Tuesday, July 17, 2018

"Each according to their needs..."

One of the challenges that a bargaining team faces at the table is convincing the other side to accept a proposal. While it is always possible to threaten a work stoppage (i.e., a strike or a lockout) to force a proposal on the other side, it is more common to engage in log rolling (exchanging agreement on your X for agreement on their Y).

Sometimes, it is possible to simply convince the other side that a proposal is their own best interest. For example, employers might seek wage freezes by arguing that the organization cannot afford a cost-of-living increase. The implicit threat here is that a cost-of-living adjustment will come with job losses due to a lack of funds.

Athabasca University’s current negotiation with its faculty association is a good example of this. The employer has proposed a two-year agreement with no cost of living increases. This is consistent with the political direction set by the government and that other public-sector unions have accepted.

The difficulty that the union side is going to have with this proposal is two-fold: (1) taking a zero means salaries fall behind inflation (i.e., buying power is reduced) and (2) there is no good evidence that university is in serious financial distress.

The recent salary disclosure (this data is from 2017) suggests that there is lots of money for administrators. The ten-best paid administrators who are outside of the bargaining unit raked in a total of $3.3m in overall compensation.

The president’s salary was particularly interesting. In 2017, he received $450,468.94 in pay alone. His August 2016 contract (which is posted online) indicates his starting salary was to be $337,000 plus up to a 15% bonus (so a maximum of 387,550).

This $62,918 increase over one year suggests he got a ~16% raise his first year on the job. The rest of us had to fight to receive a 2% increase.

The university’s financial statements also reveal that it has recorded surpluses every year since 2013 (excepting a tiny deficit in 2016). The university’s rhetoric that surpluses reflect “one-time savings that cannot be relied upon” sits awkwardly with this long-term trend. And recent enrolment data is showing a 15% spike in undergraduate registrations (more than half of AU's funding comes from registrations so this is a big cash-flow increase).

Once bargaining gets down to brass tacks in the coming months, it will be interesting to see how committed Athabasca University’s bargaining team is to getting two zeroes and the strategies it uses to achieve those.

Given the facts the university is stuck with, I’d say that persuasion is unlikely to be effective. This leaves log rolling, threats of a lockout, or abandoning its proposed wage freeze altogether.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, July 13, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Private Dancer

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Private Dancer” by Tina Turner. The song is sung from the perspective of a worker in the sex industry. We don’t normally think about sex workers as workers—although they are.

A new course under development at Athabasca is hoping to change that. LBST 4XX (Sex work and sex workers) will examine the sex industry and the experiences of those work in it. While sex work represents one of the most extreme forms of employment, it shares many features with other forms of employment. Specifically, it is a relationship of power wherein one party appropriate the surplus value generated by the other, often employing coercion and externalizing costs in gendered and racialized ways.

The course offers an overview of the sex industry in a variety of theoretical and material contexts, as well as an in-depth focus on prostitution in the Canadian context. Taking “the prostitute” as the stereotype that drives public sex work policy, this course examines the myriad images of and circumstances in which sex work occurs. In addition to reading key texts by scholarly experts on the sex industry, we will hear from sex workers themselves about their jobs, working conditions, and the power dynamics of sex work.

Students will learn to analyze sex work as work through a variety of theoretical lenses, and to identify similarities and differences in legal and policy positions that respond to feminism, queer theory, critiques of neoliberalism and globalization, postcolonial praxis, and progressive legalism. This includes examining how labour policies, such as occupational health and safety policies, affect sex workers, the roles of clients and third parties in the sex industry, and sex workers’ labour organizing.

I’m hopeful this course will open in late 2019.

Well, the men come in these places
And the men are all the same
You don't look at their faces
And you don't ask their names
You don't think of them as human
You don't think of them at all
You keep your mind on the money
Keeping your eyes on the wall

I'm your private dancer
A dancer for money
I'll do what you want me to do
I'm your private dancer
A dancer for money
And any old music will do

I want to make a million dollars
I want to live out by the sea
Have a husband and some children
Yeah, I guess I want a family
All the men come in these places
And the men are all the same
You don't look at their faces
And you don't ask their names

I'm your private dancer
A dancer for money
I'll do what you want me to do
I'm your private dancer
A dancer for money
And any old music will do
I'm your private dancer
A dancer for money
I'll do what you want me to do
Just a private dancer
A dancer for money
And any old music will do

Deutschmarks or dollars
American Express will do nicely, thank you
Let me loosen up your collar
Tell me, do you want to see me do the shimmy again?

I'm your private dancer
A dancer for money
Do what you want me to do
Just a private dancer
A dancer for money
And any old music will do

All the men come in these places
And the men are all the same
You don't look at their faces
And you don't ask their names
You don't think of them as human
You don't think of them at all
You keep your mind on the money
Keeping your eyes on the wall

I'm your private dancer
A dancer for money
I'll do what you want me to do
I'm your private dancer
A dancer for money
And any old music will do
I'm your private dancer
A dancer for money
I'll do what you want me to do
I'm your private dancer
A dancer for money
And any old music will do

I'm your private dancer, a dancer for money
I'm your private dancer, a dancer for money
I'm your private dancer, a dancer for money
Just a private dancer, a dancer for money

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

New Alberta farm safety rules an improvement but leave workers vulnerable

Note: This post originally appeared on the Parkland Institute blog.

Last week, Alberta announced new Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) rules affecting 14,000 paid farm workers on 4200 Alberta farms and ranches. These rules represent a significant win for farm workers by setting out minimum safety requirements. The announcement of new OHS rules concludes at two-and-half-year struggle over the degree to which Alberta’s employment laws should apply to paid, non-family workers on farms and ranches.

The Notley government’s 2015 extension of basic workplace rights to farm workers corrected perhaps the most egregiously wrongful employment policy of Alberta’s former conservative governments. Alberta’s long-standing refusal to allow this very vulnerable group of workers to, for example, know about the hazards in their workplace or refuse unsafe work, contributed to the high rate of injury in this dangerous occupation.

The roll out of farm-worker rights has been lengthy:
  • Mandatory workers’ compensation coverage for paid, non-family farm workers came into effect in early 2016. Since then, 1860-odd claims for injuries have been accepted. 
  • A set of industry-dominated technical working groups hashed out the recommendations for how the Employment Standards Code, the Labour Relations Code, and the OHS Code would apply.
  • In January of 2018, most Employment Standards began applying to paid non-family farm workers. The notable exceptions were the continued absence of rules around hours of work, rest periods, and over time. These exceptions create a heightened risk of fatigue-related injuries.
  • Also in January of 2018, paid farm workers gained the right to join a union and collectively bargain—although none have been certified so far. 
  • The rules about paid child labour on farms are still be sorted out.
Alberta’s new farm OHS rules come into effect on December 1, 2018. While advocates for farm worker rights have much to celebrate, it is important to be mindful of Alberta’s poor record of enforcing its OHS laws and a number of troubling exceptions granted to the farm lobby, particularly the ongoing use of legacy (i.e., old) equipment.

In all other industries, a professional engineer must certify equipment that has been modified or is being used in a way that does not comply with the manufacturer’s specification. This certification requirement is intended to ensure that the modification to or “off-label” use of the equipment is safe. Similarly, powered equipment over 700kg must have rollover protection. This reflects that machine rollovers are a common cause of injury in agriculture.

These requirements have been relaxed for farms and ranches. Safe work procedures (i.e., “be careful!”) can be substituted for actual rollover protection. And a “competent” person (who is not an engineer) can give the okay around modifications to or off-label use of equipment.

