Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Research: Government arguments for minimum-wage increases

Alberta’s minimum-wage made its third and final jump to $15 per hour two weeks ago. Over the past few months, I have been examining the narratives and discursive strategies used to advance or oppose the increases by government and opposition MLAs as well by business and labour groups. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting some preliminary results—feedback welcomed.

This week I’ll be sharing analysis of 91 statements by government MLA statements in the Legislature between 2015 and 2018. Government MLAs advanced a consistent narrative in the legislature about increasing the minimum wage, asserting that raising the minimum wage:
  1. would occur gradually over time,
  2. would alleviate poverty, particularly for women, single mothers, and new Canadians and specifically reduces food bank usage,
  3. was broadly supported by the public as well as by employers, and
  4. would increase the number of jobs by generating additional spending.
Government MLAs employed three main discursive strategies (i.e., types of arguments): instrumental rationalization (i.e., ends justify the means), moral evaluation (change advances laudable value), and public authorization (i.e., operationalizing the will of the people).

Instrumental rationalization was either the most or second-most used strategy in each of the four years, slowly ceding ground to moral evaluation (see below). The main narrative used to instrumentally rationalize minimum-wage increases was that they would alleviate poverty by increasing workers’ income. A secondary narrative was that increasing the minimum wage would increase the number of job because minimum-wage increases tend to be immediately spent, thereby increasing economic activity. Both narratives were evident in 2015:
Ms. Sigurdson: …When we put forward our platform, we wanted to make sure that workers in Alberta made fair wages so that when they went home to their families, they could support them and care for them, and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve raised the minimum wage less than 10 per cent this year, and now people have more money in their pockets, that goes back into local businesses, and that’s actually stimulating our economy. (2015.10.27, 326-327)
Beginning in 2016, government MLAs began qualifying these narratives by emphasizing the slow pace of the increases and promising additional consultation with affected groups. This may reflect that opposition among business groups was increasing at this time:
Mr. Loyola: Our government promised to make work fairer by improving the income of those who work for minimum wage, and work should pay enough so that people can take care of their families. Our government ran on the promise to raise Alberta’s minimum wage to $15 per hour. We have not strayed rom that target. However, we fully recognize the current economic realities, as we all do, in taking a gradual approach in order to allow room for economic recovery and to carefully consider all input regarding the process of achieving that goal. (2015.05.09, 850-85)
Government MLAs also began attacking opposition’ MLAs when they criticized minimum-wage increases.
Ms. Notley: …The fact of the matter is that when the price of oil was a hundred dollars a barrel and our economy was on fire, these folks were also against raising the minimum wage. The fact of the matter is that they don’t care about the people who are very vulnerable, whose lives and family are suffering as a result of a very, very low minimum wage, one of the lowest minimum wages in the country. It is abysmal. We will move forward because raising the minimum wage will stimulate the economy, it will ensure greater equality and it will reduce poverty. Those are the things we care about. (2016.06.02, 1447)
While instrumental rationalization continued in 2017, it was slowly displaced as the key government discursive strategy by moral evaluation, which moved from the least- to most-used discursive strategy between 2015 and 2018. Moral evaluation legitimized minimum-wage increases by linking them to a specific discourse of values. The main narrative used to morally justify increases centered on how increases helped the most vulnerable Albertans to support their families.

In 2015, government MLAs most frequently operationalized vulnerable Albertans as single mothers and the underlying value justifying increases was one of fairness:
Ms. Notley: …Mr. Speaker, it comes down to this. The folks over there think it’s totally appropriate for a single mother of two or three to have to work 70 hours a week in order to earn a living wage. I say to you that they’re just wrong, and that’s why we are changing the minimum wage in Alberta. (2015.06.24, 231)
In 2016, opposition to phased-in minimum wage increases was coalescing. While the broad narrative of “helping the vulnerable” remained constant, government MLAs routinely linked increasing the minimum wage to reducing workers’ reliance upon food banks and the spectre of homelessness by increasing workers’ economic security. This tapped into the value of dignity:
Ms. Notley: …You know, the Alberta families that I’m thinking of are the ones who work full-time at very difficult jobs and which deserve the respect of everybody in this Assembly, who do that to raise their families and feed their families, and after working 40 or 50 or 60 hours a week, still have to stop at the food bank on their way home to feed their families because right now our minimum wage does not come close to providing a living wage. …Mr. Speaker, the member opposite …would love for us to walk by those people who are unable to feed their families, who are unable to pay their rent, who are unable to secure affordable housing. (2016.04.21, 739)
This narrative remained stable after 2016 with some expansion of vulnerable Albertans to include persons with disabilities and new Canadians. During this time period, moral evaluation became the main discursive strategy used by government MLAs.

