Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Day of mourning; Why do workers keep dying?

This past Sunday was the annual day of mourning for workers who were injured or killed on the job. The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees hosted a ceremony on Friday the 26th and asked me to say a few words.

One of the things we don’t usually talk about at the Day of Mourning is why these workers—our friends and partners and our parents and sometimes our children—died on the job.

We don’t talk about that because, maybe, it’s kind of gauche. Or it feels a bit disrespectful.

But we should talk about it. We should talk about why they died because that’s the starting point if we want to protect the living. So that next year we’re mourning fewer workers.

So why did 162 workers die—and tens of thousands of others get terribly hurt—on the job last year in Alberta? And why does that happen every year?

In part, it’s because our employers organize our work unsafely. Basically, they’re endangering us. They put hazards in our workplaces that they know can injure and kill us.

How many of you routinely face understaffing? So you have to handle a patient or a client or a prisoner or a project by yourself. When really there should be two or three of us doing that job.

In the private-sector, employers understaff to make a buck. It’s the profit imperative: their trading our health—and sometimes our lives—for money

In the public-sector, it’s a little different, right? We face understaffing because there is no political will to pay the true cost of public services. So the costs get offloaded to us. We see it in the form of wage freezes. And we see it in the form of hiring freezes.

Hiring freezes and understaffing that they create translates into injury and sometimes death for public-sector workers. In effect, our bosses and Alberta politicians they report to are trading our health to minimize public expenditures so they can cut taxes for corporations and for the wealthy,

Even more frustrating, the government let’s our employers injure us. The inspection cycle in Alberta workplaces is roughly once every 17 years---and that’s way better than it has been historically. And, despite hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries each year, the government prosecutes fewer than 20 employers each year.

So if you’re an employer thinking about ignoring safety rules because they’re a hassle or whatever your excuse is, you know there’s almost no chance you’re going to get caught. And if you do, there’s almost no chance of a consequence. You’re just gonna get told to follow the law.

And that an insane way to enforce laws that protect people’s lives. It doesn’t work and we have 162 examples of that here today. Maybe we figure that our fellow government workers—Alberta’s health and safety inspectors—are likely doing the best they can.

And, you know what, probably true. They are doing the best they are, given the circumstances. But what needs to change are those circumstances.

It needs to be unacceptable to injure and kill workers in Alberta. Not “oh, that’s too bad” unacceptable. It needs to be “well, you’re going to jail.”

So how do we get there?

We can start by demanding that every workplace gets inspected at least once every five years. It’s really the least the government can do.

We can demand inspection reports get publicized—just like food inspectors publish their inspection results—so we know which employers don’t care about our safety.

We can demand employers get fined for every violation that puts a worker in danger.

And we can demand that employers who injure and kill us go to jail.

These are the things we could do to prevent workers from dying in this next year.

Achieving those things requires concerted effort by workers. And it requires political courage—something that no Alberta politicians because we don’t take them to task for their cowardice. But we should.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

AUFA pickets Board Chair's place of business

This afternoon, 20 members and 4 allies of the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) picketed the place of business of Athabasca University (AU) Board of Governors (BoG) chair Vivian Manasc. This was AUFA’s third information picket. We had 12 first-time picketers, including one who said "Is it a little weird that this is the only time I get to meet my colleagues?"

The purpose this picket was to show AUFA members’ growing displeasure with AU’s foot dragging at the bargaining table and demonstrate that, should a work stoppage occur, it will be most unpleasant for individual BoG members. Passersby were handed leaflets outlining AUFA’s concerns.

The most interesting part of the picket was an interaction with a worker from Manasc Issac who, while walking through our picket line, volunteered that we should go picket the workplace of AU President Neil Fassina because he is the one who is calling the shots in bargaining. This is the first independent verification we’ve of our suspicion that Fassina is the architect of AU’s bargaining strategy. 

This picketed coincided with AUFA’s 20th (!) day of bargaining. AUFA’s most recent settlement proposal:
  • a two-year wage freeze,
  • a clear process by which long-serving term employees become permanent, and 
  • two further years of waged to be negotiated (and resolved by arbitration). 
This proposal is broadly consistent with other provincial settlements as well as the settlement recently reached between AU and its support staff.

Bargaining was halted after two hours this morning because the employer, who requested the additional session, had no meaningful proposal to make when AUFA got there.

The BoG bargaining team has stalled bargaining since last May. It delayed the exchange of proposals, it advanced unreasonable proposals (that it has since abandoned), and it has been unavailable to bargain for long periods of time. It has also stalled the negotiation of an essential services agreement (which is a pre-cursor to formal mediation) and has now stalled informal mediation until mid-June.

The next dates for bargaining appear to be June 17 and 18 with a mediator. AUFA will be hosting more picketing events between now and then.

