The Canadian Labour Congress’s Idealization of the Collective-Bargaining Process

Relatively recently,  Hassan Yussuff, the president of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), wrote an article praising collective bargaining:

Collective bargaining is good for everyone

December 23, 2019

By Hassan Yussuff, as published in the Globe and Mail.  

The holidays aren’t solely about gift-giving and spreading good cheer. Many workers find themselves having to walk a picket line around this time of year.

Everywhere you look these days, teachers, public transit workers, railway and refinery workers seem to be involved in some kind of job action as contracts expire and end-of-year negotiations fail.

It can be frustrating for those affected and may even seem unfair that workers disadvantage the public in pursuit of better working conditions and better wages.

But make no mistake, collective bargaining is a fundamental right that helps ensure workers are getting their fair share. This is especially true when we consistently see certain governments, shareholders and corporate CEOs squeezing workers in order to improve their own bottom lines. “Without the right to pursue workplace goals collectively, workers may be left essentially powerless in dealing with their employer or influencing their employment conditions,” reads a 2015 Supreme Court of Canada ruling upholding the right of RCMP officers to unionize.

Unsurprising that some employers, private interest groups and opinion shapers insist on back-to-work legislation whenever a group of workers flexes collective muscle. But the reality is that work stoppages are a rarity—with almost all collective agreements in Canada reached and renewed without a strike or lockout.

In fact, strikes and lockouts happen far less frequently today than in the past. Days lost to work stoppages in federal private-sector, where CN Rail workers recently struck for several days, are well below levels reached earlier this decade. For instance, in 2019, monthly work stoppages recently dipped to a low of 13 for the entire country. This is well below 2017 and 2018 averages.

Collective bargaining is functioning exactly as intended. Workers leverage their collective strength in order to influence the terms and conditions of their employment. Their efforts to stand up for themselves will often have a ripple effect, improving conditions for non-unionized workers in related industries as well as for the people they serve. When teachers oppose larger class sizes and rail engineers insist on safety improvements, the public directly benefits, too.

The significantly low unemployment rate is also contributing to renewed confidence among workers. More discouraged workers and those overcoming barriers to employment have been able to find work. The number of underemployed workers, like part-timers who prefer but can’t find full-time hours, have ebbed.

This is long overdue. For a decade, young people have been graduating into a high unemployment job market with limited prospects. Women and newcomers to Canada have struggled with a shortage of decent jobs.  While joblessness remains far too high in oil-producing provinces and the Atlantic region (in Alberta, it hovers at a shocking 20% for males under the age of 25), there are gains elsewhere. In Ontario, Quebec and BC, the improving job market has allowed wages to tick up – finally. Since mid-year, wage growth has begun to pick up, averaging over 4%.

During the last ten years of sluggish growth, high unemployment and weak wage gains, typical workers in Canada have seen very little improvement in their wages, adjusted for inflation. Flat earnings are partly responsible for the fact that debt as a share of household disposable income has doubled in the past 25 years. Furthermore, fewer workers even belong to a union at all which often translates in lower earnings and fewer benefits and little recourse to improve matters. Compounded with the rise of the gig economy and with more companies outsourcing work, it’s that much harder for workers to unionize as we are seeing at corporations like IBM and Amazon.

In the meantime, Canada’s top corporate CEOs were paid nearly 200 times what the average worker made in 2017. In 2018, quarterly operating profits reached a post-recession high. Workers have spent the ‘recovery’ simply fighting to hold onto what they have.

It’s not just unions that welcome a stronger labour market and decent wage gains. The Bank of Canada also thinks it’s a good idea. Because inflation remains well under control, it has hesitated to raise interest rates. That’s a good strategy because it helps reduce inequality and strengthens the ability of households to cope with debt, food and shelter costs.

We must all recognize that even when work stoppages do happen, they are simply evidence that the collective bargaining process is working. Despite occasional work-to-rule and walk-outs, this is actually a very good thing because it ensures workers still have a say – as they should.

To be sure, it is generally preferable for workers and their representatives to participate in collective bargaining in order to obtain a collective agreement, but the idealization of the process and the resulting collective agreement, as well as the exaggeration of the fairness of the process and the resulting collective agreement, simply ignores the reality of the power of employers and their representatives (management).

In the article, Mr. Yussuff implies that, through the collective-bargaining process and the resulting collective agreement, workers can obtain their “fair share.” Mr. Yussuff provides no evidence of this. A fair share is presented only in terms of shaping the collective working conditions and wages of workers but not in actually controlling those collective working conditions by those who actually do the work–economic democracy or socialism (see the series of posts on what socialism would like on this blog). Mr. Yussuff ignores the implicit or explicit management rights’ clauses in collective agreements (see numerous examples of explicit management rights’ clauses in collective agreements on this blog, for example, Management Rights, Part Two: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario).

