Friday, May 20, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Working for the Weekend

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Working for the Weekend” by Loverboy. This song almost always makes the top-10 list of songs about labour on Labour Day. I’ve been reluctant to feature it because there just isn’t much meat here to discuss.

The song is about people working hard during the week in order to enjoy the weekend. The inspiration for the song hit Loverboy’s guitarist while walking on a beach during a weekday and thinking “where is everybody?” And then thinking, “oh, they are at work waiting for the weekend” (which was the original title).

But, you know, I’m baked after a long academic year so this is going to have to do. The original video is terrible (1981 was a tough year for music videos) so here is the song featured in a Saturday Night Live skit. Like many SNL skits, it is too long (too much Harvard, not enough improve on the writing team that year). But, damn, Chris Farley could dance!

Everyone's watching to see what you will do
Everyone's looking at you, oh
Everyone's wondering will you come out tonight
Everyone's trying to get it right, get it right

Everybody's working for the weekend
Everybody wants a new romance
Everybody's going off the deep end
Everybody needs a second chance, oh

You want a piece of my heart?
You better start from the start
You want to be in the show?
C'mon baby, let's go

Everyone's looking to see if it was you
Everyone wants you to come through
Everyone's hoping it'll all work out
Everyone's waiting to hold you out

Everybody's working for the weekend
Everybody wants a new romance, hey yeah
Everybody's going off the deep end
Everybody needs a second chance, oh

You want a piece of my heart?
You better start from the start
You want to be in the show?
C'mon baby, let's go


You want a piece of my heart?
You better start from the start
You want to be in the show?
C'mon baby, let's go

You want a piece of my heart?
You better start from the start
You want to be in the show?
C'mon baby, let's go

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Fun with StatCan labour market data

Despite the beating Statistics Canada took during the Harper years, StatCan still offers all sorts of fascinating information about the labour market that you can customize to a significant degree. What this means is that the average Canadian isn't reliant upon the media for information about the labour market.

For example, CANSIM Table 285-0003 allows you to look at job vacancies by region and occupation. A few minutes of fiddling allows you to see that there were 63,000 job openings in Alberta during Q3 of 2015. 

About half of the job openings (31,070) were in the sales and service occupations. While it is unfair to suggest that anyone could do these jobs, the requirements for employment tend to be low. Not surprisingly, so too is the pay (averaging $12.95 per hour).

You can also look at employment and unemployment rates using CANSIM Table 282-0087. Again, you can fiddle the data to find that there were 162,700 unemployed people in Alberta in September of 2015.

One question that immediately pops into my mind is why are there unskilled positions (in sales and service occupations) available when there are so many unemployed people who could fill them? There are likely many factors at play. For example,  there will also be some unfilled positions due to labour market friction. 

Yet let's just use our common sense. For example, we can all see that jobs that pay (on average) $12.95 per hour are not very attractive jobs. We might still take them (if we were in a real jam) but what other options are there?

Many unemployed Albertans will have access to Employment Insurance benefits. I couldn’t find the September 2015 amount but the January 2016 maximum was $537 per week (assuming your annual salary while employed had been $50,800—otherwise it would be 55% of your salary). 

So, if you could get maximum EI benefits, you would need to work 42 hours per week in an average sales and services job just to generate the same income you could get on pogey. Who would in their right mind would do that?

Commentators on the right would likely suggest that reducing the level and duration of EI benefits would solve that problem (by forcing unemployed to take bad jobs to avoid starving). I wonder, though, if you can’t make an equally good argument that an increase in the minimum wage (or other changes in the terms and conditions of work, given that sales and service jobs are hard work) might be an equally effective way to fill these positions?

The other observation (made by economist Jim Stanford on twitter using the table on the left) is that job vacancy numbers undercut the narrative that Canada suffers from a skills shortage. Nine of the 10 occupations most in demand nationally are low-skill occupations. The real issue appears to be that Canada has a shortage of jobs period.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, May 13, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Industrial Disease

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture features “Industrial Disease” by Dire Straits. The song is ostensibly about sickness created by work but is, in fact, an allegory about the decline of British industry during the late 1970s and early 1980s under Margaret Thatcher.

