• authored by Members for Democracy
  • published Sat, May 18, 2002

Necessary illusions and manufactured consent

Purple haze all in my brain
Lately things just don't seem the same
Actin' funny, but I don't know why...
- Jimi Hendrix

Something quite unusual is happening at Lomans warehouse in Langley BC. Reports about events at the warehouse have been appearing regularly on MFD's Front Page since earlier this year when Lomans workers (some 250 of them) learned that they were about to lose their jobs.

Lomans provides warehousing services to Overwaitea Food Group, a big player in the retail food business in western Canada. For many years, OFG operated the warehouse directly. In 1992, however, OFG contracted out its warehousing operations to Lomans. UFCW Local 1518, which represented the workers at the time, did not take issue with the change of employer when the change took place. Instead, it inked a 10-year contract with Lomans and life went placidly on for several years. In 1999, with three years left to run in the 10-year deal, Lomans asked Local 1518 for concessions. A severely gutted version of their collective agreement was placed before the workers for ratification. They voted it down by an overwhelming majority. A while later, OFG announced that at the conclusion of its 10 year deal with Lomans, it would be going elsewhere for warehouse services. A large US-based firm called EV Logistics has been lined up to take over from Lomans within the next few months.

In April of this year, workers at the warehouse were given layoff notices. Their jobs will be gone by the end of September. Refusing to quietly accept their misfortune, they responded with outrage and anger directed initially at the company (which many felt had lost its contract due to years of poor management) and then at their union that appeared to be distancing itself from them in this time of crisis. Some found their way to MFD and an outlet for their views - this web site.

Local 1518 eventually filed an application with the BC LRB asking that OFG and Lomans be declared 'common employers" - retroactively to 1992. The application will likely not be decided until well after the workers are on the street. So far, there has been no explanation as to why such an application was not filed 10 years ago or just what, with the workers about to be laid off, a victory at the LRB will get them anyway. They have been told nonetheless that chances of a victory are good and to sit quietly by in the interim and wait for the Board to do its work.

Some of them could not sit quietly by. A few began to agitate for action and answers. They wanted, in the very least, to let other workers including those in their local, to know what was happening to them. If indeed it was OFG that controlled their workplace and their future, they wanted to bring pressure to bear on the big retailer, for selling them down the river. They wanted to leaflet OFG supermarkets to seek the support of customers. Their union agreed to a limited leafleting campaign at a number of OFG supermarkets but - the money to fund the campaign would have to come from the workers themselves. They wanted to send a representative to a bargaining conference their local was holding to alert members in the union's retail sector of what their employer was doing to members on the "industrial" side. They were initially told retail bargaining didn't concern them. Their warehouse steward was eventually given an invitation and provided an opportunity to address the members. Clearly, Local 1518 appeared anything but anxious to engage in anything resembling "direct action" against OFG. Sit tight, they were told, the LRB will take care of you.

Then the workers began talking about taking direct action - against their union - picketing the union office or maybe turning up at the upcoming UFCW and CLC conventions to raise awareness of their cause. All of a sudden something really unusual happened.

From out of the depths of some old filing cabinet came a document that the union believes gives it the power to cancel its current collective agreement with Lomans. "Memorandum of Understanding I" gives it this right if certain information regarding the ownership of the warehouse property was not provided to the union - in 1993. The union claims the info was never provided and so it is now in a position to cancel its collective agreement and initiate a strike. Workers have been summoned to a meeting to be held on May 20th (a public holiday in Canada), where they will be asked to authorize cancellation of their collective agreement, to ratify proposals for a new collective agreement and to grant their union the mandate to strike if negotiations for a new agreement with the employer (whichever one) lead nowhere. A communication from Local 1518 to the members contains a copy of the mysterious Memorandum of Understanding and an opinion letter from a lawyer for the union. That letter does not talk about the legality of canceling the collective agreement. It addresses, instead, what to do once the agreement is cancelled.

Some of the workers have reacted with enthusiasm about this lucky last minute find. Just weeks after learning that they are about to lose their jobs permanently, they are excited about the prospect of being able to negotiate and maybe even strike the employer. From some of the commentary in MFD forum, even those who had previously been critical of their union and its officials have found renewed faith in their union.

