Tuesday, December 29, 2020

A Christmas Carol from an organizing perspective

The blog Organizing Work ran an interesting piece last week interrogating how worker organizing could have altered the trajectory of the story in A Christmas Carol (delightfully, using the Muppet version). 

The post contains several astute observations, including that the workers manage to get a day off for Christmas from Scrooge by acting collectively and without the aid of supernatural forces.

What I enjoyed the most in the film was the overt shit-talking about the terrible character of the boss 9see the clip above). While it is easy to excuse a boss's behaviour as a function of structural pressures (e.g., the profit imperative), it is important not to lose sight of the fact that bosses have agency and could behave better than they do if they so wished.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Decriminalizing sex work would make sex workers safer

This post was originally published on the AU Hub in conjunction with the International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Sex Workers.

It is both legal and dangerous to sell sex in Canada. One factor that makes sex workers vulnerable to violence is how the government regulates sex work. While selling sex is legal, buying sexual services and assisting in the sale or purchase of sexual services is not. This regulatory approach stigmatizes sex work and thereby increases sex workers’ risk. Fully decriminalizing the purchase and sale of sexual services—a demand supported by sex workers and 150 human rights groups—would help reduce the risk of violence.

Canada’s current approach to regulating sex work is often called the Nordic model. It assumes sex work is socially undesirable and that the demand for sexual services can be extinguished by sanctioning clients. The impact of the Nordic model on sex workers’ safety is complicated.

Sex workers and authors Juno Mac and Molly Smith note that sex workers typically have a greater need to sell sexual services (e.g., to put food on the table) than buyers do to purchase it. Criminalizing clients can reduce demand. This, in turn, forces sex workers to take on clients they might otherwise refuse or meet them in circumstances that heighten the risk of violence. Criminalizing those who could provide assistance to sex workers working safely (e.g., security staff, call services, drivers) also increases the risk of violence for sex workers.

In theory, the Nordic model is supposed to result in sex workers finding other sources of income. (In Nordic countries, this model is paired with a more complete social safety net than is presently available in Canada). In Canada, “straight” jobs are often unavailable (that’s why sex workers sell sex) or unworkable (e.g., due to childcare or health issues).

Sex workers can also be reluctant to access existing income support programs for fear of triggering the interest of other government agencies, such as children’s services or the tax department. For example, some sex workers’ reluctance to access federal income supports during COVID-19 reflects their concerns about becoming visible to the state.

Consequently, sex workers say that what Canada’s laws do is pressure sex workers to work less safely and render illegal many of the strategies sex workers can use to make themselves less vulnerable to violence. These laws are presently due for a five-year review.

Fully decriminalizing sex work—where any adult can purchase sexual services—would allow sex workers to work more safely (e.g., in cooperatives, in safer locations, with access to security and other business services). Decriminalization would also lower the barriers faced by sex workers wishing to access state services, such as medical care and income support services.

New Zealand decriminalized most sex work in 2003. Decriminalization is not a panacea. Sex workers still report facing stigma and violence, especially racialized, migrant, and trans sex workers. They still cannot necessarily access law enforcement protection safely. And many other laws and policies (e.g., zoning, licensing, advertising) still make life difficult for sex workers.

And, where sex work occurs in the context of an employment relationship, sex workers are still subject to the usual indignities and exploitation that can be found in any workplace. They may also still be subject to the abuses sex workers tend to experience in employment relationships specifically because they’re sex workers, and which occur in the sex industry under all regulatory frameworks.

But decriminalization does appear to result in better working conditions for sex workers. It also offers more accessible pathways to different work (e.g., through income support programs). If combined with a more fulsome social safety net, it might result in a significant reduction in sex work overall. New Zealand’s experience offers useful guidance about how the government can meaningfully reduce the risk of violence faced by sex workers—one driven by data rather than by stigma.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Research: Casinos and captive labour markets

The journal Labour/Le Travail recently published a very interesting case study about the experiences of workers at Casino Windsor. You can read the full text of the article here.

Casinos are often mooted as tools of economic diversification, providing relatively high-waged service industry jobs. This was a part of the back story of the opening of Casino Windsor and, initially, the casino did provide good jobs, particularly to women. Over time, though, economic pressure resulted in declining working conditions.

The workers at the casino faced labour immobility due to high unemployment and the absence of comparable wages elsewhere. This dynamic essentially creates a captive labour market, argues author Alissa Mazar, where the workers are stuck in their job. The employer knows this and uses aggressive disciplining to pressurize workers to perform.

Few options and fear of job loss has meant workers have internalizing the need to provide high quality customer service, despite poor treatment. Essentially, they exert discretionary effort in the hope that it will keep their livelihood intact and the employer uses this extra effort to reduce labour costs.

