Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Is a general strike in the offing for Alberta?

I attended an information picket hosted by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) last Tuesday. This picket was one of many AUPE is hosting to voice its members’ opposition to Bill 9, which the government passed in order to break collective agreements and stall wage arbitrations for public-sector workers.

AUPE (and other unions) have been organizing pickets all summer. These pickets are designed to channel and publicize public-sector workers’ anger. They also normalize picketing and are useful in identifying and training a new cadre of union activists going into what will likely be a difficult period for unions (legislated wage rollbacks are expected this fall).

The tone on this picket line was notably chippier than the one I attended in July. There were lots of cars honking in support. The only negative feedback I saw was from one (of course) pickup driver. I didn’t catch what he shouted but the shouted response from several female healthcare workers was “I hope you never need anyone to wipe your ass in hospital!”

There were the usual rah-rah speeches. A notable departure from the usual talking points was made by AUPE President Guy Smith who said (and this is a slight paraphrase) these pickets are practice for a general strike because, if the government won't respect our rights and the courts won’t force them to, a general strike is our only option. As an aside, general strikes were the subject of a very interesting analysis by Organizing Work a few weeks back.

Union leaders have studiously avoided talking about an illegal strike in public until now. The Court of Appeal overturning the injunction against Bill 9 and the MacKinnon panel musing about legislated bargaining mandates, back-to-work legislation and the notwithstanding clause may have contributed to this change in tone. Essentially, if the government is set on denying workers any meaningful legal recourse when the government violates the Charter and breaks collective agreements, the only option (as Smith suggested) is to take to the streets.

An interesting question is whether this speech was a calculated warning shot designed to sober up the government, a emotionally driven response to a tough couple of weeks for the labour movement, or an honest communication to workers about where things are heading? I’m inclined to think there is a bit of all three explanations at work.

If you’ve ever crossed swords with him, you’ll know that Smith is passionate and can engage in some… errr… rhetorical excess when he gets pissed off. That’s not to say he isn’t savvy and calculating (he definitely is both those things). Indeed, he may be leveraging the apparent ineffectiveness of legal options as a way to pressure other labour leaders into taking a more aggressive stance than they might otherwise be inclined to.

His comments may also have beeb an effort to warn the government of the consequences of their intended course of action. Jason Kenney’s spat with Amnesty International (of all groups) this week suggests that this kind of warning is likely just going to amp up a government that is already demonstrably intemperate and thin-skinned. I presume Smith knows that. Perhaps Smith is making lemon-aide: there’s gonna be a fight, so its best to goad Kenney into (further) overplaying his hand because a boss who’s being a complete asshole is a great asset to unions.

And telling workers there’s going to be a fight (especially a sympathetic crowd like people who picket after work) is a good way to start inoculating workers against the fear and smear campaign the government will likely run in conjunction with any legislation. It’s also the honest and right thing to do.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Rethinking Alberta's essential services legislation

This post original appeared on the Parkland Institute blog.

In January 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that "[t]he right to strike is an essential part of a meaningful collective bargaining system" and effectively made blanket bans on public sector strikes unconstitutional. As was required of all provinces in the wake of the ruling, Alberta's then-New Democratic Party (NDP) government enacted legislation in 2016—Bill 4, An Act to Implement a Supreme Court Ruling Governing Essential Services—that granted most public-sector workers the right to strike as long as essential services were maintained.

Alberta's public sector unions were broadly supportive of this change, as the right to strike was expected to incentivize public sector employers to bargain more earnestly than they did when bans on public sector strikes were in place and disputes were resolved by arbitration. That this right to strike was subject to limits to maintain essential services was (at least publicly) described as a fair trade-off.

During the 2019 provincial election, the United Conservative Party (UCP) promised a raft of changes to provincial labour law, including replacing the portion of the current essential services provisions that bars the hiring of replacement workers when there is an essential services agreement (ESA) in effect. The UCP's expected amendments to Alberta’s labour laws to provide an opportunity to reconsider how to best reconcile workers' right to strike with protection of the public interest.

Interests during work stoppages

A work stoppage—either a strike or lockout—is a contest between a union and an employer. Each side applies economic pressure to the other in the hope of achieving a more favourable settlement than it could otherwise negotiate.

Unions apply pressure mainly by denying the employer their members' labour. In the case of a private-sector employers, a strike is effective by reducing the profits of the employer. By contrast, a strike generates political pressure on public sector employers because they are unable to deliver the services they are mandated to provide. In both cases unions generally want as many of their members to be on strike as possible to maximize the pressure on the employer.

The state has enacted labour laws that create significant procedural obstacles to work stoppages. These barriers, such as compulsory mediation, don't ban work stoppages but drag out the process and make it harder for unions to build support for strike action. While these laws formally apply to both unions and employers, in practice they weigh more heavily on unions.

For their part, employers use a variety of techniques to weaken a union's strike power, including hiring replacement workers (sometimes called "scabs"). Scabs allow the employer to keep operating (to some degree) while the striking workers go without a salary. The only limit on the use of scabs in Alberta is a ban on using replacement workers when an ESA is in place.
Alberta’s essential services legislation

Bill 4, An Act to Implement a Supreme Court Ruling Governing Essential Services amended the Labour Relations Code and Public Sector Employee Relations Act. The key changes were:
  • The default dispute-resolution process when public sector bargaining reaches impasse became strike-lockout (excepting firefighters and police officers, who continued to use mandatory arbitration).
  • Where employees performed essential services, an ESA had to be negotiated before the parties could access mediation, hold a strike vote or lockout poll, or commence a work stoppage. An essential service was defined as one where (1) the cessation of the service would endanger the life, health or safety of the public, or (2) the service is necessary to maintain the rule of law or public security.
  • ESAs are negotiated between the union and employer under the oversight of a commissioner appointed by the government. The parties may engage the services of an umpire to assist them in settling the terms an ESA.
Once an ESA is in place, the employer is prohibited from hiring (or otherwise acquiring the services of) replacement workers during any work stoppage. If an employer is deemed to provide no essential services then there is no prohibition on hiring scabs.

Unlike the other procedural requirements that must be met before a work stoppage can begin, essential services legislation is not formally even-handed. Rather, it is designed to diminish the effectiveness of a strike (and thus the union's leverage) in order to protect the public, which would be harmed if hospitals suddenly closed or the water went off. In contrast, the only part of the existing essential services legislation that in any way diminishes employer's leverage is the ban on using scabs. As previously mentioned, the UCP has promised to repeal this ban on hiring replacement workers.

ESA effects on interests

Alberta's current essential services legislation is far from perfect and appears to have created unexpected and sometimes perverse outcomes. In some cases, the legislation incentivizes employers to seek to evade their obligation to protect the public interest in order to increase their bargaining power, and in some cases effectively renders moot workers' right to strike.

Consider public sector employers that provide relatively few essential services, such as post-secondary institutions. The replacement-worker ban incentivizes these employers to try to avoid negotiating an ESA so the employer can use scabs to undercut the unions' strike power. To the degree that these employers can and do evade an ESA, this incentive undermines the protection of the public interest.

