The Contradictions of Social Democracy: Mr. Gindin’s Musings on the Closure of GM’s Oshawa Plant

The following is a critique of an article written by Sam Gindin before the coronavirus pandemic emerged. It is relevant to the current situation because of the current call for public ownership as a solution to the problems that we face.

 

Mr. Gindin published an article on February 3, 2020, titled Realizing ‘Just Transitions’: The Struggle for Plant Conversion at GM Oshawa. Here Mr. Gindin attempts to criticize, on the one hand, what happened at GM Oshawa (elimination of around 2200 direct jobs when GM closed the auto plant), and on the other to suggest what should be done to prevent such a situation to arise in the future. However, his own social-democratic position, with its implicit assumption of not challenging the power of the class of employers, shines through in the article.

Mr. Gindin claims that GM’s decision to close, among other plants, the GM Oshawa plant left the recently elected Conservative government of Doug Ford “red-faced”:

The response of the federal government, which had used the preservation of jobs to justify giving GM billions in public funds during the financial crisis, was a tepid ‘disappointment’. The provincial government, which had been plastering the province with the slogan ‘Ontario is open for business’ was left red-faced when, as its billboards were going up, GM announced the closing of one of the largest workplaces in the province.

Where is there evidence that the Ford government was embarrassed at all? The idea of “open for business” includes the idea that, in the competitive struggle for survival, corporations will sometimes close down. The obverse side of “open for business” is–“closed for business.” Corporations are free to decide to open and close doors as they see fit–such is the nature of neoliberalism. Or is that not so?

Mr. Gindin then criticizes Ms. Dias, head of Unifor (which represented the workers at GM Oshawa):

Nor did the autoworkers’ union, Unifor, escape its own share of discomfort. Less than two years earlier, its leadership had negotiated lower wages and pensions at GM for new (essentially younger) workers in spite of those workers doing exactly the same job as those beside them. This betrayal of union solidarity was sold to the members as a victory because of its promised retention of jobs. When the closure exposed the job ‘guarantees’ as a sham, the national president reacted with predictable bluster and launched a public relations campaign to shame the corporation into reversing its decision.

Undoubtedly, Mr. Dias would have preferred for the plant not to close. To prevent such an action, Mr. Dias negotiated a collective agreement that involved “lower wages and pensions at GM for new (essentially younger) workers in spite of those workers doing exactly the same job as those beside them.” Mr. Gindin objects to such a negotiated agreement on the basis of “union solidarity.” The principle of union solidarity, it would seem, involves attempting to have all union members who are doing the same job to be treated in the same way. (Note that Mr. Gindin does not refer to “labour solidarity” or “worker solidarity” but “union solidarity.” Mr. Gindin is a friend of–unions. As I argued in another post, he is too close to unions to adequately criticize them. But that just as an aside).

Mr. Gindin then refers to how this “betrayal to union solidarity was sold to the members of a victory because of its promised retention of jobs.” It is of course possible to criticize Mr. Dias and others for sacrificing some workers in exchange for an impossibly guaranteed retention of jobs. However, Mr. Gindin does not explicitly question the power of employers to make decisions that involve closing down plants. Such power forms part of management rights and is often embodied in a management rights clause, implicitly if not explicitly. Why does Mr. Gindin not criticize this fundamental right?

And why does he not criticize the attempt by many unions to “sell” negotiated collective agreements on the basis of “fairness,” “decent work” and so forth? He certainly criticizes Mr. Dias’ attempt to “sell” the betrayal to union solidarity” in relation to the creation of a two-tiered collective agreement–but he nowhere criticizes the implicit or explicit acceptance of unions and negotiating committees to the legitimacy of collective agreements. Union reps often “sell” negotiated collective agreements that need to be ratified to their members by referring to them as “fair contracts”

“We have been trying to negotiate a fair contract for seven months,” said James Nugent, the bargaining team’s chief spokesperson [for CUPE Local 3902, or the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3902]. “We’ve been fighting for better learning conditions for our students and better working conditions for our members. Last night, our members sent us back to the bargaining table to keep fighting for those things, and that’s what we intend to do.”

Union reps often try to “sell” this ideology of “fair contracts” to their members. Why does not Mr. Gindin criticize this ideology and not just the ideology of two-tiered contracts? What happens if a collective agreement does not have a two-tiered provision? Does that then make it a “fair contract?” Mr. Gindin is silent over the issue–as are union reps. Why this silence?

Mr. Gindin then has a section that outlines an alternative:

Toward an Alternative

A small group of rank and file Oshawa workers and retirees understood that far more was needed; both logic and history suggested that appealing to GM to rethink their cold calculations was naïve. They joined with other community allies, including the Durham Labour Council and supporters from the Toronto-based Socialist Project, to establish Green Jobs Oshawa. Its mandate was to explore and organize around other possibilities for the Oshawa facility.

A problem already arises. I am ignorant of the specific nature of the Durham Labour Council, but the Toronto and York Region Labour Council does not call into question the legitimacy of the power of employers as a class; rather, it presupposes such legitimacy (John CartWright, president of the Council, refers to “economic justice”–implicitly referring to collective agreements. See my post  Ontario Looks Right–With Some Help From the “Left” ). I have criticized  as well some of the views expressed by the Steering Committee of the Socialist Project (see The Socialist Project’s Critique of Doug Ford’s Attack on Local Democracy Falls Short).

But let us proceed:

Four perspectives drove their ambitious proposal. First, GM was the problem, not the solution.

Yes, GM is a problem and not the solution–but it is not just GM that is the problem but the power of employers as a class, of which GM is only one example. Defining the problem only in terms of a particular employer is a typical social-democratic trick of focusing on one “bad” employer rather than the class of employers. Already, looking at alternatives seems limited.

Let us continue:

Second, expecting to compete in the market with China, Mexico or plants in the American south was no answer. It would only reproduce past pressures on wages and working conditions, past insecurities and past failures. Third, any alternative would need to introduce a product with special social significance. And fourth, the issue was not just jobs but retaining Canada’s manufacturing capacities.

Seeking an alternative product that would prevent competition with other workers in the same kind of market is certainly to be preferred. As for “a product with special social significance,” this issue is connected to the following:

The Oshawa facility could then be converted to assembling fleets of electric vehicles. The sale of these vehicles was to depend not on market competition, but a social plan based on direct government purchases of the products the government had invested in. The fleet vehicles involved would range from electric post office vans (as recommended earlier by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers) to hydro-electric vans, newly designed school buses, ambulances and police cars. With that base, the plant could also produce electric cars for individual consumers and, depending on how much space remained available, add other environmentally-related products.

The government would provide the bulk of demand for the output, with individual consumers making up any needed demand so that the Oshawa facility could be fully utilized (GM had identified under-utilization of the capacity of the plant as a major reason for its closing).

The government as the major consumer would also be the major owner:

In line with this outlook, Green Jobs Oshawa called on the federal government – or the municipal government with substantial financial and technical support from the feds – to take over the land and equipment idled by GM.

The government would then become both the employer and the major consumer. This solution may certainly have retained the jobs–but would not have changed the use of workers as things by government. Merely because the government is the employer does not prevent workers from being exploited and oppressed (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

Why did Green Jobs Oshawa not call on the government to take over the plant while concentrating decision-making power over the plant with the workers who worked there? Why did it not call into question the power of employers to make decisions at all that can affect the lives of many workers and the community–investment decisions? Why not use the GM shut down as an example of the dictatorial power of employers? Why this focus on the government as the saviour rather than the workers and the community?

Green Jobs Oshawa, rather, tried to evade this central issue:

The message was that jobs, the environment, and the industrial capacities for conversion and restructuring are inseparable. From that perspective, saving Oshawa was not an end point but a beginning and an example to build on.

Jobs, the environment and the industrial capacities for conversion are not just inseparable. To adequately address them, it is necessary to address the power of employers as a class, the infinite movement of capital (see  The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One) and the social and political structures that go with them.

The next section of the article is titled “Frustration and Persistence.” Mr. Gindin outlines what he believes is the cause of workers’ skepticism concerning such an alternative:

Frustration and Persistence

Green Jobs Oshawa developed a website, distributed leaflets to workers, held educationals and public forums in Oshawa and Toronto, organized petitions, commissioned a widely respected professional feasibility study confirming its case, received sympathetic attention in the press and gave numerous media interviews. Yet the committee couldn’t generate the necessary level of support, starting with the workers themselves.

The workers in Oshawa were frustrated and angry, but anger doesn’t necessarily translate into activism. Having experienced the steady drip-drip decline of the Oshawa complex, having recently suffered demoralizing defeats after defeats in bargaining, and now seeing the final end of vehicle assembly in the city, workers had shifted to survival mode. In that state of mind, most workers, it seemed, had simply stopped even thinking about possibilities. Nor was it unusual for workers to guard against hope creeping into their consciousness; risking the pain of once more seeing hopes dashed made even hope something to willfully avoid.