The final discursive strategy utilized by government MLAs is public authorization Public authorization is an assertion that one is acting on behalf of a group (in this case, all Albertans). The strong mandate secured by government in the 2015 makes this strategy a natural one for government MLAs to utilize. In the dataset, public authorization was used heavily in 2015, when it was represented 30.6% of the discursive strategies used. Government MLAs referenced the government’s mandate and its efforts to engage with interest groups (e.g., small business) in equal measure.
Ms. Sigurdson: …Our government promised in the election that we were going to make work fair in Alberta, and that’s what we’re doing We’re raising the minimum wage and making it more fair for Albertans. We’re working with small business. We are still a great place for small business to run in Alberta. We have some of the lowest tax rates here in Alberta and it’s a great place to grow business. (2015.11.17, 500)
As opponents of minimum-wage increases organized, government MLAs increasingly emphasized public authorization stemming from ongoing consultation with the public and the business community.
Ms. Gray: …As we committed to previously, we will be listening to employers and employees on how to move forward with the changes to minimum wage. Focused consultations will be held over the next month with key stakeholders, including employers, social services agencies and the low-income earners themselves. …We want to take the time to listen to the people directly involved while making sure that we are taking care of Alberta families (2016.05.19, 1059).
Public authorization continued to be important in 2016, comprising 33.9% of statements. Its use declined in 2017 and 2018.

Overall, the clear trend is that, while public authorization and instrumental rationalization were important discursive strategies in 2015 and 2016, over time, moral evaluation became the dominant discursive strategy used by government MLAs. Both instrumental rationalization and moral evaluation employed a narrative that emphasized how raising the minimum wage helped the most vulnerable Albertans to support their families. The instrumental rationalization strategy asserted this as a fact while the moral evaluation strategy asserted it as a desirable value.

It is unclear what factor(s) caused this shift in discursive strategy. I suspect that internal government polling identified moral evaluation (or the narratives linked to it) were being well received. Accessing such polling is on my to-do list for this autumn. Next week: The narratives and discursive strategies used by opposition MLAs.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 12, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Soup is Good Food



This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Soup is Good Food” by the Dead Kennedys. This 1985 songs speaks to the disposability of labour in contemporary capitalism.
We're sorry
But you're no longer needed
Or wanted or even cared about here
Machines can do a better job than you
And this is what you get for asking questions
Recorded in 1985, the song rings true today, particularly with the deskilling or elimination of jobs due to automation. Interestingly, it also examines how government’s manipulate economic data to hide the real state of the world:
We're sorry, you'll just have to leave
Unemployment runs out after just six weeks
How does it feel to be a budget cut?
You're snipped, you no longer exist 
Your number's been purged
From our central computer
So we can rig the facts
And sweep you under the rug
See our chart? Unemployment's going down
If that ruins your life that's your problem
Having been through periods of layoffs in two different jobs (and seeing my own employer recently propose reducing further the notice period for layoffs), this verse rings particularly true:
Now how does it feel
(We don't need you any more)
To be shit out our ass
And thrown in the cold like a piece of trash
(We don't need you any more)
And morale is down, you say?

Apologies for the lack of a video—punks don’t go for that MTV stuff.