There are, of course, checks and balances in this system. An employer that wants to avoid an ESA must convince the Essential Services Commissioner that the employer provides no essential services. This sounds like a good system, but practically speaking the only way the commissioner would know if the employer was lying is if the union opposed the application. If the union decided not to fight for an ESA, employers could gain an exemption.

A union might choose to not fight for an ESA because such a fight delays the union's ability to move into a strike position. Some public sector employers have been very successful in drawing out ESA negotiations for months by rejecting the need for an ESA or by delaying the disclosure of information necessary to negotiate the ESA. Stalling the conclusion of an ESA undermines workers' right to strike, which is already delayed by other legislative requirements, and can sap a union's capacity to strike. In the meantime, the employer continues operations and the workers do without whatever concessions they were seeking in bargaining.

That unions might not choose to fight for an ESA is a real risk. After six months of employer stalling, my own union had to decide whether we should put the public interest (i.e., advocating for an ESA) ahead of our members' economic interests (i.e., getting to a strike position as quickly as possible). In the end, we decided to protect the public, in part because we also benefited from the scab ban, but that decision could easily have gone the other way.

ESAs and illegal strikes

The ability of employers to delay the negotiation of an ESA also heightens the risk that workers will engage in illegal work stoppages. This is a very real risk in the health- and seniors-care systems, where workers provide many services that are essential. In these workplaces, the essential services legislation incentivizes employers to seek to have virtually the whole workforce deemed essential.

For example, consider a long-term care facility where 85 or 90% of the services have been deemed essential. The tiny fraction of union members who can legally strike can walk the picket line eight hours a day, week after week, in fair weather or foul, but this strike has little chance to succeed because business basically continues as normal. This dynamic undermines the public-policy objective of protecting workers' constitutional right to strike by allowing them only a meaningless strike.

In some ESA negotiations in seniors care facilities, employers have actually argued for a level of staffing during a work stoppage that is higher than the level of staffing with which the employer normally operates. Attempting to find the true level of staffing required to maintain essential services has proven to be an nearly insurmountable problem. Often, whether a task or a job is an essential service is not clear, and employers—who hold most of the information—have an incentive to shade this information. Umpires can be reluctant to rule against employers because the risk of being wrong is that someone could die as a result.

The patience of union members is not endless, and at some point the workers will simply (albeit illegally) walk out. Illegal (or "wildcat") strikes are profoundly disruptive and can bring about the disruption of truly essential services that ESAs are specifically designed to prevent. In these cases, the ESA process itself also undermines the public policy goal of protecting the public. While unions face severe financial penalties for wildcat strikes, they may well turn a blind eye to pending wildcats because they know it may be the most effective to resolve a bargaining impasse.

Analysis and options for reform

Overall, Alberta's experience with ESAs suggests they significantly impede workers' constitutional right to strike. So why did the worker-friendly NDP government enact legislation like this? The answer is likely that the government had to respond to the 2015 Supreme Court ruling while trying to balance the interests of workers and the public. Essential services legislation offers a widely accepted (if ineffective) way to do this. It also creates further barriers to effective and legal public sector strikes—which was in the NDP's interest while in government.

The UCP’s election promise to eliminate the replacement worker ban will have three effects:
  1. For employers with few essential services, eliminating the scab ban eliminates one incentive for employers to resist an ESA. Employers may still stall negotiation to delay job action.
  2. For employers with many essential services, eliminating the scab ban has no effect on the incentive to seek an overly inclusive ESA or stall negotiation to delay job action.
  3. For unions, the removal of the scab ban further undercuts their ability to mount a meaningful strike by giving employers the power to hire replacement workers in addition to being able to stall strikes and negotiate overly expansive ESAs.
The key problem with the current approach is that the process incorrectly assumes that both parties will put the public interest before their respective self-interests. In doing so, it simply creates another venue for employer-union conflict.

Assuming the UCP government follows through on its promise to eliminate the ban on scabs, workers may be better off with an alternative approach to protecting the public interest. For example, employers might be granted a fixed window of time during which they must develop a plan by which to maintain essential services. After this time period has passed, all union members can go on strike or be locked out (assuming the other legislative requirements for a work stoppage are met). This approach ensures the public interest is protected while minimally impairing the ability of public sector workers to exercise their constitutional right to strike. It does this by placing responsibility for maintaining essential services where it belongs: on public sector employers. The employer is best positioned to know what services are truly essential, and the employer can make whatever arrangements are necessary to protect the health, safety, and life of the public, as well as maintain public order.

This might include redeploying managers, hiring replacement workers, and/or negotiating some sort of voluntary and partial coverage with the union. The cost of such arrangements may also incentivize some employers to actually negotiate in good faith (thus reducing the risk of a work stoppage).

While workers would face no onerous legal restrictions on their right to strike, the strike power of unions would remain constrained by:
  • some union members crossing their own union's picket line,
  • employers aggressively planning to maintain services, and
  • public sympathy for strikes waning over time as inconvenience mounts.
The thorniest question about this proposal from the government's perspective is how it can ensure the public interest is protected against an incompetent employer. The government can doubtlessly find ways to require planning and penalize incompetence in the civil service as well as among public sector agencies, boards, and commissions. Should a true threat to public safety arise, it can be dealt with under the public emergency provisions of the Labour Relations Code.

From the perspective of workers, the greatest risk of this proposal is that the government will collude with public sector employers to misuse the public emergency provisions of the Labour Relations Code in order to prevent effective strikes. For example, an employer might make no preparations and the government would then be "forced" to use public emergency (or other) provisions to stall job action. The only check against this sort of collusion is the potential for wildcat strikes. While the state can use the legal system to sanction illegal strikes, if workers and unions are willing to bear the sanctions that result, then the harm caused by the strike continues.

It is very unlikely that the UCP will make such a fundamental change to the essential services regime. This reflects that, like the NDP government that preceded it, the UCP government will benefit from the barrier to effective and legal public sector strikes created by the existing ESA provisions. Instead, the UCP is likely to simply remove the replacement worker ban when an ESA is in place, which will further tip the playing field in favour of the employer (i.e., the government) by delaying job action and undermining workers' strike power.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Walter's Mine Disaster, 1907

This summer, I took a cemetery walking tour with my wife (after 20 years, finding new things to do for date night is a challenge!). This year we toured the Mount Pleasant cemetery I south Edmonton and we ran across this monument to workers killed in a mining incident in 1907.

Mining deaths were common at the turn of the last century. The 1910 Coal Creek and 1914 Hillcrest Mining disasters jump to mind. There is a nice song about the Hillcrest Disaster:

While Edmonton’s river valley is presently mostly known as a recreational space, 100 years ago, it was an industrial hub, hosting small coal mines (200 by one count), lumber mills, and brick yards. The present Mill Creek Ravine walking path is actually an old rail bed used to bring products up from the valley to the main line.

