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

INTRODUCTION
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.

METHOD
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).

RESULTS
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.

ANALYSIS
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.

BACKGROUND
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.

THE LAW
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.

Jurisdiction
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.

THE POLITICS
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

Friday, May 4, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: On the Turning Away

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “On the Turning Away” by Pink Floyd. (You can watch the Pink Floyd version here). I picked this song because I though the sensibility of the song (if not its exact lyrics) speak to a troubling dynamic that has emerged in Alberta labour politics since the election of the New Democrats in 2015.



Specifically, there has been a collective decision among most labour leaders that the NDs (no matter hard they are presently driving towards the centre in the hope of getting re-elected) are likely going to better for workers than would a Jason Kenney government. This is most likely correct.

The result has been a mostly cooperative approach towards the New Democrats in an effort to avoid the divisiveness that helped to sink Bob Rae’s NDP government in Ontario in the early 1990s. Like any strategy, this approach entails trade offs.

Last weekend’s Day of Mourning for workers who have been killed, injured, or made ill by their jobs illustrated one trade off. The Day of Mourning (borrowing a slogan developed by labour activist Mary Harris “Mother” Jones) demands that we mourn for the dead and fight like hell for the living. A review of labour’s messaging around the Day of Mourning suggests that it is tempering its fight for the living (at least in public) in order to provide political support for the NDs.

During the (seemingly endless) years when the Tories were in government, Day of Mourning press releases issued by the Alberta Federation of Labour typically decried increasing fatality levels, ineffective government enforcement efforts, and the unjust exclusion of certain occupations from basic OHS rules. This reflected that the Tories basically didn’t enforce OHS laws and employers traded workers’ health for profits.

Since the election of the NDP, there has been a marked and increasing shift in the Day of Mourning messaging towards praising the ND’s efforts on injury prevention. In 2016, while noting that workers’ safety shouldn’t be sacrificed due to short-term economic recession, the AFL praised the new government’s commitment to modernize OHS laws:
"We are glad that Alberta’s new government is following through on their promises to modernize these laws,” Vipond said. “Robust, inclusive, and nuanced legislation will help ensure that workers’ rights are respected, that they are able to access WCB when they need to, and that they get back to work safely and in good health.”

In 2017, the AFL press release praised the government for making plans to use the Westray amendments to the Criminal Code to prosecute employers.
“We’ve been saying for years that sometimes fines aren’t enough,” said AFL president Gil McGowan. “If we really want to make sure workplace safety gets the kind of priority it deserves, employers and managers have to know they could go to jail if their decisions or negligence result in serious injuries or fatalities. The prospect of real, personal consequences will ensure that employers don’t treat the health and safety of their workers lightly.”
This year, the AFL’s press release congratulated the government on delivering legislative changes to OHS and WCB:
As hundreds of workers gather to remember those killed, injured, or made ill as a result of workplace incidents on the International Day of Mourning, workers also celebrate changes made by the Government of Alberta that will mean a safer future for Alberta workers.
Three paragraphs follow that outline and gently praise the changes set out in Bill 30.

On the one hand, publicly praising politicians for enacting better laws around injury prevention makes sense—both in terms of getting future changes made and in re-electing the most pro-worker government Alberta is likely to see. The presser is also way for the AFL to obliquely claim an important victory that it has worked hard to achieve.

On the other, I wonder if praising the government is the best way to use this once-per-year spotlight on workplace injury? Alberta has improved the content of its OHS laws. Yet there has been almost no progress on enforcing those laws (which, the research tells us, is what actually affects employer behaviour).

Specifically, there are still relatively few workplace inspections each year. There are almost no sanctions imposed on employers for breaking the law. And, as far as I know, Alberta has yet to prosecute any employers under the Criminal Code.

Not surprisingly, workplace injury and fatality rates are relatively static: at least 166 Alberta workers died from work last year and tens of thousands were seriously injured.