This period of time was characterized by workers struggling against the state and their employers and lots of the lyrics reflect this, such as “The watchdog's got rabies the foreman's got fleas”. Workers reactions, such as sympathy strikes and spot strikes, are also present: “Some come out in sympathy some come out in spots”. Even the doctor’s diagnosis of depression has a double meaning (“He wrote me a prescription he said 'you are depressed”).

Overall, the lyrics here are evocative and deep—something you don’t see in every song about work.

Warning lights are flashing down at Quality Control
Somebody threw a spanner and they threw him in the hole
There's rumors in the loading bay and anger in the town
Somebody blew the whistle and the walls came down
There's a meeting in the boardroom they're trying to trace the smell
There's leaking in the washroom there's a sneak in personnel
Somewhere in the corridors someone was heard to sneeze
'goodness me could this be Industrial Disease?

The caretaker was crucified for sleeping at his post
They're refusing to be pacified it's him they blame the most
The watchdog's got rabies the foreman's got fleas
And everyone's concerned about Industrial Disease
There's panic on the switchboard tongues are ties in knots
Some come out in sympathy some come out in spots
Some blame the management some the employees
And everybody knows it's the Industrial Disease

The work force is disgusted downs tools and walks
Innocence is injured experience just talks
Everyone seeks damages and everyone agrees
That these are 'classic symptoms of a monetary squeeze'
On ITV and BBC they talk about the curse
Philosophy is useless theology is worse
History boils over there's an economics freeze
Sociologists invent words that mean 'Industrial Disease'

Doctor Parkinson declared 'I'm not surprised to see you here
You've got smokers cough from smoking, brewer's droop from drinking beer
I don't know how you came to get the Betty Davis knees
But worst of all young man you've got Industrial Disease'
He wrote me a prescription he said 'you are depressed
But I'm glad you came to see me to get this off your chest
Come back and see me later - next patient please
Send in another victim of Industrial Disease'

I go down to Speaker's Corner I'm thunderstruck
They got free speech, tourists, police in trucks
Two men say they're Jesus one of them must be wrong
There's a protest singer singing a protest song - he says
'they wanna have a war to keep us on our knees
They wanna have a war to keep their factories
They wanna have a war to stop us buying Japanese
They wanna have a war to stop Industrial Disease
They're pointing out the enemy to keep you deaf and blind
They wanna sap your energy incarcerate your mind
They give you Rule Brittania, gassy beer, page three
Two weeks in Espana and Sunday striptease'
Meanwhile the first Jesus says 'I'd cure it soon
Abolish monday mornings and friday afternoons'
The other one's on a hunger strike he's dying by degrees
How come Jesus gets Industrial Disease

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Summer of 1986 retrospective

This spring, the Alberta Labour History Institute will be hosting workshops in Red Deer (May 28), Calgary (May 29) and Edmonton (June 4) to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the six Alberta strikes that happened in the summer of 1986. 

The most famous of these strikes was the Gainers Meatpacking strike in Edmonton. Here, workers resisted Peter Pocklington’s efforts to drive down their wages and crush their union. The video footage of Gainer’s is astounding to watch, with picketing confrontations and police violence (see image to the right).

The Edmonton schedule is posted and it includes lunch and dinner, a movie about the summer of 86 and a video ballad by Maria Dunn as well as several speakers. 

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, May 6, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Feel Like a Number

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Feel Like a Number” by Bob Seger. Yes, back to the classic rock well (I’m open to suggestions for songs from different genres!).

This is a pretty straight forward song about alienation and the depersonalizing effects of industrial society. The singer feels like a number and flags various sources of his alienation (schools, government, employers, phone companies). The singer’s solution is interesting:
Gonna cruise out of this city
Head down to the sea
Gonna shout out at the ocean
Hey it's me
That really doesn’t resolve the issue: in the typology of exit, voice, neglect and patience, the singer is mostly exercising patience (combined with temporary neglect). Basically, he’s accepting his place in society (however grudgingly) and expressing his dissatisfaction via harmless behaviour (a short vacation).