Those of us who understand the Canadian labour relations system, however, are not quite so enthusiastic. There is a lot about this situation that doesn't add up. In order to allow for the cancellation of a collective agreement, the MOU must truly contain some miraculous properties. The Labour Relations Act in BC (or any other province for that matter) makes no provision for the cancellation or voiding of collective agreements. Agreements are negotiated, ratified and implemented. They stay in effect until the legally proscribed period for negotiations (usually the last 2 or 3 months of the agreement) is reached. In Canadian jurisdictions, collective agreements are not governed by common law but by the Labour Relations statutes of each province. It is not the case that if one party fails to live up to its end of the agreement, the other party is free to walk away from the deal. The statutes provide, quite to the contrary, that disputes arising over the interpretation or administration of collective agreements are to be taken to binding arbitration. Striking over alleged violations of collective agreements has been a non-started since our labour relations "system" was implemented in the late 1940's. It was put in place, by the way, because both the government and the business community felt there was way too much canceling of collective agreements going on. Collective agreements provide for order and stability in the workplace and that's what the labour relations system and its framework of laws is all about. If cancellation or voiding of agreements were permitted, order and stability would fly out the window. How it is that the union believes it has the legal basis for a collective agreement cancellation in these circumstances would be interesting for all of us to know. For the workers involved, it is essential to know.

And what about the union's sudden about-face as far as these workers are concerned? In less than a week, their local has gone from reluctant leafleting to taking a strike vote. What's up with that?

There are three possibilities: 1. The union has found a devilishly clever strategy to apply pressure to the employer using some sound legal maneuver that nobody knows much about. 2. The union has embarked on a high-risk strategy in the hope of extracting some concession from the employer through the threat of a strike or prolonged litigation. 3. The union is embarking on a deliberate course of action to distract the workers from actions that may cause it embarrassment. How and why? One MFD contributor put it this way:

"What a crock. The union is playing games with these guys--big time. Was it really signed in 1995, or is that a mis-scan? If it was, the company was not in compliance on the signing date. If it wasn't what the hell happened. It was supposed to be verified within days of the signing. You can't knowingly let something drag on for nine years and then tell the other party the deal is no more--especially when the "The above subjects are for the sole benefit of the Union...." The union gets 90% of the benefit and then tries to back out. No judge will allow that.

[The lawyer's] letter is a farce. She won't get into whether the union can legally strike. I guess not! She would look like an idiot. Therefore, she gives them a wonky bargaining strategy. She tells them to hold a strike vote and then threaten the employer with it.

The guys in the warehouse think that there will be a strike in short order. Not so by Shona's letter. They take the phony strike vote, and then tell Loman that they want to "bargain". Loman will tell them to piss into the wind. They will let it out that a strike vote has been held, Loman may seek an injunction. However, most likely the union will give the company notice, send them proposals, try to or actually meet with the company and say something stupid like, "hey, what do you think about those proposals, eh?" Then they may serve the company with 72 hours notice, but an injunction will be sought or a Board order declaring any strike to illegal until "other matters" are heard by the Board.

This dance will go on for months or until the whole thing is mute because the warehouse will be closed or EV will be up and running. Local 1518 will say they fought real hard but were hamstrung by the Labour Board and the Courts. Meanwhile all this stuff is hush-hush. No loud outcry the union.

This stuff stinks to high heaven. There ain't going to be no strike! This is busy stuff to keep the warehouse guys off Brooke and Ivan's backs. The union can argue it's working hard, and the guys at the warehouse will look bad if they attack such a hard-working union."

How can it be that those who we trust to look after our best interests play games with our heads? It happens all the time.

Legendary American dissident Noam Chomsky has written volumes on the undermining of democracy, the motives of those who seek to undermine democratic organizations and their methods. Basically, it works like this: where ruling classes establish themselves in a democratic society, their chief objective is to remain in power. The masses of people over whom they exert their power have the potential to overthrow them because they exist in a democratic system. The potential is always there because the interests of the rulers and the interests of the masses are not the same. The masses must be controlled and kept from realizing their power. Since the use of brute force as a method of control is off limits, other more subtle methods must be utilized. These methods involve controlling what the masses think and what they think about. The masses must be given the "illusion" that they exist in a democracy and that their leaders are at all times acting with their best interests in mind and - most importantly - with their consent. Fundamentally, the rulers regard the masses as stupid. They don't know what's good for them. It is important that the masses get "what's good for them" and, where possible that they believe it's good for them and that they're the ones who wanted it in the first place. This excerpt, from Chomsky's "Media Control, The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda, Seven Stories Press, 1997 describes the control methodology and its underlying belief system. At the beginning of the passage, Chomsky is discussing the involvement of Walter Lippmann, the granddaddy of American mainstream journalism to the cause of thought control. He then goes on to more generally describe the thinking behind the "thought control". Does it ring any bells in the context of biz-union behavior?

Lippmann ...argued that what he called a "revolution in the art of democracy", could be used to "manufacture consent, that is, to bring about agreement on the part of the public for things that they didn't want by the new techniques of propaganda. He also thought that it was a good idea, in fact, necessary. It was necessary because, as he put it, "the common interests elude public opinion entirely and can only be understood and managed by a "specialized class of responsible men" who are smart enough to figure things out.

