Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The perils of employer influence in OHS

On Monday, April 23, 2012, the Lakeland sawmill exploded and then burned, lighting the night sky of Prince George, British Columbia. The explosion and subsequent fire killed Alan Little, 43, and Glenn Roche, 46, and injured more than 20 other workers.

Brian Croy, vice-president with the United Steelworkers’ local was sitting in a training session when the mill exploded. The room’s plywood walls were blown down on top of the workers and Croy and his colleagues escaped through a section of outer wall that had been destroyed by the blast.

“It’s almost like you were coming out of a war zone. Everything was leveled. I met one fellow I think his fingers were blown off, and his clothing, a lot of it was gone. It was off and his hair,” Croy told the Canadian Press. Upon arriving at an outdoor first-aid station, Croy found workers sitting on a tarp, holding up burned arms and hands while one worker lay naked on the tarp, burned black and without any hair.

A WorkSafeBC investigation found that an overheated fan shaft ignited the dust-laden air resulting in the explosion. Wood dust is a well known explosion hazard in saw mills. The Lakeland mill was sawing large amounts of pine beetle-killed trees. This wood is extremely dry and, when milled, creates a large amount of fine dust. Only three months earlier, the Babine sawmill near Burns Lake had blown up in basically the same manner.

An interesting new WorkSafeBC memo has surfaced. Written after the first explosion but weeks before the second, it seems to suggest identify expected employer pushback as a reason to delay additional enforcement focused on reducing the risk of wood dust explosions:
Industry sensitivity to the issue given the recent event and limited clarity around what constitutes an explosion could lead to push back if an enforcement strategy is pursued at this time.
Roughly 20 days later, the Lakeland Mill exploded—due to wood dust accumulation. In effect, government concern about employer interests delayed enforcement action that might have saved workers’ lives. As Alberta moves towards a review of both its workers’ compensation and occupational health an safety systems, the perils (to workers) of systems that are overly cozy with employers should be at the forefront of the government’s mind.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, December 25, 2015

Labour & Pop Culture: You Won't Stand Alone

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is DOA’s punk anthem “You won’t stand alone.” There is a fair bit of the usual solidarity rah-rah going on here. 

The most interesting part is this verse, which starts out getting at the anesthetizing effect of popular culture and then transitions into how a loose labour market drives feelings of vulnerability:
They'll line you up to listen in front of the TV
And make you feel lucky 'cause you've something to eat
Then it quickly transitions into a rant against drug testing (punk rockers against workplace drug testing!?!) and the instrumental way that corporations treat their workers.
And you'll pee in a jar just to keep your job
Unless you're downsized like another useless cog
I like a good protest song. It is a bit of a shame that this one didn’t sustain its critique for another verse or two. It is hard to find a decent video to go along with this song.

Time to make a stand, time to have our say
Don't buckle under, get in the way
There's many ears to listen and many hands to help
Time to wake them up and give the liars hell

Well, when your face the storm you won't stand alone
We'll all fight back with every stone
Not just for yourself, we do it for all
Reach out for our help, you won't stand alone

They climb the corporate ladder
They take the kickback
They'd sell out their mother
They can go to hell

They'll line you up to listen in front of the TV
And make you feel lucky 'cause you've something to eat
And you'll pee in a jar just to keep your job
Unless you're downsized like another useless cog

When your face the storm you won't stand alone
We'll all fight back with every stone
Not just for yourself, we do it for all
Reach out for our help, you won't stand alone

They climb the corporate ladder
They take the kickback
They'd sell out their mother
Well, they can go to hell

Time to make a stand, time to have our say
Don't buckle under, get in the way
There's many ears to listen and many hands to help
Time to wake them up and give the liars hell

When your face the storm you won't stand alone
We'll all fight back with every stone
Not just for yourself, we do it for all
Reach out for our help, you won't stand alone


You won't stand alone

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Teen experiences of supervision and safety

A new pre-press article on teen employment crossed my desktop that a seemed appropriate to flag during the height of the shopping season. “Perceptions of supervision among injured and non-injured teens working in the retail or service industry” examines how perceived supervision related to teen injury rates in the US.

The key results are:
  • 43% of teens reported injury in the past year (which is pretty much in line with Alberta data).
  • Non-injured teens were more likely to have received safety training than injured teens (88% v 77%, p = .01).
  • Only 69% of injured teens reported their injury (which is high, in my experience).
  • Teens generally felt that they were solely at fault for their injury (66%).
  • Only 30% of teens felt comfortable talking about safety issues with their boss (even though most knew that their boss could not fire them for raising safety issues).
Looking at supervision, I find the results a bit hard to parse. Teens who were injured were more likely to report supervisors who did not listen well and who did not ensure that teens understood workplace safety.

But which way does the causality run?

Are these factors causes of injury (because they reflect less safe workplaces)? Or are they ex post facto assessments by injured teens caused by the injury event? The study acknowledges this limitation.

Overall, an interest window into the world of teenage employment and how they view supervisors, safety and injury.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, December 18, 2015

Labour & Pop Culture: Worker's Song

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is Dropkick Murphy’s “Worker’s Song”. This is a very, very class conscious song that explicitly identifies the different roles of labour and capital and the enduring exploitation inherent in this relationship.

The song starts out identifying how workers need employment moreso than employers need workers and the tendency of employers displace workers with capital whenever possible.
In the factories and mills, in the shipyards and mines
We've often been told to keep up with the times
For our skills are not needed, they've streamlined the job
And with sliderule and stopwatch our pride they have robbed
It then shifts to decrying the different fates allocated (largely by birth) to workers and capitalists:
We're the first ones to starve, we're the first ones to die
The first ones in line for that pie-in-the-sky
And we're always the last when the cream is shared out
For the worker is working when the fat cat's about
The most interesting part is the analysis of the necessity of workers in maintaining the economic and political structure of their exploitation. Specifically, the song identifies the irony of workers being forced to fight in wars, ostensibly for workers’ freedom… to be exploited.
And when the sky darkens and the prospect is war
Who's given a gun and then pushed to the fore
And expected to die for the land of our birth
Though we've never owned one lousy handful of earth?
While some class conscious songs (like 9-to-5) focus our attention on the micro-relations of the workplace, this one clearly steps back to provide a broader view of the political economy of capitalism and the modern nation state. This approach undermines the rationalization of examples of exploitation in capitalism as “there are always a few bad bosses.” That is to say, perhaps, it is the system that is bad.

Yeh, this one's for the workers who toil night and day
By hand and by brain to earn your pay
Who for centuries long past for no more than your bread
Have bled for your countries and counted your dead

In the factories and mills, in the shipyards and mines
We've often been told to keep up with the times
For our skills are not needed, they've streamlined the job
And with sliderule and stopwatch our pride they have robbed

We're the first ones to starve, we're the first ones to die
The first ones in line for that pie-in-the-sky
And we're always the last when the cream is shared out
For the worker is working when the fat cat's about

And when the sky darkens and the prospect is war
Who's given a gun and then pushed to the fore
And expected to die for the land of our birth
Though we've never owned one lousy handful of earth?

[Chorus x3]

All of these things the worker has done
From tilling the fields to carrying the gun
We've been yoked to the plough since time first began
And always expected to carry the can

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Labour law reform in Alberta

The past couple of weeks have seen quite a spirited debate about the merits of Alberta’s new farm safety bill (including protests and filibustering in the Legislature). The basic idea of Bill 6 was to grant paid Alberta farm workers the same workplace rights as every other worker. You can see my contribution to the discussion on the Parkland Institute’s blog.

