizable in an employment relationship.

To be fair to the reviewer, in his long review, he does at one point correctly identify the point of my article: I wrote, on page 23:

Free collective bargaining cannot remedy the basic problem of treating human beings as means or things for others’ purposes

He wrote:

This seems to be the central thesis. Why not present this early as the focus the paper?

Part of what I was trying to do was indeed to show that collective bargaining and collective agreements cannot remedy this situation. However, since trade union representatives often claim that a contract is fair (even if they do not explicitly state it), my purpose was to criticize this implicit assumption. As I said near the beginning of the article:

The purpose of this article, though, is not to review the articles in the journal. Rather, it is to point out and criticize the hidden standard that is uncritically assumed by most of the authors of articles in the journal.

The reviewer fails to consider the need to criticize explicitly such hidden standards:

Indeed, only a paragraph is quoted in the words of Brian Forbes and the quote does not say what the author says it does. Forbes states that negotiating a contract with the full participation of the negotiating teams of both parties, instead of through backroom deals, would be an approach more likely to result in an agreement that both sides could live with. He was speaking about the process of collective bargaining, but the author claims that Forbes is referring to the outcomes of the process—the contents of the agreement. There is no evidence that this is the case.

This too is inaccurate. I explicitly state that the purpose of the article:

The purpose of this summary, however, is to provide the background for a critique of the implicit assumption by Forbes (and many of the other authors of the spring/summer edition) that the typical model of collective bargaining and the corresponding collective agreements constitute something that is fair or just to the members of the contract.

Process (collective bargaining) and product (the collective agreement) are both seen as limited, with the inadequacies of the process being reflected or expressed in the inadequacies of the product.

But let us look at my quote of Brian Forbes, or rather both what I wrote before the quote, the quote itself, and what I wrote immediately after the quote.

What I wrote before the quote:

The first question to ask is: Who is Brian Forbes? The brief biography at the end of the article provides a summary: “… a retired teacher. He taught for 30 years in Amherst and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia before serving as President of the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union from 2000 to 2004” (2017, 29). The second question to ask is: What standard or criterion does he use to criticize what happened in Nova Scotia? A quote in the Herald News (Gorman, 27 November 2015) indicates what that standard is:

My quote of Brian Forbes’ statement:

What we suggest would be a reasonable way out is that the union … would say to the government, ‘There’s a lot of opposition to what has been presented to the members and very well may not pass and we should go back to the table, engage in proper collective bargaining, give the process time to work, discuss the issues that you said you want to discuss and try to arrive at something that we can both live with,’” said Forbes’.

What I wrote after the above quote:

The implication is that bargaining should occur through the bargaining teams ([quote of Brian Forbes’ statement] ‘engage in proper collective bargaining’). Further evidence of what Forbes believes is a legitimate or fair collective bargaining process is his statement in an information release from the South Shore District School Board, dated April 28 2003, when Forbes was president of the NSTU:

NSTU President Brian Forbes said, ‘The negotiations were conducted in a very professional manner, the resulting agreement was achieved in a timely fashion and teachers are satisfied with the results. I believe this agreement will not only benefit the South Shore District School Board and its teachers but, most importantly, the students.”

Indeed, the reviewer is correct to point out that Mr. Forbes is referring to the process of collective bargaining:

 Forbes states that negotiating a contract with the full participation of the negotiating teams of both parties, instead of through backroom deals, would be an approach more likely to result in an agreement that both sides could live with.

Forbes, unlike the reviewer, is not only referring to the process, but is implying that the process of collective bargaining in general leads to results that are fair. How else could “both sides live with it?” If one of the sides does not believe the agreement is fair, why would they comply with the provisions (except due to a consciousness of being forced to comply with the collective agreement)? Forbes , when he was president of the NSTU, links “the professional nature of the collective bargaining process” to the agreement being realized “in a timely fashion” and to teachers being “satisfied with the results.” Process and product are united. If the process is tainted (as it was in the case of the McNeil government), then the product will be tainted as well. Mr. Forbes does not explicitly state this, but it can be inferred from what he wrote. Such a connection between “free collective bargaining” and “fair contracts” (product) is constantly made by trade union reps either implicitly or explicitly.