Though workers contacted by Green Jobs Oshawa generally considered the proposals on conversion as sensible, this was trumped by their skepticism of ‘sensible’ driving economic and political decisions. Critical here was the role of the union. As frustrated as workers were with the union, they still looked to its structures and resources for leadership, especially given the radical nature of the alternative proposed. But with both the national and local leadership not interested in and even hostile to an alternative, it was no surprise that workers were lukewarm to committing to a fight for a long-shot alternative.

Important here, as well, were the limits of the environmental movement. Environmentalists have most impressively raised public awareness of the looming environmental catastrophe. Yet they have been far less successful in getting the mass of working people on side. Two inter-related problems stand out. First, the promise of a ‘just transition’ is well-meaning but unconvincing to workers; workers rightly ask how such a commitment could be met in a society driven by competition and private profits. Second, with the environmental movement generally absent from workers struggles, developing ‘awareness’ could only go so far.

Workers have been indoctrinated from school to accept the power of employers to make decisions over their lives (as I show in a series of posts on indoctrination in schools via the silence of the Canadian history curriculum over the historical emergence of employers and employees. See, for example,     ). Various organizations and activities reinforce such indoctrination (union ideology of “fair contracts,” “decent work,” social organizations that deal with oppressing people in various ways (child and family services, social assistance, collection agencies, courts and the like). To counteract such indoctrination, it would be necessary to engage systematically in a critique of such indoctrination–but Mr. Gindin does not believe that such a systematic and engaged critique is necessary (otherwise, he would have engaged in such criticism when the opportunity presented itself in relation to pairing the fight for a minimum wage of $15 an hour with the idea of “fairness”).

The skeptical attitude of workers in relation to their own capacities for controlling their lives in the face of multiple forms of indoctrination and oppression is understandable, but Mr. Gindin ignores such indoctrination and oppression in practice.

The final section is called “Green Jobs Oshawa Lives On.” Mr. Gindin states what he thinks has and has not been accomplished in the Green Jobs Oshawa” campaign and what should be done:

Green Jobs Oshawa Lives On

Measured by its ability to keep the Oshawa facility humming, Green Jobs Oshawa was not successful; today, no more vehicles are being assembled in Oshawa. But measured by their work in placing a vital but largely ignored issue on the agenda – the steady loss of the productive capacity we will need to reconstitute the environment – brings a more encouraging conclusion.

 

Though the Oshawa facility is now quiet, the battle to revive it, with all its noise and productive bustle, continues. The facility still has waiting assembly lines, a body shop, a paint shop, and 10 million square feet of space. In Oshawa and nearby, there is no shortage of workers anxious to apply their too often underestimated skills, suppliers with flexible tooling capacities, and young engineers leaving university anxious to apply their knowledge to developing socially useful products. Green Jobs Oshawa continues to send out material and speak at events, making connections and spreading the urgent discussion of possibilities.

Workers – with the support of their union leadership where possible, on their own if that leadership is not sympathetic – should be setting up committees to consider the future of their workplaces and holding meetings to discuss the plant occupations, nationalizations and conversions in other cities facing major manufacturing shutdowns.

The Canadian Labour Congress should be supporting and coordinating such initiatives with its own research and also joining with the environmental movement to take the initiatives further. A significant step would be to lobby for a National Conversion Agency with the authority and financial and technical resources to intervene when plant closures occur or seem imminent.

Provincial federations of labour could focus on the environmental particularities of their own regions as, for example, the Alberta Federation of Labour has started to do in addressing how the inevitable transition away from oil could be economically and socially managed. This could include lobbying to establish local tech-enviro centers populated by the hundreds of young engineers mentioned above. Alongside coming up with possibilities for local conversion and development, they could contribute to spreading understanding to the community of what we face and what needs to be done.

For private sector workers, the crucial fact is that environmental pressures will require transforming everything about how we live, work, travel, and use our leisure time. Such a massive and unprecedented undertaking (the conversions entering and exiting World War II come closest) can, if done right, mean not a loss of jobs but a shortage of workers trying to meet society’s ‘regular’ needs and the demands of environmental reconstruction.

As for the public sector, the growing acceptance that environmental limits translate into limiting individual consumption in the developed countries leads to a greater emphasis on collective consumption. We are on the cusp of having to urgently redefine what we mean by ‘abundance’ and to place greater value on retrieving our time, leisure, social services (health, education), collective goods (public transit, libraries), and public spaces (sports, music, arts, parks) – a reorientation, that is, to the expansion of the public sector and public sector jobs.

Finally, for environmentalists, truly addressing the scale of what must be done means moving from a vague anti-capitalism to an aggressive – and confident – call for democratic planning and its corollary of fundamentally challenging corporate property rights. And addressing how to implement such policies, requires bringing the mass of workers on side to both the environmental necessities and to the overcoming of capitalism. This can only begin with actively supporting the defensive struggles of workers with the goal of linking them, as Green Jobs Oshawa has tried to do, to those larger issues of conversion and democratic planning in the shaping of the world to come.

In short, the issue is not simply a matter of bringing the environmental movement and the labour movement together; each must be transformed if the sum is to be more than the currently limited parts. The environmental movement must raise itself to a new level by concretely engaging the working class, and the labour movement must escape what, for it, has become an existential crisis. The threats and opportunities of the environmental crisis offer a chance for labour revival, but only if this incorporates a renewed approach to organizing, struggle, radical politics, and the maximization of informed membership participation. •

Mr. Gindin follows the British Labour Party, in its Manifesto, by jumping on the bandwagon of environmentalism–rather than focusing on criticizing the power of employers as a class (which would involve criticizing union ideology of “fair contracts,” “decent work,” “fair collective bargaining,” and the like) , first, and then linking that issue to environmental issues (see my post  The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One). Mr. Gindin only near the end of this section does Mr. Gindin address this issue:

Finally, for environmentalists, truly addressing the scale of what must be done means moving from a vague anti-capitalism to an aggressive – and confident – call for democratic planning and its corollary of fundamentally challenging corporate property rights.

But earlier, Mr. Gindin claims the following is the key issue:

But measured by their work in placing a vital but largely ignored issue on the agenda – the steady loss of the productive capacity we will need to reconstitute the environment

The deindustrialization of the advanced capitalist countries–is that really more important than another issue that has been “largely ignored”–the power of employers as a class? Which should the left focus on? And if we focus on the power of employers as a class, should we not criticize the ideology of many unions, which often try to sell the results of collective bargaining as a “fair contract?”

Frankly, Mr. Gindin’s approach fails to see the need for a rigorous and persistent struggle against those who justify collective agreements with such phrases. The same applies to other social movements who refer to “fairness” and the like. We need to use every opportunity to oppose such indoctrination.

Mr.Gindin, however, argues only for the positive side in the following:

Workers – with the support of their union leadership where possible, on their own if that leadership is not sympathetic – should be setting up committees to consider the future of their workplaces and holding meetings to discuss the plant occupations, nationalizations and conversions in other cities facing major manufacturing shutdowns.

To set up committees that are more than paper committees, it would be necessary to deal with the limitations of unions, collective bargaining and collective agreements while recognizing that collective agreements do provide some real protection for workers. If workers merely set up committees without engaging seriously in debate over the pros and cons of collective bargaining and collective agreements, then such committees will likely be isolated from the needs and interests of workers.

It is interesting that Mr. Gindin engages in abstract moralizing when referring to what the Canadian Labour Congress (an organization of affiliated unions that represent over three million Canadian workers) ‘ought or should do’:

The Canadian Labour Congress should be supporting and coordinating such initiatives with its own research and also joining with the environmental movement to take the initiatives further.

Another inadequacy of Mr. Gindin’s approach can also be seen from the above quote. Hegel, a German philosopher, saw through such empty phrases as “ought to” or “should” long ago (from the Encyclopedia Logic, page 30):

… the understanding, which regards its dreams (L e., its abstractions) as something genuine, and is puffed up about the “ought” that it likes to prescribe, especially in the political field-as if the world had had to wait for it, in order to learn how it ought to be, but is not. If the world were the way it ought to be, what then would become of the pedantic wisdom of the understanding’s “ought to be”?

This does not mean that we should not engage in wishing for what ought to be, but that what ought to be should be grounded in what is the case. What is the nature of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC)? Is it realistic to believe that the CLC would ‘support and coordinate’ such initiatives? See my criticism of the position of the president of the CLC, Hassan Yussuff, in The Canadian Labour Congress’s Idealization of the Collective-Bargaining Process.  Would it not be better to engage in criticism of the CLC–what it is, how it operates and so forth?

There are other problems with this last section. Reference to “democratic planning” clashes with the call for the government (a capitalist government) to operate as employer. How is there democratic planning when the government is the employer? This is to idealize the government and the public sector. This idealization also is expressed in the following:

As for the public sector, the growing acceptance that environmental limits translate into limiting individual consumption in the developed countries leads to a greater emphasis on collective consumption. We are on the cusp of having to urgently redefine what we mean by ‘abundance’ and to place greater value on retrieving our time, leisure, social services (health, education), collective goods (public transit, libraries), and public spaces (sports, music, arts, parks) – a reorientation, that is, to the expansion of the public sector and public sector jobs.

