Friday, June 29, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Anti-union campaign on Superstore

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture examines employer interference in union organizing efforts. Earlier this week, I wrote about how changes in Alberta’s labour laws are making it harder for employers to interfere with workers deciding whether or not they want to be represented by a union.

An episode of the TV show Superstore examined corporate “union avoidance” campaigns. While I can’t find a free version of the entire episode, the three key scenes about union avoidance are set out below.

Employer discovers union organizing may be occurring and freaks out:

Union-avoidance consultant shows up on job site:

Workers realize employer doesn’t care about them:

While obviously embellished for comedic purposes, this is pretty much how it goes with anti-union employers. The only thing missing was the union organizer getting terminated to put a chill on the campaign.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Organizing increases in wake of Alberta labour law changes

Last week, CBC ran an article with some preliminary data about how Alberta’s new labour laws are affecting unionization. In 2017, Alberta allowed organizing drives with the support of 65% or more of workers to be certified without a vote (called card-check certification).

Previously, any organizing drive required a vote of all the workers. (This is still required for applications that have between 40% and 65% support.) A vote entails delay which employers historically have used to interfere with workers’ right to decide on unionization.

There is a large body of research that suggests that when governments move to card-check certification, the number of organizing drives increases as does the success rate—often dramatically. This is because employers have less chance to scuttle organizing drives through illegal interference.

Not surprisingly, the number of workplaces that were unionized in 2017/18 under card check jumped to 104, from just 40 the year before (which was under mandatory vote). The number of certifications does vary from year to year (often reflecting economic activity) and we’d need more data before we could estimate what amount of this change is due to the new rules.

Similarly, the percentage of certification applications that failed at vote dropped, from 42% to 7%. Basically, under the new rules, employers had less chance to pressurize workers and skew the vote because there often was no vote.

Another change likely reducing employer interference is that the Labour Board now has the power to certify a union if the employer interferes in an organizing campaign (e.g., firing an organizer to put a chill on the campaign). This happened earlier this year in Calgary and I’m told another similar application is coming forward.

What this suggests, albeit it tentatively, is that the changes made to Alberta’s labour law by the NDs has begun to make it easier and safer for workers to exercise their associational rights.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, June 22, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Shackled and Drawn

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Shackled and Drawn” by Bruce Springsteen. This song has a bit of a gospel feel to it and is from Springsteen’s 2012 album Wrecking Ball. The album tells the stories of people whose lives were destroyed by the recession.

You can read the lyrics lots of ways—my first thought was it was about prison labour. But, on reflection, I think it uses being shackled as a metaphor for the debt and limited prospects of the working class.
Gambling man rolls the dice, workingman pays the bill
It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill
Up on banker’s hill, the party’s going strong
Down here below we’re shackled and drawn
The live version above seems to stray from the studio version but the content s all there—just re-arranged.

Gray morning light spits through the shade
Another day older, closer to the grave
Closer to the grave and come the dawn
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn

Shackled and drawn, shackled and drawn
Pick up the rock son, carry it on
I’m trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn

I always loved the feel of sweat on my shirt
Stand back son and let a man work
Let a man work, is that so wrong
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn

Shackled and drawn, shackled and drawn
Pick up the rock son, carry it on
What’s a poor boy to do in a world gone wrong
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn

Freedom son’s a dirty shirt
The sun on my face and my shovel in the dirt
A shovel in the dirt keeps the devil gone
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn

Shackled and drawn, shackled and drawn
Pick up the rock son, carry it on
What’s a poor boy to do but keep singing his song
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn

Gambling man rolls the dice, workingman pays the bill
It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill
Up on banker’s hill, the party’s going strong
Down here below we’re shackled and drawn

Shackled and drawn, shackled and drawn
Pick up the rock son, carry it on
We’re trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn

Shackled and drawn, shackled and drawn
Pick up the rock son, carry it on
What’s a poor boy to do but keep singing his song
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Alberta seeks feedback on youth employment rules

The government of Alberta is updating its rules around the employment of minors. After changing the minimum age of employment from 12 to 13, the government is seeking feedback a list of jobs and job tasks considered to be “light work” and therefore appropriate for 13- to 14-year-olds to perform.

This list includes many of the jobs that these workers have historically been permitted to do, such as delivery person, retail clerk, office work, and some restaurant work. This list also significant expands the range of acceptable jobs and duties.

