Tuesday, December 25, 2018

On the absence of concerted-activity protections in Alberta

There was an interesting post the other day about how workers in a US restaurant took direct and collective action to protect their health and safety when confronted with (1) unsafe temperatures and (2) a potentially lethal carbon mono-oxide leak.

In both cases, the workers walked off the job until the employer addressed the problems. This forced the employer to rectify the problems, something the employer had initially declined to do.

This concerted activity is protected in the US by Section 7 of the National Labour Relations Act. The highly mobilized workforce in this diner also created a degree of protection for such collective acts of resistance. There are no similarly broad concerted activity protections in Alberta’s labour laws.

Instead, Alberta workers could refuse unsafe work (a right under the OHS Act and for which retaliation is officially precluded). If the employer failed to remedy the problem, it would eventually be escalated to an OHS officer. The officer might or might not agree with the workers’ concerns and, if so, might issue a stop-work order.

Whether calling OHS would be effective depends on a lot of things, including how close the nearest OHS inspector was, whether the condition existed by the time the officer got there (temperature can change even though the root cause remains), and the degree of (mostly illegal) pressure (overt or subtle) that the employer exerted on the workers to return to work and abandon their refusal.

While Alberta’s labour laws generally provide superior statutory protections than US laws, it is less clear if they offer better actual protection. That is to say, the paradox of poor employment laws is that they may compel workers to adopt more effective tactics to protect themselves than do better laws.

In this way, it is sometimes helpful to think of employment laws as both an effort to provide protections to workers and an effort to direct conflict into manageable dispute resolution processes. In this case, Alberta’s OHS rights provide (in theory) protection against workplace hazards (if you follow the process), but (unlike the US NLRA Section 7 rights) don’t protect other (probably more effective) forms of concerted activity.

Alberta’s Labour Relations Code does provide protections for associational activity, but only in the narrow circumstances of forming or participating in a trade union. A group of non-unionized workers who asked for, say, a better shift schedule and were punished by their boss for doing so, would have no meaningful recourse in Alberta. If they walked off the job in protest of the punishment, they’d just get sacked.

This absence of broader concerted-activity protections in Alberta acts as a barrier to direct and collective action by workers outside of the structure of formal trade unionism. This may, in fact, be the purpose of the absence of such protections—it protects the turf of organized labour and limits the threat posed by workers to employer power.

Whether limiting statutory protections for associational activity to participation in formal trade unionism is consistent with the Charter will be an interesting question going forward.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Alberta's new child-labour laws don't apply on farms

Photo: Christian Fischer
In early December, Alberta rolled out new rules regulating the employment of children. As January 1, 2019, the rules are this:
  • Children 12 and under cannot be employed except in artistic productions and then, only with a permit and parental permission. These new rules raise the minimum age of employment from 12 to 13.
  • Teens aged 13 and 14 can work in a small number of listed occupations during limited hours, both of which are largely unchanged from the Tory years. They can also perform other work with a permit from Employment Standards
  • Teens 15 to 17 can perform basically any job, but there are a small number of restrictions on hours of work.
Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) rules also require all employers to have a hazard assessment that identifies hazards and how they will be controlled.

Overall, not much has changed except that the 12-year-olds are no longer allowed to work.  There is also some fancy dancing around the issue of teens who are self-employed contractors, the upshot of which basically permits kids of any age to participate in casual babysitting, snow shoveling, and lawn mowing but precludes such work as regular employment for those under 15.

These rules are better than earlier proposals that would have allowed 13 and 14-year-olds to also perform light janitorial work, grounds-keeping work (including using powered equipment), light assembly work, and painting—all of which are jobs that would expose teens to significant hazards.

The most troubling part of this announcement is the note that none of these rules apply to children or teens employed on farms and ranches. I was not able to find a copy of the new Employment Standards Regulation, but I did confirm this with the ES call centre.

Practically, what this means is that there are still no rules around child employment on farms and ranches. This is a broader exception than that which has been enacted in others branch of Alberta employment law following Bill 6, which typically excludes paid family members from the ambit of certain laws but includes non-family farm workers. So not only can farmers and ranchers employ their own children on their farms, they can employer other people's children as well.

It is stunning that a New Democrat government would exclude perhaps the most vulnerable group of workers in one of the most dangerous industries in Alberta from its new child labour laws. While there are lots of safe(ish) jobs on farms and ranches (such as the near-apocryphal collecting-eggs-with-grandma example that is always trotted out), it is dangerous for children to be proximity to many kinds of farm work (as evidenced by blind equipment run-downs and drownings).

The absence of child labour laws on farms means that a farmer could hire a 9-year-old to drive a grain truck, a 10-year-old to transfer grain to a silo using an auger, an 11-year-old to clean a silo, a 12-year-old to herd a dozen 1300lb dairy cows, a 13-year-old to operate a legacy potato-sorting machine with no safeguards, and a 14-year-old to run a posthole digger of a chain saw.

In theory, the employer is supposed to do a hazard assessment (at least for non-family employees), which would flag these jobs as inappropriate for such young workers. But most Alberta employers don’t comply with that requirement, so it won't protect children. And, sure, workers can refuse unsafe work. But children simply aren’t going to recognize and refuse unsafe work--which is, of course, why we have child labour laws in the first place.