This uncritical reference to the “public sector”–as if working for the government were somehow not subject to exploitation and oppression–is typical of social democrats. So too is Mr. Gindin’s one-sided reference to challenging “corporate property rights” without challenging the power of the state as a capitalist state, on the one hand, and as an employer, on the other. Again, see the money circuit of capital link above for a critique of this view.

 

 

 

 

The Limitations of Social-Democracy in the Face of the Coronavirus

John Cartwright is the president of Toronto and York Labour District Council. According to the website of this Council:

The core belief of unions is in solidarity. We want every one of our members to feel they belong, to appreciate the gains that unions have made for working people, and to have a sense of our common purpose. For all of us, fairness matters. Winning union members to embrace those common values is one of the most important tasks we have.

It is in that context that we address the challenge of tackling systemic racism and building stronger unions.

By working together, we can nurture inclusive workplaces and strengthen our shared commitment to our union’s shared values of equality, respect, justice and dignity for all.

This sounds very radical. However, the claim that “fairness matters” and similar statements do not address the issue of whether Mr. Cartwright opposes the power of employers as a class or whether he accepts such power and merely aims to modify such power to the advantage of workers and the community.

To answer this question, we need to look at another statement made by Mr. Cartwright:

Speaking notes for CAW-CEP – A Moment of Truth Workshop

By John Cartwright, President Toronto and York Regional Labour Council

February 25, 2012

COMMUNITY POWER AND POLITICAL BARGAINING

  • Since its start, our movement has undertaken two kinds of bargaining – collective bargaining to determine terms and conditions in the workplace; and political bargaining to determine the conditions of life both inside and outside the workplace
  • The Canadian labour movement has fundamentally defined itself as a social union movement, guided by the slogan “What we wish for ourselves, we also wish for others”.
  • That has led to us taking a stance from the earliest days to speak out for public education, universal healthcare, public pensions, unemployment insurance, public transit, affordable housing and wide variety of social services
  • Those have been achieved through a combination of building mass popular movements and formal political action – the US experience serves as a sobering reminder of how narrow the political window can be without the existence of a social democratic party with labour roots, as we have with the NDP and PQ, despite their shortcomings

What are the shortcomings of the NDP (and PQ)? There is no elaboration, but at least we get a clearer idea of what Mr. Cartwright means by fairness–capitalism with a human face, or the welfare state of old.

This view is also expressed in the following:

JUST LABOUR vol. 8 (Spring 2006) [page) 92

EQUITY BARGAINING IN THE NEW ECONOMY

John Cartwright, President, Toronto and York Region Labour Council,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

When thinking about equity bargaining in the new economy we need to think about
both collective bargaining and political bargaining strategies. The gains of the union movement have been built on pursuing both of these strategies.In greater Toronto, out of the 2.3 million paid work force, over 1 million workers earn less than the
official poverty level. The vast majority of those workers are women and workers of colour. If we are going to talk about bargaining for equity, we need to address how to build power to bargain gains for these workers and how to transform
ourselves to build power.

The Labour Council is launching a major initiative – a framework for dozens of campaigns called A Million Reasons, because there are a million workers in this city below the poverty line and therefore a million reasons to raise wages, to improve labour law, and to improve standards and social programs.

In this framework we see four pieces crucial to building trade union power in today’s economy:

1. Protect good jobs in the public sector and private sector. That means that every
union needs to get involved in supporting each other’s struggles.

2. Bargain to raise standards sector by sector by establishing common bargaining. For example, we need to bargain standards for the hotel industry in the city, not just bargain with each hotel separately.

3. Mass organizing, especially with workers of colour. We need to forge ties and be
involved in the community organizing that is going on in local, ethnic communities,
asking them to tell us how to best support their struggles.

4. Use our power to protect and strengthen the social wage –all of those programs people think of as government programs. We need to reclaim these as the
programs we fought for and won politically – including workers’ compensation, health care, public education, child care, etc. The social wage is crucial, especially for low-wage workers of colour to achieve equity.

We certainly should try to increase standards for a whole industry and not just for a particular employer, and we should fight for improved community conditions, increases in the minimum wage and more social supports (the social wage).

Mr. Cartwright’s implicit standard, though, is “good jobs”–both in the private and public sectors. Good or decent jobs will not only lift those below the poverty out of poverty but will ensure that a social wage will be protected: “public education, public education, universal healthcare, public pensions, unemployment insurance, public transit, affordable housing and wide variety of social services.”

I have criticized Mr. Cartwright’s views before (Ontario Looks Right–With Some Help From the “Left”), but what inspired me to look a little closer at Mr. Cartwright’s views was an email I received from him today, March 24, 2020, related to the coronavirus crisis:

Dear Fred,

Every day, political leaders at all levels of government are making new announcements to respond to COVID-19 impacts, on both people and the economy. These have been crucial steps to ensure public safety and financial stabilization. Nobody knows how long this crisis will last, but we do know that when it finally recedes our world will look very different.

We cannot truly address the COVID-19 crisis if the responses entrench the social and economic dynamics that made us so vulnerable in the first place. Now is the time to remind our decision makers that their policies must not only seem fair for today but must also correct the growing imbalances in our society that are leaving too many of our neighbours behind.

Perhaps now more than ever, we see clearly that divestment in our public services and safety net has always been, in reality, divestment in ourselves. When any one person in Canada can’t access basic water and sanitation, medicines that they need or a fair wage, then we are all vulnerable.

This crisis hasn’t just created new disasters, it has taken root within the flaws of our existing system. Inequality in Canada has meant that now, in this time of deep need, we risk sacrificing the health and safety of vulnerable people for whom the social safety net has been weakened.

This inequality has been with us for generations, whether we consider the long-standing boil water advisories for First Nations communities or the ongoing austerity measures in our health care systems. The impact of social and political disparity puts many Canadians at increased risk because not everyone has access to basic lines of first defence such as secure housing or access to a doctor.

Governments across the country have taken quick steps to expand programs like Employment Insurance and Emergency Benefits, granting sick time, and pausing evictions or water shut-offs. Health care workers have again become heroes instead of targets for conservative politicians. Most importantly, people are re-discovering the reason why past generations decided to create strong public services that reach every community. Reinvestment in our public services and social safety net is the right thing to do – not only now, during COVID-19, but permanently in Canadian society.

Our economic system has allowed a small portion of society to gain the vast majority of benefits. Too many politicians have divested in public services and increased corporate loopholes, resulting in a reduced social safety net that sacrifices more and more people to the very real risks of unaffordable housing, lower access to health care, precarious work or, of course, to COVID-19. The climate crisis means that we will see an increase in health and extreme weather emergencies, making a just transition into jobs that bolster our environmental and social health even more pressing.

The expected bailout for the oil and gas industry is the exact opposite of this approach. That industry suffers from an unrelated and untreatable crisis of global price wars and a world that is leaving it behind for greener solutions. Instead of pouring good money after bad, our governments should create green jobs programs that reclaim land, support public health and reinvest in local communities. The loopholes that allowed these giant corporations to pay a pittance into the public sphere must be closed, along with those for the new digital commerce giants and others hiding fortunes in tax havens.

Nobody wants to see a repeat of the last financial crisis – when CEOs rewarded themselves with huge bonuses while people were losing their jobs and their homes. If any company is to be supported with public funds, ownership shares must be taken, or strong rules imposed to benefit ordinary people instead of billionaires. Why should banks be allowed to charge interest rates of over 20 per cent on credit card charges that many Canadians will have to rely on to survive? In exchange for billions in liquidity from the federal government, there should be strict limitations on gouging the public, during this time of crisis and beyond.

Government must show leadership in transforming our economy to one that works toward well-being for all of us rather than for the few. We have the momentum and opportunity to shift our systems to prioritize our care and wellbeing for the long run. While this crisis is unlike any in our lifetime, the Council of Canadian will organize to hold elected officials accountable, challenge corporate greed and fight for the common good – as we work together for a renewed vision of a better world for all.

In solidarity,

John
John Cartwright
Chairperson

Again, expansion of public provisions in health care, education, pensions and the like is better than their contraction. However, Mr. Cartwright still implies that employers are somehow necessary. In referencing “increased corporate loopholes,” he implies that if such loopholes were eliminated, then corporations would be legitimate. In other words, it is the old repetition of corporations paying their “fair share” of taxes.

/Furthermore, Mr. Cartwright’s demand for an expansion of public services and an increase in the safety net through education and health care does not even address the issue of the quality of such public education or health care. I have already criticized the Chicago Teachers Union’s assumption of the need to only expand educational “services” rather than a radical restructuring of the public education system (see, in the section Publications and Writings on the main page of this blog, “A Deweyan Review of the the Chicago Teachers’ Union Publication The Schools Chicago Students Deserve: Research-Based Proposals to Strengthen Elementary and Secondary Education in the Chicago Public Schools (2012). 

