Friday, September 29, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Company Town

A few months back, Mark McCutchen and I published an article examining the presence and (mostly) absence of unions in science fiction. A book that came out between finishing that research and having it published is Company Town by Madeline Ashby (Tor, 2016).

Set on an oil-rig/town near Newfoundland in the near future (where oil is in decline), this cyberpunk novel focuses on Hwa, who is a (female) bodyguard for the United Sex Workers of Canada. Selling sex has been decriminalized in this future and sex workers have developed a hiring hall of sorts, which provides services, including security, pensions, and a client database.

The novel quickly becomes much more complex (leading to an ending that felt somehow rushed and a bit hard to follow). In this novel, the union essentially serves as part of the novel’s setting and has little to no impact on the plot. This fits rather neatly into the typology Mark and I developed about how unions are treated and used in SF. Unusual among SF treatments of unions, though, Ashby frames the union positively.

More broadly the book is largely in keeping with capitalist realism. Capitalist realism is
a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action (Fisher, 2009, p. 16).
It produces a business ontology that privileges corporate business as the model for all other activities, from political governance to family life, to the extent that “the lack of alternatives to capitalism is no longer even an issue. Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable” (Ibid, p. 8).

Capitalist realism not only “[claims] to have stripped the world of sentimental illusions and seen it for ‘what it really is’: a Hobbesian war of all against all, a system of perpetual exploitation and generalized criminality,” (Ibid, p. 11) it also insists on everyone’s “‘realistic’ acceptance that capitalism is the only game in town” (Ibid, p. 15) and leaves little room for collective efforts to negotiate limits on exploitation.

To be fair, the United Sex Workers of Canada does make some efforts to regulate the working conditions of its members and thereby buck the system. But it does so within an essentially hypercapitalist system.

This isn’t meant as a criticism of the novel (which is good), but rather as an observation about the tendency of SF (as a genre) to situate stories within a capitalist framework and thereby constraining how we think about the future.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Should Edmonton become a sanctuary city for undocumented migrants?

A few weeks back, there was discussion of making Edmonton a sanctuary city for undocumented workers. The gist is that Edmonton would adopt a policy whereby Edmonton’s estimated 25,000 undocumented workers could access government services without being questioned about their immigration status (which triggers fear of deportation).

An interesting question the often comes up is why do foreign nationals stay in Canada after their official residency period has ended. I don't recall any specific research on that in Canada (although I also haven't looked very hard for it) but I did run across this article addressing the motives of undocumented agricultural workers in Idaho.

While most of the farmworkers in this study immigrated to the United States from Mexico for economic reasons, their reasons for staying are more decidedly social:
The reason that respondents have decided to stay is because they have greater social responsibilities, connections and ties to local communities, and a greater sense of belonging, which increases if they have family in the U.S. (p. 43)
The longer undocumented workers remain in the US, the greater the likelihood that they plan to stay in the US. Being married and/or having children also increases the propensity of workers to stay.

These findings ring true to me when tested against my (modest) experience with undocumented workers. Most came in hopes of a better economic life. As their residency permits expired, many stay, both because their families are better off with them working in Alberta and because they have put down roots. Staying without permission is seen as a better choice than returning to their home country. 

In 2016, Migrante Alberta estimated 80% of Calgary temporary foreign workers in low-skill occupations stay (at least for a time) after the expiry of their permits. Most remained employed in some capacity.

One of the challenges of being undocumented is accessing government services (e.g., health care, driver’s license, schooling). In January 2016, Alberta changed its health care policy in order to provide coverage to children born in Canada of undocumented workers, visitors, denied refugee claimants, and migrant workers. That said, fear of revealing undocumented status remains a barrier to accessing services. And a covered child’s parents must still pay for their own medical treatment out of pocket.

This policy leads to heartbreaking and profoundly unfair outcomes. For example, Maria Victoria Venancio was a temporary foreign worker who was paralyzed after being hit cycling to her job in Edmonton in 2012. Unable to work, her work permit was not renewed but she stayed in Canada for medical treatment. In 2015, the former Conservative government denied her health-care coverage. They could have provided her coverage but feared that would open the door to other undocumented workers expecting the same treatment.