We're sorry
But you're no longer needed
Or wanted or even cared about here
Machines can do a better job than you
And this is what you get for asking questions

The unions agree
Sacrifices must be made
Computers never go on strike
To save the working man
You've got to put him out to pasture

Looks like we'll have to let you go
Doesn't it feel fulfilling to know
That you the human being are now obsolete
And there's nothing in hell we'll let you do about it

Soup is good food
(We don't need you any more)
You made a good meal
(We don't need you any more)

Now how does it feel
(We don't need you any more)
To be shit out our ass
And thrown in the cold like a piece of trash

We're sorry, you'll just have to leave
Unemployment runs out after just six weeks
How does it feel to be a budget cut?
You're snipped, you no longer exist

Your number's been purged
From our central computer
So we can rig the facts
And sweep you under the rug
See our chart? Unemployment's going down
If that ruins your life that's your problem

Soup is good food
(We don't need you any more)
You made a good meal
(We don't need you any more)

Now how does it feel
(We don't need you any more)
To be shit out our ass
And thrown in the cold like a piece of trash

We're sorry, we hate to interrupt
But it's against the law to jump off this bridge
You'll just have to kill yourself somewhere else
A tourist might see you and we wouldn't want that

I'm just doing my job, you know, so say uncle
And we'll take you to the mental health zoo
Force feed you mind melting chemicals
Til' even the outside world looks great

In hi-tech science research labs
It costs too much to bury all the dead
The mutilated disease injected
Surplus rats who can't be used anymore

So they're dumped, with no minister present
In a spiraling corkscrew dispose all unit
Ground into sludge and flushed away
Aw geez!

We don't need you any more
We don't need you any more

Soup is good food
(We don't need you any more)
You made a good meal
(We don't need you any more)

Now how does it feel
(We don't need you any more)
To be shit out our ass
And thrown in the cold like a piece of trash
(We don't need you any more)

We know how much you'd like to die
(We don't need you any more)
We joke about it on our coffee breaks
(We don't need you any more)
But we're paid to force you to have a nice day
(We don't need you any more)
In the wonderful world we made just for you

"Poor rats", we human rodents chuckle
At least we get a dignified cremation
At yet, at 6 o'clock tomorrow morning
It's time to get up and go to work

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Research: Family impact of mobility

The Vanier Institute recently published an article about the impact of work-related mobility on family life. The study looked at workers who commuted more than an hour a day and workers whose jobs required them to move from place-to-place during the day.

Among the findings is that there were significant effects on workers of unpaid idle time (e.g., time spent waiting for work that was not paid). Examples include caregivers who were waiting between client visits or shift workers who must arrive early for a shift due to poor public transportation alignment with their schedules. This time represented a cost transferred from employers to workers (in the form of time stolen from family responsibilities) by the mobile nature of the job.

The time pressures that mobility intensifies were also found to negatively affect the well being of workers. Effects included exhaustion, stress, and social isolation. The lack of alignment between non-standard work hours and child-care formed an additional burden that was felt particularly acutely by female workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 5, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: The Triangle Fire Project

From October 10 to 20, Edmonton’s Walterdale Theatre is presenting “The Triangle Factory Fire Project.” This play recreates the events and aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

The New York textile factory was mostly staffed by recent and young female immigrants. When fire broke out on March 25, 1911, the workers found the fire doors and exits locked (to prevent time and product theft).

Consequently, 146 workers died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling to their deaths to escape the flames. The fire helped propel improvements in building safety across America.


-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Poverty wages okay if you're an Alberta public-sector worker

On September 28, support staff in Living Waters Catholic School District went on strike. Living Waters and AUPE have been negotiating for two-and-half years and the key sticking points appears to be a wage increase (to cover the cost of living) and having defined hours of work.

Living Waters operates schools in Whitecourt, Slave Lake and Edson. Support staff include educational and financial assistants, library clerks, maintenance staff, secretaries, typists and custodians. They are the people who allow the school system to operate.

Educational assistants make a maximum of $26,500 per year. This reflects low wages and sporadic (and declining) hours of work. Some workers are forced to rely upon the food bank to feed their families. Despite this, the school board refuses to address these issues and applied for a lock-out.

The first week of picketing included two picketers being struck by cars driven by administrators. The RCMP took no action about these events, instead focusing their efforts on escorting administrators and scabs across the picket lines.

A return to the bargaining table in early October yielded no agreement. Not surprisingly, parents and students are siding with the strikers—joining them on the picket lines and making supportive social media posts. It will be interesting to see what effect this has on the next school board elections.