Competent is defined as “adequately qualified, suitably trained and with sufficient experience to safety perform work without supervision or with only a minimal degree of supervision.” In practice, what this will mean is that someone with experience using that piece of equipment (likely the employer) can sign off that modifications or off-label uses are safe.

This is a troubling a definition of competency. The ability of farmers to meaningfully assess equipment’s capacity to perform work without risk of mechanical failure and their ability to determine what off-label uses of equipment are safe is suspect. Most lack the education and skills of professional engineers.

Further, farmers have a conflict of interest in such determinations. Specifically, if a farmer decides equipment is unsafe, this will entails additional costs to the farmer in the form of repairs, replacement equipment, or more complex and likely slower operating procedures. For these reasons, every other industry requires a truly competent and disinterested third party to certify equipment.

The certification of legacy equipment is a particularly important issue in farming because equipment often remains in use for decades. Along the way, user manuals get lost (so farmers may not know what the original manufacturer specifications were), safety standards change (i.e., many tractors don’t have roll bars or cages), equipment gets modified or re-purposed, and otherwise subjected to “emergency repairs” in the field.

Not all legacy equipment is unsafe or is used in ways that are contrary to manufacturer specs. But some legacy equipment will have modifications or alternative uses are unsafe. For example:
  • A guard might be cut off a machine to make it easier to clear a jam, perhaps while the machine is running.
  • The bucket of a front-end loader may be used as a lift to allow a worker to change a light bulb.
  • Roll-over protection may be cut off, shortened, and re-attached by a farmer with rudimentary welding skills in order to allow a tractor to fit through a barn door.
The 2014 death of farmworker Stephen Murray Gibson illustrates the consequences of a permanent exemption from meeting manufacturer specs and other standards. Gibson was killed after becoming entangled in an unguarded power take off (PTO). (A PTO is a drive-shaft that spins at high speed to transfer power from a engine to some other equipment.)

Fatigue may have played a factor in his death (he had been working 28 straight days). But an important root cause was the unguarded PTO. According to the fatality inquiry, the employer:
…bought from a neighbour a 40- or 50-year old grain roller and PTO. The roller has three safety shields on it; the PTO, although it would originally have had a safety shield, at the time Mr. Hamilton acquired it, did not. No manual came with the equipment, either.
Given that farm equipment can often stay in use for decades, allowing employers to approve modifications or uses that deviate from manufacturer’s specs means generations of farm workers will continue to be exposed to unremediated hazards. This is unacceptable in any other industry because the result will be worker injury and death.

Not only do Alberta’s new OHS rules allow this practice to continue, but they also allow unsafe legacy equipment to be sold on to other farmers. When questioned during the press conference about why the government would allow this to happen, the Labour Minister at least had the decency to look uncomfortable as she deflected the question by saying annual certification of legacy equipment was not practicable.

The assertion that addressing unsafe legacy equipment is not practicable is simply untrue. Where such equipment has been modified or is used outside of manufacturer specs (or specs are no longer available), the government could have required certification by an engineer within a reasonable time period.

Equipment that failed certification could have been require to be brought into compliance or retired within another reasonable time period. The rules about annual recertification could have been relaxed to require recertification only when the equipment or use changes.

Instead of implementing some kind of sunset clause on hazardous equipment, the government effectively took a pass. The result of this choice by the government will be more injured and killed farm workers.

My belief is this decision represents a political saw-off between the government and the farm lobby. Producer groups sought to minimize the financial impact of Bill 6 on farms. Consider, for example, their recommendations around the application of the Employment Standards Code which seek to grind wages and eliminate regulation on hours of work.

So producers talked the government into funding much of the cost of compliance with the new rules. Individual producers are eligible for up to $10,000 in government grants to improve safety. The new industry safety association (AgSafe) also got $170,000 in start up money.

And producers agreed to relatively low-cost OHS rules (such as hazard assessments), while pushing back on higher-cost requirements. These higher cost requirements (for which farmers got blanket instead of case-by-case exceptions) include the certification of legacy equipment, the provision of adequate washroom facilities in remote locations, installation of rollover protections on tractors, and structural changes to allow effective fall protection when working on bins and other structures.

Basically, the farm lobby is trading workers’ health and lives to maintain their members’ profit margins. This is at once economically understandable and morally reprehensible.

The government’s willingness to grant exceptions that will lead to these kinds of injuries reflects that they want the support of producer groups in the run up to the 2019 election. Specifically, the New Democrats want to deny Jason Kenney the opportunity to campaign against Bill 6. Having all provincial farm groups say these rules are reasonable and should not be rolled back will help the NDs in their efforts to get re-elected. They can now declare victory on farm safety and close this difficult file.

To be fair to the government, it took a lot of political courage to provide basic employment rights to farm workers. It was courage 40 years worth of conservative governments couldn’t muster and workers died as a result. And these new OHS rules do contain the potential to make farm workers significantly safer on the job.

Whether farms and ranches actually become safer depend upon the degree to which the government meaningfully enforces these rules. Based on the government’s OHS record in other industries, I’m skeptical that we’ll see much enforcement except when a worker is seriously injured or killed (i.e., after it is too late). And the exceptions the government created in these rules means workers will continue to be injured and killed by unsafe legacy equipment.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, July 6, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Incentive Pay at the Office

This week's instalment of Labour & Pop Culture looks at incentive-pay systems as portrayed on the television show The Office. I'm currently revising AU's introductory human resource management course and incentive pay is one of the topics we touch on.

The basic idea, as noted by one of the workers in the sketch, is that the employer wants more production out of the workers without paying them more. So manager Andy sets up a points system whereby workers can win low-value prizes for achieving performance targets.

Incentive-based pay sounds like a good idea, but it is fraught with peril for employers because designing an effective system is tricky. Set rewards too low and they have no effect. Set rewards too high and they can drive all sorts of perverse behaviour, such as increasing quantity at the expense of quality.

The Office does a nice job of noting that the interests of workers and employers conflict in such systems and that workers can, if they work collectively, subvert these systems. This is a good lesson for wannbe managers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Alberta enforcement efforts incentivize wage theft

Two weeks back, Alberta announced that it would be sending letters to employers alleged to have stolen workers’ wages. These letters will be sent after a worker files an Employment Standards complaint but before the government investigates.

The idea is to identify and resolve complaints where the employer is willing to pay as quickly as possible. The government asserts that a similar initiative in Ontario reduced the number of investigations by 25%. (I was unable to find any data about its impact on wage recovery.)

Triaging wage-theft complaints is intended to conserve investigative resources. These resources may then be focused on wrapping up investigations more quickly. This matters because fewer than half of ES complaints are being concluded within 6 months of being filed.

For workers waiting for wages, this kind of delay is very difficult. While faster resolution of “easy” complaints may help the government increase the number of complaints resolved with 6 months, it ignores the root issue: understaffing.

As I noted last October, in 2016/17, Alberta employed only 45 ES inspectors and 8 other ES staff to regulate wage theft in a non-unionized workforce of about 1.8 million. I did hear a rumour that more ES staff will be hired, but I have seen no confirmation. It is impressive that so few ES staff can resolve nearly 6000 claims per year.

EDIT 2018.09.16: A Calgary Herald story says there are now 73 ES inspectors. Doesn't change the general argument but is better data.

While the government’s press release has garnered positive press coverage, it is useful to ask what the announcement will actually mean for workers.

The release indicates employers will be told they have three options: they can pay the amount claimed, they can dispute the claim (which triggers an investigation), or they can settle with the worker for a mutually agreeable amount.

