Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Upcoming presentations

This week I'm at the Canadian Association for Work and Labour Studies (CAWLS) conference at the University of Calgary.  CAWLS is part of the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. I'll be presenting (or co-presenting) four papers this week:

  • Wednesday, June 1, 1:30-3, Math Sciences 217: (with Jason Foster) Impact of Temporary Foreign Workers on Alberta construction employment patterns.
  • Thursday, June 1, 9-10:30, Math Sciences 319: (with Jason Foster) Move it along, nothing to see here: The construction of workplace injury in Canadian newspapers.
  • Thursday, June 1, 1:30-3, Math Sciences 211: Challenges of organizing Farm workers in Alberta (panel)
  • Thursday, June 1, 3:15-4:45, Math Sciences 211: Urban and industrial: The structural challenge of rural engagement by Alberta unions
I will be posting my presentations up over the next few days.

The rest of the conference looks good. There is also a book launch (i.e., free wine!) by AU Press on Wednesday (3:15-445) for Alberta Oil and the Decline of Democracy in Canada.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, May 27, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Magdalene Laundries

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is the “Magdalene Laundries” by Joni Mitchell. This song chronicles the plight of up to 30,000 unmarried Irish women banished by the church to various convents and other institutions. Many of these women were pregnant and unmarried or fled abusive husbands or fathers. Others were imprisoned because they were flirtatious or beautiful or poor.

They would often spend their lives in “the laundries”, performing thankless domestic tasks. Many died there, often buried in unmarked graves. These so-called asylums operated into the late 20th century and both the government and private companies contracted with these institutions to supply cut-rate laundry services provided by an unfree labour force.

I was an unmarried girl
I'd just turned twenty-seven
When they sent me to the sisters
For the way men looked at me
Branded as a jezebel
I knew I was not bound for Heaven
I'd be cast in shame
Into the Magdalene laundries *

Most girls come here pregnant
Some by their own fathers
Bridget got that belly
By her parish priest
We're trying to get things white as snow
All of us woe-begotten-daughters
In the steaming stains
Of the Magdalene laundries

Prostitutes and destitutes
And temptresses like me
Fallen women
Sentenced into dreamless drudgery
Why do they call this heartless place
Our Lady of Charity?
Oh charity!

These bloodless brides of Jesus
If they had just once glimpsed their groom
Then they'd know and they'd drop the stones
Concealed behind their rosaries
They wilt the grass they walk upon
They leech the light out of a room
They'd like to drive us down the drain
At the Magdalene laundries

Peg O'Connell died today
She was a cheeky girl
A flirt
They just stuffed her in a hole!
Surely to God you'd think at least some bells should ring!
One day I'm going to die here too
And they'll plant me in the dirt
Like some lame bulb
That never blooms come any spring
Not any spring
No, not any spring
Not any spring

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Do over time rules matter?

Last week, the Huffington Post reported that President Obama is changing the rules around over time in America in a way that will affect millions of workers. In the US, employment is (mostly) federally regulated. Workers who work more than 40 hours a week must be paid time-and-half if their annual salary is below $23,661. The Obama changes raise this threshold to $47,476 and index it to inflation.

The story contains the usual employer concerns about the effect of the change on workers (“oh, think of the workers!”). The movement towards a $15 minimum wage suggests that most of this employer catastrophizing is just economically self-serving propaganda.

The rules around over time in Canada (where employment is mostly provincially regulated) are different. Jurisdictions typically require over time if any worker works more than 40 hour in a week or 8 hours in a day. Some jurisdictions also largely prohibit over time except in emergencies.

The effectiveness of these employment standards is mixed, with many researchers finding widespread noncompliance. This reflects that enforcement is mostly complaint-based and workers are reluctant to complaint.

This is particularly true for vulnerable workers—those with fewer options and less ability to recover from being terminated (however illegally) for complaining. As one person I spoke to last month put it, “employment standards work less well the more reliant you are on it for protection.”

While the conversation we were having identified many ways to improve the operation of Alberta’s employment standards system, it all basically comes back to the ineffectiveness of complaint-based enforcement which renders most employer violations invisible. Under this system, we’re essentially expecting employers to act against their own economic interests and comply with the law.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, May 20, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Working for the Weekend

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Working for the Weekend” by Loverboy. This song almost always makes the top-10 list of songs about labour on Labour Day. I’ve been reluctant to feature it because there just isn’t much meat here to discuss.

The song is about people working hard during the week in order to enjoy the weekend. The inspiration for the song hit Loverboy’s guitarist while walking on a beach during a weekday and thinking “where is everybody?” And then thinking, “oh, they are at work waiting for the weekend” (which was the original title).

But, you know, I’m baked after a long academic year so this is going to have to do. The original video is terrible (1981 was a tough year for music videos) so here is the song featured in a Saturday Night Live skit. Like many SNL skits, it is too long (too much Harvard, not enough improve on the writing team that year). But, damn, Chris Farley could dance!

