Friday, February 27, 2015

Friday Tunes: Sixteen Tons

This week's installment of labour themes in popular culture is Tennesse Ernie Ford's 1955 version of Sixteen Tons. It's a song about coal mining, but the themes it tackles will be familiar to contemporary workers.

The songs starts out discussing the lack of choice that many workers have in their employment ("A mind that's a-weak and a back that's strong"), contrary to the personal choice narrative popular among neoliberal boosters.

It then talks about the cycle of poverty and debt, with the miner owing his soul to the company store and lamenting "You load sixteen tons, what do you get/Another day older and deeper in debt". The result is a spiral of despair and violence. Really, throw in a set of truck nutz and it could be about Alberta today.

Some people say a man is made outta mud
A poor man's made outta muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bones
A mind that's a-weak and a back that's strong

You load sixteen tons, what do you get
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store

I was born one mornin' when the sun didn't shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said "Well, a-bless my soul"


I was born one mornin', it was drizzlin' rain
Fightin' and trouble are my middle name
I was raised in the canebrake by an ol' mama lion
Cain't no-a high-toned woman make me walk the line


If you see me comin', better step aside
A lotta men didn't, a lotta men died
One fist of iron, the other of steel
If the right one don't a-get you
Then the left one will


-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Research: Injury under-reporting in construction

The American Journal of Industrial Medicine recently released an article examining injury under-reporting: "Non-reporting of work injuries and aspects of jobsite safety climate and behavioral-based safety elements among carpenters in Washington state". This article looks at the long-term decline in workplace injuries to assess whether there has been an actual decline in injuries, under-reporting of injuries or both.

About 85% reported an injury at some point during their career. Almost three-quarters of those who indicated an injury sought medical care and almost half were absent from work beyond the date of injury. This suggests the injuries were reasonably serious.

Seventy-one percent of workers reported the injury to their employer but slightly less than half reported it to the workers' compensation system (where from most injury stats emerge). Not reporting injuries rose when workers faced cash or prizes for low injury reporting and almost doubled when discipline occurred for reporting injuries. The written comments were quite interesting:
Minor cuts, scrapes, bruises, muscle strains we keep to ourselves. [I have] seen too many carpenters laid off due to possible work-related claims or being labeled high risk. (p.7). 
I injured my back while working for a large self-insured construction company. I was pressured to not file a W.C. claim, and the company directly paid for my initial treatment and laid me off as soon as the doctor released me to full duty. (p.8)
We are encouraged at [XX] not to report any injuries that are work related. I know of some carpenters who use their own health insurance for fear of being fired by the office. I know of one carpenter who broke his wrist and said he did it at home, so that the foreman would not lose his safety bonus for that job. I know that when I got injured they asked me to wait to see if it would heal without medical treatment. (p.8).
Overall, the study finds evidence of under-reporting, particularly of minor injuries. While fear of reporting and not reporting were not highly prevalent, they were more common in workplaces that exhibited poor safety management. This may reflect an employer decision to trade worker health for profit by encouraging non-reporting.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, February 20, 2015

Friday Tunes: Don't Mean Nothing

This week's installment of labour themes in popular culture is Richard Marx's Don't Mean Nothing. This first time I heard this was in concert in 1989, where the sightlines from my great seats were immediately obscured by a crush of frizzy hair and Miss Lee Press-on Nails. I selected an acoustic version so you can hear more of the lyrics and less of the 1980s.

This song is about the difficulties faced by performers in the workplace (loosely defined). Dishonesty looms large in these lyrics ("Ain't no one you can count on in this sleazy little town" and "It don't mean nothin'/Till you sign it on the dotted line"). So too does the power differential between employers and workers in an industry where the supply of talent vastly outstrips the demand ("When you're trying to make a living/There ain't no such thing as pride, no").

While most workers don't face exactly the same problems as Richard Marx did in the late 1980s ("I'm out of hair gel! Where's my lumberjack shirt? Why does David Foster have no confidence in me as a singer?"), the themes he identifies are not uncommon in workplaces. Differing interests incentivize and asymmetrical rights and obligations facilitate employers taking advantage of workers, particularly vulnerable workers who are more likely to accept their exploitation out of need.

