Friday, November 9, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture Finale: Discretionary Effort and the Wage-Effort Bargain

This week’s instalment of Labour & Pop Culture explores the issue of discretionary effort and the wage-effort bargain. Basically, every job has components that are voluntary—where workers go above and beyond what is required because they are intrinsically motivated to do a good job.

Discretionary effort is one part of the wage-effort bargaining—how hard employees will work given prevailing wages and working conditions. When employers change wages or working conditions, this often violates the psychological contract employees have with their boss.


The clip above (from Christmas Vacation) humorously illustrates how workers view such violations. A violation, in turn, can trigger a re-evaluation of the wage-effort bargain and perhaps a reduction in discretionary effort.

Which brings us to today. Athabasca University is being pretty terrible to its faculty members at the bargaining table. There isn’t much individual workers can do in terms of withdrawing their labour without engaging in an illegal strike. But we can individually withdraw voluntary services.

For me, that is the Labour & Pop Culture component of this blog. These posts have always been something I did on my lunch hours to add some levity to the more serious posts I make about labour issue (which stream into my courses for pedagogical purposes).

I just can’t justify doing extra work for an employer that talks about respect and then advances proposals like company doctors. So I've decided to start actually taking my lunch hour. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series as much as I have enjoyed offering it.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Research: Organized labour support for minimum-wage increases

Last week, I shared a preliminary analysis of the arguments and discursive strategies used by business lobby groups to oppose the minimum wage. This week, I’d like to wrap up this series by examining the narratives and strategies used by organized labour to support the increase.

I found 9 statements by the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL). I selected the AFL because it is a labour central representing 29 unions tat, in turn, represent approximately 175,000 workers.

AFL spokespersons advanced a consistent narrative about increasing the minimum wage, asserting that raising the minimum wage:
  1. did not cost jobs,
  2. did increase spending and employment,
  3. was not a youth issue but affected adults, specifically women and families
  4. remedied poverty, and
  5. was the subject of fear mongering by self-interested employers.
The AFL mostly employed very similar narratives and discursive strategies as government MLAs, relying primarily upon instrumental rationalization and moral evaluation. Two differences are of note. First, the AFL also used impersonal authorization when it used academic research to undercut claims that the minimum wage resulted in job losses:
There is a considerable and growing body of evidence showing that the negative economic effects of minimum wage increases are negligible, while the impact of lower-income people having more money in their pockets is quite considerable. The evidence ranges from a classic 1990 study by researchers David Card and Alan Krueger; a 2010 examination of fast-food restaurants; to the 2014 British Low Pay Commission, which concluded “minimum wages boost workers’ pay, but don’t harm employment.” (AFL, 2015, p. 1)
Second, AFL statements often aggressively attacked opponents of the minimum wage hike:
Predictably, Restaurants Canada launched a campaign today opposing Alberta’s plan to increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2018. Unfortunately with industry groups like Restaurants Canada it is never the time for meaningful increases to the minimum wage (AFL, 2016a, p. 1).
[Q:] Aren’t low wage employers just trying to keep their doors open and create opportunities for workers? 
A: That’s what they want people to believe. But the track record of some of these employers and lobbyists suggests they’re much more interested in keeping wage low than in creating and maintaining jobs. These are the same guys who always say the sky is falling whenever any provincial government even whispers about increasing the minimum wage. And, in many cases, they’re the same people who made extensive use of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) to displace Canadians and keep wages artificially low. After years of focusing on self-interest, why should we believe they’re suddenly concerned about the public interest? (AFL, 2016b, p. 3)
While government MLAs and the AFL both used similar narratives about minimum wage increases discursive strategies, the difference in tone creates a sword (AFL) and shield (MLAs) dynamic. There is no clear evidence of coordination between the government and the AFL and this dynamic may simply reflect independent and rational communication choices by each party. The small number of statements in the dataset suggest that this analysis should be treated with caution.

My research project on this topic is now turning to analysis of the media coverage of Alberta’s minimum-wage increase—something I expect will take a few months to complete. Comments on this research are welcomed.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, November 2, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Seinfeld



Most representations of unions in television and movies centre on picket-line conflict or union corruption (both compelling plot lines). Less often do you see a more nuanced view of unions or work stoppages.

I recently ran across an old Seinfeld episode that I had forgotten about, where Kramer gets news that a strike at his workplace (which apparently had been going on for more than a decade) was resolved. He then tries to return to work (where no one has ever heard of him).

The underlying lesson in this clip is that unions generally don't win protracted job actions (workers lose interest, employers learn to cope with the strike or close up shop). What that suggests, strategically, is that a short strike with catastrophic disruption of employer operations is a union's best shot at a quick and decisive win.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Research: Business lobby arguments against minimum-wage increases

Last week, I shared some preliminary research exploring the narratives and discursive strategies used by opposition MLAs to oppose a minimum-wage increase. This week I’d like to share a preliminary analysis of 17 statements made by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB).