So the result of the government’s decision to exempt farms from child labour laws is going to be children placed in hazardous employment situations, some of whom will be maimed and killed as a result. 

Perhaps these children would be maimed and killed even if the laws prohibited dangerous farm work (which is why we need stepped-up enforcement). But at least then the government wouldn’t be sanctioning and indeed normalizing work that will lead to the injury and death of children.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

New book: Canada's labour market training system

If you're looking for a last-minute Christmas present, I’ve just released a new book entitled Canada’s Labour Market Training System. You can buy the book for $30 or download a pdf version for free.

The book examines how the labour market training occurs in Canada and whose interests it serves. We often hear complaints that the system—post-secondary institution, government policies, community agencies and workplace training—is failing at producing the right number of workers with the right skills.

The book suggests that the “system” is not one in the sense of it being a machine that turns out widgets. But, rather, it is a system in the political sense, where different stakeholder groups seek to advance their interests. The outcome of the system tend to reflect the relative balance of power between stakeholders.

This book is the main text in a new course that we’ll be opening in January: EDUC 210: The Canadian Training System. The course should also be available as an open course (i.e., you can learn the material without doing the assessments or receiving credit) shortly. We’ve done something similar with IDRL 308: Occupational Health and Safety that Jason Foster and I wrote Health and Safety in Canadian Workplaces.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Is Athabasca University employing a union-rejection strategy?

Many employers engage in union-avoidance strategies, such as being respectful, providing above-industry pay and benefits as well as developing internal dispute-resolution processes. This idea is to address the issues that typically result in union drives and, thereby, prevent them.

Less common are union-rejection strategies. A union-rejection strategy is designed to undermine the effectiveness of a union in a workplace where the union is already established. Typical indicia of such a strategy include:
  1. impeding union access to members in the workplace,
  2. refusing to meet with the union,
  3. delaying informal and formal resolution of disputes, and
  4. making unreasonable demands at the bargaining table to force a strike.
Union-rejection strategies yield both short-term gains for the employer (such as constraining compensation costs and increasing management power) and long-term gains (for example, setting up a decertification drive by anti-union workers).

These strategies are relatively uncommon in Canada because they run contrary to the requirement that employers recognize certified unions and act in good faith (which is what unions got in exchange for not striking during the life of a collective agreement). Labour Boards can (at least notionally) regulate such bad-faith employer conduct.

Typically, we see union-rejection strategies during first contract negotiations, when an employer may sense a union is weak and tries to refight the certification drive during the first round of collective bargaining. For this reason, many jurisdictions have included first-contract arbitration provisions to prevent the employer from stalling out bargaining to boot strap a decertification drive.

Interestingly, Athabasca University (AU) appears to be implementing in a union-rejection strategy with the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA). The pattern looks like this:
1. AU frequently does not respond to communication from the union about contract violations and routinely blows grievance timelines (>40 instances have been documented).

2. AU delays internal appeal processes, thereby de facto denying workers their rights under the contract (e.g., a 25-day timeline for a classification appeal is going into month six). 
3. AU has forcibly relocated AUFA’s offices off-site for the first time in 35 years. The official reason was “lack of space” but notice was served following a particularly acrimonious day of collective bargaining. 
4. AU relocated key labour relations staff to a city 150km away from the main campus (where AUFA’s staff are based). 
5. Weekly meetings between AUFA and HR have been routinely cancelled at the last minute. Last week, AU announced that it would no longer be attending these meetings at all. 
6. AU unnecessarily forces simple issues to grievance hearing, constantly seeks to stall grievance hearings, and refuses to engage in meaningful discussions of remedies when it loses grievances. 
7. AU failed to meet within the specified time period after notice to bargain had been served and, when it eventually did provide an opening proposal, the proposal was a two-year wage freeze and 43 pages of language rollbacks. (The public-sector pattern is a two-year freeze, a wage re-opener in year 3, and better language for the union.) After 6 months of bargaining, there has been essentially no progress and my assessment is that AU is trying to force bargaining to impasse.
All of these behaviours make AUFA appear ineffective to its membership and also radically increase both AUFA’s and AU’s legal bills. Taken together, the pattern pretty clearly demonstrates AU is engaged in a union-rejection strategy. Presumably the belief is that AUFA will fold up if enough pressure is applied.

AUFA has filed a complaint about some of AU’s behaviour with the Labour board. So far, the Section 11 investigation the Labour Board is undertaking has yielded no tangible result or change in employer behaviour.

An interesting question is how long the government will let this go on? AU is spending a huge amount of public money on needless legal bills instead of, you know, educating students. And the government likely does not want a strike during the upcoming provincial election—which is where things are heading.

Morale is sinking, I’m seeing staff reduce their efforts. And students will suffer for that. Literally the only person who is benefitting from this approach is the university’s lawyer. Now might be the time for the Board of Governors to change gears and horses (if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor).

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Report identifies failing in Caregiver program

A week ago, a coalition of groups released a report addressing shortcomings in Canada’s existing Caregiver Program. This program brings foreign nationals to Canada to work on a temporary basis providing care for children, the elderly and persons with disabilities. After 24 months of work, the caregivers can then apply for permanent residency.

