Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Why might Co-ops treat workers poorly?

One of the most consistently interesting blogs about work is Organizing Work. Over the past few months, they have posted a couple of related articles about co-ops and unions. Co-operatives (i.e., member-owned operations) often have a lot of street cred with progressives.

Historically, co-ops featured prominently in the Antigonish Movement and on the prairies, where workers sought to break the monopolies they faced as producers and consumers. Modern versions (e.g., Mountain Equipment Co-op, various credit unions) keep this model alive.

Yet not everything is peachy-keen in the co-op movement. For example, UFCW 1400 members engaged in a protracted strike with the Saskatoon Co-op over the winter to push back against two-tier wage scales (i.e., lower wages for new workers). After six months, UFCW members narrowly accepted a deal that includes a two-tier wage system.

Organizing Work undertook some analysis of the track record of grocery co-ops in the US and Canada to see if the Saskatoon dispute was an aberration or was symptomatic of a broader pattern of union busting and worker exploitation.

The article is a worth a read but the upshot is that coops often treat workers poorly and engage in union busting. In part, this reflects that co-ops are intended to benefit their consumer members, not their workers.

Grinding workers wages is one strategy to keep prices down. There is also some interesting analysis in the article of how three inter-related entities seem to be pushing a more corporate form of co-op management.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Unions & Sci-fi: Hunger Makes the Wolf

I recently finished two sci-fi westerns by Alex Wells in which a union made an appearance. Hunger Makes the Wolf (2017) and Blood Binds the Pack (2018) follow the adventures of Hob Ravani as she leads a group of outlaws (the Ghost Wolves) on the bone-dry corporate planet of Tenegewa.

Tenegewa is dominated by the TransRift Corporation (which controls interstellar travel). TransRift has established a number of corporate towns (both mining and farming), which harken back to Appalachia in the 1930s (or 1970s!).

The heavy-handed tactics of TransRift are sometimes collectively resisted by the miners, who might call a day of rest and thereby reduce production. Over the course of the two novels, the situation faced by the miners deteriorates and they become more militant.

While I don’t think they ever refer to themselves as a union, the miners employer a number of traditional labour tactics, including striking. They are also subjected to numerous traditional employer tactics, include infiltration, starvation, and violence.

Ravani’s bandits eventually work in collaboration with the miners to undermine TransRift and give the distant government a pretext for more involvement (there is a power struggle between the government and TransRift over space-travel technology).

Overall, the books do a decent job of portraying the process of organizing workers. I found the books a touch long but hung on to the end.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Superstore: Unions and Undocumented Workers

In late May, the TV show Superstore wrapped up another season. I’ve written about Superstore before because they had a very interesting union storyline a few years back as well as some hilarious staff training videos.

This finale had a three-episode story arc. Cloud 9’s corporate office grinds workers’ hours which leads store management to publish photos of the gross effects on store cleanliness in order to get more hours. This leads to a disciplinary investigation and the firing of a worker (meek weirdo Sandra). Sandra then becomes a union stalwart and starts organizing. Cloud 9 then targets the store for closure.

There are three really interesting moments in the final two episodes:

1. There is a depiction of a union organizing meeting. Although the meeting is played for laughs, this is the first mainstream depiction of a union organizing meeting that I can recall on TV.

2. During the meeting, one employee argues against organizing by highlighting how vulnerable the workers are and maybe they should just be happy with the pittance they have. This part of the meeting is played straight and it has the effect you would expect on the union drive.

3. A part of its union-busting, Cloud 9 contacts ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to raid its own store. This is expected to be disruptive to the workers’ solidarity as well as terrify them. This is where the episode takes a dark, dark turn for undocumented worker Mateo.

Interestingly, the ICE raid seems to solidify support for the union. We’ll have to wait until the fall to see how this plotline plays out. But this story line returns Superstore towards the kind of critical comedy that we saw in shows like Archie Bunker.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Edmonton Public Library flirts with cutting teens' wages

Alberta’s minimum wage for youth under 18 will be reduced tomorrow as part of a broad series of labour-law rollbacks enacted by the new United Conservative government. The short of it is that workers under 18 and enrolled in school will have a minimum wage of $13 per hour, instead of the $15 per hour earned by everyone else.