There is obviously a pattern that often shows up in social-democratic rhetoric–how marvelous collective bargaining and collective agreements are (see my criticism of Jane McAlevey’s idealization of the collective bargaining process and the resulting collective agreement on this blog) as well as my review of her book in the Publications and Writings Section of this blog) .

It is interesting that Mr. Yussuff also tries to “sell” collective bargaining and collective agreements by implying that the proper functioning of collective bargaining and collective agreements results in fewer strikes:

In fact, strikes and lockouts happen far less frequently today than in the past. Days lost to work stoppages in federal private-sector, where CN Rail workers recently struck for several days, are well below levels reached earlier this decade. For instance, in 2019, monthly work stoppages recently dipped to a low of 13 for the entire country. This is well below 2017 and 2018 averages.

Collective bargaining is functioning exactly as intended.

At least Ms. McAlevey considers strike activity to often be necessary to back up the collective bargaining process whereas Mr. Yussuff’s more conservative stance considers strikes to be a last-ditch effort to be avoided if at all possible. On the other hand, both her and Mr. Yussuff consider the collective-bargaining process to be somehow capable of realizing fairness at the workplace. How this is in fact the case no trade unionist has ever explained to me in the face of the power of the class of employers.

Mr. Yussuff’s idea that workers should have a say minimizes the need for workers to have the say in their work lives–in conjunction with local communities–and not “a say”–as if they were condemned forever as a junior “partner” in the capitalist corporation.

The conservatism of the Canadian labour movement is astounding–but the left here in Toronto (and probably elsewhere) remain silent about such conservatism–since they share the same assumption of the legitimacy of the collective-bargaining process and collective agreements.


What’s Left, Toronto? Part Four

As I indicated in an earlier post, on September 19, 2018, several leftist activists gave a talk about what was to be done in the city of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The talks were posted on the Socialist Project website on October 7, 2018 (also posted on YouTube) (What’s Left, Toronto? Radical Alternatives for the City Election). As I indicated in my earlier post, over the next few months, I will be analyzing some or all of the talks from a Marxian perspective.

Taraneh Zarin is a graduate student at the University of Toronto and active in the Free Transit Toronto movement. She spoke about the primary aim of that movement as the abolition of fares for public transit. The abolition of fares would permit the racialized poor the same access to mobility as those wealthier inhabitants of Toronto. Ms. Zarin argues that this is unfair.

It would also limit climate change by reducing the carbon imprint and would reduce the experience of gridlock which characterizes Toronto (like many other capitalist cities). It would, on th one hand, eliminate the need for transit fare officers, who often harass the poor by obliging them to show proof of payment (and, if found guilty, are fined $200); on the other, it would eliminate the need for expensive fare systems (such as the recent switch to the Presto card system, which has now cost $1 billion).

If free public transit were available, there would undoubtedly be a surge in ridership. Indeed, Mayor John Tory’s decision to eliminate fares for children under 12 years old led to the doubling of ridership, from 11 million to 22 million in 2016. Hence, if free public transit were available to all, we could expect an even larger increase in ridership. Hence, it would be necessary to expand public transit infrastructure.

Ms. Zarin justifies her call for free public transit because it is unfair for some with more money to have greater power to be mobile than others.

What must be asked is: How is the call for free public transit a reform that may lead to challenging the class power of employers? The answer is: It is unlikely to lead to a challenge to the class power of employers by itself. It is a reform that is consistent with the power of employers (although the extent to which it is consistent is probably dependent on the specific circumstances of each city/region/country).

For example, as Ms. Zarin points out, free public transit exists in Tallinn, Estonia and that it is being extended to the whole country. This move has certainly not challenged the power of employers in Estonia. One analysis of Estonia characterizes it thus (M. Feldman(2017). Crisis and opportunity: varieties of capitalism and
varieties of crisis responses in Estonia and Slovenia. European Journal of
Industrial Relations, 23(1), page 7):

Estonia has been characterised as a liberal market economy with decentralized market institutions (Feldmann, 2013b) and a very limited role for social dialogue or wage bargaining (which tends to occur mostly at the firm level). Estonia has also consistently had one of the most open economies, and its state has been described as pursuing a neoliberal version of capitalism with a small welfare state (Bohle and Greskovits, 2012).