Everyone's watching to see what you will do
Everyone's looking at you, oh
Everyone's wondering will you come out tonight
Everyone's trying to get it right, get it right

Everybody's working for the weekend
Everybody wants a new romance
Everybody's going off the deep end
Everybody needs a second chance, oh

You want a piece of my heart?
You better start from the start
You want to be in the show?
C'mon baby, let's go

Everyone's looking to see if it was you
Everyone wants you to come through
Everyone's hoping it'll all work out
Everyone's waiting to hold you out

Everybody's working for the weekend
Everybody wants a new romance, hey yeah
Everybody's going off the deep end
Everybody needs a second chance, oh

You want a piece of my heart?
You better start from the start
You want to be in the show?
C'mon baby, let's go


You want a piece of my heart?
You better start from the start
You want to be in the show?
C'mon baby, let's go

You want a piece of my heart?
You better start from the start
You want to be in the show?
C'mon baby, let's go

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Fun with StatCan labour market data

Despite the beating Statistics Canada took during the Harper years, StatCan still offers all sorts of fascinating information about the labour market that you can customize to a significant degree. What this means is that the average Canadian isn't reliant upon the media for information about the labour market.

For example, CANSIM Table 285-0003 allows you to look at job vacancies by region and occupation. A few minutes of fiddling allows you to see that there were 63,000 job openings in Alberta during Q3 of 2015. 

About half of the job openings (31,070) were in the sales and service occupations. While it is unfair to suggest that anyone could do these jobs, the requirements for employment tend to be low. Not surprisingly, so too is the pay (averaging $12.95 per hour).

You can also look at employment and unemployment rates using CANSIM Table 282-0087. Again, you can fiddle the data to find that there were 162,700 unemployed people in Alberta in September of 2015.

One question that immediately pops into my mind is why are there unskilled positions (in sales and service occupations) available when there are so many unemployed people who could fill them? There are likely many factors at play. For example,  there will also be some unfilled positions due to labour market friction. 

Yet let's just use our common sense. For example, we can all see that jobs that pay (on average) $12.95 per hour are not very attractive jobs. We might still take them (if we were in a real jam) but what other options are there?

Many unemployed Albertans will have access to Employment Insurance benefits. I couldn’t find the September 2015 amount but the January 2016 maximum was $537 per week (assuming your annual salary while employed had been $50,800—otherwise it would be 55% of your salary). 

So, if you could get maximum EI benefits, you would need to work 42 hours per week in an average sales and services job just to generate the same income you could get on pogey. Who would in their right mind would do that?

Commentators on the right would likely suggest that reducing the level and duration of EI benefits would solve that problem (by forcing unemployed to take bad jobs to avoid starving). I wonder, though, if you can’t make an equally good argument that an increase in the minimum wage (or other changes in the terms and conditions of work, given that sales and service jobs are hard work) might be an equally effective way to fill these positions?

The other observation (made by economist Jim Stanford on twitter using the table on the left) is that job vacancy numbers undercut the narrative that Canada suffers from a skills shortage. Nine of the 10 occupations most in demand nationally are low-skill occupations. The real issue appears to be that Canada has a shortage of jobs period.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, May 13, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Industrial Disease

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture features “Industrial Disease” by Dire Straits. The song is ostensibly about sickness created by work but is, in fact, an allegory about the decline of British industry during the late 1970s and early 1980s under Margaret Thatcher.

This period of time was characterized by workers struggling against the state and their employers and lots of the lyrics reflect this, such as “The watchdog's got rabies the foreman's got fleas”. Workers reactions, such as sympathy strikes and spot strikes, are also present: “Some come out in sympathy some come out in spots”. Even the doctor’s diagnosis of depression has a double meaning (“He wrote me a prescription he said 'you are depressed”).

Overall, the lyrics here are evocative and deep—something you don’t see in every song about work.

Warning lights are flashing down at Quality Control
Somebody threw a spanner and they threw him in the hole
There's rumors in the loading bay and anger in the town
Somebody blew the whistle and the walls came down
There's a meeting in the boardroom they're trying to trace the smell
There's leaking in the washroom there's a sneak in personnel
Somewhere in the corridors someone was heard to sneeze
'goodness me could this be Industrial Disease?

The caretaker was crucified for sleeping at his post
They're refusing to be pacified it's him they blame the most
The watchdog's got rabies the foreman's got fleas
And everyone's concerned about Industrial Disease
There's panic on the switchboard tongues are ties in knots
Some come out in sympathy some come out in spots
Some blame the management some the employees
And everybody knows it's the Industrial Disease

The work force is disgusted downs tools and walks
Innocence is injured experience just talks
Everyone seeks damages and everyone agrees
That these are 'classic symptoms of a monetary squeeze'
On ITV and BBC they talk about the curse
Philosophy is useless theology is worse
History boils over there's an economics freeze
Sociologists invent words that mean 'Industrial Disease'

