Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Research: Gender, violence and workplace injuries

I ran across an interesting open-access article this week examining gender differences in occupationa injuries in the US. "Women and Accidents: The Need to Separate Gender Database" examines how the workplace injuries experienced by women differ from those experienced by men. Combining injury data from both genders means that the data--particularly for women in non-traditinal occupations--likely doe snot reflect their experiences of injury.

For example, violence is the second leading cause of workplace injuries among women in the US. While being killed by personal acquaintances in the workplace is relatively uncommon across the whole workforce, if you break out fatalities by gender, there are big differences. Approximately 25% of female violence fatalities (versus 3% of male violence fatalities) involve being killed by personal acquaintances. Combining the data masks this clear gender-differences that could be mitigated via the development of workplace violence programming.

The tables provide an interesting snap-shot of non-fatal injury stats. Note that women are more likely to experience slips, trips and falls while men are more likely to to injured by contact with objects. There is a similar difference when looking at workplace violence and motor-vehicle accidents.

The upshot of the article is that (1) men and women experience injury in the US differently, (2) it is hard to identify these differences because of reporting standards, and (3) separate reporting of male and female injuries would result in more focused prevention efforts.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, June 24, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Hamlet Chicken Plant Disaster

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Hamlet Chicken Plant Disaster” by Mojo Nixon and Jello Biafra. The backstory is that a chicken processing plant in Hamlet, North Carolina caught fire in 1991, killing 25 workers and injuring 55 (or 54 or 49—depending on the source) more. There were 90 employees in the plant that day so basically everyone was injured. Many of the injured later died prematurely as a result of their injuries.

The high number of injuries and deaths reflected that many factory doors were locked from the outside by management (contrary to fire regulations). There were no sprinklers and no fire alarm system. The factory had never received an OHS inspection, although there had been previous fires. Workers didn’t complain because of fear of losing their jobs.

Similar issues were subsequently found at another plant owned by the company in Georgia. This harkens back to the Triangle Shirt Waist factory fire in New York at the turn of the 20th century—a fire that helped spark national fire regulations (including don’t lock the fire exits).

The owner (Emmett Roe) received a 19-year sentence (less than one year for each death) but was paroled after four years. Insurance companies and businesses then lobbied to limit damages to injured workers and relatives of the deceased.

What the Hamlet chicken plant deaths reveal is collusion between employers (who broke the rules) and the state (which failed to enforce rudimentary safety rules). While there was no explicit conspiracy in evidence, governments have a long history of looking the other way about employer’s bad behaviour. In Canada, the Westray Mine explosion is a prime example.

Down in Hamlet, North Carolina
They had a chicken plant sure did explode
Them tar heels trapped like burnin' rats
Cuz the boss man chained the door closed

My mama was born in
A town called Hamlet
Sleepy little place on the Seaboard line
My papa worked on the railroad
And my granny went out her mind

One day the railroad
It went busted
Like Richmond County ain't broke enough
So this Yankee carpetbagger
Figured to make a little money on Hamlet's bad luck

Built a brand new chicken fixin' plant
And they paid that minimum wage
But the boss man said no unions
Or he'd move his plant far away

Merele Etta Johnson
She was late for work
Heard a thunderin' roar out on the highway
Musta been NASCAR over at Rockingham
Or just Merle Etta's judgment day

8:15 in the mornin'
Chicken plant burst into flames
People trampled, squashed and burned up
Just to keep the profit margin
One iota higher

Everybody gotta work in this world
Some folks lucky-some folks ain't
But that bastard that chained the doors shut
I'm gonna rip him through p!

When I was a little boy
With a buzzsaw hair cut
Go down to Hamlet, watch the trains
Now the tourists stop on the highway
Get a little look at the chicken plant workers' remains

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Submission on WCB Reform in Alberta

via email to wcbreview@gov.ab.ca

15 June 2016

Dear Ms. Norrie, Mr. Carpenter and Ms. Cunliffe,

Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission regarding Alberta’s workers’ compensation system. I have numbered and sequenced my comments such that they correspond to the questions in the WCB Review Workbook.

2. Presumptive Status for Occupational Diseases
Alberta’s list of injuries, illnesses, and disease processes that are granted presumptive status contains significant omissions and the WCB lacks a regular and transparent process to review this list. A biennial and public review of Schedule B of the Workers’ Compensation Regulation by a tripartite review panel would remedy this issue.

Examining other jurisdictions’ presumptive status lists suggests the following injuries, diseases, and diseases processes should be considered for immediate inclusion in Schedule B:
  • Asbestos-related diseases, including lung cancer in the absence of asbestosis.
  • Esophageal, breast and ovarian cancer in firefighters.
  • Hearing loss.
  • Musculo-skeletal injuries associated with repetitive motion.
  • Occupational asthma.
  • Operational stress injuries in first responders, correctional, health-care and social service workers.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for all workers.
  • Plantar fasciitis for those who spend significant amounts of time standing or walking on hard surfaces.
  • Temperature-induced injury.
When reviewing Schedule B, the panel should use the balance of probabilities test as the standard for determining presumptive status to reflect the benefit of the doubt traditionally accorded to workers when the work-relatedness of injuries is determined.

3. Psychological Injuries
Chronic onset psychological injuries have often been deemed uncompensable or subjected to very stringent tests of compensability. The reluctance of WCBs (excepting Quebec) to compensate chronic onset psychological injuries reflects:
  1. a belief that psychological injuries are caused (at least in part) by factors inherent to the worker; and
  2. a fear that workers may file false psychological injury claims to undermine employer authority in the workplaces.
Denying compensability because a worker’s health may contribute to the injury sits uneasily with the “but for” test (i.e., but for the work, the injury would not have occurred) used for other injuries. Denying compensability in order to preclude the potential for workplace mischief ignores that claimants must provide some medical evidence of the injury thus mischievous claims will be rejected.

