Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Alberta Labour’s 2017/18 Annual Report

In June, Alberta released its departmental annual reports. You can find the Alberta Labour report here. Alberta Labour administers and enforces Alberta’s employment laws. Here are the highlights from 2017/18.

Employment Standards

Overall, performance declined over last year. According to the report, this is largely due to staff being redeployed to implement new workplace rules.

In 2017/18, Alberta recorded 4679 employment standards complaints alleging 1892 employers owe 4103 workers $19 million. Approximately $3.2 million in unpaid wages were recovered during that period (down from $4.6 million the previous year).

Nearly 1700 complaints were backlogged due to a lack of staff and only 41% of complaints were completed within 180 days (6 months), compared to 49% the previous year. Inspections were also down to 356, from 679 the previous year.

The good news is that Alberta reported it employed 75 employment standards officers, an increase of 23 since the New Democrats took office in 2015. An additional 38 staff (mostly officers) are expected to be hired this year. Further staffing increases are likely warranted.

Labour Relations

Overall, things appear to have improved over last year. The number of hearings is up (reflecting expanded powers and new rules). 

The number of certification applications is also up, an expected outcome with introduction of card-check certification. And the number of unfair labour practices rose 48%, likely due to greater certification activity, expansion of ALRB’s scope, and the introduction of more effective remedies.

The speed from application to first hearing has increased (likely due to new statutory requirements). There has also been a significant improvement in the speed of decisions.

Occupational Health and Safety

Overall, things are better than last year. Alberta’s ~140 OHS officers inspected 11,752 workplace inspections in 2017/18 as well as conducted over 5076 follow-up visits. This is a significant increase in inspections and a good sign.

Inspectors wrote almost 11,000 OHS compliance orders while prosecutors laid 26 charges for OHS violations in 2017/18. Again, both numbers are up and are good signs. That said, inspectors are still only visiting about 4% of employers annually so the risk of getting caught breaking the rules remains low and the consequences (mostly “fix it”) are modest.

Workplace Injury

Here, things seem to be a bit worse, with both the lost-time claim rate and the disabling injury rate climbing. These jumps may (at least, in part) reflect internal changes in the WCB as it attempts to change its culture of denial. They may also reflect an increase in economic activity in dangerous sectors. 


While rates allow year-over-year comparisons, they tend to obscure is the actual number of injuries. In 2017, the WCB accepted 29,047 lost-time claims. I wasn’t able (yet) to find data on disabling injuries for 2017 (45,000 is a good guess). I did find this infographic on fatalities: they appear to be climbing in 2018. It is important to acknowledge that WCB claims data tends to significantly under-represent the true level of injury.

Overall, Alberta Labour’s performance seems to be modestly improving. That said, additional staff will be necessary to reduce the level of wage theft and injury.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, November 9, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture Finale: Discretionary Effort and the Wage-Effort Bargain

This week’s instalment of Labour & Pop Culture explores the issue of discretionary effort and the wage-effort bargain. Basically, every job has components that are voluntary—where workers go above and beyond what is required because they are intrinsically motivated to do a good job.

Discretionary effort is one part of the wage-effort bargaining—how hard employees will work given prevailing wages and working conditions. When employers change wages or working conditions, this often violates the psychological contract employees have with their boss.

The clip above (from Christmas Vacation) humorously illustrates how workers view such violations. A violation, in turn, can trigger a re-evaluation of the wage-effort bargain and perhaps a reduction in discretionary effort.

Which brings us to today. Athabasca University is being pretty terrible to its faculty members at the bargaining table. There isn’t much individual workers can do in terms of withdrawing their labour without engaging in an illegal strike. But we can individually withdraw voluntary services.

For me, that is the Labour & Pop Culture component of this blog. These posts have always been something I did on my lunch hours to add some levity to the more serious posts I make about labour issue (which stream into my courses for pedagogical purposes).

I just can’t justify doing extra work for an employer that talks about respect and then advances proposals like company doctors. So I've decided to start actually taking my lunch hour. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series as much as I have enjoyed offering it.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Research: Organized labour support for minimum-wage increases

Last week, I shared a preliminary analysis of the arguments and discursive strategies used by business lobby groups to oppose the minimum wage. This week, I’d like to wrap up this series by examining the narratives and strategies used by organized labour to support the increase.