I chose the CFIB because it represents approximately 10,000 small-business owners in Alberta, has consistently opposed minimum-wage increases, and had an available record of statements I could analyze. CFIB spokespersons advanced a consistent narrative about increasing the minimum wage, asserting that raising the minimum wage:
  1. was opposed by employers,
  2. would cost jobs, particularly among teenagers,
  3. was not supported by adequate evidence about its effect, and
  4. was not an effective poverty reduction strategy. 
CFIB spokespersons employed three main discursive strategies in which these narratives appeared. The CFIB theoretically rationalized its opposition to minimum-wage increases by citing job-loss projections it developed:
In the case of Alberta’s massive hike in the minimum wage rate from $10,20 to $15.00 (47 per cent increase) by 2018, this would put 51,700 to 200,690 jobs at risk in Alberta (Wong, 2015a, p. 1).
These projected job losses included both layoffs and foregone future hiring. These projections ultimately proved wildly inaccurate but were contrasted with the limited economic analyses that the government publicly provided:
Premier Notley stated that her aggressive minimum wage policy won’t kill jobs. Then show us the evidence (Ruddy, 2016, p. 1)
The CFIB also used its projections to assert minimum-wage increases were not effective poverty-reduction tools:
CFIB’s calculations show that minimum wage increases are not the best way to increase low income earners’ well being (Wong, 2015b, p. 2).
This assertion sits uneasily with the CFIB’s projections in the same report, which show the net income of workers in every provinces rose with a minimum wage increase.

The CFIB used public authorization in two ways in an effort for increase the salience of its views. First, the CFIB frames itself as speaking on behalf of small business owners, despite representing on about 10% of such businesses (CFIB, 2018). Second, it used surveys of its memberships to support its demands. These surveys also act as a cautionary tale about the impact of the minimum wage increase. The most common narrative associated with surveys is that minimum-age increases cost jobs:

A CFIB survey of 1040 Alberta business owners asked: Which of the following changes has your business already made as Alberta moves to a $15 an hour minimum wage? 55 percent have reduced to eliminated plans to hire new workers, 52 per cent have reduced of eliminated plans to hire young workers, 46 per cent raised prices, 43 per cent reduced overall staffing hours, ad 42 per cent have reduced the number of employees, to name just a few of the implications (Ruddy, 2018, p. 1).

Opposition MLAs and the CFIB both used similar narratives about minimum wage increases (e.g., job killer opposed by employers and ineffective at reducing poverty) and similar discursive strategies (theoretical rationalization, cautionary tales). The small number of statements in the dataset suggest that this analysis should be treated with caution.

Next week, we’ll conclude this series by looking at organized labour’s contribution to the minimum-wage debate.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 26, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Frankenreads

Next Wednesday (Hallowe’en!), the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences is hosting a half-day symposium (entitled “Frost and Desolation”) as part of broader celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein.

One of the more interesting interpretations of Frankenstein is as a metaphor for the working class, one created by the bourgeoisie (in the form of Victor Frankenstein) which then tried to kill him. There are a couple of interesting essays about this available online—I like this one by Luisa Umana.
[T]he monster is a symbol for oppressed people. He is the proletariat that revolts against the bourgeoisie in class struggle. … [H]his very composition is symbolic of the laborers who were composed of many different types of people, larger in numbers, physically stronger, and less dependent on luxury than the upper classes.
I don’t think that there is much of a historical case Shelley writing with this metaphor in mind. Yet, as perhaps the foundational text of the sci-fi genre, Frankenstein’s framing of collectives as terrifying and monstrous (e.g., the Borg, Cylons, the bugs in Starship Troopers) may help explain the near absence of positive representations of collectives (e.g., trade unions) in the genre.

-- Bob Barnetson



Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Research: Opposition arguments against minimum-wage increases

Last week, I shared some preliminary research exploring the narratives and discursive strategies used by government MLAs to justify a minimum-wage increase. This week I’d like to share a preliminary analysis of 115 statements made by various flavours of conservative MLAs in the Legislation.

Opposition MLAs advanced a consistent narrative in the legislature about increasing the minimum wage, asserting that increases:
  1. were opposed by employers,
  2. would not reduce poverty,
  3. would cause job losses, particularly for teenagers and low-wage workers, and
  4. would cause prices to rise, which would harm other vulnerable groups such as seniors and the disabled.
Opposition MLAs employed three main discursive strategies to justify their opposition. The discursive strategy most frequently used by opposition MLAs in all four years was the cautionary tale. The narratives associated with this strategy was that raising the minimum wage were opposed by employers and would cause job losses:
Mr. Hunter: …I rise to talk about the people in Cardston-Taber-Warner that are concerned about the rising minimum wage. A local restaurant owner, Dan Brown, wrote me the other day. Dan has been running his restaurant for five and a half years, and he… is concerned about the impact minimum wage increases will have on youth employment. Dan is also very concerned about the impact the $15 minimum wage will have on his labour costs. He is faced with some tough choices. He can reduce hours of existing employees or not hire new staff. Dan doesn’t know how he would be able to afford to hire inexperienced staff. (2015.06.22, 128)
The second most frequently used discursive strategy was theoretical rationalization (i.e., research suggests X outcome). Specifically, opposition MLAs asserted that increasing the minimum wage would cause job losses and would not reduce poverty:
Mr. W. Anderson: …Stephen Gordon wrote a piece in Maclean’s [magazine] in 2013 discussing the theory being pushed by big labour that minimum wages hikes mean more jobs. In his survey of the literature, he found that there was no proof of it and that Canada, even more clearly than the U.S., has shown a clear relationship between wage hikes and job losses. 
In addition, in the survey of the literature, he cites a peer-reviewed 2012 study that finds that, quote, our results highlight that, political rhetoric, notwithstanding, minimum wages are poorly targeted as an anti-poverty device and are, at best an exceedingly blunt instrument for dealing with poverty. (2015.06.24, 263-264).
The third most frequently used discursive strategy was impersonal authorization (i.e., using the authority of others to justify a position). This strategy saw opposition MLAs cite various sources of research to bolster the narrative that a minimum-wage increase would cause job losses, particularly for teenagers and low-wage workers
Mr. Kenney: …What do you think a 50 per cent increase in the minimum wage results in? Well, according to the Bank of Canada 60,000 job losses across the country. According to the C.D. Howe Institute 25,000 job losses in Alberta. Think about how – oh, my goodness – when New Democrats get on their moral high horse and pretend they have a monopoly on compassion, and then because union bosses tell them to, they bring in a policy that, according to the think tanks will kill 25,000 jobs for immigrants and youth. Where is the compassion for those who lost their jobs, Mr. Speaker? There is none. There’s no regard. (2018.04.05, 433).
There is research both supporting and refuting this assertion, although the balance refutes it. Interestingly, government MLAs made little effort to counter research-based criticism. Instead, government MLAs increasingly focusing on moral evaluation. This may reflect that opposition MLAs cited research that agrees with a commonsensical (albeit not necessarily correct) understanding of wages and employment.

