Friday, December 19, 2014

Friday Tunes: Elf's Lament

This week’s holiday edition of labour themes in popular music is the Barenaked Ladies “Elf’s Lament”. Obscured by the cheery tune, this song raises profound concerns about the psychosocial effects of the working conditions under which many holiday gifts are produced. Low wages (“making toys for garnished wages”) and neoliberal ideology (“never in existence has there been such a resistance to ideas meant to free us”) feature prominently in this lament.

The song also posits strategies of resistance including a consumer boycott (“before you wish for what you wish for… consider the price to an elf”), ridiculing the boss (“that silly hat just makes the fat man look outrageous”),and job action (“if he blunders, he may wonder where the toys went”). We also see a nod to the dehumanizing nature of precarious employment: “I make toys, but I've got aspirations” and “full indentured servitude can reflect on one's attitude.” 

Enjoy the holiday break.

I'm a man of reason, and they say "'Tis the season to be jolly"
But it's folly when you volley for position

Never in existence has there been such a resistance
To ideas meant to free us
If you could see us, then you'd listen

Toiling through the ages, making toys on garnished wages
There's no union
We're only through when we outdo the competition

I make toys, but I've got aspirations
Make some noise
Use your imagination
Girls and boys, before you wish for what you wish for
There's a list for who's been
Naughty or nice, but consider the price to an elf

A full indentured servitude can reflect on one's attitude
But that silly red hat just makes the fat man look outrageous

Absurd though it may seem, you know, I've heard there's even been illegal doping
And though we're coping, I just hope it's not contagious

You try to start a movement, and you think you see improvement
But when thrown into the moment, we just don't seem so courageous

I make toys, but I've got aspirations
Make some noise
Use your imagination
Girls and boys, before you wish for what you wish for
There's a list for who's been
Naughty or nice, but consider the price to an elf

You look at yourself
You're an elf
And the shelf is just filled with disappointing memories
Trends come and go, and your friends wanna know
why you aren't just happy making crappy little gizmos
Every kid knows they'll just throw this stuff away

We're used to repetition, so we drew up a petition
We, the undersigned, feel undermined
Let's redefine "employment"

We know that we've got leverage, so we'll hand the fat man a beverage
And sit back while we attack the utter lack of our enjoyment

It may be tough to swallow, but our threats are far from hollow
He may thunder, but if he blunders, he may wonder where the toys went

I make toys, but I've got aspirations
Make some noise
Use your imagination
Girls and boys, before you wish for what you wish for
There's a list for who's been
Naughty or nice, but consider the price
Naughty or nice, but consider the price
Naughty or nice, but consider the price to an elf

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Addictions, last-chance agreements and the empathy gap

Accommodating an employee who claims to have an addiction is a challenging task—one employers sometimes make harder for themselves by passing moral judgment on the worker.

For example, I recently saw a last-chance agreement. The worker’s addiction caused disciplinable behavior and the employer (to meet its duty to accommodate the disease) put the employee on notice that if the employee was caught using again (among other conditions), to the curb she would go.

On first blush, this sounds reasonable enough. But think about it some more.

An addiction is a disease and this disease is characterized by relapses. So requiring no relapses is, in itself, discriminatory (but for the disease, there would be no relapse).

Maybe replace “addiction” in the example with some other medical condition and see for yourself. For example, if the worker required an accommodation because the worker broke her leg, would that come with a “no more broken legs or your ass is grass” condition? (Yes this is an imperfect analogy—I’m tired—but you get the point.)

When the employer’s lawyer was confronted with the discriminatory nature of this requirement, the lawyer blustered about being confident the agreement was not discriminatory and then immediately backed off and agreed to more (albeit not entirely) reasonable language.

So what are we make of the lawyer trying to foist a provision on a worker that the lawyer knew to be discriminatory?

After mulling it, my sense is that the lawyer was just out to jerk the worker around—to punish the worker for her disease. (If we make the charitable assumption the lawyer was competent, what other explanation is there?) At the root of that is a moral judgment: the worker was weak or lazy or irresponsible.

I see this kind of moralizing a lot.