Bill 6 is likely the first of a series of changes in Alberta’s employment law regime. I suspect we’ll see an announcement of a review of workers’ compensation, either before or shortly after Christmas. The government is also consulting on bringing Alberta’s labour legislation into compliance with the Supreme Court’s decision that the right to strike is constitutionally protected.

There may also be a fuller review of labour laws—the laws governing unionization and collective bargaining—at some point. You can read my thoughts on how the government might change the law to make easier for workers to exercise their associational rights on the Parkland Institute’s blog. You can also see the presentation at the Parkland conference that gave rise to this blog post here (plus a presentation on minimum and living wages by Ian Hussey):

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, December 11, 2015

Labour & Pop Culture: Government Cheque

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is Furnaceface’s “Government Cheque”. This song examines (perhaps unwittingly) how lousy jobs coupled with the decommodification of labour allow workers to pursue other, more rewarding interests.

The singer has quit his job “cuz it stunk” and is reliant upon his government cheque, which he acknowledges is funded by the working class. The singer’s seemingly irresponsible behaviour has an explanation, though:
Well, I worked for years, but it didn't pay
A kick in the ass, a slap in the face
They showed me the door when I asked for a raise
Maximum work for minimum pay
Essentially, faced with the option of demeaning, undervalued work or the dole, the worker (rather logically) took the dole. This dynamic is part of the explanation for the neoliberal attack on income support programs. Eliminating or reducing employment insurance benefits forces workers to seek job (i.e., it re-commodifies labour) even this means accepting terrible jobs.

I couldn’t find an official video but this one was pretty interesting. Also, the song lyrics below only broadly approximate what is actually sung. But you get the idea.

"You're doin' it fuckin' wrong!"

A kick in the ass
A slap in the face
A knife in the back for the minimum wage

Well, today I got a government cheque
Am I gonna get drunk? Oh yeah, you bet!
Gonna paint the town red till my money's all spent
Then blame it on the government

I quit my job. Why? Cuz it stunk
But I still get a cheque twice a month
I sit around on my ass and I get paid by the working class

Well, I worked for years, but it didn't pay
A kick in the ass, a slap in the face
They showed me the door when I asked for a raise
Maximum work for minimum pay

"Did you like your job?" Nobody does
"Well, why'd you quit?" Well, because
I don't need a job. What the heck?
Canada Post will bring my cheque

And with every bottle that I drink
I sit and I think and I think and I think
About the people to whom I owe my keep

[Chorus 1 over top of:]
Well, today I got a government cheque
Am I gonna get drunk? Oh yeah, you bet
Gonna paint the town red till my money's all spent

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Research: Occupational health discourse in Finnish media

The journal Sociology of Heath & Illness just published an article entitled “Heath risks, social relations and class: An analysis of occupational health discourse in Finnish newspaper and women’s magazine articles, 1961-2008.”

The article examines how class expectations of work have changed over time and how this interacts with how we view workplace risk. In Finland (as in Canada), workplace safety issues became problematized in the 1970s.

At about this same time, though, views of work shifted from being conflict-oriented towards being harmonious (basically middle class views of work displaced blue-collar ones). Plus, you know, neoliberal market pressure and all that.

The authors' found the resulting collision of values (danger-driven conflict versus harmonious working arrangements) plays out in the coverage of psychosocial health risks. Specifically, around 1980, there is a significant change in the discourse in newspaper and magazine coverage.

There is more extensive coverage of psychosocial risks and the risks are presented not as the natural outcome of hierarchical organizations, but as some sort of separate issue. Herein we see the shift in how organizations are viewed from naturally (if perhaps unintentionally) harmful to harmless (with conflict being the result of inaction or error by workers and/or supervisors).

In this new formulation, the prescription for reducing psychosocial hazards rests with workers adjusting themselves to the needs and goals of the organization, rather than seeking to alter the organization (e.g., via unionization or other forms of collective or individual resistance). Basically, workers’ reactions to organizations became the problem, rather than the effect organizations had on workers’ health.

Overall, this article presets an interesting way to track how the discourse about the nature, cause and solution of workplace issues has changed over time and in ways that favour employers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, December 4, 2015

Labour & Pop Culture: God Bless Saturday

This week’s instalment of Labour & Pop Culture is Kid Rock’s “God Bless Saturday”. This a fairly typical “common man” rock anthem that suggests workers cope with the tedium of a 52-hour work week by getting loaded on Saturday night.

Now Kid Rock is skeevy as hell, but he writes very successful songs that tap into common experiences (e.g., the sepia-toned All Summer Long). G od Bless Saturday captures the grind of work (working 9 to 9/Losing my mind, watching Father Time) in a blue collar job.

He also touches on the questions workers have about the system when they take time to reflect on it:
They tell me I'm living the American dream
Just working for the man
But 52 hours in a stamping plant
Sometimes I don't understand
In his song, the workers’ cope by getting wasted (fair enough). But why don’t they just get organized? One line of explanation is that pro-union songs don’t become anthems and sell out arenas (acknowledging exceptions like Billy Bragg).

Another potential explanation is that the system (i.e., capitalism) is extremely powerful and it is often easier for workers to cope than seek change. Who knows what Kid Rock was thinking when he wrote this (and to what degree the production process may have rounded off some of the edges) but he’s clearly smart enough to see how the system works.

In the hustle and grind, working 9 to 9
Losing my mind, watching Father Time
It's the same ole same, this ball and chain
With only one day to ease my pain

'Cause Monday's just a bitch, Tuesday's such a bother
Wednesday's like watching dead flowers grow
Thursday ain't for shit, Friday's getting hotter
But on Saturday night you know

We let it rock and keep the drinks pouring
Let it roll until the early morning
We're underpaid but we still give thanks and praise
God bless Saturday

They tell me I'm living the American dream
Just working for the man
But 52 hours in a stamping plant
Sometimes I don't understand

'Cause Monday's just a bitch, Tuesday's such a bother
Wednesday's like watching dead flowers grow
Thursday ain't for shit, Friday's getting hotter
But on Saturday night you know

We let it rock and keep the drinks pouring
Let it roll until the early morning
We're underpaid but we still give thanks and praise
God bless Saturday

Let it rock and keep the drinks pouring
Let it roll until the early morning
We're underpaid but we still give thanks and praise
God bless Saturday

Saturday, God bless Saturday
Saturday, God bless Saturday
Ooh yeah, Saturday, God bless Saturday
Oh yeah, God bless Saturday, yeah, yeah
God bless Saturday, Saturday, Saturday, yeah, yeah
God bless Saturday, God bless Saturday
Saturday, ooh yeah, God bless Saturday, ooh

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Bill 6: Political critique from the ridiculous right

Two weeks back, Bill 6 was introduced in Alberta’s legislature. This bill will grant farm workers basic employment rights, including safety, workers’ compensation, and labour laws.

The long delay in granting farm workers basic workplace rights reflects a political quid pro quo between the former Conservative government and farmers (which I detail in a chapter in a forthcoming book). Not surprisingly, there has been a fair bit of opposition to Bill 6 from both the farm community and conservative politicians.

A rather odd line of critique that has emerged is that this bill is some kind of collusion between organized labour and the NDs to unionize more workers. In criticizing the speed of the bill (much of it is effective January 1), Wildrose leader Brian Jean said in the House on November 19:
Mr. Jean: …Albertans have to wonder: is the haste related to union organizing efforts that the Premier’s friends and backers are planning? (p. 540)
Sheila Gunn Reid (a columnist for Rebel Media) picked up this theme on November 20:
Then there's the NDP's favorite part: the new law will also allow for the unionization of farm workers... 
Allowing farm workers to unionize grows the NDP union base by a potential 60000 workers over 40 thousand farms and ranches across Alberta. And there's more. 
How many extra unionized government employees will be needed to handle at least 40,000 WCB files? What about all the occupational health and safety inspectors? The government will need to hire many more to pop in on those 40,000 farms. The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees must be rubbing their greedy hands together right now.
Certainly organized labour has pressured for farm worker rights, although most of the pressure has been around guaranteeing farm workers basic safety right and injury compensation.