I found 9 statements by the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL). I selected the AFL because it is a labour central representing 29 unions tat, in turn, represent approximately 175,000 workers.

AFL spokespersons advanced a consistent narrative about increasing the minimum wage, asserting that raising the minimum wage:
  1. did not cost jobs,
  2. did increase spending and employment,
  3. was not a youth issue but affected adults, specifically women and families
  4. remedied poverty, and
  5. was the subject of fear mongering by self-interested employers.
The AFL mostly employed very similar narratives and discursive strategies as government MLAs, relying primarily upon instrumental rationalization and moral evaluation. Two differences are of note. First, the AFL also used impersonal authorization when it used academic research to undercut claims that the minimum wage resulted in job losses:
There is a considerable and growing body of evidence showing that the negative economic effects of minimum wage increases are negligible, while the impact of lower-income people having more money in their pockets is quite considerable. The evidence ranges from a classic 1990 study by researchers David Card and Alan Krueger; a 2010 examination of fast-food restaurants; to the 2014 British Low Pay Commission, which concluded “minimum wages boost workers’ pay, but don’t harm employment.” (AFL, 2015, p. 1)
Second, AFL statements often aggressively attacked opponents of the minimum wage hike:
Predictably, Restaurants Canada launched a campaign today opposing Alberta’s plan to increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2018. Unfortunately with industry groups like Restaurants Canada it is never the time for meaningful increases to the minimum wage (AFL, 2016a, p. 1).
[Q:] Aren’t low wage employers just trying to keep their doors open and create opportunities for workers? 
A: That’s what they want people to believe. But the track record of some of these employers and lobbyists suggests they’re much more interested in keeping wage low than in creating and maintaining jobs. These are the same guys who always say the sky is falling whenever any provincial government even whispers about increasing the minimum wage. And, in many cases, they’re the same people who made extensive use of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) to displace Canadians and keep wages artificially low. After years of focusing on self-interest, why should we believe they’re suddenly concerned about the public interest? (AFL, 2016b, p. 3)
While government MLAs and the AFL both used similar narratives about minimum wage increases discursive strategies, the difference in tone creates a sword (AFL) and shield (MLAs) dynamic. There is no clear evidence of coordination between the government and the AFL and this dynamic may simply reflect independent and rational communication choices by each party. The small number of statements in the dataset suggest that this analysis should be treated with caution.

My research project on this topic is now turning to analysis of the media coverage of Alberta’s minimum-wage increase—something I expect will take a few months to complete. Comments on this research are welcomed.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, November 2, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Seinfeld

Most representations of unions in television and movies centre on picket-line conflict or union corruption (both compelling plot lines). Less often do you see a more nuanced view of unions or work stoppages.

I recently ran across an old Seinfeld episode that I had forgotten about, where Kramer gets news that a strike at his workplace (which apparently had been going on for more than a decade) was resolved. He then tries to return to work (where no one has ever heard of him).

The underlying lesson in this clip is that unions generally don't win protracted job actions (workers lose interest, employers learn to cope with the strike or close up shop). What that suggests, strategically, is that a short strike with catastrophic disruption of employer operations is a union's best shot at a quick and decisive win.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Research: Business lobby arguments against minimum-wage increases

Last week, I shared some preliminary research exploring the narratives and discursive strategies used by opposition MLAs to oppose a minimum-wage increase. This week I’d like to share a preliminary analysis of 17 statements made by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB).