The existing Caregiver program is set to expire in November of 2019. The coalition identifies a number of issues with the current program:
  1. It defines caregiving as a temporary labour market need when, in fact, there is an ongoing need for caregivers (as witnessed by the ~5000 new caregivers who come to Canada each year).
  2. The program requirements separates caregivers from their own families, often for years.
  3. The structure of the program makes it almost impossible for caregivers to leave bad jobs, such as where there is economic exploitation or abuse.
  4. The pathway to permanent residency contains a hard cap on the number of caregivers who may become permanent residents (which is the primary attraction of the program for workers) that is set at about half of the number of caregivers who are allowed into the country each year. Consequently, there is a huge backlog of applications.
  5. Some of the requirements for permanent residency (language and education) are assessed only after caregivers have already been employed on a temporary work permit for two years. Other requirements (medical exam) are repeated.
The report also contains recommendations for actions and is well worth a read.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Athabasca University's proposal heightens risk of work stoppage

This post originally appeared on the Athabasca University Faculty Association blog.

Athabasca University (AU) and the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) have been in collective bargaining since April 6, 2018. As of today, there has been no meaningful progress towards reaching a new collective agreement.

The key issue is that AU continues to advance a two-year wage freeze and an aggressive set of language rollbacks. For context, every other public-sector agreement in Alberta has settled for two zeros, a wage re-opener (or an increase) in year three, and language improvements for the union.

AUFA has recently polled its members on AU’s proposed language rollbacks. The questions asked whether members supported giving AU the power to:
These results indicate AUFA members will not ratify any agreement that contains these proposals. In short, the only way AU may (or may not) be able to achieve these rollbacks is by locking out AUFA members.

A work stoppage is in no one’s interest and AUFA remains hopeful that a new collective agreement can be negotiated. But, AU insisting on unnecessary rollbacks when it is flush with cash is unacceptable and will eventually result in work stoppage. As of this week, AUFA has completed its preparations for a work stoppage.

The costs of AU locking out AUFA will be substantial and include operational disruptions, lost revenue, and profound reputational damage with students, donors, and the government.

A way to avoid an entirely unnecessary work stoppage is for AU to drop its unreasonable demands and propose a collective agreement more in keeping with the public-sector pattern.

Now would be the time for AU’s Board to re-evaluate the approach taken by its bargaining team and make a realistic proposal for settlement.

-- Bob Barnetson, AUFA Work Stoppage Planning Committee

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Alberta Labour’s 2017/18 Annual Report

In June, Alberta released its departmental annual reports. You can find the Alberta Labour report here. Alberta Labour administers and enforces Alberta’s employment laws. Here are the highlights from 2017/18.

Employment Standards

Overall, performance declined over last year. According to the report, this is largely due to staff being redeployed to implement new workplace rules.

In 2017/18, Alberta recorded 4679 employment standards complaints alleging 1892 employers owe 4103 workers $19 million. Approximately $3.2 million in unpaid wages were recovered during that period (down from $4.6 million the previous year).

Nearly 1700 complaints were backlogged due to a lack of staff and only 41% of complaints were completed within 180 days (6 months), compared to 49% the previous year. Inspections were also down to 356, from 679 the previous year.

The good news is that Alberta reported it employed 75 employment standards officers, an increase of 23 since the New Democrats took office in 2015. An additional 38 staff (mostly officers) are expected to be hired this year. Further staffing increases are likely warranted.

Labour Relations

Overall, things appear to have improved over last year. The number of hearings is up (reflecting expanded powers and new rules). 

The number of certification applications is also up, an expected outcome with introduction of card-check certification. And the number of unfair labour practices rose 48%, likely due to greater certification activity, expansion of ALRB’s scope, and the introduction of more effective remedies.

The speed from application to first hearing has increased (likely due to new statutory requirements). There has also been a significant improvement in the speed of decisions.

Occupational Health and Safety

Overall, things are better than last year. Alberta’s ~140 OHS officers inspected 11,752 workplace inspections in 2017/18 as well as conducted over 5076 follow-up visits. This is a significant increase in inspections and a good sign.

Inspectors wrote almost 11,000 OHS compliance orders while prosecutors laid 26 charges for OHS violations in 2017/18. Again, both numbers are up and are good signs. That said, inspectors are still only visiting about 4% of employers annually so the risk of getting caught breaking the rules remains low and the consequences (mostly “fix it”) are modest.

Workplace Injury

Here, things seem to be a bit worse, with both the lost-time claim rate and the disabling injury rate climbing. These jumps may (at least, in part) reflect internal changes in the WCB as it attempts to change its culture of denial. They may also reflect an increase in economic activity in dangerous sectors. 


While rates allow year-over-year comparisons, they tend to obscure is the actual number of injuries. In 2017, the WCB accepted 29,047 lost-time claims. I wasn’t able (yet) to find data on disabling injuries for 2017 (45,000 is a good guess). I did find this infographic on fatalities: they appear to be climbing in 2018. It is important to acknowledge that WCB claims data tends to significantly under-represent the true level of injury.

