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