Some of these jobs and duties certainly raised my eyebrows because of the potential for injury: janitorial work, groundskeeping, food preparation, assembly work, and painting. To be fair, the government has gone to significant lengths to place limits on tasks that these workers can do in these jobs. Here are some examples:
  • assembling food orders (i.e., washing, gathering, presenting, portioning and wrapping foods) using manual tools and appliances typically found in a home such as toasters, blenders, microwave, coffee machine/grinder.
  • light janitorial - Excludes the use of commercial/industrial gas/propane motorized heavy equipment (i.e., floor burnisher, wax/polish machines) and harmful substances defined as hazardous. 
  • weeding, planting and watering, and grounds keeping without the use of gas- powered equipment (i.e., all lawn mowing equipment, snow blowers, leaf blowers, weed-wackers). 
  • light assembly (no cutting torches, welding or working with hazardous substances) 
  • painting with environmentally friendly substances (no commercial spray painting) 
A key assumption embedded in this list of excluded tasks is that employers will obey the rules once the workers are in the workplace. I’m skeptical because the evidence we have is that employers don't obey the rules around young workers.

The deadline for feedback is June 29, 2018 and the government expected to enact regulations for September 1, 2018. One political effect of this timing is that few workers and employers will be affected by the new laws prior to the expected spring 2019 election.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, June 15, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: One More Dollar

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “One More Dollar” by Gillian Welch. This is a folksie song about a travelling agricultural worker who picks fruit for a living and sends remittances home to his family.

In Canada, much of the temporary agricultural workforce comprises non-citizens who enter Canada under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP) from Mexico and Caribbean countries. Others enter in the agricultural worker stream of the temporary foreign worker program.

These workers are subjected to difficult working and living conditions and have few meaningful labour rights, both because of statutory exclusions and because their residency and right of return is tied to their employer’s good will. This 2016 article contains some useful background:
Farm labourers in Ontario, including SAWP migrants, are exempt from labour laws that govern minimum wage, overtime and rest periods. 
"For 50 years, the SAWP has been framed as being used to meet acute labour shortage in periods we need more workers, but it's actually meeting a long-term labour demand," Jenna Hennebry, director of the International Migrant Research Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University, told me. 
Although SAWP workers are entitled to provincial health insurance when they arrive, those who are injured are often "medically repatriated" to their home country. In 2014, the Canadian Medical Association Journal reported that 787 migrant farm workers were medically repatriated between 2001 and 2011.
While the government has made some recent efforts to improve these workers’ living conditions (such as mandatory inspections), that living conditions are so bad as to (finally) trigger mandatory inspections speaks to the exploitation faced by the workers.

A long time ago left my home
For job in the fruit trees
But I miss those hills with the windy pines
Their song seemed to suit me

So I sent my wages to my home
Said, we'd soon be 'gether
For the next good crop, pay my way
And I'd come home forever

One more dime to show for my day
One more dollar and I'm on my way
When I reach those hills, boys, I'll never roam
'Cause one more dollar and I'm going home

No work, said the boss at bunkhouse door
There's freeze on the branches
So when the dice came out at bar downtown
I rolled and took my chances

One more dime to show for my day
One more dollar and I'm on my way
When I reach those hills, boys, I'll never roam
'Cause one more dollar and I'm going home

A long time ago left my home
Just a boy passing twenty
Could you spare a coin and a Christian prayer
My luck has turned against me

One more dime to show for my day
One more dollar and I'm on my way
When I reach those hills, boys, I'll never roam
Just one more dollar and I'm going home

One more dollar, boys, I'm going home

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Research: Retaliation and workers' hesitance to claim employment rights

Fear factory: Retaliation and workers’ hesitance to claim employment rightsCanadian Industrial Relations Association Annual Conference
Montreal, May 2, 2018
Jason Foster, Bob Barnetson, and Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull

The modern employment law regime is aimed at codifying particular employee rights in areas such as employment standards, occupational health and safety, injury compensation and the right to join a union.

A key feature of that regime is establishing mechanisms for employees to make claims or complaints when their rights are violated, either directly with the employer or by contacting government officials.

In fact much of the system relies on pro-active action on the part of workers. To file a WCB claim. To make an employment standards complaint, to sign a union card and take part in a vote. Workers need to take active steps if they are to ensure the legislated rights are protected.