I hadn’t heard about this mining incident, which apparently occurred on the south side of the river, near the present-day High Level Bridge. After some googling, I found an interesting piece by the EdmontonJournal about it.

An interesting aspect of the article (which mostly focuses on the human tragedy angle) is this discussion of root cause:
A fatality inquiry found the men had died of smoke and gases released by the fire. The cause of the fire was unknown but it was suspected to have started in the engine house, where a light that was always on ignited oil rags. 
The inquiry’s jury censured the Strathcona Coal Company for not sinking another air shaft in the mine as required by the province. 
They also censured the provincial inspector for not insisting the other shaft be built. 
The jury recommended that the government require all mines that employ men underground to hire an outside watchman and expressed regret that the City of Strathcona had not responded to an earlier request from the fire chief for a hose wagon and necessary equipment.
So we have both a proximate cause (oily rags ignite) and root causes (company stored rags near ignition source, company did not monitor for fire at night or sink an extra air shaft, government looked the other way). It’s sad that this broad pattern of events remains a common one in occupational injury today.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, August 29, 2019

In Search of Professor Precarious fundraiser

Sessionals at MacEwan University celebrate winning greater rights.
A documentary film about precarious employment in post-secondary education has just launched a crowdfunding campaign.

In Search of Professor Precarious will take viewers into the lives of contract faculty, and tells their compelling stories. 

The film includes interviews with precarious contract faculty, permanent faculty, students, administrators, activists and experts. It also shows artists in action, an outdoor biology class on the shores of Nova Scotia, and the biggest higher education strike in Canadian history unfold.

The film makers have received support from National Film Board, unions OPSEU, CUPE and CUPE 3911, associations CAFA, FPSE, and ACIFA and faculty associations ULFA, AASUA and APTUO. They are seeking an additional $15,000 in donations to finish the film and cover the costs of both post-production (e.g., editing, sound mix, music) and develop promotional material.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Alberta Labour's 2018/19 Annual Report

A few months back, the Ministry of Labour’s 2018/19 annual report was released. This report represents the best window we have into the government’s work on making Alberta workplaces fair, safe and healthy be enforcing the labour laws enacted by government.

It is often difficult to track the resources the government devotes to enforcement of its labour laws. The annual report notes that 32 new employment standards staff were hired in 2018 as were 17 new occupational health and safety officers in March of 2019. Bo overall totals were provided.

Employment Standards

There was an 8% increase in employment standards complaints and a 24% increase in cases resolved. The result include net drops in the average delay in investigation (to only 90 days), resolution (to 155 days), complaints resolved within 180 days, and in the backlogged queue of complaints. And 64% of claims of less than $1500 in stolen wages were resolved through an immediate demand letter being sent. This is an impressive improvemet=nt.

The number of anonymous tips nearly doubled in 2018/18. The number of proactive inspections rose a bit, but is still below 2016/17 levels.

Overall, there seem to be some positive developments (I would guess related to additional staff resources being available). But, on average, workers are still going to wait 3 months before employment standards will even start the investigation. Missing from the report is an assessment of what percentage of stolen wages were recovered.

Occupational Health and Safety

There was about a 10% drop in OHS inspections when compared to the previous year but a huge increase (almost 50%) in orders written. There were also 479 tickets issued (157 to employers, the rest to employees). Fourteen employers also got hit with administrative penalties of up to $7500. No comparator data was provided.

Charges filed against employers for violations were down (16 cases this year versus 26 the previous year). Overall fines issues as a result of prosecution also fell from $4.18m to $2.16m).

There were 773 OHS complaints about harassment or violence at work (reflecting new provisions that came into force in 2018). There were also 52 complaints that workers had been discriminated against for exercising their OHS rights, of which 12 were upheld (some may still be pending).


Some bad news here with injury rates on the rise.

The lost-time claim rate is up again with 1.46 LTCs per 100 person years worked. The target is 1.15.

The disabling injury rate is also up again, with 2.71 DIs per 100 person years worked. The target is 2.19. The overall person years worked was not provided so we can’t calculate how many injuries this actually is. This kind of slight of hand obscures the actual performance of the OHS system. 

At a guess (using 2017 data), I’d say there were about 28,000 accepted-lost time claims and 52,000 accepted disabling injury claims. These estimates exclude all unreported claims (maybe 70% of these injuries go un-reported). The key points being (1) there are a lot of injuries which (2) suggests the injury-prevention system remains a failure, something that (3) the government hides using measures like claims rates. None of that is new, it is just disappointing that four years of progressive government had basically zero impact.

There were 126 accepted fatalities in 2018, down from about 162 last year (no comparator provided). Fatalities are swingy so it is hard to know what explains this drop after several years of increases. It might reflect declining employment in dangerous industries? Or it might just be data noise.

Labour Relations

There were interesting changes in stats at the Alberta Labour Relations Board. The number of certification applications jumped for the second year in a row and have almost doubled since card check certification provisions were added.

There were aso 14 applications for first contract arbitrations. There was also a significant reduction in days lost to work stoppages. 

The report muses:
The low 2018 rate (measured per 1,000 employees) may have been influenced by legislative amendments in recent years that requires nearly 300 collective bargaining relationships to meet essential services requirements before a strike or lockout can legally occur. In no case did collective bargaining between parties affected by essential services enter formal mediation, which is mandatory before parties can get to a strike or lockout position. New first contract arbitration may also have diverted some disputes away from strikes and lockouts. (p.42).
I would agree with this analysis.


There were some notable improvements in performance over pervious years, specifically in the processing of Employment Standards complaints. This likely reflects the allocation of additional resources by the former New Democratic government. Overall ES performance is still not great (in that workers must often wait months for stolen wages). The absence of data on overall reclamation rates (wages owed versus recovered) suggests the results are poor.

OHS performance was a mixed bag. Fewer inspections, fewer prosecutions, and lower fines versus more orders. The increase in both the number of injuries and injury rates suggests there is much more to be done here. Resources likely remain a key issue, with hirings occurring at the end of the reporting year. A question for both OHS and ES is whether staffing levels will be maintained under the UCP government. I would bet numbers decline through attrition and a hiring freeze.

On the labour relations front, there are two main findings. First, card-check certification appears to be having the predicted effect (more certification applications). The UCP government is expected to eliminate card-check certification which, de facto, creates more opportunities for employers to illegally interfere in workers’ choice about whether to unionize or not. These numbers will likely decline next year and then sharply the year after.

Second, there is some indication that the essential services legislation enacted by the NDs in order to protect the public interest while giving public-sector workers the right to strike has (at least temporarily) actually retarded the ability of workers to strike. An interesting question is whether this was an accidental or intentional outcome of the ND's legislation.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

More OHS violations at Athabasca University

Last week, I wrote about Athabasca University’s awful new OHS training. One positive outcome of staff outrage about the training is that they are now talking openly about AU’s hypocrisy around preaching workplace safety while not taking any action on it.

For example, I recently received a bunch of photos of a tripping hazard in the library that has gone unremediated for more than a year despite repeated complaints.