Venancio was granted a two-year open work permit in 2015, allowing her to remain in the country legally. This, in turn, meant the province would cover her health-care costs. In 2017, she was granted permanent residency. While Venancio’s case offers hope in the most extreme cases, government policy continues to be a barrier to other undocumented people—most of whom are employed—in accessing basic health care.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, September 22, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Wichita Lineman

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Wichita Lineman”, originally recorded by Glen Campbell. It was written about a telephone line man that writer Jimmy Webb saw a top a lonely pole while driving through Oklahoma.

Webb combined this striking visual with demands of the job (“”And if it snows that stretch down south won't ever stand the strain) and a backstory (perhaps his own) where the lineman pines for someone (“And I need you more that want you, and I want you for all time”). The result is a haunting portrait of a lonely man in a lonely job.

The song has been covered by a lot of artists (e.g., REM, Guns and Roses, Billy Joel, Stone Temple Pilots). I picked this Cassandra Wilson version because the vocal is clear and jazz interpretation is interesting and moody. You can hear Campbell’s original version. Interestingly, he handles the awkward rising notes at end of each verse better than anyone else.

I am a lineman for the county and I drive the main road
Searchin' in the sun for another overload
I hear you singin' in the wire, I can hear you through the whine
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

I know I need a small vacation but it don't look like rain
And if it snows that stretch down south won't ever stand the strain
And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

[Instrumental Interlude]

And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time
And the Wichita Lineman is still on the line

[Instrumental to end]

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

OHS protections for pregnant and breastfeeding workers

Last week, the Parkland Institute published a blog post written by myself, and two research collaborators. It provided some important context for the Alberta Occupational Health and Safety Act review. The deadline for submissions to the review is October 16. 

An issue that has received little discussion so far is protective leave for pregnant and breastfeeding women. Yesterday, for example, a worker reported being terminated because she was pregnant because the employer was concerned that the lifting requirement of the job was to great for her. 

The company, now the subject of a human rights complaint, disputes this characterization. But:
The temp agency that hired Deghanifard, Manpower, told the commission they were informed Deghanifard's assignment had ended because her role involved lifting heavy items and in her condition the manager felt it could be harmful to her.
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 workers’ compensation board).

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.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, September 15, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Day Sleeper

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Day Sleeper” by REM. The song is about a worker pulling the night shift (perhaps on a long-term basis) and the physical grid that this entails.

As Jason Foster and I noted in Health and Safety in Canadian Workplaces, shift work is associated with poorer worker health. The main issue with shift work is its potential to disrupt a worker’s circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms (commonly known as the biological clock) are the daily (24-hour) cycles our body follows to ensure (in humans) high activity during the day and low activity at night.

Sleeping and waking, eating, adrenalin, body temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and many other bodily functions are regulated by circadian rhythms. When work occurs outside of that daily rhythm, it places strain on the body as it is forced to alter the cycle.

A second concern is that shift work is associated with behaviour contributing to poorer health, including smoking, poor diet, and increased alcohol consumption. Shift work also disrupts family and social activities. This disruption adds stress and reduces the support that workers can draw upon to manage stress.

Research into shift work has been extensive and shows a wide range of health effects. In the short term, shift work leads to shortened and less restorative sleep and chronic tiredness and lack of alertness, as well as stomach aches, indigestion, and heartburn. Shift work is associated with increased risk of workplace incidents and injury. The risk increases as the number of days on the disruptive shift grows. It also jumps if the disrupted shift lasts longer than eight hours.

Longer-term exposure to shift work is associated with a series of illnesses and conditions. Shift workers report significantly higher rates of burnout, emotional exhaustion, stress, anxiety, depression, and other psychological distress. Shift work increases a worker’s risk of developing diabetes, and some studies have also found a greater risk of heart disease. Some studies have also suggested a link between shift work and pregnancy complications.

Likely the most significant long-term risk of shift work is increased risk of cancer, in particular breast cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has concluded that disruptive shift work is “probably carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2A)—the second most conclusive category in the IARC.

Receiving department, 3 A.M.
Staff cuts have socked up the overage
Directives are posted, no callbacks, complaints
Everywhere is calm

Hong Kong is present, Taipei awakes
All talk of circadian rhythm

I see today with a newsprint fray
My night is colored headache gray

The bull and the bear are marking their territories
They're leading the blind with their international glories

I am the screen, the blinding light
I'm the screen, I work at night

I see today with a newsprint fray
My night is colored headache gray
Don't wake me with so much

I cried the other night
I can't even say why
Fluorescent flat caffeine lights
It's furious balancing

I am the screen, the blinding light
I'm the screen, I work at night

I see today with a newsprint fray
My night is colored headache gray
Don't wake me with so much

The ocean machine is set to 9
I'll squeeze into heaven and Valentine
My bed is pulling me, gravity

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Deep thoughts on sabbatical?