As for health care, in the first place, I have already addressed the inadequate nature of health and safety at the workplace in a series of posts (see, for example, Working for an Employer May Be Dangerous to Your Health, Part One). In the second place, see the last post for the beginnings of a critique of health care.

It is hardly sufficient to reinvest “in our public services and social safety net.” Like the private sector, such public services have been characterized by the dictatorship of employers (see The Money Circuit of Capital  and the series of posts  Employers as Dictators, Part One etc.).

Mr. Cartwright, as part of the social-democratic left, uses the period before neoliberalism as his standard. He wants to return to the ideal world of welfare capitalism. This standard is wholly inadequate for the creation of a fair society. Before neoliberalism, there was still the treatment of human beings at work as things to be used for the benefit of employers. There was, certainly, a more robust safety net than now, but even then such a robust safety net was always under threat by sections of the class of employers.

Even if we assumed that there existed a robust safety net, as long as a class of employers exists, such a safety net will always be threatened.

It is better to think about starting a movement towards the abolition of the power of the class of employers in order to create a society that can respond in a humane and timely fashion to threats to our common lives on this planet. Trying to recreate the social-democratic ideal of the past (the 1950s-1970s)–the social-democratic ideal of welfare capitalism– is utopian; if we are to meet adequately our common problems, we need to go beyond the rhetoric of improvements in the safety net. Such solutions are band-aid solutions that do not meet the challenges to our lives that we face in the 21st century. What we do not need is more social-democratic rhetoric.

It is better to think about how to create a movement towards a socialist society–a society without a class of employers.

 

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

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

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

She writes the following in her book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 1 discusses three such examples of women winning big.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Jane McAlevey is everywhere these days. Recently appointed a senior fellow at Berkeley’s Labor Center, she is now also a regular columnist for both the Nation and Jacobin. Her webinar (“Organizing for Union Power”) has a global audience. She continues to be called on to address unions and run training sessions in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Scotland, and Germany. In the midst of all this, McAlevey has just come out with a third book on unions and working-class struggles, A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing and the Fight for Democracy (and a fourth is not far behind).

So writes Sam Gindin in an article published on the Socialist Project’s website (“Workplace Struggles and Democracy: Challenges for Union Organizing,” December 13, 2019). Her popularity is undoubtedly due to her skills as an innovative union organizer and collective bargainer. It is, however, undoubtedly also due to her idealization of collective bargaining (and, implicitly, collective agreements)–which is a favourite tactic of the social-democratic left.

I reviewed Ms. McAlvey’s previous book, No Short Cuts: Prganizing for Power in the New Gilded Age before (see the section “Publications and Writings” on the home page of this blog). In that work, at least, Ms. McAlevey had an explicit section on the issue of the relationship between social structure and social agency (or conscious social action). I pointed out, in my review, that Ms. McAlevey, far from solving the problem, not only ignored the issue of the relationship between micro-organizing and the macro social structure but short-circuited the issue by identifying the solution to be micro-organizing at the level of the workplace. As a consequence, she idealized workplace organizing, collective bargaining and collective agreements.

In her latest book, she does not even seek to address explicitly the issue of the relationship between social structure and social agency. As a result, she continues to idealize local workplace struggles, collective bargaining and collective agreements. She also confuses the power of employers as persons and the power of employers as a class.

Rather than look first at some of the strengths of her latest book (which I already looked at in my review of her earlier book), I will look at the weaknesses of her book.

From Chapter 1 of her book:

Despite the weakened state of most unions, workers today who are either forming new ones or reforming older ones point us in the direction of how to solve the crisis engulfing our society and our politics. In the midterm elections in 2018—dubbed the year of the woman—the misogyny oozing from the White House was somewhat rebuked at the polls. Yet the year before, working women scored a series of thoroughly impressive wins, just after Donald Trump lost the popular vote but eked out a win from the Electoral College. Many of those victories received far less media attention. As in the midterm elections, men contributed to these wins, certainly, but the central characters were women—often women of color—who waged tireless campaigns of which the outcomes would have drastic consequences. Chapter 1 discusses three such examples of women winning big.

The arena for these battles was the workplace, in the mostly female sectors of the economy such as health care, education, and hospitality, but also in the tech sector, where sexual harassment and the gender pay gap serve as a stark reminder that, despite the tech elite’s rhetoric of building a new society, nothing much has changed, unless you count the creation of the new generation of Silicon Valley billionaires as progress. Women worker-led policy changes included people wresting control of their schedules away from tone-deaf managers, most of whom have never had to pick up their kids at the bus stop; securing fair and meaningful pay raises; achieving bold new safeguards from sexual predators; and ending racism and other discriminatory practices in their salary structure. The mechanism for securing these victories was the collective bargaining process [my emphasis], and each involved strikes—the key leveraging mechanism of unions.

Strikes are uniquely powerful under the capitalist system because employers need one thing, and one thing only, from workers: show up and make the employer money. When it comes to forcing the top executives to rethink their pay, benefits, or other policies, there’s no form of regulation more powerful than a serious strike. The strikes that work the best and win the most are the ones in which at least 90 percent of all the workers walk out, having first forged unity among themselves and with their broader community. To gain the trust and support of those whose lives may be affected, smart unions work diligently to erase the line separating the workplace from society.

Strikes (and well-organized and well-strategized strikes at that) will certainly form a part of a movement for the creation of a different kind of society, but already Ms. McAlevey idealizes the collective bargaining process. She never specifies how the collective bargaining process actually expresses anything more than some gains made by workers in the face of the overwhelming economic (and political) power of the class of employers.

I have persistently referred to management rights clauses in collective agreements–and collective bargaining and the resulting collective agreement do not address this issue except as a limitation (and not as a negation) of the power of any particular employer as a member of the class of employers (and that applies to both the private and public sector). See the various management rights clauses on this blog (for example,     Management Rights, Part Eight: Private Sector Collective Agreement, Quebec).

This exaggeration of the efficacy of the collective-bargaining process forms part of the exaggerated rhetoric of the social-democratic left–such as “fair contracts.” It is a sell job in order to get workers to support unions. This may have short-term gains, but when workers then experience the day-to-day grind of working for an employer (even a unionized worker and even deeply organized workers), the rhetoric of “securing victories” starts to wear thin. So does such rhetoric as the following:

The women-powered collective bargaining wins described in chapters 1, 5, and 6 represent monumental improvements to worker and community lives[my emphasis]  that happened much faster than traditional policy changes—unless, perhaps, you are the billionaire class.

What are these “monumental improvements?” In her previous book she often refers to “good agreements.” I compared one of her “good agreements” with a collective agreement between the brewery union to which I belonged and the employer. I concluded that the brewery collective agreement was probably slightly better–but that it hardly expressed a “good agreement.”

The reference to the billionaire class sounds very “class-like”–but there are also millionaires who are capitalists, and of course there are many workers in the public sector, many of whose bosses are not capitalists at all in the strict sense.

Although it is certainly necessary to personalize the employer class rather than always referring to such generalities as the “capitalist class,” the “employer class” and the like, the problem is not just billionaires but the economic, social and political structures that constitute the mechanisms by which workers are maintained as employees (and as unemployed and underemployed for a section of the working class). To reduce the problem to the “1%” may be legitimate as a short-hand for those structures, it may also hide the need to challenge these macro structures at every opportunity. By idealizing collective bargaining and collective agreements, on the one hand, and by reducing the power of the class of employers to “the 1%,” on the other, Ms. McAlevey simply ignores the problem of the relationship between social structure and social agency.

How are we going to solve that problem and control our lives by ignoring such a problem? How are we going to do when we read such rhetoric as:

It is precisely because unions can produce these kinds of gains, even in their emaciated state, that they have been the targets of sustained attacks from the corporate class. Unions’ track record of redistributing power—and therefore wealth—and changing how workplaces are governed is what led to a war waged against them by the business class. In just twelve years in the private sector, from 1935 to 1947, with massive strikes at the core of their strategy, workers made huge breakthroughs that benefited most people and created the concept of the American Dream—that your kids will do better than you, along with home ownership for workers and a right to retire and play with those grandkids.

“huge breakthroughs?” Ms. McAlevey is prone to exaggeration–as are many social democrats. Improvements there were, and such improvements as a rising standard of living in various domains are to be welcomed through struggling against the employer class, but this reference to the “American Dream” was hardly generalized, and one of the reasons why this Dream has increasingly vanished for the working class is the exaggeration of the gains achieved through collective bargaining, collective agreements and the union movement. Workers were still used as things for the benefit of employers-something which Ms. McAlevey never addresses (see  The Money Circuit of Capital).

Ms. McAlevey’s standard for improvement is rather low. Workers deserve much better–they deserve to control their own life process, and no collective agreement can ever do that.