Alberta has a long history of seeking to settle ES claims through mediation. When “successful”, mediation often means workers end up accepting less money than they are owed. Here's a fictional example of how it works in practice:

The worker files a complaint for, say, $1000 in unpaid wages. The employer says, “I’ll give you $500”. The worker must then decide between $500 bucks today for sure or rolling the dice, waiting six or more months, and maybe getting an order directing the employer to pay $1000 (maybe) which many employers evade anyways (there is $19 million in orders for unpaid wages on the books rights now).

Understandably, the worker is probably going to say “fuck it, gimme the cash” and accept the $500 loss.

The problem with mediated settlements is that the law says the worker should have gotten the full $1000. Past governments have underfunded ES and forced bureaucrats to adopt mechanisms whereby the government essentially helps employers break the very law that the system is supposed to enforce by pressuring workers to relinquish at least part of the wages they are legally due is they want any of their owed wages in a timely manner.

Now, in this example, the worker is $500 better off than the worker would be without the Employment Standards system. But is this process really consistent with Labour Minister Christina Grey’s assertions that “Our government has the backs of working people” and “This action will help us better serve employees so they can get the wages they have earned”?

I’m inclined to say no.

What would help is aggressively prosecuting and publically embarrassing a few bad-actor employers. Get some serious fines imposed. Put some newspaper, radio, Facebook, and bus ads out saying “So-and-so’s Steakhouse screwed its workers out of $15,000 in wages last year. Do you really want to dine there?”

Employers are smart and, faced with enforcement, they’ll get the message that the cost of wage theft just went up and they will change their behaviour. By contrast, a policy facilitating employers having to pay only a fraction of the owed wages incentivizes employers to engage in wage theft.

This announcement is the second concerning ES issue to appear in the past few weeks. Alberta just completed a consultation about changes in its child labour laws. The proposed laws would dramatically expand the jobs 13- and 14-year-olds can do to include light janitorial work, work at a gas station, perform food prep and grounds-keeping duties, work on an assembly line, and painting.

These are hazardous jobs. The government has attempted to limit young workers’ exposure to the worst hazards of these jobs by limiting the tasks they can perform. But the evidence on child labour in Alberta is pretty clear: once workers are in the workplace, employers ignore the rules. Trusting employers to obey these new rules is na├»ve and endangers children.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, June 29, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Anti-union campaign on Superstore

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture examines employer interference in union organizing efforts. Earlier this week, I wrote about how changes in Alberta’s labour laws are making it harder for employers to interfere with workers deciding whether or not they want to be represented by a union.

An episode of the TV show Superstore examined corporate “union avoidance” campaigns. While I can’t find a free version of the entire episode, the three key scenes about union avoidance are set out below.

Employer discovers union organizing may be occurring and freaks out:

Union-avoidance consultant shows up on job site:

Workers realize employer doesn’t care about them:

While obviously embellished for comedic purposes, this is pretty much how it goes with anti-union employers. The only thing missing was the union organizer getting terminated to put a chill on the campaign.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Organizing increases in wake of Alberta labour law changes

Last week, CBC ran an article with some preliminary data about how Alberta’s new labour laws are affecting unionization. In 2017, Alberta allowed organizing drives with the support of 65% or more of workers to be certified without a vote (called card-check certification).

Previously, any organizing drive required a vote of all the workers. (This is still required for applications that have between 40% and 65% support.) A vote entails delay which employers historically have used to interfere with workers’ right to decide on unionization.

There is a large body of research that suggests that when governments move to card-check certification, the number of organizing drives increases as does the success rate—often dramatically. This is because employers have less chance to scuttle organizing drives through illegal interference.

Not surprisingly, the number of workplaces that were unionized in 2017/18 under card check jumped to 104, from just 40 the year before (which was under mandatory vote). The number of certifications does vary from year to year (often reflecting economic activity) and we’d need more data before we could estimate what amount of this change is due to the new rules.

Similarly, the percentage of certification applications that failed at vote dropped, from 42% to 7%. Basically, under the new rules, employers had less chance to pressurize workers and skew the vote because there often was no vote.

Another change likely reducing employer interference is that the Labour Board now has the power to certify a union if the employer interferes in an organizing campaign (e.g., firing an organizer to put a chill on the campaign). This happened earlier this year in Calgary and I’m told another similar application is coming forward.

What this suggests, albeit it tentatively, is that the changes made to Alberta’s labour law by the NDs has begun to make it easier and safer for workers to exercise their associational rights.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, June 22, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Shackled and Drawn

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Shackled and Drawn” by Bruce Springsteen. This song has a bit of a gospel feel to it and is from Springsteen’s 2012 album Wrecking Ball. The album tells the stories of people whose lives were destroyed by the recession.

You can read the lyrics lots of ways—my first thought was it was about prison labour. But, on reflection, I think it uses being shackled as a metaphor for the debt and limited prospects of the working class.
Gambling man rolls the dice, workingman pays the bill
It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill
Up on banker’s hill, the party’s going strong
Down here below we’re shackled and drawn
The live version above seems to stray from the studio version but the content s all there—just re-arranged.

Gray morning light spits through the shade
Another day older, closer to the grave
Closer to the grave and come the dawn
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn

Shackled and drawn, shackled and drawn
Pick up the rock son, carry it on
I’m trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn

I always loved the feel of sweat on my shirt
Stand back son and let a man work
Let a man work, is that so wrong
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn

Shackled and drawn, shackled and drawn
Pick up the rock son, carry it on
What’s a poor boy to do in a world gone wrong
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn

Freedom son’s a dirty shirt
The sun on my face and my shovel in the dirt
A shovel in the dirt keeps the devil gone
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn

Shackled and drawn, shackled and drawn
Pick up the rock son, carry it on
What’s a poor boy to do but keep singing his song
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn

Gambling man rolls the dice, workingman pays the bill
It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill
Up on banker’s hill, the party’s going strong
Down here below we’re shackled and drawn

Shackled and drawn, shackled and drawn
Pick up the rock son, carry it on
We’re trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn

Shackled and drawn, shackled and drawn
Pick up the rock son, carry it on
What’s a poor boy to do but keep singing his song
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Alberta seeks feedback on youth employment rules

The government of Alberta is updating its rules around the employment of minors. After changing the minimum age of employment from 12 to 13, the government is seeking feedback a list of jobs and job tasks considered to be “light work” and therefore appropriate for 13- to 14-year-olds to perform.

This list includes many of the jobs that these workers have historically been permitted to do, such as delivery person, retail clerk, office work, and some restaurant work. This list also significant expands the range of acceptable jobs and duties.

Some of these jobs and duties certainly raised my eyebrows because of the potential for injury: janitorial work, groundskeeping, food preparation, assembly work, and painting. To be fair, the government has gone to significant lengths to place limits on tasks that these workers can do in these jobs. Here are some examples:
  • assembling food orders (i.e., washing, gathering, presenting, portioning and wrapping foods) using manual tools and appliances typically found in a home such as toasters, blenders, microwave, coffee machine/grinder.
  • light janitorial - Excludes the use of commercial/industrial gas/propane motorized heavy equipment (i.e., floor burnisher, wax/polish machines) and harmful substances defined as hazardous. 
  • weeding, planting and watering, and grounds keeping without the use of gas- powered equipment (i.e., all lawn mowing equipment, snow blowers, leaf blowers, weed-wackers). 
  • light assembly (no cutting torches, welding or working with hazardous substances) 
  • painting with environmentally friendly substances (no commercial spray painting) 
A key assumption embedded in this list of excluded tasks is that employers will obey the rules once the workers are in the workplace. I’m skeptical because the evidence we have is that employers don't obey the rules around young workers.

