Friday, June 23, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Welcome to the Working Week

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Welcome to the working week” by Elvis Costello. This song appears to be directed at someone (a woman, based on the first line) who has had some success is breaking out of her class background and has perhaps left her old life behind.
Now that your picture's in the paper being rhythmically admired
and you can have anyone that you have ever desired,
All of your family had to kill to survive,
and they're still waitin' for their big day to arrive
Yet not everything about the subject’s success is wonderful:
I hear you sayin', "Hey, the city's all right
when you only read about it in books.
Spend all your money gettin' so convinced
that you never even bother to look.
One of the more evocative interpretations of this song is that a young woman has gone off the city to become a model. She’s tried to leave her old life behind but, in doing so, finds herself trapped in a life she doesn’t particularly enjoy—perhaps at the edges of the sex trade.

I had a tough time finding a video of the song with audible lyrics so I picked this cover by These Animals.



Now that your picture's in the paper being rhythmically admired
and you can have anyone that you have ever desired,
all you gotta tell me now is why, why, why, why.

Welcome to the workin' week.
Oh I know it don't thrill you, I hope it don't kill you.
Welcome to the workin' week.
You gotta do it till you're through it so you better get to it.

All of your family had to kill to survive,
and they're still waitin' for their big day to arrive.
But if they knew how I felt they'd bury me alive.

Welcome to the workin' week.
Oh I know it don't thrill you, I hope it don't kill you.
Welcome to the workin' week.
You gotta do it till you're through it so you better get to it.

I hear you sayin', "Hey, the city's all right
when you only read about it in books.
Spend all your money gettin' so convinced
that you never even bother to look.
Sometimes I wonder if we're livin' in the same land,
Why d'you wanna be my friend when I feel like a juggler
running out of hands?

Welcome to the workin' week, oh, welcome to the working week.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Successfully operationalizing Athabasca's third-party report

Last week, Athabasca University released an independent report about the way forward. The report suggests (and the university’s board has promised) a rapid response to the recommendations with a major rethink of operations to be completed by May 2018.

This Thursday, there is a joint meeting of the Board of Governors and the General Faculties Council to discuss the report. Both the Board chair and president are relatively new. They may wish to consider four issues that they will need to navigate if this rethink is going to be successful.

LOCATION
The first is the issue of location. The report recommends moving some staff (including the president) to a new consolidated location in the Edmonton area while retaining registrarial, student support, and specialized services in the town of Athabasca (pp. 29 and 38). Relocation became a real issue last year when seemingly secret plans to relocate portions of the university to St Albert hit the news.

This kind of back-room dealing deeply damaged institutional trust. The university (and its jobs) are very important to the town of Athabasca so the report's relocation recommendations have triggered some angst. Will good jobs be lost to the city? Will AU’s main campus slowly (or quickly) be hollowed out?

The arguments for this shift are (1) transportation is too costly (the evidence of this is thin, especially set against the cost of space in Edmonton) and (2) the local labour pool is small and living in Athabasca is unattractive (again, the evidence is thin and this argument is deeply offensive). Alternate explanations for recruitment difficulties (e.g., a decade of atrocious management leading to high turnover) might suggest different solutions.

A major shift in staff (which will damage the town socially and economically) is unlikely to be politically acceptable to the government. This discussion is distressing to current staff who live in Athabasca. If a major shift is off the table, then making clear the parameters of any change early on will go far to encouraging staff buy-in to the process.

LEGITIMACY
A part of the rethink required by the report is a review of the university’s existing offerings with an eye to closing programs and courses that are “unsustainable” or “incompatible” with some (unknown) institutional standards. This plan needs to be complete by November 1 (p. 35). This rapidity of this seemingly sensible recommendation (which is a part of the institution’s ongoing process of review) raises the spectre of layoffs driven by a sham review process.

These concerns reflect the deep lack of trust created by the last two administrations, which (respectively) said (1) “everything is fine” and the sacked 1 in 7 full-time staff, and (2) forced a student contact model (the “call centre”) on faculties against the wish of many academics. Essentially, previous administrations’ behaviour has demonstrated that the institution can’t be trusted to act in good faith. So why would I, as a staff member, bother to participate in this new process in any way?

Certainly some folks suggest the institution just needs to move forward. I think this view underappreciates the degree of distrust and disengagement among staff and the limited political capital of the administration. While we do have a new chair and a new president, many of the long-term players remain and their wretched behaviour is front of mind. Sweeping the past under the rug (which the report tries to do) isn't going to cut it.

There certainly seems to be little willingness to address past wrongs. For example, the institution cries poverty but won’t consider ditching four former senior administrators who were given tenured full professorships as perks without having to prove their merit through the normal peer-led, academic tenure process. These perks (which also violate the faculty collective agreement), cost the university about $1 million per year until these folks retire or die in harness. But the rest of the staff need to tighten our belts and take wage roll backs?

Whatever review process the institution envisions occurring (very rapidly over the summer when no one is around…), it will need to have a high degree of face legitimacy to avoid staff apathy, resistance, and/or sabotage.

CAPACITY
Carrying off a fundamental rethink (and subsequently reorganization) of the university’s operations is going to be labour intensive (unless the process is a complete sham...). I question whether AU has staff capacity to do this after years of hiring freezes and rapid management turnover. Consider the finance portfolio, for example.

Working from top to bottom, in 10 years, we’ve had four VPs (one was acting). All of the directors have turned over (often more than once and with increasing speed). In HR, there is no HR director or labour-relations manager (since the last 8 have each abruptly disappeared after shorter and shorter periods of time on the job). The HR shop itself looks like the Marie Celeste, operating at half staff with no leadership and zero capacity to take on additional work (or even do their current work properly).

This kind of capacity issue—although perhaps to a lesser degree than in HR—exists across virtually the whole institution. Can the institution make (or even plan) major changes in the next year? I’m skeptical. Whatever the plan is going forward, it must recognize the stretched (and, in many cases, burned out and flailing) nature of its workforce. A significant increase in work may cause some operational areas to collapse.

DEATH-SPIRAL NARRATIVE
Over the past five years, the university has used the threat of financial collapse as a club to bully its staff into taking wage freezes and accepting other changes. This tool is now yielding negative institutional value for two reasons.

First, staff (being smart people) have noticed that the institution’s projected deficit always turns out to be a surplus. The institution’s explanation that this is the result of “one-time savings that cannot be repeated” is now widely disbelieved and contributes to the lack of political capital among institutional leaders.

While there is actually a wolf at the end of the parable about the boy who cried wolf (as there may well be for AU), the actual lesson of that story is that people don’t fucking like being emotionally manipulated. And, if you do it often enough, they will turn on you and you, in turn, will fail at your job. That is an important lesson for the new president and board chair to pay attention to.

Second, the death-spiral narrative has leaked out into the public and is damaging the institution’s reputation. This narrative poses an existential threat to the report’s suggestion that AU can grow its way to success. Students, employers, and other PSEs are not going to want to sign on to a seemingly sinking ship. There even seems to be some institutional recognition of the problem created by the death-spiral narrative.

Yet, the death-spiral narrative appears in the report (p.44) and was immediately picked up by the media and the staff. The president tried to waive aside this issue during “conversations with the president” last week by noting only three media outlets pick up the death-spiral narrative while 380 didn’t. This bit of spin looked both desperate and amateurish given that the outlets that did go with “death spiral” are the largest media outlets in Alberta.

The presence of the death-spiral narrative in the report is designed to suggest that the institution must change or die (and, indeed, the report (p.40) recommends the government wind down operations if the university’s plan doesn’t meet with the government’s approval). Basically, the report (and the university) seem to find the narrative an irresistible tool to “motivate” staff to do things they don’t want to do (like take contract rollbacks, as hinted at on page 28 and 35-36).

As blogger David Climenhaga notes, the university will only close if the government wants that to happen. The government is unlikely to close the university in the run-up to the 2019 election. And, more broadly, no government is likely to close a rural institution that is the major employer in a town (although the Tories tried to starve AU to death in 1994-1997 and again in 2009-2013).

So the effect of the death-spiral narrative is limited to pissing-off staff, annoying residents of Athabasca, and scaring off students and potential collaborators. The best approach for the institution is to simply stop using the death-spiral narrative internally and hope it goes away. Whether the board and administration can resist the temptation is an open question.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, June 16, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Man Alive

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture features “Man Alive” by Billy Talent. This song evinces deep skepticism about the proposition that hard work and loyalty are rewarding and rewarded.
Well at first you're fine with working overtime
10 years go by til you're caught up in the grind
And can't escape the fact your youth is fading fast
These times won't last and once they're gone they don't come back
In particular, the song seems to take issue with the Harper government’s treatment of veterans (although this verse could be read literally or metaphorically):
Attention all personnel!
Stand single file, resistance is futile!
We're gonna raise your hopes up
Just to knock them down
You got a bright bright future
If you can shut your mouth
And if you work the front lines
To keep us safe and sound
You won't be compensated
Until you're in the ground
So don't waste a single breath
On what society expects
If history don't lie
They're gonna take you for a ride until you die!
The best video I could find was this simply track+lyrics piece.



