Article Image

Yesterday, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) voted overwhelmingly to reject an offer by the College Employer Council that the union argued was made in bad faith and an attempt to do an end-run around negotiation by putting the offer directly to a ratification vote by the membership. The offer made by the CEC was basically the same as the one made prior to the OPSEU strike five weeks ago, and was a step back from the few concessions negotiated since then. OPSEU president Warren Thomas said

Calling for this vote was a bully move by Council. […] At a time when we were only a few steps away from getting a deal, they overplayed their hand and robbed students of two weeks of their education.

86% of voters rejected the offer, with voter turnout at 95%, which is amazing; bourgeois elections can only dream of such levels of participation.

Friends of mine who are members of OPSEU, striking college faculty, were clear that the rejection of the offer opened the door to back-to-work legislation, but the feeling was that the Ontario government would wait until Monday to see what, if any, progress was made in negotations over the weekend. However, only hours after the CEC offer was rejected, Kathleen Wynne tabled back-to-work legislation, effectively looking to abrogate the constitutionally-protected right-to-strike of OPSEU members. The provincial NDP has refused to support the legislation, meaning that the bill will be debated over the weekend, rather than being pushed through immediately.

As I’ve been following the strike, I’ve also been reading around in Volume 1 of Capital, making connections where possible. When the back-to-work legislation was tabled yesterday, it seemed clear that there are direct connections between such state intervention on behalf of the employer, and the history of what Marx calls “bloody legislation against the expropriated”, Chapter 23 of Volume 1. Marx is writing in the context of “So-Called Primitive Accumulation”, that is, the process by which the capitalist mode of production came to exist in place of the feudalism (Part Eight of Volume 1). Marx argues that two processes were required for capitalism to develop: the creation of a proletariat who had no means of subsistence (land, tools, raw materials) and who were therefore forced to sell their labour in order to live, and the concentration of land, tools, raw materials and other forms of capital in the hands of a new ruling class. Because the peasantry under feudalism possessed - if only by use and tradition - their own means of production, the first step in the creation of the proletariat was the expropriation of the peasants, sweeping them off the land, privatizing it, and making it impossible for anyone to work with it or on it without selling their labour-power to the developing capitalist class.

The “bloody legislation” Marx refers to are the acts of monarch and parliament against the expropriated peasantry in support of the capitalist class. Fundamentally, such legislation had two broad goals. On the one hand, ex-peasants who found themselves unable to support themselves had to be forced into the labour market, either in the new capitalist farms, or into the cities to work in manufactures. Hence the legislation against “vagabondage”, etc.

The fathers of the present working class were chastised for their enforced transformation into vagabonds and paupers. Legislation treated them as ‘voluntary’ criminals, and assumed that it was entirely their powers to go on working under the old conditions which in fact no longer existed. (896).

On the other hand, legislation was required to keep wages low during this period when the working class was being constructed.

The rising bourgeoisie needs the power of the state, and uses it to ‘regulate’ wages, i.e. to force them into the limits suitable for making a profit, to lengthen the working day, and to keep the worker himself at his normal level of dependence. (899-900).

The laws against vagabondage extended even to slavery (897) and to death for repeat offenses (898).

Anyone wandering about and begging is declared a rogue and a vagabond. Justices of the peace… are authorized to have them publicly whipped and to imprison them for six months for the first offense, and two years for the second. […] Incorrigible and dangerous rogues are to be branded with an R on the left shoulder and set to hard labour, and if they are caught begging again, to be executed without mercy. (898-899).

Thus were the agricultural folk first forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped, branded and tortured by grotesquely terroristic laws into accepting the discipline necessary for the system of wage-labour. (899).

Legislation around wages set a legal maximum wage, and imprisoned or branded anyone working at a higher wage. Penalties for paying a higher wage were less than penalties for accepting a higher wage (901).

In the sixteenth century… Real wages… fell. Nevertheless the laws for keeping them down remained in force, together with the ear-clipping and branding of those ‘whom no-one was willing to take into service’.

One of the most telling aspects of this legislation is that infractions committed by the employer was a civil matter (i.e. tried in a civil court), while infractions by workers were criminal.

The provisions of the statutes of labourers as to contracts between master and workman, regarding giving notice and the like, which allow only a civil action against the master who breaks his contrcact, but permit, on the contrary, a criminal action against the worker who breaks his contract, are still in full force at this moment. [Until 1875, in fact]” (902-903).

We see here the early history of state intervention into labour disputes on the part of the employer. Back-to-work legislation, a legal way to abrogate the hard-won right to strike, is simply the modern form of state power wielded on behalf of the capitalist class. Let there be no mistake: illegal or wildcat strikes, refusing to obey back-to-work legislation would bring the full force of the law down on non-complying workers. The Spanish state recently used military force to put down rebellion in Catalonia; such is the real face of the power of capital.

Obviously we will see in the next week or so what comes out of any of this. Hopefully OPSEU will be able to gain some concessions from the CEC, but the CEC’s commitment to good-faith bargaining seems to be fairly minimal, and this will likely reach a legislated, rather than a negotiated or arbitrated settlement. Good luck to all the faculty, librarians, and staff involved.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

Back to Overview