Subjecting workers suffering from chronic onset psychological injuries to onerous tests of compensability (such as those set out in Policy 03-01, Part 2, Application 6, Question 11) is inconsistent with the purpose of workers’ compensation (i.e., providing no fault injury compensation). It also facilitates a cost transfer from the workers’ compensation system to the worker and the public health system.

Revising the WCB’s policy to find chronic onset psychological injuries compensable when (1) there is a confirmed DSM diagnosis and an objective confirmation of events and utilizing (2) the but-for standard in assessing whether the injury arose and occurred is much more consistent with the purpose of workers’ compensation. It may also be necessary to adjust claims management process and provide additional staff training that recognizes the unique nature of these injuries.

7. Physician and Health Care Providers Interactions with the WCB
Workers appealing occupational disease claim decisions often require medical opinions from occupational heath specialists. Alberta-based specialists typically also have contractual relationships with the WCB to provide services. Recently, I’m told that the WCB has inserted terms in these contracts prohibiting occupational health specialists (who are economically reliant on the WCB) from providing injured workers and their advocates with medical opinions. 

Workers are now required to seek medical opinions from specialists outside of Alberta, which can be very expensive. This prohibition is unfair because it interferes with the ability of injured workers to successfully appeal decisions (and thus receive compensation). The WCB should release occupational health specialists from this provision of all current contracts and eliminate this provision from future contracts.

12. Re-employment Obligations
Injured workers (especially those with disabilities) often find it difficult to find post-injury employment. The Workers’ Compensation Act contains no requirement for employers to re-employ workers who have been injured. Workers may have remedy via the Human Rights Commission but the complaint process is slow and uncertain. While pursuing such a complaint, workers will likely see their wage-loss benefits reduced or terminated via deeming. This can leave workers financially destitute.

Sections 41 and 86 of Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Act require employers to re-employ injured workers who are ready to return to work if (1) the worker worked for the employer for at least one year prior to the injury, and (2) if the employer employs more than 20 workers (slightly different rules apply in the construction industry). If an employer refuses, wage-loss benefits are continued and charged against the employer’s account. This arrangement provides workers with immediate and meaningful financial assistance, eliminates the economic incentive for employers to not accommodate injured workers, and ought to included in Alberta’s Workers’ Compensation Act.

16. Limits on Insurable Earnings and Wage Replacement Rate
Alberta limited the maximum insurable earnings of a worker to $95,300 in 2015 (this amount is adjusted annually). The maximum serves as a cap on wage-loss benefits (which are paid out at 90% of net earnings up to the maximum insurable earnings) and employer premiums (which are calculated based upon gross earnings up to the maximum insurable earnings cap).

What this means is that the approximately 500,000 Alberta workers whose annual incomes are greater than $95,300 are not eligible to have the entirety of their income considered in the calculation of any wage-loss benefits they are due. In effect, Alberta’s cap transfers a portion of injury costs from employers to workers in the form of uncompensated wage-loss. By contrast, Manitoba places no limit on workers’ earnings for the purpose of calculating wage-loss benefits.

The cap also causes (likely unintended) knock on effects for workers on modified work. For example, workers whose pre-injury earnings were above the cap may be offered modified work at a wage rate that equals the cap. The result is that these workers will be working full-time for much lower wages than before the injury.

There is no clear rationale for a maximum insurable earnings cap and the cap interferes with the basic purpose of workers’ compensation (i.e., compensating workers for wage losses). Consequently, Alberta should eliminate the maximum insurable earnings cap and calculate wage-loss benefits and employer premiums based upon workers’ full gross income.

Similarly, Alberta compensates wage-loss at 90% of net earnings. By compensating wage loss at less than 100%, the WCB is again transferring a portion of injury costs from employers to workers in the form of uncompensated wage-loss. There is no compelling argument for fractional wage-loss compensation and Alberta should compensate workers for 100% of net earnings for any wage loss.

19. Deemed Earnings
When the WCB believes a worker is capable of returning to work but the worker has not been able to secure employment, the WCB estimates the expected earnings of the worker and reduce the worker’s wage-loss benefit by this amount. 

This process of deeming a worker to be earning an income is profoundly unfair. Deeming ignores how economic factors and systemic discrimination can impair an injured (and sometimes disabled) worker’s ability to find employment. Indeed, workers’ wages can be deemed even if the worker is unable to secure a job interview or even find a job opening. Worker advocates report the WCB routinely over-estimates the wages available to workers. For example, a worker with a grade 10 education and no computer skills was deemed capable of earning $75,800 per year as a front desk clerk at a hotel.

Deeming transfers a portion of injury costs from employers to workers in the form of uncompensated wage-loss. While the WCB may need some mechanism by which to address occasional instances of malingering, the routine use of deeming orders is contrary to the basic purpose of workers’ compensation. The WCB’s rationale for deeming (i.e., the WCB is responsible to return injured workers to employability, not employment) ignores that injured workers face systemic barriers to gaining employment. Deeming should be reserved for cases where the WCB can clearly demonstrate a worker is malingering.

21. Other Comments on Benefits
Wage-loss compensation is paid on net earnings. Employer-paid pension and extended health benefits are a part of some workers’ overall compensation package but are excluded from the wage-loss compensation. Workers who receive wage-loss compensation for an extended period can be profoundly affected by lost pension and/or reduced health benefit coverage or entitlements.

This exclusion sits uncomfortably with the purpose of workers’ compensation (i.e., to compensate losses) and disadvantages primarily unionized workers who have traded salary for benefit packages at the bargaining table. The Workers’ Compensation Regulation should be amended to include employer-paid pension and extended health benefits on the calculation of net earnings.

30. Other Comments on Appeals
Alberta unusually allows the WCB to make representations to the Appeal Commission during appeals. Employers and the WCB typically both seek to uphold the WCB’s decision during appeals. The result is the potential for a “ganging up” on the injured worker in appeals hearings, with both the employer and the WCB being more likely to have experienced representation and better access to information than the worker.