Overall, Alberta Labour’s performance seems to be modestly improving. That said, additional staff will be necessary to reduce the level of wage theft and injury.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, November 9, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture Finale: Discretionary Effort and the Wage-Effort Bargain

This week’s instalment of Labour & Pop Culture explores the issue of discretionary effort and the wage-effort bargain. Basically, every job has components that are voluntary—where workers go above and beyond what is required because they are intrinsically motivated to do a good job.

Discretionary effort is one part of the wage-effort bargaining—how hard employees will work given prevailing wages and working conditions. When employers change wages or working conditions, this often violates the psychological contract employees have with their boss.

The clip above (from Christmas Vacation) humorously illustrates how workers view such violations. A violation, in turn, can trigger a re-evaluation of the wage-effort bargain and perhaps a reduction in discretionary effort.

Which brings us to today. Athabasca University is being pretty terrible to its faculty members at the bargaining table. There isn’t much individual workers can do in terms of withdrawing their labour without engaging in an illegal strike. But we can individually withdraw voluntary services.

For me, that is the Labour & Pop Culture component of this blog. These posts have always been something I did on my lunch hours to add some levity to the more serious posts I make about labour issue (which stream into my courses for pedagogical purposes).

I just can’t justify doing extra work for an employer that talks about respect and then advances proposals like company doctors. So I've decided to start actually taking my lunch hour. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series as much as I have enjoyed offering it.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Research: Organized labour support for minimum-wage increases

Last week, I shared a preliminary analysis of the arguments and discursive strategies used by business lobby groups to oppose the minimum wage. This week, I’d like to wrap up this series by examining the narratives and strategies used by organized labour to support the increase.

I found 9 statements by the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL). I selected the AFL because it is a labour central representing 29 unions tat, in turn, represent approximately 175,000 workers.

AFL spokespersons advanced a consistent narrative about increasing the minimum wage, asserting that raising the minimum wage:
  1. did not cost jobs,
  2. did increase spending and employment,
  3. was not a youth issue but affected adults, specifically women and families
  4. remedied poverty, and
  5. was the subject of fear mongering by self-interested employers.
The AFL mostly employed very similar narratives and discursive strategies as government MLAs, relying primarily upon instrumental rationalization and moral evaluation. Two differences are of note. First, the AFL also used impersonal authorization when it used academic research to undercut claims that the minimum wage resulted in job losses:
There is a considerable and growing body of evidence showing that the negative economic effects of minimum wage increases are negligible, while the impact of lower-income people having more money in their pockets is quite considerable. The evidence ranges from a classic 1990 study by researchers David Card and Alan Krueger; a 2010 examination of fast-food restaurants; to the 2014 British Low Pay Commission, which concluded “minimum wages boost workers’ pay, but don’t harm employment.” (AFL, 2015, p. 1)
Second, AFL statements often aggressively attacked opponents of the minimum wage hike:
Predictably, Restaurants Canada launched a campaign today opposing Alberta’s plan to increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2018. Unfortunately with industry groups like Restaurants Canada it is never the time for meaningful increases to the minimum wage (AFL, 2016a, p. 1).
[Q:] Aren’t low wage employers just trying to keep their doors open and create opportunities for workers? 
A: That’s what they want people to believe. But the track record of some of these employers and lobbyists suggests they’re much more interested in keeping wage low than in creating and maintaining jobs. These are the same guys who always say the sky is falling whenever any provincial government even whispers about increasing the minimum wage. And, in many cases, they’re the same people who made extensive use of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) to displace Canadians and keep wages artificially low. After years of focusing on self-interest, why should we believe they’re suddenly concerned about the public interest? (AFL, 2016b, p. 3)
While government MLAs and the AFL both used similar narratives about minimum wage increases discursive strategies, the difference in tone creates a sword (AFL) and shield (MLAs) dynamic. There is no clear evidence of coordination between the government and the AFL and this dynamic may simply reflect independent and rational communication choices by each party. The small number of statements in the dataset suggest that this analysis should be treated with caution.

My research project on this topic is now turning to analysis of the media coverage of Alberta’s minimum-wage increase—something I expect will take a few months to complete. Comments on this research are welcomed.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, November 2, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Seinfeld

Most representations of unions in television and movies centre on picket-line conflict or union corruption (both compelling plot lines). Less often do you see a more nuanced view of unions or work stoppages.

I recently ran across an old Seinfeld episode that I had forgotten about, where Kramer gets news that a strike at his workplace (which apparently had been going on for more than a decade) was resolved. He then tries to return to work (where no one has ever heard of him).

The underlying lesson in this clip is that unions generally don't win protracted job actions (workers lose interest, employers learn to cope with the strike or close up shop). What that suggests, strategically, is that a short strike with catastrophic disruption of employer operations is a union's best shot at a quick and decisive win.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Research: Business lobby arguments against minimum-wage increases

Last week, I shared some preliminary research exploring the narratives and discursive strategies used by opposition MLAs to oppose a minimum-wage increase. This week I’d like to share a preliminary analysis of 17 statements made by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB).