Man alive!
Don't stand aside!
While people make demands
At first they'll take your liberties
Then tie them 'round your hand
Man alive!
Don't stand aside!
While people make demands
When time goes by some day you'll find
Their words are your command

Well the bloodsucker society, is looking for recruits
I took a sip of their sobriety, it doesn't taste that good

Well at first you're fine with working overtime
10 years go by til you're caught up in the grind
And can't escape the fact your youth is fading fast
These times won't last and once they're gone they don't come back

Man alive!
Don't stand aside!
While people make demands
At first they'll take your liberties
Then tie them 'round your hand
Man alive!
Don't stand aside!
While people make demands
When time goes by some day you'll find
Their words are your command

They try to fill you with anxiety, until you bite the hook
They drop a line of notoriety, they got a big cheque book

Oh they'll turn you blind for a nickel and a dime
Don't waste your time with their simple frame of mind
You can't escape the fact your youth is fading fast
These times won't last and once they're gone they don't come back

Man alive!
Don't stand aside!
While people make demands
At first they'll take your liberties
Then tie them 'round your hand
Man alive!
Don't stand aside!
While people make demands
When time goes by some day you'll find
Their words are your command

Attention all personnel!
Stand single file, resistance is futile!
We're gonna raise your hopes up
Just to knock them down
You got a bright bright future
If you can shut your mouth
And if you work the front lines
To keep us safe and sound
You won't be compensated
Until you're in the ground
So don't waste a single breath
On what society expects
If history don't lie
They're gonna take you for a ride until you die!

Man alive!
Don't stand aside!
While people make demands
At first they'll take your liberties
Then tie them 'round your hand
Man alive!
Don't stand aside!
While people make demands
When time goes by some day you'll find
Their words are your command

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Faculty association wins again. What up with that?



Earlier today, Athabasca Faculty Association members got word that we’d won our salary arbitration for bargaining that began in February of 2016. This means salaries will increase 2% per year retroactively to July 1, 2016 in order to keep pace with inflation (this is pretty consistent with other settlements).

Arbitration is decided largely by looking at settlements obtained at comparable institutions (because this provides a good guide to what would have been achieved through negotiation or a work stoppage). This is the third win in a row for the faculty association at arbitration. According to the arbitrator:
[108] Having examined the components of the University’s final offer individually, the totality of its offer is also not in line with any of the comparables at other Alberta universities and colleges.
Ouch. That the employer keeps advancing unrealistic offers at arbitration that propose big rollbacks and lead to impasse warrants some scrutiny. In the words of SNL’s DeAndre, what up with that?

Well, it could be that the employer is just bad at collective bargaining and unknowingly chooses to advance unrealistic offers. There is some truth to this—they have repeatedly failed to make a timely opening offer in bargaining despite hiring expensive lawyers to bargain for them.

More likely, though, the university is intentionally making low-ball offers, hoping to trigger impasse, and then get lucky at arbitration. If they win, then labour costs rise more slowly. If they lose, they can at least say they tried to cut salaries, blaming the arbitrator and the greedy employees.

This tight-fisted approach is also consistent with the “death spiral” narrative the institution has been spinning to its staff for the last five years. Basically, the institution pleads poverty, threatens layoffs or closure, and hopes terrified employees take wage freezes or cuts. The arbitrator notes an important difficulty with this narrative:
[102] …Its history of projecting successive deficits is undercut by the reality of actual surpluses at the end of its financial years.
Basically the university always projects deficits that (magically) disappear. I’ll have more to say about the effects of the university crying wolf and the death-spiral narrative on Tuesday.

The interesting bargaining question is how will the university behave next spring when (1) the institution finally has an obligation to bargain in good faith under the Labour Relations Code and (2) bargaining impasse is (for the first time) resolved by strike-lockout?

The faculty association has already established a strike fund and commenced planning for a work stoppage. The university has not. (When I bring strike-lockout up with admin types, they mostly look confused and slightly panicked.)

If the university’s plan is to once again not engage in meaningful bargaining, it will find itself in front of the Labour Board (and in the press). And, if it drives bargaining impasse, it may well find itself weathering a strike. Such a strike will (I promise) be profoundly damaging to the university’s already tattered reputation.

Perhaps, this is an opportunity for the university to strike (cough, cough) a new tone in bargaining. And perhaps it is time to clean out the staff and contractors who have been responsible for the current antagonistic approach to bargaining?

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Impact of Bill 17 on Alberta farms and ranches


Last week, Alberta passed Bill 17, which made important (but not earth-shattering) changes to the Employment Standards Code and Labour Relations Code. While there was little public discussion of it, this Act also affected farms and ranches.

Agriculture was brought into the ambit of Alberta’s employment laws in late 2015 (with the passage of Bill 6) but the full effect was delayed to allow for almost a year of consultations. The Employment Standards and Labour Relations working groups reported in late 2016 and additional feedback was sought on these recommendations in 2017.

Bill 17 entails a number of changes for agricultural employers. Effective January 1, 2018, most farmworkers become subject to most Employment Standards. That said, there continue to be no rules around hours of work, rest periods, and over time. Farm workers will be allowed 4 days of rest in 28 (at the employer’s discretion). Given the seasonal nature of farm work, the lack of rules to manage fatigue represents a clear health-and-safety issue the government ducked.

Children under 13 will not be allowed to work for pay. Children aged 13-15 will be restricted to light work (which has yet to be defined) or jobs for which they receive a permit. They will need to be paid the minimum wage. These rules do not apply to family members working on farms. How exactly this will play out on farms is unclear. The family-exemption creates a significant loophole whereby most child labour on farms remains unregulated.

Farm workers will be allowed to unionize under the Labour Relations Code (like any other group of workers) including accessing first-contract arbitration. The Public Emergency Tribunal (PET) provisions of the Labour Relations Code have been amended to allow the government to impose a PET if there is a serious threat to crops of livestock.

Employer-side stakeholders (under the umbrella of the Agricultural Coalition) are voicing several complaints, including:
  1. The Bill 6 consultations focused on the applicability of (now) old legislation. The changes made by Bill 17 (e.g., giving employees job-protected) sick leave were not contemplated.
  2. The government rejected many (although not all) of the recommendations made by the working groups, leading employers to question how seriously these recommendations were considered.
  3. Employers don’t want their workers to be able to join a union or collectively bargain with them.
Complaints that there was no consultation with agricultural producers around various new leave entitlements are simply untrue. There was a public consultation process around Employment Standards and nearly 5000 submissions were received. If agricultural producers did not choose to participate, that is on them.

It is impossible to say how seriously the government treated the working group recommendations. That some of the recommendations were adopted suggests that the recommendations were read and considered. Many of the recommendations would have thwarted the basic intent of Bill 6, so it is not surprising that the government didn’t implement them.

Similarly, the government is obligated to provide farm workers with some way to express their associational rights. While it isn’t surprising that agricultural employers don’t want their workers to unionize, expecting otherwise was not a reasonable expectation in light of the recent trend in Charter jurisprudence.

I think the most useful way to view the Agricultural Coalition’s response is as blame shifting. The Ag Coalition’s representatives resisted the basic thrust of Bill 6 during the working group process. As a strategy, this was a forlorn hope and Bill 17 is evidence that the Coalition’s strategy was not particularly successful. Rather than acknowledge that its strategy was a pretty weak one, the Ag Coalition is trying to deflect responsibility by inflicting political cost on the government.

I wonder if this approach is going to be any more effective? Given the anger over Bill 6 in rural Alberta (and the “seems fair” response in urban Alberta, where ND MLAs mostly come from), I’m not sure there is any more political damage the Ag Coalition can do to the government. Indeed, the proposed redistribution of riding boundaries is more evidence that the political salience of rural Alberta is fading (particularly given that this issue is basically rural employers seeking to roll back rural workers’ rights).

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, June 9, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: King Harvest

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “King Harvest” by The Band. This is a complicated song about the complicated relationship between farmworkers (I think specifically sharecroppers, who work the land of others and give up a portion of their crop in payment) and unions.

The song details the difficulties the farmer has had:
Last year, this time, wasn't no joke,
My whole barn went up in smoke
Our horse Jethro, well he went mad
And I can't remember things bein' that bad
A union organizer appears offering some way to level the playing field:
Then there comes a man with a paper and a pen
Tellin' us our hard times are about to end
And then, if they don't give us what we like
He said, "Men, that's when you gotta go on strike"
But will the union be able to overcome the power of the landowners?

Historically, land owners in the American south responded to sharecropper unions with violent repression, reflecting both the economic threat posed by the unions and the racist history of the region (many sharecroppers were black). Eventually, mechanization provided landlords with a more efficient way to farm large tracts and sharecropping disappeared.