Impersonal authorization was not, however, a universally successful strategy for opposition MLAs. Early in the dataset, there were numerous instances where opposition MLAs referred to statements and research by various employer lobby groups (e.g., Chambers of Commerce, Canadian Restaurant and Food Association) to attack increases. The use of this kind of data declined after tis 2016 exchange between conservative MLA Ric McIver and government MLA Maria Fitzpatrick:
Mr. McIver: …On top of that, businesses across this province, the restaurants’ association, many chambers of commerce, and business groups have almost universally… [are] dead set against this government’s minimum wage policy to artificially drive up the minimum wage to $15 an hour in a very accelerated way. … 
Ms. Fitzpatrick: …Now I had a little experience with the chamber of commerce in my community of Lethbridge. When the minimum wage came out, they talked about how much it was going to cost. …The chair of the chamber of commerce told me that it was going to cost $86,000 for this business in one year because of this increase. Okay. So $86,000 is 86,000 hours since there’s a $1 increase…. To get $86,000 you’d need 41 full-time employees working 40 hours a week, and that was not the case. In fact, I got the correct figures and went back to the chamber of commerce, and she said: no, no, no; I think that was over the few years. I said: but you told me it was over one year. (2016,04.20, 688-689).
Overall, opposition MLAs relied most heavily on the cautionary-tale strategy, asserting that minimum-wage increases would cause job losses. They also sought to theoretically rationalize opposition by using research to counter government narratives that increases alleviated poverty. Research—by academics and interest groups—were also employed using an impersonal authorization strategy.

Looking at both opposition and government discursive strategies, an interesting dynamic emerges. As opposition MLAs increasingly focus on asserting job losses, government MLAs decline to debate this (high-contestable) assertion. Instead, they increasingly focus on the moral argument that increases alleviate poverty and provide dignity and fairness. Opposition MLAs respond by doubling down on research-based arguments—carefully avoiding engaging with the moral argument that government MLAs articulate.

Next week, we’ll look at the business lobby’s contribution to the minimum-wage debate.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 19, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Spaceship



This week’s instalment of Labour & Pop Culture is "Spaceship” by Kayne West. This song explores the frustration and desperation of low-wage work, particularly among young African-American men in the United States.

Of particular note is how being systemically discriminated against and economically excluded results in a rejection of the system:
If my manager insults me again I will be assaulting him
After I fuck the manager up then I'm gonna shorten the register up
Let's go back, back to the Gap
Look at my check, wasn't no scratch
So if I stole, wasn't my fault
The song also speaks to the experience of tokenism in the workplace:
Yeah I stole, never get caught
They take me to the back and pat me
Askin' me about some khakis
But let some black people walk in
I bet you they show off their token blackie
Oh now they love Kanye, let's put him all in the front of the store
I couldn’t find a good video by Kayne but I did find this blues-y cover that is pretty good.

[Hook: Kanye West, Tony Williams, John Legend]

I've been workin' this graveshift and I ain't made shit
I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly (heavens knows) past the sky (every night, every night)
I've been workin' this graveshift and I ain't made shit
I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly (heavens knows) past the sky (every night, every night)

[Verse 1: Kanye West]
Man, man, man
If my manager insults me again I will be assaulting him
After I fuck the manager up then I'm gonna shorten the register up
Let's go back, back to the Gap
Look at my check, wasn't no scratch
So if I stole, wasn't my fault
Yeah I stole, never get caught
They take me to the back and pat me
Askin' me about some khakis
But let some black people walk in
I bet you they show off their token blackie
Oh now they love Kanye, let's put him all in the front of the store
Saw him on break next to the 'No Smoking' sign with a blunt and a malt
Takin' my hits, writin' my hits
Writin' my rhymes, playin' my mind
This fuckin' job can't help him
So I quit, y'all welcome
(heavens knows)
Y'all don't know my struggle
Y'all can't match my hustle
(every night)
You can't catch my hustle
(every night)
You can't fathom my love dude
Lock yourself in a room doin' five beats a day for three summers
That's a different world like Cree summers
I deserve to do these numbers
The kid that made back [aka running back], (heavens knows)
Deserves that Maybach
So many records in my basement (every night)
I'm just waitin' on my spaceship (every night),
I've been (blaow)

[Hook: Kanye West, Tony Williams, John Legend]
Workin' this graveshift and I ain't made shit
I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly (heavens knows) past the sky (every night, every night)
I've been workin' this graveshift and I ain't made shit
I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly(heavens knows) past the sky (every night, every night)