The reviewer continues:

The preamble masks the real focus of the article, which is (apparently) a critique of the industrial model of labour-management relations and, in particular, a critique of business unionism within that model. At certain points, the manuscript becomes a critique of capitalism.

I explicitly stated, in the second paragraph, the following:

The purpose of this article, though, is not to review the articles in the journal. Rather, it is to point out and criticize the hidden standard that is uncritically assumed by most of the authors of articles in the journal.

That hidden standard, as I attempt to show, is the legitimacy or fairness of both collective bargaining as process and product—which is a legitimization of capitalism and the power of employers as a class.

The critique is hardly just of “business unionism”–but of unionism as an ideology that the left and the labour movement never questions.

The reviewer continues:

The problem is not only lack of clarity about the central argument, but the way in which the manuscript rambles and sometimes goes off on tangents that seem unrelated to the argument. Concepts and theories are not clearly presented (e.g., McAlevey’s ideas) and that leaves the reader floundering while trying to identify and understand the author’s argument.

Since the reviewer’s critique both distorts the nature of article and fails to understand the argument, I will leave it up to the reader to determine whether “the manuscript rambles….”

The reviewer continues:

Some of the claims made in the manuscript are not well supported. For example, the author claims that union leaders represent the voice of employers, not the voice of union members.

I never implied that. Unions are often contradictory, with elements that oppose particular employers in diverse ways. However, they generally accept the power of employers as a class, and that acceptance is expressed in diverse manners.

The reviewer continues:

I think he means to say that if a union operates under a business unionism model, the union leaders’ perspective about the labour-management relationship is likely to be skewed in favour of management’s interests.

This way of putting it is itself likely to be interpreted in a skewed manner. “Management’s interests” is often tied to a particular interest (this particular employer and this particular management structure). Unions have to deal with this particular structure, but my focus is on management’s interests as class interests and their representation of the power of employers as a class—and the ideology that expresses such interests—such as the so-called legitimacy of collective agreements.

The reviewer continues:

If the argument is that the NSTU operates according to business unionism, then this should be stated and supported with evidence. Making a generalization to all unions is wild and unjustifiable.

Hardly. Various posts on this blog express the hostility of unions (whether “business unions” or “social unions”) to my views.

Another example is the author’s assumption that all workers belong to a single class—a Marxist argument that has criticized and long-since debunked. It presents an overly simplistic representation of modern day capitalism.

This view that all workers belong to a single class as having been debunked is written from a purely academic point of view, of course. What would this academic do when faced with workers in the private sector and in the public sector—if s/he aimed to oppose the power of employers as a class?

Initially, as Geofrrey Kay and James Mott imply in their work: Political Order and the Law of Labour, those who work for an employer can be considered as part of the working class since they are economically dependent on a wage. The elimination of certain wage workers from consideration of the working class organizationally can then proceed; for example, one of the major functions of the police is to protect private property in general and capitalist private property; organizationally, they oppress the working class and cannot be considered part of it. Another group are managers. Some have the objective or material function of coordinating work, but this coordination is overlaid by their function to exploit and oppress workers.

In the private sector, part of their work makes pulls them towards the working class and part towards the class of employers; some of their work contributes to the production of surplus value and part of it to the extraction of surplus value.  In the public sector, bureaucratic and financial pressures also function to have managers pressure workers to work more intensely. Organizationally and partially objectively, they are not part of the working class.

I recommend to the author that he focus his paper on problematizing the taken-for-granted assumptions about collective bargaining, especially in the public sector, and especially in an era when governments have decided to use their legislative power to legislate so-called ‘collective agreements.’