The school board’s hard line is difficult to fathom. The district has been posting operating surpluses and has admitted it could afford to give raises. Bargaining to impasse in these conditions seems irrational. I would guess the district is picking up on the government’s messaging that public-sector wages must be frozen for two years.

Yet does this government requirement jive with the government’s messaging around the minimum wage? In justifying a 47% increase in the minimum wage over three years, the Notley government has been quite explicit that it is not acceptable for workers to earn below-poverty level wages. For example:
Ms. Notley: …You know, the Alberta families that I’m thinking of are the ones who work full-time at very difficult jobs and which deserve the respect of everybody in this Assembly, who do that to raise their families and feed their families, and after working 40 or 50 or 60 hours a week, still have to stop at the food bank on their way home to feed their families because right now our minimum wage does not come close to providing a living wage. …Mr. Speaker, the member opposite …would love for us to walk by those people who are unable to feed their families, who are unable to pay their rent, who are unable to secure affordable housing. (Alberta Hansard, April 21, 2016, 739)
So the government is happy to raise private-sector wages to prevent workers from having to go to the food bank. But it’s somehow cool for public-sector workers to make so little that they have to use the food bank?

That’s a pretty hypocritical position for the government to advance. It’s also a politically strange one, since the government will require public-sector votes if it expects to be re-elected. More importantly, it's a shameful way to run a school system.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

What would UCP labour policy entail?

With a provincial election expected in the spring of 2019, it is useful to consider what labour policies Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) might advance if they are elected. Analysis is made tricky because, (1) while the UCP passed policy at a convention (which should be binding on the party due to Jason Kenney’s grass-roots guarantee), (2) Kenney announced “he holds the pen” on policies after the convention passed some super embarrassing ones.

To try and get a handle on what UCP labour policy might look like in practice I have canvassed Hansard and media statements, UCP policy statements, and social media postings. I’ll limit this post to changes to issues associated with the Employment Standards and Labour Relations Codes.

Employment Standards

Effective October 1, the Notley government will have increased Alberta’s minimum wage to $15 an hour—an increase of about 50% since 2015. The UCP (and its predecessor parties) have opposed this increase in the Legislature, variously asserting:
  1. Employers oppose it
  2. It will cause job losses and prices to rise, and
  3. It does not reduce poverty.
Kenney has been quiet on this issue (he likely wants to prevent the New Democrats from using the spectre of a minimum-wage rollback against him in te upcoming election). Kenney’s only comment in the Legislature was negative:
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, p. 433).
The assertion that rising wages kill jobs seems to resonate with many Albertans. This may explain Kenney’s use of this narrative, despite there being limited and declining support for this position in the economics literature and good evidence that sectors that pay the minimum wage are experiencing growth in Alberta.

The NDs do not appear to have indexed the minimum wage to inflation (gotta save something for the 2019 campaign!) so a UCP government could freeze the minimum wage simply by taking no action to increase it. Over time, inflation would erode its value. Whether a freeze would satisfy the business lobby and more right-wing UCP members is unclear. While Kenney may be coy on a reduction now, as we’ve seen with Doug Ford, once in office, seemingly anything goes.

The Notley government has made a large number of minor changes to the Employment Standards Code. The UCP policy resolution promises a full and detailed review to ensure Alberta’s laws are comparable with other jurisdictions and make “workplaces safe and competitive”. Given that the recent changes to the Employment Standard Code were mostly about bringing it into line with other jurisdictions, I suspect such a review would identify few areas for change. It would be politically for the UCP to easier to just (further) lax enforcement of the law.

It is likely that the UCP would roll back the application of many employment standards to Alberta’s farms and ranches. Agriculture industry associations have indicated they do not support a full rollback (although I imagine they could be talked into some rollbacks…), perhaps because this would jeopardize the funding base of their new safety association.

Kenney’s response?
"What we hear from Alberta farmers loud and clear, not professional lobbyists but regular hardworking people in agriculture, is that this bill is a massive cost driver for them it is unnecessary red tape."
I suspect a significant rollback of farm-workers’ rights across all domains of labour policy would be in the cards. If done carefully, it should be possible for the UCP to prevent a successful constitutional challenge of such a rollback.