[Verse 2: GLC]
Man, I'm talkin' way past the sky
Let's go, oh
And I didn't even try to work a job
Represent the mob
At the same time thirsty on the grind
Chi state of mind
Lost my mama, lost my mind
My life, my love (heavens knows) that's not mine
Why you ain't signed?
Wasn't my time
Leave me alone, (every night) work for y'all
Half of it's yours, (every night) half of it's mine
Only one to ball
Never one to fall
Gotta get mine
Gotta take mine
Got a tec-9
Reach my prime
Gotta make these haters respect mine
In the mall (heavens knows) 'til 12 when my schedule had said 9
(every night) Puttin' new pants on shelves
Waitin' paitently (every night) I ask myself
Where I wanna go, where I wanna be
Life is much more than runnin' in the streets
Holla at 'ye, hit me with the beat
Put me on my feet
Sound so sweet
Yes (heavens knows) I'm the same ol' G, same goatee
Stayin' low key, nope (every night)
Holla at God Man (every night) why'd you had to take my folks?
Hope to see Freddy G., Yusef G
Love my G, Rolly G
Police watch me smoke my weed, and count my G's
Got a lot of people countin' on me (heavens knows)
And I'm just tryin' to find my peace
(every night) Should of finished school like my niece
Then I wouldn't (every night) finally wouldn't use my piece, blaow
Aw man, all this pressure

[Hook: Kanye West, Tony Williams, John Legend]
I've been workin' this graveshift and I ain't made shit
I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly (heavens knows) past the sky (every night, every night)
I've been workin' this graveshift and I ain't made shit
I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly (heavens knows) past the sky (every night, every night)

[Verse 3: Consequence]
I remember havin' to take the dollar cab
Comin' home real late at night
Standin' on my feet all damn day
Tryin' to make this thing right
And havin' (heavens knows) one of my co-workers say Yo you look just like
(every night) This kid I seen in the old Busta Rhymes video (every night) the other night
Well easy come, easy go
How that sayin' goes
No more broad service, cars, and them TV shows
I all had that snatched from me (heavens knows)
And all the faculties all turn their back on me (every night)
And didn't wanna hear a rap from me (every night)
So naturally actually had to face things factually
Had to be a catastrophe with the fridgest starin' back at me
Cuz nothing's there, (heaven knows) nothing's fair
I don't wanna ever go back there
So I won't be takin' (every night) no days off 'til my spaceship takes off (every night)
Blaow

[Hook: Kanye West, Tony Williams, John Legend]
I've been workin' this graveshift and I ain't made shit
I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly (heavens knows) past the sky (every night, every night)
I've been workin' this graveshift and I ain't made shit
I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly (heavens knows) past the sky (every night, every night)

[Outro: Tony Williams]
I wanna fly, I wanna fly
I said I want my chariot to pick me up
And take me brother for a ride

(heavens knows)
(every night)
(every night)

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Research: Government arguments for minimum-wage increases

Alberta’s minimum-wage made its third and final jump to $15 per hour two weeks ago. Over the past few months, I have been examining the narratives and discursive strategies used to advance or oppose the increases by government and opposition MLAs as well by business and labour groups. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting some preliminary results—feedback welcomed.

This week I’ll be sharing analysis of 91 statements by government MLA statements in the Legislature between 2015 and 2018. Government MLAs advanced a consistent narrative in the legislature about increasing the minimum wage, asserting that raising the minimum wage:
  1. would occur gradually over time,
  2. would alleviate poverty, particularly for women, single mothers, and new Canadians and specifically reduces food bank usage,
  3. was broadly supported by the public as well as by employers, and
  4. would increase the number of jobs by generating additional spending.
Government MLAs employed three main discursive strategies (i.e., types of arguments): instrumental rationalization (i.e., ends justify the means), moral evaluation (change advances laudable value), and public authorization (i.e., operationalizing the will of the people).

Instrumental rationalization was either the most or second-most used strategy in each of the four years, slowly ceding ground to moral evaluation (see below). The main narrative used to instrumentally rationalize minimum-wage increases was that they would alleviate poverty by increasing workers’ income. A secondary narrative was that increasing the minimum wage would increase the number of job because minimum-wage increases tend to be immediately spent, thereby increasing economic activity. Both narratives were evident in 2015:
Ms. Sigurdson: …When we put forward our platform, we wanted to make sure that workers in Alberta made fair wages so that when they went home to their families, they could support them and care for them, and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve raised the minimum wage less than 10 per cent this year, and now people have more money in their pockets, that goes back into local businesses, and that’s actually stimulating our economy. (2015.10.27, 326-327)
Beginning in 2016, government MLAs began qualifying these narratives by emphasizing the slow pace of the increases and promising additional consultation with affected groups. This may reflect that opposition among business groups was increasing at this time:
Mr. Loyola: Our government promised to make work fairer by improving the income of those who work for minimum wage, and work should pay enough so that people can take care of their families. Our government ran on the promise to raise Alberta’s minimum wage to $15 per hour. We have not strayed rom that target. However, we fully recognize the current economic realities, as we all do, in taking a gradual approach in order to allow room for economic recovery and to carefully consider all input regarding the process of achieving that goal. (2015.05.09, 850-85)
Government MLAs also began attacking opposition’ MLAs when they criticized minimum-wage increases.
Ms. Notley: …The fact of the matter is that when the price of oil was a hundred dollars a barrel and our economy was on fire, these folks were also against raising the minimum wage. The fact of the matter is that they don’t care about the people who are very vulnerable, whose lives and family are suffering as a result of a very, very low minimum wage, one of the lowest minimum wages in the country. It is abysmal. We will move forward because raising the minimum wage will stimulate the economy, it will ensure greater equality and it will reduce poverty. Those are the things we care about. (2016.06.02, 1447)
While instrumental rationalization continued in 2017, it was slowly displaced as the key government discursive strategy by moral evaluation, which moved from the least- to most-used discursive strategy between 2015 and 2018. Moral evaluation legitimized minimum-wage increases by linking them to a specific discourse of values. The main narrative used to morally justify increases centered on how increases helped the most vulnerable Albertans to support their families.