The library has a set of moveable book shelves. These save space by eliminating the need for permanent aisles between the stacks. When you need a book, you crank open space between two stacks and go get it (you can see the crank system in the picture above).

The shelves travel on metal rails embedded in the floor. The rest of the floor is carpeted. The carpet has been pulling up where it abuts the rails, creating a tripping hazard (see above). In a likely related phenomenon, elsewhere the carpeting is buckling (because it is too loose), which also creates a tripping hazard (see below).

This has been a long-term issue that staff flagged for action in the summer of 2018. While it is easy to dismiss things like tripping hazards as no big deal, falls account for about 20% of serious injuries in Alberta. The vast majority of these injuries are caused by falls on the same level. These are all caused by tripping hazards and are virtually all preventable.

Initially, AU’s response was to promise to glue the carpet down. Because the carpet was normally under the stacks, this could be done only one piece at a time. Because of the smell from the glue, the plan was to do it late on Fridays over a series of weeks so the smell could dissipate over the weekend.

This was a good response. Unfortunately, after a single section was fixed, work stopped for reasons unknown (possibly because the glue didn't work). Shortly thereafter, the lifted sections were duct taped down.

This hazard control strategy is likely not compliant with s. 9 of the OHS Code which requires employers to eliminate the hazard (rather than just slap a quick fix on). Not surprisingly, duct tape was not an effective fix and has since lifted.

Staff again raised the issue in November of 2018 but there was no further action. Fast forward t this year when a staff member almost tripped. This reflects that, when going into the stacks to retrieve a book, one’s eyes are on the books, not the floor. Another complaint was lodged. Facilities was notified but, other than the (bizarre) placement of an orange traffic cone (???), no further remediation has occurred.

This lame response to a well known and identified hazard is contrary to AU’s obligations under the OHS Act. How this hazard hasn't been identified in the required quarterly walk-around inspections of the worksite by the Joint OHS Committee is unclear. The likely answer is that the inspections aren't happening as required by s.197 of the OHS Code.

The OHS Act requires workers report hazards (done!) and then:
3(1) Every employer shall ensure, as far as it is reasonably practicable for the employer to do so, 
(f) that health and safety concerns raised by workers, supervisors, self-employed persons and the joint work site health and safety committee or health and safety representative are resolved in a timely manner, and 
Pretty clearly, AU has (once again) failed to meet its obligations under the OHS Act. So what are workers to do?

Well, they could complain again. Since multiple complaints have yielded no meaningful action, that is probably useless. This dynamic (complaints being ineffective resulting in fewer complaints) is actually a well established phenomenon in the study of employment rights. It reflects that workers aren’t stupid and can accurately calculate whether filing complaints are worth their time.

The staff could also refuse unsafe work, as is their right under the Act. Workers are often fearful that exercising their OHS rights will result in (illegal) retaliation. A 2016 study of 2000 Alberta workers found that, of the workers who faced unsafe work, only one third refused the unsafe work.

When non-refusers were ask why the didn’t refuse:
32% of non-refusers indicated they did not want to be known as a troublemaker and 14% indicated they specifically feared punishment for refusing unsafe work. Supervisor and coworker pressure to keep working was cited by 16% and 14% of non-refusers, respectively (p. 8).
When refusers were asked about their experiences of refusing, only 23.8% said the employer made the work safer. Again we see the rational calculation by workers: refusals entail significant risk and have a low prospect of success.

Not surprisingly, AU workers have not (yet) refused this unsafe work. An organized, group refusal would probably be the most effective approach here. If the group held firm, work would stop and an OHS officer would need o attend the worksite.

A less risky option would be for an employee to anonymously phone (1-866-415-8690) the government’s OHS inspectors or fill out an online complaint and report the noncompliance with the Act. This will generate a site visit (eventually), a compliance order and, several months from now, maybe even a remedy. A work refusal would likely get faster results.

I would guess the most likely outcome will be that workers will take no action, try to be careful and avoid the hazard, and, eventually, someone will get hurt. This reflects that there is very littletrust in senior administration at AU, particularly around health and safety issues (and for good reason).

The odds that AU will take action to remedy the hazard (e.g., call a carpet installer to fucking fix the problem or replace the flooring) is pretty slim. That’s a pretty sad state of affairs, but there you go.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Athabasca U's new worker safety training is terrible

On June 1, 2018, changes to Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Act took effect. A key change was the requirement for employers with 20 or more workers to have an OHS program. The OHS program must include a safety orientation and training for workers (s.37(1)(g)).

The content of this training is not specified beyond the requirement in ss.3(1)(b) and 3(2) that workers must be aware of their rights and duties and of any health and safety issues arising from the work being conducted.

Athabasca University failed to comply with this training requirement and received a compliance order in late 2018. In late July of 2019 (i.e., 14 months late), the university rolled out its new OHS training. Basically, AU bought access to an online self-paced training product and demanded all employees complete it within 10 days.

Hilariously, the rollout by HR looked like a phishing attack. So, as they’ve been trained, many staff deleted the email unread, and IT immediately blocked access to the website. But at least we know the IT security training is working!

When things eventually shook out, I took the training offered by AU. It is basically a online powerpoint with 118 screens, a few simple activities, and a 10-question multiple-choice test at the end. It took me about 20 minutes to read everything and complete the test (10/10!).

There are numerous shortcomings with this training. Most obviously, this training lacks any applicability to most AU employees, with lengthy sections early on about due diligence (an employer topic, focused on reducing liability for injury) and hand tools and machinery (relevant to about 3 employees). Providing clearly irrelevant training is a sure-fire way to trigger learner disengagement. You’d think this is a dynamic Canada’s leader in distance education might be aware of.

Not surprisingly, I have heard multiple reports of people getting fed up and clicking through the slides as fast as possible and just doing the activities and tests based upon common sense. Given the generic and largely irrelevant nature of the content, I don’t imagine AU cares about this. This training is clearly about making AU minimally (and finally!) compliant with the OHS Act, rather than actually improving safety or giving workers useful information or skills.

There are several places where the training clearly blames the workers for injuries and prescribes injury-prevention techniques that completely ignore the root cause of injury and the hierarchy of controls. For example, the slide below (used under fair dealing provisions) notes that equipment can cause hand injuries but the most common cause is employee error (boredom, inattentiveness, distraction).

While it is easy to identify the proximate (i.e., immediate) cause of injury, to reduce injury we have to look at the root cause. Specifically, why are employees bored, distracted or inattentive? The answer here is found in the way the employer has designed the job to make it boring, overwhelming, or disengaging. But fixing the root cause (i.e., eliminating the hazard by designing better jobs) is way harder and more expensive than simply blaming the employees.

The training then goes on to say cuts and lacerations are among the most common injuries. “This is even true of secretaries, who can be cut by paper edges and punctured by staplers, scissors and thumbtacks.” Setting aside the anachronistic term for administrative assistants, suggesting “even secretaries” can get hurt is deeply insulting.