Alberta’s labour movement could have used the last three Days of Mourning to push the government to fund better enforcement. Even better enforcement of the old laws would have been a huge win for workers. And yet, 75% of the way though the ND’s mandate, we’ve not seen any major improvements in OHS enforcement.

Certainly the new laws are praiseworthy. But they are not enough—they require aggressive enforcement to be meaningful. While praising the government achieves labour’s electoral objectives, the workers who will be killed or injured on the job this coming year (and their families) would likely have been better served by demanding more enforcement.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Research: Making Alberta workplaces safer

Last week, the Parkland Institute and the Alberta Workers’ Health Centre jointly published as report entitled Safer by design: How Alberta can improve workplace safety. This report was based upon a 2000-worker survey funded by the Government of Alberta OHS Futures Grant program.

The crux of the report is this:

1. Most workplace injuries in Alberta are not reported. For example, 69% of respondents who experienced a disabling injury did not report it to the WCB. This suggests Alberta’s injury statistics are skewed radically low.

For example, in 2016, Alberta reported 44,543 serious (disabling) injuries. Our study suggests that true number is ~170,700. Overall, it is likely there are over 400,000 workplace injuries in Alberta each year.

2. Most employers violate Alberta’s safety laws. Only half had hazard assessments (which identify hazards and set out controls). Less than half involved workers in hazard identification. Only 59% told their workers about hazards and how to control them.

3. Many workers are scared to exercise their health and safety rights. Between 10 and 23% of workers feared negative consequences if they exercised their rights—such as asking for safety information or refusing unsafe work. In workplaces where workers are routinely exposed to many dangers (i.e., the workplaces where workers get hurt the most), fears levels were up to four times higher.

This suggests that there is a fundamental problem with the internal responsibility system that underlies workplace safety in Alberta. Employers often don’t hold up their end of the bargain (controlling hazards). Workers are fearful of exercising their safety rights. And government enforcement is virtually non-existent. This creates a vicious circle that helps explain high injury rates.

While Alberta did make significant changes to its health and safety legislation, legislative change alone will not be sufficient to alter the behaviour of employers. The report makes 13 recommendations that should make workplace safer.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, April 27, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: American Pie

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture looks at “American Pie” by Don MacLean. This song is among the most famous of pop songs and is a timely choice, given that tomorrow is the Day of Mourning for workers killed on the job.

The song features a 1959 plane crash that killed musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper (hence, the day the music died). More broadly, the song is about McLean’s sense (in 1971) that America had taken a turn in the wrong direction.



For those not keen on listening to ‘70s singer-sing writer, may I suggest Weird Al’s Star Wars parody, which anticipated the plot of The Phantom Menace?



A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that music used to make me smile
And, I knew if I had my chance that I could make those people dance, and...
Maybe they'd be happy for a while
But, February made me shiver with every paper I'd deliver
Bad news on the doorstep - I couldn't take one more step
I can't remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride
Something touched me deep inside the day the music died

So, bye bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Them good ol' boys were drinking whiskey and rye, singing...
This'll be the day that I die
This'll be the day that I die

Did you write the Book of Love and do you have faith in God, above?
If the Bible tells you so
Now, do you believe in Rock and Roll? Can music save your mortal soul? And...
Can you teach me how to dance real slow?
Well, I know that you're in love with him, 'cause I saw you dancing in the gym
You both kicked off your shoes - man, I dig those rhythm and blues
I was a lonely, teenage broncin' buck with a pink carnation and a pickup truck, but...
I knew I was out of luck the day the music died

I started singing, bye bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Them good ol' boys were drinking whiskey and rye, singing...
This'll be the day that I die
This'll be the day that I die