In 2015, government MLAs most frequently operationalized vulnerable Albertans as single mothers and the underlying value justifying increases was one of fairness:
Ms. Notley: …Mr. Speaker, it comes down to this. The folks over there think it’s totally appropriate for a single mother of two or three to have to work 70 hours a week in order to earn a living wage. I say to you that they’re just wrong, and that’s why we are changing the minimum wage in Alberta. (2015.06.24, 231)
In 2016, opposition to phased-in minimum wage increases was coalescing. While the broad narrative of “helping the vulnerable” remained constant, government MLAs routinely linked increasing the minimum wage to reducing workers’ reliance upon food banks and the spectre of homelessness by increasing workers’ economic security. This tapped into the value of dignity:
Ms. Notley: …You know, the Alberta families that I’m thinking of are the ones who work full-time at very difficult jobs and which deserve the respect of everybody in this Assembly, who do that to raise their families and feed their families, and after working 40 or 50 or 60 hours a week, still have to stop at the food bank on their way home to feed their families because right now our minimum wage does not come close to providing a living wage. …Mr. Speaker, the member opposite …would love for us to walk by those people who are unable to feed their families, who are unable to pay their rent, who are unable to secure affordable housing. (2016.04.21, 739)
This narrative remained stable after 2016 with some expansion of vulnerable Albertans to include persons with disabilities and new Canadians. During this time period, moral evaluation became the main discursive strategy used by government MLAs.

The final discursive strategy utilized by government MLAs is public authorization Public authorization is an assertion that one is acting on behalf of a group (in this case, all Albertans). The strong mandate secured by government in the 2015 makes this strategy a natural one for government MLAs to utilize. In the dataset, public authorization was used heavily in 2015, when it was represented 30.6% of the discursive strategies used. Government MLAs referenced the government’s mandate and its efforts to engage with interest groups (e.g., small business) in equal measure.
Ms. Sigurdson: …Our government promised in the election that we were going to make work fair in Alberta, and that’s what we’re doing We’re raising the minimum wage and making it more fair for Albertans. We’re working with small business. We are still a great place for small business to run in Alberta. We have some of the lowest tax rates here in Alberta and it’s a great place to grow business. (2015.11.17, 500)
As opponents of minimum-wage increases organized, government MLAs increasingly emphasized public authorization stemming from ongoing consultation with the public and the business community.
Ms. Gray: …As we committed to previously, we will be listening to employers and employees on how to move forward with the changes to minimum wage. Focused consultations will be held over the next month with key stakeholders, including employers, social services agencies and the low-income earners themselves. …We want to take the time to listen to the people directly involved while making sure that we are taking care of Alberta families (2016.05.19, 1059).
Public authorization continued to be important in 2016, comprising 33.9% of statements. Its use declined in 2017 and 2018.

Overall, the clear trend is that, while public authorization and instrumental rationalization were important discursive strategies in 2015 and 2016, over time, moral evaluation became the dominant discursive strategy used by government MLAs. Both instrumental rationalization and moral evaluation employed a narrative that emphasized how raising the minimum wage helped the most vulnerable Albertans to support their families. The instrumental rationalization strategy asserted this as a fact while the moral evaluation strategy asserted it as a desirable value.

It is unclear what factor(s) caused this shift in discursive strategy. I suspect that internal government polling identified moral evaluation (or the narratives linked to it) were being well received. Accessing such polling is on my to-do list for this autumn. Next week: The narratives and discursive strategies used by opposition MLAs.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 12, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Soup is Good Food



This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Soup is Good Food” by the Dead Kennedys. This 1985 songs speaks to the disposability of labour in contemporary capitalism.
We're sorry
But you're no longer needed
Or wanted or even cared about here
Machines can do a better job than you
And this is what you get for asking questions
Recorded in 1985, the song rings true today, particularly with the deskilling or elimination of jobs due to automation. Interestingly, it also examines how government’s manipulate economic data to hide the real state of the world:
We're sorry, you'll just have to leave
Unemployment runs out after just six weeks
How does it feel to be a budget cut?
You're snipped, you no longer exist 
Your number's been purged
From our central computer
So we can rig the facts
And sweep you under the rug
See our chart? Unemployment's going down
If that ruins your life that's your problem
Having been through periods of layoffs in two different jobs (and seeing my own employer recently propose reducing further the notice period for layoffs), this verse rings particularly true:
Now how does it feel
(We don't need you any more)
To be shit out our ass
And thrown in the cold like a piece of trash
(We don't need you any more)
And morale is down, you say?

Apologies for the lack of a video—punks don’t go for that MTV stuff.

