Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Alberta hamstrings union dues collection

In early January, my colleague Jason Foster and I wrote about Alberta’s efforts to hamstring its unions through oppressive union financing laws. The gist of the issue is that unions will now have to categorize their expenditures as either core (basically bargaining and grievance work) or non-core (lobbying, political activity). Then unions will need to go each year to each member to get them to agree to pay dues related to non-core activities.

This policy will reduce the funding available to unions to influence labour laws and public policy, both by giving members an opt out and by forcing unions to expend more money to collect their existing dues. The political goal is to reduce an important source of public opposition to the UCP government.

It is unclear how this is going to play out. Unions may decide to just label all activities as “core activities” on the argument that everything a union does provides benefits to members in the workplace. Or they may just ignore this requirement. Or they may challenge it in court.

This policy reflects a protracted attack by the government of Jason Kenney on workers and their unions. This has included making it harder to certify a new union, binding the hands of public-sector employers with secret bargaining mandates, passing laws that allow the government to declare pickets illegal, and requiring unions to get permission to picket certain worksites.

Since it appears the UCP will be a one-and-done government, it is hard to say how much impact these dues changes will have before they are likely repealed.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Alberta guts OHS rules

In late December, my colleagues Jason Foster, Susan Cake and Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull and I wrote about Alberta’s efforts to gut Alberta’s joint health and safety committee rules and undermine workers’ right to refuse unsafe work.

The short of it is that joint committee have fewer duties and fewer powers and are much more creatures of the employer. This will undoubtedly reduce their already limited effectiveness. While it was there, the government also eliminated the requirement for periodic inspections of the workplace, regular meetings of the committee, ongoing training for committee members, and most rights to see information about workplace safety.

The right to refuse dangerous work has also been watered down, with term dangerous work being dropped in favour of the weaker term “undue hazard”. An undue hazards is a hazard that poses a serious and immediate threat to the health and safety of a person. The use of the terms “serious” and “immediate threat” narrow the kinds of danger work that can be refused. Most chemical and biological hazards, for example, do not pose an immediate threat.

The bar on employers’ retaliating for refusals has also been weakened. Previously, the employer could not discriminate against a work for refusing unsafe work. That has been narrowed to a bar on disciplining a worker. Practically, what this means is that an employer can now do things like assign a refuser crappy work or crappy shifts (because that is not discipline) if they refuse unsafe work.

Overall, this is part of the UCP governments efforts to reduce the financial cost to employers of safe workplaces. The negative impact on workers (in terms of injuries and deaths) is simply waved away. About the only good news is that the UCP is likely headed for electoral oblivion in May of 2023 so these changes stand a good chance to being scraped.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

AUPE survey on pandemic needs

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) periodically publishes a magazine (Direct Impact). The fall 2021 issue (not yet online at the time of writing) reports the results of a survey of its members about the impact of COVID.

The survey is fascinating, documenting income losses by two-thirds of members, with the losses being highly racialized. More than a quarter of member households experienced a layoff and almost half (49%) cut back on food purchases. An interesting question was what measures would help AUPE members cope with the financial hardships caused by COVID. I've nicked the graphic (sorry Guy!) and present it below:

Keep in mind that these results represent the view of unionized workers in AUPE who responded to the survey (I don't see a note about response rates). This means we should be cautious about its findings and especially of generalizing to other populations.

The pearl-clutching aside, what is most striking is that workers overwhelming identify price controls as what would help them most. Many of the COVID demands popularized by the broader labour movement (e.g., paid sick leave, presumptive WCB, childcare subsidies) received much less support. 

Further, demanding government intervention in the market (which neoliberalism suggests is anathema, unless it benefits the wealthy) is a surprisingly bold position for such a large portion of the respondents to stake out. Perhaps the pressure COVID is create and how it has pulled back the curtain on class-disparities is starting to more clearly inform rank-and-file views on union priorities?

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Trucker shortages about jobs quality, not worker shortage

Time magazine recently ran a short analysis of the cause of America’s shortage of truck drivers. Presently, supply chain shortages are compromising Christmas shopping (Bob clutches pearls) and, according to employers and the government, the key factor is a lack of qualified truck drivers. This same narrative operates in Alberta and has been met with truck driver-training initiatives by the province.

