Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Union avoidance techniques in Alberta

On Monday, the Alberta Labour Relations Board issued an interesting decision about the representational capacity of three employee associations that purported to represent workers at a long-term care facility in Calgary operated by the Brenda Stafford Foundation.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) was seeking to represent auxiliary care nurses at Wentworth Manor. The employer asserted that the certification applications were untimely because there were already bargaining agents representing these workers.

The Board officer found that the association were not trade unions as defined by the Labour Relations Code and the employer sought a hearing to resolve the applications. The decision is (blessedly) short and the crux is:
  1. The employee associations did not appear to have ever had the consent of the employees they purported to represent.
  2. “Negotiations” entailed the presidents of the association asking their members what they wanted, taking the concerns to the employer, and bringing back the employer’s response for “ratification”. Poor attendance and an informal procedure meant there was no evidence that all (or even a majority) of affected workers reviewed the proposals or agreed to them.
The Board noted:
[18] …We have no comfort whatsoever that a majority of employees affected by the agreements have endorsed the relevant Association as their bargaining agent. It did not help that prior agreements were kept under lock and key, leaving employees with nothing concrete to signal the Associations were purporting to bargain terms and conditions of employment on their behalf. We conclude the Associations are not “bargaining agents” within the meaning of the Code and the two agreements negotiated by them are not “collective agreements” under the Code.
As a result of the decision, AUPE’s certification application is likely to proceed to a vote of the affected employees.

This decision is interesting because it provides a bit of insight into union-avoidance shenanigans that employers sometimes engage in in Alberta. Here we have a sophisticated employer that has (somehow) entered into a series of collective agreements (conducted via highly irregular bargaining processes) with employee associations that don’t have any representational capacity and, indeed, appear employer dominated.

Faced with a Board officer report that the “unions” were shams, the employer then objects (delaying the vote and ultimately seeking to derail it) but offers no real evidence that the employee associations are legitimate bargaining agents. Indeed, the Board dismissed the employer’s objections based upon the employer’s evidence alone (which is an oblique but nonetheless sharp slap at the employer’s case by the Board)!

Perhaps the employer was acting in good faith and truly believed the associations represented the employees. I find that hard to believe given the employer had an economic interest in keeping out a real union.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Harassment and HR: Whose side are you on?

The recent spate of sexual harassment allegations has triggered a couple of articles examining the role of human-resource departments. The crux of the analysis is that HR shops are intended to advance the employer’s interest. Not surprisingly, a key employer interest is mitigating liability.

When proactive measures (such as codes of conduct) haven’t been successful and a claim of harassment arises, HR shops work to contain the potential damage to the employer (often through complaint suppression). This line of analysis runs contrary to the usual picture presented of HR shops as neutral arbitrators or even a place that workers can go for help with problems.

The notion that the practice of HR is, in fact, an exercise of power over workers and in the interests of employers is generally absent from HR textbooks. This reflects that human resources is rooted in a unitarist view of the workplaces—that there are no inherent conflicts of interest in employment and that everyone is there to serve the employer’s interests. The employer’s interests are often couched as the organization’s goals, even though the goals have been developed by the employer with little consideration of the needs of other stakeholders.

One consequence of this dynamic is that HR staff often has to do things that would make most people uncomfortable. For example, they may be assigned to direct conflict into processes that delay resolution of conflict even though doing so exacerbates the impact of the harassment on the victim. Such a decision often makes sense of the employer since (absent any resolution) victims will often quit (or accept a small settlement in exchange for a gag order) and the problem goes away (for the employer, anyhow).

Some HR wonks can’t hack that kind of work and attrite out of profession (or into less conflictual HR functions—such a payroll or strategic planning). Those that stay tend to be (or become) hard cases, who are better able to manage the cognitive dissonance that goes with harming employees. This, in turn, reinforces the tendency of HR to act against the interests of a firm’s human resources.

Clearer discussion of this dynamic might help human-resource students make more knowledgable choices about the kind of career they want going forward.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, January 26, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture looks at “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)” by Don MacLean. There aren't a lot of song about mental illness and work.

Indeed, mental illness (which is my experience is common) is largely ignored in most courses about employment except as a protected ground and basis for accommodation. This may be one reason why many managers struggle to cope with employees who are mentally ill to one degree or another.

This song is a paean to Vincent van Gogh who suffered from significant mental illness throughout his life and eventually killed himself. According to McLean:
In the autumn of 1970 I had a job singing in the school system, playing my guitar in classrooms. I was sitting on the veranda one morning, reading a biography of Van Gogh, and suddenly I knew I had to write a song arguing that he wasn’t crazy. He had an illness and so did his brother Theo. This makes it different, in my mind, to the garden variety of 'crazy’ – because he was rejected by a woman [as was commonly thought]. So I sat down with a print of Starry Night and wrote the lyrics out on a paper bag.
The 1972 live version I found below does a nice job of captuing McLean’s bittersweet lyrics and melody. It is well worth a listen.

Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer's day
With eyes that know the darkness in my soul

Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
In colors on the snowy linen land

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free

They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they'll listen now

Starry, starry night
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds in violet haze
Reflect in Vincent's eyes of china blue

Colors changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand

Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free

They would not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they'll listen now

For they could not love you
But still your love was true
And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry, starry night

You took your life, as lovers often do
But I could've told you Vincent
This world was never meant for
One as beautiful as you

Starry, starry night
Portraits hung in empty halls
Frame-less heads on nameless walls
With eyes that watch the world and can't forget

Like the strangers that you've met
The ragged men in ragged clothes
The silver thorn of bloody rose
Lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow

Now I think I know
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free

They would not listen, they're not listening still
Perhaps they never will

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The case for union raiding

A last week back, Unifor withdrew from the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). Larry Savage wrote a pretty good explanation of the dispute here. One of the sources of friction appears to be the CLC’s prohibition of raiding among its member unions.

Typically, labour laws create regular “open period” during which unionized workers can choose to be represented by another union or no union at all. (If the workers take no action during this period, they remain unionized and represented by their existing union.) Raiding entails a union seeking to become the certified bargaining agent for a group of employees already represented by another union during this open period.

Many trade unionists and labour federations argue that unions should focus their efforts on organizing the unorganized rather than seeking to raid already unionized workers. They also note that raiding is also a ploy often used by employer-friendly labour organizations—such as the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC)—to expand their membership (often with the tacit support of the employer) at the expense of real unions.

For this reason, labour federations typically prohibit raiding. For example, Article 4.5.a of the CLC Constitution states:
Each affiliate respects the established collective bargaining relationships of every other affiliate. No affiliate will try to organize or represent employees who have an established bargaining relationship with another affiliate or otherwise seek to disrupt the relationship. 
There is, later on, a process by which union members can seek a change in union representation within the framework, but the constitution indicates that this process will "(h)ave as a primary objective, working with the affected members and the affiliate, to have them remain with their union" (Article 4.9.h.i).

Looking through these provisions, the practical reality is that unionized workers whose whose current and desired unions belong to the CLC, will be forced to decertify (which essentially voids their collective agreement) and then recertify (with all of the risk that that entails).

Governments recognize this would be a very high-cost process for workers (and thus one that would impede workers from exercising choice) so most legislation provides for an option to raid (which results in a relatively seamless transfer of bargaining rights and collective agreements).

Raiding often causes significant friction within the labour movement. For example, the 2001 expulsion of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) from the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) was caused (at least, in part) by AUPE’s raiding of Canadian Union of Public Employee (CUPE) units. AUPE continues to operate independently and is now Alberta's largest union and one of the most aggressive organizers of workers.

Voicing any kind of approval of raiding is a quick way to get frozen out of the labour movement. Yet there are some compelling arguments for allowing this practice.

First, unions have fought for constitutional protection of workers’ right to join unions, bargain, and strike. If the workers have a Charter right to join a union, surely it is also reasonable for workers to expect to be able to periodically select a different union?

While unions are free to join an organization like the CLC and thereby bind themselves to a constitution that prohibits raiding (a document outside the ambit of the Charter), such a prohibition looks hypocritical given unions’ defence of workers’ freedom of association.

Second, raiding (which is relatively uncommon) provides workers with an important protection against poor union representation. The CLC constitution explicitly contemplates addressing poor representation in its dispute process and aims to identify problems and give the union time to remedy them.

While it is true that union members dissatisfied with their representation can attempt reform through internal union processes (e.g., persuasion or electing a different executive) or the CLC process, these processes sometimes don’t work. They entail delay and delay typically tends to work in favour of the more powerful party (in this case, almost always the union executive) which can use the delay to pressure dissidents to knuckle under.

In the end, I think the threat of a raid is a more powerful incentive for unions to be attentive to the needs of their members. Further, if a union is doing such a poor job that it gets raided, the raid is probably a good thing for workers overall.

If the labour movement is about representing workers' interests, then perhaps allowing workers to periodically switch unions (through a democratic process) is not an unreasonable thing to expect. Constraining worker choice hands opponents of trade unionism a powerful rhetorical tool with which to attack unionism.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, January 19, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Oh, the boss is coming!

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture features “Oh, the boss is coming!” by the Arkells. The song talks about how the profit imperative shapes the nature of work:
The boss is comin'!
You Better look busy....
They're not paying, you for nothing
The premise of the video is that the band/workers have to make a safety video (on their own time) for the boss. The most interesting part is that the list of safety precautions are behaviour-based safety precautions:
Always use protection
Rules must be followed
Keep alert
Eye protection must be worn
Lift with your legs
Leave your work area tidy
Safety first?
Ignoring the acrostic, these rules all place responsibility on the worker for avoiding injury instead of on the employer for controlling hazards. I’m not sure if this subtext was intentional or not but it certainly fits with the overall theme of class-conflict in the lyrics.

OOAWWWOOHHh, The boss is comin'!
You Better look busy....
They're not paying, you for nothing

There's no time for loving!
In the summer, in the city
There's only room for the sweaty,
There's only room for the sweaty.

Oh oh oh!?
Oh oh oh,
Oh oh oh!!

There's no room for error,
So beware, when your ass is on the line,
I have yet to witness, much forgiveness
In this business.

Oh, you better not be sittin'!

Or punch in early!...
But be prepared to stay in late.!!.

Oh you know they're not kidding!
When they're talking the talk,
Well they're talking the talk,
Well they're talking the talk,

This ones for you
oh well this ones for you


Oh oh oh!
Oh oh oh?
Oh oh oh..

There's no room for error,
So beware, when your ass is on the line,
I have yet to witness, much forgiveness
In this business.

I'm Punching in,
I'm Punchin out,
I'm Punchin in,
I'm punchin out!

Punch'n in,
Punch'n out,
Punch'n in!

I'm punch'n out!
I'm punch'n out!

There's no room for error!
So beware, when your ass is on the line,
I have yet to witness, much forgiveness
In this business.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Research: You don't have to be stupid to work here...

One of the great parts of being a professor is that my job can sometimes be to take a widely accepted idea and test it to see if it is true. This is very similar to what workers do around the lunch room when they roll their eyes at the latest employee engagement efforts, but just a bit more thorough.

The point of this style of research is to suss out ideas and approaches that don’t work as advertised in the hope of sparking change. A recent essay by Andre Spicer entitled “Stupefied: How organisations enshrine collective stupidity and employees are rewarded for checking their brains at the office door” is a good example of this kind of research. It is well worth the read.

Spicer examines the rather common experience of new graduates who are hired to exciting job descriptions based upon their skills only to find that their actual job is low-level paper pushing and that no one is interested in their ideas for change. The result of this false promise tends to be cynicism, learned passivity, and/or staff turnover (which continues until a suitably cynical and passive worker is found).

Bureaucratizing work is a key mechanism by which organizations stupedify their workers. Complex processes and forms (often enacted under the guise of risk management and quality control) limit workers’ scope for innovation. This happens in at least two ways.

First, creating a set process means that when a worker has a good idea, there isn’t a way to express and advance the idea (i.e., “there isn’t place for this on the form”). Second, advancing an idea outside of the existing norm tends to be slow, labour-intensive, and subject to multiple points where the idea can be shut down.

Underlying this approach is a Taylorist model of organizations as machines where all parts are expected to work in lock step towards making a single product )”you can have your Model T in any colour so long as it is black”). This logic is often unspoken (and sometimes exists below the level of consciousness).

Smart employees quickly get the idea, though, and then check out—either psychologically or physically. Management efforts to re-ignite engagement (e.g., buzz-wordy stuff like strategic planning, rebranding, and adopting best practices) typically fail because they don’t attend to the root the cause of the disengagement (i.e., the absence of opportunity to meaningfully shape work.

The opportunity cost of these sorts of behaviours is huge—both in wasted effort and in developing a culture of “three bags full, sir”. The costs of such behaviours are rarely borne by organizational leaders, who move onwards and upwards.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, January 12, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Industrial Strength Tranquilizer

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Industrial Strength Tranquillizer” by the Austin Lounge Lizards. The Lounge Lizards are a satirical folk-rock group (think Weird Al with a mandolin).

This song narrates the kind of hopelessness common in many jobs:
There's a lot of wisdom here, amongst the employees
Some of us are street smart some have PhD's.
We're all bored and tired, but we've all found ways to cope.
Some of us drink after work, the rest of us smoke dope.
One of the more interesting labour issues that employers, unions and governments will confront in 2018 is the legalization of marijuana. While news stories have recently focused on the (in)ability of the police to address impaired driving due to the lack of a good drug test, the real battleground will be the workplaces.

This University of Calgary study suggests that some blood and urine tests currently used can result in a false positive for workers who had 15 minutes of exposure to secondhand smoke in a closed environment. This certain raises all sorts of difficult questions about whether discipline enacted based on such tests will ultimately stick.

I couldn’t find a video for this song except this one. So instead, I give you another Star Wars video.