Corn in the fields
Listen to the rice when the wind blows 'cross the water
King Harvest has surely come

I work for the union 'cause she's so good to me
And I'm bound to come out on top
That's where she said I should be
I will hear every word the boss may say
For he's the one who hands me down my pay
Looks like this time I'm gonna get to stay
I'm a union man, now, all the way

The smell of the leaves,
From the magnolia trees in the meadow
King Harvest has surely come

Dry summer, then comes fall,
Which I depend on most of all
Hey, rainmaker, can't you hear the call?
Please let these crops grow tall

Long enough I've been up on Skid Row
And it's plain to see, I've nothing to show
I'm glad to pay those union dues,
Just don't judge me by my shoes

Scarecrow and a yellow moon,
And pretty soon a carnival on the edge of town
King Harvest has surely come

Last year, this time, wasn't no joke,
My whole barn went up in smoke
Our horse Jethro, well he went mad
And I can't remember things bein' that bad

Then there comes a man with a paper and a pen
Tellin' us our hard times are about to end
And then, if they don't give us what we like
He said, "Men, that's when you gotta go on strike"

Corn in the fields
Listen to the rice when the wind blows 'cross the water
King Harvest has surely come

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Research: Preliminary 2016 Ag Census Results

StatCan has started the roll out of the results of the 2016 agricultural census (this often takes place over the course of a year or 18 months). Some of the early results of the Ag Census for Alberta are as follows:

The number of farms in Alberta dropped between 2011 and 2016 by 6.0%. This is similar to the national trend (down 5.9%). This change is also consistent consistent with the long-term trend in Alberta. Further data releases will be necessary to tease out what kinds of farms disappeared.


This data indicates that, so far, fears that Bill 6 would cause producers to close up shop enmasse have not materialized. To be fair, Bill 6 was passed in late 2015 and the Ag Census data was collected starting in early 2016, so we may see an increased rate of farm closures in the 2021 census.

I did not see any Alberta specific and detailed data about changes in farm size or gross receipts. I would bet we’ll see a continued growth in very large farms at the expense of small and medium-sized farms.

The data I’m most interested in seeing has to do with the hiring of employees. I could not find any province-level data but, at the national level, total employees numbers dropped 5.8% between 2010 and 2015. There was also a shift towards hiring year-round employees (full-time and part-time) and away from seasonal employees. As in past years, a minority of farms hired most of the employees:
Agricultural operations with high gross farm receipts accounted for a smaller proportion of agricultural operations but employed a larger share of employees. Almost half (46.8%) of all employees were employed by agricultural operations with receipts of $1 million or more in 2015, while these agricultural operations represented 7.6% of total agricultural operations.
It will be interesting to see both what trends are evident when we get Alberta specific data and what political use get made of them.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, June 2, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Capitalism Stole My Virginity

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Capitalism stole my virginity” by the (International) Noise Conspiracy. While there are lots of popular songs about work, there are far fewer songs that engage with the political-economy in which work occurs.

This song notes (via metaphor) how capitalism commodifies workers and their dreams:

All dreams corrupted in front of our eyes … 
Distasteful ugly and cheap
That is how you make me feel, I said
Capitalism stole my virginity 
We are all sluts, cheap products
In someone else's notebook
The result is a loss of commitment to capitalist social formation and the potential for resistance.
Robbed out of our bleeding hearts
Smashed our illusions, tore them all apart
Now we are unsentimental, unafraid
To destroy this culture that we hate
While obvious not everyone has lost faith is capitalism as an economic system, as an increasing proportion of the population is unable to access what is promised by the “American dream” (e.g., housing, food, education, good jobs), the potential for citizens to disengage politically and/or engage in fringe movements promising to make American great again increases.



Nowhere's untouched by the shame
Who said we could get by with our childhood games
Days of innocence are all long gone
Avoid the shock honey and try to live on

Woke up all paralyzed
All dreams corrupted in front of our eyes
On every forehead of every little whore
There's a sign that says, 'baby don't come back no more'

Distasteful ugly and cheap
That is how you make me feel, I said
Capitalism stole my virginity
Capitalism stole, capitalism stole
Capitalism stole my virginity

Robbed out of our bleeding hearts
Smashed our illusions, tore them all apart
Now we are unsentimental, unafraid
To destroy this culture that we hate

So tired of being nothing
When, when we should be everything
On every forehead of every little whore
There's a sign that says, 'baby we're all born to die'

Distasteful ugly and cheap
That is how you make me feel, I said
Capitalism stole my virginity
Capitalism stole, capitalism stole
Capitalism stole - yeah

We are all sluts, cheap products
In someone else's notebook
We are all sluts, cheap products
In someone else's notebook
We are all sluts, cheap products
In someone else's notebook
We are all sluts, cheap products
In someone else's notebook

Distasteful ugly and cheap
That is how you make me feel, I said
Capitalism stole my virginity
Capitalism stole, capitalism stole
Capitalism stole my virginity, oh
Capitalism stole, capitalism stole
Capitalism stole my virginity, oh yeah
Capitalism stole, capitalism stole
Capitalism stole my virginity, oh

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Research: Psychological OHS risks for long-term care workers

Ageing International just recently published an article about the experiences of Canadian long-term care workers with psychological health and safety on the job provocatively entitled “We’re told, ‘Suck it up’.”  The article examines the experiences of workers in four provinces with work overload, low worker control, discrimination, and disrespect.

Interviews with 87 staff at eight long-term care homes (two each in BC, MB, ON, and NS) were used in the study. The research revealed that workers face significant psychological harm from unremediated hazards, employers and regulators don’t “see” the hazards causing the harm very clearly, and workers are largely left to deal with things on their own (which is itself a psychological hazard).

The voices of the study participants are powerful. They clearly note that employer staffing decisions take a significant toll on both the staff and on patient care.

[W]e’re told ‘Suck it up. It’s your job.’ And that’s so frustrating because that’s not my job. It’s not my job to come to work and expect to be punched in the face. You know, it’s not my job to come to work and expect to be hurt because you didn’t staff the building properly so now I can’t take care of my own family. You know what I mean? (CCA, Manitoba) 
Okay, well we’re short two CCAs and one LPN and…we as nurses care for two houses, you know, we care for all these people with only three [staff]… . There’s just nobody to help and there’s nobody to cover, right? So you just basically go through a shift hoping you’re going to have a good shift and nothing big happens because if it does, I mean you have to deal with it. But there’s nurses here that go without breaks because you just don’t have the time. A lot of nurses go without breaks and that’s again cause for burnout, right? (LPN Nova Scotia)
[The] ratios are key because every nurse and LPN and care aide wants to give amazing care and that’s why we have so many leaving the profession, right? It’s because the ethical and moral distress that you cannot do your job the way you’re supposed to be doing your job and you’re just trying to just make it through the day. So if there was funding put into having, you know, the appropriate ratios then yeah, of course it would work. It would be amazing wouldn’t it? (RN British Columbia)
As the Points West Living lockout in Cold Lake moves past 150 days, it is important to reflect that a significant issue is the workers’ demand for mandatory staffing levels such that the employer can’t run short-staffed if someone calls in sick or goes on vacation.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, May 29, 2017

Bill 17: Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act


Last week, Alberta introduced Bill 17 which makes significant changes to employment and labour law in Alberta. I did a short analysis of Bill 17 for the Parkland Institute which is available here. This gist is that Bill 17 has some real gains for non-unionized workers but, overall, represents modest change. There may also be some unanticipated outcomes from these amendments.

An interesting way to look at the Bill is as part of the New Democrats' re-election strategy which seems to be (in part) based upon appealing to women and middle-class families (much like Alison Redford did in 2012).

Friday, May 26, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Talk a Walk

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Talk a Walk” by Passion Pit. Electropop isn’t really my thing but this song is catchy and was featured in an episode of The Newsroom.

This song offers a sympathetic portrayal of the life of a business man (or men) who is down on his luck. Each verse of the song is based upon the experiences of a different family member of the lyricist.

The result is the singer’s perspective and/or circumstances is constantly changing (i.e., the singer does not stay in character). In a May 2012 interview, Michael Angelakos stated:
It's about very specific family members, the male hierarchy, and how the men in my family have always dealt with money. I've always been really fond of a lot of my family members and not so fond of others. All these men were very conservative; socially very liberal but for some reason, they all came here for capitalism, and they all ended up kind of being prey to capitalism.
Overall, a more metacognitive spin on being a worker than most songs about labour.



