Thursday, October 30, 2014

Friday Tunes: Allentown

Too many meetings this week to make a substantive post but here is an interesting (and disillusioned) working-class perspective on the deindustrialization of America in the late 1970s and early '80s: Billy Joel's Allentown. A fairly lame video (even by '80s' standards) but look for a young Val Kilmer (pre-Top Gun)!

Well we're living here in Allentown
And they're closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they're killing time
Filling out forms
Standing in line.

Well our fathers fought the Second World War
Spent their weekends on the Jersey Shore
Met our mothers at the USO
Asked them to dance
Danced with them slow
And we're living here in Allentown.

But the restlessness was handed down
And it's getting very hard to stay.

Well we're waiting here in Allentown
For the Pennsylvania we never found

For the promises our teachers gave
If we worked hard
If we behaved.

So the graduations hang on the wall
But they never really helped us at all
No they never taught us what was real
Iron and coke,
Chromium steel.

And we're waiting here in Allentown.
But they've taken all the coal from the ground
And the union people crawled away.

Every child had a pretty good shot
To get at least as far as their old man got.
but something happened on the way to that place
They threw an American flag in our face, oh oh oh.

Well I'm living here in Allentown
And it's hard to keep a good man down.
But I won't be getting up today.

And it's getting very hard to stay.
And we're living here in Allentown.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday tunes: Dolly Parton's 9 to 5

For a bit of Friday inspiration, I present Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5”, one of the catchiest songs about class and employment in America, although people who can sing along often have never really thought about the message in the lyrics.

Particularly interesting is the contrast of the light pop melody and the really dark lyrics (the song ends without much hope for the workers). Plus great early 80s hair--check out the bassist: a heroic long-with-centre-part plus a pornstar moustache.

Tumble outta bed and I stumble to the kitchen
Pour myself a cup of ambition
Yawn and stretch and try to come to alive
Jump in the shower and the blood starts pumpin'
Out on the street the traffic starts jumpin'
With folks like me on the job from 9 to 5

Workin' 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin'
Barely gettin' by, it's all takin' and no givin'
They just use your mind and they never give you credit
It's enough to drive you crazy if you let it

9 to 5, for service and devotion
You would think that I would deserve a fair promotion
Want to move ahead but the boss won't seem to let me
I swear sometimes that man is out to get me!

They let you dream just to watch 'em shatter
You're just a step on the boss-man's ladder
But you got dreams he'll never take away
You're in the same boat with a lotta your friends
Waitin' for the day your ship'll come in
an' the tide's gonna turn and it's all gonna roll your way

Workin' 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin'
Barely gettin' by, it's all takin' and no givin'
They just use your mind and you never get the credit
It's enough to drive you crazy if you let it

9 to 5, yeah they got you where they want you
There's a better life, and you dream about it, don't you?
It's a rich man's game no matter what they call it
And you spend your life puttin' money in his wallet

9 to 5, whoa what a way to make a livin'
Barely gettin' by, it's all takin' and no givin'
They just use your mind and they never give you credit
It's enough to drive you crazy if you let it

9 to 5, yeah they got you where they want you
There's a better life, and you dream about it, don't you?
It's a rich man's game no matter what they call it
And you spend your life puttin' money in his wallet

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Research on claims suppression, employment standards enforcement and minority unionism

The Journal of industrial Relations has just released a strong new issue. The articles include the role of unions in employment standards enforcement and an examination of union conflict under minority unionism (co-authored by AU professor Helen Lam).

Employment standards (ES) are legislated standards that set minimum terms and conditions of employment in areas such as wages, working time, vacations and leaves, and termination and severance. In Canada, the majority of workers rely on ES for basic regulatory protection; however, a significant ‘enforcement gap’ exists. In the province of Ontario, this enforcement gap has been exacerbated in recent years due to the deregulation of ES through inadequate funding, workplace restructuring, legislative reforms that place greater emphasis on individualized complaints processes and voluntary compliance, and a formal separation of unions from ES enforcement. The implications of these developments are that, increasingly, those in precarious jobs, many of whom lack union representation, are left with insufficient regulatory protection from employer non-compliance, further heightening their insecurity. Taking the province of Ontario as our focus, in this article we critically examine alternative proposals for ES enforcement, placing our attention on those that enhance the involvement of unions in addressing ES violations. Through this analysis, we suggest that augmenting unions’ supportive roles in ES enforcement holds the potential to enhance unions’ regulatory function and offers a possible means to support the ongoing efforts of other workers’ organizations to improve employer compliance with ES.

