Friday, February 17, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: This Land is Your Land


This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “This Land is Your Land” written by Woodie Guthrie. Most people are familiar with the first three verses of the song (it is a standard of school and camp sing-alongs). 

The real meat of the song is in the last verses which Guthrie didn’t record, possibly because he feared the communist witch-hunt lead by Joseph McCarthy during the 1950s.

They talk about how the institution of private property undermines the ability of average American’s to enjoy the country that is their birthright.
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
And they draw attention to the grinding poverty that many Americans experience due to the operation of a capitalist economy.
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
The prevalence of gated communities, food banks, urban ghettos, and xenophobia that is evident in the United States today suggests progress (for the many) has been slow and uneven. I chose Bruce Springsteen’s cover of the song because he sings the less common verses (including the more critical ones).



This land is your land This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the red wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

I've roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

35 years after the Ocean Ranger

Thirty five years ago tomorrow, the 84 crew aboard the drilling rig Ocean Ranger were killed about 250km east of St. John's, NL. The loss of the Ocean Ranger started with storm damage caused by a severe hurricane. The sea was running at 55 to 65 feet.

As the rig flooded and eventually sank, most of the crew evacuated (either in a life boat or by jumping into the sea—the exact reason there were men loose in the sea is unclear) and then perished. A Royal Commission found:
that the crew were not trained, the safety equipment was inadequate, there were no safety protocols for the supply ship, and that the rig itself had a number of flaws. The Royal Commission concluded that Ocean Ranger had design and construction flaws, particularly in the ballast control room, and that the crew lacked proper safety training, survival suits and equipment. The Royal Commission also concluded that inspection and regulation by United States and Canadian government agencies was ineffective.
Susan Dodd has written a wonderful book about how the Ocean Ranger disaster was repackaged by and to serve corporate interests. Perhaps more accessible is Ron Hynes' touching tribute to the families left behind by these occupational fatalities.



What colour is a heartache from a love lost at sea?
What shade of memory never fades but lingers to eternity?
And how dark is the light of day that sleepless eyes of mine survey?
Is that you, Atlantic Blue? My heart is as cold as you.

How is one heart chosen to never lie at peace?
How many moments remain? Is there not one sweet release?
And who’s the stranger at my door, to haunt my dreams forever more?
Is that you, Atlantic Blue? My heart is as cold as you.

I lie awake in the morning, as waves wash on the sand,
I hold my hurt at bay, I hold the lives of his children in my hands.
And whose plea will receive no answer? Whose cry is lost upon the wind?
Who’s the voice so familiar, whispers my name as the night comes in?

And whose wish never fails to find my vacant heart on Valentine’s?
Is that you Atlantic Blue? My heart is as cold,
My heart is as cold, my heart is as cold as you.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, February 10, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Deportee

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture looks at “Deportee” written by Woody Guthrie. This song is about a 1948 plane crash that killed 28 migrant farm workers being returned from the United States to Mexico. (A misunderstanding about the nature of the US Bracero program resulted in the workers being labeled deportees).

This song draws our attention to the strange discourse on migrant workers in the United States. The country (particularly in labour-intensive sectors of agriculture) is profoundly dependent upon migrants workers with no legal right to work in the US. These workers basically subsidize the price of food for everyone because they have no choice but to accept grindingly low wages and terrible working conditions.

For their hard work, they are demonized. Most recently, Donald Trump has (without any evidence) accused illegal migrants of massive voter fraud. A more common critique centres on such workers “stealing our jobs” (that no citizen will take because the jobs are so terrible…). This “othering” of migrant workers is very similar to the othering of immigrants and other racialized groups, again most notably in the rising tide of Islamaphobia evident in the US and Canada.

Guthrie’s song pointedly talks about the cost (to migrant workers) of their poor treatment and how the appalling treatment of human beings is downplayed when we label them as “illegals” or “deportees”.

There are dozens and dozens of covers of this song. I chose KT Tunstall’s acoustic cover—she has a lovely voice and has shifted the melody away from the 1940s folk sound that is so tedious:



The crops are all in and the peaches are rott'ning,
The oranges piled in their creosote dumps;
They're flying 'em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be "deportees"

My father's own father, he waded that river,
They took all the money he made in his life;
My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,
And they rode the truck till they took down and died.

Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract's out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.

We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died 'neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.

The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, "They are just deportees"

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except "deportees"?

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

new course: IDRL 215: Intro to Labour Relations

A few weeks ago, Athabasca University opened a new course. IDRL 215: Introduction to Labour Relations replaced the venerable IDRL 201 and  IDRL 312 courses (which we have closed).

This change (which should have no effect on students who are in program) is part of our ongoing efforts to revitalize the curriculum.

IDRL 312 and 201 represented some of AU's early efforts to provide a comprehensive introduction to the field of labour relations.

As our course offerings have grown (and the world has changed), some rethinking of what is taught and how we teach it has become necessary. We're hopeful that IDRL 215 will be an enjoyable introduction to labour relations.

In a month or so, we will also be opening IDRL 316: Collective Bargaining and Grievance Arbitration, which will replace two older courses: IDRLs 305 and 404. Again, this change is mostly about increasing the coherence of our program and we have arranged things so program students will not be negatively affected.

We'll be taking similar steps with some of our EDUC courses over the next few years. For example, EDUC/HRMT 310 (The Canadian Training System) was our first foray into the topic of human resource development. It covered a little bit of everything.

Since then, we've added four more undergraduate courses on that topic. This has left the purpose of EDUC/HRMT 310 a bit unclear.

I am currently revising the course to make it EDUC 210: The Canadian Training System. This course will offer a clear introduction to labour market training in Canada and to our other offerings:

EDUC 316: Program Planning and Methods in Adult Learning
EDUC 317: Training and Development in Organizations
EDUC 406: Work and Learning
IDRL 496: Comparative Labour Education

As I revise EDUC 210, I am also writing a textbook, that students will receive in both digital and paper formats. I am hopeful the new course will open in about a year.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, February 3, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Code Monkey

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture features “Code Monkey” by Jonathan Coulton. This song extends the “tech worker” theme we saw last week in Stan Roger’s “White Collar Hollar” but is more modern in its views.

Code monkey is a derogatory term for computer programmers (“Code monkey: go for brains!”). In this song, the singer is a Code Monkey with a fairly unsatisfying job and a jerk for a boss. There is a humorous “lives of quiet desperation” element to the song:
Have boring meeting with boring manager Rob
Rob say Code Monkey very diligent
But his output stink
His code not functional or elegant 
What do Code Monkey think
Code Monkey think maybe manager oughta write goddamn login page himself
Code Monkey not say it out loud
Code Monkey not crazy just proud
So why does Code Monkey stay? Well, the song also treads into the difficulty territory of office crushes. While the song doesn’t go there, you have to wonder what the “front desk girl” thinks of Code monkey’s affections.

There are multiple version of Code Monkey. The video is of an uptempo version. There is, however, a simply beautiful acoustic version on this page (scroll down to Code Monkey Save World Unplugged and click Code monkey to listen).



Code Monkey get up get coffee
Code Monkey go to job
Have boring meeting with boring manager Rob
Rob say Code Monkey very diligent
But his output stink
His code not functional or elegant

What do Code Monkey think
Code Monkey think maybe manager oughta write goddamn login page himself
Code Monkey not say it out loud
Code Monkey not crazy just proud

[chorus]
Code Monkey like Fritos
Code Monkey like Tab and Mountain Dew
Code Monkey very simple man
With big warm fuzzy secret heart
Code Monkey like you
Code Monkey like you

Code Monkey hang around at front desk
Tell you sweater look nice
Code Monkey offer buy you soda
Bring you cup bring you ice
You say no thank you for the soda 'cause
Soda make you fat
Anyway you busy with the telephone
No time for chat

Code Monkey have long walk back to cubicle
He sit down pretend to work
Code Monkey not thinking so straight
Code Monkey not feeling so great

[chorus]

Code Monkey have every reason
To get out this place
Code Monkey just keep on working
To see your soft pretty face
Much rather wake up eat a coffee cake
Take bath, take nap

This job fulfilling in creative way
Such a load of crap
Code Monkey think someday he have everything even pretty girl like you
Code Monkey just waiting for now
Code Monkey say someday, somehow

[chorus]

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Phoenix payroll debacle and the incorporation thesis

In February 2016, the federal government rolled out the Phoenix Payroll system for a significant portion of the federal public service (about a third of its ~300,000 workers). This roll out has been plagued with problems.