Ms. McAlvey exaggerates often:

The methods organizers use to achieve these kinds of all-out strikes require the discipline and focus of devoting almost all of their time and effort reaching out to the workers who don’t initially agree, or even may think they are opposed to the strike, if not the entire idea of the union. This commitment to consensus building is exactly what’s needed to save democracy. To win big, we have to follow the methods of spending very little time engaging with people who already agree, and devote most of our time to the harder work of helping people who do not agree come to understand who is really to blame for the pain in their lives. Pulling off a big, successful strike means talking to everyone, working through hard conversations, over and over, until everyone agrees. All-out strikes then produce something else desperately needed today: clarity about the two sides of any issue. Big strikes are political education, bigly. [My emphasis] 

Strikes can indeed contribute to political education, but since there is evidence that Ms. McAlevey’s political education is drastically incomplete (ignoring the issue of the relationship between social structure and social agency and how to bridge the gap indicates a drastic lack of political education–as does the idealization of collective bargaining), “big strikes” do not necessarily generate certain kinds of political education.

As for saving democracy–political democracy has more or less existed (although even that is debatable), but the dictatorship which characterizes most workplaces–even unionized and radical ones–forms part and parcel of political democracy (see, for example, my post Employers as Dictators, Part One on economic dictatorship).

Ms. McAlevey refers to “working through hard conversations,” but when I tried to engage in such a conversation about the reference to “decent work” and “fair contracts,” with what I believed were the radical left in Toronto, I was insulted and ridiculed. I decided that such “hard conversations” had to occur without such insults and ridicule. I also decided to start this blog because, when I submitted an article for possible publication to the Canadian journal Critical Education, three anonymous reviewers rejected the article as it was and recommended extensive revisions. Since I did not consider their criticisms to be valid, I sought an alternative venue for expressing my views–hence this blog. (I will be posting their criticisms as well as my critical analysis of their criticisms in future posts.)

Ms. McAlevey often refers to winning “big”–while ignoring the impossibility of really winning control over our lives unless we address the macro issue. It is a definite limitation of her approach:

Chapter 1 discusses three such examples of women winning big.

The first chapter’s title is “Workers Can Still Win Big.” Ms. McAlevey refers to the strike of Local 2850 of Unite Here against Marriott Hotels in 2018. I tried to find the collective agreement but was unable to do so (if someone finds it, please send a commentary with the link). I looked at the UNITE HERE Local 2850 website, the American site for private-sector collective agreements, the following site Collective Bargaining Agreements File: Online Listings of Private and Public Sector Agreements – OLMS (Office of Labor-Management Standards), Department of Labor, United States) and the UNITE HERE Local 2850 Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/UniteHere2850/.

On the Facebook page, one reference to the strike provides some idea of what was won:

Today members of UNITE HERE Local 2850 at the Oakland Marriott City Center ratified an agreement with Marriott and will end our strike as of tomorrow. We thank our allies who supported us in our fight for jobs that are enough to live on in Oakland.

The collective agreement, then, in this judgement, permits the workers represented by the Local sufficient wages to be able to live in Oakland.

She does refer to the persistent sexual harassment to which many hotel workers have been subject and the measures that have been taken to address the issue–as indeed the Local should. The Local, through such representatives as Irma Perez, has expanded its work to include organizing to push for (and pass) legislation that addresses sexual harassment at work.

In a footnote, Ms. McAlevey writes:

Irma Perez, author interview. Irma is what’s called a shop steward in her hotel, so she’s deeply familiar with her own contract and the standards in her area. She states, “We have to clean 15 rooms a day at my job. But at hotels that are not unionized, workers have to clean 28 rooms a day, or sometimes even 30.” From my time working in Las Vegas, the same union versus nonunion standard applied to number of rooms cleaned per day, fifteen in a unionized hotel versus upward of thirty in a nonunion casino.

Cleaning 15 rooms rather than 28 or 30 rooms is certainly a large improvement in working conditions for those who clean hotel rooms. I remember my mother, a small woman (4′ 9″ or around 145 cm) working at a hotel in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, at a hotel. She found it difficult. She finally quit when her supervisor (a Yugoslavian woman) slapped her in the face. A reduction in the intensity of labour by almost 100 percent indeed is significant.

However, let us not exaggerate such a change. The hotel workers still must do what management wants in general–there is no dignity in that–nor equity.

The strike, implicitly, was about better pay in order to eliminate the need to have two jobs to make ends meet:

has the kind of energy that can motivate everyone on the picket line for days on end, dancing as she’s [Irma Perez] chanting to remind the workers and their supporters that they are fighting for a better life, for the freedom from having to work two full-time jobs. Every picket sign has the strike slogan and the worker’s demand, ONE JOB SHOULD BE ENOUGH!

The standard of having only one job that pays sufficiently well to make ends meet is certainly a standard worthy to fight for. However, this does not meet that it is an adequate standard to justify writing such things as the following:

In addition to the wins I’ve already listed, the three unions in the case studies here have secured the right to affordable, high-quality health care; equitable pay [my emphasis]; pay policies that eliminate gender and racial disparities, and favoritism; the right to keep control over your own schedule; improvements in safety on the job, for the workers as well as the patients, students, or guests; effective tools to combat sexual harassment; advances in paid time off, whether to have and get to love a baby, to take vacation, or get sick and avoid getting everyone else sick by going to work. Part of what makes unions and collective bargaining so effective is that workers themselves pull up to the negotiation table to decide how to redistribute the profits they make for others and design rules that actually solve their immediate problems. No other mechanisms engage the ingenuity of workers themselves.

Ms. McAlevey now engages in social-democratic ideology–“equitable pay,” “fair contracts,” “decent work” and the like are catch phrases used by the social democratic left to hide the continued dictatorship of employers over the lives of workers–whether unionized or not.

I probably received higher pay in the unionized jobs that I worked than the UNITE HERE Local 2850 workers, but to claim that what I received was “equitable” in any way simply ignores the issue of how it is equitable. On what basis does Ms. McAlevey justify her claim of equitable pay? She simply ignores the issue.

Furthermore, her reference to “redistribute the profits they make for others” assumes that it is legitimate for employers to use workers to produce a profit in the first place; fighting for complete control over the workplace (and the massive class struggle that that would entail) is simply ignored.

Of course, Sam Gindin and other social-democratic activists consider such explicit aims as “taking control of the economy” (at the grassroots level) as unrealistic under existing conditions. They believe in some magical future where the issue of the power of employers as a class will be addressed–they will always push such an issue to the waited-for future.

How any aim is to be achieved except by using it in the present to organize our present activities is a mystery to me–for that is what a real aim is and not a pseudo-aim. (Among children, the inductive approach of realizing an aim less explicitly may be more appropriate, and adults may even formulate more explicit aims of what they are trying to achieve after engaging in practice for a certain time–but then again, they may never do so). This does not mean that the aim has to be clear from the outset–far from it since aims are often clarified as they are put into effect. Nevertheless, an explicit aim of eliminating the power of employers as a class is certainly a legitimate aim to be put on the agenda of the working class and discussing it in the present–rather than putting it off to the distant future that social democrats are accustomed to doing.

I will continue a critical review of Ms. McAlevey’s book in another post.

The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Five: Middle-Class Delusions

This is a continuation of a critique of an academic leftist (aka academic historical materialist), the philosopher Jeff Noonan.


As noted in a previous post, Professor Noonan makes the following statement in relation to employees at a university (from Thinkings 4Collected Interventions, Readings, Evocations, 2014-2015, page 13):

Instead, all members of the institution– faculty, librarians, learning specialists, lab technicians, students, support workers, and administration have the same goal—the advance of human knowledge and creativity in the widest and most comprehensive sense. If that claim is true

Professor Noonan may respond that he wrote the above in hypothetical form–“if that claim is true”–rather than stating “That claim is true.” By not inquiring into whether the claim is in fact true, though, and proceeding on the basis as if it were true, he practically makes the claim that it is true.

Professor Noonan fails to consider the hierarchy at work as illegitimate; democracy for him, it seems, maintains a hierarchical division of labour; the difference is one where (page 13):

all the groups who together make up the university ought to cooperate (not without respectful disagreement) in the determination of the budgets, policies, rules, and goals that guide the institution’s mission. The best ideas emerge through deliberative and democratic argument—no one group knows best just because of the position they occupy in the hierarchy.

Given the employer-employee relation, Professor Noonan’s position is contradictory. If there is an unelected hierarchy, then how is their democratic argument? Does not an unelected hierarchy necessarily prevent democratic argument since democratic argument requires relative equality of power? In other words, Professor Noonan assumes a socialist organization in the first place, but in the context of an unelected hierarchy, which involves unequal power relations. Or does Professor Noonan consider that an unelected hierarchy does not involve unequal power relations?

Furthermore, given the unelected hierarchy, who will be at an advantage in “the determination of budgets, policies, rules, and goals that guide the institution’s mission?” Of course, academics and the upper echelons of administration. This situation is hardly democratic (although it is certainly to the advantage of tenured academics and the upper echelons of administration).