I can’t think any instance where I’ve seen union leaders rubbing their hands together anticipating huge organizing drives on Alberta farms.

Some basic research helps explain why (1) union organizing on farms is unlikely and (2) how Reid's claims, in particular, are specious:

There were 37,852 paid farm workers in 2011, not 60,000 (that's the number of owner-operators--i.e., employers).

In terms of which employees might realistically be unionized, we can likely discount all 22,254 paid part-year workers. Transitory, seasonal employees are unlikely to organize and are uneconomical bargaining units for a union to represent.

Of the 15,598 full-year employees, many will precluded from unionization because they are single employees (bargaining units must have at least two people). Others will have managerial duties so will be excluded. At a guess, we’re likely looking at about 7000 or 8000 potential union members.

Whether unions will bother organizing a bunch of small farm is unclear. Small bargaining units are expensive to organize and service and campaigns often fail because of the lack of distance between workers and employers in small workplaces.

If I had to lay money, I’d guess in five years we’ll see fewer than 500 farm workers with union representation. Most will be in large operations such as feedlots and other industrialized animal operations. This prediction illustrates that having a right and being able to exercise it are often different things.

Overall, allowing farm workers to unionize looks more like doing the right thing (constitutionally and morally speaking) than some sort of meaningful sop to the labour movement.

In terms of the WCB, although there were 43,234 operations classified as farms in 2011, only 12,798 operations employed paid farm workers. This amounts to about a 7% increase in the number of employer accounts. Most of the staff time at WCB is, however, spent managing claims. The addition of 38,000 far workers is only about a 2% increase in employee numbers—or, at best, 30-odd staff (on a base of about 1700).

As for the claim that AUPE will be rubbing its hands at the prospects of more WCB workers being hired. Well, the WCB is almost entirely non-unionized. So that whole line of critique by Reid is essentially baseless.

What will be most interesting is watching which way the PCs break on the issue:
  • Do they side with the Wildrose (and thus fight with the Wildrose over the rural rump vote)?
  • Do they side with the NDs (and thereby recant 44 years of their own policy)? 
  • Or do they stay silent and hope this blows over (thereby shedding some of their remaining rural support)?
It will also be interesting to see a fuller conversation emerge from rural Alberta. Excepting Reid, most of the commentary has been by men. I wonder if women, who are often cast as the silent partner and often pick up the pieces when someone gets injured or killed, have a different view of safety regulations and workers’ compensation?

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, November 30, 2015

Moving faculty bargaining under the Labour Code?

The Government of Alberta is currently examining how it might bring its laws regarding unionization and collective bargaining into compliance with a recent Supreme Court decision that upholds the right to strike. Until this decision, most public-sector workers in Alberta were compelled to use arbitration to resolve bargaining impasse.

Post-secondary faculty are within the scope of this review. Presently, faculty associations are created by and collectively bargain under the provisions of the Post-Secondary Learning Act (PSLA). As set out in the recent submission to government by the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations (CAFA), the labour provisions of the PSLA have some gaps that include:
  • no language requiring bargaining in good faith and no meaningful way to address unfair labour practices,
  • no meaningful way for academics to enforce their association’s duty of fair representation,
  • no provisions address strike/lockout, if that was the method of dispute resolution, and
  • the employer determines the membership of the bargaining unit (this is called designation), a power that employers sometime use mischievously.
CAFA’s submission seeks amendment of the PSLA. Even though it was explicitly asked to do so, CAFA did not provided the government with feedback about the implications of moving faculty associations within the ambit of the Labour Relations Code (the “Code”). This move is something that the faculty association at Mount Royal University supports and to which the faculty association at MacEwan University is not opposed.

Here are some initial thoughts about the implications of moving faculty associations under the ambit of the Labour Relations Code. While this analysis was initially completed for the Athabasca University Faculty Association, I have tried to broaden the analysis so it is applicable to all associations in Alberta’s colleges, universities and technical institutes.

Representational rights: A faculty association’s authority to represent its members is established by statutory decree under the PSLA. If the government transitions associations to operating under the provisions of the Code, there will need to be some consideration of establishing association’s representational capacity. The most sensible option is transitional language that deems association to be certified bargaining agents.

One risk under the Code is that other unions could seek to represent faculty members via raiding (i.e., asking faculty to select a bargaining agent other than the faculty association). I don’t think this is a real risk in the short-term because faculty members don’t (as a group) consider themselves workers and thus would be unreceptive to organizing drives by mainstream unions. In the longer term, though, faculty associations that do a poor job of representing members (or important sub-groups, such as contract staff) might find themselves the target of a raid. And, perhaps, rightly so.

Bargaining Unit: At present, the PSLA gives the employer the authority to determine the membership of the bargaining unit, including the right to designate individuals and groups as members of the union. Under the Code, the Labour Relations Board has the authority to determine the parameters of the bargaining unit. This neatly resolves the long-standing designation issue, but raises three issues:
  1. Community of interest: Some associations have diverse memberships. Whether such bargaining units have the community of interest necessary to continue on under the Code is unclear. If a group of employees gets carved out of a unit, an association may seek to certify them as a separate unit and continue to be their bargaining agent.
  2. Managerial Exclusions: The Code excludes employees performing managerial functions from the definition of employee (and thus from the bargaining unit). The criteria for determining if an individual is a manager is lengthy and includes supervisory duties, the power to hire and promote, the power to discipline and fire, the power to direct work, supervision of subordinate supervisors, and the power to grant leaves. Those faculty associations whose membership includes Deans (and other managers) would likely see these employees excluded from the bargaining unit.
  3. Professional Exclusions: The Code excludes certain professionals (when employed in their professional capacity) from the definition of employee (and thus from the bargaining unit). These professionals are architects, dentists, engineers, lawyers and physicians. Whether teaching is considered to be “being employed in one’s professional capacity” will depend upon the definition of professional practice for each type of professional. The risk (although I think it is slight) is that some existing faculty members who are registered professionals may be excluded from the bargaining unit. 
Overall, determining the boundaries of the bargaining unit would likely be sensibly left to the Labour Relations Board.

Collective Bargaining: Most associations negotiate their collective agreement at a single table. A small number (mostly in the university sector) negotiate money and language at different tables and on different timelines. This latter arrangement is unlikely to fly under the Code and some transitional provisions will be necessary to resolve such outlier arrangements.

Dispute Resolution: At present, all associations use interest arbitration (in various forms) to resolve impasse at the bargaining table. Moving under the Code would allow for strike/lockout to replace arbitration. Some associations (Mount Royal, for example) seem keen to have this provision struck from their agreement in order to allow strike/lockout.

How exactly this transition to allowing strike/lockout would occur is unclear. My assessment is that no associations are ready to bargain under this model. One risk of imposing strike/lockout is that employers could (and some would) use lockout to attack contract provisions such as tenure, sabbaticals and academic freedom while the associations are unprepared. Again, some transitional provisions (e.g., leaving arbitration provisions within existing agreements) might be necessary to avoid a tumultuous transition.

A small number of associations (again, this appears to be a university thing) have a portion of their collective agreement “protected” by a stonewall clause. The stonewall clause means that, absent agreement, impasse on some issues results in the existing language continuing. This sits uneasily with mainstream labour relations practice (wherein everything is up for grabs each time the parties negotiate). The loss of the stonewall clause would mean some long-standing provisions would be vulnerable to employer attack.

Overall, moving unionization and collective bargaining in the post-secondary sector under the ambit of the Labour Relations Code is likely workable. It is disappointing that CAFA did not take the opportunity in its submission to flag for the government areas of concern as the government requested.

This omission may have reflected the speed of the consultation. Yet, it also looks like a strategy (i.e., don’t talk about the non-desired option). Given the government’s continued queries about the impact of moving faculty under the Code, it might be helpful to provide input (however belatedly) about the impact of moving under the Code such that the government can ensure a smooth transition if it decides on the Labour Relations Code option.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, November 27, 2015

Labour & Pop Culture: Tuesday

This week’s installment of labour and popular culture focuses on ILoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday”—a contemporary song about the weekend. Last week, we looked at The Clash’s take on the weekend in 1977. Not much has changed in this 2014 song except that the experience of the weekend is fragmenting in the new labour market:
Ain't got no motherfuckin' time to party on the weekend
Tell Gelo, "Bring the juice, we about to get lit"
Fill the room up with some "tings", one night off and this is it
Always workin' OT, overtime and outta town
Shit is crazy back home, it kills me that I'm not around
Now we probably not feel too sorry for Drake and his success, but as a comment on the impact of precarious work, this song has some legs. It touches on themes of separation and work schedule pushing workers out of sync with their friends and their social supports.

ILoveMakonnen reports similar working conditions for the self-employed (in this case, drug dealers):
Workin' Monday night, on the corner flippin' hard
Made at least 3 thousand, on the boulevard
I've been workin' graveyard shifts every other weekend
Ain't got fuckin' time to party on the weekend
That artists are flagging the convergence of employment terms in both formal and informal sectors is interesting. If employers are alienating formal workers by subjecting them to employment conditions once reserved for drug dealers and sex workers, what does this mean for worker commitment and employer’s ability to turn the capacity to work (which is what employers purchase with wages) into actual work?

[Hook x4:]
Club goin' up, on a Tuesday
Got your girl in the cut and she choosey

[Verse 1 - Drake:]
Squad goin' up, nobody flippin' packs now
I just did 3 in a row, them shows is back-to-back to back now
Put the world on our sound, you know PARTY and The Weeknd
Ain't got no motherfuckin' time to party on the weekend
Tell Gelo, "Bring the juice, we about to get lit"
Fill the room up with some "tings", one night off and this is it
Always workin' OT, overtime and outta town
Shit is crazy back home, it kills me that I'm not around
I think we gettin' too deep; shit I'm talkin' might be too true
Upstairs I got xan's in an Advil bottle, I don't take them shits
But you do, so I got 'em for you
I don't need the pills, I'm just gon' have another drink
And when I'm puttin' work in on a weekend
I'll look back on this and think how we had the club going up

[Hook x4]

[Verse 2 - ILoveMakonnen:]
Workin' Monday night, on the corner flippin' hard
Made at least 3 thousand, on the boulevard
I've been workin' graveyard shifts every other weekend
Ain't got fuckin' time to party on the weekend
I've been flippin' in the house, makin' juugs on the highway
I've been ridin' out of state, makin' money like my way
I don't think that I should dance, I'm just gon' have another drink
I'm doin' my stance, you know my molly pink
I got the loudest of the loud, you know my gas stink
My P.O. think I'm in the house, don't give a damn 'bout what she think

[Hook x4]

[Bridge - ILoveMakonnen:]
And I know I know how I made it on my own
I made my own style, I don't think that I should stay
You know I gotta' go, you're moving too fast
Don't wanna take it slow

[Hook x4]

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Presentation: Changes to Alberta's labour laws

Overcoming legal barriers to fair labour practices
Parkland Institute 2015 Conference, 22 November 2015
Bob Barnetson, barnetso@athabascau.ca

Hey, I’m Bob and I teach labour stuff at Athabasca University. What I’m going to talk about today are changes to Alberta’s labour laws that should help reverse declining union density in Alberta. As most of you likely suspect, Alberta has the lowest rate of unionization in Canada at 22%. And, in the private sector, Alberta union density is actually only 11%.

Union density matters for lots of reasons. Workers who are union members tend to have better lives. They earn more money. They have better benefits. And they are less vulnerable to capricious employers.

And jurisdictions with high levels of unionization tend to see relatively small wage differences and fewer instances of precarious work. These are important issues in Alberta, given the huge gap between the earnings of men and women.

More philosophically, union density is a fair measure of workers’ abilities to exercise their associational rights—the right to act in concert with other workers to better their lives. That’s a right that’s protected in the Charter.

One of the interesting things about union density is that about a third of non-unionized workers say they would like to be in a union. But—for lots of reasons—aren’t. What this means is that there is a large untapped market for union membership.

One factor that contributes to Alberta’s low union density is its regressive labour laws. These laws reflect the overt hostility of the Social Credit and the Conservative government towards workers and unions.

So what I’m going to do in the next 15 minutes is outline five ways that the current government could make it easier for workers to exercise their associational rights by changing the Labour Relations Code—changes that should increase union density. These reforms include card-check certification, first-contract arbitration, remedial certification, sectoral bargaining, and minority unionism.

I’m happy to take questions as we go but there will also be time for questions at the end. That sound alright?

Card-Check Certification

Canada’s current labour relations regime is based upon the US Wagner model. Basically the Labour Board is responsible for certifying a union as the official bargaining agent for a group of workers.

Unions can get certified in two ways. Alberta requires a mandatory vote of the workers that happens about 10 days after the union files its application for certification with the Labour Board.

Other jurisdictions allow a union to be certified solely based on a majority of workers signing union cards—that is to say, there is no vote required. This is called card-check certification.

Up until 1977, all Canadian jurisdictions used card-check certification. Presently, though, card check operates only in Quebec, PEI, Manitoba and in Ontario’s construction sector.

The evidence on card-check certification is really clear: its results in more organizing drives by unions and more successful certifications.

The most robust analysis is out of BC. BC moved away from card check to mandatory votes in 1984. This change resulted in a 50% reduction in the number of organizing drives and union success rates also declined by 19%.

BC returned to card check certification in 1993 and the number of organizing drives increases (for a time) and success rate of those drives jumped by 19%. Other studies show basically the same thing.

The reason unions run more organizing drives and are more successful under card check is that it card check limits the opportunity for the employer to put a chill on an organizing drive.

What this means is returning Alberta to card-check certification should increase both the amount of organizing in Alberta and its success—both things that will drive up union density. This is kinda of a no brainer.

Remedial Certification

In addition to card-check certification, the government of Alberta could change the law to allow the Labour Board to grant automatic certification when employers significantly interfere with union organizing campaigns.

Remedial certification is necessary because up to 80% of employers overtly and actively resist union organizing efforts. This employer interference profoundly impacts workers’ ability to exercise their associational rights free.

For example, when employers engage in unfair labour practices—which is a subset of all forms of resistance—the success of certification drives drops by 14%. Remedial certification eliminates the incentive for employers to fool around because, if any employer pooches the vote, they’re gonna get certified anyhow. Ontario’s experience suggests having remedial certification significantly reduces unfair labour practices during organizing drives.

Now Alberta’s Labour Code currently allows the Labour Board to remedially certify a union. But that certification has to be confirmed by a vote of the affected workers. Since the purpose of employer interference is to pressurize workers into voting against the union, conditioning remedy on a likely poisoned vote is pretty nonsensical.

First-Contract Arbitration

First contract arbitration is another way that the government could also enhance workers’ ability to exercise their associational rights.