Administrative staff are some of the most at-risk for injuries due to the repetitive nature of their work (e.g., RSIs and other ergonomic-related injuries) and their relative lack of power (e.g., leading to harassment by coworkers). This part of the training was profoundly tone deaf to the realities of Athabasca University.

The training contains a number of elements that several staff have found objectionable. For example, the slide below shows a man forcing a female to photocopy her face (I think—that’s the consensus, anyways).

This is (1) a ridiculous example of violence that (2) both obscures and trivializes actual forms of harassment and violence faced by AU employees and that (3) several workers have found extremely triggering. Is this seriously the best imagery that a professional training organization could come up with?

Similarly, the section on workplace violence is headlined by this image:

Now, I expect that many AU employees have idly fantasized about doing this. But it is not representative of the actual issues faced by AU employees. The most likely kind of violence at AU is verbal and directed at front-line and support staff (who are mostly women). I’m not suggesting that physical violence should be ignored or that women can’t act violently. The point is that this cartoonish representation of violence trivializes the issue by showing us an uncommon and frankly unlikely example.

The training does touch on the issue of working alone, which is important, as half of AU 1100 employees work from home offices. It recommends some sort of check-in procedure. Alberta’s OHS Code actually requires more than that when workers work by themselves and cannot be seen or heard by people capable of rendering help (which is the case for many AU home workers). AU is, in fact, probably in violation of this requirement. The irony of flagging working alone as a risk but AU doing nothing about it is not lost on home workers.

Moving on, the OHS Act requires employers to make employees aware of both their rights and obligations. There is a fair bit of information on employee obligations but only really two screens that deal with employee OHS rights. One lists the rights and the other briefly discusses how employees go about refusing unsafe work.

I expect this meets the minimal requirements under the Code, but it really does little to empower workers. That makes sense since employers generally don't want workers asking questions like “why is the fire hose missing?” The desire to keep workers subservient also likely explains why there is no mention of unions in the training.

The training ends with three slides addressing injury and return to work. The role of AU’s various unions in return to work (as set out in policy) is absent in the training. Further, the training mentioned requirements for communication set out in Bill C-99. I have no idea what is in reference to.

The only thing I could find was some 1996 legislation in Ontario (Bill 99, the Workers’ Compensation Reform Act). This has no application in Alberta or to Athabasca University (although recent changes to Alberta’s Workers’ Compensation Act may be relevant). You’d kinda think a professional training firm or AU’s own OHS staff might have caught such a basic error?

The activities and test in the training were insulting and poorly designed. Consider this activity to test whether trainees have understood the section on personal protective equipment (PPE):

Even if you have never taken any OHS training, surely you could figure out which piece of PPE is best way to protect your HAND when you handle a hot item. (Hint: it is not the boot). The question itself is deeply insulting: a grade 2 student could answer this correctly so asking adults to do it tells them that the trainer thinks they are morons. As a way to self-test workers’ knowledge, this activity provides only the most superficial indication of whether workers understand the requirement for and use of PPE.

Similarly, the test questions include things like:
  • True or false: you should check the back seat for creepy dudes before getting in your car. 
  • If the ladder is missing a rung you should: (a) fix with duct tape, (b) step-over the missing rung carefully, or (c) get it fixed.
  • True or false: It’s cool to climb up shelves if you can't find a ladder.
These questions provide (at best) a superficial assessment of worker knowledge about their rights and how to handle safety issues. Any rando at the mall could pass this test without ever having seen the training. And, indeed, that is basically what is happening with employees—people are ignoring the training because it sucks.

No one really benefits from superficial compliance with the law. Workers remain at risk and the employer will see disengagement continue to rise (negatively affecting productivity). The lousy training is just the latest issue in HR with OHS and return to work. It is probably time to clean house and bring in new staff.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Unions and the USS Enterprise

A friend passed me this 1977 song about organizing a union on the USS Enterprise (ST:TOS). The absence of unions in Star Trek (excepting one episode of Deep Space 9) is quite notable. This song moots how a Starfleet crew might be induced to organize and how this would affect ship operations.

Listen and I'll tell you a tale I've been told
Of a union organizer who knocked a starship cold They met where the stars are squattered thin out along the galactic rim And starfleet command is sorry that they ever ran into him Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man Now the ship was patrolling rim stars when she got a call for aid And up come a local convoy in a hurried grim parade Saying Captain we've caught a monster whose far much for us by far So take him and throw him into the heart of the nearest star Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man Just why do you need a whole convoy the Captain wished to know Three ships to guard the other less decrepit as we go Now the Captain was intrigued and he said stand by for scan But all that showed on the viewing screen was little ol'union man Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man The Captain said I can take him and he beamed the man aboard The convoy turned and raced away crying Thank the Lord Then the Captain looked him over asking just what's going on That they sent out half their trading fleet just to make sure you were gone. Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man The little old man just chuckled saying Captain don't you know My job is organizing wherever I may go And I can build a union out of anything you got And the folks that run that planet well they disliked that a lot Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man I first organized the laborers Then i unionized the clerks Then i unionized the robots that staffed the atomic works But when I organized the milk cows and led them out on strike Well you can guess what official reaction to that was like Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man Amazing said the Captain but you cant do that in here My crew are loyal navy men and we've no cause for fear But he heard the old man saying as he walked out the door Captain, yano, there have so been navy unions before Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man Well the Captain soon forgot him setting course for starbase five For all he saw the union man he might not ever of been alive Till a troubled ensign asked him 'is it true sir what they say? That we've got high hazard duty without high hazard pay?' Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man Well the Captain couldn't answer except to say its true Starfleet could pay you better but there's not much I can do But when he woke up next morning he found out what moral was like For the bridge was filled with pickets and the whole crew was on strike Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man Then the union man walked up and said I'm sorry to trouble you But your ship is now a job shop of the I-W-W-U We've sent our demands to Starfleet command and they said they'd grant us none So we're just gonna keep on sailing till this strike is won Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man Now further we've decided to run this co-op style Giving everyone experience at each others job awhile We like you too much to dump you at the first starbase we see But we bolted you to the galley and this weeks command to me Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man So somewhere down in the galley you'll find poor Captain Kirk Scrubbing away on dishes swearing it'll never work And Spock as he dries those dishes says 'It might succeed I fear' And please Sir while you're washing don't splash water in my ear Pull up your guns Run while you can Look out here comes the union man

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Athabasca U survey reveals lack of trust in senior executive

Earlier this spring, Athabasca University undertook an external survey of staff engagement. The results are below the industry average and entail significant skepticism about the trustworthiness of AU’s senior leadership. For those who didn’t attend the presentations in mid-July and don’t have an hour to spend watching the video, here is a quick summary.

The consultant making the presentation took pains to note that engagement differs from satisfaction. Engagement is intended to heightened workers’ emotional and intellectual connection with the employer in order to increase employees’ discretionary effort. I’m not sure openly seeking to manipulate workers’ behaviour is super motivating, but, hey, at least the consultant was honest about the intent.

