The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Two: Collective Bargaining and the Interests of the Working Class

Professor Jeff Noonan, as contained in a reference to his work in a previous post( The Poverty of Academic Marxism, Part One), claimed that historical materialism must evolve. This seems to imply that his form of historical materialism, under present conditions, is superior to the historical materialism proposed by Marx.

Professor Noonan claims the following (from Thinkings 4Collected Interventions, Readings, Evocations, 2014-2015, page 8:

A glaring example of the dangers of striking occurred in February of 2012, when workers in London, Ontario were taught a brutal object lesson in the reality of global capitalism. Then Canadian Auto Workers on strike against the locomotive maker Electro-motive were given an impossible choice. The company (a subsidiary of Caterpillar) demanded that the union agree to cut their existing wages in half, or face the closure of the plant. Seeing that what was at stake was not just their plant, but the future of the union movement in the Ontario manufacturing sector, these workers heroically sacrificed themselves, went on strike, and watched their livelihood move to Muncie, Indiana. Had they not stood up to the brutish tactics of Electro-motive, every manufacturer in the country would have been encouraged to make the same demands. What boss wouldn’t want to cut her or his workers’ wages in half? While the jobs were lost, the massive public outcry against legalized extortion preserved the possibility of meaningful collective bargaining in other plants, at least for the time being.

What does “meaningful collective bargaining” mean for Professor Noonan? It is difficult to know since he does not explicitly provide an answer, but the following may what he means (page 12):

v) The University will cease collecting union dues from members and forwarding those dues to WUFA (Article 4:01 and 4:02).”

Now, on one level, these changes are not alarming, for they are changes that would occur in the case of a lockout. What is most disconcerting is that they were unexpectedly thrown into the room when it appeared that both sides were making progress by negotiating and not threatening. Both teams bargained past the lockout deadline and had scheduled meetings for the next day. The assumption amongst members– naïve, as it turned out– was that both sides had found common ground and were splitting the differences that get split for the sake of reaching an agreement with which everyone can live.

Meaningful bargaining is where the parties engage in negotiations in order to achieve a common ground “for the sake of reaching an agreement with which everyone can live.”

Now, in typical collective bargaining, any member of a negotiating team knows that all items on the table will not be achieved. There will be items that are considered more important. The relative strength of the parties to the negotiations in the particular conditions will affect what can be realistically be achieved in the short term (and this includes the possible resources used in lockouts and strikes).

But why refer to the idea of an “agreement with which everyone can live?” Does Mr. Noonan mean by that an attitude by workers that, given the balance of class forces, this is the best that can be achieved, but otherwise it is not something that “everyone can live with”–but have to do so for the time being? That is to say, that the collective agreement is something that does not express fairness but rather expresses the weakness of workers collectively until such time as they no longer need to negotiate agreements that entail their subordination to the power of employers (and managers as their representatives)? Do the various management rights clauses that have so far been posted on this blog express “an agreement with which everyone can live?” Or do they express the asymmetrical power relations between unionized workers and the class power of employers?

What would Professor Noonan say to a worker who works under the collective agreement at the university where he works (see Management Rights, Part Five: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario) if that worker did not find not only the particular collective agreement unfair but all collective agreements unfair since they presuppose the subordination of the will of workers to the power of an employer (and his or her representatives)?

There is a world of difference between understanding that a collective agreement may be the best that can be hoped for under existing conditions of class power and the view that a collective agreement is something that people can live with. In the first case, there is a smoldering presence of a feeling of unfairness, which can surface when conditions change. In the second case, there is a feeling of fairness, and workers who breach a collective agreement can legitimately be reprimanded. Professor Noonan’s failure to specify any difference between the two probably expresses his own working conditions, which are undoubtedly superior to most workers who are employees.

Imagine a situation where a group of thugs decide to set up a process of collective bargaining between themselves and people whom they have sexually abused. Representatives of the sexually abused engage in negotiations with representatives of the thugs. Under given circumstances, the thugs have much more power than those who are sexually abused. If they come to an agreement over the extent of sexual abuse (with both parties bargaining in good faith), would professor Noonan call the resulting agreement an agreement “with which everyone can agree with?”