Workers are not getting paid. Or are getting under paid. Or over paid. Or being asked to return more in over payments than they were paid in total. One person has lost their home, others have missed mortgage, and loan payments.

The exact scope of the problem is hard to tell. One report last summer suggested 82,000 errors had been reported between February and July of 2016. At present, it appears there remains a backlog of 8000 cases from that period and another 13,000 high priority cases have emerged since then. There are also an undisclosed number of lower priority cases. Basically this is a disastrous roll out that has overwhelmed the ability of the federal government’s payroll office to resolve in a timely manner.

Last week, the case of an Alberta summer student hit the news. The student worked in Waterton Parks last summer. She’s owed $5-6k (one of >1500 summer student cases), had to move back in with her parents and postpone her studies. The government’s problem resolution system clearly doesn’t work:
She says trying to get answers about her paycheques during the summer was hard. She recalls dialing the phone number she was given up to 30 times a day and not having anyone pick up. 
"Since then, I have called probably about three times a month and still they have no answers for me. They don't have my personal files … they just pass my information along."
So she went to the media with her problems, alleging “…Parks Canada staff told her not to speak to the media because she might not be hired back next summer…”. Whether this statement was intended as helpful advice to a young worker (it is likely correct) or a threat, clearly the student decided to ignore it. After all, why would she want to work for an employer that can’t or won’t honor its most basic obligation: to pay for work done?

One of the issues this cases raises is the way that the “work now, grieve later” principle that underlies modern labour relations leaves workers essentially powerless. While the union representing many federal workers (PSAC) has pursued a number of strategies (legal, media) to resolve the problem, its members’ most effective tool for pressuring the government to resolve problems (a work stoppage) is rendered illegal.

Now a work stoppage won’t magically resolve the pay problems. But it would likely motivate the employer to (1) make more of an effort to resolve the issue, and (2) to hold senior decision makers to account for this disaster. By contrast, playing nicely has led to members asking why they have a union if it can’t get action on such a basic violation of the workers’ employment contract.

In this dynamic, we see the incorporation thesis at work: unions and labour laws play a key role in managing worker discontent by channeling workers’ collective efforts in non-disruptive (and, in the short term, completely ineffective) dispute resolution mechanisms. This is good news for employers (work continues uninterrupted) but bad news for workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, January 27, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: White Collar Hollar

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “White Collar Hollar” by Stan Rogers. The song is sung as a field holler (sometimes called a field call), historically sung by workers and slaves, which is an unusual style to hear these days.

The song (unusually) recounts and critiques the experience of a harried data wonk (using now antiquated 1970s terminology).
Then it's code in the data, give the keyboard a punch
Then cross-correlate and break for some lunch
Correlate, tabulate, process and screen
Program, printout, regress to the mean
The song is notable because it touches on the quiet desperation of white-collar workers (most class conscious songs tend to be about blue- and pink-collar jobs). Interesting, the worker’s dreams remain the same: freedom from the grind.
Someday I'm gonna give up all the buttons and things
I'll punch that time clock till it can't ring
Burn up my necktie and set myself free
Cause no'one's gonna fold, bend or mutilate me.


Well, I rise up every morning at a quarter to eight
Some woman who's my wife tells me not to be late
I kiss the kids goodbye, I can't remember their names
And week after week, it's always the same

And it's Ho, boys, can't you code it, and program it right
Nothing ever happens in the life of mine
I'm hauling up the data on the Xerox line

Then it's code in the data, give the keyboard a punch
Then cross-correlate and break for some lunch
Correlate, tabulate, process and screen
Program, printout, regress to the mean

Then it's home again, eat again, watch some TV
Make love to my woman at ten-fifty-three
I dream the same dream when I'm sleeping at night
I'm soaring over hills like an eagle in flight

Someday I'm gonna give up all the buttons and things
I'll punch that time clock till it can't ring
Burn up my necktie and set myself free
Cause no'one's gonna fold, bend or mutilate me.

-- Bob Barnetson