What is more, Professor Noonan’s implicit acceptance of the current structure of the division of labour hardly reflects a just society. as James Furner has argued, in order for there to be a free society, it is necessary to abolish occupational confinement and occupational identity (see https://www.academia.edu/24290808/Marxs_Sketch_of_Communist_Society_in_The_German_Ideology_and_the_Problems_of_Occupational_Confinement_and_Occupational_Identity ).

In addition, to claim that all workers at a university should have the same goal, where the economic relation of employer-employee is dominant, is to perceive the world from the upper echelons. Why should all workers at a university have the same goal when they are treated as things by the unelected hierarchy? Or are they not treated as things? How is it possible to not be treated as a thing when there exists an employer-employee relation? Perhaps Professor Noonan can explain how this is possible.

Finally, Professor Noonan advocates class collaboration, implicitly if not explicitly. His use of the verb “cooperate” indicates that he believes that all the diverse kinds of employees working at a university should get along in a collegial fashion in order to pursue the same goal. A Marxist, by contrast, would see that although workers have a certain interest in maintaining the university as an institution in the short-run because they need money in order to live, they are used as means for the benefit of the upper echelons’ purposes and are excluded in fact from doing so (see https://theabolitionary.ca/the-money-circuit-of-capital/). Calls for cooperation in such a context work against their own long-term interest of abolishing such a situation. Rather, calls for the intensification of conflict would be more appropriate since there is already an antagonistic relation between workers as employees and management at universities.

Professor Noonan’s position, is, therefore half-hearted. Rather than seeking the elimination of the power of employers as a class, he opts for the illusion of democracy in the public sector–as if that were possible given the dominance of the power of employers as a class in both the public and private sectors.

Such is the poverty of academic leftists, social democracy and reformist leftism these days.

Worker Resistance Against Management, Part Four

This is a continuation of a series of posts on worker resistance. The following was written by Herman Rosenfeld. Since it formed part of a course that he, Jordan House and I presented for workers at the Toronto Pearson International Airport, I am including the preliminary instructions and the subsequent questions so that others can modify and make use of it in similar courses.

Activity Sheet 3: Learning from Collective Resistance Experiences

This is a small group activity.
Read the story and answer the questions below together.
Be prepared to describe the collective struggle to the whole class, and report your answers.
You have 25 minutes to complete this exercise. [This exercise, initially, was combined with other experiences of resistance against management, so we permitted them 25 minutes.]

Overtime Action in the Ontario Legislature

In the early 2000s, members of a public-sector union in Ontario–policy advisors, analysts and other public-service workers–were fighting their employer, the Government of Ontario, for a first overtime provision in their collective agreement. Up until that time, members of the union could be forced to work unlimited hours. The Employment Standards Act does not apply to most civil servants.

As bargaining got started, it became clear the employer did not want to bargain the overtime provision. The union had made it a priority, in part because it was known that many members worked several uncompensated hours on a weekly basis.

The union is organized into chapters along ministry lines. The chapter at the Ministry of Labour was typically the most radical in the union and included people who well understood the challenges facing the union movement in the province. Conscious of the fact that the overtime provision was going to be tough to win, the chapter hatched a plan, with the quiet endorsement of the union’s head office.

When the legislature is in session, policy advisors are expected to complete their House notes by 8:30 a.m. These are documents that government ministers read from when asked questions in the House by opposition members. House notes often take up to one hour to complete. The chapter identified House note “production” as a pressure point that could be used in bargaining. Not having house notes when needed, if done as a collective act, would send a strong message to the employer. That first week the House was in session, the chapter made sure that every House note that was to be delivered to the Minister arrived an hour late. The Minister found herself in the House with no papers to read from when called upon to answer questions. It was an embarrassing performance, indeed!

The message was sent. The following week the employer began to bargain the overtime provision, which was eventually won a few months later and incorporated into a new collective agreement. The Labour Chapter understood how to keep up the pressure in the context of bargaining. The tactic with House notes forced the employer to bargain a provision that the entire membership now benefits from.

Questions

  1. How might this example show that worlplace cultures and practices, favourable to the boss, can be changed?
  2. What were some of the things that the union chapter in the Ministry of Labour would have had to do, in order to build the confidence and resolve necessary to carry out such a collective action? 
  3. What lessons can be learned from this example that applies to your workplace? 

Management Rights, Part Eight: Private Sector Collective Agreement, Quebec

Here is another clause from a collective agreement concerning management rights, this time from the private sector–and in a province in Canada where French is predominant officially. Undoubtedly for the social-democratic left, it expresses a situation where there is decent work–a cliché among the left, who refuse to investigate its meaning in a democratic fashion. 

It should be pointed out that the power of employers (via the power of managers) is independent of language–their power is expressed in many languages, just as their use of workers for their own ends is expressed in many languages. Differences in languages (and differences in nations), therefore, should not be something for workers which divides them since they face the same enemy in various languages and across many borders–the class of employers as dictators.

Should we not be discussing this issue thoroughly? Why are we not doing so? Why is there hostility to such discussion? 

 

From

COLLECTIVE AGREEMENT
2013 – 2017
FOR THE RESIDENTIAL SECTOR
OF THE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY
Between the APCHQ and
the Centrale des syndicats démocratiques
(CSD-Construction), the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN-Construction),
the Conseil provincial du Québec
des métiers de la construction (International),
the Fédération des travailleurs
et travailleuses du Québec
(FTQ-Construction)
and the Syndicat Québécois
de la construction (SQC)

page 7:

2.03 Management Right The signatory representative associations recognize an employer’s right to exercise its supervisory, administration and management duties in a manner that is compatible with the provisions of this collective agreement.

 

The Contradictions of Unions: Reformist and Radical Assessments

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

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

He writes:

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

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

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

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

Professor Tuft further states:

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

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

Indeed, Professor Tuft states:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Four: The Myth of Creating Socialist Spaces

Professor Noonan, an academic leftist, argues that the Nemak return to work provides lessons for the left. Indeed, it does–but unfortunately he fails to draw further lessons from the situation.

He says the following:

As regards work, the structural dependence on paid employment is what makes people working class. This structural dependence is what, above all, democratic socialism would overcome. However, it cannot be ended overnight, but until it is ended workers’ short term struggles are always in danger of becoming victims of wars of attrition. The capitalists, with the law typically on their side, can wait workers out or bleed their resources dry (Unifor was facing fines of 25 000 dollars a day and individual officers 1000 dollars per day). Overcoming the dependence requires long term struggle, but dependence means that your ability to survive without the work you are refusing to do is time-sensitive in the extreme.

Given the claim that the capitalists have “the law typically on their side,” should not the conclusion be drawn that the law as such should be criticized? That reference to “fair contracts” and “decent work” which trade union representatives often express, should be criticized? Professor Noonan remains silent about this. Why is that?

Should not union training include, systematically, the bias of law in relation to workers’ interests? Does it? Should that lack of inclusion of a critique of the bias of law be itself criticized?

He further writes:

There are three general sorts of changes. On the one hand, there are concessions which are made in order to return the situation to normal. This sort of concessions appears to be all that Nemak has offered. At the other extreme, there are revolutionary changes which would create completely new social institutions. It is easy to find abstract arguments that contend that no major social contradiction can be resolved without revolutionary changes. It is much more difficult to find concrete arguments that are powerful enough to actually mobilise revolutionary forces. The key problem here is that no one can say with any certainty how a new society would work (beyond general assurances that it would solve everything because it would be the opposite of this society).

Professor Noonan then dismisses both possibilities:

If concessions do not address the problem and a progressive revolution is not in the offing in the foreseeable future, [my emphasis]  hope must be invested in a third possibility: smaller scale structural changes that create space and time for for deeper and wider changes in an unfolding process of transformative social change. How is that to happen if workers cannot survive outside of paid employment (or its social benefit equivalent) for long enough to survive for the long-term? The answer is to struggle for changes to the nature of employment. The Nemak crisis, and the analogous crisis in Oshawa offer opportunities for just these sorts of demands.

The reference to “progressive revolution” is dismissed because it is not possible in the foreseeable future. What does that mean? That substantial changes in class relations will arise in the short-term is undoubtedly unlikely. However, Professor Noonan performs a sleight of hand by shifting the future to some far off horizon. This is the method of social reformers of various persuasions–they shift radical change to the distant future rather than seeing than any radical change will always have to begin in the present. Carl Weathers, in his role as Apollo Creed, told Rocky in the movie Rocky III: “There is no tomorrow.” All progress will always have to begin in the present–but as John Dewey, the educational philosopher and logician pointed out, the present is a moving present.

It may appear that Professor Noonan does indeed include the future in the present by struggling “for changes to the nature of employment.” Let us look at what Professor Noonan has to say on this score.

He says:

GM Workers in Oshawa are being subjected to the same loss of their factory as Nemak workers in Windsor. Like Nemak workers, the GM workers did not meekly accept the GM decision, but instead fought back. They have won a concession (which is nevertheless a victory and another good lesson): the company will consider using a small fraction of the space and workforce to produce parts. But there are other ideas which, while bold, are not impossible within existing institutions. However, if they were realised [my emphasis]  they would point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism. At the same time, since they are realizable here and now they do not depend upon a “revolutionary break” for which the required social and political forces do not exist.