One option for reversing US union decline, requiring no legislative change, would involve re-legitimizing non-majority or minority union representation, allowing unions to organize without running the gauntlet of union certification. Such minority representation, applicable only to workplaces without majority union support on a members-only basis, could run in parallel with the existing system of exclusive representation in workplaces where majority support is achieved. The increased representation in the currently unrepresented workplaces would inevitably promote workers’ collective voice and contribute to union revival. However, minority unionism has been criticized for breeding union competition because it is non-exclusive. In this paper, the nature and extent of inter-union conflict under minority unionism are re-examined, using survey data from unions in New Zealand which already has non-exclusive, minority union representation. The low levels and consequences of conflict suggest that the benefits of minority unionism far outweigh any potentially unfavourable effects.

The Institute for Work and Health has also just released a brief examining the evidence for suppression of reports about workplace injuryand illness in Canada.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Another lousy employer "study" about the "labour shortage"

The Alberta Chambers of Commerce (the umbrella group for the local Chambers) has recently released a study: Alberta businesses share their stories: A survey on the impact of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program in Alberta and recent changes

Before delving into the content of the study, a quick look at its methodology worthwhile. There is no clear explanation of the methodology used in the Chambers’ study but it looks like the 26,000 businesses associated with local Chambers of Commerce were asked to fill out an online survey. Responses came from 47 communities.

The decision to collect feedback from anyone interested (rather than a random sample of businesses) creates the spectre of respondent bias. Basically, those who responded are likely to be different from the overall population (specifically, they are likely to be those businesses most affected by the program and changes in the program). What this means is we should be skeptical that the data and  comments reflect the experience of all 26,000 Chamber members.

This matters because the survey uses language like “58% were either very likely or somewhat likely to reduce their hours of operation”. The survey very carefully indicates that this result reflects the views “of the businesses surveyed” but this nuance (i.e., that these businesses’ views likely don’t reflect all the views of all businesses) is never really explained and is easily lost to causal readers. The take-away becomes “58% of businesses are going to shorten hours”.

We should be further skeptical because the Chambers provides no information about how many businesses responded (47? 470? 4700?) and no information how they selected the comments they reproduced. Are these comments representative of the (non-representative) responses the Chambers received? Or were the selected to support the Chambers’ views on temporary foreign workers? There is no way to tell.

To be fair, sometimes circumstances mean one has to use the data that is easily available. That is not the case here. The Chambers is a sophisticated organization with the resources (~$30k) to do a proper survey that would give representative results. The lousy methodology and absence of info about the study means we should likely disregard this study altogether—it is basically garbage.

Turning to the results, the gist of the comments is that businesses cannot attract enough workers who are Canadian residents and, without access to more TFWs, their businesses are in jeopardy. This may well be true.

At the risk of sounding heartless, is that a bad thing?

Access to workers basically comes down to wages and working conditions. Raise wages and/or improve working conditions enough and workers will come—either from other businesses or from the ranks of people who were previously uninterested in working.

Not every business can afford to do this. But, in a free labour market, a business that cannot afford the cost of inputs (e.g., labour) goes out of business. That is unfortunate, but that’s how it goes. This frees up the workers from the defunct business to take employment elsewhere.

Yes, we may not be able to get a burger or coffee on every corner and in every hamlet at 3 am on Sunday morning. But I expect life will go on regardless.

Mostly this report is part of a broader narrative that employers are trying to create that advocates for government intervention to suppress wages by loosening the labour market via easier access to foreign workers. Given how poorly done it is, we should simply ignore it as more partisan lobbying by employers to grind workers' wages.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 17, 2014

Some Friday Springsteen: Factory

Bruce Springsteen's song Factory is one of the more moving descriptions of the working class and, as I grind through creating 100 multiple-choice questions, is a pleasant diversion.

Early in the morning factory whistle blows
Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes
Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light
It's the working, the working, just the working life

Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain
I see my daddy walking towards them factory gates in the rain
Factory takes his hearing, but he understands
He's a working, a working, just a working man

End of the day, factory whistle cries
Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes
And you just better believe, boy, somebody's gonna get hurt tonight
It's the working, the working, it's the working life
Cause it's the working, the working, just the working life

If you'll pardon the pun, it strikes me we need a course on music, social justice and the workplace.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Workplace injury on TV: Reaaally mad men

You don’t often see occupational injuries represented on TV shows. I’m currently watching Mad Men and last week we ran across this clip. The context is that the advertising firm landed a John Deere contract and it came with a lawn tractor. Subsequently, there was an office party.

I don’t want to make too much of this (since it is one TV show and the scene was designed for comedic value), but a bit of analysis is worthwhile.

First, the proximate cause is the secretary drinking and driving. The root cause was (1) an unsecured lawn mower in the office and (2) the availability of booze in the workplace. Later episodes show us that neither the person who brought the mower into the office nor the fellow who first started driving it were disciplined. As far as I know (two episodes on) the secretary has disappeared (and I presume been fired). And there has been no let-up in the workplace boozing!

