CBC Neil Macdonald's 'The right to work for less': A Classic Example of Liberal Analysis Missing the Mark

| December 11, 2012


It is sometimes hard to follow liberal analysis at it weaves and meanders through a track of ahistorical and inconsistent narratives. Most of the time it is not worth it, but every once in a while the analysis does harm to struggle for historical justice, fairness and equality: namely, the work of the union movement. In these cases, it is probably better to point out some of the problems.


Neil Macdonald misses the mark almost entirely in his opinion piece on the CBC today. The kind of anti-analytical liberalism expressed in his article simply leads to an appeasement of hard-right policies that Macdonald is trying to complain about.

Macdonald rightly points out that so-called “right-to-work” legislation coming in Michigan is just a Orwellian double-speak for anti-union and anti-worker legislation dreamed-up by those beholden to capitalist excess. However, he then goes on to somehow blame workers for their lot that both ahistorical and dangerously naive and, worse, suggests that successful and large unions of workers are somehow connected to organized crime. These comments are baseless and unsubstantiated nonsense and are the same nonsense spewed by anti-union ideologues on the right. The key problem here is the sense of “balance” that Macdonald tries to bring into his article by blaming both sides, but he has at once identified the wrong sides to balance his analysis and offered a skewed version of side of the unions.

Unions are simply groups of workers coming together to build enough strength to counterbalance the power the owners of capital. It is this simple act that is the target of anti-union legislation as without this power workers are at the mercy of the powerful elite and a system that would rather not pay for work. While unions, as they are made up of fallible people, can make mistakes, these are corrected via their democratic nature. This process is no different from any other democratic model ever to exist – it is not perfect, as the saying goes, but the best model we have. However, this process is not underlying the history of reduced power of unions today versus the (near mythical) power of union in the 1950’s, that history is the history of class struggle where the ruling class used all resources available to them to roll-back working-class gains.

Liberal appeasement of the hard-right’s policies of this kind is the reason that the right get away with dragging policy measures to the right over the previous thirty years. It might feel reasonable to stick anecdotal stories into an article about systematic problems, but it is intellectually dishonest.The fight against inequality must be truthful, but also historically accurate – and the history is not one of union exuberance and corruption, it is one of systematic oppression and power imbalances of the capitalist class.

Macdonald outlines that he once witnessed people being paid to be on call, but did not even have to come in because it “was in their contract”. I am still trying to figure out what is wrong with this. If an owner wants people to be on call, outside of their normal work hours (basically in the middle of the night), workers who probably have families and work the next day, then it seems only reasonable to me that they be compensated for this. In fact, the reason that they were able to bargain this into their contract probably has something to do with no skilled workers wanting to come in through the night to do extra work if they were not paid simply for saying they would wait up.

Apart from Macdonald’s apparent problem with paying workers who are employed, the most difficult to understand (almost throw-away) comment in the article is the one against worker control in the workplace. Unlike Macdonald’s suggestion, worker control is not usually the aim of a union’s collective agreement, democracy in the establishment of workplace conditions is. Macdonald seems to be confused between what most socialists/Marxists (folks that developed the concept) would call worker control (seen in worker-owned co-operatives and socialist state-worker-community managed firms) and what a union does inside a capitalist firm. These are different models and should not be confused.

For what it is worth, if we had worker control in our society, things would be much fairer and there would be no strikes against capital or collective agreements managing relations between owners and workers. In a worker-control model, the workers run the company democratically and collectively without a capitalist owner. I suggestreading some books on the subject, Neil, before you make disparaging comments about a rich history of the struggle for real justice.

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