Tuesday, November 26, 2019

New course: LBST 415: Sex work and sex workers

After more than a year of work, LBST 415: Sex Work and Sex Workers is now open for registration, with new intakes on the first of every month. This course examines the operation and regulation of sex work in Canada.

The course focuses on the experiences of sex workers—often told through their own writings—to identify how the structure and regulation of the sex industry affects them. This includes examining how sex workers experience exploitation and exert agency over their lives at the same time.

Of particular interest is how different jurisdictions approach regulating sex work. These very different approaches result in better and worse working conditions as well as shape the relationships between sex workers and law enforcement, managers, and clients.

This course is not for the faint of heart. But if offers students in labour studies, women’s and gender studies, or sociology with an opportunity to explore this very interesting intersection of work and sex.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Will Alberta's unions resist?

Two weeks ago, a friend and I were kicking around labour’s response to the Kenney government’s series of attacks on workers’ rights. In no particular order, they include:
  • Forcing votes on union drives no matter the level of worker support.
  • Interfering in signed collective agreements and then demanding rollbacks of 2-5%.
  • Giving itself the power to enact secret and binding bargaining mandates on public-sector employers, thereby making future bargaining almost meaningless.
  • Transferring management of some public-sector pensions to a lower-performing management company, perhaps to shore up the oil-and-gas industry.
  • Looking ahead, likely public-sector layoffs.
The question we wrestled with was whether these actions were business as usual for conservative governments (resulting in perfunctory union resistance) or if (perhaps together) they represented an escalation that would trigger a significant response from labour.

The basic deal underlying modern labour relations is that (1) employers agree to bargaining in good faith with unions and (2) unions agree to limit strikes to small, predictable windows. This all gets codified in labour law that the state administers.

The state isn’t, of course neutral, being both an employer itself and beholden to capital. And there are many examples of governments having bigger or smaller goes at organized labour (Klein, Harris, Redford, but cf Harper and Ford). For the most part, though, conflict tends to be episodic, contained and relatively muted (quiet cooperation is actually the norm). This reflects that governments are interested in social stability. (More recently, Charter-based restrictions on what they can get away with in the medium term).

Unions generally cooperate with governments because there are organizational benefits to doing so and penalties to resisting. In practice, there is a degree of mutual accommodation, worker demands tend to be monetized, and the union manages any worker discontent. (These dynamics are described by labour scholars as incorporation, economism, and bureaucratization.)

When governments pick fights with unions, this can embolden the more radical voices with unions. Union often act to manage demands for overt conflict by emphasizing communication-based responses and seeking to reign in direct job action.

Union responses to Kenney’s recent series of attacks have been a bit different. There certainly has been an air war, but unions are also investing resources in developing the capacity of their members to take direct action against their employers (whether the government or a government-appointed agency, board or commission).

It is an open question whether Alberta unions have any real appetite for worker-directed job action (e.g., sick outs, over-time strikes, wildcat strikes). My friend correctly noted:
  • Alberta’s labour movement has a history of folding up when labour conflicts with the government start to intensify (as they did in 1995),
  • certain unions have folded up their tents early in exchange for favourable deals (e.g., Alberta Teachers Association), which often makes it difficult for other unions to buck the pattern these unions set, and
  • there will almost certainly be significant financial and legal costs if workers engage in an illegal strike. (And, given Kenney’s history as a federal politician, I suspect that any job action will be illegal or will become illegal almost as soon as it happens.)
I countered that unions are spending resources to develop the member infrastructure necessary for direct action. This suggests that unions (1) see direct action as a viable counter-weight (although perhaps more as a threat, than a weapon), and, (2) by mobilizing members, must be prepared to accept whatever risk of unplanned job action that accrues from having mobilize members. (I'd had a lot of coffee at this point and was maybe a bit amped up!)

Obviously, labour is not monolithic. Different unions (and even different locals within one union) can approach matters differently. For example, Alberta’s faculty associations have very different takes on how to proceed in the face of funding cuts and expected rollback demands. These sorts of tensions enable the government to pick off the weakest unions and reduce the size of the strike threat.

