The Silences of the Social-Democratic Left

I had two recent conversations with social democrats on two different (though undoubtedly related topics).

The first conversation is a representative of Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 4400 (education workers). The Local’s website indicates the following:

Toronto Education Workers/Local 4400 is made up of approximately 12,000 Education Workers who primarily work within the Toronto District School Board; Childcare Workers from various Childcare Centres and Caretakers from Viamonde French Board.

Representing over 400 Job Classifications, and over 1,000 Worksites.

They were set to go out on strike in the context of major budget cuts for school funding due to retrenchment by the Conservative provincial Ontario government of Doug Ford.

Duane Kennedy, Unit D Steward Co-Ordinator for Local 4400, made the following comment on a Facebook page:

Duane Kennedy Too bad they couldn’t get it right , we will strike not for new bargining dates it will be for a fair contract

I am unsure what he was referring to in relation to “new bargaining dates.” It may be to the title of a video and an accompanying textual explanation that is related to a video link on the Facebook page:

CUPE says strike next week if no dates scheduled

The union that represents school support staff says they will walk off the job next week if the province doesn’t agree to more talks

I asked the following:

Fred Harris What is a fair contract? Collective agreements limit the power of employers to dictate to workers, but they do not eliminate the power of management to dictate to workers what to do.

I guess it is fair for employers to treat workers as things?

The response was–silence. Why is that? Was my question out of line? Was it inappropriate? Did it express, as CUPE Local 3902 executive director Wayne Dealy indicated when I brought up the issue of whether working in a capitalist brewery constituted “decent work,” , the rantings of a “condescending prick?”

Or is it perhaps that union reps use the phrase “fair contract” without facing up to the fact that management has the power to dictate to workers in various ways whether there is a collective agreement or not?

Let us consider a couple of collective agreements between CUPE Local 4400 and the Toronto District School Board.

COLLECTIVE
AGREEMENT
Between
Toronto District School Board
And
Local 4400,
Canadian Union of
Public Employees
UNIT C
September 1, 2014 – August 31, 2019

Page 66 of this collective agreement has the following clause:

ARTICLE D – MANAGEMENT RIGHTS
D.1 The Union recognizes that it is the right of the Employer to exercise the
generally recognized regular and customary functions of management and
to direct its working forces. The Employer agrees not to exercise these
functions in a manner inconsistent with the provisions of the Collective
Agreement.

As I have indicated in other posts, the management rights clause gives management (as representative of the employer) far-ranging powers to direct workers as it sees fit. The collective agreement limits that power but in no way calls that power into question.

Consider another collective agreement for the same local:

COLLECTIVE
AGREEMENT
Between
Toronto District School Board
And
Local 4400,
Canadian Union of
Public Employees
UNIT D
September 1, 2014 – August 31, 2019

Page 66 of this collective agreement has the following clause (identical to the other collective agreement):

ARTICLE D – MANAGEMENT RIGHTS
D.1 The Union recognizes that it is the right of the Employer to exercise the
generally recognized regular and customary functions of management and
to direct its working forces. The Employer agrees not to exercise these
functions in a manner inconsistent with the provisions of the Collective
Agreement.

How are these collective agreements (collective contracts) fair contracts? Why did not the CUPE union rep not respond to my question? My hypothesis is that–he could not. The term is a cliche for union reps, used to justify their activity of limiting their criticism of an employer to–an employer. They do not question the power of employers to direct workers in general but only wish to limit that power.

For a collective agreement to be fair, it would be necessary to show that managerial power to direct work forces as it sees fit (subject to the collective agreement) is fair. Where is there such a justification?

Where is there a fair contract? Can union reps provide examples of such a contract among regular workers? I would like to see such an example so that I know what they are talking about. Would you not like to see some examples so that we have a target that we can aim at?

This idea of a fair contract is, frankly, bullshit. It does not deal with–and cannot deal with–the daily lives of workers in unionized environments. Workers are subject, in various ways, to restrictions on their lives. How is that fair? The power of managers to dictate what to do, when to do it, how to do it and how much to produce (legally although certainly not always factually) leads to various kinds of injustices–up to and including the injury and death of workers.

Another “conversation” I had (really, a monologue–such is democracy these days) was about a 57-year old man, Enrico Miranda, who was killed in a capitalist factory (Fiera Foods) here in Toronto. He had been working for a temporary-worker agency for about ten years, five of which were for the industrial bakery Fiera Foods, located in As Mr. Miranda cleaned a machine, he was crushed by it and died.

A community organization called the Jane and Finch Action Against Poverty (JFAAP), located in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood of Toronto (one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Toronto), organized a rally (along with some union members) to protest the fifth killing of temporary workers at the capitalist factory in the past 20 years. (The factory is located about six kilometers from Jane Street and Finch Avenue, in North York, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.) Seventy percent of its workforce consists of temporary workers. Many are hired through temporary agencies.