The rationale for WCB participation is to provide input on the meaning of WCB policies, the Act and Regulations (which the Appeal Commission is bound by). There is no need for the WCB to make representations to the Appeal Commission during these hearings. If, in the view of the WCB, the Appeal Commission errs in its interpretation, the WCB can file of a judicial review of the decision. Striking the requirement in Section 13.2(6) of the Workers’ Compensation Act to hear representations from the WCB would result in a fairer hearing process.

33. Performance Measures
WCB employees (and possibly contractors) have received incentives (e.g., performance bonuses) based upon performance measures (e.g., claim duration length rates, return-to-work targets). Incentivizing WCB employees and contractors to minimize claim costs aligns the personal financial interests of WCB staff with employers’ interests (under experience rating, see Question 42 below) creates the potential to skew WCB decision making and thereby negatively affecting the ability of injured workers to receive the full amount of compensation they are due. Discontinuing employee incentives will restore both the fact and appearance of unbiased claims management.

42. Experience Ratings and Premium Adjustments
Alberta’s experience rating system provides employer premium discounts and surcharges of up to 40% (there are variations by employer size) based upon employers’ claim costs. Employers may also be eligible for additional discounts of up to 20% under the Partners in Injury Reduction (PIR) program. Overall, these programs were budgeted to operate at a net loss of $173.3 million in 2014.

The academic evidence suggests that experience rating is not as effective as OHS enforcement at making workplaces safer. Presently, there is no evidence Alberta’s experience rating program makes workplaces safer. There is evidence (most recently from Manitoba) that experience rating incentivizes illegitimate claims management behaviour by employers that negatively affects injured workers (e.g., phony and demeaning return-to-work arrangements, claims suppression). This dynamic undermines workers’ access to the compensation they are due and may impede their recovery.

If Alberta discontinued these programs, employers would have a much smaller incentive to engage in claims suppression (thereby reducing the need to police this issue). Discontinuing these programs would also free up approximately $175 millions that could be used enhance OHS education and enforcement in Alberta (more than quadrupling the current enforcement budget).

53. Other Comments
Eliminating Excluded Industries
Approximately 8% of Alberta workers have no access to workers’ compensation benefits because they work in industries excluded from the ambit of the Act by Schedule A of the Workers’ Compensation Regulation. Alberta has the longest list of exempted industries in Canada.

There is no compelling explanation for the exclusion of workers in particular industries. Having excluded industries undermines the ability of injured workers to receive compensation and shifts significant costs onto the public health care system. Eliminating all exclusions from Schedule A would extend workers’ compensation benefits to approximately 195,000 additional Alberta workers.

Protective Leave for Pregnant and Nursing Women
There are approximately 50,000 pregnancies in Alberta each year. Pregnant and nursing women face unique physical, biological and chemical workplace health hazards. Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act requires workers to refuse unsafe work but, in practice, few workers refuse unsafe work for fear of job loss.

Alberta’s Human Rights Act requires employers to accommodate pregnant and breastfeeding workers to the point of undue hardship. Workers who are not accommodated can complain, but such complaints take months and years to resolve. During this time, workers who are denied accommodation may be without financial support.

Quebec provides pregnant or breastfeeding women who work in conditions that threaten their health or the health of their unborn or breastfeeding children (and who can produce a medical certificate to substantiate these concerns) with access to (1) immediate re-assignment, or (2) protective leave funded by the La Commission de la santé et de la sécurité du travail (i.e., the WCB).

Alberta’s current health and safety protections for pregnant and breast-feeding women are inadequate. Providing pregnant and breast-feeding workers with wage-loss benefits should their employer refuse to address workplace hazards will make workplaces safer for this uniquely vulnerable group. The cost of any such leaves can be recouped from the employer via a special workers’ compensation levy.

I would be pleased to provide additional information or commentary if that would be useful to the panel. I can be contacted by 780 454-9881 or barnetso@athabascau.ca.


Dr. Bob Barnetson
Professor of Labour Relations
Athabasca University

Friday, June 17, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Blue Lung

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Blue Lung” by Maria Dunn. This song is the story of Lillian Wasylynchuk. Wasylynchuk died at 71 after a seven-year battle with pulmonary fibrosis.

Pulmonary fibrosis is scarring of the lung tissue that makes it progressively more difficult to breath. There are several causes of pulmonary fibrosis, including inhalation of various dusts and spores Wasylynchuk workers at Edmonton’s GWG clothing factory for seven years and believed her lung disease was caused by exposure to demin dust.

I was unable to find a video to go with this post but you can listen to Dunn perform the song here. The lyrics make an important point about the gendered nature of occupational injury: If Waslynchuk had been a (male) coal miner, it is likely she would have received compensation and maybe even some protection. As a women in a so-called safe occupation, her occupational injuries are much less likely to be accepted as such.

Where I come from, we work hard, we don’t make a fuss
So I can’t be afraid of a bit of blue dust
When my family needs me to pay the bills
Maybe I’m not so ill

I see now from the photos, some women wear masks
And I can’t help but wish that I’d done more than ask
But ours were the days when you did what you’re told
You could only be so bold

If I could speak to my younger self
I’d say: “never risk your precious health
And don’t assume that they’ve thought of you
In your air of denim blue”

Now if I had toiled in a coal mine
Where the earth itself compresses your time
Then maybe I’d think of lung disease
But a clothing factory?

Our fingers, our air, tainted blue
And someone joked that our blood must be too
But when the dust settled, I’m sad to say
It took my breath away

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Alberta WCB review asks for input

Alberta’s WCB review panel has asked for feedback from the public. You have until July 15 to answer an online questionnaire or make a written submission. A positive aspect of the review for researchers is that submissions from organizations (but not submissions from individuals) will be made available to the public.

For those considering making a submission, there is an online guide to the WCB system. The guide provides a pretty decent picture of how the WCB works. It also has some interesting stats. For example. it indicates that there were 133,000 new claims in 2015 as well as nearly 14,000 rejected claims (so about 10%). 