We should probably give Seger props for writing a song that likely taps into his fans’ work-a-day experience, including their constrained set of options to respond to a dehumanizing society. Yet it is interesting to contrast the remedy outlined in song with that in, say, “Take this Job and Shove It”. Seger knuckles under while Johnny Paycheque tells the boss where to step off.

Finding a video for this song was a chore. It was originally released on the late 1970s (so no video) and Seger’s live performances have terrible audio (plus he’s not exactly vocalist of the year). So I give you (a rather shouty) Cher…

I take my card and I stand in line
To make a buck I work overtime
Dear Sir letters keep coming in the mail
I work my back till it's racked with pain
The boss can't even recall my name

I show up late and I'm docked
It never fails
I feel like just another
Spoke in a great big wheel
Like a tiny blade of grass
In a great big field

To workers I'm just another drone
To Ma Bell I'm just another phone
I'm just another statistic on a sheet
To teachers I'm just another child
To IRS I'm just another file

I'm just another consensus on the street
Gonna cruise out of this city
Head down to the sea
Gonna shout out at the ocean
Hey it's me

And I feel like a number
Feel like a number
Feel like a stranger
A stranger in this land
I feel like a number

I'm not a number
I'm not a number
Dammit I'm a man
I said I'm a man

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Reconsidering the utility of Alberta's experience rating program

A few weeks back, Alberta announced it will be reviewing its workers’ compensation system over the coming year. One of the topics that ought to be considered is the effectiveness of its experiencing-rate system.

Experience-rating raises or lowers an employer’s workers’ compensation premiums based upon an employer’s claims costs. The rationale for experience rating is that it creates a firm-level incentive for employers to improve safety in their workplaces that otherwise does not exist.

Broadly speaking, Alberta employers are eligible for premium surcharges and rebates of up to 40% (this can vary by employer size). Employers can also receive up to another 20% in rebates under the partners in injury reduction program.

In 2014, these programs were budgeted to operate at a net loss of $173.3 million. There is no analysis of whether these programs improved safety: fewer lost-claim incidents and lower employer claims costs can result from reporting error and employer claims management behaviour.

The academic research suggests that there is some (but uncertain) evidence to support a relationship between experience-rating and safety. But, there is strong evidence that worksite inspections coupled with penalties reduces injuries. Overall, this evidence suggests improved workplace safety is better pursued through enforcement activity.

Given that there is little evidence that experience-rating and other premium rebate programs make workplace safer (but good evidence that these programs incentivize illegitimate claims management behaviour by employers that negatively affect injured workers), Alberta ought to consider terminating these programs. The ~$175 million in cost-savings should be used to fund a four-fold increase in OHS enforcement activity by the government.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, April 29, 2016

Edmonton's Day of Mourning Ceremony

I took my daughter to the Edmonton Day of Mourning (for injured and killed workers) last night. It was a nice memorial in a lovely location. With the permission of the author, I have reprinted what I thought was the best speech (given by Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull, the executive director of the Alberta Workers' Health Centre).

Honoured guests, sisters, brothers, fellow workers, my fellow people:

I know a worker who is in the process of being laid off. It was announced in the fall that job cuts were coming, but that there was a three month trial period whereby it was possible that some people would keep their jobs. The caveat: the workloads would increase (still the same amount of work but less people to do it), and employees demonstrating their “dedication” to the job would be considered for being kept on in the restructuring. 

Desperate to keep her job, her livelihood, she worked hard, and managed to make the first cut. Then another round began. And she is now anxiously, nervously waiting to find out what is going to happen.

The economic downturn has made this a familiar story. It has left many tens of thousands of workers in Alberta without jobs, and scrambling to find work. And those of us who do have jobs, and especially those of us without the protection of a union, will do almost anything to hold onto our jobs.