I chose the CFIB because it represents approximately 10,000 small-business owners in Alberta, has consistently opposed minimum-wage increases, and had an available record of statements I could analyze. CFIB spokespersons advanced a consistent narrative about increasing the minimum wage, asserting that raising the minimum wage:
  1. was opposed by employers,
  2. would cost jobs, particularly among teenagers,
  3. was not supported by adequate evidence about its effect, and
  4. was not an effective poverty reduction strategy. 
CFIB spokespersons employed three main discursive strategies in which these narratives appeared. The CFIB theoretically rationalized its opposition to minimum-wage increases by citing job-loss projections it developed:
In the case of Alberta’s massive hike in the minimum wage rate from $10,20 to $15.00 (47 per cent increase) by 2018, this would put 51,700 to 200,690 jobs at risk in Alberta (Wong, 2015a, p. 1).
These projected job losses included both layoffs and foregone future hiring. These projections ultimately proved wildly inaccurate but were contrasted with the limited economic analyses that the government publicly provided:
Premier Notley stated that her aggressive minimum wage policy won’t kill jobs. Then show us the evidence (Ruddy, 2016, p. 1)
The CFIB also used its projections to assert minimum-wage increases were not effective poverty-reduction tools:
CFIB’s calculations show that minimum wage increases are not the best way to increase low income earners’ well being (Wong, 2015b, p. 2).
This assertion sits uneasily with the CFIB’s projections in the same report, which show the net income of workers in every provinces rose with a minimum wage increase.

The CFIB used public authorization in two ways in an effort for increase the salience of its views. First, the CFIB frames itself as speaking on behalf of small business owners, despite representing on about 10% of such businesses (CFIB, 2018). Second, it used surveys of its memberships to support its demands. These surveys also act as a cautionary tale about the impact of the minimum wage increase. The most common narrative associated with surveys is that minimum-age increases cost jobs:

A CFIB survey of 1040 Alberta business owners asked: Which of the following changes has your business already made as Alberta moves to a $15 an hour minimum wage? 55 percent have reduced to eliminated plans to hire new workers, 52 per cent have reduced of eliminated plans to hire young workers, 46 per cent raised prices, 43 per cent reduced overall staffing hours, ad 42 per cent have reduced the number of employees, to name just a few of the implications (Ruddy, 2018, p. 1).

Opposition MLAs and the CFIB both used similar narratives about minimum wage increases (e.g., job killer opposed by employers and ineffective at reducing poverty) and similar discursive strategies (theoretical rationalization, cautionary tales). The small number of statements in the dataset suggest that this analysis should be treated with caution.

Next week, we’ll conclude this series by looking at organized labour’s contribution to the minimum-wage debate.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 26, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Frankenreads

Next Wednesday (Hallowe’en!), the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences is hosting a half-day symposium (entitled “Frost and Desolation”) as part of broader celebrations of the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein.

One of the more interesting interpretations of Frankenstein is as a metaphor for the working class, one created by the bourgeoisie (in the form of Victor Frankenstein) which then tried to kill him. There are a couple of interesting essays about this available online—I like this one by Luisa Umana.
[T]he monster is a symbol for oppressed people. He is the proletariat that revolts against the bourgeoisie in class struggle. … [H]his very composition is symbolic of the laborers who were composed of many different types of people, larger in numbers, physically stronger, and less dependent on luxury than the upper classes.
I don’t think that there is much of a historical case Shelley writing with this metaphor in mind. Yet, as perhaps the foundational text of the sci-fi genre, Frankenstein’s framing of collectives as terrifying and monstrous (e.g., the Borg, Cylons, the bugs in Starship Troopers) may help explain the near absence of positive representations of collectives (e.g., trade unions) in the genre.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Research: Opposition arguments against minimum-wage increases

Last week, I shared some preliminary research exploring the narratives and discursive strategies used by government MLAs to justify a minimum-wage increase. This week I’d like to share a preliminary analysis of 115 statements made by various flavours of conservative MLAs in the Legislation.

Opposition MLAs advanced a consistent narrative in the legislature about increasing the minimum wage, asserting that increases:
  1. were opposed by employers,
  2. would not reduce poverty,
  3. would cause job losses, particularly for teenagers and low-wage workers, and
  4. would cause prices to rise, which would harm other vulnerable groups such as seniors and the disabled.
Opposition MLAs employed three main discursive strategies to justify their opposition. The discursive strategy most frequently used by opposition MLAs in all four years was the cautionary tale. The narratives associated with this strategy was that raising the minimum wage were opposed by employers and would cause job losses:
Mr. Hunter: …I rise to talk about the people in Cardston-Taber-Warner that are concerned about the rising minimum wage. A local restaurant owner, Dan Brown, wrote me the other day. Dan has been running his restaurant for five and a half years, and he… is concerned about the impact minimum wage increases will have on youth employment. Dan is also very concerned about the impact the $15 minimum wage will have on his labour costs. He is faced with some tough choices. He can reduce hours of existing employees or not hire new staff. Dan doesn’t know how he would be able to afford to hire inexperienced staff. (2015.06.22, 128)
The second most frequently used discursive strategy was theoretical rationalization (i.e., research suggests X outcome). Specifically, opposition MLAs asserted that increasing the minimum wage would cause job losses and would not reduce poverty:
Mr. W. Anderson: …Stephen Gordon wrote a piece in Maclean’s [magazine] in 2013 discussing the theory being pushed by big labour that minimum wages hikes mean more jobs. In his survey of the literature, he found that there was no proof of it and that Canada, even more clearly than the U.S., has shown a clear relationship between wage hikes and job losses. 
In addition, in the survey of the literature, he cites a peer-reviewed 2012 study that finds that, quote, our results highlight that, political rhetoric, notwithstanding, minimum wages are poorly targeted as an anti-poverty device and are, at best an exceedingly blunt instrument for dealing with poverty. (2015.06.24, 263-264).
The third most frequently used discursive strategy was impersonal authorization (i.e., using the authority of others to justify a position). This strategy saw opposition MLAs cite various sources of research to bolster the narrative that a minimum-wage increase would cause job losses, particularly for teenagers and low-wage workers
Mr. Kenney: …What do you think a 50 per cent increase in the minimum wage results in? Well, according to the Bank of Canada 60,000 job losses across the country. According to the C.D. Howe Institute 25,000 job losses in Alberta. Think about how – oh, my goodness – when New Democrats get on their moral high horse and pretend they have a monopoly on compassion, and then because union bosses tell them to, they bring in a policy that, according to the think tanks will kill 25,000 jobs for immigrants and youth. Where is the compassion for those who lost their jobs, Mr. Speaker? There is none. There’s no regard. (2018.04.05, 433).
There is research both supporting and refuting this assertion, although the balance refutes it. Interestingly, government MLAs made little effort to counter research-based criticism. Instead, government MLAs increasingly focusing on moral evaluation. This may reflect that opposition MLAs cited research that agrees with a commonsensical (albeit not necessarily correct) understanding of wages and employment.