Under first-contract arbitration, if a first round of collective bargaining reaches impasse, either side can apply for resolution via arbitration, rather than being forced into a strike and/or lockout.

The need for first-contract arbitration reflects that some employers will stonewall the union during the first round of bargaining in the hope breaking the union. Basically, the employer uses the first round of bargaining to refight the certification vote that it just lost.

Now the purpose of collective bargaining is actually to reach a mutually agreeable collective agreement—employer reps might want to write that down—not to re-fight the certification campaign. And first-contract arbitration addresses inappropriate employer behaviour by eliminating the incentive to stonewall.

First-contract arbitration is available in the majority of Canadian jurisdictions. Experience (particularly in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec) suggests its availability so reduces employers’ incentive to stonewall unions that first-contract arbitration is rarely invoked. Instead, employers bargain like they are supposed to.

Sectoral Bargaining

The final change Alberta could make to the Wagner model is expanding sectoral bargaining. Sectoral bargaining allows a union to negotiate a single contract that covers multiple worksites and/or employers. When new worksites or employers are unionized, they become subject to the master agreement.

Sectoral bargaining addresses the challenges of organizing small workplaces. Organizing and then subsequently servicing a unit in a small workplaces is a relatively high-cost undertaking (for both the union and the employer).

In addition to those higher costs, there is a lack of organizational distance between workers and employers in small enterprises that reduces the anonymity of union supporters. This makes organizing drives in small workplaces riskier for workers and more prone to failure.

These are important problems because 98% of all employers have fewer than 100 workers and small enterprises employ two-thirds of private-sector workers.

Most provinces (including Alberta) use sectoral unionization in the construction industry, where often employers are small and work is transitory. Quebec’s labour legislation also provides for decrees that extend provisions of collective agreements across an industrial sector, such as the automotive services sector in Montreal.

To date, there has been no research I could find about how sectoral bargaining affects unionization rates. Mostly likely that’s because there have been no “natural experiments” to observe. But the logic of sectoral bargaining is really compelling.

Allowing unions to negotiate multi-employer agreements reduces the costs associated with organizing small workplaces—so there will likely be more organizing drives. And combined with card-check certification provisions that reduce the risk of certification to workers in small workplaces, sectoral bargaining should increase the ability and willingness of these workers to organize.

Minority Unionism

So far, I’ve talked about ways to improve the existing model of labour relations. If the government wanted to look beyond Wagnerism, it might well consider minority unionism.

Under the current Wagner system, unions are organized on the principle of exclusive majority unionism. Basically, a union has to be selected by a majority of workers in a bargaining unit to represent those workers.

One effect of that requirement is that there tends to be a gap between the demand for union representation and workers’ access to it. For example, some workers will want to be represented by a union but they won’t be able to convince a majority of their colleagues to go along with that so the union supporters will remain non-unionized. That dynamic explains, in part, the union representation gap I mentioned at the beginning.

Some academics suggest that legislation allowing only exclusive majority unionism may actually be unconstitutional because those laws deny some workers any way to meaningfully exercise their freedom of association.

An alternative to exclusive majority unionism is some form of minority unionism. Minority unionism allows unions representing less than a majority of workers to negotiate and administer collective agreements for those workers that they do represent.

This allows workers to meaningfully exercise their associational rights even when they can’t achieve certification under the Wagner model.

Minority unionism also allows unions to organize workers at lower cost and lower risk. If a union doesn’t think its going to win a certification drive, it might choose to organize a unit on a minority basis. And worksites organized in that manner could then be converted to certified worksites in the future.

Minority unionism might legislatively build upon provisions in the US National Labour Relations Act that protects persons engaged in “concerted activity” for the purpose of “mutual aid or protection.” These concerted-activity provisions would extend protection to non-unionized workers, such as those workers involved in the recent Fight for 15 campaigns. At present, these protections are not available to Canadian workers—unless they are trying to certify a union.


So what are the politics of changing Alberta’s laws to make it easier for workers to exercise their associational rights?

The least controversial changes entail strengthening workers’ abilities to unionize under the Wagner model. For example, card-check certification is a well established process which significantly increases the number of organizing drives and their success rate.

Employers will likely oppose card check by spuriously arguing that it is an undemocratic process because there is no vote. Politically, one way to undercut that criticism is to make the threshold for card-check certification a bit higher than a simple majority. Manitoba, for example, uses 65% as the threshold.

The politics around minority unionism are likely to be much more interesting. Some unions may see legislated minority unionism as threatening, both to their existing monopoly status and their method of operating.

Presently, the only protected way for workers to work in concert is via certification. There are no protections for workers acting together unless they are trying to form a union. This drives workers who want to better their working conditions towards established unions.

Minority unionism would lower the cost of entry for new worker organizations and increase the power of grassroots unions such as the Wobblies. I would think that would be pretty threatening to established unions that have a virtual monopoly on representation under the Wagner model.

Unions that engage with minority unionism will also need to cope with the free-rider effect. That’s to say, the majority of workers in a workplace might well receive most of the benefits achieved by the members of the minority union (because employers typically standardize pay and benefits) without contributing to those efforts. That could place a significant strain on union resources and, I think, would also be threatening.

Finally, unions typically have to internally navigate a tension between their espoused beliefs (i.e., everyone should be organized) and the realities of resource constraints—that it just isn’t economical to organize everyone.

At present, most Alberta unions have an urban-industrial bias. Basically, most of their members work for large, often urban, employers whose don’t aggressively resist the union. There are exceptions, but the general principle seems to hold and leads to economies of scale in terms of representation.

The process of certification under the Wagner model helps to constrain the number of organizing drives for uneconomical bargaining units. Few of these workplaces will ever be certified.

But minority unionism allows for self organization. And successfully self-organized minority units are likely to eventually seek certification in order to gain power in the workplace and access to greater resources from an existing union.

So the question is how many uneconomical bargaining units will unions take on before they starts to feel the pinch? And how would a union reconcile the tension between its espoused beliefs and the realities of union resource limits? That tension creates a profound political and moral quandary for union leaders.

These kinds of considerations may well affect the degree of support the government might receive from organized labour for minority unionism and, thus, the political viability of that option.

So those thoughts bring me to the end of my talk. And I’d be happy to take questions or speeches disguised as questions.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, November 20, 2015

Labour & Pop Culture: 48 Hours

This week’s installment of labour and popular culture focuses on The Clash’s “48 hours”—a song about the weekend. God, I hate The Clash—like the Ramones with a head cold. Anyhow…

The crux of this (awful, awful) song is the singers’ need to maximize their enjoyment of their weekend. Written in 1977, the workers in 48 hours were likely employed in soul-crushing Fordist jobs (e.g., factories, mills, shipyards) to which the weekend provided an escape (“monday is coming like a jail on wheels”).

Fast forward 40 years and workers are now likely working the weekend on less-well-paying service-sector jobs. Interestingly, songs about hedonism have kept pace with flexible work (now we party and get wasted on week-nights too!), a theme I’ll explore next week.

friday or saturday, what does that mean
short space of time needs a heavy scene
monday is coming like a jail on wheels

48 hours needs 48
48 hours needs 48
48 hours needs 48
48 thrills

so tell me an' i'll take the tube
you know a girl, yeah well she's bound to be rude
can't get nothing at the places i've been

i've combed this town from top to bottom
i try to get around but my legs are broken
every time i miss it 'cos i ain't got a ticket

48 hours needs 48 thrills
kicking for kicks

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Gender-based analysis online training

One of the more interesting developments in Alberta policy circles in the introduction of gender-based analysis. The crux of this analysis is the notion that the differing characteristics of individuals (gender, ethnicity, ability, age, geography, etc.) affect how individuals benefit (or not) from government policies and programs. The upshot is that policies, programs and services should consider these factors in design and recognize that one size does not fit all.