Formally legislation contains prohibitions against employers taking retaliatory measures against a worker who complains. Longtime observers of employment recognize that those prohibitions are problematic in terms of enforcement and that workers can be vulnerable to reprisal should they choose to speak up. A number of studies have shown that workers often fear reprisal should they speak up against their employer.

Of note is Alexander and Prasad who looked at enforcement of employment law in US. They found that 1) workers have inadequate knowledge to identify violations and 2) are reluctant to make complaints. They also find that workers lack trust that the system will actually work for them.

Further they find workers’ fears are well warranted. Their study found that 43% of complainants faced some kind of retaliation from the employer. Also, only 15% had their concern addressed by their employer.

My presentation today is part of a study I and my colleagues conducted to examine how workers perceive and utilize their rights under employment law that was funded by the Government of Alberta OHS Futures Program. Specifically we look at the effect of fear of reprisal plays in workers’ willingness to advocate for their rights.

We examine why workers report NOT reporting rights violations in the workplace. We also explore how many workers feel fear and which workers feel the highest level of fear.

Our analysis looks at how these results might reflect upon the overall effectiveness of Canada’s employment rights regime.

In spring 2017, we conducted an online survey of 2000 Albertans who had engaged in paid employment in the province during the past 12 months. We presented a 39-item questionnaire, which included pertinent demographic and occupational data.

For the purposes of this presentation we presented respondents with 14 rights-claiming scenarios. Examples include filing a WCB claim, asking for time off work to attend to family responsibilities, and refusing unsafe work.

We provided a range of relatively low risk actions, such as asking for safety information, to more risky behaviour such as talking about a union and filing an employment standards complaint. We based the 14 scenarios on Wayne Lewchuk’s recent work.

From the answers we create a Fear Scale based upon how many times a worker expressed fear of reprisal, ranging from 0 to 14.

We also established a 15-point scale related to hazard exposure to measure the relative safety of the respondents’ employment (the broader study emphasized OHS related issues).

Taking all factors into account, an average of 16% of workers reported fear of reprisal.

Fear ranged from a low of 10% for low risk actions like reporting an injury to the employer and asking for health and safety information, to a high of 23% related to formally filing a complaint with the government around unpaid wages or unsafe working conditions.

While these numbers may seem low – a majority of workers report not feeling fear – we need to keep in mind that the current regime has been in place for decades and that workers are regularly reminded that their rights are protected. That almost 1 in 5 workers continues to express fear of reprisal from basic acts of defending themselves is significant.

But our main interest is in which groups of workers are more likely to report fear, as vulnerability is not evenly distributed in the workforce.

In terms of specific fears there was a complex matrix of results. Which is why we turned to the fear matrix. Our supposition is the more times a worker reports fear, the more deeply held their fear of reprisal is and, at least subjectively, the more vulnerable they are to reprisal.

Our correlations found that young workers, workers who identify as a visible minority, part-time workers and workers with shorter job tenure report a greater depth of fear. Other workers who reported deeper fear were those who have been injured in the past 12 months, those exposed to more hazards in the workplace and, surprisingly, union members.

We conducted a linear regression on the significant variables to try to map out a model. The results found that union membership, part-time employment and job tenure were all fully mediated by other factors.

So that leaves us with four significant characteristics: number of hazards exposed to, experience of workplace injury, visible minority and young workers.

It is likely unsurprising to this room that young workers and visible minorities feel greater levels of fear. In the workplace they can be more vulnerable to employer intimidation and are more likely to be found in jobs where employment rights are not respected.

More work is required to unpack the link between unsafe working conditions (and injury) to fear, but we can speculate that jobs where basic safety precautions are not taken – leading both to more exposure and more injury – will be workplaces where the employer is less concerned with their employees’ rights. Injury and hazard exposure can be seen as a proxy for other factors – a theory that requires further research.

The final question we explored was to examine why workers don’t report injuries or refuse unsafe work.

Our study found that only 30% of serious injuries are reported to WCB, a finding the supports previous research into the topic. Further, when workers are faced with an unsafe work situation, only 33% refuse.

Workers report a wide range of reasons for not acting on their rights – fear is a significant factor, but not the only one.