The response rate was 55% (610 responses), which missed the goal of 80% and was lower than the 2014 response rate of 68%. The response rate does match the industry benchmark (public and private colleges and universities) of 54%. The consultant asserted that 45% non-response was likely not significant because the non-respondents’ answers likely mirror the respondents’ answers.

I suspect there is likely a systematic difference between those who filled out the survey and those who didn’t. And it probably centres on the respondents’ level of engagement. Surely such a difference that would be surely germane to the results of… an engagement survey. I suspect that a complete picture would add to the negative side of the ledger.

Overall, AU scored consistently below industry benchmarks on all dimensions of engagement. The bottom half of the figure below shows significant problems with communication, student focus, teamwork, and senior leadership. (Orange is bad throughout the figures.)

The consultant largely dismissed these negative scores as common issues (despite the deviation from the benchmarks) and not particularly relevant to driving engagement (key dimensions being professional growth, organizational vision and senior leadership). Setting aside the issue of whether engagement is a valid concept, from a common-sense perspective, these scores are bad news.

Questions specific to AU’s I-CARE values were asked. (Apologies for the murkiness of the screen grab.) The most interesting finding is that only 46% of respondents believe that AU executive behave in way that is consistent with the values that the executive created as part of its Imagine-ary strategic plan.

When asked about senior leadership (basically the university’s executive), only 39% of respondents believe that senior leaders act consistently (i.e., do as they say). This is 13% below the benchmark. And only 43% of staff have trust and confidence in the exec’s ability to achieve the goals of Athabasca University, 15% below benchmark.

Only half of respondents agreed the executive clearly communicates their goals, 5% below benchmark. Only 48% believed executive set ambitious but realistic goals, 10% below benchmark. The open-ended comments provided by respondents will not be shared with staff (even though historically such comments were shared). The consultant did note that a key demand expressed in the comments was for communication that was not so highly torqued by spin.

An example of this is the president’s bi-weekly email (“Neil’s Notes”), which is clich├ęd, saccharine, studiously avoids commenting on contentious (i.e., internally important) issues at the university, and sometimes borders on incomprehensible. After a year of trying to see value in it, Neil's Notes now goes directly to my junk folder.

Despite the endless communication from the university, there remain communication problems. For example, only 43% of respondents understand what needs to be done for AU to succeed in the long term. This is 10% below benchmark. 

There also appear to be issues around innovation. Only 40% of respondents agreed that there was a culture of innovation at AU, 16% below benchmark. Only 43% agreed that AU systematically adopts new and improved ways to work (17% below benchmark). 

Respondents also flagged concerns about limited professional growth opportunities. According to the consultant, low scores here often indicate disengagement (but not a 45% non-response rate?).

There are apparently significant differences between groups at AU but these differences will also not be provided to all staff. The results for the IT unit were presented to IT staff last Wednesday and were notably worse than the institutional average. This is surprising given that 20% of the unit comprises new hires who should not be jaded so soon.

The consultant confirmed that the recent and unpleasant round of faculty collective bargaining was on the minds of some respondents and likely contributed to the poor results.

Only the president and HR director get to see the written comments. The irony of telling staff to trust the senior exec to correctly interpret and act on comments collected on a survey where staff indicated they demonstrably don't trust the senior exec has not been lost on the staff I’ve spoken to about this. The father-knows-best vibe is playing poorly among workers, who are used to drawing their own conclusions about what information means.

This survey does help quantify the morale problem that is clearly evident to anyone who works inside AU. Given the effort made to improve AU’s culture by the current executive (which at this point seem to have degenerated to sloganeering about some imaginary “oneAU” and calling staff “AU team members”), this survey demonstrates the executive’s approach is not effective. 

A question that was not asked in the presentations was why the Board re-appointed the president before the Board received these results (or, indeed, even had the survey conducted)? When this was asked last fall, the answer was the president’s review had to be done quickly to meet government mandate for a new contract. Whether or not it is true, that explanation is being greeted with eye rolls and disbelief. This level of cynicism is the organizational equivalent of cancer.

Perhaps a rethink by the executive of their approach is in order over the summer? With all three unions likely in collective bargaining in the next 18 months and the slow drain of jobs from the Athabasca area continuing, morale and organizational effectiveness are unlikely to improve with a status quo approach.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Bargaining retrospective: AU Xmas Eve Massacre

Neil Fassina. Photo courtesy David Climenhaga
One of the more interesting episodes in the last round of bargaining between the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) and Athabasca University (AU) was a blow-up over AU giving its staff an extra half-day off on Christmas Eve.

This gift (putatively in recognition of staff’s hard work) violated the statutory freeze period on employers altering the terms and conditions of work that were in effect for AUFA members during collective bargaining. AU could have gotten around this bar by asking AUFA’s permission, but didn’t. (I can’t imagine AUFA rejecting a half day off, if asked.)

AUFA objected to the employer offering this sort of inducement during bargaining because this behaviour is against the law and because AUFA didn’t want to face estoppel arguments (i.e., you didn’t object last time) if the employer decided in the future to make other, less desirable amendments to the days of work. An exchange of letters followed.

In this exchange, AU threatened to withhold future time off because AUFA had complained:
Your letter has accordingly caused us to revisit the University’s practice in relation to providing this half-day to AUFA staff. We will be reconsidering whether we will be providing this time off in the future, or if we will require AUFA staff to work all of December 24th. We hope to avoid any future issues in relation to this or any similar practices.
The university’s president then sent an email to all staff (including workers represented by CUPE and AUPE) and included most (but not all) of the correspondence.

Because workers aren’t stupid, they immediately saw the president’s implicit threat of retaliation that I would summarize as “if you exercise your rights under the Labour Relations Code, we’ll make you work to the bitter end on Christmas Eve” (which has always been the practice anyhow).

This caused a small shit storm within (and between) the various unions. This was not unexpected. The reason for AUFA demanding AU not offer AUFA members inducements during bargaining without AUFA’s permission (i.e., it undercuts AUFA’s position as bargaining agent) is hard to see. By contrast, the threat of not receiving a half day off has an immediate and tangible effect on non-AUFA employees.

An explanation by AUFA partly calmed the waters. Interestingly, it also triggered a backlash against AU. The president’s email attempted to frame the issue as one of AUFA being unreasonable and uncivil:
AU is simply taken aback and disappointed by AUFA’s objection to the University closing early and enabling employees to leave work early on Christmas Eve to be with their loved ones. I am without words to describe the disappointment of being falsely accused of a union-rejection or anti-union strategy because the University closed early and sent employees home with full pay, on Christmas Eve.

In line with the University’s commitment to being open and transparent, I have attached copies of both AUFA’s formal complaint against AU and our response to that complaint.
That the president’s framing ignored the actual issue raised (i.e., AU violated the Labour Code and undermined AUFA) undercut the president’s credibility. His rather obvious misdirection also undercut his claim of being respectful and transparent.