The federal government has been using gender-based analysis for some time. Status of Women Canada has a very nice (and free!) online introduction (complete with certificate!) available here. It takes about two or two-and-a-half hours to complete and provides an overview of the process and some interesting illustrative case studies (policing, emergency response, forestry, parental leave).

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, November 13, 2015

Labour & Pop Culture: Managerialism in Star Wars

This week's instalment of labour themes in popular culture is not a song (although I still have plenty of those), but rather a Forbes video that uses Star Wars as a case study in leadership and leadership errors. While anything that casts employers as Sith lords gives me the giggles, there is some actual value in the leadership lessons that Forbes has extracted from franchise.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Wildrose proposal to private WCB lacks evidence

This weekend is Alberta’s Wildrose Party’s policy convention. One of the proposals from the Innisfail-Sylvan Lake constituency is to have the government consider privatizing the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB).

Now there are lots of things that need change at the WCB. For example, I heard last week that the WCB recently amended its contracts with occupational medicine physicians to preclude them from offering opinions on occupational disease to workers.

Workers use these opinions to gain compensation for occupational diseases. The WCB using its economic influence to deny workers access to Alberta specialists means the workers must look out of province (or out of country) if they want compensation—a very expensive proposition for injured workers who have no income. If this is true, it is pretty douche-y.

But back to the Rosies. Wildrose members will be voting on a proposal asking the Government of Alberta to:
59. ... Investigate the feasibility and manner in which the current Workers Compensation Board (WCB) system can be opened-up to become a transparent and competitive system with the cost and service benefits such a system could deliver in the provision of this vitally important protection of Alberta’s workers.


The WCB is a monopoly provider of on-the-job accident insurance for many working Albertans. And like all monopolies, it is vastly inefficient, insensitive to its clients - both workers and employers. Removing the monopoly and creating a market for the provision of the mandated coverage would create the much-needed competition and the efficiencies, service and accountability to the employers and employees (and Albertans as a whole) free markets deliver.
Now, to be clear, the WCB is sometimes pretty tough for workers to deal with. The question, though, is the degree to which eliminating the public monopoly would address these concerns. Borrowing liberally from my 2010 book on workplace injuries, let’s look at the simplest claim in the Rosies’ rationale: privatizing the WCB would drive down costs (i.e., create efficiencies).

What precisely is meant by ‘privatization’ varies and can mean one or a mixture of the following:
  1. for-profit insurance companies competing with a non-profit WCB, 
  2. for-profit companies assuming total responsibility for providing insurance within (or without) guidelines established by the state, 
  3. for-profit companies providing insurance but a WCB remains as the insurer of last resort (for those companies no insurance company will take on). 
These approaches form the mainstay of American workers’ compensation systems, in which private companies manage claims, while government determines such matters as eligibility for compensation, benefit levels and provides the processes for appeals.

The basic argument underlying the cost savings rationale is that competition incentivizes private providers to reduce costs. It is useful to first look at this argument from a theoretical perspective. Assume publicly provided workers’ compensation systems have administrative costs of approximately 15%. This means that a private-sector company operating even 10% more efficiently than a public-sector WCB would only see a cost savings of 1.5%.

Private-sector companies, however, must also generate a profit for their investors, something that is sure to negate some or all of the efficiency gains that are assumed to come with privatization. To avoid increasing rates in order to make a profit (and thus invalidating the key argument for privatization—that it will be cheaper), insurers will need to find some other way to reduce costs.

Private insurance companies may try to get employers to reduce accident rates by increasing premiums for unsafe employers. More likely, though, is that private insurers will turn to decreasing benefit levels, reducing the duration of claims, or shifting costs to other programs, such as the health care, the welfare systems, or the workers’ families. These approaches create the appearance that private insurance is less expensive, but in fact represent a cost transfer from industry to workers and the state.

An interesting question is who chooses the insurer in a privatized system with multiple potential carriers. It seems safe to assume that, in choosing an insurer, workers and employers would pursue their own interests.

Furthermore, it appears fair to assert that the adjudication of claims is complex enough that each insurer must exercise some discretion in accepting and managing claims. Thus, if the employer selects the insurer, the employer would likely seek the insurer with the lowest premiums. Low premiums most likely mean the insurer is shifting costs to the injured worker or the government.

By the same token, if the worker selects the insurer, the worker will likely seek the insurer with the most generous track record. This would increase employer costs and thus undermines the purpose of privatization—saving money.

It is also possible that the complexity of the tasks performed by a workers’ compensation system may render the regulation of privatization by the state so complex as to minimize or even eliminate the projected cost savings.

So what does the research about the US systems say?

Terry Thomason compared the experience of per employee assessment of workers’ compensation in Canada and US between 1961 and 1989. Overall, the difference was small (between $2 and $50 per employee) with no particular pattern to the difference. This conclusion finds support in subsequent research which indicates that the costs of publicly provided workers’ compensation are not higher, and may even be lower, than privately provided workers’ compensation. This suggests that privatization does not result in cost savings.

Thomason also notes that, despite similar overall costs, Canadian programs offer more generous benefits and more extensive coverage than the American system. An earlier study by Thomason also indicates that American workers’ compensation systems result in much more litigation, and that administrative costs are twice as high.

A third study in New York State found that claim management by private insurers, and in particular the cost of disputing claims, appears to reflect economic considerations, rather than genuine concern over causation and disability. Furthermore, certain claims were more likely to be disputed and/or adjusted by private insurers in this system.

These more disputed claims included claims by non-English speakers, younger workers (whose greater life expectancy yields higher claim costs), and workers claiming occupational disease or internal injury. This also held true where the claim value was small, and not as likely to be pursued by the worker via litigation.

A further problem with privatization is that of ‘creaming’. Creaming occurs where insurers will only insure low-risk companies (i.e., the ones potentially most profitable to the insurer). Avoiding creaming requires a significant degree of government regulation.

Most damaging to the notion of privatization is that there appears to be no significant research that supports the proposition that privately provided workers’ compensation is less expensive than its public counterpart.

An analysis of workers’ compensation in 48 states from 1975 to 1995 designed to determine (in part) which set of arrangements (public, private or mixed provision) provided the most effective form of delivery concluded there were no clear differences in costs between jurisdictions with exclusively public and exclusively private systems.

Where there is mixed delivery (i.e., public and private providers), employer costs appear to be higher. The overall impression arising out of this research is that privatization does not yield a less costly system for employers or a more equitable system for employees.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, November 6, 2015

Labour & Pop Culture: All the labor

This week’s installment of labour themes in pop culture is the Gourds’ “All the labor”. The Gourds were a long-standing alternative band out of the US. Their song All the Labor was a fan favourite.

I’ve listened to this song a couple of times and I'm damned if I can figure out what the message is. I think it is a meditation on life and death and the role of work during the time in between. Perhaps it suggests that, despite our views to the contrary, life is pretty amazing? Or maybe not. Thoughts?

All the labor landed in the sod
Where the digger cried it's my calling, sir
And it is no mistake that I put you in the ground so well
And if they pay me well thats great
It's just gravy I'd do it anyway
All the labor stood up and shouted
I'll wait for you fun lovin' minever cheevy
With all yer drunken delusions I am a sensational place
Of camaraderie and pleasure
Won't you stand with me in your garden once more
All the labor although it be brick on brick
Stitch on stitch and earn to urn
A presence on the lift what this great ole nation was built on boy
Outlives the package everyday mama mama everyday

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Pay equity legislation in Alberta?