Now, for ten years we've been on our own and moss grows fat on a Rolling Stone, but...
That's not how it used to be
When the Jester sang for the king and queen in a coat he borrowed from James Dean
In a voice that came from you and me
Oh, and while the King was looking down the Jester stole his thorny crown
The courtroom was adjourned - no verdict was returned
And, while Lennon read a book on Marx the quartet practiced in the park, and...
We sang dirges in the dark the day the music died

We were singing, bye bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Them good ol' boys were drinking whiskey and rye, singing...
This'll be the day that I die
This'll be the day that I die

Healter Skealter in the summer swelter - the Birds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight Miles High and falling fast
It landed foul on the grass
The players tried for a forward pass with the Jester on the sidelines in a cast
Now, the halftime air was sweet perfume while the Sergeants played a marching tune
We all got up to dance, oh, but we never got the chance
'Cause the players tried to take the field - the marching band refused to yield
Do you recall what was revealed the day the music died?

We started singing, bye bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Them good ol' boys were drinking whiskey and rye, singing...
This'll be the day that I die
This'll be the day that I die

And, there we were, all in one place - a generation Lost in Space
With no time left to start again
So, come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick - Jack Flash sat on a Candlestick, 'cause...
Fire is the Devil's only friend
And, as I watched him on the stage my hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in Hell could break that satan's spell
And, as the flames climbed high into the night to light the sacrificial rite, I saw...
Satan laughing with delight the day the music died

He was singing, bye bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Them good ol' boys were drinking whiskey and rye, singing...
This'll be the day that I die
This'll be the day that I die

I met a girl who sang the Blues, and I asked her for some happy news
She just smiled and turned away
I went down to the sacred store where I'd heard the music years before, but...
The man there said the music wouldn't play
And, in the streets the children screamed, the lover's cried, and the poets dreamed, but...
Not a word was spoken - the church bells all were broken
And, the three men I admire most: the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, they...
Caught the last train for the coast the day the music died

And, they were singing, bye bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Them good ol' boys were drinking whiskey and rye, singing...
This'll be the day that I die
This'll be the day that I die

They were singing, bye bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Them good ol' boys were drinking whiskey and rye, singing...
This'll be the day that I die

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Day of Mourning injury and fatality data

This weekend is the annual Day of Mourning for workers killed and injured on the job. Ceremonies are planned in Edmonton and Calgary. Sean Tucker and Anya Keefe (University of Regina) have again released a summary of occupational injury and fatality data.

In reading the report, it is important to be mindful of the data limitations (e.g., under-reporting, jurisdictional differences in definitions, growing use of modified work). The highlights include:
  • Injury-related fatalities: Among provinces with over 100,000 workers, Saskatchewan’s five-year average injury fatality rate ranks highest (6.3 deaths per 100,000 workers) followed by Alberta (3.8 per 100,000) and Newfoundland and Labrador (3.2 per 100,000). (p.3)
  • Disease-related fatalities: Among provinces with over 100,000 workers, Newfoundland and Labrador has the highest five-year average occupational disease fatality rate (8.3 deaths per 100,000 workers) followed by Nova Scotia (5.1 per 100,000), and Alberta and British Columbia (both 3.7 per 100,000). (p. 3)
  • Lost-time claim injury rates: Among provinces with over 100,000 workers, Manitoba had the highest five-year average injury rate (3.10 injuries per 100 workers) followed by Saskatchewan (2.35 per 100), and British Columbia (2.27 per 100). (p. 4)
I have nicked the Alberta graphs from the reports as I expect those are of specific interest to my readers.


What there graphs show is relatively little improvement in injury and fatality outcomes in the recent past. While the rates are low, they often mask large numbers. For example, in 2016 there were 144 occupational fatalities and 23,649 lost-time claims.

The Parkland Institute will be releasing some Alberta specific-data about occupational health and safety on Friday and I’ll summarize that next Tuesday.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, April 20, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Night Shift

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Night Shift” by Bob Marley and the Wailers. The song explores Marley’s experiences in Delaware after his mother re-married and moved there from Jamaica.

