Friday, May 4, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: On the Turning Away

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “On the Turning Away” by Pink Floyd. (You can watch the Pink Floyd version here). I picked this song because I though the sensibility of the song (if not its exact lyrics) speak to a troubling dynamic that has emerged in Alberta labour politics since the election of the New Democrats in 2015.

Specifically, there has been a collective decision among most labour leaders that the NDs (no matter hard they are presently driving towards the centre in the hope of getting re-elected) are likely going to better for workers than would a Jason Kenney government. This is most likely correct.

The result has been a mostly cooperative approach towards the New Democrats in an effort to avoid the divisiveness that helped to sink Bob Rae’s NDP government in Ontario in the early 1990s. Like any strategy, this approach entails trade offs.

Last weekend’s Day of Mourning for workers who have been killed, injured, or made ill by their jobs illustrated one trade off. The Day of Mourning (borrowing a slogan developed by labour activist Mary Harris “Mother” Jones) demands that we mourn for the dead and fight like hell for the living. A review of labour’s messaging around the Day of Mourning suggests that it is tempering its fight for the living (at least in public) in order to provide political support for the NDs.

During the (seemingly endless) years when the Tories were in government, Day of Mourning press releases issued by the Alberta Federation of Labour typically decried increasing fatality levels, ineffective government enforcement efforts, and the unjust exclusion of certain occupations from basic OHS rules. This reflected that the Tories basically didn’t enforce OHS laws and employers traded workers’ health for profits.

Since the election of the NDP, there has been a marked and increasing shift in the Day of Mourning messaging towards praising the ND’s efforts on injury prevention. In 2016, while noting that workers’ safety shouldn’t be sacrificed due to short-term economic recession, the AFL praised the new government’s commitment to modernize OHS laws:
"We are glad that Alberta’s new government is following through on their promises to modernize these laws,” Vipond said. “Robust, inclusive, and nuanced legislation will help ensure that workers’ rights are respected, that they are able to access WCB when they need to, and that they get back to work safely and in good health.”

In 2017, the AFL press release praised the government for making plans to use the Westray amendments to the Criminal Code to prosecute employers.
“We’ve been saying for years that sometimes fines aren’t enough,” said AFL president Gil McGowan. “If we really want to make sure workplace safety gets the kind of priority it deserves, employers and managers have to know they could go to jail if their decisions or negligence result in serious injuries or fatalities. The prospect of real, personal consequences will ensure that employers don’t treat the health and safety of their workers lightly.”
This year, the AFL’s press release congratulated the government on delivering legislative changes to OHS and WCB:
As hundreds of workers gather to remember those killed, injured, or made ill as a result of workplace incidents on the International Day of Mourning, workers also celebrate changes made by the Government of Alberta that will mean a safer future for Alberta workers.
Three paragraphs follow that outline and gently praise the changes set out in Bill 30.

On the one hand, publicly praising politicians for enacting better laws around injury prevention makes sense—both in terms of getting future changes made and in re-electing the most pro-worker government Alberta is likely to see. The presser is also way for the AFL to obliquely claim an important victory that it has worked hard to achieve.

On the other, I wonder if praising the government is the best way to use this once-per-year spotlight on workplace injury? Alberta has improved the content of its OHS laws. Yet there has been almost no progress on enforcing those laws (which, the research tells us, is what actually affects employer behaviour).

Specifically, there are still relatively few workplace inspections each year. There are almost no sanctions imposed on employers for breaking the law. And, as far as I know, Alberta has yet to prosecute any employers under the Criminal Code.

Not surprisingly, workplace injury and fatality rates are relatively static: at least 166 Alberta workers died from work last year and tens of thousands were seriously injured.

Alberta’s labour movement could have used the last three Days of Mourning to push the government to fund better enforcement. Even better enforcement of the old laws would have been a huge win for workers. And yet, 75% of the way though the ND’s mandate, we’ve not seen any major improvements in OHS enforcement.

Certainly the new laws are praiseworthy. But they are not enough—they require aggressive enforcement to be meaningful. While praising the government achieves labour’s electoral objectives, the workers who will be killed or injured on the job this coming year (and their families) would likely have been better served by demanding more enforcement.

-- Bob Barnetson

No comments: