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

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Labour & Pop Culture: Justice League of America

I ran across a 1964 issue of the Justice League of America (JLA) comic book that appeared to be about unionizing superheroes. The cover shows various heroes picketing, demanding their rights.

The crux of the story line is that The School Master (a particularly lame 1960s supervillain) manipulates the United Nations into prohibiting the use of super powers. This makes the JLA unable to effectively resist a crime spree by a variety of other lame 1960s supervillains (Tattoo Man?).

The JLA is so law abiding that they decide to comply while peacefully picketing. Picketing proves totally ineffective so they turn to direct action. In this case, crime fighting without using their super powers.

Which is a bit of a major plot hole because the impetus for this was that the non-super-powered heroes couldn’t effectively fight these super villains. After many tedious pages, The School Master’s plot of revealed and the injunction is lifted.

Overall, this was pretty disappointing. Some interesting points include the government being manipulated into helping out greedy supervillains, picketing being framed as ineffective, and the heroes turning to direct action.

-- Bob Barnetson

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