Respect and transparency are party of the i-CARE values that the president has hung his hat on but keeps allowing his staff to violate. These values are now being openly referred to as the i-don't-CARE values (more on this in the coming weeks).

The divisive effect of his framing, the lack of an apology, and the timing of his missive (the day before bargaining and as it was about to reach impasse) was also noted.

There are a number of conclusions we can draw here:

1. Workers’ aren’t stupid. When provided with fulsome information, they draw reasonable conclusions. Half-assed attempts by an employer to “spin” problems away backfired. They helped solidify support for the bargaining team and further undermined the credibility of the employer. An earnest and fulsome apology would have been a far more effective way to resolve this issue. Maybe next time AU will follow the law?

2. Public-sector employers are touchy about negative press. A single, largely ignored blog post (referred to in the president’s email as “accusations raised in public forums”) triggered an ill-conceived over-reaction. This did nothing but confirm that bad press was a very effective lever for the union. The president has since complained he’s be subjected to cyber bullying. Given the actual bullying faced by staff on his watch, this claim has been greeted with eye rolls and faux sympathy.

3. The employer was also struggling to negotiate within the then-new rules of bargaining (such as being subject to the Labour Code). That the labour-relations staff in HR did not identify the half-day off as a prohibited practice is disappointing. That they responded to a complaint with a threat of retaliation is even more so. Neither of these things is surprising, however.

It will be interesting to see if AU has learned any of these lessons in the next round of collective bargaining, which will start (likely) in April).

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Why might Co-ops treat workers poorly?

One of the most consistently interesting blogs about work is Organizing Work. Over the past few months, they have posted a couple of related articles about co-ops and unions. Co-operatives (i.e., member-owned operations) often have a lot of street cred with progressives.

Historically, co-ops featured prominently in the Antigonish Movement and on the prairies, where workers sought to break the monopolies they faced as producers and consumers. Modern versions (e.g., Mountain Equipment Co-op, various credit unions) keep this model alive.

Yet not everything is peachy-keen in the co-op movement. For example, UFCW 1400 members engaged in a protracted strike with the Saskatoon Co-op over the winter to push back against two-tier wage scales (i.e., lower wages for new workers). After six months, UFCW members narrowly accepted a deal that includes a two-tier wage system.

Organizing Work undertook some analysis of the track record of grocery co-ops in the US and Canada to see if the Saskatoon dispute was an aberration or was symptomatic of a broader pattern of union busting and worker exploitation.

The article is a worth a read but the upshot is that coops often treat workers poorly and engage in union busting. In part, this reflects that co-ops are intended to benefit their consumer members, not their workers.

Grinding workers wages is one strategy to keep prices down. There is also some interesting analysis in the article of how three inter-related entities seem to be pushing a more corporate form of co-op management.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Unions & Sci-fi: Hunger Makes the Wolf

I recently finished two sci-fi westerns by Alex Wells in which a union made an appearance. Hunger Makes the Wolf (2017) and Blood Binds the Pack (2018) follow the adventures of Hob Ravani as she leads a group of outlaws (the Ghost Wolves) on the bone-dry corporate planet of Tenegewa.

Tenegewa is dominated by the TransRift Corporation (which controls interstellar travel). TransRift has established a number of corporate towns (both mining and farming), which harken back to Appalachia in the 1930s (or 1970s!).

The heavy-handed tactics of TransRift are sometimes collectively resisted by the miners, who might call a day of rest and thereby reduce production. Over the course of the two novels, the situation faced by the miners deteriorates and they become more militant.

While I don’t think they ever refer to themselves as a union, the miners employer a number of traditional labour tactics, including striking. They are also subjected to numerous traditional employer tactics, include infiltration, starvation, and violence.

Ravani’s bandits eventually work in collaboration with the miners to undermine TransRift and give the distant government a pretext for more involvement (there is a power struggle between the government and TransRift over space-travel technology).

Overall, the books do a decent job of portraying the process of organizing workers. I found the books a touch long but hung on to the end.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Superstore: Unions and Undocumented Workers

In late May, the TV show Superstore wrapped up another season. I’ve written about Superstore before because they had a very interesting union storyline a few years back as well as some hilarious staff training videos.

This finale had a three-episode story arc. Cloud 9’s corporate office grinds workers’ hours which leads store management to publish photos of the gross effects on store cleanliness in order to get more hours. This leads to a disciplinary investigation and the firing of a worker (meek weirdo Sandra). Sandra then becomes a union stalwart and starts organizing. Cloud 9 then targets the store for closure.

There are three really interesting moments in the final two episodes:

1. There is a depiction of a union organizing meeting. Although the meeting is played for laughs, this is the first mainstream depiction of a union organizing meeting that I can recall on TV.

2. During the meeting, one employee argues against organizing by highlighting how vulnerable the workers are and maybe they should just be happy with the pittance they have. This part of the meeting is played straight and it has the effect you would expect on the union drive.

3. A part of its union-busting, Cloud 9 contacts ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to raid its own store. This is expected to be disruptive to the workers’ solidarity as well as terrify them. This is where the episode takes a dark, dark turn for undocumented worker Mateo.

Interestingly, the ICE raid seems to solidify support for the union. We’ll have to wait until the fall to see how this plotline plays out. But this story line returns Superstore towards the kind of critical comedy that we saw in shows like Archie Bunker.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Edmonton Public Library flirts with cutting teens' wages

Alberta’s minimum wage for youth under 18 will be reduced tomorrow as part of a broad series of labour-law rollbacks enacted by the new United Conservative government. The short of it is that workers under 18 and enrolled in school will have a minimum wage of $13 per hour, instead of the $15 per hour earned by everyone else.

Some employers have publicly pledged to continuing paying youth the same wage as adults. Others are quietly rolling back wages. The first public case of a rollback was (oddly) the Edmonton Public Library.


The Edmonton Public Library (EPL) has a pretty good reputation as a library system and its staff provides wonderful services, often to vulnerable populations. The EPL also contributes to and is committed to important democratic principles such as intellectual freedom: “Intellectual Freedom protects your right to read, listen, write and speak your beliefs and opinions – and everyone has the right to have an opinion or hear an opinion on any topic. ”

EPL’s collective agreement with CSU 52 set the wages of its youth pages at the minimum wage plus an additional premium (between 15% and 25%). On June 10, the EPL emailed its youth ages to tell them that it would be reducing their wages between $2.30 and $2.50 an hour because the provincial government has reduced the youth minimum wage.

Staff were told verbally not to “gossip” about this wage rollback and to direct questions or concerns directly to management. This suggests the EPL’s commitment to intellectual freedom extends only to its customers, not its employees. Despite efforts to contain news of this rollback to within the library, word got around.

Timeline and Messaging

On June 12, when queried about the rollback, the library’s talking points were essentially these:
As some background, EPL employs youth workers under 18 as Student Pages in our libraries. These positions are unionized and their wages are outlined through a letter of understanding with Civic Service Union 52. 
The Government of Alberta has instituted a new youth minimum wage of $13 per hour for students under the age of 18. This will come into effect Wednesday, June 26 and our Student Pages will be affected by it. This is because rates of pay for a Student Page are tied to the minimum wage as established by the Government of Alberta.
In short, the library sought to place responsibility for the change on the government and on the EPL’s collective agreement with CSU 52. In these talking points, the EPL appears to lack agency or choice.