For injuries, a majority report feeling the injury wasn’t serious enough but other common responses were not knowing they had a right to file a claim, not wanting to cause problems for employer and being pressured into not reporting. Many of these responses circle around notions of fear and can be argued as a different articulation of the same concern – not wanting to get on the wrong side of the employer.

Reasons for not refusing unsafe work are similar: not wanting to be a troublemaker, feeling no one would take it seriously anyway, pressure to keep working and not knowing about the right to refuse. Many workers also took steps themselves to fix the problem rather than report it. Again this suggests a widely held belief that exercising ones rights is ineffective and places a worker at risk in some fashion.

Again these results are consistent with similar studies into worker perceptions of their rights.

Our findings suggest three things to us.

First, the responses suggest that a significant portion of workers fear reprisal for exercising their basic employment rights. Possibly for good reason. The more vulnerable the worker is, the more deeply they feel that fear.

In a way that is not an unsurprising result, but it does offer us some quantitative evidence of what workers are thinking when making choices about how to exercise their rights.

Second, our study suggests that workers don’t really trust the employment law regime as it stands. They don’t, when push comes to shove, believe it will be there for them. The results are, understandably, complex but we don’t see any kind of expression of confidence that the government will come to workers’ defence when they need it. Instead what we find is that workers feel on their own and how confident they are about exercising their rights is dependent upon how vulnerable they are at work.

Finally, the study hints at the fact that maybe the employment rights regime has been poorly designed. It places a high degree of onus on employees to act to ensure their rights are respected. The enforcement regime is set up to address complaints. And that might be the problem.

It may be that the system, in practice, spends its energy helping workers who are most able to help themselves – those who don’t feel fear and so report transgressions. And as a result it might be missing the workers who need the government’s help the most.

The consequence is that government resources are directed to the wrong locations as officers investigate workplaces where workers are most able to defend themselves. Furthermore, the workers who need help the most are left unprotected by the enforcement system.

The system we have entrenched may, ironically, function to entrench the inequitable vulnerabilities found in the labour market.

The solutions are likely fairly complex, but definitely point to the need for more pro-active and targeted inspections by government officers. Selecting workplaces for inspection based upon the nature of the work and/or the make-up of the workforce. The limited examples of such enforcement in Alberta – such as TFWs – has proven to reveal widespread violations.

Finally our paper posits a more radical solution. We float the idea that governments should empower community groups and worker organizations to conduct workplace inspections and identify violations.

Workers health centres, immigrant agencies, etc. would have the power to enter workplaces and catalogue violations, reporting any findings to the government for enforcement. While this idea has never been tried it has the potential to greatly increase the number of eyes and ears keeping a watch on workers’ employment rights. An idea at least worth discussing further.

-- Jason Foster

Friday, June 8, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Welcome to the Boomtown

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Welcome to the Boomtown” by David & David. The song recounts the mid-80s excess found in Los Angeles and how a boomtown plays out for the rich and for the poor.

Alberta is no stranger to booms and busts and there is interesting research going on about how this affects labour. For example, foreign live-in caregivers (more commonly known as “nannies”) play an important role in the economy of Fort McMurray. Their often-grueling conditions of work allow their employers to meet the demands of their own employers.

Sara Dorow (from the U of A) and her colleagues have been studying this phenomenon. They note that the boom entails a cascading of social reproductive costs onto this vulnerable group. That is to say, the oil sands couldn’t function without these almost invisible workers managing home and hearth issues for workers. Yet these workers are often treated as disposable.

With the boom also comes the bust. Since 2014, Alberta has struggled economically. It appears that the worst of this recession is passing but the recovery is uneven.

For example, in a recent CBC article, U of C economist Trevor Tombe notes that the economic recovery Alberta is experiencing is evident in employment rates (which are bouncing back up. But as Tombe’s graph (below) shows, young men appear to be excluded from this recovery.

This pattern is understandable given that, in the past, young men could secure well paying jobs in the oil patch with not much more than a strong back. This employment strategy appears to no longer be as effective as it once was. One solution is to provide displaced workers with opportunities to return to school.