Less satisfying was the lack of data presented about investigations of WCB fraud (e.g., how many investigations were undertaken, was the “success” rate of investigations, which stakeholder groups were targeted for investigation).

There is also a workbook that can be filled out (in lieu of a separate written submission). This workbook perhaps telegraphs some of the possible changes to workers’ compensation. For example, it asks specific questions about re-employment obligations, maximums to insurable earnings, the use of deeming orders to reduce compensation payments, and the utility of experience rating.

After years of superficial reviews of various labour issues under the Tories, it is heartening to see an actual, substantial review of the WCB taking place.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, June 10, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Field Behind the Plow

This week’s installment is Labour & Pop Culture is “Field Behind the Plow” by Stan Rogers. Rogers wrote this song while touring the prairies and seeing grain farmers out in the middle of the night (presumably the preserve to folk singers travelling between towns) plowing their fields.

An interesting trend I’m seeing in folk songs is that they often talk about work in greater granularity and specificity than songs about work in other genres (e.g., Work Bitch or Working for the Weekend). For example:
Buy the kids a winter coat,
take the wife back east for Christmas if you can

All summer she hangs on
when you’re so tied to the land
I assume the highly personal nature of the lyrics is a part of the ballad tradition of folk music. This will be an interesting hypothesis to examine when I get around to a lyrical analysis.

I also see this recurring theme about working to meet family needs. For example, Billy Joel talks about this in the Downeaster Alexa (“I got people back on land who count on me”) and as does Don Henley in A Month of Sunday (“But I always put the clothes on our backs/But I always get the shoes on our feet”). Clearly financial pressure to feed the family is a recurring (and perhaps important) theme across a number of songs

It was hard to find a video for this song so you have an excerpt from a documentary about Rogers.

Watch the field behind the plow turn to straight dark rows
Feel the trickle in your clothes, blow the dusk cake from your nose
And hear the tractor’s steady roar, O you can’t stop now
There’s a quarter section more or less to go

And it figures that the rain takes it’s own sweet time
You can watch it come for miles, but you guess you’ve got a while
Ease the throttle out a hair, every rod’s a gain
There’s victory in every quarter mile

Poor old Kuzyk down the road

The heartache, hail and hoppers got him down

He gave it up and went to town

And Emmett Pierce, the other day
took a heart attack and died at 42

You could see it comin’ on,
‘cuz he worked as hard as you

Well in an hour, maybe more, you’ll be wet clear through
The air is cooler now, pull your hat brim further down
And watch the field behind the plow turn to straight dark rows
Put another season’s promise in the ground

And if the harvest’s any good,
the money might just cover all the loans

You’ve mortgaged all you own

Buy the kids a winter coat,
take the wife back east for Christmas if you can

All summer she hangs on
when you’re so tied to the land

For the good times come and go, but at least there’s rain
So this won’t be barren ground when September comes around
And watch the field behind the plow turn to straight dark rows
Put another season’s promise in the ground
Watch the field behind the plow, turn to straight rows
But another season’s promise in the ground

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Research: The construction of workplace injury in Canadian newspapers

Move it along, nothing to see here: The construction of workplace injury in Canadian newspapers 
Jason Foster and Bob Barnetson, Athabasca University
Canadian Association for Work and Labour Studies Conference, Calgary, June 2

What we’re going to talk about today is some research we’ve completed on the social construction of workplace injuries in Canadian newspapers. The nub of our analysis is that newspapers provided a skewed view of workplace injuries. They largely ignore non-fatal injuries and injuries to women. And the media frames (or “story templates”) that journalists use create a sense that injuries are isolated events that happen to others for which no one is responsible (except maybe the worker) and thus we shouldn’t worry too much about them.

This paper draws on three studies—all of which found the same basic pattern. The first is by Tim Gawley and Shane Dixon from Laurier. They looked at how newspaper reports of injury lined up with injury statistics in Ontario between 2007 and 2012. Jason and I replicated this quantitative analysis using a 2009-2014 dataset of big city papers from all across the country. We also extended the analysis by identifying at the media frames that were used and talking to journalists about them. We then repeated both the quantitative and qualitative analysis on a new sample of western Canadian papers—mostly to see if there were any differences between urban and rural newspapers (and there weren’t).

Over the next few minutes, I’m going to give you the highlights of the quantitative analysis and then I’m going to turn it over to Jason to talk about media frames and outline some of our conclusions.

Quantitative Analysis
The quantitative analyses drew on two main data sources. Newspaper reports were identified using an FPInfoTrax search while official injury statistics were drawn from a 2012 statistical summary of fatalities and lost-time claims compiled by the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada. We’ll be presenting national data but these patterns recur in provincial-level analysis. 

The most striking result was the overrepresentation of workplace fatalities in newspaper reports. In this slide, fatalities are green and injuries are yellow. 

Fatalities are the subject 61.2% of newspaper reports even though they comprise only 0.4% of all time-loss and fatality claims in Canada.
We see similar disjunctions when we look at the kinds of injuries reported. Here, newspaper reports are green and official injury statistics are yellow. 

Newspaper tend to over-report acute physical injuries—such as burns, fractures, intracranial injuries, and traumatic injuries— while the most common type of injury—a sprain/strain—is vastly under-reported. We similar under-reporting of bruises and contusions and lacerations. 

And, when we look at the kinds of injury events that are reported, we see dramatic injuries are over reported. Again, newspaper reports are green and injury statistics are yellow. 

Newspapers over-report contact with objects/equipment and fires/explosions while the much more common “bodily reactions and exertions” are basically never mentioned in newspaper coverage. 

Overall, what this suggests is that newspapers tend to over-report sensational injuries (that are relative rare) while ignoring the vast majority of injuries altogether. 

The second striking result is the virtual absence of women in newspaper stories about injuries. In this slide, men are green and women are yellow. 

Men feature in 95.6% of newspaper reports even though they account for only 62.9% of accepted time-loss and fatality claims. Women are almost entirely absent from newspaper accounts of workplace injuries and fatalities. 