I chose the CFIB because it represents approximately 10,000 small-business owners in Alberta, has consistently opposed minimum-wage increases, and had an available record of statements I could analyze. CFIB spokespersons advanced a consistent narrative about increasing the minimum wage, asserting that raising the minimum wage:
  1. was opposed by employers,
  2. would cost jobs, particularly among teenagers,
  3. was not supported by adequate evidence about its effect, and
  4. was not an effective poverty reduction strategy. 
CFIB spokespersons employed three main discursive strategies in which these narratives appeared. The CFIB theoretically rationalized its opposition to minimum-wage increases by citing job-loss projections it developed:
In the case of Alberta’s massive hike in the minimum wage rate from $10,20 to $15.00 (47 per cent increase) by 2018, this would put 51,700 to 200,690 jobs at risk in Alberta (Wong, 2015a, p. 1).
These projected job losses included both layoffs and foregone future hiring. These projections ultimately proved wildly inaccurate but were contrasted with the limited economic analyses that the government publicly provided:
Premier Notley stated that her aggressive minimum wage policy won’t kill jobs. Then show us the evidence (Ruddy, 2016, p. 1)
The CFIB also used its projections to assert minimum-wage increases were not effective poverty-reduction tools:
CFIB’s calculations show that minimum wage increases are not the best way to increase low income earners’ well being (Wong, 2015b, p. 2).
This assertion sits uneasily with the CFIB’s projections in the same report, which show the net income of workers in every provinces rose with a minimum wage increase.

The CFIB used public authorization in two ways in an effort for increase the salience of its views. First, the CFIB frames itself as speaking on behalf of small business owners, despite representing on about 10% of such businesses (CFIB, 2018). Second, it used surveys of its memberships to support its demands. These surveys also act as a cautionary tale about the impact of the minimum wage increase. The most common narrative associated with surveys is that minimum-age increases cost jobs:

A CFIB survey of 1040 Alberta business owners asked: Which of the following changes has your business already made as Alberta moves to a $15 an hour minimum wage? 55 percent have reduced to eliminated plans to hire new workers, 52 per cent have reduced of eliminated plans to hire young workers, 46 per cent raised prices, 43 per cent reduced overall staffing hours, ad 42 per cent have reduced the number of employees, to name just a few of the implications (Ruddy, 2018, p. 1).

Opposition MLAs and the CFIB both used similar narratives about minimum wage increases (e.g., job killer opposed by employers and ineffective at reducing poverty) and similar discursive strategies (theoretical rationalization, cautionary tales). The small number of statements in the dataset suggest that this analysis should be treated with caution.

Next week, we’ll conclude this series by looking at organized labour’s contribution to the minimum-wage debate.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 26, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Frankenreads

Next Wednesday (Hallowe’en!), the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences is hosting a half-day symposium (entitled “Frost and Desolation”) as part of broader celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein.

One of the more interesting interpretations of Frankenstein is as a metaphor for the working class, one created by the bourgeoisie (in the form of Victor Frankenstein) which then tried to kill him. There are a couple of interesting essays about this available online—I like this one by Luisa Umana.
[T]he monster is a symbol for oppressed people. He is the proletariat that revolts against the bourgeoisie in class struggle. … [H]his very composition is symbolic of the laborers who were composed of many different types of people, larger in numbers, physically stronger, and less dependent on luxury than the upper classes.
I don’t think that there is much of a historical case Shelley writing with this metaphor in mind. Yet, as perhaps the foundational text of the sci-fi genre, Frankenstein’s framing of collectives as terrifying and monstrous (e.g., the Borg, Cylons, the bugs in Starship Troopers) may help explain the near absence of positive representations of collectives (e.g., trade unions) in the genre.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Research: Opposition arguments against minimum-wage increases

Last week, I shared some preliminary research exploring the narratives and discursive strategies used by government MLAs to justify a minimum-wage increase. This week I’d like to share a preliminary analysis of 115 statements made by various flavours of conservative MLAs in the Legislation.