In Ontario, when temporary workers are injured on the job and are employed by temporary agencies, the premiums of employers who hire workers from temporary agencies and who pay into workers’ compensation are unaffected since they are not considered to be the employer but rather the temporary agency. It is, in effect, a way of avoiding to pay higher premiums in the case of injuries to workers.

On their Facebook page, JFAAP posted:

Posted @withrepost • @mayworkstoronto Another temp worker death at Fiera Foods. The 5th worker killed while on the factory floor of this company. Up to 70% of this company’s workers are temp workers, twice as likely to be injured on the job as full employees. Fiera has had more than 150 health and safety violations. When Enrico Miranda was killed last week, Fiera Foods did not even stop production. Under Canada’s Criminal Code, Fiera Foods should be held criminally responsible. ‘Kill a worker, go to jail.’ #canlab #fierafoods #onpoli
Funeral fund to support the family: https://www.gofundme.com/f/funeral-help-for-tay @ Fiera Foods

I made the following comment:

Fred Harris “Kill a worker, go to jail”: a fitting slogan, but how is it going to be achieved? It would require much more power than at present among communities and the working class. How, for example, to prevent the whittling down of legislation to make corporations criminally responsible for deaths (see Stephen Bittle’s work on the whittling down of such legislation after the Westray mine deaths).

The response was–silence. It is all very good to make demands that are needed by people, but unless we can find a way of actually realizing such demands, they are mere wishes. The social-democratic left often resort to such wishful thinking rather than facing up to the power required to realize certain demands. That power is–class power, not just “community power” (although the two could go hand in hand).

In another post, JFAAP posted:

No photo description available.

My comment: Fred Harris Fiera certainly should be criticized, but are all these “accidents” due to the use of temporary workers? Could they not be the result of a combination of the use of such temporary workers and the more general fact that workers are things to be used by employers? By the fact that workers are “costs” (with a price) for employers?

Or are the approximately 1,000 deaths at work in Canada mainly due to the use of temporary agencies?

Also, can labour laws ever really protect workers in the context of a society driven by the pursuit of profit?

The response was–silence.

JFAAP’s response reminds me of all those movies and television programs (including Netflix, of course), where there is one or a few “bad cops,” and yet the police in general are treated as good. Fiera Foods certainly is worse as an employer in terms of health and safety than many other employers–but what of all the other employers whose health and safety records are better? Why not criticize them? Why let them off the hook on a daily basis?

This attitude of criticizing a particular employer and not employers as a class (just like the criticism of a particular cop rather than the police as such) can be called “the bad apple syndrome.”

It is much easier to criticize particular employers than it is to criticize employers as a class.

Or are my concerns just the concerns of an “insane” person (as Errol Young, a member of JFAAP, once called me)? Or are my concerns a reflection of the fact that I am a  “condescending prick” (as a representative of CUPE Local 3902, Wayne Dealy, once called me)?

Or is it that both union reps and reps from community organizations refuse to face up to the limited effectiveness of their concepts of justice and fairness? That they refuse to consider the class power of employers and how that situation in general is unfair?

What do you think?

 

The Socialist Project’s Critique of Doug Ford’s Attack on Local Democracy Falls Short

The Socialist Project has rightly condemned Doug Ford (the new Premier of Ontario, Canada) for his unilateral reduction of the number of Toronto city councilors (in the midst of Toronto elections, no less–indeed, an autocratic act) (see Ford’s Attack on Local Democracy in Toronto).

Despite their criticism of Ford’s autocratic manner, they should also look at the so-called left’s own anti-democratic practices.

Being ignorant of who exactly are the members of the Socialist Project, I will limit my commentary to the probable membership of Sam Gindin in that organization.

I belonged to an organization called the Toronto Labour Committee until last November, when I resigned over what I perceived as a lack of discussion over what I considered to be vital issues relevant to regular members of the working class (not union representatives). My view is that the Toronto Labour Committee was too closely tied to the union movement and had compromised itself in several ways democratically. It is probable that the Socialist Project does the same.

I will not go into the details of how it compromised itself (of course, if Sam or other members of the Toronto Labour Committee raise the issue–then, of course, I will then pursue the issue in further detail).

I will simply point out one issue that illustrates the limited nature of the Socialist Project’s call for democracy in the case of Ford, which should also be directed at the so-called left.

From the Socialist Project’s post:

Democracy is not about “economic efficiency.” It is about providing for free and open debate and discussion between competing points of view in order to make decisions.

Is there any evidence that there is such “free and open debate and discussion between competing points of view in order to make decisions” within the Toronto Labour Committee? For example, I tried to raise the issue of health and safety and how systemic such problems were in the context of a capitalist economy (referring to the work by Bob Barnetston The Political Economy of Workplace Injury in Canada, where he pointed out that over 1000 workers died a year on the job and over 630,000 are injured. There was silence.

Subsequently, when a representative of a local labour council called for support of some striking brewery workers here in Toronto, she justified her call for such support on the basis of referring to what the workers supposedly want–good jobs and a fair deal.