Interesting how it is a woman who loses control of the mower (my wife cried “sexist”). I’m inclined to think she is right, particularly given the role of women in the series. Perhaps the choice of driver reflects that it had to be a bit character whose disappearance wouldn’t affect any plot lines. But that too tells us something about the role of women in this particular production (in the minority and, for the most part, in the plot periphery).

The victim (a new manager from the UK) elicited little sympathy (in addition to the joke above, his UK colleagues were aghast that he would “never golf again”). Again, as a one-off comedy bit, we shouldn’t read too much into this. Yet the victim was portrayed as somewhat deserving his fate (he was a real twit) and, now injured, is of little use to his company. It is interesting how these kinds of narratives (that swirl around workplace injury) find expression even in TV shows out to get a cheap laugh.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Some clarity would be helpful in Alberta's farm safety debate

The Journal of Agromedicine just released an article entitled “Safety and Injury Characteristics of Youth Farmworkers in North Carolina: A Pilot Study.” The researchers interviewed 87 youth farm workers (ages 10-17). Five (5.7%) had received pesticide use training in the past year. Over half reported a musculoskeletal injury (54.0%), a traumatic injury (60.9%), or a dermatological injury (72.4%) in the last year. Six of the injuries led to medical treatment, and 10 resulted in missed school or work. 

These findings while disturbing, are hardly surprising: farm work is dangerous, there is little attention to safety, and injury (and death) is commonplace. The authors note that research suggests changes in policy are warranted. Despite the compelling evidence that farm work is dangerous and current education-based efforts are not effective, Alberta premier Jim Prentice indicated last week that he won’t be extending the ambit of the Occupational Health and Safety Act to include agricultural workers.

He wants more research and debate—because 10 years of the government looking into the matter has somehow been insufficient. Interestingly, in February, the government of then-Premier Alison Redford suspended operation of the Alberta Agriculture Injury Prevention Working Group—exactly the kind of group that would provide the research Prentice now wants. It is very hard not to be cynical about the government’s handling of the farm safety file—it looks a lot like they are sacrificing the safety of farm workers in order for electoral support in rural Alberta.

But, if Prentice plans to actually have a debate, some conceptual clarity would really help. For example, Prentice declared that he would not be extending OHS rules to so-called family farms, but he might consider doing so for large, more corporate-style farming operations. Unfortunately, there is no widely accepted definition of what is a family farm or a corporate-style farming operation. StatCan’s 2011 Agricultural Census tells us that, of the 42,234 farms in Alberta in 2011, only 771 are non-family corporations. But, there are also 6821 family-owned corporations—but since these are family owned, it is not clear if they in or out in Prentice’s view.

Table 1. Farm corporate structure, 1986-2011

Sole proprietor
Partnership w agreement
Partnership w/o agreement
Family Corporation
Non-family corporation

Further complicating things is that farm corporate structures do not neatly map onto whether or not a farm employs waged labour. (I’m currently waiting for some data on which farms use waged labour.) This matters because the real issue here is the rights of farm workers, not who owns the farm.

My guess is that what Prentice is trying to suggest is that there some farms that operate more like businesses (with farmers acting as supervisors of employees) and some farms where the farmer is the labour. There was an article back in 1986 (P. Ghorayshi, “The Identification of Capitalist Farms: Theoretical and Methodological Considerations,” Sociologica Ruralis, vol 26, no 2 (1986): 146-159) that suggested we differentiate capitalistic farms (i.e., farms exhibiting increasing capitalization, size and specialization) from capitalist farms (i.e., farms employing waged labour with farmers increasingly performing supervisor or managerial tasks).

If one accepts the notion that some farms ought to be subject to OHS and some shouldn’t, a clear differentiation based primarily on the presence of employees creates greater clarity of who is in and who is out than the current loose use of terms like “family farm” and “corporate farm” (or large farm and small farm).

This, of course, assumes that the current lack of clarity in the debate is an oversight (despite 10 years of research…) instead of an intentional obfuscation designed to inject further delay in extending basic health and safety rights to workers in one of Canada’s most dangerous occupations. There is that cynicism rearing its ugly head once again.

-- Bob Barnetson

Labour conditions and the iPhone

A new article entitled "The politics of global production: Apple, Foxconn and China's new working class" has appeared in the Asia-Pacific journal examining labour relations that underlie the production of the iPhone. Its abstract reads:
Apple's commercial triumph rests in part on the outsourcing of its consumer electronics production to Asia. Drawing on extensive fieldwork at China's leading exporter—the Taiwanese-owned Foxconn—the power dynamics of the buyer-driven supply chain are analysed in the context of the national terrains that mediate or even accentuate global pressures. Power asymmetries assure the dominance of Apple in price setting and the timing of product delivery, resulting in intense pressures and illegal overtime for workers. Responding to the high-pressure production regime, the young generation of Chinese rural migrant workers engages in a crescendo of individual and collective struggles to define their rights and defend their dignity in the face of combined corporate and state power.
-- Bob Barnetson