So far, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, and the Canadian Union of Public Employees seem to be talking the toughest. I’ve no sense of where the United Nurses of Alberta are on job action. They have hired organizers and they are fighting with the government in court. But I wonder about the organization’s willingness to strike illegally. The willingness of the teachers to resist (they have taken 6 zeros in 7 years) is also an open question.

The answer may come down to how hard Kenney goes at unions. The harder the government attacks, the fewer incentives there are for unions to retrain calls for direct action. And the harder it is for the conservative elements within unions to resist demands for direct action.

A different way to look at this question is how far is the Kenney government prepared to go to achieve whatever its goals might be? The harder the government pushes, the greater the risk that it will end up triggering profound social disruption (e.g., workers walk out). What this would achieve is a bit of  mystery. Perhaps it could be used as a pretext for radical revision of the basic deal that underlies labour relations (although it's not clear who that benefits). Perhaps it is simply ideological or a distraction from some other project.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Athabasca seeks 2% rollback from support staff

Last week, Local 69 of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (which represents support staff at Athabasca University) received a letter from the university’s director of HR, Charlene Polege. The letter provides some insight into how public-sector labour relations are proceeding under the Kenney government.

Some quick background: AU and AUPE are presently in the last year of a three-year deal. This contract included a two-year wage freeze plus a wage-reopener in year three. If AU and AUPE could not agree on a wage settlement, the wage issue would be referred to arbitration. Negotiations on the re-opener never got started (in part, because Bill 9 stalled the arbitration process) but things appear to be getting back on track.

Consequently, AU sent AUPE a letter last Tuesday that read (in part):
This letter is to provide you with notice that Athabasca University has been given a mandate by the Alberta Provincial Government with respect to the 2019/2020 wage re-opener, and that as a result, Athabasca University anticipates that it will be tabling a proposal of negative two percent (-2%) when negotiations resume. 
We wish to be clear that the Board of Governors of Athabasca University is responsible for setting its mandate with respect to the 2019/2020 wage re-opener. There is sufficient certainty at this time that the Board of Governors will adopt the above-noted position in negotiations. As such, and regardless of whether or not Athabasca University was required to disclose its position in the circumstances, it wishes to provide this information to AUPE in the interest of transparency.
So, the government gave the university a bargaining mandate, but did not disclose what the mandate is. But, “as a result”, the university will be tabling a 2% rollback as its opening proposal (AU had previously proposed 0%). Given that this rollback jives with statements by the Minister of Finance about seeking a 2% rollback from AUPE at other tables, I think we can safety assume that the government’s mandate was -2%.

Yet, in the next sentence, Polege states that “the Board of Governors is responsible for setting its mandate with respect to the 2019/2020 wage re-opener.” That sentence sits oddly with the meaning of the word mandate (i.e., a binding directive from the government). Hmmm.

So let’s unpack this letter:
  • there is a (apparently secret) government mandate,
  • but somehow that mandate isn’t binding on the Board,
  • but the Board (miraculously) adopted the exact same mandate,
  • and is now seeking to grind the wages of the employees in its lowest paid, mostly female, and mostly Athabasca-based bargaining unit,
  • even though AU ran a $14m (~10%) operating surplus in 2018/19 and will run a big surplus again (~$10m) in 2019/2020 despite small cuts (~$3m) in operating grants and could easily afford a small cost-of-living adjustment,
  • all while the university continues to hire more and more senior administrative staff.
That messaging probably isn’t going to help with the pitifully bad morale among AU staff or concerns about the local economy.

And the tortured “there’s a mandate, but there isn’t, but there is” dance does nothing to remedy the large and growing number of employees who don’t trust senior administrators to be honest (or even coherent).

While this AUPE wage reopener is almost certain to go to arbitration, it matters because it shows us what the next full rounds of bargaining (starting in the spring of 2020) are going to look like at AU, in PSE, and the public sector more broadly.