All these kinds of places
Make it seem like it's been ages
Tomorrow's sun with buildings scrape the sky
I love this country dearly
I can feel the lighter clearly
But never thought I'd be alone to try1

Once I was outside Penn Station
Selling red and white carnations
You were still alone
My wife and I
Before we marry, save my money
Brought my dear wife over
Now I want to bring my family state side

But off the boat they stayed a while
Then scatter cross the course
Once a year I'll see them for a week or so at most
I took a walk

Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
I take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk

Practice isn't perfect
With the market cuts and loss
I remind myself that times could be much worse
My wife won't ask me questions
And there's not so much to ask
And she'll never flaunt around an empty purse

Once my mother-in-law came
Just to stay a couple nights
Then decided she would stay the rest of her life
I watch my little children, play some board game in the kitchen
And I sit and pray they never feel my strife

But then my partner called to say the pension funds were gone
He made some bad investments
Now the counts are overdrawn

I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk

Honey it's your son I think I borrowed just to much
We had taxes we had bills
We had a lifestyle to front
And tonight I swear I'll come home
And we'll make love like we're young
And tomorrow you'll cook dinner
For the neighbors and the kids
We could rent the Wart of socialists
And all their ten taxes
You'll see I am no criminal
I'm down on both bad knees
I'm just too much a coward
To admit when I'm in need

I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The argument for card-check certification in Alberta

It is expected that the Alberta government will introduce legislation this week containing changes to the Employment Standards Code and Labour Relations Code. Employers are expressing concern with the possibility that Alberta will re-introduce card-check provisions that govern how workers can unionize.

Currently, unionization is a two-step process. First, workers sign a petition or buy union memberships. Then the union applies to the Labour Relations Board (showing support from at least 40% of the workers) and, assuming all is in order, the Board conducts an employee vote about 10 business days later.

Card check would (likely) mean that, if a union can show a clear majority of employees had joined the union (e.g., 65%), then the Board would just automatically certify the union and avoid the need for a vote. (Applications with support lower than the card check threshold would likely still require a vote.)

Card-check was universal in the 1970s. Since then, there has been a general, but uneven, drift toward mandatory certification votes.

The principles underlying all certification processes are that (1) employees should choose whether or not they wish to be represented by a union (2) as a group and (3) free from undue influence.

Related to the third principle, labour laws contain a variety of unfair labour practices designed to prevent unions and employers from exercising undue influence. The effectiveness of these prohibitions is uneven.

One Canadian study suggests that 80% of employees facing a certification drive oppose it. Sixty percent overtly resisted certification by, for example, expressing concern or opposition in captive audience meetings or trying to stall the vote. And almost 20% do things that are likely unfair labour practices (e.g., threats, dismissal).

The effectiveness of these tactics is uneven: some seem to drive down certification success rates and some drive them up (data limitations suggests viewing these conclusions with caution). In broad terms, the upshot is that employer interference with certification drives is both common place and damaging.

The key argument for card check is that it denies employers the opportunity to try a sink the organizing campaign during the time between the application and the vote. The likely effect of introducing card check provisions in Alberta is that there will be more and more successful union organizing drives.

The best evidence for this comes from BC. When it moved from card check to mandatory votes in 1984, there was a 50% reduction in certification drives and a 19% reduction is successful private-sector drives. A return to card check in 1993 saw a 19% increase is successful private-sector drives.  Other studies have found similar effects.

Last week, the Calgary Herald came out against card check, opining:
Such a change would strip employees of their privacy and expose them to possible manipulation, or even intimidation. The decision to support certification is a personal one and should be conducted in the same way voters elect their governments, free from the influence of those who may possess their own agenda. 
Requiring private ballots is fair to everyone — employees and employers.
The Herald’s assertion that certification votes are free from employer influence sits so contrary to the evidence that either the editorial board members have no idea what they are talking about or they do know but are wilfully ignoring how labour relations is actually practiced in Alberta.

Equating the selection of a bargaining agent with the selection of a government is a common (albeit facile) comparison that the Wildrose and business groups use. There are many differences between the two. The most important is that the government doesn't typically threaten to take away your job if you vote against them.

Certainly card-check provisions require workers to express support or opposition directly to union organizers (by signing or not signing a union card). Setting aside the awkward fact (for the Herald, anyways) that this also happens under the vote system (because union organizers need to provide evidence of support to get a vote), I’m not sure that is a big deal.

While I didn’t spend all day at, I couldn’t find any academic studies suggesting intimidation is commonplace or any Manitoba LRB decisions about union intimidation (Manitoba had card check until just recently). This dearth of evidence that unions bully employees very much broadly jives with my experience at the Labour Board from 2001 to 2003 where I took one call about union intimidation and hundreds of calls about employer intimidation.

There is some anecdotal evidence that can be read to suggest card check does not demonstrate workers’ preferences. However, this “evidence” can also be read to support the proposition that employers routinely intimidate workers between certification applications and votes.

On balance, card check appears to result in workers being better able to choose whether or not they want to unionized free from intimidation than certification votes do. Perhaps the most interesting question is whether the NDs will support such a change.

Certainly organized labour wants card check. Choosing not to introduce it may undermine the opposition’s narrative that the NDs are in the pocket of the unions and would take away an avenue of opposition attack. (Being in a union, I can assure you that the NDs are not in the unions' pockets….) Such a decision would be consistent with the ND’s broader move towards the political centre as part of their re-election strategy.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, May 19, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Boiled Frogs

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture features “Boiled Frogs” by Alexisonfire. The song is about the monotony of work and how, over time, we lose our capacity to recognize how bad it has become. It also touches on how workers are used (and used up) by employers.

Band member George Pettit told Much Music:
"It's an analogy. I wrote it inspired by my father who worked at a job where he designed refrigerator parts for 26 years. He was coming up to his pension the last three years and I guess when people are coming up to their pension they really put the screws to them. They're up for review all the time, trying to get them to quit so that they forfeit their pension. It really makes it a stressful last three years. The song is kind of about that, about there being no loyalty in the workplace. 
"And my mother went to this conference talking to different generations in the workplace and they referred to her generation as 'boiled frogs.' The analogy is that if you take a frog and put it in boiling water, it will jump right out immediately, but if you put it in cold water and then you slowly turn the heat up, they'll just eventually fall asleep and die. Same way with people in the workplace. If it's too hectic when they first get there, they'll just quit and get another job, but if you slowly up the workload, lower the pay, they're more likely to sit there and just boil."
While the boiling frog story is a myth, the dynamic as it applies to work (in my experience) appears to be real. Many people will choose to accept deteriorating conditions rather than leave. This may be due to the high cost of job change (especially as we age) as well as our perception about whether things will be better elsewhere.



[George] A man sits at his desk
One year from retirement,
And he's up for review
Not quite sure what to do
Each passing year
The workload grows

[Dallas] I'm always wishing, I'm always wishing too late
For things to go my way
It always ends up the same
(Count your blessings)
I must be missing, I must be missing the point
Your signal fades away and all I'm left with is noise
(Count your blessings on one hand)

So wait up, I'm not sleeping alone again tonight
There's so much to dream about, there must be more to my life

[George] Poor little tin man, still swinging his axe,
Even though his joints are clogged with rust

[Wade] My youth is slipping, my youth is slipping away
Safe in monotony, (so safe), day after day
(Count your blessings)
My youth is slipping, my youth is slipping away
Cold wind blows off the lake, and I know for sure that it's too late
(Count your blessings on one hand)

[Dallas] So wait up, I'm not sleeping alone again tonight
There's so much to dream about, there must be more to my life

[George] Can't help but feel betrayed, punch the clock every single day
There's no loyalty and no remorse
Youth sold for a pension cheque
And it makes him fucking sick
He's heating up, he can't say no

(Whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh)[x4]

[Dallas] So wait up, I'm not sleeping alone again tonight,
There's so much to dream about, there must be more to my life.
(So wait up)
So wait up I'm not sleeping alone again tonight
Between the light and shallow waves is where I'm going to die
Wait up for me
Wait up for me
Wait up for me

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Research: Impact of IT outsourcing on employees

The journal Work, Employment & Society recently published an article entitled “‘An end to the job as we know it’: how an IT professional has experienced the uncertainty of IT outsourcing” that foregrounds the experiences of an employee whose work is being contracted out.

The worker’s story starts with the creation of cost-savings targets by the employer. Once communicated to shareholders, the targets set expectations that may (or may not) have been achievable. The result was intense pressure to generate cost savings.

Internal restructuring and efforts to benchmark in-house work against the market” lead to significant anxiety and the spectre that this process was a sham. Eventually, all five IT functional were scheduled for outsourcing (mostly to India). 

The actual savings attributable to the outsourcing is roughly what the CEO receives as a annual bonus. All other savings (and most of the overall savings) could have been achieved by internal staff without the risk of shifting to unstable IT platforms staffed by inexperienced and dis-tinterested contractors.

The impact of this decision on morale was significant, especially given that many of the affected employees had made an extra effort (including accepting pay freezes and unpaid leave to help the company out during previous difficulties). Voluntary redundancies followed, leaving chaos, knowledge gaps, and emotional distress in the wake.

Offshoring was eventually announced with the remaining staff being treated as disposable. The employer skillfully split the workforce into different factions (those continuing and those leaving) to sow division and prevent a coherent response by the workers.