The deadline for feedback is June 29, 2018 and the government expected to enact regulations for September 1, 2018. One political effect of this timing is that few workers and employers will be affected by the new laws prior to the expected spring 2019 election.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, June 15, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: One More Dollar

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “One More Dollar” by Gillian Welch. This is a folksie song about a travelling agricultural worker who picks fruit for a living and sends remittances home to his family.

In Canada, much of the temporary agricultural workforce comprises non-citizens who enter Canada under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) from Mexico and Caribbean countries. Others enter in the agricultural worker stream of the temporary foreign worker program.

These workers are subjected to difficult working and living conditions and have few meaningful labour rights, both because of statutory exclusions and because their residency and right of return is tied to their employer’s good will. This 2016 article contains some useful background:
Farm labourers in Ontario, including SAWP migrants, are exempt from labour laws that govern minimum wage, overtime and rest periods. 
"For 50 years, the SAWP has been framed as being used to meet acute labour shortage in periods we need more workers, but it's actually meeting a long-term labour demand," Jenna Hennebry, director of the International Migrant Research Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University, told me. 
Although SAWP workers are entitled to provincial health insurance when they arrive, those who are injured are often "medically repatriated" to their home country. In 2014, the Canadian Medical Association Journal reported that 787 migrant farm workers were medically repatriated between 2001 and 2011.
While the government has made some recent efforts to improve these workers’ living conditions (such as mandatory inspections), that living conditions are so bad as to (finally) trigger mandatory inspections speaks to the exploitation faced by the workers.

A long time ago left my home
For job in the fruit trees
But I miss those hills with the windy pines
Their song seemed to suit me

So I sent my wages to my home
Said, we'd soon be 'gether
For the next good crop, pay my way
And I'd come home forever

One more dime to show for my day
One more dollar and I'm on my way
When I reach those hills, boys, I'll never roam
'Cause one more dollar and I'm going home

No work, said the boss at bunkhouse door
There's freeze on the branches
So when the dice came out at bar downtown
I rolled and took my chances

One more dime to show for my day
One more dollar and I'm on my way
When I reach those hills, boys, I'll never roam
'Cause one more dollar and I'm going home

A long time ago left my home
Just a boy passing twenty
Could you spare a coin and a Christian prayer
My luck has turned against me

One more dime to show for my day
One more dollar and I'm on my way
When I reach those hills, boys, I'll never roam
Just one more dollar and I'm going home

One more dollar, boys, I'm going home

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Research: Retaliation and workers' hesitance to claim employment rights

Fear factory: Retaliation and workers’ hesitance to claim employment rightsCanadian Industrial Relations Association Annual Conference
Montreal, May 2, 2018
Jason Foster, Bob Barnetson, and Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull

The modern employment law regime is aimed at codifying particular employee rights in areas such as employment standards, occupational health and safety, injury compensation and the right to join a union.

A key feature of that regime is establishing mechanisms for employees to make claims or complaints when their rights are violated, either directly with the employer or by contacting government officials.

In fact much of the system relies on pro-active action on the part of workers. To file a WCB claim. To make an employment standards complaint, to sign a union card and take part in a vote. Workers need to take active steps if they are to ensure the legislated rights are protected.

Formally legislation contains prohibitions against employers taking retaliatory measures against a worker who complains. Longtime observers of employment recognize that those prohibitions are problematic in terms of enforcement and that workers can be vulnerable to reprisal should they choose to speak up. A number of studies have shown that workers often fear reprisal should they speak up against their employer.

Of note is Alexander and Prasad who looked at enforcement of employment law in US. They found that 1) workers have inadequate knowledge to identify violations and 2) are reluctant to make complaints. They also find that workers lack trust that the system will actually work for them.

Further they find workers’ fears are well warranted. Their study found that 43% of complainants faced some kind of retaliation from the employer. Also, only 15% had their concern addressed by their employer.

My presentation today is part of a study I and my colleagues conducted to examine how workers perceive and utilize their rights under employment law that was funded by the Government of Alberta OHS Futures Program. Specifically we look at the effect of fear of reprisal plays in workers’ willingness to advocate for their rights.

We examine why workers report NOT reporting rights violations in the workplace. We also explore how many workers feel fear and which workers feel the highest level of fear.

Our analysis looks at how these results might reflect upon the overall effectiveness of Canada’s employment rights regime.

In spring 2017, we conducted an online survey of 2000 Albertans who had engaged in paid employment in the province during the past 12 months. We presented a 39-item questionnaire, which included pertinent demographic and occupational data.

For the purposes of this presentation we presented respondents with 14 rights-claiming scenarios. Examples include filing a WCB claim, asking for time off work to attend to family responsibilities, and refusing unsafe work.

We provided a range of relatively low risk actions, such as asking for safety information, to more risky behaviour such as talking about a union and filing an employment standards complaint. We based the 14 scenarios on Wayne Lewchuk’s recent work.

From the answers we create a Fear Scale based upon how many times a worker expressed fear of reprisal, ranging from 0 to 14.

We also established a 15-point scale related to hazard exposure to measure the relative safety of the respondents’ employment (the broader study emphasized OHS related issues).

Taking all factors into account, an average of 16% of workers reported fear of reprisal.

Fear ranged from a low of 10% for low risk actions like reporting an injury to the employer and asking for health and safety information, to a high of 23% related to formally filing a complaint with the government around unpaid wages or unsafe working conditions.

While these numbers may seem low – a majority of workers report not feeling fear – we need to keep in mind that the current regime has been in place for decades and that workers are regularly reminded that their rights are protected. That almost 1 in 5 workers continues to express fear of reprisal from basic acts of defending themselves is significant.

But our main interest is in which groups of workers are more likely to report fear, as vulnerability is not evenly distributed in the workforce.

In terms of specific fears there was a complex matrix of results. Which is why we turned to the fear matrix. Our supposition is the more times a worker reports fear, the more deeply held their fear of reprisal is and, at least subjectively, the more vulnerable they are to reprisal.

Our correlations found that young workers, workers who identify as a visible minority, part-time workers and workers with shorter job tenure report a greater depth of fear. Other workers who reported deeper fear were those who have been injured in the past 12 months, those exposed to more hazards in the workplace and, surprisingly, union members.

We conducted a linear regression on the significant variables to try to map out a model. The results found that union membership, part-time employment and job tenure were all fully mediated by other factors.

So that leaves us with four significant characteristics: number of hazards exposed to, experience of workplace injury, visible minority and young workers.

It is likely unsurprising to this room that young workers and visible minorities feel greater levels of fear. In the workplace they can be more vulnerable to employer intimidation and are more likely to be found in jobs where employment rights are not respected.

More work is required to unpack the link between unsafe working conditions (and injury) to fear, but we can speculate that jobs where basic safety precautions are not taken – leading both to more exposure and more injury – will be workplaces where the employer is less concerned with their employees’ rights. Injury and hazard exposure can be seen as a proxy for other factors – a theory that requires further research.

The final question we explored was to examine why workers don’t report injuries or refuse unsafe work.

Our study found that only 30% of serious injuries are reported to WCB, a finding the supports previous research into the topic. Further, when workers are faced with an unsafe work situation, only 33% refuse.

Workers report a wide range of reasons for not acting on their rights – fear is a significant factor, but not the only one.

For injuries, a majority report feeling the injury wasn’t serious enough but other common responses were not knowing they had a right to file a claim, not wanting to cause problems for employer and being pressured into not reporting. Many of these responses circle around notions of fear and can be argued as a different articulation of the same concern – not wanting to get on the wrong side of the employer.

Reasons for not refusing unsafe work are similar: not wanting to be a troublemaker, feeling no one would take it seriously anyway, pressure to keep working and not knowing about the right to refuse. Many workers also took steps themselves to fix the problem rather than report it. Again this suggests a widely held belief that exercising ones rights is ineffective and places a worker at risk in some fashion.

Again these results are consistent with similar studies into worker perceptions of their rights.

Our findings suggest three things to us.

First, the responses suggest that a significant portion of workers fear reprisal for exercising their basic employment rights. Possibly for good reason. The more vulnerable the worker is, the more deeply they feel that fear.

In a way that is not an unsurprising result, but it does offer us some quantitative evidence of what workers are thinking when making choices about how to exercise their rights.

Second, our study suggests that workers don’t really trust the employment law regime as it stands. They don’t, when push comes to shove, believe it will be there for them. The results are, understandably, complex but we don’t see any kind of expression of confidence that the government will come to workers’ defence when they need it. Instead what we find is that workers feel on their own and how confident they are about exercising their rights is dependent upon how vulnerable they are at work.

Finally, the study hints at the fact that maybe the employment rights regime has been poorly designed. It places a high degree of onus on employees to act to ensure their rights are respected. The enforcement regime is set up to address complaints. And that might be the problem.

It may be that the system, in practice, spends its energy helping workers who are most able to help themselves – those who don’t feel fear and so report transgressions. And as a result it might be missing the workers who need the government’s help the most.

The consequence is that government resources are directed to the wrong locations as officers investigate workplaces where workers are most able to defend themselves. Furthermore, the workers who need help the most are left unprotected by the enforcement system.

The system we have entrenched may, ironically, function to entrench the inequitable vulnerabilities found in the labour market.

The solutions are likely fairly complex, but definitely point to the need for more pro-active and targeted inspections by government officers. Selecting workplaces for inspection based upon the nature of the work and/or the make-up of the workforce. The limited examples of such enforcement in Alberta – such as TFWs – has proven to reveal widespread violations.

Finally our paper posits a more radical solution. We float the idea that governments should empower community groups and worker organizations to conduct workplace inspections and identify violations.

Workers health centres, immigrant agencies, etc. would have the power to enter workplaces and catalogue violations, reporting any findings to the government for enforcement. While this idea has never been tried it has the potential to greatly increase the number of eyes and ears keeping a watch on workers’ employment rights. An idea at least worth discussing further.

-- Jason Foster

Friday, June 8, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Welcome to the Boomtown

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Welcome to the Boomtown” by David & David. The song recounts the mid-80s excess found in Los Angeles and how a boomtown plays out for the rich and for the poor.

Alberta is no stranger to booms and busts and there is interesting research going on about how this affects labour. For example, foreign live-in caregivers (more commonly known as “nannies”) play an important role in the economy of Fort McMurray. Their often-grueling conditions of work allow their employers to meet the demands of their own employers.

Sara Dorow (from the U of A) and her colleagues have been studying this phenomenon. They note that the boom entails a cascading of social reproductive costs onto this vulnerable group. That is to say, the oil sands couldn’t function without these almost invisible workers managing home and hearth issues for workers. Yet these workers are often treated as disposable.

With the boom also comes the bust. Since 2014, Alberta has struggled economically. It appears that the worst of this recession is passing but the recovery is uneven.

For example, in a recent CBC article, U of C economist Trevor Tombe notes that the economic recovery Alberta is experiencing is evident in employment rates (which are bouncing back up. But as Tombe’s graph (below) shows, young men appear to be excluded from this recovery.

This pattern is understandable given that, in the past, young men could secure well paying jobs in the oil patch with not much more than a strong back. This employment strategy appears to no longer be as effective as it once was. One solution is to provide displaced workers with opportunities to return to school.

Ms. Cristina drives a 944
Satisfaction oozes from her pores
She keeps rings on her fingers

Marble on her floor, cocaine on her dresser
Bars on her doors, she keeps her back against the wall
She keeps her back against the wall

So I say, I say welcome, welcome to the Boomtown
Pick a habit, we got plenty to go around
Welcome, welcome to the Boomtown
All that money makes such a succulent sound
Welcome to the Boomtown

Handsome Kevin got a little off track
Took a year off of college and he never went back
Now he smokes too much, he's got a permanent hack

Deals dope out of Denny's, keeps a table in the back
He always listens to the ground
Always listens to the ground

So I say, I say welcome, welcome to the Boomtown
Pick a habit, we got plenty to go around
Welcome, welcome to the Boomtown
All that money makes such a succulent sound
Welcome to the Boomtown

Well, the ambulance arrived too late
I guess, she didn't want to wait

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Research: Media influences on worker perceptions of injury

Bring out your dead: Media influence on worker perceptions of injury
Canadian Association for Work and Labour Studies Conference
1 June 2018, Regina
Bob Barnetson, Jason Foster and Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull

What I’d like to talk to you about today is some research I’ve done with my colleagues Jason Foster and Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull. We recently conducted a survey of 2000 Alberta workers that, in part, explored their views on workplace injury.

This research was funded by the Government of Alberta’s OHS Futures Research Grant Program.

We were interested in workers’ views of injury because, over the past few years, several studies have found that Canadian newspapers profoundly mis-represent the frequency and type of workplace injuries that occur as well as which workers experience injuries.

Specifically, newspapers tend to over-report fatalities, they over-report injuries to men, they over-report dramatic injuries, and the over-report injuries in the construction, agriculture, and mining and petroleum industries.

Here’s an example. On the left, you have newspaper reports of workplace injuries in Canada from 2009 to 2014. It shows that 61.2% of reports addressed fatalities. On the right, you have WCB injury stats—which we acknowledge are not perfect stats—that show the fatalities comprise only 0.4% of all serious injuries.

This pattern is replicated in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and BC. It is also consistent in both daily papers (which tend to be urban-based) and weekly papers (which tend to be rural).

An important question this research raises is whether the over-reporting of dramatic injuries to blue-collar men affects the public’s perceptions of injury? If the answer is yes, this has public policy implications because it may negatively affect injury prevention efforts.

One conceptualization of the construction of reality is that we combine our experienced reality—which is our personal experiences and those of our friends and families—with the symbolic reality we’re exposed to—basically what we hear from social groups, institutions, and the media.

That information is combined in our heads to create a shared reality. In that model, the symbolic reality helps flesh out what we know from our personal experiences. Symbolic information containing significant bias might well skew our eventual views on an issue. At the same time, our personal experiences may potentially act as correctives to such bias.

Our suspicion was (and is) that reporting that contains profound biases would skew individual’s perceptions and that their personal experiences might not act as an effective corrective.

To get a sense of whether our hunch was right (and thus warranted further research), we added four questions to an unrelated survey of 2000 non-managerial Alberta workers in the spring of 2017. These questions were designed to determine the degree to which workers’ views aligned with or diverged from media reports. We also queried workers’ gender and personal experiences of workplace injury to see if those experiences had any effect on their answers.

The upshot was that (1) respondents’ views of injury broadly conformed to media representations and (2) the answers of respondents who had experienced injury in the past year were no different from those of workers who had no personal experience of injury.

We started by asking respondents to estimate the number of serious injuries in Alberta—disabling injuries in WCB terminology. We asked this because newspapers report only a tiny minority of all serious injuries.

While it isn’t possible to ascertain the exact number of newspaper articles published about workplace injuries each year, it is possible to locate all that articles that daily and weekly newspapers submit for indexing with FPInfoTrax. In Alberta, that was on average 32 articles per year between 2009 and 2014. By contrast, in 2016, there were 44,543 serious injuries in Alberta.

What we found was that 97.6% of respondents under-estimated the number of serious injuries, most vastly so. On average, respondents estimated there were 5,545 injuries annually (which is about 11 or 12% of the official number) and almost no one estimated higher than 20,000 injuries.