This result may be partly explained by the kinds of injuries that newspapers report: women are less likely than men to be killed on the job and are also less likely to experience a traumatic injury. That said, the absence of women is profoundly troubling because it makes injuries that are common in female-dominated occupations invisible.

Finally, the quantitative analysis looked at what sources journalists tend to rely upon for information. The most common sources are government spokespeople, police officers and firefighters, and employers. 

Workers (including the victim), workers’ family and friends, and union representatives are rarely included in newspaper reports. Reporters’ tendency to rely on cops, OHS, and employers may reflect the kinds of stories that newspaper runs about injury. Most newspaper stories simply report the occurrence of the injury—and these sources are the most accessible sources of the information that reporters need to file that kind of story.

Qualitative Analysis
One of the things we noticed when doing the quantitative analysis was that newspaper reports of injuries sounded a lot alike. At times, you could almost swap stories if you changed the names of the businesses and the cities where the injury occurred. We decided to apply frame analysis to this same dataset to investigate this phenomenon.

A media frame is a particular way of telling a story to optimize reader accessibility. Essentially reporters approach telling a particular kind of story in a particular way. And if you read enough of these stories you can start to see an underlying story template of sorts. The effect of a frame is to privilege certain problem definitions or causal interpretations or moral evaluations at the expanse of other way of looking at an issue. Basically framing tells the reader what is important and what isn’t.

We found three media frames in the data. Newspaper reports tell us that injuries are under investigation, human tragedies, or before the courts. Some examples really help explain the key elements of each frame.

Here’s an example of the under investigation frame. The reporter notes a worker has been killed and the authorities are investigating. About 55% of all newspaper reports of injuries and fatalities look almost exactly like this—literally you can just swap out the proper nouns and, voila, you are a PostMedia journalist.

The key message in this frame is that the authorities have the situation under control. The passive voice (“the employee has been killed”) focuses attention on the victim rather than on what killed the worker or who was responsible for the death. Rarely do we see follow-up stories—instead the event just passes into history.

This report is atypical in that it also names the injured worker and where he lived. Normally the worker is described in generic terms such as “a 33-year-old carpenter”. Such sparse descriptions tend to dehumanize the victim by framing them as a nameless job holder rather than in a more relatable way.

Now let’s turn to an example of the human tragedy frame. These articles typically recount the life story of a dead worker and most often appear around the National Day of Mourning. They often include an abbreviated summary of the incident followed by reminiscences about the worker’s interests, character, life history or social roles as told by a family member, friend or co-worker. These reports are highly idiosyncratic but the broad message is that the worker’s injury or death was a tragedy.

There are two key aspects of this frame. First, the “tragedy” is often accompanied by the word “accident” and implies the incident was unforeseeable and unavoidable. In this way, the Human Tragedy narrative elides any discussion of wrongdoing, cause or culpability.

Second, the tragedy in these articles is the personal loss and emotional suffering of the families. Focus is taken away from the workplace and put on the workers’ loved ones. In this way, the Human Tragedy frame encourages readers to think of the worker, not as a worker, but as a father or son with interests and families--drawing out sympathy but, in doing so, removing the workplace context. Consequently, this frame discourages the reader from linking the human elements of the incident to economic, political and structural factors giving rise to whatever caused the “tragedy” in the first place.

The third media frame appears primarily in articles reporting charges filed or resolved under provincial OHS laws. The articles typically recount the facts of the case (similar to other court reporting) and the penalty(s) imposed. The reports use technical and passive language. While the issue of cause and blame cannot be avoided, these reports to narrow the focus to legal culpability, thereby downplayng how the employer’s action (or inaction) killed or maimed a worker. Typically the matter is discussed as simply a regulatory violation addressed via a fine—an violation little different than being fined for speeding or jaywalking.

While each of the three media frames construct a different understanding of workplace injuries, taken together these frames create a meta-frame that guides readers’ understanding of workplace injuries. There are four elements to the meta-frame are injuries and fatalities are (1) isolated events that (2) happen to “others” for which (3) no one is responsible (except maybe the worker) and thus (4) we ought not be concerned about them.

The meta-frame begins with the reporting of injuries as one-off events—curiosities of little significance other than to the victim and the victim’s family. Even avid newspaper readers are unlikely to ever learn the result of the investigation or the fate of the worker.

The various frames also create distance between the reader and the victim. Victims are never portrayed as a whole person. They are either a faceless (and usually nameless) worker injured or killed at work. Or they are a loving spouse, parent or child whom their family mourns, with the work-related particulars of the injury pushed into the background.

There is virtually no meaningful discussion of what caused workplace injuries. A few articles tough on the proximate cause of incident, such as a worker being crushed when vehicle rolled forward. But there is rarely any discussion of the root cause of the incident—such as mechanical failure, faulty job design, pressure to speed up production, staffing reductions. The exception is discussion of worker error—which is often implied

For example, consider this article:

Basically the newspaper parrots the employer’s assertion that, while the cause of a worker’s death is technically unknown, neither equipment nor training was at fault. The implication here is clearly that the worker made a mistake.

Finally, the tone of the frames tells to readers there is no reason to be concerned about the incident. Workplace injuries are routine happenings that are under investigation or before the courts or were tragedies that happened a long time ago

Overall, newspaper reports provide a very skewed picture of workplace injury. This is important because media reports play an important role in how we view issues. Newspapers frame workplace injuries and fatalities as isolated, traumatic events that affect mostly men in blue-collar occupations that we shouldn’t be too concerned about.

Downplaying the frequency of workplace injuries and their impact on workers and their families undermines demands for safer workplaces. And ignoring injury causation obscures that employers determine the hazards to which workers are exposed. In these ways, inaccurate newspaper coverage benefits employers at the cost of workers’ health and safety.

