Friday, December 2, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: The Deadly Rhythm

This week's installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “The Deadly Rhythm (of the Production Line)” by Refused. In this song we can hear echoes of the radical critique of industrial relations. 

Capitalism is exploitative but has also ensnared the union to manage employee discontent (until the union no longer serves any purpose and is abolished). The state is also complicit, using its powers to bolster capitalist social formation.

Kind of a downer, really.

I couldn’t find a decent video (and with punk you can’t hear the lyrics much anyhow…) but you can listen to the song here.  In its place, I offer you Orientation Day on the Death Star.

This union that made us powerless is talking over our heads
Claiming prosperity in a downward spiral plan

Stuck by the deadly rhythm of the production line
Stuck by the deadly rhythm of the production line

This power that made us unionless is taking out of our hands
Cheapest labour at our expensive cost, auctioned our lives away

Stuck by the deadly rhythm of the production line
Stuck by the deadly rhythm of the production line

We consume our lives like we are thankful
For what we are being forced into

Is it our duty to die for governments & for gods?
Is it our privilege to slave for market & for industry?
Is it our right to follow laws, set to scare and to oppress?
Is it a gift to stay in line and will it take away the blame?

Can no longer pay the price. We'll get organized!
We'll no longer believe working for you will set us free!

Can no longer pay the price. We'll get organized!
We'll no longer believe working for you will set us free!

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

AUPE Labour History video

AUPE (the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees) is Alberta's largest union and will soon be celebrating its 100th anniversary. As part of its member education efforts, it offers a variety of courses for its members (and members can get university credit for these courses through Athabasca University).

Au is currently revising its labour history course to include new material and offer online components, including videos. The teaser above is a part of the rollout of this course (officially launched sometime next year) and does a nice job of identifying the positive role unions have played in workers' lives.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, November 25, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: The Bar Association

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture focuses on the Star Trek: Deep Space 9 episode “The Bar Association”. I recently coauthored a paper on the absence of unions in science fiction with Mark McCutcheon and this was one of the few examples we found of unions in the (huge) canon of SF.

The crux of the episode is that the workers in Quark’s Bar are treated poorly and decide to fight back by forming a union. The workers go on strike and, eventually, win slightly better pay in exchange for disbanding the union. The use of a strike as plot device is one of the two most common ways unions are represented in fiction of all genres.

There are some interesting bits in the episode. An early exchange between the space station’s doctor and the union organizer Rom highlights the conflicted class position of many workers, who are presently exploited while awaiting their own chance to join the ranks of capital.

The workers eventually decide to form a union. This is anathema to the hyper-capitalist society of the Ferengi and the workers fear repression by the state. Yet the workers decide to unionize anyways because they have nothing left to lose.

The dispute then spills over to the station personnel. The station commander (who is the state in this story) then has to intervene to maintain social stability.

The employer (Quark) then calls in some muscle from his employer buddies to terrify the workers, and one of the workers immediately caves to the pressure. The employer then threats the workers unless they get back to work.

In the end, the workers disband their union and the employer quietly meets their demands. From the perspective of mainstream trade unionism, this is likely viewed as a defeat (the union id dissolved). From the perspective of more radical trade unionists (e.g., the Wobblies), this is a success because (1) the workers concerns were addressed, (2) the workers earned an important lesson about solidarity and how to exercise power, and (3) employer learned an important lesson about the limits of his power (and thus is less likely to be a dick in the future).

Overall, this is a pretty typical representation of unions in sci-fi: the union emerges suddenly because of circumstances and then disappears (reinforcing the view that unions are not “normal” parts of society). In this episode, the state plays a neutral role (which is not the case in other examples) and, by protecting the rights of workers to strike, helps them exert pressure. The state also applies some pressure to the employer in order to encourage settlement.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Injured workers speak out on Alberta WCB

Last week, I wrote about employer responses to Alberta’s WCB review and its interim report. This week, labour has launched its own campaign supporting WCB reform. You can see the centrerpiece video below.

“It’s not just my experience – I’ve spoken to worker after worker after worker who has had a terrible time dealing with the WCB,” CIWAA executive director Donna Oberik said. “The system doesn’t treat workers like people – they get denied legitimate claims and face a bureaucratic nightmare that never gets resolved. The life they knew is over. The system needs to be more human.”
The interim report of the WCB Review Panel appear to substantiate many of these concerns.

—Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Harassment as an OHS issue

A private member’s bill (Bill 208) has been introduced in the Alberta Legislature that amends the Occupational Health and Safety Act to prohibit workplace harassment. Chapter 6 in the OHS textbook Jason Foster and I just wrote provides some useful context on harassment and bullying.

Bill 208 defines harassment as “any inappropriate conduct, comment, display, action or gesture by a person” that constitutes a threat to the health or safety of a worker based on either a protected ground or which “adversely affects the worker’s psychological or physical well-being and that the person knows or ought reasonably to know would cause a worker to be humiliated or intimidated.”

The Act places some parameters around instances of conduct the adversely affect a worker’s well being. It notes harassment can comprise “repeated conduct, comments, displays, actions or gestures” or “a single, serious occurrence of conduct, or a single, serious comment, display, action or gesture, that has a lasting, harmful effect on the worker.” Reasonable action by the employer related to the management of workers or the worksite is not considered harassment.

The short of the rest of the obligations are that employers must now have and enforce policies around workplace harassment. (How this works if the employer is the harasser is an interesting question... .) If an employee believes the employer has botched the investigation of a workplace harassment complaint they can report the matter to Occupational Health and Safety and OHS will investigate.