Welcome to the big time.
You're bound to be a star
And even if you don't go all the way,
I know that you'll go far
This race is for rats, it can turn you upside down
Ain't no one you can count on in this sleazy little town, oh no

Lots of promises in the dark
But don't you open your heart

Cause it don't mean nothin'
The words that they say
Don't mean nothin'
These games that people play
No, it don't mean nothin'
No victim, no crime
It don't mean nothin'
Till you sign it on the dotted line

The director smiles as you walk in the door
He says, I love your work, babe but
You're just not what we're looking for
It's never what but who it is you know
So easy to get stuck in all that California snow

Take a good look around and you'll find
People tryin' to mess with your mind


Hollywood can be so lonely
Make you the winner of a losing fight
But the party is never over
Cause stars are always shining
Doesn't matter if it's day or night

The producer says, let me change a line or two
And a little bit of something can look awfully good to you
And you want to scream, but you gotta keep it all inside
When you're trying to make a living,
There ain't no such thing as pride, no

Lots of promises in the dark
But don't you open your heart


It don't mean nothing at all...

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Hancock to receive honorary degree???

I've just been informed that Athabasca University will be awarding Dave Hancock an Honorary Doctor of Laws on Saturday, June 13. 

From the university's announcement:
Mr. Hancock is known for his comprehensive knowledge and understanding of public policy, as well as his passion for education and the betterment of our province. 
 Hancock's public record is truly a marvel. He was Minister of Human Services when the Redford government promised universities a 2% increase in funding and the delivered a 7% cut (leading to layoffs and program closures). During his time as Deputy Premier, he also helped lead the government's attack on public sector workers wages, pensions and freedom of speech.

As acting premier, "his comprehensive knowledge and understanding of public policy" convinced him to maintain a tax regime which will deal another blow to the public sector this year, including another likely 5% cut in post-secondary grants. So you can see why Athabasca University would want to reward his public service.

In a related news item, chickens have just announced they will be awarding Col. Sanders the Cordon Bleu Medal of Freedom. 

"The Colonel has given employment opportunities to literally millions of our brothers and sisters," enthused Ugatta B. Kiddinme, President of the Federation of United Chickens seeking Meaningful Employment.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Cost-benefit analysis in OHS

This past fall, the Wake Forest Law Review published an interesting essay on the political economy of occupational health and safety regulation in the United States entitled "Dying at work: Political discourse and occupational health and safety". Basically the essay examines the popularity of the cost-benefit analysis and how this is an inappropriate way to set public policy over injuries.

Applied to workplace injury, cost-benefit analysis basically says we should only prevent those injuries which cost less to prevent (costs mostly borne by the employer) than they do to incur (costs mostly borne by the worker). When the state accepts this approach, it is basically agreeing to allow one person (the employer) to injury another (an unspecified worker).

This blunt assessment of what cost-benefit analysis actually means (i.e., state-sanctioned assault) tends to be obscured by notions of freedom of choice. In this view, workers choose the jobs they work and thus choose their level of risk. Why should the state intervene in this arrangement, ask free market fundamentalists?

This view is reinforced by the tendency of individuals to make the fundamental attribution error:
In social psychology, the fundamental attribution error refers to the tendency of people to overestimate the influence of individual dispositions in influencing someone’s behavior and to underestimate the influence of situational factors on that behavior. Because of this tendency, people tend to miss those situations in which someone’s behavior is the result of situational factors We “tend to look for the person in the situation more than we search for the situation that makes the person.”
As a result, “situational factors are cognitively hidden (often in plain sight), easily camouflaged and naturalized as mere background.” For example, if an individual is a hedge fund manager, rather than a West Virginia coal miner, there is a tendency to attribute these choices to the individual’s own behavior in terms of pursing financial opportunity. The fact that the results may well be related to education credentials, social and political connections, social mobility, and the like, are missed. (p. 842.).
In this view, workers are more likely to be the cause of injuries because of their behaviour than the decisions employers make about what, when, where and how to produce goods (which, in turn determine the hazards workers face). And, workers can always quit if they don't like it (never mind the need to put food on the table). In this way, the fundamental attribution error tends to make individuals (such as policy makers) sympathetic to corporate efforts to limit or rollback OHS rules.