I’m currently on sabbatical. A sabbatical is a leave negotiated by my union to allow workers some time away from day-to-day duties (e.g., teaching, administration) to focus on learning. We often call it research time, but I do research as part of my normal duties. The real boon of a sabbatical is that it gives me time to read around, reflect on what I’ve learned over the past few years, and integrate it into my thinking.

For whatever reason, I do my best thinking while I’m doing something else: cycling, walking, paddling or (at the risk of over sharing) showering. Last week, I finished reading a very frustrating set of social media posts wherein workers were opposing minimum wage increases (a position that benefits employers and disadvantages workers). I always struggle to listen to workers who over-identify with their employers' interests.

So I went down to the river to paddle. Grinding upstream against the current is good exercise but can be monotonous. I looked over at the shore to gauge my progress and saw a pile of old animal bones that one of the gold-panners had stacked up on a boulder. That got me thinking about bones and anthropology and, finally, evolutionary psychology.

Evolutionary psychology suggests that we can sometimes better understand our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours by recognizing that our minds developed over a long period of time. During this developmental periods, our ancestors typically lived in small nomadic groups. We retain much this “savannah mindset” even thought we now live in radically different circumstances (e.g., industrial societies where capitalism organizes production and distribution).

This approach can, for example, help us understand why the motivational effect of additional wages is nonlinear and decreases after a certain point. But, like any lens, the savannah mind focuses our attention on some things (i.e., determines what is valued) and obscures other things (i.e., what is not valued). So I started to think about how a savannah mindset might explain workers arguing for public policy that is contrary to their collective interests.

To the savannah mind, employers are valuable allies because they give us resources (e.g., wages with which to buy food). Consequently, we want to retain their favor and help them out. Any threat to employers’ interests produces anxiety. That employers pocket (say) two-thirds of the value we produce for them before giving us as little wages as they possible can is not something the savannah mind can grapple with (there was no real surplus value for the powerful to extract in nomadic bands).

Consequently, the idea that there is surplus value that can be distributed to workers as additional wages or retained by employers as profit) does not emotionally resonate with workers. (Just to forestall this critique, I’m not arguing that employers have profits in the amount of twice the wage bill. Simply that there is profit skimmed by employers from the value created by labour.) Similarly, the idea that we belong to a class (i.e., a social group that exists across society) is foreign to the savannah mind. The savannah mind is more likely identify with the group of people we see every day (including our employers).

Conversely, workers view taxes (and the state that levies them) as a threat to their interests because it reduces the resources available to workers. Again, the the savannah mindset struggles to recognize that the state then uses these taxes to provide important things (e.g., schools, clean water regulations, fire departments). These features of our environment appear natural (they have “always existed” for most of us), rather than being the product of a profound (and mostly invisible) level of cooperation among a large number of actors whom we'll never meet.

So, when the (bad) state suggests forcing (good) employers to pay low-wage workers slightly more, this appears (to our savannah minds) to be profoundly threatening to our (group's) interests. Of course there are lots of other reasons why workers might oppose minimum wage increases. workers are subjected to endless employer propaganda and negative religious views on human nature. And, for most workers, minimum wage increases yield limited personal value.

But it struck me that employer lobbyists (intentionally or not) are tapping into a bit of a psychological hot button for most workers when they complain about the (largely imaginary) negative effect rising minimum wages. So what does that means for proponents of public policy initiatives like increasing minimum wages? I don’t know off-hand—I got distracted by an eagle sitting in a tree above my kayak. Maybe the next time I hit the water, I’ll have another brainwave.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, September 8, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: The Rising

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “The Rising” by Bruce Springsteen. The Rising is a song about the firefighters who died during 9/11 in the twin towers.

I have really mixed feelings about the song: it’s evocative and valorizes obvious brave workers. Yet everything around 9/11 has become very jingoistic and unreflective.

In the end, I think The Rising offers a reasonably mature perspective on the tragedy of the day. It focuses on the pain and the sacrifices of regular workers and their families and avoiding the ugly “angry American” views that get so much air time around the anniversary.

