Monday, September 27, 2021

Labour & Pop Culture: More Brooklyn 99

It looks like Brooklyn 99 will be using the Policeman’s Benevolent Association as a recurring antagonist in its final season. In Episode 3 (The Blue Flu), the uniformed officers fake an attack on an officer (mouse in a burrito) in order to pressure the NYPD to support the officers and buy them new tactical equipment. (These are likely reasonable demands from the perspective of the workers, but they are not explored and simply dismissed as self-interested.) When the NYPD won’t play along, the officers call in sick (i.e., strike illegally) and the main characters have to investigate and foil this job action.

Again, recognizing that writing a police comedy is tricky these days, there was a lot of interesting stuff packed into this show. First up, we don’t often see workers engaging in direct action on television. While the direct action is eventually contained by the employer, that the workers forced the employer to respond highlights how effective direct action can be. I’m not sure that was the intent of the writers, but it was an interesting facet of the show.

The sick out is basically treated as illegitimate. But one of the workers' demands was for new tactical gear (i.e., personal protective equipment), which you’d think the main characters might have some sympathy for. This suggests that there may be more to this work stoppage than worker laziness and manipulation (which is how it is presented).

The speed at which the main characters (who are generally written as moral, upstanding, and sometimes politically aware) jump to bust the patrol officers’ job action is quite striking. This again highlights how police officers sit in a conflicted position as workers. The main characters are workers but their job is to act against other workers on behalf of the powerful. That none of them (particularly Rosa, who left her job as a cop because of racist policing practices) were in any way discomforted by this was a missed opportunity.

To fill out the ranks while the patrol officers are out sick, detectives are dragooned from other precincts. The other precinct captains use this demand as an opportunity to take out the trash, dumping their least productive detectives on the 99th Precinct (my wife and I laughed aloud, having witnessed this exact play in government). This requires Amy to figure out how to covert these detectives’ capacity to work into actual work. She does this by offering an incentive program linked to pedometer metrics. The workers immediately subvert this effort, which is played for laughs and further amplifies the lazy worker trope.

The sick out is eventually brought to an end when the Captain tells the union rep that the strike has revealed that fewer patrol officers actually resulted in better policing. The threat here is that, if the patrol officers stay off, they won’t have jobs to return to when they come back. This is a classic management power move (threatening jobs to gain worker compliance). It has echoes of employers threatening to dump a product line, close a business, or automate a process if the workers don’t do management’s bidding.

While the police union has only appeared in two episodes, it seems that Brooklyn 99 is drawing upon the corrupt union (or union boss) trope to create a recurring antagonist for its final season. This makes sense given that the show is trying to highlight racist and violent policing, to which police unions have contributed, while also trying to be a comedy. To the degree that viewers don’t distinguish between this particular example and the behaviour of the broader labour movement, Brooklyn 99 is likely doing workers a disservice.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, September 20, 2021

Labour & Pop Culture: Brooklyn 99

Brooklyn 99 is a police comedy series that has just released its final season on Netflix. The first episode (“The Good Ones”) deals with police brutality and the role of police unions in shielding officers from the consequences of their actions. The release of the final season was delayed as the writers sought to write a police comedy in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

Two of the characters (Rosa and Jake) investigate the assault, arrest, and false charging of an African woman by two NYPD police officers (to generate overtime payments, according to their captain). The police union (the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association) bars Rosa and Jake from talking to the officers and accessing bodycam footage that might demonstrate the charged woman is innocent. When Jake and Rosa steal the footage from the union offices, the precinct captain deletes it and explains how the disciplinary system is broken.

The plot and characterization of the police union was interesting in several ways. In no particular order:
  • The assault and false arrest is explained as the officers seeking to extend their shift and receive overtime. This may well happen but this explanation seems to ignore the racial context of the George killings.
  • The union official is written as a caricature (living with his mom and loving the NYPD and Billy Joel) prepared to overlook any bad behaviour by his union’s members. The union member are also shown as caricatures (making ridiculous complaints, dressing like RWNJs).
  • There is collusion mooted between the union and the employer to undermine any discipline the officers might experience. In the end, the only outcome is the charges are dropped against the African woman.
Before jumping into any analysis, it is worth appreciating that Brooklyn 99 is a comedy show that is trying to navigate tricky terrain. And using tropes (e.g., corrupt union officials protecting irresponsible union members) is a common way for television shows to engage with unions (because viewers can much more easily understand the plot).

