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.

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