"We'll drive the stupid masses toward a world that they're too dumb to understand for themselves"

Lippmann ...argued that in a properly functioning democracy there are classes of citizens. There is first of all the class of citizens who have to take some active role in running general affairs. That's the specialized class. They are the people who analyze, execute, make decisions, and run things in the political, economic, and ideological systems. That's a small percentage of the population. Naturally, anyone who puts these ideas forth is always part of those small groups, and they're talking about what to do about those others. Those others, who are out of the small group, the big majority of the population, they are what Lippmann called "the bewildered herd." We have to protect ourselves from "the trampling and roar of a bewildered herd". Now, there are two "functions" in a democracy: The specialized class, the responsible men, carry out the executive function, which means they do the thinking and planning and understand the common interests. Then, there is the bewildered herd, and they have a function in democracy too. Their function in a democracy, he said is to be "spectators," not participants in action. But they have more of a function than that, because it's a democracy. Occasionally they are allowed to lend their weight to one or another members of the specialized class. In other words, they're allowed to say, "We want you to be our leader" or "We want you to be our leader." That's because it's a democracy and not a totalitarian state. That' called an election. But once they've lent their weight to one or another member of the specialized class they're supposed to sink back and become spectators of action, but not participants. That's in a properly functioning democracy.

And there's logic behind it. There's even a kind of compelling moral principle behind it. The compelling moral principle is that the mass of the public is just too stupid to be able to understand things. If they try to participate in managing their own affairs, they're just going to cause trouble. Therefore, it would be immoral and improper to permit them to do this. We have to tame the bewildered herd, not allow the bewildered herd to rage and trample and destroy things. It's pretty much the same logic that says that it would be improper to let a three-year-old run across the street. You don't give a three-year-old that kind of freedom because the three-year-old doesn't know how to handle that freedom. Correspondingly, you don't allow the bewildered herd to become participants in action. They'll just cause trouble.

So we need something to tame the bewildered herd, and that something is this new revolution in the art of democracy: the manufacture of consent. The media, the schools and popular culture have to be divided. For the political class and the decision makers they have to provide them some tolerable sense of reality, although they also have to instill the proper beliefs. Just remember, there is an unstated premise here. The unstated premise - and even the responsible men have to disguise this from themselves - has to do with the question of how they get into the position where they have the authority to make decisions. The way they do that, of course, is by serving people with real power. The people with real power are those who own the society, which is a pretty narrow group. If the specialized class can come along and say, I can serve your interests, then they'll be part of the executive group. You've got to keep that quiet. That means they have to have instilled in them the beliefs and doctrines that will serve the interests of private power. Unless then can master that skill, they're not part of the specialized class. So we have one kind of educational system directed to the responsible men, the specialized class. They have to be deeply indoctrinated in the values and interests of private power and the state-corporate nexus that represents it. If they can achieve that, then they can be part of the specialized class. The rest of the bewildered herd basically just have to be distracted. Turn their attention to something else. Keep them out of trouble; Make sure that they remain at most spectators of action, occasionally lending their weight to one or another of the real leaders, who they may select among. Noam Chomsky, Media Control, The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda, Seven Stories Press, 1997

Are the interests of the Lomans warehouse workers being well served by their leaders or are they just being given the illusion of representation? The next few months will tell the story. Whatever the outcome, it's time we began to look at democracy and thought control in the mainstream of labour.

What our contributors had to say:

About democracy in unions:

The very fact both the employer and 1000a are asking that's peoples vote's be tossed away like meaningless note pads suggest a less than healthy relationship between the two. It also exemplifies just exactly where the UFCW truly stands on democracy and input from the membership. I judge people not by words but by action and the UFCW never fails to reinforce my thoughts about them. - Scott McPherson

It will be roughly 4 to 6 weeks till we know the winner!
That sucks #%#$@#$. The CAW is ready to count in the morning.But the UFCW and the Company ignore our say! Actually they are fighting against the peoples VOTE.
WHY? Must they throw $$$$$$ AWAY. Today I helped wash away
dictatorship. The UFCW walked me backwards and it was sweet
to stand up to da biz-union, WE can't resort to violence so WE used a pencil instead. What a campaign! I look forward to working with my new educated brothers. - WannabeCAW