This in turn, suggests, that governments should take steps to make available information about the hazards workers face. For example, workplace inspection reports should be available online—just like restaurant food inspection reports—and an annual list of the the worst safety performers would create both awareness and public pressure around injury.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Research: Urban and industrial: The structural challenges of rural engagement for Alberta unions

Urban and industrial: The structural challenges of rural engagement for Alberta unions Bob Barnetson, Athabasca University
Canadian Association for Work and Labour Studies Conference, Calgary, June 2

What I’d like to talk about today is the distribution of unionized workers in Alberta, with particular attention to the low levels of unionization in rural Alberta. As far as I can tell, there is little written about unionization in rural settings and nothing written about it in Alberta.

One of the challenges of looking at unionization in rural Alberta is that there is no hard and fast definition of what is rural. Like most prairie provinces, Alberta has a small number of cities—seven—that serve as political, cultural and economic hubs.

Edmonton and Calgary are the two largest cities at about a million people. The other five cities have populations of sixty to a hundred thousand. Overall, 62% of the population lives in those seven urban locations. So, for the purposes of this study, rural workers are those whose work outside of the seven largest cities. And, in these slides, green represents urban numbers while yellow represents rural.

Unionized Worker Locations
When I started looking into this, I found a 2015 provincial government database of 1228 collective agreements that identified their main place of business. With some help from three large unions, I was able to “place” almost 316,000 unionized workers, which represents 72% of all workers unionized under the provincial jurisdiction. The biggest group of unionized workers I couldn’t place were construction workers. This reflects that these workers tend to have transitory and mobile employment arrangements.

The preliminary results of this geographic analysis weren’t particularly surprising. Unionization in Alberta is a heavily urban phenomenon. More than three quarters of unionized workers are located in Alberta’s seven urban centres. 

The most notable point here is that the percentage of unionized workers who work in urban settings appear to be disproportionately high when compared to the overall population distribution. Specifically, 62% of the population lives in an urban centre but 77% of unionized workers work in one. The converse, of course, is true about rural areas.

I could neither find nor manufacture labour force data by municipality so it isn’t possible to calculate a traditional measure of union density. It is, however, possible to determine the percentage of a municipality’s population (i.e., workers plus non-workers) who are unionized and, thereby, assess relative differences in union density between urban and rural locations.

Approximately 9.4% of all urban residents were union members. By contrast, only 4.5% of all rural residents were union members. If you disaggregate the rural numbers into municipalities or groups of municipalities, you find that 12 rural locales have at least 1000 unionized workers. 

Looking at these clusters of rural unionism, the most striking things is that public-sector workers comprise the vast majority of unionized workers in rural Alberta. There are five instances of a significant number of unionized rural workers in the private sector. These workers tend to be employed in a small number of large, industrial operations—businesses like meat-packing, refineries, mills, mines, and hotels.

So why is unionism in Alberta disproportionately urban? I didn’t find much in the literature that was helpful. Some possibilities are the distribution of jobs (particularly jobs in large, industrial workplaces), the legal structure of labour relations, the cost of organizing and servicing rural units, and, perhaps, an anti-union culture in rural locations. I decided to interview 10 trade union organizers and labour relations officers to see what their views were.

The informants identified three inter-related factors to explain low union density in rural Alberta: 
  1. reluctance by rural workers to unionize,
  2. reluctance by unions to organize small bargaining units, and 
  3. a regulatory structure that impedes organizing and servicing. 
So let’s start with rural workers. Informants suggested that rural workers may perceive unionization as a less effective way to improve their lot in life than other strategies available to them. The social norms of rural communities were said to be profoundly shaped by chambers of commerce, churches, rotary clubs, and long-time residents—groups that often have interlocking memberships. This creates a cultural and social hegemony that suggests workers are more likely to advance by working hard and being canny businesspeople than through social solidarity with other workers.

Respondents had differing explanations for why unions were generally thought undesirable by rural opinion leaders. Some suggested that the agricultural background of many rural residents meant they rejected the regulation of employment relationships. Other pointed to long-standing anti-union positions among various religious sects as well as the upstream oil-and-gas industry. And, finally, some informants suggested economic self-interest: opinion leaders are most often employers themselves who likely don’t want a union in their workplaces.

While valorizing individualistic behaviours is obviously not confined to rural communities, the small size of rural communities was said to limit the social space available to develop other narratives. And the idea of “space” also came up in terms of there being less social space in a rural community for dissension and conflict to play out because of fewer job opportunities (which heightened the economic risks associated with union activity), less personal privacy, and greater integration of work and social lives than is typical in urban environments:

…[Y]ou are dealing with the same 15 to 20 guys day in and day out. If you are working an 8 hour shift, that is half of your waking life. And you are going to run into these guys in the grocery store and the [bar] and it is your life. These small units are… a lot more impervious to organizing because you can’t have every facet of your life in open conflict with your employer for very long before you go nuts. In a city, you can escape it.
Workers who are dissatisfied also often have exit options due to Alberta’s traditionally buoyant oil-economy.

Despite these barriers to unionizing in rural Alberta, there are countervailing factors. For example, existing social networks allow rapid organizing because everyone knows everyone else. Further, once a worksite is organized, rural interconnectedness and interdependence can result in significant community support for workers during labour disputes.

Informants also suggested unions were reluctant to organize small bargaining units. Although small bargaining units exist everywhere, informants noted that potential rural units were almost always small units. There was broad consensus that units of fewer than 50 workers represented very marginal targets for organizing.

Small units were said to be more difficult to organize than larger units because workers tend to have a close relationship with their employer. And employers are more likely and better able to manage the workforce in a small operation to keep unions out. Some informants suggested that many unions’ disinterest in rural organizing is also about unions’ (predominantly urban) office locations and urban population density.

Most informants noted that small units have less bargaining power, which also made them less attractive targets for organizing. Specifically, informants questioned the ability of a small group of workers to extract a meaningful collective agreement from a (usually) small employer, who may have limited capacity to absorb an increase in labour costs. Once organized, small units can also be resource intensive to operate and sometimes are unable to manage their own day-to-day affairs.