Some employers have publicly pledged to continuing paying youth the same wage as adults. Others are quietly rolling back wages. The first public case of a rollback was (oddly) the Edmonton Public Library.


The Edmonton Public Library (EPL) has a pretty good reputation as a library system and its staff provides wonderful services, often to vulnerable populations. The EPL also contributes to and is committed to important democratic principles such as intellectual freedom: “Intellectual Freedom protects your right to read, listen, write and speak your beliefs and opinions – and everyone has the right to have an opinion or hear an opinion on any topic. ”

EPL’s collective agreement with CSU 52 set the wages of its youth pages at the minimum wage plus an additional premium (between 15% and 25%). On June 10, the EPL emailed its youth ages to tell them that it would be reducing their wages between $2.30 and $2.50 an hour because the provincial government has reduced the youth minimum wage.

Staff were told verbally not to “gossip” about this wage rollback and to direct questions or concerns directly to management. This suggests the EPL’s commitment to intellectual freedom extends only to its customers, not its employees. Despite efforts to contain news of this rollback to within the library, word got around.

Timeline and Messaging

On June 12, when queried about the rollback, the library’s talking points were essentially these:
As some background, EPL employs youth workers under 18 as Student Pages in our libraries. These positions are unionized and their wages are outlined through a letter of understanding with Civic Service Union 52. 
The Government of Alberta has instituted a new youth minimum wage of $13 per hour for students under the age of 18. This will come into effect Wednesday, June 26 and our Student Pages will be affected by it. This is because rates of pay for a Student Page are tied to the minimum wage as established by the Government of Alberta.
In short, the library sought to place responsibility for the change on the government and on the EPL’s collective agreement with CSU 52. In these talking points, the EPL appears to lack agency or choice.

In the early hours of June 13, local blogger David Climenhaga published a sharp critique of the EPL, noting that the EPL could indeed negotiate a solution that precluded a wage cut. By 8 am, the library’s talking points had shifted:
I do wish to let you know though, that EPL is currently open for bargaining with Civic Service Union 52 and through negotiations will be discussing further.
This suggests that the EPL had some choice but things are still constrained by its bargaining relationship with CSU 52 (with which it was bargaining). At this point, criticism of the EPL began to pick up on twitter, with long-time library supporters expressing shock and disappointment. Traditional media also began to ask questions. After lunch, CSU 52 then made a chippy post (since removed) about its dismay with the EPL’s behaviour.

By the afternoon, the library had reversed course. A statement on the EPL website indicated, in part:
The Edmonton Public Library (EPL) would like to acknowledge feedback we’ve received regarding our Student Page positions and the impact of recently announced changes to student minimum wage rates in Alberta. As part of our Collective Agreement with Civic Service Union 52 (CSU 52), Student Page wages are based on a premium applied to the provincial minimum wage set by the Government of Alberta. 
EPL is proud to have ongoing roles specifically for high school students under the age of 18. We value our Student Pages as evidenced by our commitment to paying a premium over the minimum wage. 
EPL will begin bargaining with CSU 52 shortly to negotiate a new Collective Agreement. Generally, changes to language contained in the Collective Agreement are done through the bargaining process which involves EPL working collaboratively with CSU 52 to make any amendments. 
Fortunately, EPL has not implemented this proposed change, and after further discussion, EPL and CSU 52 have come to an agreement to maintain current Student Page wages rates until negotiation of the new Collective Agreement is complete. As a result, there will be no changes to Student Page wages at this time ($17.25 - $18.75 per hour). 
Thank you for voicing your opinions and asking us to find a solution.
In this set of messages, the EPL is still the victim of circumstance but is now also a responsive employer that values the workers whose wages it was going to cut.

