What's Left 2015-09-27 Volume 29

This week focuses on organizing the precariat, what we need for labour law reform, a new argument for card check, a win against privatization, prescription drugs, VW scandal and UAW victories in the South.

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The new frontier for worker organizing

Labour law reform discussions continue about how to help build workplace representation for the newly identified “precariat” – the social class of precarious workers. During these discussions, it is important for socialists to examine the structural reforms needed within unions to prioritize organizing this group.

The rise of the precariat has occurred at the same time as corporate boards try to evade the profit drag produced by workplace democracy through a union. The use of technology and advanced management processes such as contracting-out and outsourcing has muddied the relationship between employees and their workplace.

Along with changes to the workplace, current labour laws have also constructed barriers for precarious workers to organize in contract positions and small workplaces. The labour movement has faced these legal challenges before – remember, unions used to be illegal not too long ago. Through mass action, workers were able to establish the right of their associations to be recognized and collective worker action is no less powerful today. However, it seems obvious that current models are failing in organizing in the so called “fractured” workplaces of the precariat.

If the movement is to discuss the legal framework for organizing there is a need to examine unions as institutions and not simply as groups of workers themselves. The structure of unions has been constrained by the historical development of the economy and the structure of industrial workplaces that were organized. Not surprisingly, unions’ organizing departments and the laws that regulate union certification were also structured along these historical lines.

However, it is not only the structure of the workplace that is a drag on union innovation in organizing. The orientation of “unions as institutions” to establish laws and use the law as a method of stability is also an issue. Under-utilization of the strategic use of collective worker power to demand progressive reform of the law means the movement can get constrained by those very regulations it fought so hard to set-up.

Taken together, it seems necessary to find a way to break free of the legal constraints established to regulate industrial workplace democracy to organize the precariat. And, at the same time, not demolishing those previous historical gains for industrial workers – after all, the rise of the precariat does not necessitate the death of the industrial workplace.

Three things for meaningful labour law reform

The following should be remembered when facilitating the organizing of precarious workers within the new labour law reforms:

Organizing needs to be funded. The establishment of workplace democracy is taken as a social good. As such, it must pay for itself in the medium term in order to be sustainable. Organizing cannot be an assumed altruistic act by unions. Labour law cannot disincentivize organizing with financial barriers or it is acting to counter the rights it is supposed to facilitate. In fact, there should be incentives that facilitate organizing built into the labour regulatory regime.

Organizing need not be war-like. While much organizing will always be run by dedicated activists, if it is too labour intensive or if the costs on an organizer are too much, organizing will only be done by professional organizers. This is unworkable if the goal is to allow organic growth of workplace democracy. If workers want to associate into a union, they should be able to exercise that Constitutional right with as much ease as a corporation files for a tax credit.

Success should result in real benefits. All stages of organizing must have some specific success. The result of successful organizing and democratization should be real and should have an increased power for workers. If too many attempts at work democratization result in nothing but hollow gains, cynicism and exploitation will be sustained. This means that any actions on behalf of the employer to delay association, bargaining or first contract ratification should be condemned.

A slight variation on the argument for card check certification

In Canada, there is a two step process for most workers to form a union. There is a card signing process which acts as a poll asking workers if they want democracy in their workplace. Then, if enough of them do, there is a vote asking those same workers if they want workplace democracy through a union. This means that current labour law on union certification starts with the premise that the neutral position for workers is as an unorganized mass who are essentially anti-democratic.

It is rather odd for a democratic state to force organizations to poll citizens whether they want democracy before they can vote. In fact, no other structures of association have ever been forced to do this. 

The current union argument is that only a “card check” certification would make it easier to form a union. But this argument does not go far enough. 

The neutral position for groups of people in a democracy is of course not anti-democratic, but is a process of discussion, agitation and education; the building blocks of any democracy. It should be assumed that unorganized workers are no different. In their ’natural state’, groups of workers are already on-board with (and even practising) some aspects of workplace democracy.

In a democratic country, workers should not to be assumed to be ignorant of their right to democracy. As such, a single vote by signing a union card should be the only step to forming a union.

More: Reforming Labour Laws: There’s a Lot on the line

Commodification of Post-Secondary Education (Part 4 of a What’s Left series on privatization)

Turning public services into things that can be bought and sold has been one of the most defining and also destructive processes of neoliberalism.

The foundational concept of public services is that of universal access. Without this foundation, a service is neither fully public nor is it accessible to taxpayers. The move towards charging a fee for public services is where commodification starts. It ends when a private service provider see the users themselves as the product being bought and sold.

The process of commodification has been underway in Canada since the reintroduction of tuition fees and the rise in mandated “ancillary” fees. In fact, “tuition fee” essentially means “commodified knowledge”.

Continue Reading: [[https://citizenspress.us10.list-manage.com/track/click?u=27d7d00e19a37005743125d7e&id=65815ddb05&e=8484a6ba75][Commodification of Post-Secondary Education: Back to school privatization special (Part 4)]]


Profit and prescription drugs

In the Canadian system, the private sector controls all aspects of prescription medication with profit for shareholders driving the industry. As such, it is not surprising when companies exploit their monopoly for huge profits. Recent events show just how ridiculous this system is. 