In response to the Oshawa closing, Sam Gindin urged the CAW leadership to go beyond negotiations to work on the transformation of the plant into a publicly owned and worker-controlled facility for the production of electric vehicles. Markets would be initially guaranteed by government contract. Financing and start up costs would also require government support that is impossible to imagine with a capitalist party in power, but not impossible to imagine with a worker friendly government (an NDP radicalised by the threat of a election drubbing?) Instead of treating capitalism as a fixed and final reality that workers must either accept today or overthrow tomorrow, it works in the spaces created by democratic institutions and norms to find means of inserting an anti-capitalist principle and practice into the heart of the system. It shows that there are real alternatives to survival and creative activity than capitalist labour markets that can be realised right now, creating the time we need to fundamentally transform society by expanding non-capitalist employment spaces. Short term dependence on paid capitalist employment is reduced by people putting themselves to work in a non-capitalist firm. The system is not transformed, but a living alternative is created that serves as a real, not text book example, that another world is possible.

It is certainly necessary to propose ideas that “point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism.” Are there not, however, conditions for such ideas to be realizable in practice?

In the crisis situation in Oshawa, it may be that workers are more prone to accept solutions that point beyond existing social conditions. However, in a crisis situation, without prior preparation, it may well be that workers will grab at solutions that protect their own immediate interests at the expense of longer-term interests. It may also be that workers’ interests can more easily be divided so that the employer can take advantage of such splits. To counter such possibilities, it is necessary to prepare workers beforehand.

Thus, has their been adequate criticism of the structure of authority at the Oshawa plant? Has there been discussions about democratic control at work? Or have the workers there been constantly indoctrinated with the view that their work is “decent work?” That the collective agreement was a “fair contract?” That they received “fair wages?” That the power of an employer to close a workplace is “fair?” As I argued in another post, was there a critique of collective bargaining beforehand in order to prepare workers for going beyond the collective agreement? Or was there silence over the legitimacy of collective agreements? If so, would that not lead to confusion among many workers? If so, does such confusion not tell against the formulation of any consistent policy towards the large number of workers who will lose their jobs at the GM Oshawa plant?

Another relevant point here is how Professor Noonan speaks of “creating spaces”: the space was not created by the workers but by the employer (the decision to close the Oshawa plant). The workers reacted to this decision. It would have been much more intelligent to criticize the union ideology systematically beforehand rather than feeding into the union ideology of “decent work” and “fair contracts.” Did Mr. Gindin engage in such criticism? Or was he afraid to do so out of fear of alienating union representatives?

Furthermore, Professor Noonan relies on another sleight-of-hand by slipping in the fantasy that the New Democratic Party (NDP) would somehow magically turn into “a worker friendly government (an NDP radicalised by the threat of a election drubbing.” Like Professor Noonan’s logic in relation to the so-called harmonious interests of workers at the University of Windsor where he works and the management of that university, he assumes what he must prove: How the NDP can be converted into a “worker friendly government” under conditions of an economy dominated by a class of employers. The NDP and union representatives may think they are “worker friendly,” but they also share the same beliefs as their center and right-wing counterparts: the legitimacy of the employer-employee relation. The NDP may indeed enable workers to organize more easily and institute certain social reforms that may benefit workers more when compared to other political parties, but that does not make them “worker friendly.” They are more “worker friendly” than the other major political parties, but that is all. This does not magically convert them into a “worker friendly” political party. (Nonetheless, I am seriously thinking of voting for the NDP in the upcoming federal election on October 21, 2019 since their policies–such as a definite 360 hours of working for an employer required in order to be eligible for unemployment insurance as opposed to the current 720 for regular workers and 910 hours for beginning workers–are more specific than the vague guaranteed livable income, for example, proposed by the Green Party. Such vagueness can be transformed into minimal changes in income.)

Finally, it is typical of the academic left (and Sam Gindin falls in that category for, despite not being an academic technically, he shares many of their beliefs) that they avoid “creating spaces” in their own immediate environment. What, for example, did Mr. Gindin do to “create spaces” during his long stint as research director for the Canadian Auto Workers union? Did he try to create spaces that could “point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism?”

What of Professor Noonan? Does he try to create spaces that could “point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism” where he works? Might that not threaten his own livelihood?

Middle-class academics who are sympathetic to workers’ situation could provide welcome skills (such as research skills) to workers. However, they often lack the passion and emotions involved in real struggles for power: as Aaron Schutz, in his book Social Class, Social Action,  and Education: The Failure of Progressive Democracy points out:

But then, as Alinsky repeatedly pointed out, middle-class people were
pretty comfortable already. It did not really matter that much to them,
in concrete ways, whether anyone actually listened or not as long as they
had their say—in academic publications, for example. Their children were
unlikely to suffer much as a result. Near the end of his life, however, Alinsky
turned to efforts to organize the middle class, increasingly convinced that
those on the bottom needed allies from the middle if they were ever to generate
enough power to foster the change they needed and that the middle
class would also benefit if they learned to organize.

Middle-class leftists in Toronto and surrounding areas, as far as I can see, not only do not engage in some of the preparatory work necessary to enable workers for struggles that “would point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism,” but go out of their way to oppose such preparatory work.

Before the announcement by GM of the plant closing in Oshawa, Mr. Gindin met with some workers from the plant. I did not accompany Mr. Gindin to Oshawa , but his preliminary account of a meeting between him (and, I believer, Herman Rosenfeld) and some workers at Oshawa did not go very well; it might have been a problem of logistics or some other problem, but I doubt that there was any real discussion of the limits of the present arrangement of employers controlling the conditions of life (the factory) of the workers in Oshawa (and elsewhere). Mr. Gindin, out of fear of alienating workers, probably did not bring up the systemic issue of the power of the class of employers and how that power plays itself out in various domains.

Furthermore, Professor Noonan fails to justify his assumption that worker cooperatives somehow magically provide “a living alternative is created that serves as a real, not text book example, that another world is possible.” Cooperatives have existed in the past and exist in the present, but to argue that they somehow automatically provide a living example of an alternative is quite debatable. How does Professor Noonan justify his assumption? He does not.

Even if the GM Oshawa plant were nationalized and turned into a worker cooperative, there is no basis for assuming that there would be a magical transformation that would point towards a society within a different logic from the logic of capitalism.

Mondragon, a large set of cooperatives in the Basque region in Spain, may inspire some to seek alternatives–but then again it may not. This requires research. One author certainly questions whether Mondragon provides “a living alternative.” Sharyn Kashmir, in her book The Myth of Mondragon: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working-Class Life in a Basque Town, provides a different assessment of cooperatives. For example, she quotes a worker at Mondragon (page 122):

Begofia was in her late twenties and had been a member of one of the
Fagor co-ops since she was eighteen years old. She had always worked on the
assembly line. Over dinner, she told me that she felt exploited at work, “just
like any worker in any firm . ”

“What about the fact that you share ownership of the firm ?” I asked.
“It means nothing to me” she replied. Begofia also said she felt “apathetic
” about the governance of the cooperative. “I only go to the annual meetings
of the General Assembly because it’s required. Everybody goes because
they have to. If we didn’t have to, we wouldn’t go.” What she resented more
than anything was being told that she was participating in managing the cooperative
and that “it is your firm .”

As Begofia spoke, I began to hear the words “participate,” “cooperate,”
and “your firm” in a new way ; listening to her, they sounded imposing.
Had I gotten the sense that Begofia was alone in her feelings, I would not have
taken her complaints so seriously. However, she continually spoke for her fellow
workers, implying that her experiences of alienation and feeling manipulated
by cooperativist ideology were common . Furthermore, most of those at
dinner had lived their entire lives among cooperators and did not seem surprised
by what she said. To the contrary, they offered anecdotal evidence of instances
of workers’ apathy and frustration that they had heard from friends
and relatives.

This does not mean that there should be no struggle to nationalize the Oshawa plant and to convert it into a worker cooperative. However, such a struggle should explicitly try to link a critique of the power of employers as a class to this particular situation–and to the inadequate solution of nationalization and worker cooperatives in the context of a society dominated by a class of employers.

Worker cooperatives in themselves, as long as they are unconnected to a larger critical movement to supersede the power of a class of employers, will unlikely “point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism.”

As Minsun Ji points out (‘With or without class: Resolving Marx’s Janus-faced interpretation of worker-owned cooperatives,” Capital & Class, 2019,  page 3):

Among the conditions or factors that might shape the potential of a worker cooperative movement in any given time, the most important for Marx is the manifestation and political mobilization of class consciousness (or the lack thereof ) among cooperative practitioners. In the end, Marx did not so much focus on promoting a certain type of labor organization as being most conducive to transformation (e.g. worker cooperatives or labor unions). Rather, he focused more on the importance of class consciousness within labor organizing, and on the development of radicalized class consciousness among workers, whether through the expansion of labor unions, worker cooperatives, or any other institution of worker empowerment.