Impersonal authorization was not, however, a universally successful strategy for opposition MLAs. Early in the dataset, there were numerous instances where opposition MLAs referred to statements and research by various employer lobby groups (e.g., Chambers of Commerce, Canadian Restaurant and Food Association) to attack increases. The use of this kind of data declined after tis 2016 exchange between conservative MLA Ric McIver and government MLA Maria Fitzpatrick:
Mr. McIver: …On top of that, businesses across this province, the restaurants’ association, many chambers of commerce, and business groups have almost universally… [are] dead set against this government’s minimum wage policy to artificially drive up the minimum wage to $15 an hour in a very accelerated way. … 
Ms. Fitzpatrick: …Now I had a little experience with the chamber of commerce in my community of Lethbridge. When the minimum wage came out, they talked about how much it was going to cost. …The chair of the chamber of commerce told me that it was going to cost $86,000 for this business in one year because of this increase. Okay. So $86,000 is 86,000 hours since there’s a $1 increase…. To get $86,000 you’d need 41 full-time employees working 40 hours a week, and that was not the case. In fact, I got the correct figures and went back to the chamber of commerce, and she said: no, no, no; I think that was over the few years. I said: but you told me it was over one year. (2016,04.20, 688-689).
Overall, opposition MLAs relied most heavily on the cautionary-tale strategy, asserting that minimum-wage increases would cause job losses. They also sought to theoretically rationalize opposition by using research to counter government narratives that increases alleviated poverty. Research—by academics and interest groups—were also employed using an impersonal authorization strategy.

Looking at both opposition and government discursive strategies, an interesting dynamic emerges. As opposition MLAs increasingly focus on asserting job losses, government MLAs decline to debate this (high-contestable) assertion. Instead, they increasingly focus on the moral argument that increases alleviate poverty and provide dignity and fairness. Opposition MLAs respond by doubling down on research-based arguments—carefully avoiding engaging with the moral argument that government MLAs articulate.

Next week, we’ll look at the business lobby’s contribution to the minimum-wage debate.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 19, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Spaceship

This week’s instalment of Labour & Pop Culture is "Spaceship” by Kayne West. This song explores the frustration and desperation of low-wage work, particularly among young African-American men in the United States.

Of particular note is how being systemically discriminated against and economically excluded results in a rejection of the system:
If my manager insults me again I will be assaulting him
After I fuck the manager up then I'm gonna shorten the register up
Let's go back, back to the Gap
Look at my check, wasn't no scratch
So if I stole, wasn't my fault
The song also speaks to the experience of tokenism in the workplace:
Yeah I stole, never get caught
They take me to the back and pat me
Askin' me about some khakis
But let some black people walk in
I bet you they show off their token blackie
Oh now they love Kanye, let's put him all in the front of the store
I couldn’t find a good video by Kayne but I did find this blues-y cover that is pretty good.

[Hook: Kanye West, Tony Williams, John Legend]

I've been workin' this graveshift and I ain't made shit
I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly (heavens knows) past the sky (every night, every night)
I've been workin' this graveshift and I ain't made shit
I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly (heavens knows) past the sky (every night, every night)

[Verse 1: Kanye West]
Man, man, man
If my manager insults me again I will be assaulting him
After I fuck the manager up then I'm gonna shorten the register up
Let's go back, back to the Gap
Look at my check, wasn't no scratch
So if I stole, wasn't my fault
Yeah I stole, never get caught
They take me to the back and pat me
Askin' me about some khakis
But let some black people walk in
I bet you they show off their token blackie
Oh now they love Kanye, let's put him all in the front of the store
Saw him on break next to the 'No Smoking' sign with a blunt and a malt
Takin' my hits, writin' my hits
Writin' my rhymes, playin' my mind
This fuckin' job can't help him
So I quit, y'all welcome
(heavens knows)
Y'all don't know my struggle
Y'all can't match my hustle
(every night)
You can't catch my hustle
(every night)
You can't fathom my love dude
Lock yourself in a room doin' five beats a day for three summers
That's a different world like Cree summers
I deserve to do these numbers
The kid that made back [aka running back], (heavens knows)
Deserves that Maybach
So many records in my basement (every night)
I'm just waitin' on my spaceship (every night),
I've been (blaow)