In the past week, the price for the drug used to treat multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, Cycloserine, was hiked 2,000 per cent overnight. Then a Pharma CEO and former hedge fund manager defend his 5,000 per cent price hike for an anti-parasitic drug Diaparam. And finally, Alexion Pharmaceuticals has filed a motion in Federal Court arguing that Canada’s drug price watchdog has no authority to force the company to lower its price for the drug Soliris. categories: [“What’s Left”]

In New Zealand, a country not known for its left wing ideology, prices of medication has increased by only three per cent per year compared to ten per cent worldwide. In addition, individuals pay a maximum of 100\$ nz a year.

In Canada, because of limited cooperation among provinces and no effort by current and previous federal governments to tackle the issue, pharmaceutical costs are amongst the highest in the world. Pharmaceutical companies seem to be under the impression that in Canada, people will pay whatever the cost. The result is that the private pharmaceutical industry has been one of the most successful parts of the corporate campaign to privatize and profit from the public health care system.

More: Tuberculosis drug price jumps 2,000%, shocks doctors

More: [[http://citizenspress.us10.list-manage1.com/track/click?u=27d7d00e19a37005743125d7e&id=9531384d8c&e=8484a6ba75][U.S. drug company sues Canada for trying to lower cost of \$700K-a-year drug]]

More: [[http://citizenspress.us10.list-manage1.com/track/click?u=27d7d00e19a37005743125d7e&id=72666aeceb&e=8484a6ba75][Drug company CEO to lower price of Daraprim after public outcry, news report says]]

More: [[http://citizenspress.us10.list-manage1.com/track/click?u=27d7d00e19a37005743125d7e&id=434b72d3d8&e=8484a6ba75][Canada could have universal drug coverage without raising taxes – Morgan]]

Proponents of privatization forced to admit fault

City of Toronto staff have produced a report recommending against the complete privatization of garbage collection. The basic facts and accounting has correctly proved the consistent line of CUPE and allies that privatization does not guarantee cheap or better services. Public garbage collection continues to be cheaper and better than long-term contracts demanded by the private sector. Before the report was shelved, it almost seemed like the ideological pro-privatizers of Toronto were going to have to acquiesce to the facts. Maybe next time.

More: Privatizing more trash pickup may not make sense

More: The facts on Toronto’s in‑house solid waste excellence


Volkswagen scandal exposes big business

The magnitude of the Volkswagen scandal can be boiled down to this: Volkswagen consciously installed software in some of its diesel-fuled models that would ensure cars would pass regulatory CO2 emissions standards, but only in the event of a test. Volkswagen, a prized and reputable car giant has for years been polluting the air we breathe in what is now known to be a scandal of deception and cheating of great proportions. 11 million vehicles world-wide have been affected. The numbers being floated as what Volkswagen could potentially face in fines are vertiginous.  

At face value, the scandal has brought consternation to Germany’s car manufacturer. Reactions from the public all over the world have been one of shock and awe: a cherished maker of cars had cheated consumers on two fronts: by installing spy software in their cars, and by skirting environmental regulations. On both accounts, Volkswagen faces a long road ahead to live them down.

Now, chances to expose big business in this way are few are far between. If anything, the Volkswagen scandal should confirm that “corporate accountability” is not backed up with adequate oversight from governments. As companies become bigger and more international, what is the proper way to avoid such deception and maintain international standards that respect basic principles of living together as a society?

More: Volkswagen Says 11 Million Cars Worldwide Are Affected in Diesel Deception

More: Volkswagen Scandal: Why Is It So Hard to Make Clean Diesel Cars?

U.A.W scores big organizing win in the South

Organizing wins are always welcome, especially in these times where many obstacles are put in front of those wishing to form a union. They are even more welcome in states such as Alabama, where right-to-work laws compound existing challenges to organizing.

The United Autoworkers of America (UAW) can celebrate a win, albeit small, this week, when employees at C.V.G voted 2-to-1 to joint the union. Such wins are in stark contrasts to situations such as the one in Chattanooga where a union drive failed and left workers eve more vulnerable.

More: Alabama Vote Is Rare Win in the South for the U.A.W.

More: After Chattanooga

More: Lessons from Chattanooga

China adopts dead-end partial-privatization strategy

In what can only be described as inevitable after its adoption of pro-market reforms, China has adopted partial-privatization of its vast network of state owned companies. The problem of adopting free-market reforms means you end up on the marketization treadmill. In China, this means they have benefited from private market growth, but are now hostage to cyclical private-market economic contractions.

The only measure to deal with a slowdown under capitalism – and stave off social unrest – is to sell-off public assets. Of course, as we know in the advanced industrialized countries, these neoliberal reforms only delay the inevitable slowdown. The same way as burning the wood in your walls to heat your house. When there is nothing left to sell, there is nothing to stop the market’s coming correction.

More: China cautiously embraces privatisation of state-owned enterprises

Happy Birthday finally free to sing

The monopoly rent-seekers who received millions of dollars a year in royalties from those singing Happy Birthday have been dealt a deserving blow. A federal U.S. District Judge George H. King has ruled that Warner/Chappell “does not own a valid copyright” to the song. Ya, no kidding.

More: Happy Birthday Not Under Copyright Protection, Judge Rules

What does it mean to be a Socialist?

The everywhere man, Chris Hedges, has written a rather long, but interesting, read on what he thinks it means to be a socialist. Hopefully it will begin a broader discussion on the meaning of socialism.

More: What It Means to Be a Socialist