In relation to industrial relations and the market for workers, the same author comments (page 8):

Estonia has decentralised industrial relations, incl. the lowest unionisation rate amongst the new member states and relatively low collective bargaining coverage. As in most of Central and Eastern Europe, the company level is the primary bargaining level in Estonia, with the transport and energy sectors being the most successful examples of social dialogue and collective agreements at the sectoral level (Espenberg and Vahaste, 2012: 32-3). In addition, there have also been a few social pacts at the national level, usually when the Social Democrats (until 2004 known as the Moderates) have been part of the government (Vare and Taliga, 2002).

As can be seen, free public transit as a policy need not conflict with the class power of employers.

One of the reasons why Estonia has been able to implement free public transit is the heavy subsidies that this sector already received before the implementation of the policy–something which Ms. Zarin fails to mention (from Estonia Will Roll Out Free Public Transit Nationwide):

Why is Estonia going so big on free transit now? At its root, this is a form of fiscal redistribution.

That’s because Estonia’s public transit already gets extremely generous subsidies. The state-owned railway operator Elron, for example, will get a €31 million boost from taxpayers next year. The rural bus routes due to go free, meanwhile, are already subsidized to up to 80 percent of cost as it is. Making them entirely fare-less should only cost around €12.9 million ($15.2 million) more—not a vast amount for even a small country such as Estonia.

Getting rid of ticket sales and inspections, meanwhile, will eliminate some overhead—and also cut down on delays. I couldn’t turn up any figures on the actual cost of charging for Estonian bus travel, but on larger, more complex networks such as New York’s MTA, it can reach 6 percent of all budget. When only 20 percent of the bus network’s costs are being recouped from fares, it’s easy to see how maintaining a ticket sale and inspection system can come to seem like a burden worth shedding.

As Ms. Zarin admits, the largest part of the operating budget for the TTC comes from fares, so the implementation of free public transit in Toronto would likely encounter much more resistance from the municipal and provincial governments. This implies that such a reform has more potential for challenging the power of employers than is the case in Tallinn, but in itself it is unlikely to constitute a major challenge since other cities and capitalist countries besides Tallinn and Estonia are either contemplating implementing free public transit or have already done so.

Dunkirk, France (population around 200,000), introduced free public transit, several cities throughout the world have also done so, and some European cities are contemplating it (from ‘I leave the car at home’: how free buses are revolutionising one French city):

Free urban transport is spreading. In his research Wojciech Keblowski, an expert on urban research at Brussels Free University, says that in 2017 there were 99 fare-free public transport networks around the world: 57 in Europe, 27 in North America, 11 in South America, 3 in China and one in Australia. Many are smaller than Dunkirk and offer free transit limited to certain times, routes and people.

In February this year, Germany announced it was planning to trial free public transport in five cities – including the former capital Bonn and industrial cities Essen and Mannheim. In June this was downgraded to a slashing of public transport fares to persuade people to ditch cars.

The largest in the world is in Changning , in China’s Hunan province, where free transit has been in operation since 2008. Passenger numbers reportedly jumped by 60% on the day it was introduced.

A study into free public transport by online journal Metropolitics found an increase in mobility among older and younger people, and an increased sense of freedom

It cannot be said, then, that this proposal of free public transit is radical since it does not generally question the power of employers as a class.

Should such a policy be supported by the radical left? Yes–but with the necessary condition that any attempt to claim that this is somehow radical or revolutionary should be criticized. Life may be enhanced through free public transit immediately for the poorer sections of the working class and, in the medium to long term, environmental conditions may improve.

A further aspect should be considered–about which Ms. Zarin was silent. What about the Estonian bus drivers? Even with free public transit, bus drivers are still used as means–as things–to ends over which they have very limited say (for a general view, see in general The Money Circuit of Capital). Furthermore, strikes have occurred in Estonia by bus drivers due to relatively low wages when compared to workers in Helsinki) (see Bus drivers to hold warning strike in 3 Estonian regions  and Helsinki and Tallinn compete over bus drivers). Ms. Zarin completely neglects to look at working conditions in Estonia in general and the working conditions of bus drivers in Estonia in particular.

Should the reformist left present this policy as somehow “fair” or “just,” then it should be criticized. Just as free public healthcare can make life more livable for the working class (as it does in Canada), so too can free public transit. That would not change the general tenor of life in Canada–unless a movement towards free public transit were linked to a movement towards challenging the power of employers as a class.

So far in this series, there has really been no discussion of radical politics. Up to now, all discussion and proposals fail to challenge the power of employers as a class–a typical social-reformist left tactic of presenting what is not in fact radical as something essentially radical.