The upshot of privileging cost-benefit analysis (and more broadly, valorizing the market) over more democratic values (e.g., a right security of person, including being free from harm) is that the level of workplace injuries and fatalities remains unnecessarily high due to limited OHS laws and sparse enforcement.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, February 13, 2015

Friday Tunes: Won't Get Fooled Again

With a tip of the hat to Alberta's new premier and his recycled austerity agenda, this week's installment of labour themes in popular culture is the The Who's 1971 classic Won't Get Fooled Again. I picked an acoustic version so you can hear the lyrics some. Although I have grown to loathe this song, I picked it because of the closing lyrics ("Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss"): this was my first thought when I heard Prentice announce MLA wage rollbacks.

Pete Townsend (who wrote the song) has a complicated (and, frankly, tedious) explanation of the song he has posted online. But let's just look at what the lyrics suggest about power. The song is deeply cynical about the prospects for meaningful change despite assertions of revolution ("There's nothing in the streets/Looks any different to me"). This seems profoundly true in Alberta where the political faces change but public policy (privileging corporations) remains stuck in 1980.

You can also read the song to reveal concern about the collateral damage caused by so-called reforms. ("I'll move myself and my family aside/If we happen to be left half alive"). The prospect of a repeat of Ralph Klein's austerity package (e.g., remember the decade-long nursing shortage after they all left?) makes me hopeful voters won't get fooled again.

We'll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgement of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again

The change, it had to come
We knew it all along
We were liberated from the fold, that's all
And the world looks just the same
And history ain't changed
'Cause the banners, they are flown in the next war

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
No, no!

I'll move myself and my family aside
If we happen to be left half alive
I'll get all my papers and smile at the sky
Though I know that the hypnotized never lie
Do ya?

There's nothing in the streets
Looks any different to me
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye
And the parting on the left
Are now parting on the right
And the beards have all grown longer overnight

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
Don't get fooled again
No, no!


Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?

Over the past few weeks, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice has been sending signals that he plans to address Alberta's deficit through public sector cuts rather than increasing revenue. Over the past two weeks, this has included very confusing messages about public sector wage cuts.

Last week, MLAs voted to take a 5% wage rollback. This 5% rollback is a repeat of former Premier Ralph Klein's efforts to shame and bully public servants into wage rollbacks in 1994. Yet, as the Sun's Rick Bell notes, the current Premier has been rather unclear on what this message is supposed to be:

We inherited a situation where there are existing collective agreements which we obviously have to honour. We’ll deal with the realities of those,” says the premier. 
“We also inherited a situation where there are public sector wage increases, negotiated by previous premiers and governments, that we inherited and that we’re going to have to wrestle with.” 
So the premier is going to wrestle with the pay in the agreements he’s honouring.
It is hard to know what Prentice is signaling. Perhaps he's hoping the unions will accept voluntary rollbacks like they did in the 1990s. The word in the labour movement is a pretty blunt "nope", remembering as they do that rollbacks didn't prevent layoffs in the 1990s and the dirty deeds of the Redford administration only a year ago.

In fact, if you can recall, only a few short months ago Prentice was concerned enough about low morale and high turnover in the public service to appoint a commission to look into it. I wrote at the time that one explanation is that public servants had been ill-treated by the government. More recently, Prentice noted that he was surprised senior bureaucrats were reluctant to provide advice.
One government insider said senior civil servants had “turned turtle” under Redford, afraid to stick their necks out for fear of having them chopped off. They either kept their mouths shut or quit, leading to that “shockingly high” attrition rate and dismal morale. 
Prentice says nowadays cabinet meetings with politicians and civil servants, “are much more respectful, it’s a partnership — they are treated professionally, respectfully.” 
“I expect people to stand up to me and disagree with me. I’ve always expected in my life frank advice, honest advice. I value people that stand up to me, disagree with me and are prepared to have a frank discussion and tell me I’m wrong.”
I'm hardly all that sympathetic to the plight of the highest paid managers. That said, I was struck last week by the story of Alberta's former chief medical examiner, who is suing the government over its failure to renew her contract. Her suit alleges profound political interference and political pandering were at the root of her non-renewal. Prentice allegedly refused to get involved, which casts doubt on his claims that he wants people to stand up and disagree with him.