Workers wanting to receive their severance packages were then required to transfer their business knowledge to contractors and sign a gag order. Those who remain have little power and there is a significant emotional cost to all workers involved.

Overall, this short narrative highlights the messy and damaging impact the outsourcing can have on employees and their organization. One effect (not considered in the original projections) is that those workers who remain are constraining their efforts due to the betrayal by their employer of the psychological contract they previously established.

(In retrospect, I should have put a trigger warning in this post for AU employees who are reading this!)

-- Bob Barnetson


Friday, May 12, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Westray

Westray Memorial
This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Westray” by Short Notice. This week marks the 25th anniversary of an explosion at Nova Scotia’s Westray mine that killed 26 workers and injured 11 more. The explosion was the result of the employer negligence and gave rise to (sadly ineffective) amendments to the allowing criminal prosecutions for workplace injuries and deaths.

There are a number of Westray songs. I choice this one because of the themes it pulls out. They include how politics is so closely intertwined with employment in resource-based communities:
Pictou county is Tory blue
Dyed in the wool and blue collar too
Elect a Prime Minister they’ll treat you kind
They’ll give you a job in the Westray mine
Perhaps most important is how workers’ are pressured to trade their safety (and their lives) for employment:
Knee deep in dust they worked every day
Inspectors and mine bosses looked the other way
You want to keep your job you will tow the line
Not a word leaves the bowels of the Westray mine
The song also pulls no punches about who was responsible for the disaster and how little they cared:
Twenty-two families were torn that day
Working men’s dreams simply snuffed away
While Frame and Phillips still live happy lives
They lose no sleep over the Westray mine
Frame is Clifford Frame, the businessman who ultimately controlled the Westray Mine. Phillips is Gerald Phillips, one of the mine managers who took no action on the safety concerns.



The flesh and bone and the steel’s entwined
There’s blood on the coal in the Westray mine
There’s blood on the coal in the Westray mine

Pictou county is Tory blue
Dyed in the wool and blue collar too
Elect a Prime Minister they’ll treat you kind
They’ll give you a job in the Westray mine

The foord seam coal is known to kill
Every scar on her face she has always filled
With the lives of the men who have loathe to find
To stay they must work in a foord seam mine

Knee deep in dust they worked every day
Inspectors and mine bosses looked the other way
You want to keep your job you will tow the line
Not a word leaves the bowels of the Westray mine

Recession makes men work where they should not stay
They will risk their lives for a good days pay
Till gas and politics grew too great to confine
Blew the roof off the ramp of the Westray mine

Bare faced miners and draegermen too
Did all that good brave men could do
But not a living soul was there left to find
After hell had its way in the Westray mine

Twenty-two families were torn that day
Working men’s dreams simply snuffed away
While Frame and Phillips still live happy lives
They lose no sleep over the Westray mine

Many years have passed sadly little has changed
After all this time not one scoundrel’s paid
Till politicians’ lives are on the line
Good men will die in some Westray mine

The death blast roar and the sirens whine
Pray those husbands sons and brothers aren’t yours and mine
Leave their soul on the rock in the Westray mine
Soul on the rock in the Westray mine

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Mirror, Mirror: NDs act like Tories on Bill 7

Last week, Alberta’s Bill 7 was passed and came into effect. This Bill moves faculty and graduate student collective bargaining under the Labour Relations Code. This means bargaining impasse will (effective immediately) be resolved via strike-lockout. Overall, Bill 7 is sensible and necessary to respond to the evolving jurisprudence around freedom of association.

The two most contentious parts of Bill 7 have to do with transition periods. Bill 7 creates a five-year ban on workers selecting a different (or no) union. In contrast, Bill 7 moves workers from arbitration to strike-lockout immediately (and, indeed, a bit retroactively).

During debate, Alberta Party MLA Greg Clark introduced an amendment to create a transition period to strike-lockout. This extra time, he said, would allow workers and their unions time to prepare, both financially and organizationally for this fairly fundamental change to bargaining. Clark proposed a three-year extension, but even a one-year delay would have been a huge improvement.

Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt indicated the government would oppose the amendment:
We believe, Madam Chair, that because of the length of time between the introduction of this bill, the lengthy consultation process that we’ve engaged in with our stakeholders since October 2015, and the fact that this decision came down in early 2015, the faculty associations have had approximately two years to prepare for a transition to this strike/lockout model. We believe that the transition time that has been given and is recognized in this bill is appropriate and just. (p. 811).
This response has a certain alt-facts ring to it. The content of the legislation was unclear until a month ago. The government clearly promised during the consultations that there would be a transition period. Every submission I saw by faculty associations flagged the need for a transition period. By contrast, there was no indication that strike-lockout would start immediately or affect negotiations currently underway. That kind of news would have galvanized associations to act immediately.

The Minister’s suggestion that the consultation period was the transition period (just, apparently, a secret transition period) is the kind of sophistry unions are used to from Tory governments. Compounding the growing sense that we'd slipped into some kind of alternate universe was ND MLA David Shepherd efforts to do some damage control later that day:
Now, the fact is that nobody will lose the right to use binding arbitration if Bill 7 is passed. In fact, it remains available on a voluntary basis, with agreement from both parties, under section 93 of the Labour Relations Code. (p.830)
This statement is either deeply naïve or completely disingenuous. Labour relations are about power and money. If an employer suddenly (by act of government) finds itself in a better position to grind wages, is it really gonna agree to binding arbitration and give away that advantage?

So what is the real reason for this double-cross?

Shepherd helps us out here when he explained the rapid shift to strike-lockout is about saving the government money: “Indeed, I think it’s a fiscally responsible thing to do… .” (p. 830) and “it will allow the faculty, the graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and the institutions to come to more prudent agreements ” (p. 831). “More prudent” is neoliberal code for “lower wages”. Still later, Shepherd noted:
Indeed, given our current economic climate I think it makes sense that we try to find labour negotiation models that are going to ensure that we use public dollars responsibly. We know that compulsory arbitration in the past has at times tended to result in higher wage increases. That’s something that’s not sustainable, and we certainly recognize that it is not the direction to be going in for the province right now (p. 831)
Shepherd is, of course, wrong about arbitration giving unions unsustainable wage increases (my association, for example, have taken zeros in four or five of the last 10 years because that is what we would have gotten at arbitration).

Setting aside, you know, facts, basically what is going on here is the NDs are in a fiscal bind and most expeditious way to minimize the wage bill in PSE was to give employers a hammer in the short-term by moving to strike-lockout while unions are unprepared.

This is exactly the kind of move the Tories would have made, although the Tories would have at least had the good political sense to lie about it. That the NDs have done this under the guise of protecting workers’ associational rights is particularly galling.

To be fair, the NDs weren’t the only who appeared to have transported into an alternate universe. Wildrose MLA Wayne Anderson proposed extending the period during which workers are stuck with their current bargaining agent from 5 years to 10 years. So basically the province’s most right-wing party is advocating forced unionization. (Pro tip: This may not play well with the base.)

Anderson’s motion is also inconsistent with the Wildrose’s handwringing about the possibility that the NDs will enact card check certification for workers throughout Alberta. Basically, the Wildrose is (facilely) asserting that the only democratic way to determine if workers want a union is through a certification vote (which gives employers time to meddle in the workers’ decision). Yet, apparently, it is cool and all democratic-like to deny faculty and grad students any opportunity to select a different (or no!) union for 10 years.

The ND’s response?
Mr Schmidt: … Of course, they won’t have that choice until 2022 as we recognize that there is some need to transition faculty associations and grad student associations into the new model so that they are well positioned to represent their members at the bargaining table. … We feel that 2022 is certainly an adequate transition time. Five years will give every faculty association and grad student association ample time to prepare for that date. (p.813)
Again, a totally factually incorrect statement: faculty associations and GSAs have been successfully representing their members for years. There is no need for a transition period around raiding and decertification.

Yet, if we accept the logic of Minister Spock's Schmidt's statement, he's but himself in the untenable (and illogical position) of saying that (1) faculty associations need time to transition to the new rules around bargaining agent status but (2) they can just be dumped willy-nilly into a new dispute resolution process where their employers will have an opportunity to roll them at the bargaining table?

This is a profoundly disturbing (and hypocritical) position for the government to take.

Faculty deserve the right to select their bargaining agent now, not in 2022.

Faculty currently in bargaining deserve a fair chance to prepare for a lockout by their employer instead of being dropped in the soup by the NDs.

And faculty deserve an apology for (1) being misled by the government about the transition period and then (2) thrown under the bus so the NDs can try to lock up the centre vote by being "fiscally prudent".

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, May 5, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Get Back In Line (Again)

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Get Back in Line” by Motorhead. I ran across this song while looking for a video of the Kink’s song by the same name.

This song is explicitly about class conflict in modern society. Lenny opens by singing about how workers “fight for every crust” and “all things come to he who waits” but “the waiting never ends”.