In the early hours of June 13, local blogger David Climenhaga published a sharp critique of the EPL, noting that the EPL could indeed negotiate a solution that precluded a wage cut. By 8 am, the library’s talking points had shifted:
I do wish to let you know though, that EPL is currently open for bargaining with Civic Service Union 52 and through negotiations will be discussing further.
This suggests that the EPL had some choice but things are still constrained by its bargaining relationship with CSU 52 (with which it was bargaining). At this point, criticism of the EPL began to pick up on twitter, with long-time library supporters expressing shock and disappointment. Traditional media also began to ask questions. After lunch, CSU 52 then made a chippy post (since removed) about its dismay with the EPL’s behaviour.

By the afternoon, the library had reversed course. A statement on the EPL website indicated, in part:
The Edmonton Public Library (EPL) would like to acknowledge feedback we’ve received regarding our Student Page positions and the impact of recently announced changes to student minimum wage rates in Alberta. As part of our Collective Agreement with Civic Service Union 52 (CSU 52), Student Page wages are based on a premium applied to the provincial minimum wage set by the Government of Alberta. 
EPL is proud to have ongoing roles specifically for high school students under the age of 18. We value our Student Pages as evidenced by our commitment to paying a premium over the minimum wage. 
EPL will begin bargaining with CSU 52 shortly to negotiate a new Collective Agreement. Generally, changes to language contained in the Collective Agreement are done through the bargaining process which involves EPL working collaboratively with CSU 52 to make any amendments. 
Fortunately, EPL has not implemented this proposed change, and after further discussion, EPL and CSU 52 have come to an agreement to maintain current Student Page wages rates until negotiation of the new Collective Agreement is complete. As a result, there will be no changes to Student Page wages at this time ($17.25 - $18.75 per hour). 
Thank you for voicing your opinions and asking us to find a solution.
In this set of messages, the EPL is still the victim of circumstance but is now also a responsive employer that values the workers whose wages it was going to cut.

CSU then replaced its critical post with one outlining how it cooperated with the library to resolve the issue. The EPL then went on a twitter offensive, individually pushing its resolution messaging out to everyone who made a critical comment. This generated mostly praise and relief, with a few tweets querying what the library had been thinking in the first place.


Although this case relies solely on public documents, there are some conclusions we can draw. These include:

1. Intentional decision: The partial paper trail that I have seen suggests this decision was both intentional and well enough thought through that there was plan to mitigate reputational harm. In light of this, it is reasonable to conclude that the EPL decided the benefits of reducing teens’ wages (e.g., cost savings, leverage over CSU 52 at the bargaining table) outweighed the costs of acting to maintain wages.

2. Pressure worked: Concerted public pushback caused the EPL to reverse its decision about reducing youth wages. The EPL may have been particularly sensitive to reputational harm because reputation is an important asset, particularly as the EPL tries to raise money to complete the renovation of the Milner library. Whether other employers are equally vulnerable to reputational harm is an open question.

3. Incremental response: The EPL’s response changed over the course of two days from defending the change to reversing it. I would suggest the mounting criticism among library patrons and supporters caused this (eventual) reversal. Absent continued criticism, I suspect the library would not have reversed its decision but instead would have tried to communicate the problem away.

4. Inconsistent messaging: The EPL’s messaging started out claiming the EPL had little agency (caught between the union and the government). By the end, the EPL had worked out a fix. This fix was available from the get go. What was missing was the political will to achieve it.

5. All smiles: Both the EPL and CSU 52 are now touting their agreement as a good news story and CSU has revised it public statement. This “nice-nice” behaviour elides the conflict they had during the dust up.

6. Organized labour's absence: Alberta’s unions were notable absent in this push back. To be fair, they were focused on opposing Bill 9, which attacks wage settlements. But unions are large organizations that can attend to multiple problems. This was a missed opportunity for labour to support a vulnerable and sympathetic group negatively affected by government policies. This “poster-child” dynamic is important. For example, the 1995 laundry workers strike in Calgary was an important turning point in blunting Ralph Klein’s enthusiasm for further wage rollback.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Labour politics and deflection

Last week, Alberta’s United Conservative government introduced legislation designed to suspend the arbitration of wage re-openers in most public-sector collective agreements. This move is widely expected to give the government time to cook up wage-freeze or wage-rollback legislation.

There’s good coverage and analysis of this decision elsewhere. One of the more interesting twitter exchanges about this that I saw centered on this tweet by the New Democratic opposition:

Astute observers immediately queried, if the NDs knew this was coming, why they didn’t lock-in wage increases for public-sector workers (who took two zeros) for subsequent years when they were in government. The NDs didn’t venture an answer, but I’ll take a stab at an explanation.

I see the explanation as having two parts. First, it was in the NDP’s political interest to not agree (either directly as the government or via the government’s agencies, boards and commissions) to any public-sector wage increases. The ND’s re-election strategy was to attract centrists (i.e., less icky conservatives) and that meant avoiding any appearance that the NDs supported maintaining the purchasing power of public-sector workers. Wage re-openers kicked that issue down the road and, in doing so, have made it marginally easier for the UCP to interfere in collective bargaining.

Second, there were no political consequences for the NDs to this strategy. If they won the election, arbitrators would likely give public-sector workers a 2%(ish) cost of living increase and the NDs could shrug and blame the arbitrators (“Arbitrators, AMIRITE?!?”). If the NDs lost the election, then whatever bad happens because of this strategy just becomes political fodder for them as opposition MLAs.

In theory, organized labour should be really pissed at the NDs about this realpolitik strategy, especially given that the unions all helped the NDs by going along with the mandated two-year wage freeze, instead of striking. (It is important to acknowledge that organized labour isn’t monolithic and some unions and activists chose a different path.)

But there is little chance of any public fight between labour and the NDs over this issue. The NDs presently represent the best electoral option for unions and workers. And the NDs and labour are tightly enmeshed, both obvious ways (e.g., individuals often holding positions in both camps or moving between them) and less obvious ways (e.g., the web of friendships among progressives).

Perhaps the lesson here is that relying mainly on electoral politics (especially communications based electoral politics) is a poor strategy for workers and unions. Channeling money into political action committees is certainly an easy path. And, when your party is in power, you get a few modest legislative changes. But, absent a mobilize block of voters and the will and ability to direct their support elsewhere, unions remain a very junior partner.

This approach allows the NDs to avoid important (to workers) legislative and policy changes while in office (e.g., cost of living increases, employment equity legislation, scab bans). And it means, when the NDs eventually get voted out, labour has little capacity to meaningfully resist Conservative efforts to repeal legislative improvements and tear up public-sector contracts.

-- Bob Barnetson