Friday, December 30, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Absolute Rage

Over time, I've grown increasingly fascinated by how unions are portrayed in popular culture. Mostly, unions are just absent. But I was wandering through the library with my daughter and picked Absolute Rage (2002) almost at random.

The book is a crime thriller wherein a trade unionist is killed to help another (corrupt) trade unionist steal a union election in the West Virginia coal fields.

The "good" trade unionist is not really good, except in the sense that he actually cares about the workers. Otherwise, he's an abusive drunk blinded by ideology who gets his family killed in the cross fire.

The "bad" trade unionist is evil, corrupt (e.g., in the boss' pocket), greedy, and kind of stupid. He surrounds himself with various dumb and corrupt stooges who do his bidding. These character flaws are his undoing.

The strengths of the book are a good understanding of US labour politics and a realistic portrayal of the  company towns in the coal field. The plot and characterization are consistent with the tendency of all US fiction to represent unions as corrupt or, alternately, a source of disruption (via strikes).

I certainly understand the need for a source of dramatic tension in a novel. What is so striking is how union are almost never framed a force for good and, indeed, are rarely mentioned at all.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Occupational violence in health care

Violence against health-care workers is a profound problem in Canada. A recent article in The Bulletin (co-authored by AU tutor James Brophy) identifies how the victims of this violence are more likely to be women (due to occupational segregation) and this contributes to the lack of action on the issue.

A number of other actors contribute to the occurrence of violence. These include high patient loads and limited access to security for workers. Workers are also reluctant to report violence, perhaps because they know little will be done and that they will be singled out as complainers.

Overall, this is an excellent summary of how workplace violence has been normalize in health-care settings

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, December 23, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: The A-Team

With the Christmas break upon us, this week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture looks beyond music to television. I’m awaiting publication of an article (coauthored with Mark McCutcheon) about the absence of images of labour in science fiction. When that finally drops, I will feature some of the few sci-fi texts we found.

In the meantime, I’ve been keeping an eye out for other television shows where unions and labour issues come up. With in-laws to avoid, this situation cries out for… the A-Team. Because, if you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them....maybe you can hire The A-Team.

The A-Team was a terrible 1980s drama about a group of do-gooder Vietnam vets driven underground because of something-or-other I forgot after I discovered girls. Season Two featured an episode called Labor Pains. I have embedded the key scene below but you can watch the whole, tedious episode here.

The show is a good example of the “a stranger comes to town” trope, albeit in a 1982 custom GMC van driving helluva fast and crashing through a billboard and then jumping a washed out bridge. The boys then have a fight with some goons who work for some agri-stooge kingpin who are pushing around some migrant farm workers. (You can now skip the first 14 minutes of the episode). Eventually, the A-Team convinces the workers to continue a work stoppage and form a union.

“You’ll have a union in this valley over my dead body!” cries the boss and then tries to starve the workers out because the crop is rotting in the field. Organizing ensures (the scene at 28.00 is pretty funny—if only every union drive had Mr. T on board, suckas). Mayhem ensures (although this was shot in the 1980s so it takes for-frigging-ever to get to the action), including a cabbage cannon. The workers triumph and the A-Team scoots before the military police show up.

Not a super realistic portrayal of an organizing drive, but an oddly sympathetic one (usually television episodes focus on the disruptive nature of strikes and union corruption). Of course, the A-Team are mercenaries and, in Season Three, they help a small-time logging operation battle a (you guessed it) corrupt union intent on shutting them down.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Research: Injury Reporting and Reporter Trauma

Over the past two years, Jason Foster and I have published three articles on how the media covers workplace injuries. The most accessible summary of this research is this Parkland Report. The crux is that media coverage misrepresents who gets hurt, the type of injury sustained, and the cause of injury.

Last week, I ran across an interesting doctoral dissertation from New Zealand entitled “Journalism and everyday trauma: A grounded theory of the impact from death-knocks and court reporting”. This study examines how (mostly female) reporters’ health is affected by reporting on fatalities and upsetting court cases. (Death knocks is a term meaning gaining family comment on a fatality, often by knocking on their door.)

The study reveals that journalists struggle to attain balance in the workplace—learning about newsroom norms and balancing journalistic objectivity with their own emotional reactions. To maintain this balance in light of the constant barrage of upsetting experiences can require some workers to emotionally detach from their work or undertake forms of emotional labour. One risk of this work is burn out.

An interesting question the study raises was whether media managers tended to overlook the emotional impact of this work on employee’s health because of the no-fault basis of New Zealand’s injury compensation system (which, like Canadian workers’ compensation, precludes employees suing their employer for compensation). Essentially, the researcher queries whether the absence of accountability (through OHS or WCB) means society countenances the injury.

This study raises interesting questions about the effect of injury coverage on reporters and may be a profitable area for further research about the reporting of occupational injury in Canada.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, December 16, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: I Got It Honest

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “I Got It Honest” by Aaron Tippin. This song is pretty typical blue-collar valourization. The key theme is that the singer works hard to earn an honest wage and that he values that integrity moreso that the material possessions he might earn at another (presumably less honest) job. Essentially the singer is “making a virtue of necessity” here.

The song, like much of country music, is aimed squarely at blue collar workers. Looking at the video, the most white collar workers you see are a school teacher and maybe two EMS workers. The rest of the workers are in a variety of factories, stores, and other lower-skill occupations. There are also notably fewer women than men (a 2:5 ratio by my rough count) which is a common way for country music to socially construct work and workers as men.

I wonder if we can also see some of the heartland alienation that may have fueled Donald Trump’s win in November? There is quite a bit of class resentment in the lyrics (e.g., silver spoon, highfalutin’, ruled by greed). It is interesting to consider that whether electing Trump really aligns with these interests in anything other than a rhetorical sense.

It ain't nothin' but a small frame house on an acre lot
It ain't that much diff'rent from any other house on the block
And it may not look like we got all our share of the promise
But at least one thing's for sure, I got it honest

Roll out of the sack every mornin', head on down to the mill
Give 'em all I got for eight, 'cause that's the deal
If you'll check out my paycheck
Well, you'll see that there ain't that much on it
But ev'ry single penny I'm paid, I got it honest

I never had to hang my head in shame
For puttin' a price tag on my name
Never turned my back on what I believe
Or let my heart be ruled by greed

'Cause buddy if I didn't earn it, I don't want it
That way I can always say, I got it honest
Now you ain't looking at some dude
That was born with a Silver spoon in his mouth
And I might seem like some kind of low-life
To that highfalutin' crowd

But I'm plain spoken, straight talkin'
And damn proud of what I have accomplished
Some folks appreciate that and some don't
But, I got it honest

Now when I die, I may not leave my kids a fortune
But I hope they know'd my life stood for things that were important
And I'll hand out the same sturdy old values of my daddy and my momma
It made me every ounce of what I am and I got it honest

I never had to hang my head in shame
For puttin' a price tag on my name
Never turned my back on what I believe
Or let my heart be ruled by greed

'Cause brother if I didn't earn it, I don't want it
That way I can always say, I got it honest
Friend there ain't no doubt about it, I got it honest

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, December 15, 2016

New PhD in Labour Studies at McMaster

McMaster University recently announced North America’s first PhD program in labour studies is opening. It builds upon McMaster’s existing MA in Work & Society and BA in Labour Studies.

The faculty line up behind the program is pretty impressive (Wayne Lewchuck, Suzanne Mills, Stephanie Premji, Stephanie Ross, and Robert Storey). I wish this program had been available when I was a student! Application deadline is February 15.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Why do I have to read Supreme Court decisions?

I’m currently revising AU’s course on Human Rights, the Charter and Labour Relations. One of the recurring challenges that students identify is how difficult it can be to read and understand court decisions (specifically Supreme Court of Canada decisions).

While I’m including some skill-building components around reading court decisions, it is useful to reflect on (1) why we need to read these decisions and (2) why they are hard to read. The short video above is about the US Supreme Court but its logic is broadly applicable to Canada.

We need to read the decisions because they establish important legal precedents and explain why these precedents are established. And these decisions are difficult to read because the Supreme Court is a political institution that is seeking to achieve multiple outcomes (including resolving the case) with its decisions.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, December 9, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Big Branch

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Big Branch” by Gangstagrass. This song explores how the whip of hunger drives workers’ to do things they wouldn’t normally do. It also juxtaposes individual and corporate criminality. I don't really care for rap, but this is worth a listen.

The singer raps about her coal-mining father and grandfather and the cost mining exacted on their lives. Her grandfather died (I suspect from an occupational disease) and her father was blacklisted for organizing workers.
During this time I got to know my dad
He would tell me stories 'bout the job he ha
It’s the culture round here and it makes people proud
Basically it’s pretty much the only job around
He tells her of the hazards of the job and how workers act against their own interests because they have no other way to learn a living. She resolved never to mine and instead goes into the meth industry, eventually losing her hand in a workplace explosion and gets jailed. While in jail she hears another explosion—this time from the coal mine.
Who's the outlaw? Quick on the draw?
Cast the first stone if you don't have a flaw.
Who fills the jails? Who lives above the law?
White collar, Black Market, Who's Rich, Who's Poor?

Who's the outlaw? Quick on the draw?
Cast the first stone if you don't have a flaw.
Who fills the jails? Who lives above the law?
White collar, Black Market, Who's Rich, Who's Poor?

Never knew my father ‘cos he worked all day
Left the house sundown that’s the coal miner’s way
The pay was real good he made 70k
But it wasn’t worth all the things he had to give away
His father did the same thing same time
Took everything he had until it took his life
When I lost my grandfather I was seven years old
Decided then and there I would never mine coal.
That plus the dust on everything in our home
A quarter inch thick on every single thing we owned
But that was nothing compared to what we couldn’t see
Toxic particles in the air we had to breathe.
He tried so hard to be relocated
His boss wouldn’t do it and my mom was devastated
He started a petition and everyone enlisted
Til he lost his job and he got blacklisted

Who's the outlaw? Quick on the draw?
Cast the first stone if you don't have a flaw.
Who fills the jails? Who lives above the law?
White collar, Black Market, Who's Rich, Who's Poor?


During this time I got to know my dad
He would tell me stories 'bout the job he had
It’s the culture round here and it makes people proud
Basically it’s pretty much the only job around
He told me how they took apart the ventilation system
Sent two men instead of one to speed up the production
They knew it wasn’t safe but they followed the instruction
One hundred feet of coal a day that was their only function
No matter if it took twelve hours or sixteen
They took short cuts to keep the operation lean
Skipping safety measures made it risky for the team
But they all knew the deal so nobody intervened
When inspectors came watch dogs would let them know
And out the dust comes so the level will read low
The more violation the more production grows
Someone dies from black lung every time the wind blows


Then it came time for me to go out on my own
A tear in my mama's eye "child you've grown"
Can't recall a time when I felt so alone
As when I headed straight into the danger zone
Always good at science, always loved chemistry
But here in West Virginia there's not a lot of options, see?
My buddy had a meth lab he ran underground
Out of a mobile home on the outskirts of town
Business was picking up and he could use my help
Run the red, white ‘n blue, process for myself
Iodine, ephedrine, red phosphorus
Highly combustible and high risk
BAM, I lost my hand, blew up the lab
And from the jail cell I would hear the same blast
But this came from the big branch coal mine
I just found out that it killed twenty-five


-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Research: Effect of shaming on OHS compliance

Last week I ran across what I think is a revised conference paper that examines the deterrence effect of publicly shaming OHS violators. This study examines the effect of the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issuing press releases about workplaces found in violation of OHS regulations from June 2009 to September 2012. The study’s findings are quite interesting.

Workplaces with a peer workplace that has violations publicized tend to significantly improve compliance with OHS regulations. There is a 25% drop in noncompliance within a 5km radius of the inspected worksite but still statistically significant effects as far as 50km away. The effect dissipates with distance (both geographic and industry).

This effect may reflect a desire by other employers to avoid future negative publicity (which may affect profitability and staffing). It may also reflect employers adjusting their beliefs about the probability of an OHS inspection (and therefore cleaning up their acts). The author argues for the first explanation.

Firms that are themselves shamed do not appear to change their behaviour (although the data is not perfectly clear). This may be because the act of shaming (i.e., punishing) the employer eliminates any incentive for behavioral change to avoid future shaming. That said, the effect of an actual inspection with penalties may offset provide a separate incentive for compliance. It is notable that the shaming being studied (i.e., the issuance of a press release) is a pretty mild form of shaming.

Section 28.1 of the Alberta Occupational Health and Safety Act appears to sanction the “naming and shaming” of employers with bad OHS records. Alberta does engage in some implicit shaming, when it posts information about OHS convictions.

But Alberta does not routinely identify employers who fail OHS inspections or even make inspection reports available to the public. (By contrast, you can go look up restaurant health inspection reports online.) Such activities might be a low-cost way to increasing employer attention to worker safety.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, December 2, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: The Deadly Rhythm

This week's installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “The Deadly Rhythm (of the Production Line)” by Refused. In this song we can hear echoes of the radical critique of industrial relations. 

Capitalism is exploitative but has also ensnared the union to manage employee discontent (until the union no longer serves any purpose and is abolished). The state is also complicit, using its powers to bolster capitalist social formation.

Kind of a downer, really.

I couldn’t find a decent video (and with punk you can’t hear the lyrics much anyhow…) but you can listen to the song here.  In its place, I offer you Orientation Day on the Death Star.

This union that made us powerless is talking over our heads
Claiming prosperity in a downward spiral plan

Stuck by the deadly rhythm of the production line
Stuck by the deadly rhythm of the production line

This power that made us unionless is taking out of our hands
Cheapest labour at our expensive cost, auctioned our lives away

Stuck by the deadly rhythm of the production line
Stuck by the deadly rhythm of the production line

We consume our lives like we are thankful
For what we are being forced into

Is it our duty to die for governments & for gods?
Is it our privilege to slave for market & for industry?
Is it our right to follow laws, set to scare and to oppress?
Is it a gift to stay in line and will it take away the blame?

Can no longer pay the price. We'll get organized!
We'll no longer believe working for you will set us free!

Can no longer pay the price. We'll get organized!
We'll no longer believe working for you will set us free!

-- Bob Barnetson