For example, if you get tennis elbow from playing too much tennis, everyone understands and you get put on light duties. If you get tennis elbow from pulling cabling through wall studs or processing thousands of packages for 10 years, suddenly you are malingering and the whispering starts.

You see, privileged rich people really **get** tennis elbow. And sore backs from walking around museums (museum fatigue!). And eye strain from stamp collecting (philatelic vascular spasms!).

Not so much joint, back and eye problems from actual work (“it must all be in your lazy, irresponsible head”).

This empathy gap is a theme in Karen Messing’s new book Pain and prejudice: What science can learn about work from people who do it (from which I nicked the tennis and museum examples—thanks Karen!). In this book, Messing reflects on her career studying workplace health (particularly among women in low-paying jobs) and posits an empathy gap exists in the workplace.

To paraphrase, because of the (usually) different social classes from which workers and managers are drawn, their different day-to-day experiences, and manager’s desire to not be responsible for addressing the problems facing worker (which reflect embedded exploitation), managers are often profoundly unsympathetic (or even oblivious) to the problems of workers.

Basically, suck it up, buttercup.

The book covers a lot of other territory, but Messing’s description of her personal awakening to the empathy gap is one of the more compelling aspects of the book. Perhaps the lawyer who wrote the objectionable last-chance agreement might benefit from a copy?

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, December 12, 2014

Friday Tunes: She Works Hard for the Money

This week’s song featuring labour themes is from the dying days of disco: Donna Summer’s 1983 “She Works Hard for the Money”. The heroine of the song is Onette (a bathroom attendant Summer startled from a nap in a restaurant) who worked two jobs and was constantly tired.

In the video we see women working demanding, low-wage jobs as well as putting in the second shift (cooking, cleaning, and kids), doing what is necessary to get by and putting their own dreams (not sure what street dancing is a metaphor for) on hold.

Lyrically, disco tends towards the repetitive (although I was surprised how well these lyrics worked in place of Summers’ chorus: “Society does not consist of individuals but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand”).

But given what is here, there are hints of class envy (“Some people seem to have everything”) and exploitation (“For little money just tips for pay”). The song has also lent its title to numerous research projects about gender and wages, such as this Australian example.

She works hard for the money.
So hard for it, honey.
She works hard for the money.
So you better treat her right.

She works hard for the money.
So hard for it, honey.
She works hard for the money.
So you better treat her right.

Onetta there in the corner stands
And she wonders where she is.
And the rain still hurts,
Some people seem to have everything.

Nine a.m. on the hour hand
And she's waiting for the bell.
And she's looking real pretty.
She's waiting for her clientele.

She works hard for the money.
So hard for it, honey.
She works hard for the money.
So you better treat her right.

She works hard for the money.
So hard for it, honey.
She works hard for the money.
So you better treat her right.

Twenty-eight years have come and gone.
And she's seen a lot of tears
Of the ones who come in.
They really seem to need her there.

It's a sacrifice working day to day.
For little money just tips for pay.
But it's worth it all just to hear them say that they care.

She works hard for the money.
So hard for it, honey.
She works hard for the money.
So you better treat her right.

Already knows she's seen her bad times.
Already knows these are the good times.
She'll never sell out, she never will, not for a dollar bill.
She works hard

She works hard for the money.
So hard for it, honey.
She works hard for the money.
So you better treat her right.

(repeat x 4)

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, December 8, 2014

Sexism, universities and the crisis of legitimacy

This weekend the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business made headlines when a first-year MBA case study featured a ditzy female needing advice from a much-less-ditzy male friend on which compensation package to select. Said ditzy female was apparently too distracted by the bright shiny objects sold by the fictional employer (I’m not making that up).

Cue outrage. Then this:
(The) professor of the capital markets class, later apologized verbally for the assignment, which was he said written by a teacher’s assistant. He then advised the class to think carefully before speaking to the media, according to students. 
One student, who asked not to be identified over concerns of reprisal, said some classmates started to clap after the professor suggested against commenting to the press. The student also expressed concern that, for some, protecting the Rotman brand appeared to take precedence over offence caused by the assignment.
Basically, the professor changed the channel on the discussion—away from his misbehaviour to the purported inadvisability of publicly outing sexism at Rotman. Now, to be fair, the prof may well have been earnestly trying to make this a teachable moment for the students.