AUFA appreciates representatives from CUPE 3911, the Edmonton and District Labour Council, and the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations who joined our picket line this afternoon.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

AUFA Info Picket in Athabasca

Yesterday, the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) hosted its first information picket in Athabasca to coincide with our 19th day of bargaining with the employer.

AUFA members are demanding a fair collective agreement on par with other public-sector agreements in Alberta. AUFA's proposal is currently a two-year wage freeze, improved job security for precarious members, and a two-year wage re-opener.

Athabasca University is presently offering two zeros. There is no reason for the university to not improve language for precarious faculty or agree to further negotiations for financial settlements in future years.

This year, the university recorded at $9m surplus and saw enrollment growth of 12%. The university also concluded a pattern agreement (two zeros, a re-opener, and small improvements) with its support staff only a few months ago.

There were 37 people on AUFA’s picket line, including 32 AUFA members (roughly 1/3 of our members in town). We were also joined by members of AUPE and CUPW.

Residents of Athabasca waved and honked in support. AUFA and the university are back in bargaining on April 23.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

UCP platform will drive down wages

This post original appears on the Parkland Institute blog on April 3, 2019.

(NOTE: On April 5, 2019, after this blog was originally published, the United Conservative Party amended its platform, including changes to overtime. The revised platform indicates that the UCP would: “Reverse the change in 2018 that eliminated the option for workers and employers to develop straight time banked hours arrangements (this has no impact on overtime pay).” (p.21). Essentially, the UCP is now proposing that banked OT could be taken as straight time off, instead of at 1.5 times (as is the case now). In this way, the revised UCP proposal reduces the time workers could take off by one-third. Under the amended policy overtime that is paid out instead of taken in lieu would still be paid out at 1.5.)

The United Conservative Party (UCP) election platform contains several planks affecting employment law, labour law, and training. These changes are framed as “bring balance back to Alberta’s labour laws, restore workplace democracy, and incentivize the creation of youth employment” (p. 21). The overall effect of the UCP platform is, however, to directly or indirectly reduce workers’ wages in order to benefit employers.

Employment Law

The UCP platform promises a number of changes to Alberta’s employment laws. Employment laws are the primary source of workplace rights for the 75% of Albertans who are not covered by a collective agreement.

The most significant change is related to over-time (OT) pay. At present, workers who are required to work more than 8 hours in a day or 44 hours in a week must receive 1.5 times their normal pay for this OT work. Over-time pay is designed to dis-incentivize employers from requiring long working hours (which create a fatigue hazard) and, instead, hire more workers.

The current OT rules allow employers and workers to enter into agreements where OT is “banked”. In practice, employers can impose such “agreements” at their discretion by denying workers OT if they don’t agree to the employer’s terms. Banked OT can then be taken as paid time off or as pay calculated at 1.5 times workers’ normal rate of pay. Employers can deny employees time off in lieu of pay, thus forcing workers to take a pay out.

The UCP indicates it will allow employers to pay out banked over-time hours at “straight” time, instead of at the OT rate. This will allow employers to evade OT premiums by denying worker requests to use banked OT. Instead, employers will be able to simply pay out the OT as straight time. The result will be a significant cost savings for employers, and a significant pay reduction for workers.

For example, a minimum-wage worker (earning $15 per hour) being asked to work five 12-hour shifts, would have gross monthly earnings of $4200 under the current OT rules. Under the UCP proposal, an employer could impose an OT agreement and reduce the worker’s gross earnings to $3600 per month. This nets the employer a $600 savings per worker per month. Consequently, the UCP proposal will encourage employers to work existing workers harder, rather than hiring additional staff.

The UCP has also promised to reduce the earnings of workers who are under the age of 18 to $13/hour (from $15/hour). This plank is intended to incentivize employers to hire young workers. There is no compelling evidence that such a policy would result in employers creating additional jobs for young teens. It may, however, incentivize employers to hire young teens in lieu of older workers (who comprise the vast majority of minimum wage earners in Alberta).

Implementing a lower youth wage benefits employers. For example, assuming a 40-hour work week, an employer who replaces an older worker with someone under 18, will save $320 per worker per month. The UCP also promises to discuss reducing the minimum wage of workers who serve alcohol. This suggests a return to the two-tier minimum-wage for alcohol servers that existed under past Conservative governments.

Finally, the UCP has also promised to replace Alberta’s present laws about farmworker rights. As previously reported, this proposal will deny 70% of paid farmworkers basic employment rights as well as reducing worker access to injury compensation.

Labour Law

At present, Alberta workers are free to decide whether or not they wish to join a union, free from employer interference. If a union has the support of 65% or more of workers, they can apply for immediate certification (this is called card-check certification). If the union has the support of at least 40% but less than 65% of workers, then the Labour Board holds a vote and the majority decides whether or not to unionize. If the employer interferes in the workers’ decision, the Labour Board can automatically certify the union.