Yes, workers are not sexually abused, but as employees they are used as things for purposes over which they lack control (see The Money Circuit of Capital). Why should anyone who is an employee feel that they can live with such an agreement except for the recognition that they have to do so, given the necessarily unequal power relations between them and the class of employers?

Despite Professor Noonan’s radical rhetoric, his hidden assumption is that working for an employer is not really all that bad. How else could he refer to an agreement “with which everyone can agree with?”

In the movie Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee is fighting against several people, and he runs into a chamber where the walls suddenly close on all sides. He cannot escape, realistically. He sits down and accepts the situation–not because it is fair but, presumably, because he lacks the power to oppose the situation. This is what the collective-bargaining process should express and not such social-reformist rhetoric as accepting a contract “with which everyone can agree.”

Professor Noonan reminds seems to forget–or perhaps he never learned–the lesson of Bob Dylan’s song, Like a Rolling Stone. In that song, Dylan sings the following:

You never turned around to see the frowns
on the jugglers and the clowns
when they all did tricks for you.

Although I can never be sure, the hidden resentment that people feel in the face of those in power is probably well expressed in the expression of a Guatemalan (perhaps a peasant) sitting on a roadside when the military was there. (See at around 2:30, Guatemala–Pete Sears) Guatemalan peasants had to live with the extreme oppression characteristic of Guatemala in the later 1970s and especially in the early 1980s, but they need not “learn to live with it.”

Professor Noonan may argue that he merely needed to qualify his reference to collective agreements “with which everyone can agree,” as I have done above, but since he failed to qualify such an assertion, it can be inferred that Professor Noonan does not really come to grips with the daily oppression and the daily grind that most workers face at his own workplace, let alone in the wider city of Windsor and, indeed, in the province of Ontario, in Canada and in the world.

Employers as Dictators, Part One

I find it fascinating how the social-democratic or reformist left fall all over themselves, insisting that they are fighting for fairness and justice–and yet neglect the persistent injustice of having to work for an employer. (The same could be said of many who consider themselves radicals these days).

Elizabeth Anderson, in her book Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It) questions the assumption of the social-democratic or reformist left by pointing out how the power of employers resembles the power of communist dictators (pages 37-39):

Communist Dictatorships in Our Midst


Imagine a government that assigns almost everyone a superior
whom they must obey. Although superiors give most inferiors a
routine to follow, there is no rule of law. Orders may be arbitrary
and can change at any time, without prior notice or opportunity
to appeal. Superiors are unaccountable to those they order
around. They are neither elected nor removable by their inferiors.
Inferiors have no right to complain in court about how they
are being treated, except in a few narrowly defined cases. They
also have no right to be consulted about the orders they are given.
There are multiple ranks in the society ruled by this government.
The content of the orders people receive varies, depending
on their rank. Higher- ranked individuals may be granted
considerable freedom in deciding how to carry out their orders,
and may issue some orders to some inferiors. The most highly
ranked individual takes no orders but issues many. The lowest-ranked
may have their bodily movements and speech minutely
regulated for most of the day.

This government does not recognize a personal or private
sphere of autonomy free from sanction. It may prescribe a dress
code and forbid certain hairstyles. Everyone lives under surveillance,
to ensure that they are complying with orders. Superiors
may snoop into inferiors’ e- mail and record their phone conversations.
Suspicionless searches of their bodies and personal
effects may be routine. They can be ordered to submit to medical
testing. The government may dictate the language spoken
and forbid communication in any other language. It may forbid
certain topics of discussion. People can be sanctioned for their
consensual sexual activity or for their choice of spouse or life
partner. They can be sanctioned for their political activity and
required to engage in political activity they do not agree with.
The economic system of the society run by this government
is communist. The government owns all the nonlabor means
of production in the society it governs. It organizes production
by means of central planning. The form of the government is
a dictatorship. In some cases, the dictator is appointed by an
oligarchy. In other cases, the dictator is self- appointed.
Although the control that this government exercises over
its members is pervasive, its sanctioning powers are limited. It
cannot execute or imprison anyone for violating orders. It can
demote people to lower ranks. The most common sanction is
exile. Individuals are also free to emigrate, although if they do,
there is usually no going back. Exile or emigration can have
severe collateral consequences. The vast majority have no realistic
option but to try to immigrate to another communist
dictatorship, although there are many to choose from. A few
manage to escape into anarchic hinterlands, or set up their own
dictatorships.