Ms. Cristina drives a 944
Satisfaction oozes from her pores
She keeps rings on her fingers

Marble on her floor, cocaine on her dresser
Bars on her doors, she keeps her back against the wall
She keeps her back against the wall

So I say, I say welcome, welcome to the Boomtown
Pick a habit, we got plenty to go around
Welcome, welcome to the Boomtown
All that money makes such a succulent sound
Welcome to the Boomtown

Handsome Kevin got a little off track
Took a year off of college and he never went back
Now he smokes too much, he's got a permanent hack

Deals dope out of Denny's, keeps a table in the back
He always listens to the ground
Always listens to the ground

So I say, I say welcome, welcome to the Boomtown
Pick a habit, we got plenty to go around
Welcome, welcome to the Boomtown
All that money makes such a succulent sound
Welcome to the Boomtown

Well, the ambulance arrived too late
I guess, she didn't want to wait

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Research: Media influences on worker perceptions of injury

Bring out your dead: Media influence on worker perceptions of injury
Canadian Association for Work and Labour Studies Conference
1 June 2018, Regina
Bob Barnetson, Jason Foster and Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull

What I’d like to talk to you about today is some research I’ve done with my colleagues Jason Foster and Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull. We recently conducted a survey of 2000 Alberta workers that, in part, explored their views on workplace injury.

This research was funded by the Government of Alberta’s OHS Futures Research Grant Program.

We were interested in workers’ views of injury because, over the past few years, several studies have found that Canadian newspapers profoundly mis-represent the frequency and type of workplace injuries that occur as well as which workers experience injuries.

Specifically, newspapers tend to over-report fatalities, they over-report injuries to men, they over-report dramatic injuries, and the over-report injuries in the construction, agriculture, and mining and petroleum industries.

Here’s an example. On the left, you have newspaper reports of workplace injuries in Canada from 2009 to 2014. It shows that 61.2% of reports addressed fatalities. On the right, you have WCB injury stats—which we acknowledge are not perfect stats—that show the fatalities comprise only 0.4% of all serious injuries.

This pattern is replicated in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and BC. It is also consistent in both daily papers (which tend to be urban-based) and weekly papers (which tend to be rural).

An important question this research raises is whether the over-reporting of dramatic injuries to blue-collar men affects the public’s perceptions of injury? If the answer is yes, this has public policy implications because it may negatively affect injury prevention efforts.

One conceptualization of the construction of reality is that we combine our experienced reality—which is our personal experiences and those of our friends and families—with the symbolic reality we’re exposed to—basically what we hear from social groups, institutions, and the media.

That information is combined in our heads to create a shared reality. In that model, the symbolic reality helps flesh out what we know from our personal experiences. Symbolic information containing significant bias might well skew our eventual views on an issue. At the same time, our personal experiences may potentially act as correctives to such bias.

Our suspicion was (and is) that reporting that contains profound biases would skew individual’s perceptions and that their personal experiences might not act as an effective corrective.

To get a sense of whether our hunch was right (and thus warranted further research), we added four questions to an unrelated survey of 2000 non-managerial Alberta workers in the spring of 2017. These questions were designed to determine the degree to which workers’ views aligned with or diverged from media reports. We also queried workers’ gender and personal experiences of workplace injury to see if those experiences had any effect on their answers.

The upshot was that (1) respondents’ views of injury broadly conformed to media representations and (2) the answers of respondents who had experienced injury in the past year were no different from those of workers who had no personal experience of injury.

We started by asking respondents to estimate the number of serious injuries in Alberta—disabling injuries in WCB terminology. We asked this because newspapers report only a tiny minority of all serious injuries.

While it isn’t possible to ascertain the exact number of newspaper articles published about workplace injuries each year, it is possible to locate all that articles that daily and weekly newspapers submit for indexing with FPInfoTrax. In Alberta, that was on average 32 articles per year between 2009 and 2014. By contrast, in 2016, there were 44,543 serious injuries in Alberta.

What we found was that 97.6% of respondents under-estimated the number of serious injuries, most vastly so. On average, respondents estimated there were 5,545 injuries annually (which is about 11 or 12% of the official number) and almost no one estimated higher than 20,000 injuries.

Personal experience of injury had no significant impact on worker estimates.

We also asked respondents to estimate the ratio of fatalities to serious injuries. We asked about this because newspapers tend to over-report fatalities. The official ratio of was 1 fatality for every 384 serious injuries in Alberta. By contrast, newspapers report three fatalities for every serious injury.

What we found was that the vast majority of respondents over-estimated the ratio of fatalities to serious injuries. Respondents’ average estimate was 1:44.

Again, personal experience of injury had no significant impact on worker estimates.