Rather than continually attacking others, why don't you tell us why secret contracts are good for UFCW members? Tell us why "partnering" agreements are good for workers. Tell us why buying hotels and signing sub-standard agreements are good for workers. Tell us why it was OK for UFCW members' money to be spent on buying Cliff Evans a house in Florida. Tell us how rampant nepotism serves UFCW members well. Tell us how being the kings of two-tier contracts is so noble. Tell us why six- to nine-year CAs are good for UFCW members. Tell us why being the president's choice for voluntary recognition agreements in Canada is good for UFCW members. Tell us why a president and other officers should get a free car, enough cash to buy a home, multiple pensions and short-term salary continuance when they retire or get booted from office. Tell us why some UFCW presidents get paid well over $100 thousand a year when they don't bargain contract, service units or do little more than travel around North American sun spots. - Richard

I understand that Buzz talked to Ken Georgetti about Maple Grove. Did he talk to Ken about how damned embarrassing the UFCW is to the labour Movement? Did he tell Ken that over 100,000 retail workers are trapped in a union that has partnered itself into being little more than a tax collector? - weiser

The UFCW boasts about having close to 1.4 million members, but what does that mean where the rubber hits the road? Safeway kicks the crap out of UFCW locals one at a time, and the other locals either don't know or don't care. There is no solidarity whatsoever. Remember when Maple Leaf shut down UFCW plant in Edmonton? They did a deal with the UFCW in Manitoba and shipped the work to a UFCW plant in Sioux Falls until the UFCW Manitoba plant was ready. Where's the solidarity? Where's the benefit in "big"?

I think that the logical starting point for the discussion is a generic one: How do we reach out to workers? How do we engage workers in discussion? What's the question(s) that we should be asking of workers?

Divisions, whether based on geography, industry, employment status, occupation or whatever, are artificial divisions imposed upon us by the forces of capital. These divisions serve to set up apart from each other. They keep us from discovering our common goals, values and vision and those are what we need to get our heads around so that we can figure out collectively how we want it to be. - remote viewer

Post with the most:

I would definitely like to see more emphasis on the four areas Geoff mentions: (communication, education, negotiation, and sectoral strategy) But without a grass roots campaign to reform their local, energized by the members themselves, and brought about from the ground up, I would be concerned the members would remain statistics and would be no more than a source of revenue for the business machines to compete over.
The most important choice union members can make is between yesterday and tomorrow, and the future of labor unions lies in getting on the right side of the equation. I believe it is vital for an organization to do something unprecedented and thus by its very nature is threatening to people who are more comfortable with what has been, rather than what might be. To become a great organization, the members must be undeterred by obstacles and setbacks. Instead, they must stay optimistic by positive illusions that they can break new ground or succeed where others have failed. Members require "meaning". Without meaning, their labor is time which has been stolen from them, and like Samson, we become merely slaves at the wheel. - Licatsplit - link

Good reading:

Excerpts from "A Hard Man To Beat, The Story of Bill White: Labour Leader, Historian, Shipyard Worker, Raconteur" by Howard White. Bill was born in 1905 and this book was written in 1983. Bill became president of the Marine Workers and Boilermakers Union in Vancouver in 1944, on the Communist Party slate. These are his words.

Page 17

I'll tell you another thing about the depression. We hear about how tough it was - about the Okies starving and babies born dead from malnutrition, and all the people out of work and all this kind of thing. We hear about this now, and people say well, that was "The Depression". Things like that could only happen during "The Depression" and there'll never be another "Depression". Well let me tell you, during the depression they never admitted there was a depression on. It was always things are a little slow right now, but we expect an upturn by the next quarter, just the same as we hear now. And as far as unemployment goes, they were still giving out this line that any guy who really wanted to find a job could go out and get one. Right in the blackest depths of the depression! Sure! "These bastards in the hobo jungle, in the relief camps, they're just lazy. If they wanted work they'd find work!" I tell you now, it was heartless!

And don't you think for a minute that people didn't fall for this. People ate this up. You'd see them in these little towns putting up signs, "No Transients", "Clean up Duckburg, Ban the Bums." They herded all the unemployed men off into camps and made them serve at hard labour
for twenty cents a day, and people thought this was just fine.

Page 24

The thing to realize about the establishment is that they can turn anything to their own advantage. When the economy fell on its ass in '29 Herbert Hoover said, well, the solution is for workers to tighten their belts, work hard, and give business everything it likes so it can get back on its feet and save the country. Later on the experts decided that what had caused the Great Crash in the first place was business having too free a hand and not being controlled enough, but that didn't make no difference. When the war come along they said, well, the solution here is for workers to work extra hard, peg wages down, and give business a free hand so it can produce a lot of war goods and save the country. And today that's what they're saying again, telling us to lower our expectations and big business to raise theirs. They call this the new conservatism, but they should call it the New Hooverism. Boom or bust, their answer is always the same: take less for yourself and give us more! And the working stiff, he gets taken in every time by the same damn line. - Blackcat - link

Good links:

Cool tool for getting messages out- Google Adwords

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