The interesting thing is that some of the students clapped when the prof turned the table on the student and blamed the victim. What’s happening here is that a relatively powerless group (the students) with much at stake (the reputation of the institution from which they are getting a degree) are prioritizing the interests they have in common with the U of T over the interests they have which differ from the university’s (which, one presumes, includes a sexism-free environment).

This kind of Stockholm syndrome is often seen in relationships of power, like employment. But not all the time.

For example, Alberta post-secondary institutions are once again hearing that budget cuts are coming. At Athabasca University, we got a missive from Interim President Peter McKinnon on November the 26th that said, in part:
I genuinely regret to advise you that our initial review of the budget projections for next fiscal year is far from positive. 
We had previously projected a potential budget shortfall in 2015-16 of $9 million. Based on more recent information, we now see that potential deficit being at least $12 million. This does not even take into account any new budget requests. 
…Additionally, our analysis shows that, if the recent provincial labor settlement values flow over to the post-secondary sector, and are coupled with our current annual merit system, our compensation increases will amount to more than $13 million over the next three years. 
…My own view is that we cannot afford in the long term to keep stripping away our capacity to compete by not focusing on much needed investments now. We must take bold steps to generate additional revenue and contain costs, both current and future. Everything needs to be on the table, including the compensation bill, which makes up 70% of our operating expenses.
The response of AU compensation costs… errrr…. employees has been mixed. There has been some discussion of ideas about how to generate additional revenue as well as save money via operational efficiencies.

There is also some pretty frank skepticism. Many staff question how the university could not sort out its financial problems despite 100 fewer staff (a roughly 15% reduction in full-time employees through a mix of layoffs and attrition since 2012) and a two-year wage freeze.

The last time we heard this rhetoric was also the last time the unions were negotiating for wages increases (a coincidence, I’m sure). At that time (2012), there was there was a very vocal group of workers who argued for wage freezes, salary rollbacks and days off without pay.

So far, that narrative has not emerged. This may reflect a bit of “boy who cried wolf” fatigue (as one colleague said: “Oh, we’re going bankrupt again, are we?”).

That there is actually a wolf at the end of that parable isn’t lost on employees. But, I think staff have reached the point where, if the province doesn’t want to adequately fund the institution, then parts (or all) of it will close down. This fatalism is likely reinforced by the complete absence of a compelling plan to go forward.

And then there is the deep skepticism that the powerful in Alberta will say whatever gets them what they want. This crisis of legitimacy gained root during the Premiership of Alison Redford and continues under Jim Prentice (who promised to restore PSE funding but is now looking to cut it—shades of Alison Redford…). One effect is that it limits the ability of administrators to achieve their goals through persuasion and forces them to act more coercively.

Since that is dreary, here is some Ellen on the issue of sexism.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, December 5, 2014

Friday Tunes: Livin' on a Prayer

This week’s installment of labour themes in popular music is Bon Jovi’s Livin’ on a Prayer (a nice acoustic version to bring out the lyrics… plus Richie on a double-necked guitar). This song is circa 1986 (I recall staying awake all night blasting this on my walkman) in the latter part of Ronald Reagan’s war on America unions (“Just say no…” oh wait, wrong war).

One way to read the lyrics is as criticism: Tommy and Gina are a working-class couple who have been driven into hard times by industrial restructuring and a lack of opportunities in an increasingly class-stratified society. Gina despairs and Tommy begins to blame himself. Alternately, you could read the lyrics as praising neoliberal self-reliance (“We’ve got each other and that’s a lot”) and an attack on trade unions (“union’s been on strike”). I’m more inclined towards the critical view but who knows?

Tommy used to work on the docks
Union's been on strike
He's down on his luck...
It's tough, so tough

Gina works the diner all day
Working for her man,
She brings home her pay
For love, for love

She says, "We've gotta hold on to what we've got.
It doesn't make a difference if we make it or not.
We've got each other and that's a lot.
For love we'll give it a shot."