Our third question asked respondents to select from a list of 9 industry groupings the 3 most injurious industries. We asked this because newspaper coverage centres on industries with relatively low injury rates.

There was significant agreement among respondents (right-hand column) about the most dangerous industries: 91% selected construction, 72% selected mining and petroleum development, and 65% selected agriculture and forestry.

These were the exact same industries that newspapers reported on the most and almost in the same order.

However, the industries with the highest disabling injury rates in Alberta (left-hand column) were entirely different from those selected by respondents and reported on by newspapers. Again, there was no significant difference in the responses between workers who were injured and those who weren’t.

Overall, what these three questions suggest is that workers’ views of injury tended to align with newspaper reports and diverge from the realities of workplace injury. And there was also no evidence that workers’ personal experiences with injury served as any sort of corrective.

The only exception we found to this pattern was in the fourth question, where we asked respondents what proportion of all serious injuries were experienced by women. The correct answer in Alberta was 32.7%.

Overall, the mean answer given by respondents was pretty much bang on the money (33.8%) and men and women were about equally accurate in their estimates.

When you disaggregate the respondents’ answers a bit more nuance appears. Only about 17% of respondents estimated the correct percentage (+/-5%). Inaccurate estimates were split evenly between estimating too high and too low.

While respondents weren’t particularly good at estimating the correct percentage, they were more accurate than newspaper reports. Workers’ more accurate estimates may simply reflect that Alberta newspaper reports were so extremely skewed towards injuries to men (91.7%) that workers pretty much couldn’t help but be more accurate.

Our findings have three main implications.

The first is that workers’ views of workplace injury tend to align more closely with what the media says about workplace injury than with government injury data. Practically speaking, this means that workers’ views of injury frequency and the hazardousness of specific industries are wildly inaccurate.

The second is that workers’ individual experiences of injury appear to have no impact on their perceptions. This sits awkwardly with the usual assumptions about how we construct reality. One possible explanation for this seeming disconnect is that a workers’ personal experience of injury may not have any particular nexus with their estimates of the frequency of injury or the most hazardous industries. That is to say, workers may not generalize from their personal experiences when they consider the risk of injury.

If that is true, workers may then rely heavily on media reports (or some other source of information) to inform their perceptions of injury risk. We think some additional exploration of how workers conceptualize injury and formulate their views of risk would shed some light on that possibility.

Thirdly, that workers have inaccurate views about injury may have public policy implications around injury prevention. For example, if workers, who routinely experience or see workplace injuries, have an overly rosy picture of risk, are the views of the public, employers, and policymakers similarly inaccurate? If so, does this help explain the tendency for governments to underfund and disempower inspectors?

Again, we think some additional research might be fruitful here. Historically, Alberta politicians have tended to downplay the risk of injury, suggesting workplaces are safe and getting safer. It is less clear if the present government holds those views. It is also unclear what government health and safety bureaucrats actually think about injury. And there is simply very little data about public perceptions of workplace injury risk.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, June 1, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Solo: A Star Wars Story

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture examines the new movie Solo: A Star Wars Story. The film reveals the origins of the Han Solo character. This post contains some spoilers so you may want to stop reading if that bothers you.

The film introduces Solo as an orphan on the ship-building word of Correllia. Orphans are made to steal for criminal gangs in order to survive. This premise a very 19th-century, Dickensian feel to it.

Solo’s only way out is, ultimately, to join the Imperial Navy. Taking the king’s shilling was historically a common pathway out of poverty for lower-class British males

Solo eventually hooks up with a criminal gang but a botched heist puts him in a debt bondage to a bad guy. Relationships within the criminal gang (and between gangs) turn out to be very all-against-all and serve as a nice metaphor for the competitive individualism of capitalism.

Action eventually shifts to the mining planet of Kessel where slavery and ecological destruction are evident. While a heist is underway, Lando Calrissian’s robotic co-pilot triggers a slave revolt, which causes the destruction of the enterprise. It was interesting how quickly control slipped away from the mine’s operators.

More hi-jinx ensue and we eventually get to the climax of the story. Solo only manages to get out of the resulting jam he’s in by working collaboratively with others who are seeking to overthrown the corporatist fascism advanced by the Empire. Overall, some interesting commentary on labour and work in a galaxy far, far away.

-- Bob Barnetson