Employers as Dictators, Part Two

Union reps typically refer to fair compensation in order to justify their short-term actions. Of course, there is nothing wrong with short-term goals as such, but when they are presented as the same as what should be a long-term goal (fairness and freedom), then such goals become an ideology that justifies the power of employers as a class.

Contrast, for example, the following quote from Ms. Anderson’s book and a discussion I had with a union rep.

From Elizabeth Anderson, Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why We Don’t Talk about it), page 40:

I expect that this description of communist dictatorships in our midst, pervasively governing our lives, open to a far greater degree of control than the state, would be deeply surprising to most people. Certainly many U.S. CEOs, who think of themselves as libertarian individualists, would be surprised to see themselves depicted as dictators of little communist governments. Why do we not recognize such a pervasive part of our social landscape for what it is? Should we not subject these forms of government to at least as much critical scrutiny as we pay to the democratic state?

The social-democratic left do not engage in “critical scrutiny” of the “forms of government” of employers. Rather, they use as their standard improved working conditions relative to immediate working conditions–but they leave out any reference to the need to critique the dictatorship of employers.

Thus, I had a conversation with a union rep on Facebook–Dave Janssen–on the issue of fair compensation. Mr. Janssen, according to the Facebook page, “is an integral leader with the TAWC [Toronto Airport Workers’ Council] and the IAMAW [International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers] . He continuously strives to improve safety standards and the overall working conditions for the 49,000+ workers at Toronto Pearson [International Airport].”

Here is the following conservation:

Dan Janssen is at Toronto Pearson International Airport.

June 23 at 1:59 PM · Mississauga ·

Today was the Safety Expo event at Terminal 3 for the Canadian Airports Safety Week. It was a great opportunity to speak to my coworkers at YYZ [Toronto Pearson International Airport] about the importance of coming together to improve working conditions. Amazing to see so much support for flight attendants, as they need a change to federal labour laws that will ensure they are fairly compensated for their work. TAWC: Toronto Airport Workers’ Council [Facebook page]

9 Comments

Fred Harris What determines being “fairly compensated?” Can labour laws really ever “ensure they are fairly compensated?” Or is this an illusion? A cliche? Can any amount of money be considered “fairly compensated” when the people receiving the money are used as things for other persons’ purposes?

Please explain what “fairly compensated” means. Otherwise, the reference to “fairly compensated” is a cliche and does workers a disservice.

Dan Janssen For flight attendants, being fairly compensated means actually being paid for hours worked. The current model used around the world allows FAs to be paid only when the door of the aircraft is closed prior to pushback, not for any time spent prior to the flight departing.

Fred Harris It is more fairly compensated if they are paid for hours worked. How is it fairly compensated if they receive such pay?

When I worked in a brewery, we were paid for hours worked according to that definition (of course, not for travel to and from work). If we were paid for travel time and for hours worked, would we then have been fairly compensated?

I fail to see how that can be so. Firstly, we were things to be used by employers for the end of profit–no matter what our current pay. Secondly, of course the question arises: where does the profit come from except from the workers’ labour in the first place.

Thirdly, even if there were no profit, flight attendants would still be things to be used for purposes external to their own lives; it is not they who democratically control their own working lives.

Fourthly, flight attendants operate within a social division of labour that is determined by the general structure of the economy. They are not free to choose different kinds of activities, within the limits of their time and abilities and those of other workers because they are economically dependent on an employer.

They are unfree in various ways.

Fighting for higher earnings is always necessary–to refer to “fairly compensated”–that does workers a disservice. How can any compensation be adequate to such a lack of freedom when working for an employer?

Dan Janssen I see where you are coming from. This campaign for fair compensation has been resonating with all of our coworkers in support of flight attendants since it was launched. We are open to suggestions if you would like to put forward any ideas.

Fred Harris My suggestion is: cease referring to it as fair compensation. Use the relative term “fairer” and explain why there can be no such fair compensation. Explain that workers deserve much more than that–to control their own working lives and that a fight for increasing compensation for flight attendants is one step in a link of steps to eliminate the power of employers over workers and over our lives in general.

In other words, what is needed is an approach that links up, explicitly, one particular fight against employers with a general fight against employers.

Another aspect would be to start a discussion–or campaign–to question both explicit and implicit management clauses in collective agreements. Why do they exist? Why do employers have such power? What are the implications of managerial power for the limitations of legal union power?

What of collecting several management rights clauses in various collective agreements at the airport and having discussions over such clauses via emails, to the general membership, asking them what they think about this power? What of steward training that shows the limitations of collective agreements in relation to the power of unions?

Why not expand such discussions by linking them to other aspects of power by employers (their legal power, their political power, their social power and so forth)?

Fred Harris Any responses to the suggestions?

Dan Janssen Yes Fred, please come out to one of our TAWC open meetings and put your ideas forward to the council to be actioned. Our meetings are open to all airport workers, unionized or not and anyone can bring forward ideas, events, actions, etc. Decisions are made as a group. Message the page with your email and we will add you to our email list.

Fred Harris Another suggestion: Have a discussion (both among union reps and among the general membership of various unions) concerning the lack of discussion about the origin and nature of employers in the Ontario history curriculum (and the origin and nature of employees, of course, since employers without employees is impossible).

In other words, have a discussion about this issue in order to counter the silent indoctrination of hundreds of thousands of students concerning their probable future lives as subordinates to the power of the class of employers–unless they organize not only to oppose that power but to overcome it.

Fred Harris Not really feasible. I already attempted to question the idea of $15 and Fairness” at a public forum, and despite raising my hand a number of times to ask a question, I was not recognized by the chair–Sean Smith.

Secondly, I have experienced hostility by union members (rather, union reps) before concerning such ideas. I doubt that my ideas would be taken seriously if I broached the issue.

To be fair to Mr. Janssen, he did invite me to attend the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC), but as I indicated above, in a public forum, I was not recognized by Sean Smith (a member of another union, Unifor), and Mr. Smith is a member of TAWC. Indeed, on the TAWC Facebook page, along with Mr. Janssen and others, there is a short passage about Dan Janssen and Sean Smith : ” Sean Smith (UNIFOR) and Dan Janssen (IAMAW) spent some time going over the history, past actions and structure of the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council to a captive audience of MAN [Manchester International Airport) workers from various companies and job functions.”

Although it is possible that Mr. Smith inadvertently did not recognize me when I raised my hand several times to ask the question about why the campaign for $15 and “Fairness” had the campaign linked to the concept of fairness, I am skeptical about such a view. I was sitting on an end chair in a direct line of sight with Mr. Smith. Furthermore, when one of the members of the audience who was instrumental in campaigning for the $15 and “fairness” raised her hand (Pam Frache), she was not only recognized by the chair but spoke for much longer than normal.

Given my skepticism about Mr. Smith’s attitude towards my views, and given the close relation between Mr. Smith and TAWC, it is unlikely that my views would be taken seriously at such meetings. Mr. Janssen’s invitation, then, though it may look democratic, may be less so.

Or perhaps I am wrong. Should I attend such meetings despite the probable ridicule of my views? What do you think? Any suggestions about what should be done?

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.