In his autobiography, Springsteen writes about he inspiration for the song:
Of the many tragic images of that day, the picture I couldn’t let go of was of the emergency workers going up the stairs ad other rushed down to safety. The sense of duty, the courage, ascending into… what? The religious image of ascension, the crossing of the line between this world, the world of blood, work, family, your children, the breath in your lungs, the ground beneath your feet, all that is life and… the next flooded my imagination.
I picked a Grammy performance of the song. There isn’t (as far as I can tell) an official video of the song and this performance (muddy audio and pitchy vocals) really seems to capture the un-self-conscious nature of Springsteen performances: he sings and it is honest. Sting's version is also worth a listen.

Can't see nothin' in front of me
Can't see nothin' coming up behind
I make my way through this darkness
I can't feel nothing but this chain that binds me

Lost track of how far I've gone
How far I've gone, how high I've climbed
On my back's a sixty pound stone
On my shoulder a half mile line

Come on up for the rising
Com on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight

Left the house this morning
Bells ringing filled the air
Wearin' the cross of my calling
On wheels of fire I come rollin' down here

Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight

Li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li

Spirits above and behind me
Faces gone, black eyes burnin' bright
May their precious blood forever bind me
Lord as I stand before your fiery light

Li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li

I see you Mary in the garden
In the garden of a thousand sighs
There's holy pictures of our children
Dancin' in a sky filled with light

May I feel your arms around me
May I feel your blood mix with mine
A dream of life comes to me
Like a catfish dancin' on the end of the line

Sky of blackness and sorrow (a dream of life)
Sky of love, sky of tears (a dream of life)
Sky of glory and sadness (a dream of life)
Sky of mercy, sky of fear (a dream of life)
Sky of memory and shadow (a dream of life)
Your burnin' wind fills my arms tonight
Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life)
Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life (a dream of life)

Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine
Come on up for the rising
Come on up for the rising tonight

Li,li, li,li,li,li, li,li,li

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Book: Unions in Court

This summer I tried to actually take my vacation and not just keep working. For the most part, I was successful. I did, however, take time to read Unions in court: Organized labour and the Charter ofRights and Freedoms (2017, UBC Press) by Larry Savage and Charles Smith.

Great read! The book traces the labour movement’s come hither-go away relationship with Charter litigation over the past 30 years. This historical analysis of unions' relationships with the courts provides a nicely nuanced explanation for why unions have, over time, come to embrace Charter litigation. In short
…[W]e have argued that while unions were initially hostile to constitutionalized labour rights for fear of how they might be interpreted by an unsympathetic judiciary, significant sections of organized labour ultimately retreated back to the legal arena, shed their judicial phobia, and wrapped themselves in the rhetoric of “worker rights and human rights” as a response to the growing tide of neoliberalism and the crisis in social democratic electorialism in the 1990s. (pp. 208-209).
The authors then go on to examine the pros and cons of this dynamic, continuing the long-running debate (often between Savage and Professor Roy Adams) around the ultimate utility of framing “worker rights and human rights”. The book also does a nice job of outlining the key wins and losses experienced by the labour movement.

Students in IDRL 309/LGST 310 might want to pick this book up!

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, September 1, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Songs about migrant work in Canada

With the Labour Day weekend upon us, media outlets will be running “The Ten Best Labour Songs” lists. An enduring feature of employment in Canada is migration—workers leaving home to earn a living.

I’m part of a seven-year national study looking at employment-related geographic mobility. I’ve been surprised how many of the songs on my ipod (yes, I still have an ipod…) hit on this theme. Here’s a selection of six songs.

All Hell For a Basement, Big Sugar: A song about an unemployed worker travelling to Alberta for work (possibly Medicine Hat)

Atlantic Blue, Ron Hynes: A moving song about the death of off=shore oil workers in the Ocean Ranger sinking in 1982.

Free in the Harbour, Stan Rogers: A song about the impact of employment-related emigration on the towns left behind in Atlantic Canada.

Four Strong Winds, Ian & Sylvia: An iconic song about immigration to Alberta from “out east” and how it severs relationships.

The Idiot, Stan Rogers: Another song about a migrant whose come to Alberta for economic security at significant personal cost.

Work Away, Classified: A contemporary song about fly-in fly-out workers across Canada and the impact it has on their families.

An interesting omission are Canadian songs about migrant workers from other countries--I'd be happy to have any suggestions in the comment box below.

-- Bob Barnetson