The precinct captain explaining the officers’ behaviour as economic is a very interesting way to portray how racism (which is the root issue) can be obscured by how the issue is framed. It is way easier for an organization to grapple with time theft than with systemic racism. I wonder if the elision of racism by the framing should have been made clearer? But perhaps I am under-estimating the audience.

The characterization of the police union officials and members was unsympathetic (but funny). These NPCs created an interesting foil for the main characters (who viewed themselves as “the good ones”) and allowed the show to highlight how good intentions often get subverted by systemic pressures. That said, this episode contributes the almost universally negative framing of unions and union members.

Near the end, there is an interesting discussion of how the discipline system works. Essentially, says the captain, trying to discipline the officers will not work. They will simply get a paid vacation, any finding of wrongdoing will be overturned on appeal (because the employer colludes with the union), and the officers will simply return to the job emboldened (while the female captain’s career gets sidelined for breaking the code).

There is a lot to unpack in that one scene. That the police officers would be placed on paid leave pending a hearing seems to be framed as rewarding bad behaviour (and it is certainly far different from most American’s experience of employment at will). Yet, if you think about it, a collective agreement compelling the employer to abide by the principle of innocent until proven guilty is a good thing.

The idea that the employer will collude with the union to prevent the police officers from being disciplined highlights how police unions operate in a far different realm than every other union. One of the functions of police officers is to (essentially) protect private property. In practice, this means that they act against workers on behalf of employers (who own most private property). This makes police officers effectively agents of capital. Consequently, their employer may excuse behaviour that no other employer would.

The position of the captain (who views herself as one of the good ones) is also an interesting study in the conflicted role of middle managers. The captain is basically a disposable tool of the employer (if she does the objectively right thing, her career is over). So, she does the “best” she can, which leads her to fix the immediate issue while, at the same time, enabling the officers’ ongoing bad behaviour.

The captain rationalizes her behaviour, in part, as an equity issue. She is one of the few female captains. Doing the right thing (by a racialized person) will set back gender equity in the NYPD. This was a really fascinating analysis of how racists systems can create conflicts of interests between and among racialized and non-racialized people.

Overall, this episode provided a lot of meat to chew over about systemic racism and the structures and dynamics that perpetuate it.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, August 20, 2021

Labour & Pop Culture: AP Bio

Netflix has recently begin carrying A.P Bio. The show follows a misanthropgic former Harvard philosophy professor (Jack Griffin) who is forced to teach advanced placement biology to nerds in Toledo while living in his dead mom’s Jesus-adorned home.

Episode 2 of Season 1 sees Jack in trouble for failing to supervise his students. Jack is forced to choose between a short suspension and fighting the discipline. If he fights the discipline, he remains suspended with pay and has to hang out in “teacher jail” playing cards and such. Niecy Nash (who is hilarious) plays the union rep “Kim”.

There are two interesting aspects of this storyline. The first is that the union rep and the principal (played by Patton Oswald) have a long history and the union rep uses the grievance to get back at the principal  We rarely get into the complex relationships that develop between union and management reps over time and how these relationships colour the handling of grievances and other business. The idea of a grudge shaping decision-making is quite (and perhaps unintentionally) accurate.

The second is that teacher jail is framed as a bit of a ridiculous place where bad people go to kill time on full pay. This plays a bit into the “malingering worker” trope. What is interesting about teacher jail is how at odds it is with how discipline workers in both in Canada and especially in the US. Basically, workplace discipline sees workers as guilty until proven innocent. If they are innocent, they may get some compensation for their lost wages or jobs but few non-unionized workers can afford to fight discipline.

Arrangements where a worker is suspended with pay pending the employer proving discipline (i.e., innocent until proven guilty) are few and far between, even in unionized environments. Yet this seems like the fairest approach, since the burden of proof falls on the employer and the employer imposing sanctions without actually proving the worker did anything works a great unfairness on workers. It is telling that Jack only has access to this kind of approach because he has a union that’s negotiated a solid contract.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, August 9, 2021

Alberta Labour 2020/21 Annual Report

Alberta Labour released its annual report for 2020/21. As usual, there are a number of interesting tidbits to be found in amongst the spin doctoring. For example, the report (p.18) identifies that the Minimum Wage panel (struck in 2019) to examine the impact of minimum wage changes (and likely to support reducing the minimum wage for servers) reported (I’m told in the spring of 2020) and the government is sitting in the report.