Marley worked at the Chrysler Assembly plant in Newark before hitting it big as a musician. I don’t see a lot of hidden meaning in the song: its just recounts the repetitive nature of working nights driving a forklift in the parts plant.



The sun shall not smite I by day,
Nor the moon by night;
And everything that I do
Shall be upfull and right.
And if it's all night,
It got to be all right!
If it's all night,
Got to be all right!

Your mamma won't lose this one;
You're the lucky one under the sun.
If you make me move,
Then you know you got the groove:
All night, it's all right!
All night, yeah! It's all right!

Working on a forklift
In the night shift;
Working on a night shift,
With the forklift,
from A.M. (Did you say that? Why did you say that?)
to P.M. (Working all night!)
Working on a night shift, yeah!
(Did you say that? Why did you say that? Upfull and right!)
Well, if it's (all night!) - if it's (all right!)
all night (all night!) -

Warehouse (all right!),
You're empty, yeah!
Go around the corner,
Bring your goods!
Go around the other corner,
Bring your suitcases. (All night!)
By the sweat of my brow, (All right!)
Eat your bread! (All night!)
By the sweat of my brow, (All right!)
Eat your bread!

All night (all night)! All right (all right)!
All night (all night)! All right (all right)!
Oh, yeah! (moon by night)
Why did you say that? Oh, yeah! (Upfull and right!)
Working on a night shift
With the forklift. (Moon by night!)
Working on the night shift,
Oh, yeah! (Upfull and right!) [fadeout]

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Athabasca faculty file unfair labour practice complaint

Last week, the Athabasca University Faculty Association filed a complaint with the Alberta Labour Relations Board. The crux of the complaint is that Athabasca University is violating sections 60 and 148 of the Labour Relations Code. I have reprised the LRB notice to the right (click to get a bigger version).

Section 60 of the Code addresses collective bargaining. Essentially, it says that the employer and the union and shall meet within 30 days of one being served notice to bargain by the other and, with 15 days of the first meeting, the parties shall exchange bargaining proposals.

Section 148(1)(a)(i) and (ii) of the Code addresses employer behaviour in the workplace. They prohibit employers from interfering in the formation and administration of a union and the union’s representation of employees.

Although the notice is a touch vague, the union is alleging two basic things in its complaint:

1. The employer is routinely ignoring its obligations under the collective agreement and otherwise jerking the union around. This interferes with the union’s ability to represent its members and, consequently, undermines the credibility of the union with the membership. Freezing out the union is a typical union-busting tactic because it undermines the support the union enjoys from the employer.

2. The employer is stalling bargaining (specifically, it will not meet within the 15-day timeline to exchange proposals despite having months of notice that bargaining was coming). Again, this kind of bad faith bargaining undercuts the unions’ credibility with its members and is a typical union-busting tactic.

To be fair, it may be simply be that the employer is incompetent in the management of its labour-relations functions (rather than being intentionally obstructive). Having seen the full complaint, I'd be pretty skeptical that this is solely about incompetence--it looks like a (bad) strategy. In the end, what is driving this behaviour won't matter much because the effect is the same.

This pattern of behaviour is not new at AU. For example, in 2015, the employer went on a tear of evading timelines and stalling grievances and bargaining. The university eventually apologized for that and said it wouldn't do it again.


In 2016, the employer stalled bargaining by being available to meet (by my count) only five times in nine months. When they arrived to bargain, they were routinely unprepared, hadn't done what they said they would do at the end of the last meeting, and, at one point, started arguing against proposals that they had advanced (no, seriously, that actually happened!). Not surprisingly, bargaining hit the skids and went to arbitration. 

During these antics, the faculty association had no access to meaningful remedy for such unfair labour practices because of the structure of Alberta’s labour laws. That has now changed. Alas, the employer’s behaviour hasn’t.