We're sorry
But you're no longer needed
Or wanted or even cared about here
Machines can do a better job than you
And this is what you get for asking questions

The unions agree
Sacrifices must be made
Computers never go on strike
To save the working man
You've got to put him out to pasture

Looks like we'll have to let you go
Doesn't it feel fulfilling to know
That you the human being are now obsolete
And there's nothing in hell we'll let you do about it

Soup is good food
(We don't need you any more)
You made a good meal
(We don't need you any more)

Now how does it feel
(We don't need you any more)
To be shit out our ass
And thrown in the cold like a piece of trash

We're sorry, you'll just have to leave
Unemployment runs out after just six weeks
How does it feel to be a budget cut?
You're snipped, you no longer exist

Your number's been purged
From our central computer
So we can rig the facts
And sweep you under the rug
See our chart? Unemployment's going down
If that ruins your life that's your problem

Soup is good food
(We don't need you any more)
You made a good meal
(We don't need you any more)

Now how does it feel
(We don't need you any more)
To be shit out our ass
And thrown in the cold like a piece of trash

We're sorry, we hate to interrupt
But it's against the law to jump off this bridge
You'll just have to kill yourself somewhere else
A tourist might see you and we wouldn't want that

I'm just doing my job, you know, so say uncle
And we'll take you to the mental health zoo
Force feed you mind melting chemicals
Til' even the outside world looks great

In hi-tech science research labs
It costs too much to bury all the dead
The mutilated disease injected
Surplus rats who can't be used anymore

So they're dumped, with no minister present
In a spiraling corkscrew dispose all unit
Ground into sludge and flushed away
Aw geez!

We don't need you any more
We don't need you any more

Soup is good food
(We don't need you any more)
You made a good meal
(We don't need you any more)

Now how does it feel
(We don't need you any more)
To be shit out our ass
And thrown in the cold like a piece of trash
(We don't need you any more)

We know how much you'd like to die
(We don't need you any more)
We joke about it on our coffee breaks
(We don't need you any more)
But we're paid to force you to have a nice day
(We don't need you any more)
In the wonderful world we made just for you

"Poor rats", we human rodents chuckle
At least we get a dignified cremation
At yet, at 6 o'clock tomorrow morning
It's time to get up and go to work

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Research: Family impact of mobility

The Vanier Institute recently published an article about the impact of work-related mobility on family life. The study looked at workers who commuted more than an hour a day and workers whose jobs required them to move from place-to-place during the day.

Among the findings is that there were significant effects on workers of unpaid idle time (e.g., time spent waiting for work that was not paid). Examples include caregivers who were waiting between client visits or shift workers who must arrive early for a shift due to poor public transportation alignment with their schedules. This time represented a cost transferred from employers to workers (in the form of time stolen from family responsibilities) by the mobile nature of the job.

The time pressures that mobility intensifies were also found to negatively affect the well being of workers. Effects included exhaustion, stress, and social isolation. The lack of alignment between non-standard work hours and child-care formed an additional burden that was felt particularly acutely by female workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 5, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: The Triangle Fire Project

From October 10 to 20, Edmonton’s Walterdale Theatre is presenting “The Triangle Factory Fire Project.” This play recreates the events and aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

The New York textile factory was mostly staffed by recent and young female immigrants. When fire broke out on March 25, 1911, the workers found the fire doors and exits locked (to prevent time and product theft).

Consequently, 146 workers died from the fire, smoke inhalation, or falling to their deaths to escape the flames. The fire helped propel improvements in building safety across America.


-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Poverty wages okay if you're an Alberta public-sector worker

On September 28, support staff in Living Waters Catholic School District went on strike. Living Waters and AUPE have been negotiating for two-and-half years and the key sticking points appears to be a wage increase (to cover the cost of living) and having defined hours of work.

Living Waters operates schools in Whitecourt, Slave Lake and Edson. Support staff include educational and financial assistants, library clerks, maintenance staff, secretaries, typists and custodians. They are the people who allow the school system to operate.

Educational assistants make a maximum of $26,500 per year. This reflects low wages and sporadic (and declining) hours of work. Some workers are forced to rely upon the food bank to feed their families. Despite this, the school board refuses to address these issues and applied for a lock-out.

The first week of picketing included two picketers being struck by cars driven by administrators. The RCMP took no action about these events, instead focusing their efforts on escorting administrators and scabs across the picket lines.

A return to the bargaining table in early October yielded no agreement. Not surprisingly, parents and students are siding with the strikers—joining them on the picket lines and making supportive social media posts. It will be interesting to see what effect this has on the next school board elections.

The school board’s hard line is difficult to fathom. The district has been posting operating surpluses and has admitted it could afford to give raises. Bargaining to impasse in these conditions seems irrational. I would guess the district is picking up on the government’s messaging that public-sector wages must be frozen for two years.

Yet does this government requirement jive with the government’s messaging around the minimum wage? In justifying a 47% increase in the minimum wage over three years, the Notley government has been quite explicit that it is not acceptable for workers to earn below-poverty level wages. For example:
Ms. Notley: …You know, the Alberta families that I’m thinking of are the ones who work full-time at very difficult jobs and which deserve the respect of everybody in this Assembly, who do that to raise their families and feed their families, and after working 40 or 50 or 60 hours a week, still have to stop at the food bank on their way home to feed their families because right now our minimum wage does not come close to providing a living wage. …Mr. Speaker, the member opposite …would love for us to walk by those people who are unable to feed their families, who are unable to pay their rent, who are unable to secure affordable housing. (Alberta Hansard, April 21, 2016, 739)
So the government is happy to raise private-sector wages to prevent workers from having to go to the food bank. But it’s somehow cool for public-sector workers to make so little that they have to use the food bank?

That’s a pretty hypocritical position for the government to advance. It’s also a politically strange one, since the government will require public-sector votes if it expects to be re-elected. More importantly, it's a shameful way to run a school system.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

What would UCP labour policy entail?