CSU then replaced its critical post with one outlining how it cooperated with the library to resolve the issue. The EPL then went on a twitter offensive, individually pushing its resolution messaging out to everyone who made a critical comment. This generated mostly praise and relief, with a few tweets querying what the library had been thinking in the first place.


Although this case relies solely on public documents, there are some conclusions we can draw. These include:

1. Intentional decision: The partial paper trail that I have seen suggests this decision was both intentional and well enough thought through that there was plan to mitigate reputational harm. In light of this, it is reasonable to conclude that the EPL decided the benefits of reducing teens’ wages (e.g., cost savings, leverage over CSU 52 at the bargaining table) outweighed the costs of acting to maintain wages.

2. Pressure worked: Concerted public pushback caused the EPL to reverse its decision about reducing youth wages. The EPL may have been particularly sensitive to reputational harm because reputation is an important asset, particularly as the EPL tries to raise money to complete the renovation of the Milner library. Whether other employers are equally vulnerable to reputational harm is an open question.

3. Incremental response: The EPL’s response changed over the course of two days from defending the change to reversing it. I would suggest the mounting criticism among library patrons and supporters caused this (eventual) reversal. Absent continued criticism, I suspect the library would not have reversed its decision but instead would have tried to communicate the problem away.

4. Inconsistent messaging: The EPL’s messaging started out claiming the EPL had little agency (caught between the union and the government). By the end, the EPL had worked out a fix. This fix was available from the get go. What was missing was the political will to achieve it.

5. All smiles: Both the EPL and CSU 52 are now touting their agreement as a good news story and CSU has revised it public statement. This “nice-nice” behaviour elides the conflict they had during the dust up.

6. Organized labour's absence: Alberta’s unions were notable absent in this push back. To be fair, they were focused on opposing Bill 9, which attacks wage settlements. But unions are large organizations that can attend to multiple problems. This was a missed opportunity for labour to support a vulnerable and sympathetic group negatively affected by government policies. This “poster-child” dynamic is important. For example, the 1995 laundry workers strike in Calgary was an important turning point in blunting Ralph Klein’s enthusiasm for further wage rollback.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Labour politics and deflection

Last week, Alberta’s United Conservative government introduced legislation designed to suspend the arbitration of wage re-openers in most public-sector collective agreements. This move is widely expected to give the government time to cook up wage-freeze or wage-rollback legislation.

There’s good coverage and analysis of this decision elsewhere. One of the more interesting twitter exchanges about this that I saw centered on this tweet by the New Democratic opposition:

Astute observers immediately queried, if the NDs knew this was coming, why they didn’t lock-in wage increases for public-sector workers (who took two zeros) for subsequent years when they were in government. The NDs didn’t venture an answer, but I’ll take a stab at an explanation.

I see the explanation as having two parts. First, it was in the NDP’s political interest to not agree (either directly as the government or via the government’s agencies, boards and commissions) to any public-sector wage increases. The ND’s re-election strategy was to attract centrists (i.e., less icky conservatives) and that meant avoiding any appearance that the NDs supported maintaining the purchasing power of public-sector workers. Wage re-openers kicked that issue down the road and, in doing so, have made it marginally easier for the UCP to interfere in collective bargaining.

Second, there were no political consequences for the NDs to this strategy. If they won the election, arbitrators would likely give public-sector workers a 2%(ish) cost of living increase and the NDs could shrug and blame the arbitrators (“Arbitrators, AMIRITE?!?”). If the NDs lost the election, then whatever bad happens because of this strategy just becomes political fodder for them as opposition MLAs.

In theory, organized labour should be really pissed at the NDs about this realpolitik strategy, especially given that the unions all helped the NDs by going along with the mandated two-year wage freeze, instead of striking. (It is important to acknowledge that organized labour isn’t monolithic and some unions and activists chose a different path.)

