Tuesday, December 11, 2018

New book: Canada's labour market training system

If you're looking for a last-minute Christmas present, I’ve just released a new book entitled Canada’s Labour Market Training System. You can buy the book for $30 or download a pdf version for free.

The book examines how the labour market training occurs in Canada and whose interests it serves. We often hear complaints that the system—post-secondary institution, government policies, community agencies and workplace training—is failing at producing the right number of workers with the right skills.

The book suggests that the “system” is not one in the sense of it being a machine that turns out widgets. But, rather, it is a system in the political sense, where different stakeholder groups seek to advance their interests. The outcome of the system tend to reflect the relative balance of power between stakeholders.

This book is the main text in a new course that we’ll be opening in January: EDUC 210: The Canadian Training System. The course should also be available as an open course (i.e., you can learn the material without doing the assessments or receiving credit) shortly. We’ve done something similar with IDRL 308: Occupational Health and Safety that Jason Foster and I wrote Health and Safety in Canadian Workplaces.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Is Athabasca University employing a union-rejection strategy?

Many employers engage in union-avoidance strategies, such as being respectful, providing above-industry pay and benefits as well as developing internal dispute-resolution processes. This idea is to address the issues that typically result in union drives and, thereby, prevent them.

Less common are union-rejection strategies. A union-rejection strategy is designed to undermine the effectiveness of a union in a workplace where the union is already established. Typical indicia of such a strategy include:
  1. impeding union access to members in the workplace,
  2. refusing to meet with the union,
  3. delaying informal and formal resolution of disputes, and
  4. making unreasonable demands at the bargaining table to force a strike.
Union-rejection strategies yield both short-term gains for the employer (such as constraining compensation costs and increasing management power) and long-term gains (for example, setting up a decertification drive by anti-union workers).

These strategies are relatively uncommon in Canada because they run contrary to the requirement that employers recognize certified unions and act in good faith (which is what unions got in exchange for not striking during the life of a collective agreement). Labour Boards can (at least notionally) regulate such bad-faith employer conduct.

Typically, we see union-rejection strategies during first contract negotiations, when an employer may sense a union is weak and tries to refight the certification drive during the first round of collective bargaining. For this reason, many jurisdictions have included first-contract arbitration provisions to prevent the employer from stalling out bargaining to boot strap a decertification drive.

Interestingly, Athabasca University (AU) appears to be implementing in a union-rejection strategy with the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA). The pattern looks like this:
1. AU frequently does not respond to communication from the union about contract violations and routinely blows grievance timelines (>40 instances have been documented).

2. AU delays internal appeal processes, thereby de facto denying workers their rights under the contract (e.g., a 25-day timeline for a classification appeal is going into month six). 
3. AU has forcibly relocated AUFA’s offices off-site for the first time in 35 years. The official reason was “lack of space” but notice was served following a particularly acrimonious day of collective bargaining. 
4. AU relocated key labour relations staff to a city 150km away from the main campus (where AUFA’s staff are based). 
5. Weekly meetings between AUFA and HR have been routinely cancelled at the last minute. Last week, AU announced that it would no longer be attending these meetings at all. 
6. AU unnecessarily forces simple issues to grievance hearing, constantly seeks to stall grievance hearings, and refuses to engage in meaningful discussions of remedies when it loses grievances. 
7. AU failed to meet within the specified time period after notice to bargain had been served and, when it eventually did provide an opening proposal, the proposal was a two-year wage freeze and 43 pages of language rollbacks. (The public-sector pattern is a two-year freeze, a wage re-opener in year 3, and better language for the union.) After 6 months of bargaining, there has been essentially no progress and my assessment is that AU is trying to force bargaining to impasse.
All of these behaviours make AUFA appear ineffective to its membership and also radically increase both AUFA’s and AU’s legal bills. Taken together, the pattern pretty clearly demonstrates AU is engaged in a union-rejection strategy. Presumably the belief is that AUFA will fold up if enough pressure is applied.

AUFA has filed a complaint about some of AU’s behaviour with the Labour board. So far, the Section 11 investigation the Labour Board is undertaking has yielded no tangible result or change in employer behaviour.

An interesting question is how long the government will let this go on? AU is spending a huge amount of public money on needless legal bills instead of, you know, educating students. And the government likely does not want a strike during the upcoming provincial election—which is where things are heading.

Morale is sinking, I’m seeing staff reduce their efforts. And students will suffer for that. Literally the only person who is benefitting from this approach is the university’s lawyer. Now might be the time for the Board of Governors to change gears and horses (if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor).

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Report identifies failing in Caregiver program

A week ago, a coalition of groups released a report addressing shortcomings in Canada’s existing Caregiver Program. This program brings foreign nationals to Canada to work on a temporary basis providing care for children, the elderly and persons with disabilities. After 24 months of work, the caregivers can then apply for permanent residency.

The existing Caregiver program is set to expire in November of 2019. The coalition identifies a number of issues with the current program:
  1. It defines caregiving as a temporary labour market need when, in fact, there is an ongoing need for caregivers (as witnessed by the ~5000 new caregivers who come to Canada each year).
  2. The program requirements separates caregivers from their own families, often for years.
  3. The structure of the program makes it almost impossible for caregivers to leave bad jobs, such as where there is economic exploitation or abuse.
  4. The pathway to permanent residency contains a hard cap on the number of caregivers who may become permanent residents (which is the primary attraction of the program for workers) that is set at about half of the number of caregivers who are allowed into the country each year. Consequently, there is a huge backlog of applications.
  5. Some of the requirements for permanent residency (language and education) are assessed only after caregivers have already been employed on a temporary work permit for two years. Other requirements (medical exam) are repeated.
The report also contains recommendations for actions and is well worth a read.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Athabasca University's proposal heightens risk of work stoppage

This post originally appeared on the Athabasca University Faculty Association blog.

Athabasca University (AU) and the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) have been in collective bargaining since April 6, 2018. As of today, there has been no meaningful progress towards reaching a new collective agreement.

The key issue is that AU continues to advance a two-year wage freeze and an aggressive set of language rollbacks. For context, every other public-sector agreement in Alberta has settled for two zeros, a wage re-opener (or an increase) in year three, and language improvements for the union.

AUFA has recently polled its members on AU’s proposed language rollbacks. The questions asked whether members supported giving AU the power to:
These results indicate AUFA members will not ratify any agreement that contains these proposals. In short, the only way AU may (or may not) be able to achieve these rollbacks is by locking out AUFA members.

A work stoppage is in no one’s interest and AUFA remains hopeful that a new collective agreement can be negotiated. But, AU insisting on unnecessary rollbacks when it is flush with cash is unacceptable and will eventually result in work stoppage. As of this week, AUFA has completed its preparations for a work stoppage.

The costs of AU locking out AUFA will be substantial and include operational disruptions, lost revenue, and profound reputational damage with students, donors, and the government.

A way to avoid an entirely unnecessary work stoppage is for AU to drop its unreasonable demands and propose a collective agreement more in keeping with the public-sector pattern.

Now would be the time for AU’s Board to re-evaluate the approach taken by its bargaining team and make a realistic proposal for settlement.

-- Bob Barnetson, AUFA Work Stoppage Planning Committee

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