Friday, April 20, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Night Shift

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Night Shift” by Bob Marley and the Wailers. The song explores Marley’s experiences in Delaware after his mother re-married and moved there from Jamaica.

Marley worked at the Chrysler Assembly plant in Newark before hitting it big as a musician. I don’t see a lot of hidden meaning in the song: its just recounts the repetitive nature of working nights driving a forklift in the parts plant.



The sun shall not smite I by day,
Nor the moon by night;
And everything that I do
Shall be upfull and right.
And if it's all night,
It got to be all right!
If it's all night,
Got to be all right!

Your mamma won't lose this one;
You're the lucky one under the sun.
If you make me move,
Then you know you got the groove:
All night, it's all right!
All night, yeah! It's all right!

Working on a forklift
In the night shift;
Working on a night shift,
With the forklift,
from A.M. (Did you say that? Why did you say that?)
to P.M. (Working all night!)
Working on a night shift, yeah!
(Did you say that? Why did you say that? Upfull and right!)
Well, if it's (all night!) - if it's (all right!)
all night (all night!) -

Warehouse (all right!),
You're empty, yeah!
Go around the corner,
Bring your goods!
Go around the other corner,
Bring your suitcases. (All night!)
By the sweat of my brow, (All right!)
Eat your bread! (All night!)
By the sweat of my brow, (All right!)
Eat your bread!

All night (all night)! All right (all right)!
All night (all night)! All right (all right)!
Oh, yeah! (moon by night)
Why did you say that? Oh, yeah! (Upfull and right!)
Working on a night shift
With the forklift. (Moon by night!)
Working on the night shift,
Oh, yeah! (Upfull and right!) [fadeout]

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Athabasca faculty file unfair labour practice complaint

Last week, the Athabasca University Faculty Association filed a complaint with the Alberta Labour Relations Board. The crux of the complaint is that Athabasca University is violating sections 60 and 148 of the Labour Relations Code. I have reprised the LRB notice to the right (click to get a bigger version).

Section 60 of the Code addresses collective bargaining. Essentially, it says that the employer and the union and shall meet within 30 days of one being served notice to bargain by the other and, with 15 days of the first meeting, the parties shall exchange bargaining proposals.

Section 148(1)(a)(i) and (ii) of the Code addresses employer behaviour in the workplace. They prohibit employers from interfering in the formation and administration of a union and the union’s representation of employees.

Although the notice is a touch vague, the union is alleging two basic things in its complaint:

1. The employer is routinely ignoring its obligations under the collective agreement and otherwise jerking the union around. This interferes with the union’s ability to represent its members and, consequently, undermines the credibility of the union with the membership. Freezing out the union is a typical union-busting tactic because it undermines the support the union enjoys from the employer.

2. The employer is stalling bargaining (specifically, it will not meet within the 15-day timeline to exchange proposals despite having months of notice that bargaining was coming). Again, this kind of bad faith bargaining undercuts the unions’ credibility with its members and is a typical union-busting tactic.

To be fair, it may be simply be that the employer is incompetent in the management of its labour-relations functions (rather than being intentionally obstructive). Having seen the full complaint, I'd be pretty skeptical that this is solely about incompetence--it looks like a (bad) strategy. In the end, what is driving this behaviour won't matter much because the effect is the same.

This pattern of behaviour is not new at AU. For example, in 2015, the employer went on a tear of evading timelines and stalling grievances and bargaining. The university eventually apologized for that and said it wouldn't do it again.


In 2016, the employer stalled bargaining by being available to meet (by my count) only five times in nine months. When they arrived to bargain, they were routinely unprepared, hadn't done what they said they would do at the end of the last meeting, and, at one point, started arguing against proposals that they had advanced (no, seriously, that actually happened!). Not surprisingly, bargaining hit the skids and went to arbitration. 

During these antics, the faculty association had no access to meaningful remedy for such unfair labour practices because of the structure of Alberta’s labour laws. That has now changed. Alas, the employer’s behaviour hasn’t.

It is notable that the employer has, so far, refused to circulate the notice of this complaint to its staff as it was instructed to do “immediately” by the Labour Board on April 12 (in the past they have just emailed it around). The faculty association has been forced to post the notice so its members are aware.