Personal experience of injury had no significant impact on worker estimates.

We also asked respondents to estimate the ratio of fatalities to serious injuries. We asked about this because newspapers tend to over-report fatalities. The official ratio of was 1 fatality for every 384 serious injuries in Alberta. By contrast, newspapers report three fatalities for every serious injury.

What we found was that the vast majority of respondents over-estimated the ratio of fatalities to serious injuries. Respondents’ average estimate was 1:44.

Again, personal experience of injury had no significant impact on worker estimates.

Our third question asked respondents to select from a list of 9 industry groupings the 3 most injurious industries. We asked this because newspaper coverage centres on industries with relatively low injury rates.

There was significant agreement among respondents (right-hand column) about the most dangerous industries: 91% selected construction, 72% selected mining and petroleum development, and 65% selected agriculture and forestry.

These were the exact same industries that newspapers reported on the most and almost in the same order.

However, the industries with the highest disabling injury rates in Alberta (left-hand column) were entirely different from those selected by respondents and reported on by newspapers. Again, there was no significant difference in the responses between workers who were injured and those who weren’t.

Overall, what these three questions suggest is that workers’ views of injury tended to align with newspaper reports and diverge from the realities of workplace injury. And there was also no evidence that workers’ personal experiences with injury served as any sort of corrective.

The only exception we found to this pattern was in the fourth question, where we asked respondents what proportion of all serious injuries were experienced by women. The correct answer in Alberta was 32.7%.

Overall, the mean answer given by respondents was pretty much bang on the money (33.8%) and men and women were about equally accurate in their estimates.

When you disaggregate the respondents’ answers a bit more nuance appears. Only about 17% of respondents estimated the correct percentage (+/-5%). Inaccurate estimates were split evenly between estimating too high and too low.

While respondents weren’t particularly good at estimating the correct percentage, they were more accurate than newspaper reports. Workers’ more accurate estimates may simply reflect that Alberta newspaper reports were so extremely skewed towards injuries to men (91.7%) that workers pretty much couldn’t help but be more accurate.

Our findings have three main implications.

The first is that workers’ views of workplace injury tend to align more closely with what the media says about workplace injury than with government injury data. Practically speaking, this means that workers’ views of injury frequency and the hazardousness of specific industries are wildly inaccurate.

The second is that workers’ individual experiences of injury appear to have no impact on their perceptions. This sits awkwardly with the usual assumptions about how we construct reality. One possible explanation for this seeming disconnect is that a workers’ personal experience of injury may not have any particular nexus with their estimates of the frequency of injury or the most hazardous industries. That is to say, workers may not generalize from their personal experiences when they consider the risk of injury.

If that is true, workers may then rely heavily on media reports (or some other source of information) to inform their perceptions of injury risk. We think some additional exploration of how workers conceptualize injury and formulate their views of risk would shed some light on that possibility.

Thirdly, that workers have inaccurate views about injury may have public policy implications around injury prevention. For example, if workers, who routinely experience or see workplace injuries, have an overly rosy picture of risk, are the views of the public, employers, and policymakers similarly inaccurate? If so, does this help explain the tendency for governments to underfund and disempower inspectors?

Again, we think some additional research might be fruitful here. Historically, Alberta politicians have tended to downplay the risk of injury, suggesting workplaces are safe and getting safer. It is less clear if the present government holds those views. It is also unclear what government health and safety bureaucrats actually think about injury. And there is simply very little data about public perceptions of workplace injury risk.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, June 1, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Solo: A Star Wars Story

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture examines the new movie Solo: A Star Wars Story. The film reveals the origins of the Han Solo character. This post contains some spoilers so you may want to stop reading if that bothers you.

The film introduces Solo as an orphan on the ship-building word of Correllia. Orphans are made to steal for criminal gangs in order to survive. This premise a very 19th-century, Dickensian feel to it.

Solo’s only way out is, ultimately, to join the Imperial Navy. Taking the king’s shilling was historically a common pathway out of poverty for lower-class British males

Solo eventually hooks up with a criminal gang but a botched heist puts him in a debt bondage to a bad guy. Relationships within the criminal gang (and between gangs) turn out to be very all-against-all and serve as a nice metaphor for the competitive individualism of capitalism.

Action eventually shifts to the mining planet of Kessel where slavery and ecological destruction are evident. While a heist is underway, Lando Calrissian’s robotic co-pilot triggers a slave revolt, which causes the destruction of the enterprise. It was interesting how quickly control slipped away from the mine’s operators.

More hi-jinx ensue and we eventually get to the climax of the story. Solo only manages to get out of the resulting jam he’s in by working collaboratively with others who are seeking to overthrown the corporatist fascism advanced by the Empire. Overall, some interesting commentary on labour and work in a galaxy far, far away.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Dual labour markets, exploitation, and mobilization at MacEwan

One of the most compelling labour stories in Alberta’s post-secondary sector over the past two years has been the mistreatment of sessional faculty at MacEwan University and their subsequent mobilization to protect themselves from their own union.

More than half (~60%) of MacEwan’s instructional staff are contingent workers, with little job security despite years of service. The use of limited-term contract staff has been a long-standing issue at MacEwan, stretching back into the 1990s. The presence of such a large pool of secondary labour creates two interesting labour-relations dynamics.

First, the large number of sessionals has a paradoxical effect on the permanent staff. On the one hand, less costly sessionals subsidize the better working conditions of permanent staff. On the other hand, sessionals create a ready pool of cheap replacement workers, which undermines the long-term job security and power of the permanent staff.

Second, sessionals have the votes to take over the faculty association (FA) and radically renegotiate the collective agreement in their own interests. There are numerous barriers to this mobilization, but the potential for intra-union conflict has long existed.

In the summer of 2017, when most sessionals were not employed and thus were not voting members of the faculty association, the FA ratified a new, two-year collective agreement. Permanent faculty saw extensions of their salary ranges while many sessionals saw significant cuts to their pay (some would lose up to 22% of their wages).

The MacEwan FA justified negotiating cuts to the wages of their most vulnerable members (while increasing the salaries of their most privileged members) as reasonable for the association as a whole. It also noted that sessionals were not allowed to vote because they weren’t employees at the time of the vote, even though most would return in the fall and be subject to the agreement.

This treatment galvanized a portion of the sessional population to form the MacEwan University Sessional Steering Collaborative (MUSSC). By October of 2017, MUSSC had achieved two important changes in the faculty association bylaws.

The first change extended the duration of sessional staff membership in the FA for up to a year after their contract expires. This prevents the future exclusion of sessionals from contract ratification votes due to flukes of timing.

The second change allows sessionals to run for seats on the FA executive board without restriction. Previously, sessionals were only allowed to fill two positions, despite comprising the majority of the membership.

In the early spring of 2018, there was an additional scuffle between the FA executive and MUSSC. The FA executive proposed constitutional amendments that were seen by MUSSC as an effort to negate the changes won in October. The amendments proposed by the FA executive were defeated.

By April, it appeared that pay cuts for sessionals set to take effect on July 1, 2018 would not occur. Pay cuts affecting some sessionals that took effect July 1, 2017 remain in effect.

It is unclear what exactly transpired here, but the negative publicity caused by these cuts for both the institution and the FA may have played a role in the suspension of the pay cuts. It appears that MUSSC will now be seeking restitution for the 2017 cuts during the next round of bargaining.

In addition, half of the FA’s executive board is up for election each year. Following the 2018 election, sessionals hold 5 of the 13 positions on the FA executive board. If MUSSC continues to mobilize, it may be able to secure a majority on the executive board next year.