I had worked in a brewery for around four years in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I questioned this reference to a good (or decent) work and a fair contract. I did not try to attack the representative personally. I tried to address the issues.

I also pointed out that the striking workers did deserve our support–that it was a question of solidarity.

Wayne Dealy, who is a representative of a local Toronto union here, then intervened, stating the following:

Is this meant to be a serious intervention or are you taking the piss?

I expressed a point of view that was different–and was roundly insulted on a listserve.

I replied:

It is meant to be a serious intervention. If Wayne Dealy has something against the intervention–apart from emotional venting and insults-he is welcome to debate the issue.

Social democrats, unionists and others who consider themselves to be progressive often refer to good or decent jobs and fair contracts (deals). This is an assumption that is rarely questioned. Indeed, the tone of Wayne’s response is indicative of the lack of real concern over the issue of the power of employers as a class in relation to employees as a class. In other words, Wayne’s response itself shows just how much the issue needs to be debated. That topic will start to be addressed at the next Toronto Labour Committee on March 9, from 7:00-9:00 at 31 Wellesley.

Fred Harris, Ph. D., philosophy of education, former brewery worker

I was too hopeful. No one from the listserve–including Sam Gindin–addressed the real issues of whether there is such a thing as good jobs or a fair contract.

Wayne Dealy replied:

Deepest apologies. Those fourteen words have been buried deep inside
me for years and they could no longer be contained. I regret that you
suffered so for their ill-timed appearance.

Apologies too for not showing more gratitude for the fact that you
deigned to use Tracy’s call for picket-line support to explain to us
in plain language how wage labour is exploitative. Sam, David, Tracy
et al, I hope you all were taking notes. All of us on this list are
obviously and sorely in need of simple explanations of such things;
fortunately Fred is here to fill that void.

On a more personal note, thanks to your second intervention, my
consciousness has been raised even further: I now see the problem all
along was my “lack of real concern over the issue of the power of
employers as a class in relation to employees as a class”.

And the fact that you were able to suss me out from my fourteen
ill-chosen words? Mind. Blown.

Thanks again, truly, for sharing your insights. This group is
extremely fortunate to have a Promethean figure like yourself who so
selflessly kept the ember of class analysis alive so that it could be
shared with all us sinners.

Wayne.

p.s. If I had wanted to insult you I would have called you a
condescending prick

Wayne G. Dealy
Ph.D. Candidate
Department of Political Science

 
University of Toronto

From there the issue got sidetracked, and the issue of whether there can be decent jobs or a fair contract in the context of a class of employers vanished (I take some responsibility–although only some responsibility for this–I got sidetracked rather than focusing on these two issues, which is what I should have done all along).

I doubt that there has been any real

free and open debate and discussion between competing points of view in order to make decisions.

The class issue has been buried by political rhetoric, insults and excuses. Sam Gindin, for example, used the excuse that the reference to “decent work” was a purely “defensive” move. Has there been any “free and open debate and discussion between competing points of view in order to make decisions” about the appropriateness of using such a term as “decent work” or a “fair contract”? I doubt it.

So-called socialists in Toronto (and probably elsewhere) should look internally to see whether they really are practicing “free and open debate and discussion between competing points of view in order to make decisions.” That would indeed be welcome.

As Alan R.H. Baker (Geography and History: Bridging the Divide) wrote, page 213:

I subscribe to consensual historical geography. Of course, any
consensus in history can be sought, and sometimes achieved, only by debate. This
brings me to my third principle of historical geography: debate is central to the
practice of historical geography. Rethinking and revising current, orthodox interpretations should be the norm in historical geography: it should be conventional to be radical. Current ideas and assertions must be, and must expect to be, revised as new evidence comes to light, as new techniques of analysis become available, as new problems deserving attention are identified, and as new ideas and theories are brought into play. Debate, both about substantive issues and about research methodologies, lies at the heart of historical geography as it does also of history (Fig. 6.3). Within historical geography, as within history, there should be an unrelenting criticism of all orthodoxies and conventional wisdoms, as well as an
unremitting awareness of discourses in cognate disciplines.

Do the so-called socialists really engage in debate with a view of achieving some kind of consensus? Will trade-union leaders abandon their views if it is shown that they are mistaken? If they do not, what will socialists do? Or are socialists so afraid of upsetting their trade-union connections (Sam Gindin once indicated that he did not want to become isolated) that they would practically desist from engaging in “free and open debate and discussion between competing points of view in order to make decisions?”

Sam Gindin claimed that we are supposed to be humble. Why? Why should regular workers be humble? They are oppressed and exploited every day. Why should they be humble in the face of union leaders who talk of fair contracts and good jobs? They should be angry at such talk–not humble. They deserve a far better life than what they now experience as things to be used by employers.

A final question: Is there free and open debate and open discussion between competing points of view” among regular workers about management rights, whether unionized or non-unionized? Frankly, I doubt it. If there is evidence to the contrary, I hope others would correct my error.