Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Labour & Pop Culture: Tillsonburg

Over the holidays, I heard a Stompin’ Tom Connors song called Tillsonburg. Tillsonburg is a town located just southeast of London, Ontario and was once a centre of tobacco production. The song recounts the experience of a worker recruited for field work.

This song shines some light on why Canada continue to operate programs bringing migrant agricultural workers to Canada (now focused more on vegetable and fruit production). Essentially, workers who have options, aren't prepared to work and live in the conditions offered by agricultural operators.

While a way down in Southern Ontario
I never had a nickel or a dime to show
A fella beeped up in an automobile he said "Do you want to work in the tobacco fields of Tillsonburg?" (Tillsonburg x3)
My back still aches when I hear that word

He said "I'll only give you seven bucks a day" but if you're any good you'll get a raise in pay
Your bed's all ready on the bunkhouse floor if it gets a little chilly you can close the door

Tillsonburg (Tillsonburg x3) my back still aches when I hear that word

I'm feelin' in the morning anything but fine
The farmer said "i'm going to teach you how to brane"
He said "You'll have to dawn up a pair of oil skin pants" if you want to work in the tobacco plants of Tillsonburg (Tillsonburg x3)
My back still aches when I hear that word

Well we landed in a field that was long and wide with one whole horse and five more guys
I asked him where to find the cigarette trees
When he said "Bend over" I was ready to leave
Tillsonburg (Tillsonburg x3)
My back still aches when I hear that word

He said to pick just the bottom leaves
Don't start crawlin' on your hands and knees
Prime your load cause you'll get no pay
For standin' there pickin' at your nose all day around Tillsonburg
(Tillsonburg x3)
My back still aches when I hear that word

With a broken back from bendin' over there
I was wet right through to the underwear
And it was stuck to my skin like glue
From the nicotine tar on the morning dew of
Tillsonburg (Tillsonburg x3)
My back still aches when I hear that word

Now the nearest river was two miles from
The place where they was waitin' for the boat to come
When I heard some talk of makin' the kill
I was down the highway and over the hill from
Tillsonburg (Tillsonburg x3)
My back still aches that word

Now there is one thing you can always bet
If I never smoke another cigarette
I might get taken in a lot of deals
But I won't go workin' the tobacco fields of
Tillsonburg (Tillsonburg x2)

My back still aches when I hear that word (x3)

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Labour & Pop Culture: The Factory Witches of Lowell

Recently, a new novella arrived on my desk. It tells the story of a strike by young female mill workers (“mill girls”) set in Lowell, Massachusetts during the mid 1830s (probably, as a work of historical fiction, the story is vague). Facing severe health effects from the work and a reduction in wages, the workers strike.

As the title implies, workers in The Factory Witches of Lowell are, well, witches. I’m not much for the fantasy genre, but I am interested in representations of union in science fiction. There are slim pickings in the sci-fi genre so I’m like, fine, bring on the dragons and unicorns and whatnot.

Without giving away the plot, the workers use witchcraft to create an unbreakable solidarity among the workers as well as control the production process. This gives them the leverage to hold out against the pressure of bosses.

Overall, the book left me a little flat. Using magic as a proxy for solidarity and direct action was an interesting idea that, to my mind, never really went anywhere. Perhaps, though, I’m just less interested by allegory than I am by more realistic representations of workers exercising power?

I have, however, ordered The Future of Another Timeline, which explores a covert war between rival factions of time travellers over women’s and human rights. The events they attempt to influence include moments in the labour movement.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Research: Trajectories of union renewal: Migrant workers and the revitalization of union solidarity in Saskatchewan

A recent issue of Labour/Le Travail contained a study examining the intersection of migrant workers and union renewal in Saskatchewan. This research note extends our knowledge of Canadian union’s responses to migrant workers through a survey and interview of migrant workers, Canadian workers, and union staff.

The study provides an interesting comparison of the attitudes of migrants and Canadian workers on various issues. There were interesting points of agreement in the survey results. Both groups strongly supported unionization and the belief that unions make workers’ lives better. There were also points of disagreement. For example, Canadians are more likely than migrants to believe migrants lower wages and take jobs from Canadians.

This is an interesting point of contention that might warrant some unpacking. Off the cuff, I would have said employers seek out migrant workers to fill jobs that Canadians will not take (given prevailing wages and working conditions). In this way, migrant workers do lower Canadian workers’ bargaining power by loosening the labour market. But perhaps I'm out to lunch here. And whether this plays out as wage reductions and/or worker displacement is probably complex, with unionization possibly attenuating (or exacerbating) these issues due to reduced employer flexibility around wages rates.

The qualitative results suggest that Saskatchewan unions (in general) have not responded effectively to the experiences or needs of migrant workers. Author Andrew Stevens suggests that unions may find a pathway towards membership renewal by understanding and taking action on the interests of migrant workers. Overall, this was a very interesting article.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

A Christmas Carol from an organizing perspective

The blog Organizing Work ran an interesting piece last week interrogating how worker organizing could have altered the trajectory of the story in A Christmas Carol (delightfully, using the Muppet version). 