In a recession, health and safety becomes less of a priority than before. But in a recession, people still get hurt, get sick, and get killed at work. And our challenge is to not lose sight of the importance of making workplaces safer for everyone. In a recession, we must continue to fight, and fight even harder, for healthy and safe workplaces.

Today is the Day of Mourning, the one day of the year where we gather to remember those whose lives have been lost or whose lives have been changed by workplace injuries and illnesses.

The Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board lists 125 people who died in Alberta last year from workplace incidents or exposures. Additionally, there are about 50,000 disabling injuries accepted by WCB every year. But research suggests that these numbers don’t tell the whole truth. That in fact the amount of injuries every year in Alberta is much higher, as much as 10 times higher. That’s 500,000 injuries every year. That’s 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 working people.

And a large part of that number is attributed to injuries that go unreported.

Major injuries tend to be reported at the same rate regardless of the unemployment rate, probably because they are harder to hide. But in times of recession, in times of higher unemployment, in times like these where we want to hold onto our jobs, minor injuries are less likely to be reported; exposures to hazards that take a long time to show up as occupational illnesses, are less likely to be reported.

This does a couple of things:

1. it paints a false picture of how many people are actually getting hurt.

2. non-reporting means the hazards responsible for the injury do not get identified, which means the workplace does not get fixed, and more people will get hurt or sick or die.

In a recession, workers tend to take whatever jobs we can get – temporary, multiple jobs – precarious work – to pay the bills and support our families either here or back home. Precarious work means less likelihood of reporting injuries or unsafe conditions. Under the table work means the same. Multiple jobs at multiple job sites present the possibility of exposure to certain hazards at levels much higher than the threshold limits established for a single job site. And as workers we become even more vulnerable to exploitation by bad employers looking to capitalize on our need to make a living.

Our Occupational Health and Safety system is complaint-driven; it relies largely on workers being confident enough to raise health and safety issues. And yet, research shows us that workers are more reluctant to report injuries when faced with possible job loss or retribution from bad employers. So in a recession, government enforcement becomes even more important.

I recently had the honour of meeting with some members of CIWAA – the Canadian Injured Workers Association of Alberta. There is a huge stigma attached to injured workers who are often blamed for their own injuries or, because chronic pain is largely invisible, are told it is “all in your head”. A workplace injury can last a lifetime, can turn lives inside out, ruin chances for meaningful employment, damage and destroy families and relationships. Add to this ongoing struggles with the compensation system, expensive pain medication that may or may not be covered, the health effects of the medication itself, and severe depression. As one injured worker told me, “We are not the people who were killed. We are the people who are suffering, who wish they would have died.”

And so the Day of Mourning must also be about recognizing the need for fair compensation and justice for people who have been injured, and who continue to suffer as a result of their injuries or illnesses.

This day, the National Day of Mourning, is filled with numbers. 125 fatalities, 50,000 injuries, 1 day of the year. So much in our world is about reducing things to numbers and statistics, under the guise of being able to better understand information. While there is a usefulness to this, we do so at the risk of forgetting what some of these numbers actually represent. For that matter, when we talk about workers – worker fatalities, worker injuries – we risk framing tragedy and loss as something that is confined to the workplace, something that does not reach out and touch the lives of the families and communities that the worker belonged to.

So, I am going to read the list of names of people who died last year as a result of workplace incident or exposure, to honour their memory and remind us to continue to fight for the living.

Afterwards, I believe we will be inviting people up to lay some wreaths at the base of the Broken Families Obelisk behind me.

When I read the names of the officially accepted fatalities for last year, please let us also remember those workers, those people who are not named: the farm and ranch workers who were not included; those workers who passed away from occupational diseases that were not reported to, or accepted by the WCB; those workers who continue to suffer from work-related injuries and diseases. And let us not forget that we are not just talking about workers, we are talking about family members, friends, coworkers, employees; we are talking about people.

And an injury to one is an injury to all.