Workplace harassment and bullying appears endemic. A 2014 panel study suggests 23% of workers have been bullied at work. There is a higher 2012 stat (45%) floating around, but the methodology gives me the willies so I’m going to go with this more conservative number.

In theory, Bill 208 provides a new avenue for redress (especially for non-unionized employees) around harassment. I’m not an expert in workplace bullying, but I have seen a fair bit (both at when I worked at the Labour Board and as my union’s grievance officer). The questions I have about this (quite laudable) legislation are:
  1. Bullying or tough management: As Jason and I wrote, “The line between “tough” management and “bullying” management can be difficult to ascertain, especially if the bullying takes the form of misuse of managerial prerogatives such as scheduling, work assignments, and the like.” And, “Some researchers suggest that employers may overtly or covertly encourage bullying by managers as a way to maximize the work the employer can extract from its workers.” (p.132) The note in the OHS Code that “reasonable actions by the employer” related to management do not constitute harassment will likely means “smart” bullies will be able to evade sanction. 
  2. Penalties: Alberta does a poor job of penalizing OHS offenders (e.g., prosecutions and fines are down over time), which may (partly explain) its very high rate of injury. If a worker complains and an OHS officer finds the employer botched the harassment investigation and issues an order that the employer ignores (or otherwise subverts), what happens? In theory, the OHS officer can push for an administrative penalty (i.e., a fine). There is no data I can find on how often Alberta issues these. I would guess there is little prospect of meaningful penalties so employers are most likely to create a policy (e.g., by downloading one from the web) and otherwise ignore the new requirement.
  3. Enforcement: Alberta has about 130(ish) OHS officers for 160,000(ish) employers. This level of resourcing is inadequate to meaningfully enforce the existing OHS laws. Consequently, OHS focuses its efforts on big-ticket items (e.g., fatalities, repeat offenders, bad industries). Absent more resources, it is unlikely harassment will get much attention unless there is a complaint. Complaints are, frankly, unlikely. Workers aren’t stupid and will see that employers’ ability to argue “tough management” combined with the absence of meaningful penalties means this Bill creates a right to be free of harassment that they will not be able to realize. This is the same dynamic that drives workers to not refuse unsafe work or report wage theft: they know there is little chance their report will help them out and it may make things worse.
To be fair, this Bill serves an important hortatory and educative purpose: it publically condemns this behaviour and says it is up to employers to stop it. But to make real change in the workplace is going to require government enforcement activity.

As a trade unionist, I wonder if this Bill gives firmer footing for work refusals when there is significant harassment? Specifically, could a group of workers (unionized or otherwise) collectively refuse to work for a harassing boss (i.e., wildcat) and claim such action is protected action under the OHS Code? And how would this play out in a small workplace, such as a restaurant or retail operation?

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, November 18, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: It's Not My Place

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “It’s not my place (in a 9 to 5 world)” by the Ramones. This 1981 song is basically a rejection of the pressure to buckle down and conform to expectations (good school, good job, good girl). 

Instead, Joey Ramone wants to cut his own figure:
Don't wanna be a working stiff
Lose my identity
'Cause when it comes
To working 9 to 5
There ain't not place for me
Ain't my reality to me
This isn’t a great song (it is no The KKK Took my Baby Away) and videos from the early ‘80s are often awful. But the song does a decent job of capturing the anti-conformity tone of punk.

My mom and dad are always fighting
And it's getting very unexciting
To get a good job
You need a proper schooling
Now who the hell
Do ya think you're fooling

But it's not my place oh no
No it's not my place no no
No it's not my not my not my place
In the 9 to 5 world
And it's not my place
In the 9 to 5 world

And it's not my place
with 9 to 5 girl
It's not my place
In the 9 to 5 world

Hangin' out with Lester Bangs you all
And Phil Spector really has it all
Uncle Floyd shows on the T.V.
Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, 10cc

But it's not my place

Don't wanna be a working stiff
Lose my identity
'Cause when it comes
To working 9 to 5
There ain't not place for me
Ain't my reality to me

Vin Scelsa's on the radio
Ramones are hangin' out in Kokomo
Roger Corman's on a talk show
With Allan Arkush and Stephen King
You know
But it's not my place

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, November 17, 2016

UManitoba strike a glimpse of things to come in Alberta

As Alberta moves towards a model where academic staff will have the right to strike (and employers will have the right to lockout), the ongoing strike at the University of Manitoba is being closely watched.

There are several issues that drove Manitoba profs to declare bargaining was at an impasse and walk off the job. They include salary, workload escalation, protections against performance indicators, and job security for new instructors and librarians. The government of Manitoba did not help matters when it issued an edict of no wage increases just as bargaining was reaching a sticking point.

So far, the strike appears to be stable and the University of Manitoba is coming under pressure form its students (who are concerned about the erosion of their education). Tuesday, the university urged faculty members to accept its most recent offer and return to work until March in order to not negatively affect students.

“Oh think of the children” has a nice rhetorical ring (and obscures that concerns about eroding educational quality are at the heart of the strike). But the university cannot possibly be so na├»ve as to think faculty would throw away their leverage (which increases with each lost instructional day) in order to sign a lousy deal and be right back where they were in March—when job action will have little effect on the university which will be winding down for the summer.

The university is also seeking to undermine the authority of the union elected executive with a call to have the union present a clearly unacceptable offer to its membership. The university’s hope is to drive a wedge in the union membership and maybe induce some faculty to cross the picket line. Negotiations resumed Wednesday afternoon.

It will be very interesting to see how university administrators and faculty—who have no real experience with strike-lockout—comport themselves during the first few strikes in work stoppages in Alberta.

-- Bob Barnetson