Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Workers as robots: the entanglement of sci-fi and capitalism

A few years back, a friend and I wrote an article about how unions were represented in contemporary sci-fi. It was an interesting experience in multi-disciplinary research and, for me, a pleasant diversion from the gloomier topic of workplace injury. Over the intervening time, another friend (Olav Rokne) has extended this analysis. He ran an interesting panel with some of the authors whose stories we included in our study.

Last month, Rokne published a fascinating blog post about how sci-fi turned away from early concerns about working conditions and the plight of workers and, since the 1940s, come to accept “broadly accept hegemonic ideas that centre the aims of capital and capitalism. The depiction of workers was replaced with stories that centred industrialists, non-working-class inventors, and the military.”

Rokne then examines some of the historical mechanics by which this change came about, including editorial preferences and the emergence of agency-less robots as a metaphor for the working class. Robot/workers as mindless slaves complements the tendency of sci-fi writers to frame collectives (as a proxy for unions) as monstrous antagonists (e.g., Frankenstein, Cylons, Borg).

-- Bob Barnetson, Worker 889398

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Athabasca University Threatens to Exploit Peculiar Alberta Labour Law to Weaken Union

This post previously appeared on the Canadian Law of Work Forum.

The decision as to who is in (and out) of a bargaining unit in labour law can be a hotly contested issue because the decision affects a union’s subsequent bargaining power. Canadian labour law (for example, s.35 of Alberta’s Labour Relations Code) typically empowers Labour Relations Boards to review whether a proposed bargaining unit is “appropriate for collective bargaining” purposes and then accept, reject or alter the unit description.

Labour Boards apply a set of general principles to determine if a unit is appropriate. For example, Alberta’s Board notes that a unit must make labour relations sense. The factors that drive this decision include community of interest, employer’s bargaining history, nature of the employer’s organization, the viability of the proposed unit, avoiding fragmentation of bargaining structure, and (sometimes) the agreement of the parties. Usually unions are provided some leeway in deciding the unit of employees they want to represent, subject to overriding concerns about a proposed unit causing serious labour problems for the employer.

Bargaining units can be established in other ways. For example, many public-sector units are established or have the bargaining unit description set by statute. In Alberta, the unions that represent post-secondary faculty were created by the Post-Secondary Learning Act (and predecessor legislation). This peculiar piece of legislation delegated to the Board of Governors of each post-secondary institution (i.e., to the employer) the authority to determine which employees or categories of employees were considered academic staff and therefore entitled to be in a bargaining unit represented by a union.

Allowing an employer to designate which employees are members of a union creates the obvious risk that an employer will use this power to advance its labour relations interests. For example, when I worked in the college sector in the late 1990s, college boards would sometimes respond to bargaining demands for better terms for (as an example) librarians with the threat, “if you pursue this demand, we’ll just de-designate the librarians from your unit.”

While this tactic was obviously unfair, the only constraint upon the behaviour of post-secondary Boards was to meaningfully consult before they de-designated. In the mid-1990s, the Lakeland College Faculty Association challenged the de-designation of a librarian. In 1998, the Alberta Court of Appeal ruled that the absence of objective criteria upon which to base a de-designation meant that the college’s consultation was inadequate.

In 2017, Alberta’s NDP government altered post-secondary labour relations. In addition to introducing strike-lockout, the government amended the Labour Relations Code to allow designation decisions to be appealed to the Labour Relations Board. Post-secondary Boards of Governors retained their power to designate.

The new provisions in the Labour Relations Code (s.58.6(2)) outlined some factors that the Labour Board may take into account where hearing an application about designation. These include the history of and policies about designation, the results of any consultation between the employer and union(s), the potential for managerial conflict in the context of collegial governance, arrangements for the transition of affected employees, the views of other affected unions, and any other factors the Labour Board considers relevant.

The history of designation meant that the membership of faculty associations vary significantly across Alberta. Teaching staff and librarians are generally included in the association. The practice around administrators (e.g., deans, departments chairs), administrative professional staff, and other professionals (e.g., IT and course production staff) varies. The new provisions allowed faculty associations to challenge long-standing issues.

For example, in February of 2019, the Labour Board issued a decision regarding the inclusion of departmental chairs in the faculty association of Northern Lakes College. The Labour Board declined to rule on the application, citing a lack of consultation between the parties prior to the faculty association applying to the Labour Board. The Labour Board subsequently provided some guidance about how it will handle such applications going forward. Drawing upon the 1998 Lakeland decision, the Labour Board noted that post-secondary Boards of Governors should establish objective criteria upon which to base designation (and de-designation) decisions.

In December of 2019, Athabasca University (AU) presented its faculty association with a new Designation as Academic Policy (DAP). The new policy contained a very specific list of job duties required for an employee to be considered an “academic”. The proposed policy also named a number of new exclusions that included deans, associate deans, managers, and systems analyst (a very broad term, potentially encompassing AU’s entire IT department).