Given the difficulty that many minimum-wage employers are having recruiting staff, it will be interesting to see if the government goes ahead with re-introducing this two-tier wage structure and, if it does, whether employees will be able to take advantage of it and grind server wages.

There was some interesting analysis this year that higher youth wages do not appear associated with job losses among youth (which was the pretext for introduce a lower youth wage in 2019). There is also some suggestion that lower youth wages have not resulted in improvements in youth unemployment. In June, youth (age 15-24) unemployment was 18.1% in Alberta, basically double overall unemployment (9.3%).

The emphasis on helping unemployed Albertans return to work (either via additional training or labour market services) is notable and reflects the 6.6% drop in employment in 2020. The government also reduced by about a third the number of spots available to migrant workers who wish to become permanent citizens to, in part, “enable more job opportunities for unemployed Albertans” (p. 36). Interestingly, the department continued to make efforts to increase labour mobility within Canada by lowering the already low barriers to having certifications from other provinces recognized (pp.37,39).

Employment Standards

The number of Employment Standards complaints dropped by about 35% between 2018/19 and 20201/21. This likely triggered drops in other ES metrics (some of which are positive). There is no analysis of why complaints dropped or which kinds of complaints declined. Potential explanations include fewer Albertans working and fewer Albertans willing to complain given the high level of unemployment.

There is no data provided on what percentage of complaints were found to be valid or how much unpaid wages were recovered (or not recovered). The number of human trafficking investigations jumped from 59 to 95 (no data on outcomes) and single administrative penalty was issues to an employer who derived economic benefits from non-compliance. The report pumps this up as the biggest fine ever issues. What is ignored is that pretty much all valid ES complaints involve the employer enjoying an economic benefit. So a single employer being penalized is not really a huge success.

Occupational Health and Safety

The number of OHS inspections was way up last year, likely reflecting the demands of COVID. The number of orders written was, however, way down. The explanation offered is a bit hard to parse but I think it says that basically OHS only lowered the boom when there was repeated noncompliance. What this tells employers is that they basically get a free pass on their first offence (unless someone gets injured or killed), which does not really incentivize voluntary, pro-active compliance by employers.

There were 55 tickets issues in 2020/21 (mostly to workers). Once again, the report omits important context which is that, under the UCP, ticketing has dropped off to essentially nothing. In 2018/19, there were 479 tickets issues. This dropped to 22 tickets in 2019/20 and remains low in 2020/21.

There were also 18 administrative penalties issued to employers, totalling $62,500. This number is up over last year (14) but I can’t find the data to track the dollar value. Seventeen charges were laid this year against employers (about the same as last year). Fines as a result of convictions dropped from $5.2m to $1.9m because, you guessed it, the number of charges in previous years dropped.

Injury Stats

While injury rates an not very good measures of injury due to massive under-reporting, they do offer year-over-year a measure. There was a significant jump (8%) in lost-time claims and is at the highest level since 2011. COVID explains part of the jump this year, but it is notable that there has been a long-term trend (since 2016) upwards. This suggests that Alberta injury prevention efforts are not working. Accepted fatalities sat at 130, which is about the same as last two years.

Labour Relations

The number of certification applications in 2020/21 was way down (51%). This is likely the result of the reintroduction of mandatory votes (which makes certification drives riskier for unions) and COVID. On the upside, the Labor Board finally began allowing electronic filing (dumping their outdated paper/fax-only system).

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Alberta's 2019 injury data released

Alberta finally released its annual report on injuries and fatalities for 2019. Some of the key findings are that, from 2017 to 2019:
  • Lost-time claim numbers and rates are up slightly,
  • Modified work numbers and rates are down some, and
  • Overall, the number of disabling injuries is up slightly (likely population growth related) while the rate is down slightly. 
Industry-related data was not super surprising. Ag and forestry is the most dangerous and saw large growth in injury rates (~24%). I suspect this reflects the implementation of mandatory WCB in agriculture.

Manufacturing, processing and packaging was another sector with relatively high injury rates. We should expect this number to spike in 2020 and 2021 given the COVID waves that swept through the meat-packing plants. We’ll likely also see something similar in the public sector (particularly education and health care). We may also see this in mining, given the oilsands camp outbreaks.

There has been a long-term increase in occupational fatality rates in Alberta.

This has included a long-term reduction in the proportion of fatalities caused by motor vehicles accidents (blue bar in chart below) and an increase in workplace incidents (orange bar).

Claims related to harassment and violence doubled from 2015 to 2019. This may reflect, in part, greater awareness and acceptance of these sorts of injuries as a result of changes to the OHS Act and Code made by the New Democrats.