With a provincial election expected in the spring of 2019, it is useful to consider what labour policies Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) might advance if they are elected. Analysis is made tricky because, (1) while the UCP passed policy at a convention (which should be binding on the party due to Jason Kenney’s grass-roots guarantee), (2) Kenney announced “he holds the pen” on policies after the convention passed some super embarrassing ones.

To try and get a handle on what UCP labour policy might look like in practice I have canvassed Hansard and media statements, UCP policy statements, and social media postings. I’ll limit this post to changes to issues associated with the Employment Standards and Labour Relations Codes.

Employment Standards

Effective October 1, the Notley government will have increased Alberta’s minimum wage to $15 an hour—an increase of about 50% since 2015. The UCP (and its predecessor parties) have opposed this increase in the Legislature, variously asserting:
  1. Employers oppose it
  2. It will cause job losses and prices to rise, and
  3. It does not reduce poverty.
Kenney has been quiet on this issue (he likely wants to prevent the New Democrats from using the spectre of a minimum-wage rollback against him in te upcoming election). Kenney’s only comment in the Legislature was negative:
Mr. Kenney: …What do you think a 50 per cent increase in the minimum wage results in? Well, according to the Bank of Canada 60,000 job losses across the country. According to the C.D. Howe Institute 25,000 job losses in Alberta. Think about how – oh, my goodness – when New Democrats get on their moral high horse and pretend they have a monopoly on compassion, and then because union bosses tell them to, they bring in a policy that, according to the think tanks will kill 25,000 jobs for immigrants and youth. Where is the compassion for those who lost their jobs, Mr. Speaker? There is none. There’s no regard. (2018.04.05, p. 433).
The assertion that rising wages kill jobs seems to resonate with many Albertans. This may explain Kenney’s use of this narrative, despite there being limited and declining support for this position in the economics literature and good evidence that sectors that pay the minimum wage are experiencing growth in Alberta.

The NDs do not appear to have indexed the minimum wage to inflation (gotta save something for the 2019 campaign!) so a UCP government could freeze the minimum wage simply by taking no action to increase it. Over time, inflation would erode its value. Whether a freeze would satisfy the business lobby and more right-wing UCP members is unclear. While Kenney may be coy on a reduction now, as we’ve seen with Doug Ford, once in office, seemingly anything goes.

The Notley government has made a large number of minor changes to the Employment Standards Code. The UCP policy resolution promises a full and detailed review to ensure Alberta’s laws are comparable with other jurisdictions and make “workplaces safe and competitive”. Given that the recent changes to the Employment Standard Code were mostly about bringing it into line with other jurisdictions, I suspect such a review would identify few areas for change. It would be politically for the UCP to easier to just (further) lax enforcement of the law.

It is likely that the UCP would roll back the application of many employment standards to Alberta’s farms and ranches. Agriculture industry associations have indicated they do not support a full rollback (although I imagine they could be talked into some rollbacks…), perhaps because this would jeopardize the funding base of their new safety association.

Kenney’s response?
"What we hear from Alberta farmers loud and clear, not professional lobbyists but regular hardworking people in agriculture, is that this bill is a massive cost driver for them it is unnecessary red tape."
I suspect a significant rollback of farm-workers’ rights across all domains of labour policy would be in the cards. If done carefully, it should be possible for the UCP to prevent a successful constitutional challenge of such a rollback.

Labour Relations

The labour record of the Harper government (in which Kenney was a senior cabinet minister) was deeply regressive. It included:
  • back-to-work legislation, 
  • legislated settlements in anticipation of work stoppages, 
  • over-riding negotiated agreements, 
  • eliminating card-check certification, 
  • prohibitions on unions assisting women to make pay equity complaints, and mandating onerous union financial disclosures. 
Many UCP members are stridently anti-union. While the party has declined candidate nominations from those espousing that “unions are evil” and that “we should really ban all unions”, those sentiments run deep in the party. Even the most cursory glance at UCP social media accounts (such as Kenney’s Facebook page) yields lots of examples:






The UCP policy document specifically identifies eliminating the recent re-introduction of card-check certification processes and returning to mandatory votes. The evidence on this is unambiguous: giving employers time to interfere in workers’ decisions about whether or not they want union representation (via a mandatory vote) results in more employer interference, fewer certifications, and fewer union drives. Basically, it is an anti-union policy dressed up in the clothes of democracy and would almost certainly be implemented under the UCP.

Kenney has also promised to scrap remedial certification power for the Labour Board revoked. At present, the Board can certify a union if the employer poisons the well through unfair labour practices. Under previous Conservative governments, the only remedy the Board could offer was another drink from the same well (which, of course, is no remedy at all). First contract arbitration would also likely hit the skids.

The UCP policy document also proposes “giv[ing] individual members of labour organizations the right to determine whether or not their mandatory union dues are used to fund political activity and social advocacy.” The reason to pay attention to this proposal is that it is closely associated with the right-to-work movement, whereby union security clauses (which require every worker to pay union dues, because they benefit from a union contract) are profoundly limited or forbidden.

Right to work laws were on the agenda at the UCPs policy convention and appear to be supported by the riding associations of sitting MLAs. These so-called “right-to-work” laws are an effort to undermine the financial security of the union (which, in turn, limits its ability to oppose the employer). They also divert union resources from fighting the employer to collecting dues. About half of US states have right to work laws. Research on their effect is mixed, with results often confounded by other factors.