Whoa, we're half way there
Whoa, livin' on a prayer
Take my hand and we'll make it - I swear
Whoa, livin' on a prayer

Tommy's got his six string in hock
Now he's holding in
What he used to make it talk
So tough, it's tough

Gina dreams of running away
When she cries in the night
Tommy whispers,
"Baby, it's okay, someday...

...We've gotta hold on to what we've got.
It doesn't make a difference if we make it or not.
We've got each other and that's a lot.
For love we'll give it a shot."

Livin' on a prayer
We've gotta hold on ready or not
You live for the fight when it's all that you've got

[Chorus 2x and fading] end of lyrics

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A day in the life of a professor

I often get asked “So what exactly do you do all do during the day?” Most folks are a bit unclear what a professor does and, when they hear I also work from home (Athabasca is a distributed workplace), make some rather (ahem) uncharitable assumptions! I’ve been tracking my time, so here is an average day.

7:00-7:30: marked a term paper
7:30-8:06: investigated plagiarism complaint and answered students emails
8:06-8:15: walked daughter to school
8:15-8:30: worked on research project re: gender and construction work.
8:30-8:45: phone call re: union grievances
8:45-9:15: back to research project
9:15-9:30: cascade of phone call and emails re: grievances and students
9:30-9:45: back to research project but hard to focus.
9:45-10:45 prep for and chaired phone call re: new program then revised proposal and sent to colleague for review.
10:45-11:30: back to research but constantly interrupted by emails; gave up on research
11:30-12:20: went for walk; mostly thought about research problem.
12:20-1:00: student phone calls; prepped for meeting; reviewed spreadsheets.
1:00-1:30: dealt with distressed colleague and prepped for meeting.
1:30-2:00: chaired phone meeting while answering emails.
2:00-2:30: read one third of a book chapter.
2:30-3:00 prepped for meeting; answered emails.
3:00-3:45 chaired phone meeting.
3:45-4:15: marked two papers, thought about research project.
4:15-5:00 finished reading book chapter; sketched out must-do list for tomorrow; knocked together blog post.

Overall, I worked 9 hours, but will only be paid for 7. I imagine I will be answering emails tonight at some point, which will increase the time by 30 minutes or so. Over the course of the year (excluding holidays and leaves), that will work out to about 400 unpaid hours (or 11.428571 extra weeks of work).

This was a pretty average day and I’m struck by how fractured by work time was. I spent 1 hour and 45 minutes on research but it was very broken up. I’m pretty good about compartmentalizing my work ("think research thoughts NOW!") but, even so, I didn’t accomplish all that much. This fracturing has become significantly worse since I started in 2007 as layoffs and retirements have increased the administrative workload.

I'm not sure this workload is sustainable in the long term (or even the short term), which is a troubling thought. 

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, November 28, 2014

Friday Tunes: Working Girl

Today’s example of working class themes in music is Working Girl (by Cher), which was supposed to be on the soundtrack of 1988’s Working Girl but seems to have been cut. It reprises the basic plot-line: boss rides high on the back of employee much to the worker's frustration (my, how times have changed!).

Alas, I could not find a decent video for the song (probably was a B-side so no video recorded). But close your eyes as you listen and tell me that Michael Bolton’s fingerprints are not all over this song.

She's a working girl

Come Monday morning
You see her waitin'
On the street for her ride
In an hour she'll be working
In a tower made of steel in the sky

She's just a pawn in the struggle
In a never-ending fight to survive
Mama had to play someone else's game
You learn to keep it inside

Working girl, livin' in a man's world
Working girl, you gotta take a stand girl

The boss checks out her body
She's on the phone tellin' his lies
Run and get the coffee
And a smile hides the rage in her eyes

Tonight she's searching for a reason
As she's walking home alone in the rain
Mama had to play someone else's game
Someday she's breakin' the chain

Working girl, livin' in a man's world
Working girl, you gotta take a stand girl

Nobody knows the dreams
She dares to dream
The plans she had made
Or the times she has prayed inside
Or what tears at her pride

Working girl, livin' in a man's world
Working girl, you gotta take a stand girl

-- Bob Barnetson