[Hook: Kanye West, Tony Williams, John Legend]
Workin' this graveshift and I ain't made shit
I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly (heavens knows) past the sky (every night, every night)
I've been workin' this graveshift and I ain't made shit
I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly(heavens knows) past the sky (every night, every night)

[Verse 2: GLC]
Man, I'm talkin' way past the sky
Let's go, oh
And I didn't even try to work a job
Represent the mob
At the same time thirsty on the grind
Chi state of mind
Lost my mama, lost my mind
My life, my love (heavens knows) that's not mine
Why you ain't signed?
Wasn't my time
Leave me alone, (every night) work for y'all
Half of it's yours, (every night) half of it's mine
Only one to ball
Never one to fall
Gotta get mine
Gotta take mine
Got a tec-9
Reach my prime
Gotta make these haters respect mine
In the mall (heavens knows) 'til 12 when my schedule had said 9
(every night) Puttin' new pants on shelves
Waitin' paitently (every night) I ask myself
Where I wanna go, where I wanna be
Life is much more than runnin' in the streets
Holla at 'ye, hit me with the beat
Put me on my feet
Sound so sweet
Yes (heavens knows) I'm the same ol' G, same goatee
Stayin' low key, nope (every night)
Holla at God Man (every night) why'd you had to take my folks?
Hope to see Freddy G., Yusef G
Love my G, Rolly G
Police watch me smoke my weed, and count my G's
Got a lot of people countin' on me (heavens knows)
And I'm just tryin' to find my peace
(every night) Should of finished school like my niece
Then I wouldn't (every night) finally wouldn't use my piece, blaow
Aw man, all this pressure

[Hook: Kanye West, Tony Williams, John Legend]
I've been workin' this graveshift and I ain't made shit
I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly (heavens knows) past the sky (every night, every night)
I've been workin' this graveshift and I ain't made shit
I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly (heavens knows) past the sky (every night, every night)

[Verse 3: Consequence]
I remember havin' to take the dollar cab
Comin' home real late at night
Standin' on my feet all damn day
Tryin' to make this thing right
And havin' (heavens knows) one of my co-workers say Yo you look just like
(every night) This kid I seen in the old Busta Rhymes video (every night) the other night
Well easy come, easy go
How that sayin' goes
No more broad service, cars, and them TV shows
I all had that snatched from me (heavens knows)
And all the faculties all turn their back on me (every night)
And didn't wanna hear a rap from me (every night)
So naturally actually had to face things factually
Had to be a catastrophe with the fridgest starin' back at me
Cuz nothing's there, (heaven knows) nothing's fair
I don't wanna ever go back there
So I won't be takin' (every night) no days off 'til my spaceship takes off (every night)

[Hook: Kanye West, Tony Williams, John Legend]
I've been workin' this graveshift and I ain't made shit
I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly (heavens knows) past the sky (every night, every night)
I've been workin' this graveshift and I ain't made shit
I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly (heavens knows) past the sky (every night, every night)

[Outro: Tony Williams]
I wanna fly, I wanna fly
I said I want my chariot to pick me up
And take me brother for a ride

(heavens knows)
(every night)
(every night)

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Research: Government arguments for minimum-wage increases

Alberta’s minimum-wage made its third and final jump to $15 per hour two weeks ago. Over the past few months, I have been examining the narratives and discursive strategies used to advance or oppose the increases by government and opposition MLAs as well by business and labour groups. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting some preliminary results—feedback welcomed.

This week I’ll be sharing analysis of 91 statements by government MLA statements in the Legislature between 2015 and 2018. Government MLAs advanced a consistent narrative in the legislature about increasing the minimum wage, asserting that raising the minimum wage:
  1. would occur gradually over time,
  2. would alleviate poverty, particularly for women, single mothers, and new Canadians and specifically reduces food bank usage,
  3. was broadly supported by the public as well as by employers, and
  4. would increase the number of jobs by generating additional spending.
Government MLAs employed three main discursive strategies (i.e., types of arguments): instrumental rationalization (i.e., ends justify the means), moral evaluation (change advances laudable value), and public authorization (i.e., operationalizing the will of the people).

