What are strikes really about? A reply to Dionne Pohler

Nick Driedger and Marianne Garneau respond to an editorial in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix about the strike at the Saskatoon Co-op.

In a recent editorial in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Dionne Pohler, a professor at the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto, raises some doubts about the Saskatoon Co-op strike and its purpose.

She is concerned that the strike pits two progressive organizations against one another: both co-ops and unions are “owned and democratically controlled by their memberships.” Pohler argues that in the current labor dispute, “both sides” are “doing long-term damage to worker and member solidarity.”

Further, Pohler questions the strike’s social justice objective, arguing that “it is problematic to connect isolated labour disputes to a sweeping range of societal inequalities.” She puts it to the reader that those inequalities are the result of impersonal forces rather than management decisions:

Rising inequality is driven more by asset ownership than organizational wage structures. Changes in work and employment due to technological advances, growing influence of finance on businesses, and the gutting of redistributive tax and transfer policies are the major culprits.

After reading Pohler’s editorial, one is left wondering what purpose is served by this or any strike.

We would like to clear up some of the confusion.

Unions and co-ops, and the difference

First, while Pohler is right that both unions and co-ops are controlled by their memberships, and that both rely on collective action to “meet shared goals,” that is where the similarities end.

Crucially, only unions, in this case the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1400, work to expand the power of ordinary working people. The Saskatoon Co-op does not.

The Co-op may be “owned by people who live in the community where it operates” — that is, the customers — but those customer-owners elect a board which runs the grocery like any other business.  Workflow is managed top-down by bosses, and the goal is to maximize profit.

Pohler acknowledges this – co-ops, she notes, need to compete in a marketplace with other businesses – but then fudges the point by noting that cooperatives see themselves as having a social mission beyond simply selling goods.

What, then, is that mission? To provide a modest rebate on consumer goods, and the same race to the bottom on wages? Do cooperatives simply bring to the table a more “democratic” way of overpowering workers and diminishing their voice?

If cooperatives want to claim the mantle of a social mission of greater equality in society, it is on them to diverge from common business practices.

Pohler calls out UFCW 1400 for making demands on the Co-op that they did not make on Loblaws or Sobeys. But that could just as easily be turned against the Co-op: if their social mission is so important, why are they not willing to take the lead on beating back tiered pay arrangements that impoverish future generations of workers?

If, as Pohler argues, the strike is too narrowly focused on one bad actor in an industry, the answer isn’t to let the Co-op off the hook. It is to make sure Sobeys and Loblaws share the blame, and to work on similar problems in those businesses.

Perhaps the strike should be expanded to those other retail outlets.

What are strikes for?

As noted, Pohler believes social inequality is the result of tax policy, the influence of finance capital, and technological advances.

But those things don’t happen by accident, nor is their outcome unpredictable. 

They are the expression of a power struggle in our society over who gets what. Tax policy and financial discipline express political priorities about who should benefit from the wealth circulating in our society, and who should make sacrifices. Where resources should go, and where they should be withheld.

Even technological advances – the automation of work, in the form of self-check-out, among other examples – don’t fundamentally produce lower wages or social inequality. As a society, we allow the benefits of automating work to go to business owners rather than to workers themselves. We could do otherwise.

Although tax policy, finance capital, and technology play an intermediary role, the only fundamental explanation for inequality in our society is working people lacking power.

That workers have very little power becomes obvious as soon as you spend any amount of time talking to someone on a picket line. You hear stories of people being harassed over sick leave. You hear about their schedules not working for their childcare responsibilities. You hear about not having enough money for their own groceries, while being are told they are overpaid.

By going out on strike, working people hope to gain more control over their lives. In fact, the only time workers gain power in our society is when they organize and act in a concerted way against the entities that use their labour, to demand better conditions.

But you would never get that by reading Pohler’s article.

This is unsurprising. The role of the “experts” in Human Resources is to deny the political content of anything that goes on between workers and bosses.

Pohler works hard in her editorial to empty this labor dispute of any political significance. The reality is, rising inequality will only be addressed by actions like the strike at the Co-op.