The effect of the employer’s proposed policy appeared to exclude approximately two-thirds of the faculty association’s current membership, leaving only professors with research duties in the faculty association. Through nine months of consultation, the university refused to confirm (or even discuss) this estimate (although, periodically, university representatives would slip up and acknowledge some of the exclusions). One of the knock-on effects of de-designation appears to be that de-designated employees will no longer being able to participate in the pension plan, another implication of the policy that Athabasca University refused to discuss.

The only rationale advanced by Athabasca University for the policy was compliance with the Labour Board’s requirement for objective criteria. AU already had, however, a set of objective criteria in its 1983 policy. Under the 1983 policy, all professors and professional staff (e.g., administrators, editors, IT staff, librarians) were in the faculty association except for a small number of staff who conducted or had access to information about collective bargaining.

The new policy proposal appears to be a part of a lengthy union-rejection strategy by the university that has included:
  • Refusing to respond to communications about violations of the contract.
  • Missing timelines around grievance and appeal processes.
  • Forcing the union off campus due to a “lack of space” ( the former union office are now a barely used storage room).
  • Forcing simple issues to grievance hearings.
  • Failing to respond to a notice to bargain and violating the statutory freeze period.
  • Advancing bargaining proposals (e.g., company doctors) that lead to impasse before walking away from virtually all of them.
  • Delaying the negotiation of an essential services agreement.
  • Refusing to continue a long-standing workload buyout for the union president.
  • No longer allowing union staff to coat-tail on the union’s employer-administered benefit plan.
Union members applied significant pressure to the employer over the policy (e.g., petitions, letters, a march on the boss, social media posts) that prevented the immediate de-designation of IT staff, deans, associate deans and managers. In September of 2020, Athabasca’s Board of Governors approved a slightly amended DAP. This policy still allows the university to begin de-designating these union members at any time. The faculty association will appeal any dedesignations at the Labour Board, having secured a funding commitment from the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

The faculty association is also increasing the reputational and financial cost of de-designation to the university. The faculty association has escalated member action to include public picketing of university events as well as gathering boycott pledges from other faculty associations. Athabasca is heavily reliant upon tuition from visiting students. If Athabasca de-designates faculty association members, faculty across the country are prepared to no longer send visiting students to Athabasca University or, in some cases, recognize transfer credit from Athabasca.

The ongoing fight at Athabasca highlights the perils of allowing the employer to wear two hats. Athabasca appears to be using its power to decide who is in the bargaining unit to advance its labour-relations interests. This conflict of interest was pointed out to Alberta’s former New Democratic government in 2017 when it amended the law. And avoiding such conflicts is one of the reasons that Labour Boards are typically given the responsibility to determine who is in and out of a bargaining unit.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

New study on farm safety views in Alberta

A new study about safety on Alberta farms is now available. “Occupational health and safety on family farms in Alberta” was funded by the now defunct OHS Futures Grant from government. The study comprises 37 interviews with far operators, family members, employees, industry and worker groups and regulators in 2018/19 (so under the NDP’s now mostly defunct Bill 6 rules). At present, the majority of non-family employee son farms are excluded from statutory OHS, employment standards or labour relations rights.

The findings include:
  • There is an awareness that unsafe work is unacceptable among operators,
  • Workers and farm operators have different views about the level of safety on farms.
  • Fatigue is a key risk factor.
  • Power imbalances in the employment relationship appear to negatively affect the safety of non-family employees. This often goes unrecognized by industry and safety professionals.
  • There was general agreement that some OHS and injury-insurance requirements are necessary; employers were less supportive of rules hours of work despite the safety risk of fatigue.
Overall, this research jives with the broader body of research on farm safety. Of particular note is the impact that pressure (time, finances) have on the decision about working safely and the normalization of unsafe work (by farm operators) as just a part of the job.

This research also highlights how workers and employers see safety differently, even though they may share some of the same risks in the workplace. The impact of a lack of childcare options on the safety of children on the farm was also insightful.

Of interest on the insurance side was the devaluing of the no fault nature of WCB (i.e., the tort bar) because few operators thought they would be sued over an injury. Overall, the study highlighted that there was significantly more nuance to operator views about farm worker rights and regulations than one might thing from the reaction to Bill 6 back in 2015/16.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

New course: LBST 325: Labour mobility and migrant workers


Athabasca University has opened a new online course.

LBST 325: Labour Mobility and Migrant Workers examines various forms of labour mobility and how they affect workers, their families, and the sending and receiving communities.

The course draws upon research done by scholars associated with a recently concluded SSHRC grant (On the Move) with an emphasis on labour mobiilty in western Canada.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Massive drop in Alberta OHS ticketing

Alberta Labour and Immigration’s annual report for 2019/2020 is now available online. Here are the highlights of the employment standards and occupational health and safety sections. The most interesting item is the 96% drop in OHS tickets issues in the past year.

