Thursday, September 29, 2011

Unions: Assets or Liabilities?

After two weeks with my head in transcripts of the legislative assembly, I’ve come up for air to find that the Canadian Association of Financial Officers (a union) has issued a report examining “whether unions are still the same positive engine for social change that they once were” (p. 2).

There is nothing particularly Earth-shattering in this report, reflecting its fairly mainstream assumptions about industrial relations and the economy. But it does provide a useful (and current) rebuttal to rightist claims that trade unions are somehow holding back Canada’s economic performance.

The most useful point made this report is that the current “system” of worker rights and standards is not fixed. Rather, the “system” reflects a series of historical contingencies—accommodations made by employers and the state in exchange for stability and legitimacy—facilitated by workers (via unions) exerting political and economic.

Absent trade unions, the powerful would have significantly greater opportunity to alter working conditions we now deem to be “normal” in a manner that would advantage the wealthy and disadvantage most workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Another safety blitz...

Yesterday, the government announced its fourth inspection blitz of the past year or so, this time in residential construction. The non-unionized residential construction sector is a good target. The government’s own stats show that the 1700 inspections performed at residential constructions sites in 2010 resulted in about 1000 orders being issued.

This announcement (that you can view here) has several interesting features. The first is that it was announced. Critics suggest that telling employers inspectors are coming will skew the results and make things look better than they are. Further, when the heat is off, employers will just return to their old habits. The Minister had no meaningful response to this critique, likely reflecting that it is spot on.

The second is the potential political ramifications. If the results of this blitz are as bad as most people expect them to be, it will be hard for the government to justify continued kid-glove enforcement. Such willful misconduct will reduce the credibility of claims that “we need to educate employers to improve safety”.

The third is that the Minister has announced he is working on changes to allow for the ticketing of both employers and workers. He plans to introduce these changes this spring. Ticketing has been possible since a 2002 amendment to the Act, but the government has never enacted regulations allowing for it to happen. Given the PC leadership race and cabinet shuffle that will follow, I wonder whether these changes to the OHS Regulation will ever see the light of day. You can give you input here, though.

The fourth is that the public is being encouraged to report unsafe work (and indeed there is now an iPhone app, so we know the government is serious…). The question is the speed at which inspectors will respond. The 2010 Auditor General’s report discussed response times of 18 days with an average of 86 days required to gain compliance.

The cheeky CBC reporter who turned in a worksite just blocks from the news conference where workers were without fall protection managed to get an immediate stop-work order issued. But will all reports get same-day service? And will this continue beyond the period of the blitz?

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, September 9, 2011

Labour code review: Do as I say, not as I do?

Over the past few weeks, there has been significant chatter about a quiet review of Alberta’s labour laws related to the construction sector. Minister of Employment and Immigration Thomas Lukaszuk has appointed two lawyers to look into suggestions for change proposed by a group of construction sector interests, including Merit Contractors and CLAC (the Christian Labour Association of Canada).

There is a solid rebuttal of Merit’s rationale for these changes and this review by the AFL. The response by Merit fails to address the points raised by McGowan.

An important question raised by this review is why can a small employer group get a review done upon request, while a 24,000 name union petition for a review from 2007 remains ignored?

Among the changes proposed by Merit are legislative restrictions that would prohibit unions from using member dues for political activities without the prior consent of their members. The basis for this recommendation is unclear. Is this a rampant problem? Do political contributions by interest groups somehow harm the workings of democracy?

If there is any real reason for this recommendation, one might ask why Merit doesn’t lead by example? Insight into Government reports that Merit contractors may be the heaviest contributor to the progressive conservative leadership campaigns now underway.

Merit Contractors shows up as giving between $15,000 and $30,000 to Morton, between $10,000 and $19,999 to Mar, and between $10,000 and $30,000 to Redford.

Whatever the reasons for this seemingly “do as I say, not as I do” recommendation, perhaps this practice provides some insight into the greater responsiveness of the government to employers than to workers?

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Two-tiered minimum wage hypocrisy?

Today is the first day of Alberta's two-tiered minimum wage. Most workers are eligible for a $9.40/hr minimum wage, while workers who regularly serve alcohol as part of their duties are eligible for a $9.05/hr wage. Alcohol servers will not see their minimum wage further increase until the regular minimum wage reached $10.05, at which point, both wages will move up in concert.

The rationale for this two-tier wage (which was rejected by the all-party Standing Committee on the Economy eight-months earlier) provided by the Minister in June was:
“Having a different minimum wage for liquor servers recognizes that these individuals earn a significant part of their income from tips,” Lukaszuk said. “It will also give business owners greater flexibility in the way they pay other staff.”
The Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association lobbied for this change and asserted:
“This acknowledges the true fact that liquor servers are not in fact minimum wage earners. It enables the employer, as far as his labour budget, he can devote that money to much more difficult to retain back-of-house staff.”
So it is interesting to review the FAQ the government posted about the minimum wage change. It notes:
6. If an employee normally serves liquor, but does not receive tips, is the employee entitled to the general minimum wage of $9.40 an hour?

No. When an employee normally serves liquor directly to customers, the liquor server rate of $9.05 per hour applies.
There are two reasons a server might end up tipless. The server could do a poor job and does not get tipped. Or the employer disallows tipping or has a tipping policy (e.g., a dine-and-dash fund) that results in a server earning no tips.

I'm hard pressed to think of any server who is so terrible that they never receive a tip. The restaurant culture in Alberta is one where not leaving a tip is a rare event.

That said, regardless of the reason for being tipless, the government's answer on the FAQ runs contrary to the basic rationale for a two-tier wage: that servers gain significant amounts of income from tipping. Where this is not the case, shouldn't tipless servers be entitled to the same minimum wage as every other worker?

-- Bob Barnetson