What is interesting, according to the article, is that there is no shortage of people qualified to drive big rigs or interested in the doing so. In fact, the labour market is so flooded, employers are able to pick and choose who to hire. Naturally, employers use this loose labour market to grind wages and working condition.

Not surprising, the quality of the jobs on offer  is so poor that people quit. Annual turnover in big US trucking firms is an astounding 92%. The poor quality of jobs was triggered by the de-regulation of American trucking in the 1980s (thanks Reagan!).

I have not seen a similar study in Alberta. What I hear anecdotally is that the difficult nature of the job and low wages makes them unattractive jobs. Further, employers are often reluctant to hire new drivers (especially young ones) because of the high insurance costs associated with such drivers.

Spending tax dollars to train more drivers effectively subsidizes employer’s poor working conditions without necessarily improving the employment prospects of Albertans. Since the UCP has largely given up on evidence-based decision making and instead just shovels subsidies at their donor base (perhaps leavened with loosening the rules around hiring temporary foreign workers), I doubt we’ll see any change in this approach soon.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Labour & Pop Culture: Documentary on 9-to-5 Movement

Netflix is presently showing a documentary entitled 9to5: The Story of a Movement. This documentary traces the development of the 9 to 5 social movement that began foregrounding unfair working conditions for women office workers in the United States (initially in Boston) in the early 1970s. This movement was the inspiration for the 1980 comedy of the same name (which holds up pretty well and, sadly, is still topical, 40 years later).

One of the narrative arcs of the film explores how the 9 to 5 movement transitions from a social movement into a union (Local 925) as the workers sought to formalize and entrench the gains they had made. This includes following a union organizing campaign (in Cincinnati I think, but it may have been Seattle) through an initial defeat and subsequent victory. It also examines how the attack on labour by US business and government in the 1980s affected Local 925.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

2019 workplace injuries and fatalities report

Sean Tucker and Anya Keefe from the University of Regina have released their annual roll up of Canadian workplace injuries and fatalities using 2019 data. Note that this data is for the pre-COVID period, although there is some preliminary 2020 COVID-claims data included in a separate section.

The nub of the story for Alberta in 2019 (again, pre-COVID) is:
  • Alberta continues to have among the highest per capita injury-related occupational fatality rate, which jumped 9% in 2019 over the previous three-year average. 
  • Alberta also has the highest absolute number of injury-related fatalities despite having only about 10% of Canada’s population. 
  • Alberta has the third highest absolute number of disease-related fatalities. 
  • Alberta’s lost-time claim rate also jumped 11% in 2019 when compared the previous three-year average (the biggest jump in Canada)
Oddly, Alberta just announced changes to its OHS legislation (effective December 1) to weaken its already ineffective injury- and fatality-prevention system. The Alberta data in graphical form is below.

Nationally, there were about 39 accepted COVID-related fatalities and 32,742 accepted COVID-related lost-time claims in 2020. Here is a provincial breakdown.

It is not possible to draw conclusions from this snapshot but tracking and explaining the differences (when you control for population and perhaps the timing of the waves) in accepted cases in BC, AB, ON and QC would be an interesting project.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Labour & Pop Culture: Frankenstein's Monster and Dracula were union organizers?

I ran across this interesting article last year about the origins of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) in the United States (which has merged with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists in 2012 to form SAG-AFTRA). SAG started in 1933 to prevent the exploitation of actors by movie studios.

Among the founding members was Boris Karloff (most famous for portraying Frankenstein). Karloff was concerned about long hours (including one 25-hour stretch) and dangerous working conditions on set and one of the first SAG meetings took place in Karloff’s garage. He served as a Board member and officer of SAG from 1933 to 1951.

Bela Lugosi (most famous for playing Dracula) was also an early member. Lugosi emigrated from Hungary in the 1920s after engaging in labor activism among actors there. Both Lugosi and Karloff were SAG recruiters, soliciting memberships from actors on the sets of their movies.

-- Bob Barnetson