Instrumental rationalization was either the most or second-most used strategy in each of the four years, slowly ceding ground to moral evaluation (see below). The main narrative used to instrumentally rationalize minimum-wage increases was that they would alleviate poverty by increasing workers’ income. A secondary narrative was that increasing the minimum wage would increase the number of job because minimum-wage increases tend to be immediately spent, thereby increasing economic activity. Both narratives were evident in 2015:
Ms. Sigurdson: …When we put forward our platform, we wanted to make sure that workers in Alberta made fair wages so that when they went home to their families, they could support them and care for them, and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve raised the minimum wage less than 10 per cent this year, and now people have more money in their pockets, that goes back into local businesses, and that’s actually stimulating our economy. (2015.10.27, 326-327)
Beginning in 2016, government MLAs began qualifying these narratives by emphasizing the slow pace of the increases and promising additional consultation with affected groups. This may reflect that opposition among business groups was increasing at this time:
Mr. Loyola: Our government promised to make work fairer by improving the income of those who work for minimum wage, and work should pay enough so that people can take care of their families. Our government ran on the promise to raise Alberta’s minimum wage to $15 per hour. We have not strayed rom that target. However, we fully recognize the current economic realities, as we all do, in taking a gradual approach in order to allow room for economic recovery and to carefully consider all input regarding the process of achieving that goal. (2015.05.09, 850-85)
Government MLAs also began attacking opposition’ MLAs when they criticized minimum-wage increases.
Ms. Notley: …The fact of the matter is that when the price of oil was a hundred dollars a barrel and our economy was on fire, these folks were also against raising the minimum wage. The fact of the matter is that they don’t care about the people who are very vulnerable, whose lives and family are suffering as a result of a very, very low minimum wage, one of the lowest minimum wages in the country. It is abysmal. We will move forward because raising the minimum wage will stimulate the economy, it will ensure greater equality and it will reduce poverty. Those are the things we care about. (2016.06.02, 1447)
While instrumental rationalization continued in 2017, it was slowly displaced as the key government discursive strategy by moral evaluation, which moved from the least- to most-used discursive strategy between 2015 and 2018. Moral evaluation legitimized minimum-wage increases by linking them to a specific discourse of values. The main narrative used to morally justify increases centered on how increases helped the most vulnerable Albertans to support their families.

In 2015, government MLAs most frequently operationalized vulnerable Albertans as single mothers and the underlying value justifying increases was one of fairness:
Ms. Notley: …Mr. Speaker, it comes down to this. The folks over there think it’s totally appropriate for a single mother of two or three to have to work 70 hours a week in order to earn a living wage. I say to you that they’re just wrong, and that’s why we are changing the minimum wage in Alberta. (2015.06.24, 231)
In 2016, opposition to phased-in minimum wage increases was coalescing. While the broad narrative of “helping the vulnerable” remained constant, government MLAs routinely linked increasing the minimum wage to reducing workers’ reliance upon food banks and the spectre of homelessness by increasing workers’ economic security. This tapped into the value of dignity:
Ms. Notley: …You know, the Alberta families that I’m thinking of are the ones who work full-time at very difficult jobs and which deserve the respect of everybody in this Assembly, who do that to raise their families and feed their families, and after working 40 or 50 or 60 hours a week, still have to stop at the food bank on their way home to feed their families because right now our minimum wage does not come close to providing a living wage. …Mr. Speaker, the member opposite …would love for us to walk by those people who are unable to feed their families, who are unable to pay their rent, who are unable to secure affordable housing. (2016.04.21, 739)
This narrative remained stable after 2016 with some expansion of vulnerable Albertans to include persons with disabilities and new Canadians. During this time period, moral evaluation became the main discursive strategy used by government MLAs.

The final discursive strategy utilized by government MLAs is public authorization Public authorization is an assertion that one is acting on behalf of a group (in this case, all Albertans). The strong mandate secured by government in the 2015 makes this strategy a natural one for government MLAs to utilize. In the dataset, public authorization was used heavily in 2015, when it was represented 30.6% of the discursive strategies used. Government MLAs referenced the government’s mandate and its efforts to engage with interest groups (e.g., small business) in equal measure.
Ms. Sigurdson: …Our government promised in the election that we were going to make work fair in Alberta, and that’s what we’re doing We’re raising the minimum wage and making it more fair for Albertans. We’re working with small business. We are still a great place for small business to run in Alberta. We have some of the lowest tax rates here in Alberta and it’s a great place to grow business. (2015.11.17, 500)
As opponents of minimum-wage increases organized, government MLAs increasingly emphasized public authorization stemming from ongoing consultation with the public and the business community.
Ms. Gray: …As we committed to previously, we will be listening to employers and employees on how to move forward with the changes to minimum wage. Focused consultations will be held over the next month with key stakeholders, including employers, social services agencies and the low-income earners themselves. …We want to take the time to listen to the people directly involved while making sure that we are taking care of Alberta families (2016.05.19, 1059).
Public authorization continued to be important in 2016, comprising 33.9% of statements. Its use declined in 2017 and 2018.

Overall, the clear trend is that, while public authorization and instrumental rationalization were important discursive strategies in 2015 and 2016, over time, moral evaluation became the dominant discursive strategy used by government MLAs. Both instrumental rationalization and moral evaluation employed a narrative that emphasized how raising the minimum wage helped the most vulnerable Albertans to support their families. The instrumental rationalization strategy asserted this as a fact while the moral evaluation strategy asserted it as a desirable value.

It is unclear what factor(s) caused this shift in discursive strategy. I suspect that internal government polling identified moral evaluation (or the narratives linked to it) were being well received. Accessing such polling is on my to-do list for this autumn. Next week: The narratives and discursive strategies used by opposition MLAs.

-- Bob Barnetson