Why the employer would also pick a fight with the Labour Board by being obstructive is a bit of a mystery. It is also a touch ironic that the university can’t meet the timeline for circulating a notice about a complaint that it can’t meet timelines… .

A response from the employer is due on April 26 and a hearing will be scheduled thereafter.

-- Bob Barnetson

Research: Working from home boosts productivity

There was an interesting study about the effectiveness of working from home out of Stanford. You can read a brief summary in this article.

The study examines a large Chinese firm and followed 500 workers, half of who worked from home and half in the office. The upshot was that home workers:
  1. Worked longer (almost a full day longer each week—a work-time gain of 13%!).
  2. Concentrated better (so were more productive while they were at work).
  3. Were cheaper (no office space costs)
  4. Had 50% lower attrition, less sick time, and took fewer breaks.
  5. Had a smaller carbon footprint (less commuting, more intensive use of home space).
I’ve been working from home since 2007 and this is pretty consistent with my experience. The key drawback was half of the home workers felt lonely. And there were a few people humping the dog (which was more than offset by gains among other workers).

Letting workers chose whether to work from home (self-selection) resulted in an overall increase in productivity of 24%. If you can stand it, you can watch the author do a 14-minute talk about the study below. He’s reasonably funny and pretty smart but zzzzzzz….



The usual caveats apply to this research: single study, foreign country, YMMV. But it certainly has a lot of face validity for me.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, April 13, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Mining for Gold

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Mining for Gold”, most famously performed by the Cowboy Junkies. The very haunting song speaks to the human cost associated with mining (specifically hard rock mining).

This song is timely given the death of Barrack Gold founder Peter Munk at the end of March. Munk was widely lauded as a visionary business leader, with lofty ambitions and visionary goals. A look at the record of Barrack Gold is sobering.
And as the company’s mining empire expanded, so too did the social criticism, with accusations of abuse at mines in Papua New Guinea and Tanzania drawing protests and reprimands. 
But Munk was unapologetic, and held fast in his convictions that the company was overall a source of good as part of a globalized world of capitalism. 
“Someone has got to create and generate wealth,” Munk said at his last annual general meeting in 2014.
What the Toronto Sun is avoiding talking about in detail are the gang rapes and shooting of workers at various Barrack mines in the developing world. But at least he generated shareholder value. 

The Beaverton pretty much nailed it with its headline “Barrick Gold entombs fifty foreign miners in Peter Munk’s pyramid so he’ll have workers to abuse in afterlife”
“He was such a generous man,” said a Barrick Gold VP, about the ex-chairman whose company is responsible for dozens of atrocities throughout the world. “He would insist on Barrick Gold giving our miners more violence, more heavy metals in their groundwater, more sexual assault. It’s only fair that in return these fifty men be forced to accompany him to paradise.” … 
In addition to Munk’s compulsory entourage, he will also be buried with a thousand barrels of industrial cyanide so he can poison the hereafter’s freshwater sources, a bulldozer for tearing down the homes of heaven’s indigenous population, and a few hundred million dollars in case he needs to bribe God to look the other way. 
“I thought Peter was crazy when he said he could get away with killing hundreds of people if he also dug up a shiny rock once in awhile,” said one longtime friend and member of the board of directors. “Boy is my face red, not to mention my hands!”


We are miners, hard rock miners
To the shaft house we must go
Pour your bottles on our shoulders
We are marching to the slow

On the line boys, on the line boys
Drill your holes and stand in line
'til the shift boss comes to tell you
You must drill her out on top

Can't you feel the rock dust in your lungs?
It'll cut down a miner when he is still young
Two years and the silicosis takes hold
and I feel like I'm dying from mining for gold

Yes, I feel like I'm dying from mining for gold

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Is Convocation leaving Athabasca?

Photo by bulliver
Last Thursday, the mayor of Athabasca was on the radio taking questions. One listener queried whether Athabasca University planned to move convocation out of the town after this year’s ceremonies.

That would be a significant economic blow to the town, as convocation is one of the biggest events in the community each year. And it would be another step in diminishing the university’s presence in town.