A new group (sponsored by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees) advocating pay equity legislation in Alberta popped up on my facebook feed this weekend. Pay equity is generally taken to mean paying male and female workers the same wage for work of equal value.

One of the more interesting discussions around pay equity is what work is typically considered equal. For example, is extractive work in the resource industry (e.g., logging, mining, roughnecking) more inherently valuable than work in social reproductive industries (e.g., child care, cleaning, cooking, nursing)?

Certainly the former tend to be paid more than the latter. But that does not mean they are inherently of greater value. Rather, this pay difference reflects that occupational value is a social construction and, historically, work typically performed by women has been constructed as less valuable than work typically performed by men.

The result of this has been a persistent wage-gap, wherein women tend to be paid less than men, even in similar jobs. A Parkland Institute study this spring found women in Alberta earn about 63% of men in similar jobs. And, when you stop controlling for the type of job held, women earn about 56% of what men do. A knock-on effect of this wage gap is that women are more likely to be low-wage workers and live in poverty.

Like all Canadian jurisdictions, Alberta implicitly requires pay equality (i.e., men and women must be paid the same if performing the same job in the same organization) under its Human Rights Code. This reflects that gender discrimination is prohibited. It is unclear whether (1) employers meaningfully comply with this requirement and (2) any women seek remediation for pay inequality under the Human Rights Code (because such complaints are risky and take years to resolve).

Alberta has no explicit provisions or efforts to address pay equity (which operates at the level of occupational groups, not individuals). Enacting pay equity provisions would give women in occupational groups that face systemic gender discrimination a pathway to remedy that discrimination. Depending upon the manner in which pay equity is enacted, it might also place some obligations on employers to demonstrate that they meet the requirements of the legislation.

There is an online petition (that emails MLAs) as well as an interactive pay equity quiz that is worth checking out at the link above.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 30, 2015

Friday Tunes: Between the Wars

This week’s installment of labour themes in popular culture is Billy Bragg’s “Between the Wars”, a song he wrote during the UK coal miner’s fight with Margaret Thatcher. The key theme in the song is the sense of betrayal by the government among the working class over Thatcher’s austerity agenda:
I paid the union and as times got harder
I looked to the government to help the working man 
I kept the faith and I kept voting
Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand
The poor treatment of the miner, docker and railway man—the kinds of people who historically have risked and sacrificed their lives for their countries in the expectation of a fair shake—represents a betrayal of that sacrifice.
Call up the craftsmen
Bring me the draughtsmen
Build me a path from cradle to grave
And I'll give my consent
To any government
That does not deny a man a living wage
We heard echoes of this sentiment in the recent federal election, with many voters appalled by the Harper government’s treatment of veterans. Whether it is denying disabled veterans benefits or destroying the industries that provides workers with a living wage in order to break the power of workers, governments that renege on the social contract eventually pay a price.

I don’t particularly care for Billy Bragg’s voice so I’ve selected an acapella cover by The Young’uns.

I was a miner
I was a docker
I was a railway man
Between the wars
I raised a family
In times of austerity
With sweat at the foundry
Between the wars

I paid the union and as times got harder
I looked to the government to help the working man
And they brought prosperity down at the armoury
"We're arming for peace me boys"
Between the wars

I kept the faith and I kept voting
Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand
For theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is a faith in my fellow man
Theirs is a land of hope and glory
Mine is the green field and the factory floor
Theirs are the skies all dark with bombers
And mine is the peace we knew
Between the wars

Call up the craftsmen
Bring me the draughtsmen
Build me a path from cradle to grave
And I'll give my consent
To any government
That does not deny a man a living wage

Go find the young men never to fight again
Bring up the banners from the days gone by
Sweet moderation
Heart of this nation
Desert us not, we are
Between the wars

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Gendered energy extraction in Fort McMurray

Three weeks ago, AU Press published a new book entitled Alberta Oil and the Decline of Democracy in Canada. You can download the entire book for free from Athabasca University Press. Sara Dorow’s chapter entitled “Gendering energy extraction in Fort McMurray” examines the gendered nature of social reproduction that underlies the tar sands economy. 

Basically, Dorow looks at how the role of women in Fort McMurray's economy often becomes to support men’s participation in the oil industry—through not working (at least for pay) or working part-time or working in “town” jobs in order to free up men to work in the plants and mines.

Dorow’s analysis is very interesting. Here are a couple of snap shots:
First, consider that in 2011 nearly one-third of the resident labour force in the [Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo] census area worked in “trades, transport and equipment operators and related occupations,” and 90 percent of those workers oil industry ads and billboards is, ironically, more a reflection of the work that female bodies do to publicly produce the idea of inclusive economic participation than of the reality of work on the ground. (p. 279) 
Median earnings for men in the RMWB were almost three times those of women, and were still more than twice as high when we consider only those individuals working full-year, full-time (see table 10.1). This is considerably more of a gap than in the province as a whole, which already has one of the highest gender wage gaps in Canada. (pp. 279-280)

In this context, complained the spouse of an oil industry professional, “as much as the companies certainly say, ‘Balanced life, that’s what we want,’ there’s certainly that dichotomy between ‘Make sure you’re staying healthy and not working too much’ but ‘Could you come in and work tomorrow?’” (p. 281) 
A second form of flexibilization entailed women taking a paid job that worked around a male partner’s schedule in the oil patch. Often this was part-time work found in public, nonprofit, or service industry employment in town, given the relative dearth of part-time work with the oil companies themselves. (p. 282)
Dorow’s chapter also touches upon the experiences of (mostly racialized) live-in caregivers, which Dorow has previously discussed in this report. Overall, this is a very different take on the oilsands and well worth the read.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

International Conference on Regulation, Change and the Work Environment

From November 30 to December 2, the University of Ottawa will be playing host to the International Conference on Regulation, Change and the Work Environment. I am sad I can't attend this conference as it is quite a good program.

The conference opens with a panel discussion entitled "Sick of Work: The Health and Safety Challenges of Insecure and Precarious Employment – Global Perspectives and Lessons for Canada" that includes Michael Quinlan, Annie Th├ębaud-Mony, David Walters, Laurent Vogel and Katherine Lippel.

The next days sees sessions that include:
  • Occupational Health Put to the Test of Deregulation: The Paralysis of European Policies on Occupational Cancers 
  • The Global Workforce and Workplace Safety in Australian Horticulture: Managing Without Obligation or Commitment
  • (in French) Local Labour Union Action on Occupational Health and Safety: Varieties in Forms, Leverage and Obstacles
Overall, this looks like a good conference on a timely theme!

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 23, 2015

Friday Tunes: Shift Work

This week’s installment of labour theme in popular culture is Kenny Chesney’s (rather uninspiring) “Shift Work”. Shift work—work that requires workers to work outside of regular week-day hours—is a growing trend in Canada. The most common form of shift work is rotating schedules, when a worker cycles through a series of day, evening, and night shifts. Shift work disrupts our biological clock, family patterns and is associated with unhealthy behaviours, including smoking, poor diet and increased alcohol consumption

Research compiled by my colleague Jason Foster (with whom I’m writing an open-source OHS textbook) reveals shift work causes a wide range of health effects. In the short term, shift work leads to shortened and less restorative sleep, chronic tiredness and lack of alertness, as well as stomachaches, indigestion, and heartburn. Shift work is associated with increased risk of workplace incidents and injury.

Longer term exposure to shift work is associated with a series of illnesses and conditions. Shift workers report significantly higher rates of burnout, emotional exhaustion, stress, anxiety, depression, and other psychological distress. Shift work increases a worker’s risk of developing diabetes and some studies have also found a greater risk of heart disease. Some studies have also suggested a link between shift work and pregnancy complications.

