Friday, November 9, 2018

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Research: Organized labour support for minimum-wage increases

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

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

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

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

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, November 2, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Seinfeld



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

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

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

-- Bob Barnetson