Doctor Parkinson declared 'I'm not surprised to see you here
You've got smokers cough from smoking, brewer's droop from drinking beer
I don't know how you came to get the Betty Davis knees
But worst of all young man you've got Industrial Disease'
He wrote me a prescription he said 'you are depressed
But I'm glad you came to see me to get this off your chest
Come back and see me later - next patient please
Send in another victim of Industrial Disease'

I go down to Speaker's Corner I'm thunderstruck
They got free speech, tourists, police in trucks
Two men say they're Jesus one of them must be wrong
There's a protest singer singing a protest song - he says
'they wanna have a war to keep us on our knees
They wanna have a war to keep their factories
They wanna have a war to stop us buying Japanese
They wanna have a war to stop Industrial Disease
They're pointing out the enemy to keep you deaf and blind
They wanna sap your energy incarcerate your mind
They give you Rule Brittania, gassy beer, page three
Two weeks in Espana and Sunday striptease'
Meanwhile the first Jesus says 'I'd cure it soon
Abolish monday mornings and friday afternoons'
The other one's on a hunger strike he's dying by degrees
How come Jesus gets Industrial Disease

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Summer of 1986 retrospective

This spring, the Alberta Labour History Institute will be hosting workshops in Red Deer (May 28), Calgary (May 29) and Edmonton (June 4) to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the six Alberta strikes that happened in the summer of 1986. 

The most famous of these strikes was the Gainers Meatpacking strike in Edmonton. Here, workers resisted Peter Pocklington’s efforts to drive down their wages and crush their union. The video footage of Gainer’s is astounding to watch, with picketing confrontations and police violence (see image to the right).

The Edmonton schedule is posted and it includes lunch and dinner, a movie about the summer of 86 and a video ballad by Maria Dunn as well as several speakers. 

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, May 6, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Feel Like a Number

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Feel Like a Number” by Bob Seger. Yes, back to the classic rock well (I’m open to suggestions for songs from different genres!).

This is a pretty straight forward song about alienation and the depersonalizing effects of industrial society. The singer feels like a number and flags various sources of his alienation (schools, government, employers, phone companies). The singer’s solution is interesting:
Gonna cruise out of this city
Head down to the sea
Gonna shout out at the ocean
Hey it's me
That really doesn’t resolve the issue: in the typology of exit, voice, neglect and patience, the singer is mostly exercising patience (combined with temporary neglect). Basically, he’s accepting his place in society (however grudgingly) and expressing his dissatisfaction via harmless behaviour (a short vacation).

We should probably give Seger props for writing a song that likely taps into his fans’ work-a-day experience, including their constrained set of options to respond to a dehumanizing society. Yet it is interesting to contrast the remedy outlined in song with that in, say, “Take this Job and Shove It”. Seger knuckles under while Johnny Paycheque tells the boss where to step off.

Finding a video for this song was a chore. It was originally released on the late 1970s (so no video) and Seger’s live performances have terrible audio (plus he’s not exactly vocalist of the year). So I give you (a rather shouty) Cher…

I take my card and I stand in line
To make a buck I work overtime
Dear Sir letters keep coming in the mail
I work my back till it's racked with pain
The boss can't even recall my name

I show up late and I'm docked
It never fails
I feel like just another
Spoke in a great big wheel
Like a tiny blade of grass
In a great big field

To workers I'm just another drone
To Ma Bell I'm just another phone
I'm just another statistic on a sheet
To teachers I'm just another child
To IRS I'm just another file

I'm just another consensus on the street
Gonna cruise out of this city
Head down to the sea
Gonna shout out at the ocean
Hey it's me

And I feel like a number
Feel like a number
Feel like a stranger
A stranger in this land
I feel like a number

I'm not a number
I'm not a number
Dammit I'm a man
I said I'm a man

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Reconsidering the utility of Alberta's experience rating program

A few weeks back, Alberta announced it will be reviewing its workers’ compensation system over the coming year. One of the topics that ought to be considered is the effectiveness of its experiencing-rate system.

Experience-rating raises or lowers an employer’s workers’ compensation premiums based upon an employer’s claims costs. The rationale for experience rating is that it creates a firm-level incentive for employers to improve safety in their workplaces that otherwise does not exist.

Broadly speaking, Alberta employers are eligible for premium surcharges and rebates of up to 40% (this can vary by employer size). Employers can also receive up to another 20% in rebates under the partners in injury reduction program.

In 2014, these programs were budgeted to operate at a net loss of $173.3 million. There is no analysis of whether these programs improved safety: fewer lost-claim incidents and lower employer claims costs can result from reporting error and employer claims management behaviour.

The academic research suggests that there is some (but uncertain) evidence to support a relationship between experience-rating and safety. But, there is strong evidence that worksite inspections coupled with penalties reduces injuries. Overall, this evidence suggests improved workplace safety is better pursued through enforcement activity.

Given that there is little evidence that experience-rating and other premium rebate programs make workplace safer (but good evidence that these programs incentivize illegitimate claims management behaviour by employers that negatively affect injured workers), Alberta ought to consider terminating these programs. The ~$175 million in cost-savings should be used to fund a four-fold increase in OHS enforcement activity by the government.

-- Bob Barnetson