The video contrasts the life of the rich and powerful (with champagne, coke, opulent surroundings, and extravagant food) with the gritty experience of the band (and, presumably, their fans).

The band’s entry into this world (and subsequent drubbing of the wealthy) metaphorically speaks to how habits, beliefs and laws are the only thing that allows the existing power structure to persist.
We are the sacrifice and we don't like advice
We always pay the price, pearls before swine
Now we are only slaves, already in our graves
And if you think that Jesus saves, get back in line
How long such an arrangement will persist in a world of decreasing opportunity fr the working class is an interesting question.



We live on borrowed time, hope turned to dust
Nothing is forgiven, we fight for every crust
The way we are is not the way we used to be my friend
All things come to he who waits, the waiting never ends

We are the chosen few, we are the frozen crew
We don't know what to do, just wasting time
We don't know when to quit, we don't have room to spit
But we'll get over it, get back in line

Stuck here ten thousand years, don't know how to act
Everything forgotten, specially the facts
The way we live is running scared, I don't like it much
All things come to he who waits but these days most things suck

We are the chosen ones, we don't know right from wrong
We don't know what's going on, don't know enough to care
We are the dogs of war, don't even know what for
But we obey the law, get back in line

We are trapped in luxury, starving on parole
No one told us who to love, we have sold our souls
Why do we vote for faceless dogs? We always take the bait
All things come to he who waits but all things come too late

We are the sacrifice and we don't like advice
We always pay the price, pearls before swine
Now we are only slaves, already in our graves
And if you think that Jesus saves, get back in line

If you think that Jesus saves, get back in line

--Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

"Canadians first" rhetoric is icky and untrue

In mid-April, the provincial and federal governments announced a new “Employer Liaison Service” which connects Alberta employers who seeking staff with unemployed Albertans.

This service is intended, in part, to dampen employer concerns about federal government’s recent refusal to process applications from employers seeking temporary foreign workers (TFWs) in 29 high-skill occupations.

The temporary foreign worker program is certainly a program in need of reform. Its expansion in the mid-2000s created a large category of extremely vulnerable workers (whose residency was contingent upon their employment) and whose employers (naturally) exploited and endangered them.

There is also some suggestion that the TFW program loosened the labour market unnecessarily, resulting in wage suppression and, perhaps, reducing the opportunity of Canadians from traditionally disadvantaged group to access employment.

While policy change is due, some context is useful here. Of the 10,000 TFWs that employers brought to Alberta in 2016, only 400 were in the 29 high-skill occupations that the federal government recently added to its “do not process” list for the next two years (I've heard a couple of different versions of the numbers but the differences aren't really substantive). So this is totally a symbolic move with little practical effect on the labour market or employers.

Alberta Tory MP Matt Jeneroux tepidly supported the change, telling CBC:
We're intrigued that they're looking at Alberta finally, but let's point out that it's a step in the right direction. But that being said, it's a small one.
It is important to note that it was Jeneroux’s own party that opened the flood gates to foreign workers in 2006, both through expanding the TFW program and by signing dozens of new free trade agreements that have labour mobility provisions. I couldn't find any comment on the changes from former TFW kingpin and now Alberta-Tory-leader-in-hiding Jason Kenney. You can watch the Alberta Federation of Labour's response below (I hope--the link was kind of hinky).



The federal Liberal government has been pushing a “Canadians first” message around this change. For example, Employment, Workforce Development and Labour Minister Patty Hajdu recently said:
The focus of the federal government with the temporary foreign worker program is always to make sure Canadians have the first crack at available jobs, and then after that is done, then to look at supporting employers with prolonged labour shortages in very specific areas.
I certainly see the political attraction of framing these changes as “Canadians first”. Critics of the change appear to be against “Canadians” or “jobs for Canadians”. But this framing has some problems.

First, it isn’t true. There were over 200,000 unemployed Albertans in March. Yet, in 2016, the feds let employers hire 10,000 TFWs (mostly in low skill occupations) in Alberta. (There were also over 30,000 foreign workers in Alberta under various international labour mobility programs.)

Basically, there have been no meaningful reforms to address (1) inappropriate hirings of TFWs, or (2) exploitation of TFWs. Indeed, the program continues on pretty much as it always has. In theory, employers have had to “prove” there are no Albertans available to work. But that process is widely (and correctly) perceived as a joke and easy to manipulate.

Second, this “Canadians first” framing comes off as xenophobic. It is a slightly nicer version of “fureners is stealin' ar jobs”. The history of the TFW program is that foreign workers were invited here by employers with the blessing of the federal and provincial Tories. Then they were treated terribly. Trying (however subtly or inadvertently) to shift responsibility for the problems of the TFW program onto the TFWs is profoundly unfair.

The announcement is also deeply cynical. The changes announced affect about 4% of TFW hires in Alberta. If TFWs pose a threat to Canadians requiring a federal response, shouldn't the response by meaningful? For example, why not eliminate the TFW program entirely?

An interesting question is why do Alberta employers, given an unemployment rate of 8.4%, continue to seek TFWs? The rationale advanced by business and government for the TFW program has historically been one of labour shortage. That employers continue to hire thousands of TFWs in the face of a huge labour surplus suggests that labour shortages are a red herring.

Really what employers want is cheap and compliant workers. Whether governments ought to help them access such a workforce—given its potential to reduce wages and safety for all workers—appears to be a question the federal government is reluctant to engage head on.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, April 28, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Get Back in Line

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Get Back in Line” by the Kinks. This song is from 1970 and speaks to the experience of going to the labour exchange and hoping to be selected for work. The Kinks note that “Facing the world ain’t easy when there isn’t anything going.”

The high unemployment and deeply entrenched class system of Britain in the 1950s and 60s left many workers powerless and vulnerable to chance and the whim of others. The singer notes that
'Cos when I see that union man walking down the street
He's the man who decides if I live or I die, if I starve, or I eat
Then he walks up to me and the sun begins to shine
Then he walks right past and I know that I've got to get back in the line
The result is a deep sense of shame and emasculation:
But all I want to do is make some money
And bring you home some wine
For I don't ever want you to see me
Standing in that line
The melancholy melody mirrors the lyrics. One possible outcome of a system that gives many workers little left to lose is radical politics and trade unionism.



Facing the world ain't easy when there isn't anything going
Standing at the corner waiting watching time go by
Will I go to work today or shall I bide my time
'Cos when I see that union man walking down the street

He's the man who decides if I live or I die, if I starve, or I eat
Then he walks up to me and the sun begins to shine
Then he walks right past and I know that I've got to get back in the line
Now I think of what my mamma told me

She always said that it would never ever work out
But all I want to do is make some money
And bring you home some wine
For I don't ever want you to see me
Standing in that line

Cause that union man's got such a hold over me
He's the man who decides if I live or I die, if I starve, or I eat
Then he walks up to me and the sun begins to shine
Then he walks right past and I know that I've got to get back in the line

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

New report on occupational fatalities

Just in time for the Day of Mourning, University of Regina Prof Sean Tucker has posted a province-by-province analysis of occupational fatalities in Canada. This is a useful analysis (most other analyses are at the national level) that also breaks out deaths due to workplace incidents and those caused by occupational diseases.

Tucker does a good job of identifying the data limitations (it is WCB data and most of it least a year old). Alberta's data is represented below. Fatalities are up in the 2016 data I have seen (this figure stops in 2015). The most striking feature of this figure is the significant rate of fatality due to occupational disease.

The report also has some useful rankings by province and territory (although high fatality rates in the territories skew the results some). Among provinces, Alberta had the second highest rate of fatalities per 100,000 workers between 2010 and 2015. Alberta had the sixth highest rate of occupational disease fatalities during this same period. This second rate has been trending upwards in Alberta over time.

What this suggests is that additional attention to reducing exposure to biological and chemical agents should be an important part of any OHS improvements in Alberta.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Employment Standards changes for vulnerable workers

Over the past year, my colleague Jason Foster and I have been working with an informal group comprising people and organizations knowledgeable about the experiences of migrant workers in Alberta. The purpose of this group was to suggest changes to Employment Standards legislation and policy to ensure it worked better for migrant workers. The group's submission to Alberta's Employment Standards Review is below.

-- Bob Barnetson

Recommendations for Changes to Alberta’s Employment Standards Code

Submitted by the Employment Standards Working Group

The Employment Standards Working Group was created in early 2016 by a group of community advocates out of a desire to address problems with the existing Employment Standards Code for especially vulnerable workers in Alberta. With the government looking to review key pieces of legislation and policies that cover working people, it was felt that there may be an opportunity to have some input into legislation and policies that directly affect especially vulnerable workers.

The group is made up of a cross section of concerned people that provide support to vulnerable workers, and other social justice advocates.

Our submission focuses on areas that impact workers with precarious immigration status (e.g., temporary foreign workers, live-in caregivers, seasonal agricultural workers) who are particularly vulnerable to employer pressure. These workers will almost never file an Employment Standards complaint because they fear their employer will terminate their employment and, thereby, their ability to remain in the country.