The point of the essay is to question the legitimacy of collective agreements even if the best-case scenario of respect for the process of collective bargaining and respect for its product, the collective agreement. To introduce the issue of back-to-work legislation would only cloud the main issue. The critique fails to understand the target of my criticism.

The reviewer continues:

If the argument is that the industrial model of labour-management relations does not (and possibly never did) work well for teachers and other workers, then focus on that.

Again, the argument is that no collective-bargaining process as such has definite limitations—limitations which the social-reformist left do not recognize or discuss. This academic’s own failure to understand the point of the essay illustrates this.

The NSTU case might be an example of the dysfunction of the arrangement but would not be the central focus of the manuscript. I recommend that the author read Tangled Hierarchies by Joseph Shedd and Samuel Bacharach to gain background information about the settlement between teachers and their employers that happened decades ago and what its implications are.

Any reference may be relevant. I will read this when I have the time. However, I will undoubtedly draw different conclusions than this academic if I do read it.

The reviewer continues:

Finally, if the present system of labour-management relations does not work, what does the author think should replace it? If the author believes that workers should have agency or control over their working lives, what would that look like?

To require this in an essay is absurd. One of the first things to do is to criticize the existing situation. What will replace this system is a related issue, but it can hardly be divorced from the definition of the problem. In other words, solutions are functions of problem definition.

The reviewer continues:

“What would be the pros and cons of such a model and for whom?”

What a stupid way of looking at the world—as if it were a question of listing the pros and cons and checking them off. For workers who work for an employer, being treated as a thing is the con; all other pros can hardly compensate for this treatment of human beings as things. Perhaps this academic would do well to consider whether her/his question would be appropriate in the context of the master/slave relation. Imagine if an academic asked the following question about slavery: “What are the pros and cons of such a model and for whom?”

As for what it would look like, I have specified that in posts what an alternative might look like (see for instance Socialism, Part One: What It May Look Like) but such a discussion would require much more space than that allotted by the journal, as I indicate in a previous post.

I suspect that one of the ways in which academic reviewers limit the publications of those with whom they disagree is by this method: the author, they claim, should have included such and such—whereas journals generally impose strict limitations on the length of journals.

The author needs to take into consideration that the public sector involves many stakeholders, not just employers and employees.

Firstly, who are these “stakeholders?” The concept of “public sector” independently of the employer-employee relation has no meaning in a capitalist context.

Secondly, in her/his detailed comments, s/he mentions “social justice for children, social justice for taxpayers, social justice for society.” The author simply assumes that the status quo will continue to exist.

In a society without employers, the tax structure would be very different (if taxes would exist at all)–a subject for debate). In a society without employers, the school structure would be very different, with a far greater integration of physical and intellectual activities than exist at present—the abolition of the division of labour between physical and intellectual (and artistic and aesthetic) activities. In a society without employers, society would be very, very different.

“How do we achieve social justice in a complex system? And social justice for whom? Should the rights of workers trump the rights of others?”

That of course would be up for negotiations, but workers are the “front-line” class who face employers directly. Other groups, as Tony Smith implies (Globalisation: A Systematic Marxian Approach) would definitely have their interests represented in a socialist society (which I have outlined in other posts), but the leverage for eliminating the class of employers and the social structures corresponding to their power must come from somewhere, and workers, being the front-line class which both positively faces the power of employers and negatively can oppose that power through their organization, are key. However, this is not the concern of this undoubtedly social-reformist leftist.

The reviewer continues: 

I recommend that the manuscript be rewritten and resubmitted for review. I have attached the manuscript with more detailed feedback.

Since I refused to rewrite according to the criticisms of these academics (undoubtedly some of the writing could have been improved—as can all writings), I decided to eliminate these “middle-(wo)men” and start my own blog. It is obvious that most so-called leftist academics lack a critical attitude towards the society in which we live. I naively expected more from a journal with the title Critical Education. What is meant by “critical” in the title is critical according to social-reformist criteria.