Since 2013, a quarter of AU’s professional jobs in Athabasca have disappeared and the university’s executives have all moved away. And, several years back, there were efforts to locate a new building in St. Albert despite there being lots of space on the Athabasca campus.

The mayor couldn’t confirm what the university’s plans were and, when I asked the university about this, it tweeted back (two hours later) that this was just a rumour and convocation 2019 was set to occur in Athabasca.



It was odd that the university didn’t make any definitive statement last week about this issue. An email to staff would take about 30 seconds and would kill the speculation. It is also interesting that the President’s weekly email to staff didn’t appear last week. This week's presidential email was early. It ignores the dust up and quietly confirms that convocation is in Athabasca in 2019.


This response to a potentially big issue was weird so I started asking around.

From what I have been able to find out from multiple independent sources, the university’s executive decided some time ago to move convocation away from Athabasca after this June. I suspect this happened during the budget process, but no one would confirm this. (Convocation was shrunk from 3 days to 2 this year.)

The strong reaction to the announcement leaking out last week may have caused the executive to reverse course (at least for the moment). Assuming this is true, it raises a number of questions:

1. What was the rationale for moving convocation? It can’t possibly be appreciably cheaper to host it in Edmonton. Is it part of a multi-stage plan to slowly shift staff and functions away from Athabasca, until there is nothing much left—a death by 1000 cuts approach?

2. Who authorized this move? The Board of Governors members I’ve spoken to have all denied any knowledge. This suggests the university’s executive made the decision. Do they have that authority? If so, when was the executive going to tell the Board?

3. How does this decision (seemingly the latest effort to diminish the university’s presence in Athabasca) square with the direction AU received in January of 2017 from Advanced Ed Minister Marlin Schmidt when he said:

“We have stressed to the board and the administration that Athabasca University has to maintain a strong presence in the community [of Athabasca].”

Was the government’s commitment to Athabasca University in Athabasca just empty rhetoric? Or has AU’s leadership just decided to ignore the government’s direction?

4. How will this affect the university’s efforts to acquire $5+ million in additional funding from the government to advance the goals of the university’s strategic plan? The university’s future in Athabasca was a big local issue in the last election. If I were the government and hoping to keep the seat in Athabasca during the 2019 election, I wouldn’t be happy with a university admin that keeps pissing off local voters.

5. How does withdrawing employees and function from Athabasca align with the new strategic plan? The plan seems silent on moving locations. You’d think a concerted effort to move operations out of town would warrant a bullet point somewhere. Or is the strategic plan just motherhood and apple pie and there is some other, actual plan afoot?

6. How will this kerfuffle affect relations between the university’s administrators and the Board of Governors? Already, only half of the Board voted in favour of the university’s new strategic plan. And 5 of the 7 public members voted against the plan or abstained from voting on it. Those kinds of numbers suggest a degree of dissatisfaction with the direction proposed by the university’s executive. I imagine getting surprised by a potentially explosive political issue like this will not play well at the next Board meeting on May 25

7. Why the silence? If this was an unfounded rumour, a quick “nope, this was never on the table” would have killed the speculation. I suspect the silence was an effort to finesse the issue. Specifically, the university executive is trying to message “Convocation 2019 is in Athabasca” to dampen down local angst while avoiding a denial that this had been, in fact, the plan (which could be undercut by (for example) emails to the contrary). This strategy leaves open the possibility of announcing convocation is moving once the heat is off (say, for 2020).

It will also be interested to see how the university’s open house in Athabasca on Wednesday (from 6-9) goes. Putatively, this open house is intended to explain how the new strategic plan will benefit the community of Athabasca. I imagine that local residents will have difficult questions in light of recent press coverage about job losses, the potential loss of convocation, and the abandonment of the community by the senior leadership of the university.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, April 6, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Back on the Chain Gang

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Back on the Chain Gang” by the Pretenders. 