While this story continues to unfold, it is an interesting to watch a long-disadvantaged group of workers exert power so quickly and effectively against both their own union and their employer.

One question I’m left with is what was the faculty association bargaining team thinking when they signed the memorandum of agreement? A second question is how will MacEwan University will navigate this kind of intra-union dispute? Will it try to exploit the internal division? Will it side with one side against the other?

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, May 25, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Worker-generated memes

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture looks at worker-generated contributions to pop culture—specifically memes. Workers have always generated cultural artifacts (paintings, handbills, poetry, songs, graffiti) about their work.

Social media has given these forms of cultural expression wider circulation. Consider this example, from the Ontario Federation of Labour in response to Tim Horton’s miserly reduction in paid breaks to offset increases in the minimum wage.

The backlash caused (in part) by online campaigns like this one included protests against the franchise across the nation.

The more interest memes are those generated by individual workers. While they are less polished, they often do a good job of conveying a complex idea. For example, consider this criticism of employer efforts to restructure work:

This pretty clearly illustrates that, whatever their mission statements may say about valuing workers, employers' true interests lie in making profits.

More complex dynamics can also be teased out. For example, one way to view health and safety regulations is that they determine the acceptable level at which employers can trade workers’ health (and lives) for profit. When you say it like that, most people roll their eyes and think “communist”. But you can make the same point like this:

This meme clearly conveys the double standard in employment. The state allows employers to main and kill workers (up to point) by setting levels of exposure to hazardous substances. But if workers did the same the same thing to employers, the workers would go to jail. This kind of presentation often resonates with workers and causes them to re-evaluate their views.

Worker generated memes also have the potential to change the minds of employers. For example, employers often complain about and/or undermine (e.g., by stalling) the operation of the grievance process. Filing an unfair labour practice against the employer is one option. Another is to start posting memes such as this in the workplace.

This highlights to employers that there certainly are alternatives to complying with the grievance process. But they aren't necessarily the most desirable options for employer, all told. Overall, I'm very encouraged by the potential utility of memes in labour education.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Perils of communicating directly with employees during bargaining

Employers engaged in collective bargaining can be tempted to communicate their bargaining proposals directly to their employees—essentially end-running the union bargaining team. 

Employers typically do this for two reasons. They may hope their explanation will make their proposals more palatable to the workers. And they may seek to undermine the union bargaining team.

This approach has two main risks. First, employers may commit an unfair labour practice if their communication is found to constitute bargaining directly with employees. Second, direct communication may backfire by, for example, making visible discrepancies between what employers say and what they propose.

For example, Athabasca University sent its opening proposal, opening presentation from bargaining, and a cheery note to the members of its faculty association last week. AU’s opening presentation stresses that the employer faces financial uncertainty and needs to control ongoing costs, such as staffing.

The data presented in support of this position is not particularly compelling. Consider this table, which purports to show a 154.4% increases in salary costs between 2005 and 2015:

Three immediately obvious problems with this table are:
  • It is in nominal (not inflation-adjusted) dollars. This overstates the degree of increase by not factoring in inflation.
  • It does not control for changes in the size and composition of the staffing complement (which are decisions made by the employer).
  • Looking at 2010 to present, staffing costs are actually stable (and, using real dollars, in decline). This is contrary to the employer’s narrative. 
Sloppily handling cherry-picked data is a fundamental mis-step with a savvy worker group that does data analysis for a living.

The employer also sent along their opening proposal. A quick read shows the employer wants a wage freeze for the next two years. This is consistent with the employer’s desire to control expenses.

Nevertheless, the other 43 pages of proposed changes have nothing to do with improving AU’s finances. Rather, they are an attack upon the substantive and procedural rights of the union’s members.

Under the employer’s proposals:

  • An academic who does not get tenure can get booted out the door with no notice.
  • Professional staff can be terminated at any time during their probationary period.
  • The decision about whether a professional employee passes their probationary period is entirely within the employer’s discretion.
  • Severance and recall rights will be significantly reduced for all employees in the event of layoffs.
  • New discipline procedures will hamstring the union’s ability to represent members. This is especially concerning given AU's cavalier approach to discipline in recent years.
  • Serious discipline (e.g., suspension without pay or termination) will be applied immediately, instead of after the appeal has been heard.
  • Grievances alleging AU allowed a union member to be harassed cannot proceed to arbitration (so essentially the employer gets to stand in judgment about its own behaviour…).
  • The composition of important appeal committees will be stacked in favour of the employer, undermining the principle of collegial governance.
  • The freedom of professional staff is so significantly reduced that is becomes meaningless.
  • The employer may force sick staff members to undergo examinations by company doctors.
In his covering note, Vice-President Matt Prineas characterizes these changes as
…reflect[ing] our desire to clean up existing language to better align to changes in the Alberta Labour Code, Alberta Employment Standards Legislation, to simplify a few processes for all of us, and to help us move forward together. We believe in you, we’re in this together, and we have no interest in disrupting your lives, the security of your families, or the progress of our students by being needlessly aggressive in bargaining. We’re working towards a win-win-win.
The problem with Prineas’s statement is that these proposals are not just house-keeping. Rather, they entail substantial and unacceptable losses for the workers (on top of yet another wage freeze).

They are also needlessly aggressive and, if pursued with any vigor, heighten the risk of a work stoppage.

Prineas's effort to candy-coat AU’s so-called “win-win” proposals further diminishes the vanishingly small amount of trust that AU staff have in their leaders.

An important question is who is giving AU this kind of labour-relations advice? So far this year, AU has been subjected to three unfair labour practice complaints and now it is rolling out a back-firing communications strategy.

Equally important is the question of why is AU’s executive accepting advice that seems destined to intensify labour conflict? Is it seeking to precipitate a strike by faculty? Or are these proposals simply an attempt to reframe bargaining such that a wage-freeze suddenly appears to be a desirable settlement to faculty? 

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, May 18, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Darth Vader's Performance Review

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is an audio-skit entitled “Darth Vader's Employee Evaluation. I’ve been incorporating pop-culture representations of human resource management functions into a revision of the intro to HR course that I coordinate because comedy often reveals unspoken truths about the workplace.

The key joke in the skit is the HR advisor asserting that Vader’s constant force-choking of his subordinates is harming the operational effectiveness of the Empire. The advisor’s suggestion of a more encouraging-management style (“maybe give them a pat on the back?”) is greeted with a very honest reply from Vader: “I don’t understand. How would that kill them?”

The workplace dynamic that this skit hits on (although perhaps not intentionally) is that performance management is essentially one arm of the employer trying to get employees to act in a way that is completely illogical to the worker given the broader structure of rewards and penalties in the workplace created by another arm of the employer.

Specifically, the advisor ignores that Vader’s behaviour is a reaction to the pressures of his job. Vader’s own boss does not tolerate failure by his subordinates. Consequently, Vader cannot tolerate failure among his subordinates and behaves accordingly.

Further, punishing space admirals shifts blame for failure (from Vader to them), there are always junior officers available to replace dead space admirals, and punishing employees is way easier in the short-term than working with them to improve their performance.

HR’s unwillingness to recognize the reasons for Vader’s behaviour means that Vader is unlikely to accept their suggestions. An interesting question is what happens to the HR advisor when he subsequently tries to discipline Vader for continuing to force-choke his subordinates?

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Labour law and politics at Athabasca University

What I like most about labour relations is the interplay of law and politics. An ongoing dispute at Athabasca University (AU) provides an interesting example of this dynamic.