While the recommendations in this report are specific to the needs of workers with precarious immigration status, we believe they apply to vulnerable workers more broadly, for example, adolescents and young workers, immigrant or refugee workers, workers with disabilities, or seniors.

This submission to the Government of Alberta Employment Standards Code Review is made on behalf of the Working Group members and other concerned citizens. The submission is made on behalf of the following individuals and organizations:

Marco Luciano
Migrante Alberta

Bob Barnetson
Professor, Athabasca University

Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull
Alberta Workers’ Health Centre

Jason Foster
Assistant Professor, Athabasca University

Clarizze Truscott
Kabisig Society of Fort Saskatchewan

Gemalil Biscocho
Edmonton Immigrant Services Association

Calgary Social Workers for Social Justice 

Ethno-Cultural Council of Calgary

Multicultural Health Brokers Cooperative (Edmonton)
Public Interest Alberta

Renters’ Action Movement (Calgary)

The Fight for $15

Women Together Ending Poverty

Workers’ Resource Centre (Calgary)

Sara Dorow
Associate Professor, University of Alberta

Tracy L. Friedel (Nehiyaw-Métis)
Associate Professor, University of British Columbia

Karen Hughes
Professor, University of Alberta

Phil E. Okeke-Ihejirika
Professor, University of Alberta

Bukola (Oladunni) Salami
Assistant Professor, University of Alberta

Dr. Alison Taylor
Associate Professor, University of British Columbia

Overview
The purpose of Alberta’s Employment Standards Code is to establish and enforce the minimum terms and conditions of employment that are acceptable in Alberta. This legislative floor of rights plays an important role in ensuring work is fair and safe by establishing (for example) a minimum wage, maximum hours of work, and mandatory rest breaks.

The floor of rights is particularly important for workers with precarious immigration status. Workers without citizenship or landed immigrant status—such as live-in care givers, temporary foreign workers, and seasonal agricultural workers—are often dependent upon their employers for their rights to work and to remain in Canada.

Current immigration policy makes workers with precarious immigration status particularly vulnerable to employers seeking to minimize their labour costs. Data on Employment Standards violations is elusive but, in 2010, a review of 325 inspections of employers employing temporary foreign workers found 74% of employers were violating Alberta’s laws (CBC, 2010)

Issues and Recommendations
The high level of exploitation faced by workers with precarious immigration status raises several issues that are outlined below with specific policy recommendations.
  1. Complaint-based enforcement is not effective. Increase enforcement and target industries employing workers with precarious citizenship status. 
  2. Recovery period for unpaid wages is too short. Extend the period from 6 months to 2 years and, when an employee is still employed, fix the crystallization date of the period on the date of complaint. 
  3. Disguised Employment Relationships. Amend the ESC to empower enforcement officers to make determinations of whether a worker is an employee, using legal standards established by the courts and to automatically extend employment standards rights to workers defined as “dependent contractors. 
  4. Exceptions disadvantage workers with precarious immigration status. Eliminate the Employment Standards exceptions for domestic workers and migrant caregivers. 
  5. Minimum wage is not a Living Wage. Increase the minimum wage to $15/hour within 12 months with additional increases each year until the minimum wage equals a level of a living wage. 
  6. Appeal processes disadvantage migrant workers. All appeals should be via a common and expedited process. Officers (not employers or employees) should be responsible for defending the officer’s original order during the appeal process. 
  7. Personal Leave. Provide all workers with 10 days of paid, job-protected family responsibility leave. 
Issue 1: Complaint-based enforcement is ineffective

Alberta relies heavily upon worker complaints to identify employer noncompliance with Employment Standards Code. Workers—particularly workers with precarious employment and/or legal status—are unlikely to complain due to fear of retribution and unfamiliarity with the system. Consequently, there is widespread noncompliance with the Employment Standards Code that goes un-investigated.

Recommendation

Increase resources to enforcement to allow the following:

1. Hire more Employment Standards officers.

2. Expand Employment Standards officer training to include education in human trafficking, as some workers who are vulnerable to Employment Standards violations may additionally be victims of human labour trafficking.

3. Mandate biannual inspections of all Alberta employers employing workers under the live-in caregiver, temporary foreign worker, and seasonal agricultural program.

4. Empower Employment Standards officers to notify Immigration Canada when violations of the Employment Standards Code or the workers’ contract is discovered, as long as the notification does not put the workers’ residency at risk.

5. Expand pro-active inspections (i.e., inspections not triggered by complaint) targeting industries known to employ significant numbers of workers employed under International Mobility Programs.

6. Eliminate the requirement for workers to have sought to resolve the matter with their employer through the complaint process.

7. Enhance and apply penalties for employer non-compliance.

8. Enhance and apply penalties for employer retaliation.

Background

The Employment Standards Code outlines a minimum set of terms and conditions of employment in Alberta. The Code gives Employment Standards staff the ability to inspect employers to ensure compliance. Where employers are found to be noncompliant, the Code allows Employment Standards staff to issue orders and seek the prosecution of violators. Enforcement activity can also be triggered by complaints (typically from workers).

There were 4728 Employment Standards complaints filed in 2014/15 and 5165 investigations completed. Although a provincial investigations team was established to focus on proactive inspections, enforcement of Alberta’s Employment Standards continues to operate largely on the basis of worker complaints (Alberta Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour, 2015).

Rationale

Complaint-based enforcement of employment laws is widely regarded as an ineffective compliance strategy. Fear of (illegal) employer retribution and concerns about the efficacy of complaints means relatively few workers complain about Employment Standards violations and most of these complaints are made by workers after they have left their employment (Thomas, 2009; Arthurs, 2006; Weil and Pyles, 2005; Ontario, 2004). The result of this dynamic is a culture of noncompliance, wherein workers complain less even as violations increase (Weil, 2012).

Anecdotal evidence drawn from a cross-section of groups that provide support to workers with precarious immigration status (e.g., temporary foreign workers, live-in caregivers, seasonal agricultural workers) shows that they are particularly vulnerable to employer pressure. These workers will almost never file an Employment Standards complaint because they fear their employer will terminate their employment and, thereby, their ability to remain in the country.

A significant increase in inspection activity is required to incentivize employers to comply with Alberta’s employment standards. Periodic and random inspections of employers who have hired workers under federal labour mobility programs as well as targeting employers in industries known to hire large numbers of workers through international mobility programs would effectively utilize enforcement resources to ensure the protection of these vulnerable workers.

Under current legislation, employers who have hired through federal labour mobility programs can lose access to these workers for non-compliance with the Employment Standards Code. Consequently, empowering Employment Standards officers to provide the federal government with the results of workplace inspections would create a further incentive for employers to comply with both the Employment Standard Code and the contract that the employer signed with the worker.

At present, employers face no meaningful penalty should they be found to have contravened the Employment Standards Code. Instead, the Employment Standards officers seek simply financial restitution. The absence of penalties when employers shortchange workers means non-compliance entails no risk. Enacting penalties for non-compliance (and for retaliation in the event of a complaint) should reduce the willingness of employers to violate the Employment Standards Code.

Issue 2: Recovery period for wages is too short

Employees can only recover six months of unpaid wages and overtime. Further, this six-month recovery period is routinely shortened for employees still employed by the employer by the amount of time required to complete an investigation.

Recommendation

Section 90 of the Employment Standard Code be amended to:

(1) extend the period of time that an order can encompass to two years; and

(2) have complaints by presently employed employees crystallize on the date the complaint was filed.

Background

When an Employment Standards officer determines that an employee is owed wages or overtime pay, s.90(4) of the Employment Standards Code allows the officer to issue an order directing an employer to pay the wages owed. The Code limits the order to wages that should have been paid in the six months prior to the order (or the employee’s termination date). This limitation has two effects.

First, employees who have been shorted wages for a period of greater than six months cannot recover such wages through an Employment Standards complaint. Presumably, the policy rationale is that employees should be aware of and act upon under-payment of wages. Many employees—particularly those with precarious immigration status—will be unwilling to risk filing a complaint until after the employment relationship has been terminated because they fear employer retaliation, or may be unaware of the limitations. In these circumstances, the six-month timeline on orders deprives workers of wages they are owed.

Second, for employees who do file a claim while still employed, the six-month period crystallizes on the date the order was issued. The order can only be issued after the officer has completed an investigation. What this means is that employers can reduce the amount of wages owed by stalling the investigation and thereby delaying the issuance of the order. Further, any significant increase in complaints (i.e., officers’ workload) occurs, the resultant delay in issuing orders reduces the amount of owed that can be recovered.

Rationale

The Employment Standards Code is designed to create a floor of rights and a low-cost process by which employees can access those rights. Limiting the period of wage recovery to six months (or less, in many cases) undermines the basic public policy objective of the Code. While it might be argued that employees ought not sit on their rights, at present, fear of employer retaliation means that workers are unlikely to make a complaint.