I think we can reasonably expect:
  • secret government mandates for salary rollbacks (which may be unconstitutional),
  • PSE executives being used as human shields by conservative politicians (meh?), when this “I gotta talk to the manager in the back” bargaining tactic goes badly,
  • PSE students seeing significant disruptions in their studies when staff engage in strikes or get locked out, and
  • the fabric of the institutions (which, despite being big bureaucracies, run only because staff are conscientious and have long-standing relationships with coworkers) further fraying as staff decide “fuck it” and start doing the just minimum.
This is a shameful way for politicians, Board members, and university administrators to treat their staff (especially support staff). About the only bright spot is that many PSE employees are recognizing that they are workers and will need to fight their employers (and the government), just like every other worker.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Budget 2019: Bad news for labour market training in Alberta

There has been much written about the Kenney government’s attack on organized labour in its 2019 budget (which include layoffs and wage freezes, as well as interfering in ongoing arbitrations and future collective bargaining). Alberta’s 2019 budget also purports to improve labour-market training opportunities in order to get Albertans back to work:
“Supporting a highly skilled labour force and a competitive business environment will make lasting contributions to Alberta’s economy. Alberta will once again become the destination of choice for investors and skilled workers.” Travis Toews, Minister of Finance
A closer examination of the labour-market training pieces of the budget suggests this is mostly smoke and mirrors. The government is reducing its funding of post-secondary institutions (which do most of the training) by 5 per cent this year. The institution-specific cuts are unevenly distributed with no suggestion that the cuts reflect anything other than capacity to absorb the cuts. 

These cuts hamstring institution’s ability to deliver the education and skills training alleged desired by the government. Even more concerning is analysis that suggests that additional cuts of 20 to 25% are planned by 2022/23.

These cuts are to be offset, in part, by rapid tuition increases, with institutions allowed to increase tuition by 7% per year for the next three years. Tuition increases, combined with eliminating the tuition tax credit, reducing the teen minimum wage, and closing the Summer Temporary Employment Program (STEP), will make it much harder for students to afford to enroll in post-secondary education and training.

So, if you are playing along at home, your bingo card now shows fewer training opportunities that are less accessible to future workers. Sounds promising, so far!

While governments frequently talk about addressing skills shortages, the evidence that skills shortages actually exist is weak to non-existent (there is a long line of research suggesting that a great many workers are actually under-employed). When there are skills shortages (which tend to be industry specific and geographically localized), such shortages are often difficult to predict and almost impossible for institutions to react to (because mounting and delivering training takes time and the labour tends to adjust). 

A new post-secondary funding mechanism (likely with labour market metrics) is to be introduced in the coming months. This was tried in the mid-1990s and basically didn't work. Meh.

Expected skill shortages in the skilled trades are a recurring UCP talking point. The key barrier to qualifying more trades people lies with employers’ unwillingness to offer adequate apprenticeship opportunities. The last data I saw showed that only 19% of employers that use qualified trades people participate in training apprentices. More money (or more directive finding mechanisms) for post-secondary institutions won’t alleviate that bottle neck.

The government also announced an additional $4 million to expand work experience and apprenticeship programs for elementary (!!!), junior and senior high-school students. The current Registered Apprenticeship Program (RAP) provides a useful pathway for students interested in the trades. But there are issues.

Research suggests that Alberta students sometimes struggle to find apprenticeships and the female participants struggle against long-standing gender discrimination. One in five students reports an occupational injury during a RAP apprenticeship. One in twenty RAP participants (whom we should remember, are kids) is injured so severely that they cannot work in the field.

Overall, there is little reason to believe that the Kenney government is serious about enhancing labour market training opportunities. Rather, this appears to be an elaborate rhetorical offensive to distract Albertans from the profound damage that public-sector cuts will do post-secondary education. These cuts, of course, are necessary only because the Kenney government gave away $4.5 billion in corporate tax breaks. (Which, as predicted, corporations pocketed, instead of creating jobs).

-- Bob Barnetson