The title of the song, the images in the video, and a cursory reading of the lyrics suggests it is about forced labour (whether is be prisoners labouring in factories or factory workers labouring in prisons). For example:
Put us back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang 
The powers that be
That force us to live like we do
Bring me to my knees
When I see what they've done to you
However, the title is more metaphorical. The song is actually about the Pretenders guitarist, James Honeyman-Scott. He died of a drug overdose in 1982, about a month before the band recorded this song. That context suggest the lyrics casts the song in a different light. For example, the opening verse speaks to the band’s shock but resolve to continue playing;
I found a picture of you, oh oh oh oh
What hijacked my world that night
To a place in the past
We've been cast out of? Oh oh oh oh
Now we're back in the fight
We're back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang
Framing music as working on a “chain gang” suggests that perhaps the nature of the work is at least partly responsible for Honeyman-Scott’s death:
The powers that be
That force us to live like we do
Bring me to my knees
When I see what they've done to you
Certainly many workers will easily relate to this sentiment, as they sacrifice their happiness or health in order to learn a living, often against their will. This verse also suggests that there will be a reckoning at some point:
But I'll die as I stand here today
Knowing that deep in my heart
They'll fall to ruin one day
For making us part
While the notion of judgment (or karma or some other mechanism) that evens things out in the end is a popular one, there is troublingly little evidence that the powerful ever pay for their exploitation of others. Which is, of course, one of the reasons they continue to act this way.



I found a picture of you, oh oh oh oh
What hijacked my world that night
To a place in the past
We've been cast out of? Oh oh oh oh
Now we're back in the fight
We're back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang

A circumstance beyond our control, oh oh oh oh
The phone, the TV and the news of the world
Got in the house like a pigeon from hell, oh oh oh oh
Threw sand in our eyes and descended like flies
Put us back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang

The powers that be
That force us to live like we do
Bring me to my knees
When I see what they've done to you
But I'll die as I stand here today
Knowing that deep in my heart
They'll fall to ruin one day
For making us part

I found a picture of you, oh oh oh oh
Those were the happiest days of my life
Like a break in the battle was your part, oh oh oh oh
In the wretched life of a lonely heart
Now we're back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang

-- Bob Barnetson



Tuesday, April 3, 2018

AUPE Labour School and Movie Monsters

Last week, I spent a day in Banff at the AUPE labour school. Chatting with union members, activists, and staff, several commented on the Alberta’s 2018 Speech from the Throne. This passage caught everyone’s attention:
The people who work across our public sector are integral to the services Albertans rely on. We have already reached practical agreements with no raises and better job stability with many labour partners, including teachers and nurses, and a tentative agreement has been reached with our allied health professionals, such as paramedics, lab technologists and X-ray technologists.
The government has sought (and achieved) wage freezes as a way of reducing the cost of government. As a result, most public-sector workers’ wages will decline by the value of inflation for the next two years. For some workers (such as teachers), this will mean they have taken wage freezes in five of the six most recent years.

Wage freezes are often unpopular because they can have big implications for workers. Continuing with the teacher example, for example, these workers saw the real-dollar value of their salaries decline by more than 7% over the past six years due to un-addressed inflation. These losses affect their wages forever (due to lost compounding) and there is also a knock-on hit to their pensions.

Unions undoubtedly make gains when taking zeros (e.g., workload limits, better contract language) but forgone wages represent a significant transfer of money from workers to the government. Essentially, workers are subsidizing the operation of public services.

Several workers in Banff went further, noting that what the New Democrats (like the Tories before them) were doing was taking money from workers and using it to subsidize rich people and corporations (through income and corporate tax rates that are inadequate to pay for public services).

This was a pretty astute observation (many of my PhD-holding co-workers struggle to grasp this dynamic). And it raises interesting political questions. For example, what is the ND’s electoral thinking behind telling your supporters that “you gotta take a freeze so I can get re-elected”?

Probably it goes something like “you can be mad, but Jason Kenney will be worse so who you gonna vote for in 2019”? Now certainly Jason Kenney would be far worse for public servants. Personally, I loathe him.

I also loathe Dracula. But I don’t think it follows that, just because I hate vampires, I’m necessarily going to be a fan of Frankenstein’s monster. ("Better dead than undead!") And I’m certainly not going to cheer as it throws the public service into the lake to drown.

The anger about what amount to a betrayal of public-sector workers was palpable. I wonder how it will affect the ND’s electoral support come election time. Will public-sector workers fall in line? Or, will they be pissed enough to get out their torches and pitchforks?

-- Bob Barnetson