Some informants indicated that the desirability of a unit can be shaped by whether or not the union already had a bargaining relationship with the employer. That can give the union a better sense of the employer’s approach as well as leverage:
There may be 10 people. But with that same employer elsewhere, we have thousands of their workers. It gives me a better chance to keep the employer nice. ‘Are you so stuck on 20 people that you want to jeopardize [labour relations with] the other thousand?’
All informants indicated that Alberta’s labour laws—which make union organizing and collective bargaining difficult—intensified unions’ reluctance to organize small units. The specific weaknesses of Alberta labour law include requiring a vote before certifying a unit, having no meaningful remedy available when an employer interferes in an organizing drive, and having no access to first contract arbitration.

Of particular note was the absence of automatic certification when employers interfere with an organizing campaign:

[T]he typical [Labour Relations Board] decision is, at best, a slap on the hand and there is no real remedy. It can make people go… ‘If the union can’t stop the employer from doing something during a drive, how are they going to stick up for me on the job?’
Some informants noted that workers with precarious legal status (such as temporary foreign workers) were particularly vulnerable to employer pressure.

The initial findings of my research suggest that unionization in Alberta is predominantly urban, industrial, and public. Most unionized workers—and a disproportionate percentage of them—work in Alberta’s seven large urban centres. Most unionized workers—particularly in rural Alberta—are employed by large organizations operating on an industrial model. And most unionized workers—again, particularly in rural Alberta—are employed providing public services.

Trade unionists attribute this state of affairs to reluctance by rural workers to be organized, reluctance by unions or organize small units, and a regulatory structure that impedes organizing. Although the analysis isn’t completed yet, my sense is that the evidence is taking us toward the conclusion that the distribution of unions reflects the distribution of industrialized workplaces.

The next—and probably more interesting—research step would be to compare these explanations for low levels of unionization to those of workers—both in rural and urban Alberta—to see the degree to which they match up.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Work Bitch

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is the appalling “Work Bitch” from Britney Spears. While this has been on my master list of songs for awhile, I have avoided posting it because, much like Working for the Weekend, there just isn’t much to this song.

Basically, if you wanna buy stuff, youse gotsta work. While I’m all about bringing attention to the commodification of labour (wherein we’re compelled to sell our labor to buy necessities), I’m not sure I’ll make any friends asking you to watch nearly four minutes of this awful dance music video.  Note that, when you get to the bridge in this song, try to resist jumping off of it.

Now maybe there is a deeper message here about how hard Britney has worked to afford her Hollywood life. Meh. So instead, I give you Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager. Because Star Wars.

You wanna
You wanna

You wanna hot body
You wanna Bugatti
You wanna Maserati
You better work bitch
You wanna Lamborghini
Sip Martinis
Look hot in a bikini
You better work bitch

You wanna live fancy
Live in a big mansion
Party in France
You better work bitch [4x]

Now get to work bitch
Now get to work bitch

[Verse 1]
Bring it on
Ring the alarm
Don't stop now
Just be the champion
Work it hard like it's your profession
Watch out now
'Cause here it comes

Here comes the smasher
Here comes the master
Here comes the big beat
Big beat to blast ya
No time to quit now
Just time to get it now
Pick up what I'm putting down
Pick up what I'm putting down


You better work bitch [4x]

Now get to work bitch
Now get to work bitch

[Verse 2]
Break it up
Break it down
See me coming
You can hear my sound
Tell somebody in your town
Spread the word
Spread the word

Go call the police
Go call the governor
I bring the trouble
That means the trouble y'all
I make it bubble up
Call me the bubbler
I am the bad bitch
The bitch that you love enough

Hold your head high
Fingers to the sky
They gon' try to try ya
But they can't deny ya
Keep it building higher and higher

So hold your head high
Fingers to the sky
Now they don't believe ya
But they gonna need ya
Keep it building higher and higher and higher

Work work work work work work work work (Work!)
Work work (Work!)
Work work (Work!)
Work work (Work!)
Work it out [14x]

You better work bitch
You better work bitch

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Research: Political and economic barriers to organizing farm workers

Political and economic barriers to organizing farm workers
Bob Barnetson,  Athabasca University
Canadian Association for Work and Labour Studies Conference, Calgary, June 2

What I’d like to talk about today are the political and economic roots of Alberta’s long-standing exclusion of farm workers from basic employment rights. And also what the recent change in government means for these workers.

In 2011, there were almost 38,000 paid farm workers in Alberta, with most of them employed for only part of the year. These workers were excluded from all statutory employment rights, meaning they had no right to refuse unsafe work or join a union and there were no child labour laws on Alberta farms.

Alberta’s NDP government began granting farm workers basic workplace rights with the passage of Bill 6: the Enhanced Protections for Farm and Ranch Workers Act in December of 2015. Farm workers are now covered by workers’ compensation as well as some provisions of the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Detailed health and safety regulations as well as how the employment standards and labour relations codes will apply are still being worked out.

While Bill 6 is a significant step forward, the underlying reasons for these historic exclusions affect the ongoing consultations about precisely which rights farm workers are going to have. And they help us understand some of the ongoing challenges to organizing farm workers.

Historical Exclusion of Farm Workers
Alberta’ long history of excluding farm workers has been driven, at least in part, by pressure from farmers to minimize labour costs. There is little historical evidence of collective action among farm workers. This likely reflects that factors such as geographic dispersion, exclusion from labour laws, state suppression of organizing, and transient employment create powerful structural barriers to collective action.

Farmers’ success at excluding farm workers from most employment laws rests upon a political quid pro quo. Essentially, farmers traded political support for regulation that minimized their labour costs. This arrangement persisted through 36 years of Social Credit governments and then a further 44 years of Conservative governments. For the past 40 years, basically it worked like this:
  • Farmers (and other rural voters) elected Conservative members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs).
  • These conservative MLAs then provided rural voters with a variety of policies they desired, which included the continued regulatory exclusion of farm workers.
  • Conservative MLAs also ensured that rural voters were electorally over-represented by gerrymandering electoral boundaries.
Rural over-representation in terms of seats in the Legislature varies by year and location. The most extreme example (in 2006) saw rural Dunvegan-Central Peace with 23,649 residents while urban Calgary-North West had 60,511 residents (Johnscrude, 2010)

This gerrymandering meant that, until 1997, no party could form government without winning rural seats. And it wasn’t until 2015, facing political threats on both the left and right, that the Conservatives big-oil-big-ag coalition fell apart.