Opposition MLAs advanced a consistent narrative in the legislature about increasing the minimum wage, asserting that increases:
  1. were opposed by employers,
  2. would not reduce poverty,
  3. would cause job losses, particularly for teenagers and low-wage workers, and
  4. would cause prices to rise, which would harm other vulnerable groups such as seniors and the disabled.
Opposition MLAs employed three main discursive strategies to justify their opposition. The discursive strategy most frequently used by opposition MLAs in all four years was the cautionary tale. The narratives associated with this strategy was that raising the minimum wage were opposed by employers and would cause job losses:
Mr. Hunter: …I rise to talk about the people in Cardston-Taber-Warner that are concerned about the rising minimum wage. A local restaurant owner, Dan Brown, wrote me the other day. Dan has been running his restaurant for five and a half years, and he… is concerned about the impact minimum wage increases will have on youth employment. Dan is also very concerned about the impact the $15 minimum wage will have on his labour costs. He is faced with some tough choices. He can reduce hours of existing employees or not hire new staff. Dan doesn’t know how he would be able to afford to hire inexperienced staff. (2015.06.22, 128)
The second most frequently used discursive strategy was theoretical rationalization (i.e., research suggests X outcome). Specifically, opposition MLAs asserted that increasing the minimum wage would cause job losses and would not reduce poverty:
Mr. W. Anderson: …Stephen Gordon wrote a piece in Maclean’s [magazine] in 2013 discussing the theory being pushed by big labour that minimum wages hikes mean more jobs. In his survey of the literature, he found that there was no proof of it and that Canada, even more clearly than the U.S., has shown a clear relationship between wage hikes and job losses. 
In addition, in the survey of the literature, he cites a peer-reviewed 2012 study that finds that, quote, our results highlight that, political rhetoric, notwithstanding, minimum wages are poorly targeted as an anti-poverty device and are, at best an exceedingly blunt instrument for dealing with poverty. (2015.06.24, 263-264).
The third most frequently used discursive strategy was impersonal authorization (i.e., using the authority of others to justify a position). This strategy saw opposition MLAs cite various sources of research to bolster the narrative that a minimum-wage increase would cause job losses, particularly for teenagers and low-wage workers
Mr. Kenney: …What do you think a 50 per cent increase in the minimum wage results in? Well, according to the Bank of Canada 60,000 job losses across the country. According to the C.D. Howe Institute 25,000 job losses in Alberta. Think about how – oh, my goodness – when New Democrats get on their moral high horse and pretend they have a monopoly on compassion, and then because union bosses tell them to, they bring in a policy that, according to the think tanks will kill 25,000 jobs for immigrants and youth. Where is the compassion for those who lost their jobs, Mr. Speaker? There is none. There’s no regard. (2018.04.05, 433).
There is research both supporting and refuting this assertion, although the balance refutes it. Interestingly, government MLAs made little effort to counter research-based criticism. Instead, government MLAs increasingly focusing on moral evaluation. This may reflect that opposition MLAs cited research that agrees with a commonsensical (albeit not necessarily correct) understanding of wages and employment.

Impersonal authorization was not, however, a universally successful strategy for opposition MLAs. Early in the dataset, there were numerous instances where opposition MLAs referred to statements and research by various employer lobby groups (e.g., Chambers of Commerce, Canadian Restaurant and Food Association) to attack increases. The use of this kind of data declined after tis 2016 exchange between conservative MLA Ric McIver and government MLA Maria Fitzpatrick:
Mr. McIver: …On top of that, businesses across this province, the restaurants’ association, many chambers of commerce, and business groups have almost universally… [are] dead set against this government’s minimum wage policy to artificially drive up the minimum wage to $15 an hour in a very accelerated way. … 
Ms. Fitzpatrick: …Now I had a little experience with the chamber of commerce in my community of Lethbridge. When the minimum wage came out, they talked about how much it was going to cost. …The chair of the chamber of commerce told me that it was going to cost $86,000 for this business in one year because of this increase. Okay. So $86,000 is 86,000 hours since there’s a $1 increase…. To get $86,000 you’d need 41 full-time employees working 40 hours a week, and that was not the case. In fact, I got the correct figures and went back to the chamber of commerce, and she said: no, no, no; I think that was over the few years. I said: but you told me it was over one year. (2016,04.20, 688-689).
Overall, opposition MLAs relied most heavily on the cautionary-tale strategy, asserting that minimum-wage increases would cause job losses. They also sought to theoretically rationalize opposition by using research to counter government narratives that increases alleviated poverty. Research—by academics and interest groups—were also employed using an impersonal authorization strategy.

Looking at both opposition and government discursive strategies, an interesting dynamic emerges. As opposition MLAs increasingly focus on asserting job losses, government MLAs decline to debate this (high-contestable) assertion. Instead, they increasingly focus on the moral argument that increases alleviate poverty and provide dignity and fairness. Opposition MLAs respond by doubling down on research-based arguments—carefully avoiding engaging with the moral argument that government MLAs articulate.

Next week, we’ll look at the business lobby’s contribution to the minimum-wage debate.

-- Bob Barnetson