Christian, 79, trauma — Colin, 56, motor vehicle accident — Robert, 71, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Perry, 57, motor vehicle accident — Lorne, 60, trauma — Robert, 70, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Berne, 72, air crash — Lesley, 53, trauma — Norm, 75, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Jacob, 81, motor vehicle accident — Paul, 72, asbestosis — Bob, 63, trauma — Carl, 94, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Norman, 78, cancer — Grant, 87, asbestosis — John, 67, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — David, 61, silicosis — Fred, 87, asbestosis — Gordon, 71, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — William, 82, asbestosis — Mark, 57, trauma — Vincent, 67, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Kim, 45, trauma — Terence, 82, asbestosis — Dieter, 59, trauma — Steve, 84, asbestosis — David, 41, trauma — Sean, 42, trauma — Harry, 85, asbestosis — Paul, 69, silicosis — Brent, 49, trauma — Henry, 75, asbestosis — Verne, 77, asbestosis — Dawna, 55, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Brian, 61, pneumoconiosis — Wayne, 53, cancer — Marcel, 75, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Hayley, 27, trauma — Steve, 79, asbestosis — Larry, 65, cancer — Terry, 66, cancer — Edward, 71, cancer — Eugene, 85, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — Bruno, 87, mesothelioma — William, 78, asbestosis — Walter, 80, asbestosis — Jacob, 72, asbestosis — Robert, 69, mesothelioma — Domingo, 72, silicosis — Barry, 67, mesothelioma — Clarence, 78, mesothelioma — Walter, 72, asbestosis — George, 72, cancer — James, 54, mesothelioma — Donald, 71, mesothelioma — Sheldon, 67, mesothelioma — Stanley, 60, mesothelioma — Ronald, 71, mesothelioma — Dan, 72, cancer — Bogdan, 55, motor vehicle accident — Keith, 75, mesothelioma — Ken, 81, mesothelioma — Garry, 76, cancer — Edward, 61, cancer — Terrence, 48, cancer — Wayne, 59, motor vehicle accident — Belle, 89, mesothelioma — Frederick, 69, cancer — Paul, 40, motor vehicle accident — Rex, 65, mesothelioma — John, 87, cancer — Ryan, 29, motor vehicle accident — Mervin, 36, trauma — Gary, 35, motor vehicle accident — Romeo, 79, mesothelioma — John, 80, asbestosis — Dellis, 60, motor vehicle accident — James, 48, motor vehicle accident — James, 56, motor vehicle accident — Stanley, 65, heart disease — Medardo, 73, mesothelioma — Gerald, 63, trauma — Jordan, 21, motor vehicle accident — Arnold, 55, cancer — Zlatko, 79, cancer — Gerald, 79, trauma — Louis, 83, mesothelioma — Edward, 77, cancer — John, 70, mesothelioma — Abe, 29, motor vehicle accident — Stephen, 35, trauma — Fredrick, 55, trauma — David, 70, mesothelioma — Robert, 48, trauma — Kenneth, 86, motor vehicle accident — Bobby, 38, motor vehicle accident — Albert, 58, heart disease — Ian, 60, cancer — William, 38, air crash — Maryam, 35, trauma — Daniel, 35, trauma — Christopher, 31, motor vehicle accident — Dale, 65, motor vehicle accident — Nabeel, 33, air crash — Francois, 62, cancer — Hally, 50, trauma — David, 37, trauma — Donald, 80, trauma — Regan, 29, motor vehicle accident — John, 74, mesothelioma — Peter, 51, trauma — Kevin, 54, motor vehicle accident — Walter, 74, mesothelioma — Gary, 68, trauma — Fuad, 33, trauma — Stephen, 55, air crash — Wesley, 65, trauma — Manmeet, 35, trauma — Dean, 23, trauma — Walter, 55, trauma — Keith, 49, trauma — Edward, 59, trauma — Karanpal, 35, trauma — Ricky, 41, trauma — Marc, 44, trauma

I think Jared's speech as pretty moving and on point. Several times during the reading of the list of the fallen, Jessica turned to me and said "s/he was so young" or that's a "lot of dead workers". It is a bit of a shame that schools don't acknowledge fallen workers as part of their curriculum.

-- Bob Barnetson