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