Every morning when I punch my timecard at the plant
I try to be a pleasant guy but lately I just can't.
Overwork and under pay are poisoning my mind.
Until I'm on the bar stool I don't believe it's quitin time.

I need industrial strength tranquilizer
A shot of Old Crow and a glass of Budweiser
To help survive inflation with falling pay.
It takes industrial strength tranquilizer
A shot of Old Crow and a glass of Budweiser
To help the working man through the working day.

Bosses in the board room talk of productivity
But they just mean to put the screws to working stiffs like me.
If we're good and work real hard and save our pay until
We're able to afford the kind of crap they make us build.


There's a lot of wisdom here, amongst the employees
Some of us are street smart some have PhD's.
We're all bored and tired, but we've all found ways to cope.
Some of us drink after work, the rest of us smoke dope.


-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Research: Family and friends as barriers to inter-provincial labour mobility

It is axiomatic for many right-wing commentators that the unemployed should just pack-up and move for a job. Often this suggestion underlies demands for reform of various income support programs, such as Employment Insurance.

For example, consider this 2013 proposal by the so-called Canadian Taxpayers Federation, then fronted by now former UCP MLA Derek “Fildepants” Fildebrandt.

This demand for hyper mobility is often framed as unrealistic. Statistics Canada just released some interesting research about the (un)willingness of unemployed Canadians to migrate for work that may bear upon this policy argument.

The crux of the findings are:
  • Approximately 1% of working-age Canadian migrate inter-provincially each year, a lower level than in past years. The aging of the workforce does not fully explain this decline in mobility.
  • About one third of unemployed Canadians 15-64 reported no barriers to inter-provincial migration for employment. The other two-thirds indicated they would not move to another province or territory to take a new job. 
  • Half of non-movers cited a desire or need to stay close to family and friends as the key barrier to mobility. This reason included a need to take care of relatives and/or consider the wishes of spouses and children.
  • Other barriers included financial and housing barriers. Few unemployed workers (1%) reported credential recognition as a barrier to work-related geographical mobility.
  • Slightly more unemployed Canadians (43%) would accept a job offer in other cities within their home province. The same pattern of barriers appeared for intra provincial migration as did for inter-provincial migration.
  • In both scenarios, men, workers under 40, and unmarried workers were more likely to consider moving than their opposites.
This data supports the assertion that labour mobility is constrained by both economic and social reasons. It also suggests that policy prescriptions that ignore social factors are unlikely to be particularly effective.

An important limitation on this research is that it is based upon current economic conditions. If there was a significant worsening of the economy in a respondent’s region, respondents’ answers might change.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, January 5, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Superstore on staff meetings

To start the new year of Labour & Pop Culture, we return to NBC’s comedy Superstore. Last year they had an interesting storyline about strikes. This year, there is a recurring bit about staff meetings that is just a touch too real. Here are some clips:

Staff made training videos about improving efficiency during bathroom breaks.

Staff debrief a workplace tornado.

Staff debrief a workplace robbery.

Honestly, it is hard to watch stuff that so bitingly accurate.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Research: Job-loss and geographic mobility

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m involved with a large Canadian research project examining employment-related geographical mobility. My own interests have been centered on temporary foreign workers in Alberta. Other research clusters have examined intra- and inter-provincial migration

One of the benefits of involvement has been exposure to other disciplines and their way of looking at the world. I’ve become fairly interested in geographical research which seeks to map phenomenon (and changes) spatially. This approach often reveals nuances that are hard to “see” when looking at data.

For example, we might look at the effect of an economic downturn on a population on where people live and find that most people continue to live in the same city in which they were most recently employed. A more nuanced analysis, though, might examine where in the city they live.

Not every part of a city is the same. An recent article in Canadian Public Policy entitled “Leaving Work, Leaving Home: Job Loss and Socio-Geographic Mobility in Canada” compared residential changes of employed and involuntarily unemployed Canadians from 1996 to 2010. Its findings included:
  • involuntary job loss is associated with both short-distance residential mobility and long-distance migration,
  • short-distance residential mobility is the more common response to job loss,
  • this mobility typically entails movement from a non-deprived neighbourhood to a neighbourhood with high material deprivation (this is particularly the case for workers who identify as visible minorities; the reasons for this pattern are not clear).

This pattern after job loss suggests numerous possible knock-on effects. Workers may experience different and potentially constrained labour-market opportunities. Children may see their educational progress interrupted and their educational options constrained. Families may face a higher risk of criminal victimization.

One implication of this analysis is that job loss may set the stage for the accumulation of various forms of disadvantage. It is unclear if existing income support programs (e.g., employment insurance) are adequate to attenuate this effect. None of these effects are immediately visible when one just looks at high-level statistics about employment-related geographical mobility.

-- Bob Barnetson