Likely the most significant long term risk of shift work is increased risk of cancer, in particular breast cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has concluded that disrupting shift work is “probably carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2B) – the second most conclusive category in the IARC.

Chesney’s song is remarkable for lyrically focusing on this aspect of job design and, more broadly, the difficulties faced by blue collar workers. About the most interesting observation he makes is that, in seeking a break from shift work, the singer accesses services that also run on shift work.

What is most striking is how brutally sexist Chesney’s video is. While women comprise a significant percentage of all shift workers, they show up only a handful of times in the video (three times, may) as examples of workers. The rest of the time, shift work is clearly constructed as the preserve of (mostly white) men engaged in “log it, mine it, pave it” work.

The major exception to the absence of women is the models pretending to be gas station attendants who writhe around the car in the service station parking lot that serves as the main set for the video. Seriously, would anyone lean over a hot engine to check the oil in a crop top with their boobs hanging out? This creates an interesting contrast to the “real workers" (i.e., men) in the video who are shown often wearing appropriate personal protective equipment.

Brutal sexism, Kenny. Just brutal.

Shift work, hard work, tired body
Blue-collar shirt and a baseball cap
You knew me

He's hot, sweat drops, 'round the clock
Door never locks
Noise never stops
Not all day

Work seven to three
Three to eleven
Eleven to seven

Shift work, tough work for the busy convenience store clerk
Two feet that hurt, going insane
She's mad at some lad

Drove off and didn't pay for his gas and he won't be the last
'round the clock pain
Work seven to three
Three to eleven
Eleven to seven


Talking about a bunch of shift work
A big ol' pile of shift work
Work seven to three
Three to eleven
Eleven to seven

Well I work, shift work,
Ten years man, I hated that work
I made a break with the money I saved
It took me to the beach to have a beer by the edge of the sea

And this 'round a clock place
I drank my money away
We partied
Work seven to three
Three to eleven
Eleven to seven



Work seven to three
Three to eleven
Eleven to seven

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Regulatory capture: Trading worker's health for profit

Two weeks ago, a new book entitled Alberta Oil and the Decline of Democracy in Canada was published by Athabasca University Press. You can download the entire book for free from Athabasca University Press.

My own chapter entitled “Worker safety in Alberta: Trading health for profit” examines how the former Conservative government undermines workers’ rights to safe workplaces in order to privilege the interests of employers. The story is a bit winding and includes a concerted effort to weaken Alberta’s labour movement and also appease rural interests to maintain electoral support.

I think the most interesting part of the chapter is the discussion of regulatory capture of Alberta OHS system.
Regulatory capture occurs when a state agency designed to act in the public interest instead acts to advance the interests of an important stakeholder group in the sector its regulates (Shapiro 2012). Regulatory capture occurs when groups with a significant stake in the outcome of regulatory decisions aggressively seek to gain advantageous policy outcomes. Focused efforts are often successful, because the public (who individually have only a small stake in the outcome) tend to ignore regulatory decision making.

Under a situation of regulatory capture, the dominant stakeholder group can then use the captured regulator to impose costs on other stakeholders, even if such costs are contrary to the public interest. Captured regulators may see themselves as partners of the captors they are supposed to regulate and may even find themselves financed by that group (p. 236).
It is important to recognize that regulatory capture is a contested concept (there are competing definitions and approaches). That said, there is ample evidence to suggest that it had occurred in Alberta’s occupational health and safety system under the Tory regime. The evidence includes the state:
  • ineffectively regulating workplace safety, 
  • deeming employers to be “partners” in regulation, 
  • being reliant on employer funding of regulatory activity, 
  • allowing employers preferential access to policy making, 
  • enacting policies that reward the appearance of safety rather than safety itself, and 
  • promulgating a narrative that blames another stakeholder (i.e. , workers) for workplace injuries.
The key policy question going forward is what changes the New Democratic government might make to the operation of the occupational health and safety and workers’ compensation systems that might reverse this capture.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Professor. Associate Professor. What's the difference?

I had some good news from Athabasca University yesterday (a rare event indeed!) regarding my final promotion. This clip somehow seems funnier now:

I'm sure there is some sort of teachable moment here, but I'm really too tired to even try.

-- Professor Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Deaths of farm children are mostly preventable

The death of three young farm kids in Alberta last week is (rightly) being reported as a tragedy. The reports are bit unclear but it appears that the girls (13, 11 and 11) were sitting on a truck while canola seed was being loaded, somehow fell into the truck bed, and were buried, eventually dying of asphyxiation.

One of the more vexing aspects of the media coverage are “man-on-the-street” comments along the lines of “it’s a farm, what are ya gonna do?” Although this narrative has been less pronounced in the coverage of these deaths than in other tragedies, it is still visible in the coverage.  For example:
Fred Bott said he was invited to the Bott farm often while growing up in Rocky Mountain House, Alta. 
He said many might question why the children weren't more closely monitored on the farm. 
"Anytime we went to visit, you were always out playing out in the haystacks, playing in the barn loft, playing in the grain. That's what farm kids do."
There certainly truth in this statement: farm kids routinely come into contact with hazards and this contact is widely accepted as a part of farm life. Yet, at the same time, most of these contacts—and the injuries they sometimes cause—are not inevitable.

Crudely speaking, injuries and fatalities are caused by an individual being in proximity to an uncontrolled hazard. If you control the hazard (e.g., by eliminating it or otherwise limiting contact with the hazard), you prevent the injury or fatality. This the basic “logic” of hazard control in occupational health and safety.

Hazard elimination is tricky on farms. Of the roughly 100 farm fatalities each year in Canada, about 70% are machinery-related (roll-overs, run-downs, caught in machine, collisions, pinned by machinery). Drowning, contact with animals and falls account for most of the rest. About 2% of fatalities are caused by asphyxiation by grain or soil.

Many farm hazards are inherent in the work (thus cannot be eliminated) while others would be extremely costly to mitigate. It is, however, possible to reduce the risk of death appreciably. Consider roll overs (the biggest risk to farmers, nationally). Driver training can reduce the risk of tractor roll overs. And roll bars can decrease the likelihood and severity of injury from a roll over.

Now think about kids on farms. There were 61 fatalities involving minors on Alberta farms between 1997 and 2013. The causes broadly mirror national data on child farm deaths:
Machine runovers: 41.9%
Drownings: 15.2%
Machine rollovers: 11.1%
Animal-related: 6.5%
Crushed under an object: 5.1% 
A small percentage of these deaths are likely unpreventable. For example, anyone who gets on a horse can get thrown and a small subset of those thrown will die as a result. But most of these deaths are preventable by excluding children from the area containing the hazard, either with physical barriers or via firmly enforced rules.

Excluding the children from the area around grain or seed loading operations, for example, likely would have saved the three girls who died this week. Yes, children can break rules, but most likely won’t. And it is up to parents to enforce these rules.

What this analysis suggests is that allowing farm kids to be exposed to hazards is a choice (i.e., academics would call it a cultural practice). As a choice, this practice is amenable to change. The question is show to effect such a cultural change, given how adults tend to diminish injuries and near misses to children by framing these events as educational (“that’ll learn ya”).

There is some logic to this “natural consequences” approach to parenting. We certainly do all learn from experience. Yet allow kids to learn from first-hand experience in the face of risks with potentially fatal consequences is not responsible parenting. While educating children about the risks on the farm is certainly one possibility, it is important to remember that it is adults who determine the dangers children face on a farm.

-- Bob Barnetson