Extending the period of time that employees can collect owed wages and (for workers still employed) fixing the crystallization date of that period on the date the complaint was filed on would improve the ability of workers to recover owed wages.

Issue 3: Disguised Employment Relationships

Some employers are pressuring workers to agree to operate as independent contractors even though the relationship is that of an employee. Upon conversion to independent contractors, workers have significantly less access to employment and other social rights and are excluded from the Employment Standards Code. This employment status places the worker in a more vulnerable and precarious situation.

Recommendation

Amend the Employment Standards Code to:

1. empower enforcement officers to make determinations of whether a worker is an Employee, using legal standards established by the courts.

2. automatically extend Employment Standards rights to workers defined as “Dependent contractors” under law.

Background

The legal relationship between employer and employee has significant ramifications for the employment rights an employee possesses. Employees have a wider range of rights, including coverage under the ESC and legal rights under common law (e.g., right to sue for wrongful dismissal) than do Independent contractors. Independent contractors possess none of these rights as the relationship is seen as a contract between equals. In Canadian law, the concept of a Dependent contractor has evolved to recognize contractor relationships where the worker (Dependent contractor) is highly dependent upon the employer for their livelihood. Dependent contractors possess some rights under common law (termination rights) but are not covered by the Employment Standards Code.

These statuses have been clearly defined and the courts have established criteria for determining which is appropriate. Some of those criteria include control of work process and hours of work, ownership of tools and possession of financial risk. Despite the legal clarity, many employers attempt to designate employees as Independent contractors to reduce the employer’s legal and financial obligations. While all workers are vulnerable to this misuse of employment status, workers with precarious immigration status are particularly at risk of such maneuvers.

Rationale

Classifying a worker as an Independent contractor excludes them from the Employment Standards Code, essentially taking away the floor of rights that are intended to apply to all workers. They lose common law rights, such as protection from unfair dismissal. They are also ineligible for WCB, EI and other social benefits tied to employment status. The inappropriate classification as a Dependent or Independent contractor has direct and significant consequences for the worker. Workers with precarious immigration status report being pressured by employers to accept contractor rather than employee status. It is difficult for them to refuse such pressure due to fears of losing employment and risking their residency in Canada. As a result many are working under formal arrangements that create increased insecurity and vulnerability.

Issue 4: Exceptions disadvantage workers with precarious employment status

As domestic workers, workers falling under the Federal Live-In Caregiver program (formerly the Live-In Caregiver program) are excluded from Employment Standards outlining overtime and maximum hours of work. They also are exempt from minimum wage criteria due to allowable deductions. Combined with precarious immigration status and potential social isolation, these exclusions make Live-In Caregivers significantly vulnerable to employer exploitation.

Recommendation

Eliminate the Employment Standards exceptions for domestic workers and migrant caregivers.

Background

Section 6 of the Employment Standards Regulation exempts employees performing domestic work in a private dwelling from Part 2 (Divisions 3 and 4) of the Code, excepting ss.18-19. Practically, what this means is that domestic employees are not eligible to be compensated for overtime and there are no maximum hours of work (although rest period and days of rest requirements apply).

Section 9 of the Regulation sets a monthly minimum pay of $2127 for employees who lives or lives primarily in the employer’s home. Employers are also entitled to make specified deductions for room and board, including deductions that reduce a domestic employee’s wage below the minimum wage. These exceptions to Employment Standards significantly affect workers who work in Canada under the Live-in Caregiver program.





Rationale

The absence or reduction of Employment Standards rights around hours of work, overtime, and the minimum wage negatively affect workers in the Live-In Caregiver program. Combined with social isolation and the workers’ precarious citizenship status, these exceptions make workers in this program vulnerable to exploitation.

The purpose of Employment Standards is to create a floor of rights. Creating exceptions that negatively affect workers who are already vulnerable due to their precarious citizenship status undermines this purpose. There are also knock-on effects of the exclusion: the lack of official overtime slows the rate at which Live-in Caregivers qualify to become permanent residents.

Issue 5: Minimum Wage is not a Living Wage

The existing minimum wage is inadequate to ensure all workers are able to support themselves and their families. The Alberta Government has committed to increasing the minimum wage to $15/hour by October 2018. The delay in increasing the minimum wage to the level of a living wage means low-wage workers are still unable to make ends meet properly. Workers with precarious citizenship are more likely to work in occupations that earn less than that rate.

Recommendation

Increase the minimum wage to $15/hour within 12 months and additional increases each year until the minimum wage equals a level of a living wage for all Alberta workers.

Background

Alberta’s minimum wage is currently $12.20 per hour. While this is third highest in the country, it falls significantly below levels required to ensure a living wage for all workers. It is estimated that a living wage in Alberta ranges from about $13/hour in some smaller centres to $17.36 in Edmonton and $18.15 in Calgary (Living Wage Canada 2016).

The promised $15/hour minimum wage will still leave the majority of low wage workers in Alberta below a living wage. Further, the three-year phase-in period means the minimum wage will not address cost of living increases between now and October 2018. The Living Wage has been found to be an effective tool for reducing poverty and inequality.

Rationale

Workers with precarious citizenship are more likely than other Albertans to earn below a living wage, as they are frequently found in low income occupations in the retail, hospitality and caregiving sectors. These workers often find it difficult to make ends meet. A minimum wage that ensures all workers achieve a living wage will reduce poverty and increase financial independence of workers.

Issue 6: Appeal processes disadvantage migrant workers

Employers can sometimes avoid paying owed entitlements by delaying an appeal until employees with precarious immigration status are required to leave the country and, therefore, are unavailable to participate in the appeal.

Recommendation

All appeals should be via a common and expedited process. Officers (not employers or employees) should be responsible for defending the officer’s original order during the appeal process and employees should have the right to designate an advocate on their behalf.

Background

Sections 88 and 95 of the Employment Standards Code allow employees and employers (respectively) to appeal decisions of Employment Standards officers. Employers and employees have different appeal paths, with employee appeals being a paper-based process managed by a reviewing officer and the employer appeals being an in-person hearing in front of an umpire (typically a provincial court judge).

Employers of employees with precarious immigration status may delay the hearing of an appeal until an employee has returned to the employee’s home country. When the employee fails to appear to substantiate the employee’s original complaint, the employer’s appeal may be upheld.

Although s.99 of the Code allows for attendance through video conferences, such arrangements are uncommon and, for employees who have left the country, may be unavailable.

Rationale

Employees should not be denied owed entitlements simply because they are compelled to leave the country during the appeal period. The current system denies fair and due process to workers with precarious citizenship and arbitrarily disadvantages them in the process.

Issue 7: Personal leave

Alberta provides no job-protected, paid leave for workers to deal with family responsibilities, such as short-term illness and medical appointments.

Recommendation

Alberta employment legislation provides that all workers have 10 days of paid, job-protected family responsibility leave.

Background

Alberta does not provide workers with paid statutory leave to deal with short-term personal or family illness or other emergencies. Ontario provides employees who work for firms with at least 50 employees up to 10 days per year of paid personal emergency leave to cope with personal or family illness or medical emergencies. Employees are left to negotiate such leaves on an as-needed basis with employers.

Employees with precarious immigration status are less likely than other employees to be successful in such a negotiation because of concern about employer retaliation. While denying an employee sick leave might result in the employee filing a human rights complaint, such a remedy is delayed and (as noted above) likely unavailable for employees for whom termination means leaving the country.

Rationale

Employees sometimes require time away from work to address family responsibilities. At present, employees must negotiate such leaves with their employers, which result in uneven (and possibly no) access to such leaves.

Sources

Alberta. (1997). Employment Standards Regulation. Alberta Regulation 14/1997. Edmonton: Queen’s Printer.

Alberta. (2000). Employment Standards Code. RSA 2000, c.E-9. Edmonton: Queen’s Printer.

Alberta Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour. (2015). Annual Report 2014-15. Edmonton: Author. https://work.alberta.ca/documents/2014-15-JSTL-annual-report.pdf

Arthurs, Harrry. 2006. Fairness at Work: Federal Labour Standards for the 21st Century. Ottawa: Labour Standards Review Commission.

CBC. (2010, March 17). Temporary foreign workers treated poorly, NDP charges. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/temporary-foreign-workers-treated-poorly-ndp-charges-1.920847

Ontario. 2004. Annual Report of the Auditor General. Toronto, Auditor General.

Thomas, Mark. 2009. Regulating Flexibility: The Political Economy of Employment Standards. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Weil, David 2012. “’Broken windows,’ vulnerable workers and the future of worker representation. The Forum: Labour in American Politics, 10 (1), Article 9.

Weil, David and Amanda Pyles. 2005. “Why Complain? Complaints, Compliance and the Problem of Enforcement in the US Workplace.” Comparative Labor Law & Policy Journal, 27 (1), 59-92.