This government mostly secures compliance with carrots.
Because it controls all the income in the society, it pays more to people who follow orders particularly well and promotes them
to higher rank. Because it controls communication, it also has
a propaganda apparatus that often persuades many to support
the regime. This need not amount to brainwashing. In many
cases, people willingly support the regime and comply with
its orders because they identify with and profit from it. Others
support the regime because, although they are subordinate to
some superior, they get to exercise dominion over inferiors. It
should not be surprising that support for the regime for these
reasons tends to increase, the more highly ranked a person is.
Would people subject to such a government be free? I expect
that most people in the United States would think not.
Yet most work under just such a government: it is the modern
workplace, as it exists for most establishments in the United
States. The dictator is the chief executive officer (CEO), superiors
are managers, subordinates are workers. The oligarchy that
appoints the CEO exists for publicly owned corporations: it is
the board of directors. The punishment of exile is being fired.
The economic system of the modern workplace is communist,
because the government— that is, the establishment— owns all
the assets,1 and the top of the establishment hierarchy designs
the production plan, which subordinates execute. There are no
internal markets in the modern workplace. Indeed, the boundary
of the firm is defined as the point at which markets end and
authoritarian centralized planning and direction begin.2
Most workers in the United States are governed by communist
dictatorships in their work lives.

This parallel of the power of communist (or fascist) dictators and the power of employers to dictate to workers is simply neglected by social-democratic reformers. They ignore the issue altogether, minimize it or, when some try to bring up the issue, engage in insults. Their own conception of what is fair is so limited that they have little to say about the daily experiences of billions of workers worldwide.

They remind me of something which Karl Marx wrote long ago. From Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume 1: The Process of Production of Capital (page 91):

Perseus wore a magic cap so that the
monsters he hunted down might not see him. We draw the magic
cap down over our own eyes and ears so as to deny that there are
any monsters.


The social-democratic left seek to hide the reality of our own lives from us–lives characterized by dictatorship in various ways (with some freedoms, to be sure, such as limited freedom of speech–depending on where you are located on this planet and your status within that locality).

Let us listen to the social-democratic left for a moment as they characterize modern social relations and “draw the magic cap down over our eyes so as to deny that there are any monsters. As I wrote in another post:


As already mentioned, the left does not generally criticize management rights as such. Quite to the contrary. It uses rhetoric and euphemisms, such as “decent work,” “fair wages,” (Tracy McMaster), “a fair contract” (Wayne Dealy). It fails to criticize the pairing of the Fight for $15 with the concept of “fairness,” implying that fairness can be achieved within the employer-employee relation. It fails to criticize the rhetoric of “Fair Labour Laws Save Lives.” It fails to criticize the rhetoric of “economic justice” (John Cartwright).

At the Toronto Pearson airport (the largest in Canada, with between 40,000 and 50,000 employees), at the May Day rally, there was a banner being carried by some with the message: ‘Airport Workers Fighting for Decent Work.’ The banner also had the following: ‘$15/Fairness YYZ’ (YYZ is the airport code for Toronto Pearson International airport). If working for an employer is essentially working for a dictator, then the demand for decent work and fairness under such conditions is illogical. It is certainly necessary to fight for better working conditions and increases in wages and salaries, but better working conditions and an increased salary do not change the fundamentally dictatorial nature of employer power. To think otherwise–and the slogans express such thought–is to engage in delusions–which is hardly what the labour movement requires.

Organizations need to arise that express openly the reality of our lives so that we can begin to address the problems associated with that reality.