The post contains several astute observations, including that the workers manage to get a day off for Christmas from Scrooge by acting collectively and without the aid of supernatural forces.

What I enjoyed the most in the film was the overt shit-talking about the terrible character of the boss 9see the clip above). While it is easy to excuse a boss's behaviour as a function of structural pressures (e.g., the profit imperative), it is important not to lose sight of the fact that bosses have agency and could behave better than they do if they so wished.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Decriminalizing sex work would make sex workers safer

This post was originally published on the AU Hub in conjunction with the International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Sex Workers.

It is both legal and dangerous to sell sex in Canada. One factor that makes sex workers vulnerable to violence is how the government regulates sex work. While selling sex is legal, buying sexual services and assisting in the sale or purchase of sexual services is not. This regulatory approach stigmatizes sex work and thereby increases sex workers’ risk. Fully decriminalizing the purchase and sale of sexual services—a demand supported by sex workers and 150 human rights groups—would help reduce the risk of violence.

Canada’s current approach to regulating sex work is often called the Nordic model. It assumes sex work is socially undesirable and that the demand for sexual services can be extinguished by sanctioning clients. The impact of the Nordic model on sex workers’ safety is complicated.

Sex workers and authors Juno Mac and Molly Smith note that sex workers typically have a greater need to sell sexual services (e.g., to put food on the table) than buyers do to purchase it. Criminalizing clients can reduce demand. This, in turn, forces sex workers to take on clients they might otherwise refuse or meet them in circumstances that heighten the risk of violence. Criminalizing those who could provide assistance to sex workers working safely (e.g., security staff, call services, drivers) also increases the risk of violence for sex workers.

In theory, the Nordic model is supposed to result in sex workers finding other sources of income. (In Nordic countries, this model is paired with a more complete social safety net than is presently available in Canada). In Canada, “straight” jobs are often unavailable (that’s why sex workers sell sex) or unworkable (e.g., due to childcare or health issues).

Sex workers can also be reluctant to access existing income support programs for fear of triggering the interest of other government agencies, such as children’s services or the tax department. For example, some sex workers’ reluctance to access federal income supports during COVID-19 reflects their concerns about becoming visible to the state.

Consequently, sex workers say that what Canada’s laws do is pressure sex workers to work less safely and render illegal many of the strategies sex workers can use to make themselves less vulnerable to violence. These laws are presently due for a five-year review.

Fully decriminalizing sex work—where any adult can purchase sexual services—would allow sex workers to work more safely (e.g., in cooperatives, in safer locations, with access to security and other business services). Decriminalization would also lower the barriers faced by sex workers wishing to access state services, such as medical care and income support services.

New Zealand decriminalized most sex work in 2003. Decriminalization is not a panacea. Sex workers still report facing stigma and violence, especially racialized, migrant, and trans sex workers. They still cannot necessarily access law enforcement protection safely. And many other laws and policies (e.g., zoning, licensing, advertising) still make life difficult for sex workers.

And, where sex work occurs in the context of an employment relationship, sex workers are still subject to the usual indignities and exploitation that can be found in any workplace. They may also still be subject to the abuses sex workers tend to experience in employment relationships specifically because they’re sex workers, and which occur in the sex industry under all regulatory frameworks.

But decriminalization does appear to result in better working conditions for sex workers. It also offers more accessible pathways to different work (e.g., through income support programs). If combined with a more fulsome social safety net, it might result in a significant reduction in sex work overall. New Zealand’s experience offers useful guidance about how the government can meaningfully reduce the risk of violence faced by sex workers—one driven by data rather than by stigma.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Research: Casinos and captive labour markets

The journal Labour/Le Travail recently published a very interesting case study about the experiences of workers at Casino Windsor. You can read the full text of the article here.

Casinos are often mooted as tools of economic diversification, providing relatively high-waged service industry jobs. This was a part of the back story of the opening of Casino Windsor and, initially, the casino did provide good jobs, particularly to women. Over time, though, economic pressure resulted in declining working conditions.

The workers at the casino faced labour immobility due to high unemployment and the absence of comparable wages elsewhere. This dynamic essentially creates a captive labour market, argues author Alissa Mazar, where the workers are stuck in their job. The employer knows this and uses aggressive disciplining to pressurize workers to perform.

Few options and fear of job loss has meant workers have internalizing the need to provide high quality customer service, despite poor treatment. Essentially, they exert discretionary effort in the hope that it will keep their livelihood intact and the employer uses this extra effort to reduce labour costs.

Mazar’s case study raises numerous questions about the value of casinos as economic engines, particularly when the state constraints the number of casinos and thus creates a captive labour force for the employer.

-- Bob Barnetson