The UCP platform promises to eliminate card-check certification and make every union certification application subject to a vote. The delay inherent in mandatory votes gives employers the opportunity to pressure workers into rejecting unionization, and employer intimidation of workers during union drives is commonplace. One Canadian study found that 80% of employers oppose certification drives, 60% do so overtly, and 20% take action that is illegal (e.g., threatening or dismissing workers). Not surprisingly, card-check certification provisions dramatically increase the success rate of union drives.

The UCP platform frames eliminating card-check certifications as “restor[ing] workplace democracy” (p. 21). This attempt to equate certification votes with the electoral process ignores the fact that, when we cast a vote in a federal or provincial election, the government doesn’t spend the campaign period threatening to fire us if we vote for a different party.

Such claims also ignore that elections and union drives are fundamentally different. Government policies profoundly affect every aspect of our lives and can’t be avoided (unless we abandon our country and citizenship). By contrast, the selection of a bargaining agent affects only certain aspects of our employment and the effects (typically higher wages and greater job security) can be avoided by changing jobs.

The UCP platform is silent on two other important changes to Alberta’s labour laws implemented by the Notley government: remedial certification when employers interfere in union drives, and first-contract arbitration when employers stall collective bargaining to try and break new unions.

The UCP platform also promises to continue to require public-sector unions to provide essential services during a work stoppage in order to protect the health, safety or life of others or public order. In many cases, this entails forcing a significant portion of a union’s membership to continue to work. The UCP proposes, however, allowing public-sector employers to hire replacement workers to cover the jobs of those workers that are able to strike. This promise would fundamentally undermine public-sector union’s power to make contractual gains. Unions will probably respond to such a change by resorting to
illegal strikes.

Overall, these platform planks appear designed to reduce workers’ ability to join a union and limit the strike power of public-sector unions. These planks benefit both employers (who typically seek to avoid unions) and a UCP government (which would likely be keen to drive down public-sector wages).

Labour-Market Training

The UCP platform contends there is a need for more apprenticeship training due to retirements among skilled workers. Alberta’s occupational demand and supply model (forecasting to 2025) does not support this assertion. Instead, it predicts a surplus ofworkers in most skilled trades.

Increasing the number of qualified workers will, however, further loosen the labour market, likely driving down wages. While he was the federal Minister of Immigration, Kenney used fears of labour shortages to flood Alberta with temporary foreign workers. This, in turn, meant employers did not have to increase wages or improve working conditions in order to attract workers.

The UCP proposes to “solve” this imaginary skill shortage by expanding trades training opportunities, including for high-school students. This promise ignores that:
Overall, the UCP’s platform attempts to solve a non-problem by increasing training capacity. This approach has been demonstrably ineffective for decades because it ignores the barrier posed by employers’ unwillingness to provide apprentices workplace experience. If successful, the main beneficiary of the UCP’s training planks will be employers, who will be able to pit surplus workers against one another and drive down wages.


The UCP’s claim that it will “bring balance back to Alberta’s labour laws, restore workplace democracy, and incentivize the creation of youth employment” (p. 21) is false. Instead, the UCP’s platform will increase employer profitability by lowering wages.

Specifically, the UCP’s platform will:
  • Directly reduce the wages of young workers and workers who are required to work over time.
  • Increase employer interference in workers’ decisions about unionization in order to reduce unionization rates and thereby, indirectly, drive down wages.
  • Flood the labour market with skilled workers (in response to an imaginary skill shortage) and thereby, indirectly, drive down wages.
-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

UCP pledge to repeal Bill 6 would endanger farm workers

Note: This post originally appears on the Parkland Institute Blog on March 21.

Among the United Conservative Party’s (UCP) agriculture-related election platform is the pledge to repeal 2015’s Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act (more commonly referred to as Bill 6).

This UCP proposal would roll back the employment rights of workers in one of Canada’s most dangerous industries.

Bill 6 background

In late 2015, Alberta’s NDP government extended basic workplace rights to paid, non-family farm workers. This legislation triggered outrage among Alberta farmers and ranchers, who (incorrectly) predicted that it would cause the demise of family farms.

It took nearly three years to operationalize all of the changes due to extensive consultation with the agricultural community. Bill 6 eventually provided for mandatory workers’ compensation coverage, access to unionization and collective bargaining, and modified employment standards and occupational health and safety rules.

The best-documented change is mandatory workers’ compensation coverage. In 2018, 4,009 employers enrolled their workers in workers’ compensation, up from 1,756 in 2015, when participation was still voluntary. In 2018, 16,767 workers filed 818 injury claims, up from 339 injury claims in 2015.