Labour Relations

The labour record of the Harper government (in which Kenney was a senior cabinet minister) was deeply regressive. It included:
  • back-to-work legislation, 
  • legislated settlements in anticipation of work stoppages, 
  • over-riding negotiated agreements, 
  • eliminating card-check certification, 
  • prohibitions on unions assisting women to make pay equity complaints, and mandating onerous union financial disclosures. 
Many UCP members are stridently anti-union. While the party has declined candidate nominations from those espousing that “unions are evil” and that “we should really ban all unions”, those sentiments run deep in the party. Even the most cursory glance at UCP social media accounts (such as Kenney’s Facebook page) yields lots of examples:






The UCP policy document specifically identifies eliminating the recent re-introduction of card-check certification processes and returning to mandatory votes. The evidence on this is unambiguous: giving employers time to interfere in workers’ decisions about whether or not they want union representation (via a mandatory vote) results in more employer interference, fewer certifications, and fewer union drives. Basically, it is an anti-union policy dressed up in the clothes of democracy and would almost certainly be implemented under the UCP.

Kenney has also promised to scrap remedial certification power for the Labour Board revoked. At present, the Board can certify a union if the employer poisons the well through unfair labour practices. Under previous Conservative governments, the only remedy the Board could offer was another drink from the same well (which, of course, is no remedy at all). First contract arbitration would also likely hit the skids.

The UCP policy document also proposes “giv[ing] individual members of labour organizations the right to determine whether or not their mandatory union dues are used to fund political activity and social advocacy.” The reason to pay attention to this proposal is that it is closely associated with the right-to-work movement, whereby union security clauses (which require every worker to pay union dues, because they benefit from a union contract) are profoundly limited or forbidden.

Right to work laws were on the agenda at the UCPs policy convention and appear to be supported by the riding associations of sitting MLAs. These so-called “right-to-work” laws are an effort to undermine the financial security of the union (which, in turn, limits its ability to oppose the employer). They also divert union resources from fighting the employer to collecting dues. About half of US states have right to work laws. Research on their effect is mixed, with results often confounded by other factors.

Overall, a UCP government is likely to make a concerted effort to tip the playing field back in favour of their corporate buddies. This is likely to have a negative effect on the wages and working conditions of Albertans, particularly low-wage Albertans.

If I have time, I’ll have a gander at what Alberta might expect in terms of UCP policy on workplace injury prevention and compensation, immigration, and training as well as the tone of public-sector labour relations.

Update October 15: Kenney recently indicated he would freeze the minimum wage, look at implementing a two-tier wage (based age),and rollback other labour law changes made by the NDs. So, pretty much what you'd expect.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, September 28, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Office Drug Testing



This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture revisits The Office to look at how employers handle drug use in the workplace. This skit is relevant given that, on October 17, cannabis consumption in Alberta (and elsewhere in Canada) will become legal (with some, still emerging, restrictions).

Alberta’s framework for regulating cannabis use is available online and includes a brief (and vague) discussion of cannabis use by workers:
Impairment in workplaces
Workers who are impaired on the job – whether by alcohol or drugs – are a danger to their coworkers and themselves. Alberta already has rules and programs in place to address impairment on the job and keep workers safe, but we are exploring options to better address all forms of impairment in the workplace, and will continue to work with employers, labour groups and workers to ensure the rules continue to address impairment issues. This may include developing additional regulations, education or training programs.
Employer efforts to randomly test workers for drug use and/or impairment have been a long-standing source of conflict in Alberta. For example, Suncor’s decision to randomly test workers has yielded an extensive amount of litigation since 2012 and the issue remains before an arbitration panel. An overview of this litigation can be found here.

Drug testing entails serious and competing interests. It is often framed as a contest between workers’ right to privacy and employers’ obligation to keep workplaces safe (although the evidence that random testing has any safety effect is basically zero).

The debate about drug testing is often tinged with an underlying moral judgment. It goes something like this: since drug use is illegal, workers who use drugs (on their own time) deserve to experience the workplace consequences associated with testing because they are criminals.

This dynamic is, in part, the premise of the joke in The Office skit above. The legalization of cannabis use undercuts this moralizing and it will be interesting to see how employers handle this change in the law.

-- Bob Barnetson