I should have been wiser; when attending university, when the professor was sympathetic to my views, I generally obtained better grades; when they opposed my views, I received worse grades. I also had my experience as a Marxist father to go by (see for example A Worker’s Resistance to the Capitalist Government or State and its Representatives, Part One).

Although workers’ experiences are hardly the last word, they should also form an essential part or any “Critical Education”–but the reviewers of my article obviously consider their academic backgrounds to be superior to anything workers’ experience on a daily basis at work–even in unionized settings subject to collective bargaining and collective agreements.

The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Nine: The Nature of Capitalism

Introduction

It is interesting that social democrats express themselves in different ways. Thus, Professor Noonan, a professor at the University of Windsor (Ontario, Canada), who teaches Marxism, among other courses, presents what he considers one of the major issues at stake in the struggle of the left against the right in his “post (really a series of posts) “Thinkings 10” (https://www.jeffnoonan.org/?p=4662):

… a small minority class owns and controls the natural resources that everyone needs to survive. Because they control that which everyone needs to survive, they force the rest of us to sell our ability to labour in exchange for a wage. Labour is exploited to produce social wealth, most of which is appropriated by the class whose ownership and control over natural resources grounds their social power.

Isn’t this just the picture that Marx paints? Yes, it is,

No, it is not. To present the ground of the capitalist class as control over natural resources requires justification. Nowhere does Professor Noonan provide such a justification–apart from his unsubstantiated reference to Marx.

Such a presentation of the nature of capitalism misses the specificity of the nature of capital and hence of capitalism.

Control over land (the monopolization of land or natural resources) is certainly a condition for modern society to arise, but this condition–“control over natural resources”–hardly “grounds their [the capitalist class’s] social power.”

What is different about modern exploitation is that workers are mainly exploited through control over their own products and the processes which produce those products by a minority–and not just control over “natural resources.” Workers themselves, through the objective relations between the commodities they produce, produce their own exploitation. It is the direct control over these produced commodities that constitutes the ground of the social power of the class of employers; control over natural resources is mediated through such control rather than vice versa.

Let us look at what Marx wrote on the topic, especially in the notebooks known as the Grunrdrisse (Outlines), found in volumes 28 and 29 of the collected works of Marx and Engels (Marx’s best friend and political collaborator). The following has to do with an interpretation of Marx’s theory, so there will be some quotations in order to refute Professor Noonan’s social-democratic reference to Marx.

Control Over Natural Resources Is Insufficient to Characterize the Nature of Capital(ism)

Ownership of Natural Resources (Landed Property) Characteristic of Non-capitalist Societies

Marx drafted (but did not publish) an introduction to what he planned to be his critique of political economy in August and September 1857. He wrote From volume 28(pages 43-44):

… nothing seems more natural than to begin with rent, with landed property, since it is bound up with the earth, the source of all production and all life, and with agriculture, the first form of production in all more or less established societies. But nothing would be more erroneous. In every form of society there is a particular [branch of] production which determines the position and importance of all the others, and the relations obtaining in this branch accordingly determine those in all other branches. It is the general light tingeing all other colours and modifying them in their specific quality; it is a special ether determining the specific gravity of everything found in it. For example, pastoral peoples (peoples living exclusively on hunting or fishing are beyond the point from which real development begins). A certain type of agriculture occurs among them, sporadically, and this determines landed property. It is
common property and retains this form in a larger or smaller measure, depending on the degree to which these peoples maintain their traditions, e.g. communal property among the Slavs. Among peoples with settled agriculture—this settling is already a great advance—where agriculture predominates, as in antiquity and the feudal period, even industry, its organisation and the forms of property corresponding thereto, have more or less the character of landed property. Industry is either completely dependent on it, as with the ancient Romans, or, as in the Middle Ages, it copies in the town and in its conditions the organisation of the countryside. In the Middle Ages even capital—unless it was
purely money capital—capital as traditional tools, etc., has this character of landed property. The reverse is the case in bourgeois society. Agriculture to an increasing extent becomes merely a branch of industry and is completely dominated by capital. The same applies to rent. In all forms in which landed property rules supreme, the nature relationship still predominates; in the forms in which capital rules supreme, the social, historically evolved element predominates. Rent cannot be understood without capital, but capital can be understood without rent. Capital is the economic power that dominates everything in bourgeois society. It must form both the point of departure and the conclusion and must be analysed before landed property. After each has been considered separately, their interconnection must be examined.