Prior to the passage of Bill 6, approximately half of farm workers’ occupational injuries would have either been claimed under private insurance or simply not claimed at all.
UCP policy platform

As part of its announced election policy platform, the United Conservative Party (UCP) has promised to "immediately launch comprehensive consultations" about farm worker rights, followed by the repeal of Bill 6 and the enactment of what the party calls the Farm Freedom and Safety Act.

It is unclear if further consultations would yield a significantly different outcome, especially since large producer groups support the current arrangement.

It is also difficult to reconcile the UCP’s claim that the Farm Freedom and Safety Act would be meaningfully driven by consultation when the UCP has already pre-determined at least two features of the act:
  1. farmers will be able to purchase private injury insurance for their workers (rather than being required to join the workers’ compensation system), and
  2. agricultural operations that have three or fewer paid, non-family employees over a substantial portion of the year will be exempt from the ambit of employment legislation.
UCP rationale

The UCP’s rationale for its agriculture platform is that the industry is in trouble, claiming that "since the NDP came to office, employment in Alberta’s agriculture sector has fallen by 19 per cent. That’s 11,300 jobs that no longer exist."

Albertans should be cautious about accepting the UCP’s assertion that NDP policies have caused massive job losses for three reasons.

First, agricultural employment has been declining for decades. While fewer Labour Force Survey (LFS) respondents reported that their primary job is in agriculture, that does not necessarily indicate that they no longer work in the industry—farming may just no longer be their primary occupation.

Second, the LFS surveys 1,500 Albertans and extrapolates from their experiences to the population of 3.288 million Albertans who are aged 15 years and older. The LFS’s agricultural data is based upon answers from approximately 30 people. If five of those respondents experienced non-representative changes in their employment, this would change the number of reported agricultural workers by 11,000. The change reported by the LFS was not replicated in the 2016 Agricultural Census. The Ag Census (which looks at change over a longer period of time) found less than half of the 19 per cent decline in employment that the UCP claims.

Third, the entire job loss identified by the UCP was recorded in 2016 (with small increases in agricultural employment since then). The only Bill 6 changes in effect in 2016 were mandatory workers’ compensation and a very small number of health and safety rules. These changes are unlikely to have any meaningful effect on farm employment. (Statistics Canada also made methodological changes to the LFS in 2015–16, but it's difficult to tell what effect those changes might have had.)

Overall, the UCP is likely overstating the true change in agricultural employment. Specific to Bill 6, the UCP is also likely confusing correlation (two things happening at the same time) with causation (one thing causing another).

Effect of the UCP policy

Research on workers’ compensation in the US suggests that allowing farmers to purchase private injury insurance (in lieu of workers’ compensation board coverage) will result in injured farm workers receiving worse benefits. Essentially, private insurers minimize payments to workers in order to generate a profit for their investors. Injured workers often have little capacity to resist this treatment because of their vulnerability.

Private insurance companies are also more likely to engage in "creaming" behaviour, in which they choose to insure only those agricultural operators with low claims rates. This behaviour, in turn, incentivizes farm operators to pressure injured farm workers to not report injuries. Claims suppression transfers medical costs away from the farmer and onto taxpayer-funded health-care and income-support systems.

It is difficult to know the full effect of the UCP’s promise that it would excuse farms with three or fewer paid employees from the ambit of "employment laws" while also "ensur[ing] basic safety standards" are met. Based on the 2011 Agricultural Census, it appears that only the largest 10 per cent of agricultural operations routinely employ more than three workers. These operations account for about 30 per cent of all agricultural work.

What this means is that the vast majority of paid, non-family farm workers would likely be denied basic employment rights under the UCP proposal. Put another way, this proposal is a stealth attack on the basic labour rights of most farm workers in Alberta.

The rationale for this exclusion centres on the notion that farms face different operational demands than other businesses, but rules currently in effect already balance the practical realities of farming against the need for meaningful workplace rights in one of Canada's most hazardous industries. This shouldn't be surprising given that the regulations were developed following an 18-month consultation with industry-dominated technical working groups following the outcry over Bill 6.

If implemented, the UCP proposals would significantly reduce the workplace protections available to this vulnerable group of workers. The result will likely be a higher level of injury and worse benefits in the event of an injury. In effect, the UCP is trading farm workers’ economic security and health and safety in order to increase the profitability of agricultural producers.

The underlying rationale for these changes—that increasing farm worker rights has somehow contributed to declining agricultural employment—is also suspect. Declining agricultural employment is most likely related to longer-term trends, such as increasing farm size and mechanization.

More likely, this policy plank is an attempt by the UCP to capitalize on the anti-NDP sentiment that lingers in the wake of the introduction of Bill 6 in the early months of the NDP's mandate. It is also notable that many producer groups do not support rolling back farm worker rights, and that a law excluding most farm workers from basic workplace rights would be open to a constitutional challenge, although it is unclear who would fund such a challenge.

-- Bob Barnetson