One of the most compelling charts is buried at the end of the document and it tracks injury rates over 10 years. Combined with the fatality rates chart above, the biggest take-away is that not much has changed. 

This suggests that the injury-prevention strategies mandated by successive Alberta governments (which have emphasized education and voluntary compliance coupled with anemic enforcement) have not really moved the needle on worker injuries or workplace safety.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

New data on injury under-reporting, claims suppression, and risk in small workplaces

Some new research updates have been published by the Institute for Work and Health. A study in BC looked at injury claiming behaviour. It found that approximately half of workers who have a work-related injury or illness that requires time away from work do not report the injury to the BC workers’ compensation system. Key explanations include workers not knowing they are entitled or how to apply or not thinking it is worth their time to do so. Further, between 4 and 13% of people with work-related injuries experience inducements or pressure from their employer not to report the injury.

You can read the full report here and a shorter policy briefing here. This table (nicked from the policy briefing) summarizes the recent evidence on underclaiming and suppression in workers' compensation claims.

The key take-aways are that there is pretty consistent evidence that only half of injured workers report injuries to the workers compensation system. That is to say, workers’ compensation data (which is basically what we use in Canada to assess injury rates and drive public policy) consistently and significantly under-estimates the true level of injury. Further, one of the factors that drives under-reporting by workers is employer claims suppression behaviour.

Interestingly, claim suppression is not the most common cause of under-reporting in the BC study. Workers not knowing to or how to report was a significant factor. This is followed by workers not thinking it was worth their while to do so (in part because some employers offer alternative forms of injury compensation).

A second study investigated the reasons underlying higher risk of injury to workers at small firms. The upshot of this study was that inadequate safety policies and procedures at smaller firms were the major source of higher injury rates. When this variable was controlled for, differences disappeared. This suggests that smaller workplaces are not intrinsically less safe and the greater risk of injury can be attenuated by improved organizational processes

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Boss makes a dollar, we make a dime...

Everyone's friend, Bonhomme (not a boss).
One of the challenges of organizing workers to resist an aggressive employer is the tendency of workers to disbelieve (at least, at first) that their employer could actually mean to treat them so badly. 

This initial denial often reflects underlying anxiety (because the boss is powerful) and manifests itself in several ways. For example, workers may:
  • question whether the union is mis-informed about what is happening or mis-understands it,
  • suggest the employer has made an innocent error and can be talked around or shown the error of their ways, or
  • try to make excuses for the employer (“they have no choice”).
Workers can eventually move past these initial responses, especially when the employer repeatedly misbehaves (which eventually creates a “the boss who cried wolf” dynamic). A sly employer can draw out the period of denial with a good “bonhomie” routine or by creative gaslighting. 

One strategy unions can use to get past this is to help workers understand that bosses really aren’t like them. Sure, they wear a skin suit and have kids and like to wakeboard and go on Disney cruises. But their world is fundamentally different.

But how to show this? Well, money talks. So a peak inside the boss's house is a great way to illustrate—in an immediate and material way—that the boss isn’t worried about where their next paycheque comes from. And, when the boss takes a wage freeze or tiny rollback, it doesn't have the same effect as when they try to push that on workers.

My most recently previous boss's house is up on the market and, through the miracle of virtual tours, we can see how the 1% really lives. The address in the posting isn’t exactly correct, based on my pre-picket scouting during our last round of bargaining. I’m not sure how long this posting will be live (the virtual tour is something) so I screen capped a few of the photos.

I’ve been to a lot of members' homes—usually for good reasons, sometimes for sad ones. None of them have come close to this size (3800 sq ft on 3/4 of an acre backing onto a pond) or level of luxury.

The main floor boosts a huge living room (with piano), dining room, kitchen, and master suite. The quality of the finishes put my house (which is pretty nice) to shame.

The master suite includes a soaker tub with its own fireplace, which is important when you need to relax after the difficult days of grinding workers’ wages.

And satin sheets will help you sleep away your guilt at pretending to care about keeping jobs in the Athabasca region, while actually moving them away.

The upstairs has an enormous bedroom (not shown), while the basement features a wet bar area that connects a massive family room with a rec room. What better place to gather your minions and hatch plans to bust your workers’ union!

The point here is that bosses superficially look like workers. But they don’t share our circumstances or our interests. And revealing that difference to workers—in material terms—can go a long way towards undercutting the boss’s messaging.

-- Bob Barnetson