The issue can be approached from a variety of angles. One angle is how to divide human history into stages or periods. Of course, there are various ways of dividing human history, and some ways are more appropriate (depending on the purpose) than others. Marx at one point divided human history into three stages. From Dan Swain (2019), None so Fit to Break the Chains: Marx’s Ethics of Self-Emancipation, pages 31-32: 

In one passage in the Grundrisse Marx schematically divides history into three kinds of social forms:

Relations of personal dependence (entirely spontaneous at the outset) are the first social forms, in which human productive capacity develops only to a slight extent and at isolated points. Personal independence founded on objective dependence is the second great form, in which a system of general social metabolism, of universal relations, of all-round needs and universal capacities is formed for the first time. Free individuality, based on the universal development of individuals and on their subordination of their communal social productivity as their social wealth, is the third stage. The second stage creates the conditions for the third.

The third stage is conceived as merely the ‘subordination’ of – the exertion of control over – the conditions that exist in the second. This claim is no less necessary for being historically specific, however. So long as we want to maintain the huge advanced developments of capitalism – and we do want most of them – we cannot take a step back to small scale handcrafts. Thus the only option available to us, says Marx, is economic democracy.

Or again, as poin Paresh Chattopadhyay (2018) points out, Socialism and Commodity Production: 
Essay in Marx Revival, pages 239-240: 

Thus in his 1865 lecture (in English) to the workers, Marx speaks of three ‘historical processes’ of the relation between what he calls the ‘Man of Labour and the Means of Labour’ – first, their ‘Original Union’, then their ‘Separation’ through the ‘Decomposition of the Original Union’, third, the ‘restoration of the original union in a new historical form’ through a ‘fundamental revolution in the mode of production’. Earlier we referred to a passage from Marx’s 1861–3 manuscript where Marx, in the same way, speaks of the ‘Original unity between the labourer and the conditions of production’, as in family agriculture and ‘natural communism’, separation between them under capital and the ‘restoration of the original unity by means of a working class revolution’ (along with the rest of society).

A Condition for the Existence of Capitalism Is the Use of Produced Commodities to Oppress or Dominate Workers

Economic democracy, however, as a solution to the problems thrown up by capitalist development, must address the fact that both oppression and exploitation of the working class arises through the production of the conditions for their own oppression and exploitation and not just “control over natural resources” by the ruling class. It is control over produced resources, not natural resources, that forms an essential element of capitalism. 

From Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 28, pages 381-382:

Labour capacity has appropriated only the subjective conditions of necessary labour—the means of subsistence for productive labour capacity, i.e. for its reproduction as mere labour capacity separated from the conditions of its realisation—and it has posited these conditions themselves as objects, values, which confront it in an alien, commanding personification. It emerges from the process not only no richer but actually poorer than it entered into it. For not only has it created the conditions of necessary labour as conditions belonging to capital; but the valorisation [the impetus for producing surplus value] inherent in it as a potentiality, the value-creating potentiality, now also exists as surplus value, surplus product, in a word, as capital, as domination over living labour capacity, as value endowed with its own power and will confronting it in its abstract, object-less, purely subjective poverty. Not only has it produced alien wealth and its own poverty, but also the relationship of this wealth as self-sufficient wealth to itself as poverty, which this wealth consumes to draw new life and spirit to itself and to valorise itself anew.