It is notable that the employer has, so far, refused to circulate the notice of this complaint to its staff as it was instructed to do “immediately” by the Labour Board on April 12 (in the past they have just emailed it around). The faculty association has been forced to post the notice so its members are aware.

Why the employer would also pick a fight with the Labour Board by being obstructive is a bit of a mystery. It is also a touch ironic that the university can’t meet the timeline for circulating a notice about a complaint that it can’t meet timelines… .

A response from the employer is due on April 26 and a hearing will be scheduled thereafter.

-- Bob Barnetson

Research: Working from home boosts productivity

There was an interesting study about the effectiveness of working from home out of Stanford. You can read a brief summary in this article.

The study examines a large Chinese firm and followed 500 workers, half of who worked from home and half in the office. The upshot was that home workers:
  1. Worked longer (almost a full day longer each week—a work-time gain of 13%!).
  2. Concentrated better (so were more productive while they were at work).
  3. Were cheaper (no office space costs)
  4. Had 50% lower attrition, less sick time, and took fewer breaks.
  5. Had a smaller carbon footprint (less commuting, more intensive use of home space).
I’ve been working from home since 2007 and this is pretty consistent with my experience. The key drawback was half of the home workers felt lonely. And there were a few people humping the dog (which was more than offset by gains among other workers).

Letting workers chose whether to work from home (self-selection) resulted in an overall increase in productivity of 24%. If you can stand it, you can watch the author do a 14-minute talk about the study below. He’s reasonably funny and pretty smart but zzzzzzz….



The usual caveats apply to this research: single study, foreign country, YMMV. But it certainly has a lot of face validity for me.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, April 13, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Mining for Gold

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Mining for Gold”, most famously performed by the Cowboy Junkies. The very haunting song speaks to the human cost associated with mining (specifically hard rock mining).

This song is timely given the death of Barrack Gold founder Peter Munk at the end of March. Munk was widely lauded as a visionary business leader, with lofty ambitions and visionary goals. A look at the record of Barrack Gold is sobering.
And as the company’s mining empire expanded, so too did the social criticism, with accusations of abuse at mines in Papua New Guinea and Tanzania drawing protests and reprimands. 
But Munk was unapologetic, and held fast in his convictions that the company was overall a source of good as part of a globalized world of capitalism. 
“Someone has got to create and generate wealth,” Munk said at his last annual general meeting in 2014.
What the Toronto Sun is avoiding talking about in detail are the gang rapes and shooting of workers at various Barrack mines in the developing world. But at least he generated shareholder value. 

The Beaverton pretty much nailed it with its headline “Barrick Gold entombs fifty foreign miners in Peter Munk’s pyramid so he’ll have workers to abuse in afterlife”
“He was such a generous man,” said a Barrick Gold VP, about the ex-chairman whose company is responsible for dozens of atrocities throughout the world. “He would insist on Barrick Gold giving our miners more violence, more heavy metals in their groundwater, more sexual assault. It’s only fair that in return these fifty men be forced to accompany him to paradise.” … 
In addition to Munk’s compulsory entourage, he will also be buried with a thousand barrels of industrial cyanide so he can poison the hereafter’s freshwater sources, a bulldozer for tearing down the homes of heaven’s indigenous population, and a few hundred million dollars in case he needs to bribe God to look the other way. 
“I thought Peter was crazy when he said he could get away with killing hundreds of people if he also dug up a shiny rock once in awhile,” said one longtime friend and member of the board of directors. “Boy is my face red, not to mention my hands!”


We are miners, hard rock miners
To the shaft house we must go
Pour your bottles on our shoulders
We are marching to the slow

On the line boys, on the line boys
Drill your holes and stand in line
'til the shift boss comes to tell you
You must drill her out on top

Can't you feel the rock dust in your lungs?
It'll cut down a miner when he is still young
Two years and the silicosis takes hold
and I feel like I'm dying from mining for gold

Yes, I feel like I'm dying from mining for gold

-- Bob Barnetson