Employment Standards

The number of employment standards complaints was pretty static but there were significant improvements in complaint processing times. That said, it still takes an average of 45 days for a complaint investigation to begin, which isn’t great if your employer just scooped your wages or fired you without notice or pay in lieu.

Interestingly, the number of anonymous tips jumped a lot (about 10% of these tips were investigated). There was also a significant percentage jump in workplace inspections. That said, the overall percentage of workplaces inspected remains very, very low.

Occupational Health and Safety

Workplace inspections were down about 20% this past year. Fewer inspections is attributed to pulling staff from frontline duties to train new OHS officers (really?) and a new system whereby employers can pinky swear that they fixed problems and avoid a re-inspection (eye roll). Orders written and unique worksites visited were also down. 

In terms of enforcement, 22 tickets were issued in 2019/20 (15 of which went to employers). Although the report doesn't mention it, this was down from 479 tickets in 2018/19. Hmmmm. This 96% drop in tickets cries out for explanation. At a guess, I’d say inspectors were told to stop issuing tickets because ticketing is up for review in 2020/21. Issuing virtually no tickets creates ”evidence” that this form of penalty is unnecessary and thus can be done away with as “red tape”.

Five administrative penalties were also issued to employers. Again, not mentioned is that this was down from 14 in 2018/19. Complaints of discrimination for exercising OHS rights were up this year (90 versus last year). Five of these were upheld, 23 were dismissed, and 62 remain under investigation. OHS charges were up, however, from 16 to 18 this year. This is a very low number given the number of injuries and fatalities.

While injury rates are not very good measures of injury due to massive under reporting, they do offer a year-over-year measure. Overall, both lost-time and disabling injury rates were stable in 2019 but were higher than they were in 2015. There were 129 fatalities accepted by the WCB in 2019—about the same as the year before.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Labour & Pop Culture: He thinks he’ll keep her

My wife flagged this 1993 song by Mary Chapin Carpenter as labour related. It traces the journey of a women who, at 36, opts to leave her marriage and role and primary caregiver to re-enter the workforce.

Most of the song chronicles the unpaid, social reproductive labour that the women does. It is interesting to see this work treated so explicitly as both skilled and demanding labour. And yet these skill have little market value when she decides to rejoin the paid workforce. It also nicely tease is out the often hidden power dynamics of one-income marriages.

I’m not a huge fan of the new country era, but the backup singers on this video are are pretty amazing. Trisha Yearwood, Emmylou Harris, and Patty Lovelace, to name a few.

She makes his coffee, she makes his bed
She does the laundry, she keeps him fed
When she was twenty-one she wore her mother's lace
She said, "forever," with a smile upon her face

She does the carpool, she P.T.A.'s
Doctors and dentists, she drives all day
When she was twenty-nine she delivered number three
And ev'ry Christmas card showed a perfect family

Ev'rything runs right on time
Years of practice and design
Spit and polish till it shines, he thinks he'll keep her

Ev'rything is so benign
The safest place you'll ever find
God forbid you change your mind, he thinks he'll keep her

She packs his suitcase, she sits and waits
With no expression upon her face
When she was thirty-six she met him at their door
She said, "I'm sorry, I don't love you any more"

Ev'rything runs right on time
Years of practice and design
Spit and polish till it shines, he thinks he'll keep her

Ev'rything is so benign
The safest place you'll ever find
God forbid you change your mind, he thinks he'll keep her

For fifteen years she had a job and not one raise in pay
Now she's in the typing pool at minimum wage

Ev'rything runs right on time
Years of practice and design
Spit and polish till it shines, he thinks he'll keep her

Ev'rything is so benign
The safest place you'll ever find
At least until you change your mind (he thinks he'll keep her) all right

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Labour & Pop Culture: Good Girls Revolt

If you are looking for an interesting historical dramatization to fill you winter evenings, Amazon Prime is presently offering Good Girls Revolt, a 10-episode miniseries set in 1969 and 1970 at Newsweek Magazine.

Amazon cancelled the show after one season. But what a season it was! The show is based upon a book the chronicles a sex discrimination lawsuit by female researchers at Newsweek.  The researchers are exploited horrendously, often being more qualified and better writers than the male reporters, but paid a fraction of their wages and denied credit.


The most interesting part of the show is how it documents what is essentially an organizing campaign by the women to assert their rights. I can’t think, off hand, of another mainstream series that follows an organizing campaign over time. Usually collective action is framed as spontaneous or the result of a long-standing power base. 


In Good Girls Revolt, we get to see a group of workers create a new power base in a workplace. This includes recognizing and articulating their interests and how they differ from the interests of other workers (the men). It also engages how race and class can affect solidarity within a group. The character’s flaws and mis-steps are also realistically portrayed. 


-- Bob Barnetson