All this arose from the act of exchange in which the worker exchanged his living labour capacity for an amount of objectified labour, except that this objectified labour, these conditions for his being which are external to him, and the independent externality (to him) of these physical conditions, now appear as posited by himself, as his own product, as his own self-objectification as well as the objectification of himself as a power independent of himself, indeed dominating him, dominating him as a result of his own actions.

All the moments of surplus capital are the product of alien labour—alien surplus labour converted into capital: means of subsistence for necessary labour; the objective conditions— material and instrument—so that necessary labour can reproduce the value exchanged for it in means of subsistence; finally, the necessary amount of material and instrument so that new surplus
labour can realise itself in them or new surplus value can be created.

It no longer seems here, as it still did in the first consideration of the production process, as if capital, for its part, brought with it some sort of value from circulation. The objective conditions of
labour now appear as labour’s product—both in so far as they are value in general, and as use values for production. But if capital thus appears as the product of labour, the product of labour for its part appears as capital—no longer as mere product nor exchangeable commodity, but as capital; objectified labour as dominion, command over living labour. It likewise appears as the
product of labour that its product appears as alien property, as a mode of existence independently confronting living labour … that the product of labour, objectified labour, is endowed with a soul of its own by living labour itself and establishes itself as an alien power confronting its creator.

Capitalism as the Use of Produced Commodities to Oppress and Exploit Workers 

The separation of workers from their conditions of producing their own lives (conditions of life), even if produced by them, does not however, yet constitute capital(ism). It is, rather, the structured process of forcing workers to expend more labour than the labour required to produce the conditions for their own lives, relative to From volume 28, pages 396-397:

Capital and therefore wage labour are not, then, constituted simply by an exchange of objectified labour for living labour—which from this viewpoint appear as two different determinations, as use
values in different form; the one as determination in objective form, the other in subjective form. They are constituted by the exchange of objectified labour as value, as self-sufficient value, for living labour as its use value, as use value not for a certain specific use or consumption, but as use value for value.

Hiring someone to mow the lawn does not make me a capitalist nor a member of the class of employers. This hiring process becomes a class relation in the first instance because the process involves a movement that involves a drive to increase more value through control over produced commodities which are then used to exploit workers further (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

By referring to the monopoly over “natural resources,” rather than over produced commodities by the workers themselves, Professor Noonan can then ignore the specificity of the nature of capital(ism). His own brand of social reformism can then be snuck in. He writes:

… but when we paint the problems of the world in ideological terms of “capitalism” versus “socialism” we get stuck immediately in an absolute opposition between political camps. Instead of arguing with opponents we shout at them. The other side does not listen but shouts back before both sides get tired and revert to preaching to the converted.

Getting underneath the political labels will probably not solve that problem. However, it does remove one rhetorical barrier to argument. If we can stop thinking in simplistic terms: capitalism=bad and socialism=good, then we can confront one another on the terrain that really matters: life-requirements and how best to distribute them.

The implication is that we should drop the opposition between capitalism and socialism–and focus on the issue of “life requirements and how best to distribute them.” Since “life requirements” applies to all societies (all human societies involve necessary conditions for human life to continue)–the specific nature of capitalism is lost.

It is not just a question of how “best to distribute life requirements.”–but of the form or structure or arrangement of the process that is involved in maintaining human life in a capitalist society. The very form, structure or organization of capitalist society is such that what is produced is used against workers–as a weapon against them to obtain surplus value in the private sector and to oppress workers in both the private and public sectors. Life requirements, being produced by workers, are used against workers in a capitalist society.