Bill 6: Granting Farm Workers Employment Rights
Among the first pieces of legislation that the NDP passed was Bill 6. This legislation removed the farm-and-ranch exemptions from employment laws. Some changes (like workers’ compensation) took effect immediately. Others, like access to unionization and collective bargaining, are being rolled out after consultation with various stakeholders.

Bill 6 was hotly opposed by the right-wing Wildrose party and a coalition of rural farmers and producer groups. Farmer and producer group resistance is reasonably easy to understand: Bill 6 entails increases (albeit small ones) to their labour costs and interferes (again, albeit in a small way) with their right to manage.

Opposition by the Wildrose is a bit more complex. On the one hand, the Wildrose is clearly playing to their rural supporters—essentially they are trying to lock up the rural vote for the 2019 election. On the other hand, the Wildrose is trying to make electoral in-roads into Calgary.

Alberta has basically three electoral regions: Edmonton, Calgary, and the rest of the province (which is primarily rural). The New Democrats likely have Edmonton locked up for the 2019 election. And the Wildrose will likely win most of rural Alberta. But a riding redistribution is likely to reduce the number of rural seats and, regardless of the redistribution, there is no path to victory for the Wildrose unless they can win urban seats.

This means the electoral battleground in 2019 is going to be in Calgary. Calgary is a big city heavily invested in the oil industry. But many Calgarians are migrants, often coming from small towns. And Calgary maintains a strong cultural connection to farming and ranching—most notably through the annual Stampede.

Calgary poses interesting challenges for all parties. It is more right-wing than left. Yet there are two right-wing parties—the Conservatives and the Wild Rose—potentially splitting that vote. The Wildrose used (and is using) Bill 6 as a way to paint themselves as championing farmers against so-called socialism. In this way, they seek to become the most credible right-wing alternative and re-establish a winning big-oil-big-ag coalition.

This political pressure may temper the NDP’s appetite for granting farm workers access to the full provisions of the existing Labour Relations Code. The Supreme Court’s decision in Ontario (Attorney General) v. Fraser provides the NDs with some latitude in how they structure labour relations.

Challenges of Organizing Farm Workers
Setting aside the political decision about how to provide farm workers with the right to join trade unions and collectively bargain, organizing farm workers entails a number of challenges.

About 60% of farm workers are part-year employees. Together, part-year workers performed about a quarter of all paid work. These employees are unlikely to unionize because their employment is transitory—they will likely just move on from a bad employer. They are also unattractive organizing targets for unions because of the lack of continuity in the bargaining unit.

Of the 40% of workers who are employed full year, about half are the only paid worker on their farm. Bargaining units in Alberta must comprise two or more workers. This suggests that there are only about 7600 farm workers eligible and likely to be unionized. Even amongst this group, most of will be in workplaces with 10 or fewer workers. Small units are also unattractive organizing targets for unions because they have less bargaining power and higher per-member costs than larger units.

Finally, getting buy-in among the workers may be difficult. Nationally, about half of unorganized workers want to be union members. However, even those workers keen on unionization may fear employer retribution. Alberta currently has no effective remedy if an employer interferes in a union drive. Workers may also doubt the ability of a union to remedy actual work problems given the “work now, grieve later” nature of labour relations in Canada.

Like other small-and-medium sized employers, farms also typically see employers working alongside farm workers. This kind of close personal contact can often make it difficult for workers to develop a sense of class (or class interests) that differ from the employer. Rural locations may also have thinner labour markets, wherein workers have fewer employment options and thus are less likely to rock the boat.

Employer resistance also means organizing drives have a lower probability of success. And the small, dispersed nature of bargaining units entails higher servicing costs. Overall, farm worker units are unlikely to be particularly desirable targets for unions.

Going Forward
One possible way forward would be for the province to look at industry-wide bargaining units. Alberta already has industry-wide bargaining in its construction industry. When a union certifies an employer’s workers, the employer becomes bound by a province-wide agreement and a member of an employer association that represents it in bargaining. This approach could be applied to agriculture and, over time, would take wages out of competition (at least among unionized farms).

It is hard to predict where Alberta is headed. Based upon a consultation document sent out by the government, province-wide bargaining doesn’t appear to be on the radar. Instead, the discussion around labour relations appears to be centering on what exceptions to the existing framework are appropriate. For example, one question that the province asked was whether there were periods of time (such a planting and harvesting) when strike action might be unduly harmful farmers.

This framing of strikes as harmful to employers instead of, say, an effective way for workers to exert pressure may well have been inadvertent. Yet, in the context of the historic quid-pro-quo between Alberta governments and the farm lobby, it is a troubling question. While it is doubtful that the NDs see Bill 6 as a political opportunity in rural Alberta, they may well see a thin set of bargaining rights for farm workers as an opportunity to undercut the Wildrose in Calgary.

More problematic—and this is something I’ll be discussing at a panel later this afternoon—is that Alberta unions—excepting perhaps UFCW—are unlikely to organize farm workers regardless of what the legal framework for unionization and collective bargaining looks like. Most of Alberta’s union are public sector unions and their organizing is focused on increasing their penetration among existing sectors.

Private-sector unionization is low (about 9%) and is largely left to UFCW, Unifor and the Christian Labour Association of Canada. While both Unifor and UFCW are demonstrably committed to organizing and have experience working with vulnerable worker groups, the resources each can afford to devote to organizing farm-worker units is open to question, given the structural barriers to farm worker organizing.

What this suggests is that winning the legal right to join a union makes unionization possible—but the process of realizing this right is likely to take much more time.