There are three unions that represent the employees of AU:
  • The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) represents support staff.
  • The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) represents part-time, permanent, teaching-only employees living in Alberta (colloquially called tutors).
  • The Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) represents professors and professional staff.
There is also a small group (~50) of tutors who reside outside of Alberta, Because of the operation of the Public Service Employee Relations Act (PSERA), CUPE cannot represent these out-of-province tutors (OOPTs), so the OOPTs have no union representation.

In 2017, Alberta enacted changes in its labour law that brought AUFA within the ambit of the Labour Relations Code (LRC). Some OOPTs subsequently asked AUFA to represent them (which is possible under the LRC).

AUFA got the permission of its members to suss out whether a majority of OOPTs wanted representation and commenced what amounted to an organizing campaign (getting OOPTs to sign unions cards). This was intended to establish that AUFA had the support of OOPTs to be designated into the AUFA bargaining unit. CUPE was notified of this effort by AUFA as a courtesy and were supportive.

With organizing concluded, AUFA wrote to AU several times In March and April of 2018 seeking to have the OOPTs designated into the bargaining unit. (The unique legislative provisions (colloquially called “designation”) set out in the Post-Secondary Learning Act (PSLA) give the employer the power to determine who is an academic staff member and, thus, who is in the AUFA unit. This is an unusual arrangement and, in 2017, the government created an appeal process to the Labour Board).

The employer ignored these communications. In mid April 2018, the president wrote a snippy letter claiming the university could not possibly address this issue in the short-term and it required a lengthy review and consultation process. AUFA saw this as stalling and readied its application to the Labour Board.

On May 1, the employer was wrapping up negotiations with CUPE. CUPE always asks the employer to allow it to represent the OOPTs in bargaining and the employer routinely says no. The 2005 Labour Board decision above reveals AU prefers to have these workers without union representation, as it is less costly for the employer.

According to CUPE representatives, the employer approached the union near the end of negotiations and (to CUPE’s surprise) asked (I’m paraphrasing) “what would you give us, if we gave you the OOPTs?” CUPE then made unspecified concessions and the employer agreed that CUPE could represent the OOPTs. AUFA filed its designation application with the Labour Board a few days later.

It is likely that AU will seek to use its voluntary recognition (VR) of CUPE as the bargaining agent for the OOPTs as a way to bar AUFA’s application to represent them. CUPE may also seek to intervene in the designation application to protect its VR. Three legal issues will likely result from this move.

The Board has been pretty clear that PSERA precludes CUPE from representing the OOPTs. This suggests that the VR between AU and CUPE may be null and void. Perhaps there is a sly argument to be made around the application of PSERA to a VR (or to an over-bargained certificate), but I don’t see it.

Representational Capacity
A basic principle of Canada’s labour relations is that employees, not the employer, choose their bargaining agent. When employer-friendly unions (such as the Christian Labour Association of Canada) collude with employers to thwart another union’s legitimate organizing efforts, mainstream unions typically complain the colluding union is employer-dominated.

As far as I can tell, CUPE did not have the support of any OOPTs when it agreed to the employer’s offer to represent them. In the absence of such support, CUPE does not meet the definition of a bargaining agent (“…acting on behalf of employees…”) for these workers. 

Consequently, the VR and any collective agreement flowing form it will be null and void. CUPE cannot get around this need for representational capacity by inviting the OOPTs to ratify a collective agreement because it was negotiated without any representational capacity.

Employer Interference
The Labour Relations Code prohibits employers from interfering in the formation, organization, or administration of a trade union. AU’s decision to offer CUPE a VR when in receipt of a designation application by AUFA looks like interference in the OOPTs’ choice of a bargaining agent to me. AUFA will file an(other) unfair labour practices complaint against AU over this this week. We’ll see what the Labour Board makes of AU’s behaviour.

While we don't know what was in AU’s mind, it is not unreasonable to infer that it sought to forestall AUFA’s efforts to bring the OOPTs into the AUFA bargaining unit. Basically, the employer preferred the OOPTs non-unionized. When that option was no longer viable, it preferred them in the less militant CUPE unit. About the only good here is that the OOPTs will finally have union representation one way or the other.

CUPE’s agreement is understandable: the employer offered them a long-sought plum at bargaining. But, if the VR is ruled void, CUPE may still be stuck with whatever concessions it traded AU for the OOPTs in its collective agreement. That may cause some internal problems for CUPE, as existing members will likely be POed by concessions for no gains, especially after waiting three years for a collective agreement.

In this way, AU has cleverly made something from nothing: it will either thwart AUFA’s efforts to organize the OOPTs or it will have gotten concessions from CUPE. It has also set the stage for a potentially nasty fight between CUPE and AUFA, which draws both union’s energies way from disputes with the employer. This suggests that the university received outside advice; its internal labour relations staff don't have this kind of game.

This strategy does have some risks. For example, AU and AUFA are presently in bargaining and this is the first round of bargaining under strike-lockout. AUFA has already filed an unfair labour practice complaint against AU for failing to bargain and interfering in the administration of a trade union. Further antagonizing AUFA may not be in AU’s interests.

This supposes, though, that reaching a collective agreement is AU’s goal. An alternative way to look at AU’s behaviour is that it is resisting recognizing AUFA as a legitimate representative of its members. Refusing to engage in good faith labour relations is a way to frustrate the union and undermine the union with its members.

The idea that employers must recognize unions and negotiate in good faith is one feature of the post-war labour compromise that was first struck in 1944. In exchange, workers agreed to not strike during the life of a collective agreement (which is highly disruptive to employers and, thus, a very powerful tool for workers).

If AU is (consciously or not) repudiating this arrangement and the Labour Board does not sharply correct this behaviour, workers may start asking themselves why they should abide by the rules? AU also runs the risk of annoying the government by picking a fight with workers in the run up to the 2019 election.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, May 11, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Westray Mine

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture looks at the songs of the Westray Mine explosion that killed 26 workers on May 9, 1992. These deaths represent a clear instance of an employer trading workers’ health and lives for profit.

The root cause of the explosion was the mine owners operating the mine in an unsafe manner. The Government of Nova Scotia also failed to enforce its own safety laws effectively. While the deaths of these miners resulted in amendments to the Criminal Code to allow for prosecutions, few governments have done so.

There are literally dozens of songs about the Westray deaths. Ronnie McEwan’s “The Westray Mine Song” has a nice celtic-country vibe to it.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Research: Media constructions of migrant workers

Source: http://www.cpcml.ca/OPF2011/OPF01009.HTM
A new study of media representations of migrant workers was recently published in the journal International Migration. “Putting “Canadians First”: Problematizing the Crisis of “Foreign” Workers in Canadian Media and Policy Responses” examines how Canadian newspapers covered migrant workers during a so-called crisis in 2014 (that resulted in a moratorium on migrant workers) and afterward.

Examining 49 front-page articles between January 1, 2015 and August 31, 2016, the article thematically analyzes coverage and identifies two main themes: temporary foreign workers (TFWs) as unwanted and TFWs as vulnerable. Other themes included government mismanagement of the TFW program.

Looking at the articles temporarily, 2014 saw a preponderance of articles exhibiting negative views on TFWs. Essentially, up to the moratorium, newspapers provided an us versus them framing of TFWs. TFWs were specifically framed as replacing Canadian workers, in part by being willing to accept conditions that Canadians would not. Employers were also criticized for offering conditions that they knew no Canadian would accept in order to hire TFWs.

There is a pronounced shift in 2015 (which included the federal election) towards more positive coverage of TFWs. In part this reflected the media turning on the then-Harper government for imposing a moratorium on the basis of super lousy data. Newspaper also began examining the exploitation experienced by TFWs from employers and recruiters.

The study examines how media frames can shape public perceptions of issues as well as how reframing can occur in response to different stimuli.

-- Bob Barnetson