The concept “best distribution of them” sounds very similar to the social democrats Dhunna’s and Bush’s assumption of focusing on distribution of already produced commodities rather than the process through which they are produced in the first place (see 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). Is there really any wonder that Professor Noonan then opposes movements that pose the problems that we face in terms of capitalism versus socialism. To be sure, I have already noted the illegitimacy of treating capitalism as a catch-all phrase of capitalism this and capitlaism that among social democrats (see Socialism and Central Planning: Mr. Gindin’s Analysis of The Political Situation of Workers in General, Part Two), but if we are going to aim for a society without classes, then aiming to create a society without classes requires the elimination of social relations, social structures and political relations that support the specific nature of the kind of society in which we live and suffer, with systemic exploitation and oppression.

Marx would therefore disagree with Professor Noonan’s specification of the problem; it is not just “control over natural resources” that needs to be discussed and critiqued, but the separation, alienation and domination of workers’ own labour and life through its own labour and products. From Volume 28, pages 390-391:

The recognition of the products as its own, and its awareness that its separation from the conditions of its realisation is improper and imposed by force, is an enormous consciousness, and is itself the product of the mode of production based on capital, and just as much the KNELL TO ITS DOOM as the consciousness of the slave that he cannot be the property of another, his consciousness of being a person, reduced slavery to an artificial lingering existence, and made it impossible for it to continue to provide the basis of production.

By ignoring the specificity of capitalist relations, Professor Noonan then simplistically argues that merely referring to “life’s requirements” and “how best to distribute to them” form a necessary and sufficient condition for the realisation of a society in which there are no classes and no exploitation and oppression. He then claims that, by focusing on “life-requirements and how best to distribute them,”

individuals are freed to live the lives the want to live.

This is wishful thinking. Rather than engage in wishful thinking, Professor Noonan would do better to engage in a systematic critique of social democrats and their philosophies–for the domination of social democrats among “the left” is itself a problem.

Professor Noonan recognizes that it is a problem–but he does not address how to solve the problem:

Progressive taxation, the Green New Deal, reparations, public health care, and GBIs [guaranteed basic incomes] can be institutionalised in ways that do not fundamentally transform the structure of ownership and control over life-resources. They can all be sold as in effect ways to bolster consumer demand by putting more money in the pockets of ordinary Americans. If the ruling class is assured that it will get its money back in the end, they can be convinced to go along with the reforms (as they were, despite vociferous opposition, in the 1930’s by the original New Deal). In Canada and the United Kingdom, social democratic parties came up with the ideas for programs like public health insurance, but it was generally ruling class parties that implemented them.

Professor Noonan offers no solution to the problem of cooptation of the labour movement and social movements. Indeed, he naively assume that by referring to life’s needs that we will be able to advance by debating the issues–rather than seeing that it is necessary to engage in struggle and critique to debate relevant issues in the first place. He writes:

While the media (mostly the right-wing media) wastes time hyperventilating about small groups of naive Antifa agitators (it would not surprise me if their ranks were thoroughly infiltrated by the cops they want to abolish) much more important debates about serious institutional changes are underway in the United States. These debates will not get anywhere without patient, organized mass mobilisation and political argument. Some of these debates are about public institutions that have long been parts of countries with effective social democratic parties (public health care, for example). Some are specific to the history of the United States (the debate around reparations for slavery). Along with ambitious plans like the Green New Deal, discussions about a renewed commitment to progressive taxation, and perhaps even Guaranteed Basic Income projects, these debates move public scrutiny beneath the level of slogans and stories to what really counts: an understanding of who controls what and why.

Firstly, Professor Noonan should practice what he preaches. I tried to engage in debate with him some time ago (see The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part One)–to no avail. Secondly, he does not address how social democrats not only resist any discussion of relevant issues but go out of their way to ridicule those who attempt to engage in such discussion (see for example Do Collective Agreements Convert Working for an Employer into Decent Work?).

It would seem that Professor Noonan and I do, however, agree on the following: he implies that we should aim for a kind of society in which collective control over our conditions of life are to achieved:

The ruling class is good at playing the long game, and so must the Left be. It has to think of public institutions not in terms of income support that bolsters consumer demand for the sake of revitalising capitalism, but as first steps towards socialising ownership and control over the means of life.