In order to become a significant and sustainable challenge to capitalist systems, Marx believed that cooperatives had to grow beyond their small scale and reach capacity to change the mode of production at the national level. To reach this kind of national scale, truly transformational cooperatives would have to become politically natured, and to foster the radical ‘class-consciousness’ of worker members. It is the presence or lack of this focus on developing and mobilizing class consciousness, not the nature of the labor institution itself (i.e. cooperative or union), that Marx believed to most powerfully shape the radical or degenerative tendencies of local forms of labor activism.

Since Mr. Gindin refuses to engage directly with the issue of the power of employers as a class (such as, for example, questioning union rhetoric about “decent jobs,” “fair contracts,” and the like), I predict, as I did before, that the Oshawa plant will not be nationalized and converted into a worker cooperative. Mr. Gindin and company have not done the necessary work to prepare workers to engage in a struggle that seeks to go beyond the class structure.

Even if the Oshawa plant does become worker-owned, it is unlikely to form a space that points “beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism.”

In other words, and contrary to Professor Noonan, for such a strategy to work, it is necessary to start now (and not in some distance future) by querying the class structure. Professor Noonan continually seeks to fly away from the need to question the legitimacy of the class structure from the beginning. Why is that? Perhaps because of his own class situation?

 

 

Do Collective Agreements Convert Working for an Employer into Decent Work?

Tracy McMaster is a union steward for Local 561 of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU); she was also vice-president of the local union at one point. However, she prides herself most on her activity of organizing part-time college workers (she works at a college as a library technician). . On March 25, 2019, in a short video (Stewards Assembly 2019), she refers to the need to organize part-time college workers (where she works). She also refers to “a full-time decent unionized job.” This implies that as long as it is full-time and unionized, the job is decent.

Of course, organizing part-time workers so that they obtain increased wages or salary and better benefits (or receive benefits in the first place since many part-time workers do not receive benefits at all) is something to be praised. However, the standard of evaluation for what constitutes a decent job is whether there is a collective agreement that protects a certain level of wages and working conditions.

Such a standard is never questioned. Ms. McMaster never questions that standard throughout the video. Indeed, right after the quoted reference “full-time decent unionized jobs,” she ends with the rhetorical question: Right? Exactly. She believes that a full-time, unionized jobs are by definition decent. To question such a view does not form part of her union activity.

She argues that part-time workers were working under “unjust, awful condition…takes away the dignity of everybody’s job.” Since employers (presumably, or perhaps also students and others–she leaves it unspecified what she means by “people treating others with disrespect”) treat part-time workers with little respect, then full-time unionized workers find that others do not treat them with respect.

She points out that she received solidarity from both the local union presidents in 24 different colleges as well as various labour councils throughout Ontario and especially the labour council in Toronto.

She then claims that it was “an amazing, amazing accomplishment” that the part-time workers “just last week have their first collective agreement.” She is “so proud” that she “was involved in this project.”

Of course, she should feel that she, along with others, has accomplished something. The question is: Is it enough? She herself claims that the job of the labour movement is to find workers who need a union and to organize them. The standard or definition of what constitutes decent work is, then: organized workers who belong to a union.

When I questioned this definition when Ms. McMaster called for solidarity for striking brewery workers here in Toronto because all the striking workers wanted were “decent jobs” and “fair wages,” , the “labour movement” reacted to my questioning with hostility (For example, Wayne Dealy, executive director for Local 3902 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), called me a “condescending prick.”)

Let us take a look at the collective agreement–“an amazing, amazing accomplishment” according to Tracy McMaster.

The memorandum of agreement contains typical clauses in a collective agreement: union representation, rights of union representatives, within limits, to take time off for union business (with compensation in some cases); work hours and scheduling, wages, rate of increase of wages and when that will take affect, period of paying the wages, shift premium, reimbursement of tuition and maintenance of salary if time off is required for courses approved by the employer, kilometrage allowance, developmental leave for furthering academic or technical skills that will enhance their work for the College, holidays, vacations, personal leave without pay, bereavement leave, jury/witness duty, citizenship leave, pregnancy leave, parental leave, health and safety (provision of clothing, work stations, safety devices, environmental conditions, seniority and its loss, layoff and recall, waiver of rights/severance, job postings/promotions, excluded positions, complaints/grievances, duration (until January 31, 2021).

This set of clauses is certainly likely better than wages and working conditions for part-time workers in many industries. As a consequence, as I have indicated in various posts, unions are much more preferable than non-unionized settings for many workers (although wages and working conditions for other industries should also be compared to gain a more accurate picture of workers’ situations in various non-unionized and unionized settings. Fear of unionization by some employers may motivate them to enhance wages and working conditions in non-unionized industries.)

Granted that, should we still not ask whether such jobs are decent?

How does the above change the general power of employers to treat workers as things that do not participate in the formulation of the goals of the organization to which they belong? Thus, the management rights clause states, in “Memorandum of Settlement:
The College Employer Council for the College of Applied Arts and Technology and Ontario Public Service Employees Union on behalf of the College Support Staff Part-Time”:

5 MANAGEMENT FUNCTIONS

Union Acknowledgements

The Union acknowledges that it is the exclusive function of the Colleges to:
•maintain order, discipline and efficiency;
•hire, discharge, transfer, classify, assign, appoint, promote, demote, lay off, recall and suspend or otherwise discipline employees subject to the right to lodge a grievance as provided for in this Agreement;
•generally to manage the College and without restricting the generality of the foregoing, the right to plan, direct and control operations, facilities, programs, courses, systems and procedures, direct its personnel, determine complement, organization, methods and the number, location and positions required from time to time, the number and location of campuses and facilities, services to be performed, the scheduling of assignments and work, the extension, limitation, curtailment or cessation of operations and all other rights and responsibilities not specifically modified elsewhere in this Agreement.

The Colleges agree that these functions will be exercised in a manner consistent with the provisions of this Agreement.

Ms. McMaster does not even bother to explore whether her characterization of inclusion of such part-time workers under the rule of managerial power–despite the existence of a collective agreement–actually expresses something decent. She ignores completely the management-rights clause and idealizes the collective agreement. This is typical of the social-democratic, reformist left.

Despite Ms. McMaster’s rhetoric to the contrary, the collective agreement cannot be characterized as amazing–unless you have a low standard of what amazing means. Part-time workers now have some protection from arbitrary treatment by employers (subject to a grievance process) and some control over their working lives. However, the collective agreement only limits management rights–like all collective agreements. It does not prevent workers at the various colleges from being used, day after day, for purposes over which they have no control (see The Money Circuit of Capital). To call this “dignity” is rhetoric. It is undignified and humiliating. All workers deserve to control their lives collectively–and that does not mean by limiting such control via management rights.

There is, of course, little point in trying to convince Ms. McMaster and other trade unionists of their lack of critical distance from collective agreements and collective bargaining. They wholeheartedly identify with the process and consider any questioning of such a process and its results to be tantamount to insanity.

It is better to practice the politics of exposure–showing the limitations of their own point of view and the limitations of what their own standards of evaluation for justice and fairness (in the video, Ms. McMaster wears a t-shirt with the inscription “We Stand For Fairness!”). Behind her, there is a poster with what appears to be the inscription “The Future Needs Good Jobs.”

The future certainly does not good jobs–but jobs controlled by workers and their community–without employers.

The future of good jobs for the social-democratic left, however, is just more of the same–collective agreements and the daily grind of working under the dictatorship of employers, limiting their power but not struggling to abolish it.

What if a worker works in a unionized setting but does not find that the work reflects being a decent job? For unionists, the worker should try to change working conditions through the next round of bargaining. However, if the worker finds working for any employer to be objectionable, unionists having nothing to say–except “Suck it up.” Or, alternatively, they will express the rhetoric of “decent work” and so forth and ignore the reality of managerial power and how degrading it is for a majority of workers to be dictated by a minority of representatives of employers.

Ms. McMaster, like her social-democratic colleagues, have a lot to answer for when they idealize collective agreements. They ultimately justify the dictatorship of employers over workers despite their rhetoric to the contrary.

It is, of course, ultimately up to workers themselves whether they wish to organize for purposes of remaining within the limits of the power of the class of employers or whether they wish to organize for going beyond that power. The attempt to go beyond that power is both much more difficult and much more risky. On the other hand, given the emergence of right-wing movements and political parties, it is also risky organizing only to limit the power of employers.

To sum up: Evidently, it it has been argued that the answer to the question whether collective agreements convert working for employers into decent work depends on the level of your standard for deciding what decent work is. The level of many unionists is the collective agreement itself. I have argued, in this and other posts, that level is wholly inadequate. Workers deserve a much higher standard, but to achieve such a standard requires going beyond limitations to employer power and to the power of their representatives via management; it requires questioning any agreement between employers and workers as embodying decent work.

We deserve much better than just collective agreements. We deserve to control our own lives collectively.