But there is little chance of any public fight between labour and the NDs over this issue. The NDs presently represent the best electoral option for unions and workers. And the NDs and labour are tightly enmeshed, both obvious ways (e.g., individuals often holding positions in both camps or moving between them) and less obvious ways (e.g., the web of friendships among progressives).

Perhaps the lesson here is that relying mainly on electoral politics (especially communications based electoral politics) is a poor strategy for workers and unions. Channeling money into political action committees is certainly an easy path. And, when your party is in power, you get a few modest legislative changes. But, absent a mobilize block of voters and the will and ability to direct their support elsewhere, unions remain a very junior partner.

This approach allows the NDs to avoid important (to workers) legislative and policy changes while in office (e.g., cost of living increases, employment equity legislation, scab bans). And it means, when the NDs eventually get voted out, labour has little capacity to meaningfully resist Conservative efforts to repeal legislative improvements and tear up public-sector contracts.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, June 17, 2019

Minister's massive over-time misdirection

Alberta’s An Act to Make Alberta Open for Business (Bill 2) is presently before the Legislature. If passed, Bill 2 will allow employer to avoid paying over-time premiums if workers choose to (or are forced to) take overtime as time in lieu (instead of as wages).

Minister of Labour Jason Copping recently tweeted that paid over-time does not change under Bill 2, asserting that his “math” had been “verified by (unnamed) academics and experts”.

This tweet is partially correct: Bill 2 does not change the overtime pay earned. But the tweet is also deeply misleading in that Bill 2 reduces workers’ ability to realize their over-time pay.

This reflects that Bill 2 creates a loop-hole, wherein time in lieu is paid at straight time. (While, in theory, taking OT pay as time off is agreed to between workers and employers, that isn’t how it works in practice: employer basically just impose it.)

This tweet triggered a flurry of responses basically calling bullshit on Minister Copping. The most data-drive response was by ND staffer Matt Dykstra who used Statistics Canada data to estimate the forgone weekly OT payment per worker by industry if employers forced workers to take time off (instead of paying out OT).

Full disclosure: Matt asked me a couple of weeks back to verify his approach to this calculation, which I did.

For workers who work overtime, Bill 2 creates potential average weekly OT wage loss ranging from $55 to $320 (depending upon industry).

If everyone who worked OT in a week was forced to take their OT as time off, this would create a net reduction in employer wage costs of approximately $63.5 million per week (412,200 workers x $153.80 saved per week). Annually, that works out to $3.3 billion in potential OT savings for employers.

Obviously, this estimate overstates the size of the effect because the estimate does not account for employers that will not force workers to take all of their OT as time off at straight pay (there is no good way to estimate this as far as I can tell).

The value of the estimate is that it illustrates that Bill 2 is a potentially huge gift to employers by the Kenney government. The cost of this gift is borne by workers. 

Further, there is no evidence I can find that this change will result in more hiring. Indeed, what it does is incentivize employers with seasonal variation in demand to work their existing workforces harder during peak period rather than hiring more workers.

The Minister suggesting that paid OT does not change under Bill 2 is an astounding act of misdirection. And his tweet tells us that we should be highly skeptical of anything UCP MLAs say.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Some labour implications of the Final Report of MMIWG Inquiry

A few weeks back, the final report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman and Girls was released. While I haven't finished reading the report yet, Volume 1a contains two sections of particular interest to human resource and labour relations.

The first section is a deep dive into the relationship between resource-extraction projects and violence against Indigenous women and children (starting on page 584). The report specifically examines the impact of transient (or migrant) workers on receiving communities and their citizens as well as workplace harassment, shift work, additions and economic insecurity. The nub of it is that the structure of employment associated with these projects creates and/or amplifies negative consequences for Indigenous women and children.

The second section is a deep dive into the sex industry (starting on page 656), in which Indigenous women and girls are often participants. This section does a nice job of capturing the nuances of sex work and the impact Canada’s colonial legacy has on the dynamics of sex work. It also highlights the importance of an intersectional analysis when examining how individuals experience sex work.

-- Bob Barnetson