From where I sit, Prentice has a pretty huge credibility gap--some of which he inherited and some of which he has created on his own--on public sector compensation. In my own workplace, we've had wage freezes in three of the last four years and layoffs. Prentice was elected on a platform of returning fuding to the post-secondary sector yet now there are rumours of further cuts? 

Why on Earth would workers cooperate with their employers when the true employer (the government) clearly cannot be trusted to honour its word from week to week? This fundamental breakdown of trust is a huge liability for public sector managers. And the shifting legal environment in Canadian labour laws makes it more difficult for governments to impose rollbacks.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, February 6, 2015

Friday Tunes: Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler)

This week’s installment of labour themes in popular culture features Alabama’s 1984 hit Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler). I chose this song because it is about a difficult and dangerous blue-collar occupation that demands workers spend a lot of time away from their families. In this case, daddy’s “off on a midwest run” and his family “sure miss him when he’s gone.” Not all that different from the experiences of thousands of families who have someone commuting to and within Alberta every week.

It also talks about the distress caused to families by workplace accidents. Here, the worker’s rig has jackknifed and “the driver was missing’”. Due to bad weather, the police had called off the search. I’m not really prone to emotional reactions to songs, but this lyric about the family waiting to find out whether “daddy” is dead or alive always chokes me up.

Momma and the children will be waiting up all night long
Thinkin' nothing but the worst is comin'
With the ringin' of the telephone

The emotional toll of workplace injuries and fatalities on the families of workers is often missing from public policy discussions of injury and injury prevention.

Roll on highway, roll on along
Roll on daddy till you get back home
Roll on family, roll on crew
Roll on momma like I asked you to do
And roll on eighteen-wheeler, roll on. (roll on.)

Well, it's Monday morning, he's kissin' momma goodbye
He's up and gone with the sun
Daddy drives an eighteen-wheeler
And he's off on a midwest run

As three sad faces gather round momma
They ask her when daddy's comin' home
Daddy drives an eighteen-wheeler
And they sure miss him when he's gone (yeah they do)
Ah, but he calls them everynight
And he tells them that he loves them
And he taught them this song to sing.


Well, it's Wednesday evening, momma's waitin by the phone
It rings but it's not his voice
Seems the highway patrol has found a jackknifed rig
In a snow bank in Illinois
But the driver was missin'
And the search had been abandoned.
'Cause the weather had everything stalled

And they had checked all the houses and the local motels
When they had some more news they'd call
And she told them when they found him
To tell him that she loved him
And she hung up the phone singin'.


Momma and the children will be waiting up all night long
Thinkin' nothing but the worst is comin'
With the ringin' of the telephone
Oh, but the man upstairs was listening
When momma asked him to bring daddy home
And when the call came in it was daddy on the other end
Askin' her if she had been singin' the song, singin'.



Roll on
Roll on... end of lyrics

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Report: Live-in Caregivers in Fort Mac

A report (Live-in Caregivers in Fort McMurray: A Socio-economic Footprint) released last week explores the role of live-in caregivers in the operation of Alberta’s oilsands. 

Live-in caregivers tend to be cheaper than daycare and allow workers to cope with shift work and out-of-town work. In this way, live-in caregivers absorb some of the stress caused by the organization of work in the oilsands.
By working long and often irregular hours, live-in caregivers save money for their employers and allow them to access the highest wages in the country, and yet they generally invest more to come and work in Canada than their employers do to hire them. 
They must also endure long years without their own spouses and children to care for other people’s families. While the opportunity to immigrate often makes these sacrifices seem worthwhile, the conditions of work in the caregiving stream, including weak monitoring and regulation, can make them vulnerable to employer abuses and workplace violations.
Most of the live-in caregivers surveyed were women, Filipino and between 25 and 44 years old. Overall, an interesting examination of how workers are managing social reproduction in Alberta, often by exploiting other workers.

-- Bob Barnetson