Overall, a UCP government is likely to make a concerted effort to tip the playing field back in favour of their corporate buddies. This is likely to have a negative effect on the wages and working conditions of Albertans, particularly low-wage Albertans.

If I have time, I’ll have a gander at what Alberta might expect in terms of UCP policy on workplace injury prevention and compensation, immigration, and training as well as the tone of public-sector labour relations.

Update October 15: Kenney recently indicated he would freeze the minimum wage, look at implementing a two-tier wage (based age),and rollback other labour law changes made by the NDs. So, pretty much what you'd expect.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, September 28, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Office Drug Testing



This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture revisits The Office to look at how employers handle drug use in the workplace. This skit is relevant given that, on October 17, cannabis consumption in Alberta (and elsewhere in Canada) will become legal (with some, still emerging, restrictions).

Alberta’s framework for regulating cannabis use is available online and includes a brief (and vague) discussion of cannabis use by workers:
Impairment in workplaces
Workers who are impaired on the job – whether by alcohol or drugs – are a danger to their coworkers and themselves. Alberta already has rules and programs in place to address impairment on the job and keep workers safe, but we are exploring options to better address all forms of impairment in the workplace, and will continue to work with employers, labour groups and workers to ensure the rules continue to address impairment issues. This may include developing additional regulations, education or training programs.
Employer efforts to randomly test workers for drug use and/or impairment have been a long-standing source of conflict in Alberta. For example, Suncor’s decision to randomly test workers has yielded an extensive amount of litigation since 2012 and the issue remains before an arbitration panel. An overview of this litigation can be found here.

Drug testing entails serious and competing interests. It is often framed as a contest between workers’ right to privacy and employers’ obligation to keep workplaces safe (although the evidence that random testing has any safety effect is basically zero).

The debate about drug testing is often tinged with an underlying moral judgment. It goes something like this: since drug use is illegal, workers who use drugs (on their own time) deserve to experience the workplace consequences associated with testing because they are criminals.

This dynamic is, in part, the premise of the joke in The Office skit above. The legalization of cannabis use undercuts this moralizing and it will be interesting to see how employers handle this change in the law.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Weaponizing sick leave at Athabasca University

Employers have an obligation to accommodate workers who are unwell or who have a temporary or permanent disability. This obligation is often operationalized in the form of short-term sick leave and modified job duties.

Unionized workplaces often have paid sick leave and contractual requirements to accommodate disabilities. Accessing these rights sometimes requires an employee provide a note from a physician or other health-care professional, stipulating the duration of an absence or the nature of an accommodation.

Employers have little legal right to look behind physician-mandated leave or accommodation. For example, they are not normally entitled to know the nature of the underlying medical condition. And they have limited ability to contest physician-determined medical requirements, such as by making an employee see a company-appointed doctor.

Athabasca University (AU) has recently proposed new and quite aggressive “company doctor” language in its collective agreement with the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA). This language would give the employer to power to mandate non-therapeutic medical examinations by a physician appointed by the employer.

AU’s proposal reads:
16.5.9. a. The University may require that a Staff Member be examined by a physician appointed by the University.

i. in the case of prolonged or frequent absence because of illness or,

ii. where the University considers that a Staff Member is unable to satisfactorily perform the Staff Member’s duties due to disability or illness, or

iii. where there is an indication of misuse of illness leave.

b. Upon request of the Staff Member, a copy of the report of the examining physician shall be sent to the Staff Member’s physician.

c. Expenses incurred under this Clause shall be paid by the University.
Practically, what this means is that:
  1. HR could require sick AUFA members to report to a company doctor for a medical examination. 
  2. Failure to do so could result in discipline (for insubordination) and possibly a suspension of paid sick-leave benefits or the denial of accommodation. 
  3. If AU’s doctor disagrees with the staff member’s doctor’s recommendations, AU would then be in a position to deny the staff member the sick leave or accommodation their doctor deems necessary or force the worker into a third examination to "break the tie".
Being forced to submit to an examination by a company-paid doctor is a profound intrusion into a worker's privacy.

AUFA has been able to identify 1 instance in the past 15 years where the university formally brought up the possibility of mis-use of medical leave. There may be other cases, but none the employer ever brought forward.

What this means is that this proposal does not solve a real and pressing problem facing AU. The current process of staff members providing medical notes from their own physicians or other health-care providers is adequate.

This proposal does increase AU’s ability to harass AUFA members with medical conditions by subjecting them to non-therapeutic medical examinations conducted by a company doctor.

Bluntly, AU is attempting to weaponize the sick-leave and accommodation provisions of the AUFA collective agreement against workers when they are most vulnerable.

The likely (and typically intended) effect of introducing company doctors is to limit workers’ use of their sick leave. Workers subject to AU's proposed provisions are less likely to exercise their rights for fear of being targeted for a visit to the company doctor.

The Alberta Human Rights Commission characterizes examinations by company doctors as follows:
Requiring an employee to submit to an [Independent Medical Examination] by a doctor of the employer's choosing is intrusive. Arbitrators and courts are reluctant to require an examination by someone who is not chosen, or at least agreed to, by the employee.
While AU’s bargaining team has conceded this proposal is “not a hill [it] wants to die on” it has refused to withdraw the language.

This kind of aggressive (and needless) proposal is deeply disrespectful to staff members' integrity (we don't fake being sick or malinger) and privacy. 

And AU’s refusal to withdraw the proposal is contributing to a growing stalemate in negotiations during the parties’ first round of bargaining under strike-lockout.

One has to wonder what the employer’s strategy is here?

-- Bob Barnetson