However, the real Professor Noonan shows the true implications of his emphasis on the “control of life resources”–and his lack of understanding of the nature of capitalism–in a more recent post on the subject of collective bargaining. Compare the quote immediately above with the following (from the post titled “Social Democracy Meets Capitalist Reality” (https://www.jeffnoonan.org/?p=5008): 

Political persistence eventually changed the law, unions were formed, and over the next century succeeded not only in raising real wages (a feat that most classical political economists regarded as structurally impossible) but also helped democratize the work place, by giving the collective of workers some say in the organization of production (via collective bargaining).

Unions have certainly benefited workers in the short-term, but Professor Noonan simply ignores how unions often now function to justify the continued oppression and exploitation of workers (see for example  Fair Contracts (or Fair Collective Agreements): The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part One  or Fair Contracts or Collective Agreements: The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part Three: Unifor (Largest Private Union in Canada)). 

As for the claim that collective bargaining “democratizes the work place,” Professor Noonan undoubtedly works in privileged conditions relative to other workers and generalizes from his much superior control over his working conditions compared to most other workers (even when unionized). As I wrote in another post (What’s Left, Toronto? Part Five): 

Collective agreements, however, as this blog constantly stresses, are holding agreements that continue to express exploitation and oppression. A few privileged sets of workers (such as tenured university professors) may seem to have decent jobs, but even that situation has eroded over time. Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that such relatively privileged workers exist in a sea of workers, whether unionized or not, who are things to be used by employers systematically and legally. University professors cannot engage in research, teaching and administrative activities unless there are other workers who produce their food, clothing, cars and so forth.

This division of labour is implied in a poem by one of the most famous poets of Gutemala, Otto Rene Castillo (from   Apolitical Intellectuals):

Apolitical Intellectuals

One day
the apolitical
intellectuals
of my country
will be interrogated
by the simplest
of our people.

They will be asked
what they did
when their nation died out
slowly,
like a sweet fire
small and alone.

No one will ask them
about their dress,
their long siestas
after lunch,
no one will want to know
about their sterile combats
with “the idea
of the nothing”
no one will care about
their higher financial learning.

They won’t be questioned
on Greek mythology,
or regarding their self-disgust
when someone within them
begins to die
the coward’s death.

They’ll be asked nothing
about their absurd
justifications,
born in the shadow
of the total lie.

On that day
the simple men will come.

Those who had no place
in the books and poems
of the apolitical intellectuals,
but daily delivered
their bread and milk,
their tortillas and eggs,
those who drove their cars,
who cared for their dogs and gardens
and worked for them,
and they’ll ask:

“What did you do when the poor
suffered, when tenderness
and life
burned out of them?”

Apolitical intellectuals
of my sweet country,
you will not be able to answer.

A vulture of silence
will eat your gut.

Your own misery
will pick at your soul.

And you will be mute in your shame.

Collective agreements do not exist in a vacuum but form part of interrelated social relations; to exclude such relations when considering the nature and legitimacy of collective agreements is to empty collective agreements of the background conditions which give them meaning in the first place.

Collective agreements by no means help to “democratize the work place.” They certainly are not “first steps towards socialising ownership and control over the means of life.”  Professor Noonan seems to be aware of this and yet idealizes collective agreements by claiming that they somehow “democratize the work place.” If however capitalist society is characterized by the use of commodities produced by workers to oppress and exploit them, then collective agreements (except for a small minority of workers–such as tenured professors) merely limit the power of employers to oppress and exploit workers–but do not by any means form even the first step in the democratization of the work place. 

What are these “first steps towards socialising ownership and control over the means of life?” Professor Noonan fails to specify what they are. Why is that? 

I will leave Professor Noonan with his “democratized work place.” Undoubtedly he enjoys a fair amount of control over his work; he is a tenured professor at the University of Windsor. What of the support workers at the University of Windsor? Do they?