Mazar’s case study raises numerous questions about the value of casinos as economic engines, particularly when the state constraints the number of casinos and thus creates a captive labour force for the employer.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Useful post on workplace organizing

For the past year or so, I’ve been involved in some workplace organizing. Organizing is very much different from the more legalistic/bureaucratic union work that I’ve done. While a lot of basic labour relations knowledge and skills transfer well enough, organizing has required a real shift my thinking and approach. I’ve been fortunate to have good teachers.

With the heat momentarily off, I’ve been taking stock of what I'd learned. Coincidentially, I happened across an excellent post about mistakes that labour organizers make on the blog Organizing Work. Two of the mistakes that really resonated with me are “Focusing on where you are strong instead if where you are weak” and “Building your campaign out of like-minded people”.

Working with like-minded people is easy because there are fewer disputes about basic facts or values or approaches. But limiting oneself to like-minded folks impedes building a broad, member-driven power base (which is the point of organizing). There are a limited number of like-minded people in any organization. Not all like-minded people are effective or reliable activists. And many folks with very different values can be very effective activists on issues they care about.

The thing is, talking to differently minded people—and accepting their feedback (which is sometimes good and sometimes not)—is hard (both intellectually and emotionally). This dynamic likely contributes to my tendency to focus organizing where we are strong, rather where we are weak. It is also often easier to increase the intensity of existing support than it is to build support in areas where there isn’t much. For example, existing supporters often share interests. Opposed members often have different interests (or, at least, common interests are harder to see).

For example, there is an area in my workplace where the union has mixed support among its members. The workers in this area hold jobs that mean they sometimes experience some spill-over effects from the union’s direct action tactics. There are some quiet union supporters in this area. But they are reluctant to voice support because of the presence of a small number of powerful and vocal opponents of the union and/or its tactics.

The easiest approach to this situation is just to write the members in that area off. From a cost-benefit approach, the effort necessary to bring the vocal opponents on board (including possibly losing access to effective direct-action tactics) is likely not worth gaining what will, at least at first, likely be tepid and tenuous support.

Emotionally, this approach is also easy. Watching members in this area deride the tactics that are literally keeping them in the union (which materially benefits them) is very aggravating. Conversely, knowing that their behaviour makes these opponents likely to be among the first to get carved out of the union (because the employer will see them as easy targets) is discomfortingly gratifying.

But that approach isn’t really constructive or effective in the long run. It doesn’t find common ground upon which to build a base of power with which to oppose the employer’s behaviour. The better (but harder) approach is to engage with these workers. They do have interests in common with the broader membership. They also have the potential to make effective contributions to direct action. Further, addressing their opposition will make it possible to more quickly and thoroughly normalize the greater member engagement and activism that is emerging.

So hat’s off (once again) to Organizing Work for another useful contribution.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Bill 47 reduces compensation for work-related injuries

This post previously appeared on the Parkland Institute Blog.

On Nov. 5, 2020, Alberta’s United Conservative government introduced Bill 47 (Ensuring Safety and Cutting Red Tape Act, 2020). Bill 47 makes substantial changes to the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act and the Workers’ Compensation Act and contains new legislation creating a payment for first responders who die from work-related causes. This is the second of two blog posts examining Bill 47. This post focuses on changes to the Workers’ Compensation Act which, if passed, will come into effect Jan. 1, 2021.

Overall, Bill 47’s changes to workers’ compensation will save employers money by reducing the likelihood of workers receiving benefits when injured and reducing the value of those benefits. Bill 47 also makes it more difficult for workers to appeal decisions and reduces the likelihood they will return to their job once recovered from their injury.


Alberta’s Workers’ Compensation Act provides for compensation to workers who are injured on the job. Compensation is funded by employer premiums and the act is administered by the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB). This act was also amended in 2017 to increase wage-loss benefits and index them to inflation, require employers to return workers to their job after recovery, and make it easier for workers to navigate the WCB.

Lower Compensation for Injury

Presently, when injured workers experience a wage loss, they are eligible to receive WCB benefits of 90 per cent of any lost net income. That is to say, injured workers receive $9 from the WCB for every $10 in income they lose due to a compensable injury. Bill 47 alters this arrangement in three ways.

First, Bill 47 eliminates from the Act the 90 per cent compensation rate. In its place, Bill 47 permits the WCB to determine the rate at which compensation will be paid. The only plausible reason for the government to give the WCB this discretion is to allow the WCB to lower the compensation rate at some future point.

Second, Bill 47 allows the WCB to establish a maximum income ceiling for compensation. Prior to 2018, this maximum was set at $98,700 and any wages lost above the maximum were not compensated. In 2018, the New Democratic government eliminated this maximum to recognize many Alberta workers earned more than the maximum and should not be penalized if injured. Reinstating a cap will reduce wage-loss benefits (as well as employer premiums, which are driven by claims costs) in high-wage industries.

Third, permanent wage-loss benefits are currently indexed to the Alberta Consumer Price Index. Indexing means the purchasing power of wage-loss benefits are not eroded by inflation. Bill 47 gives the WCB the power to set the annual inflationary adjustment. The WCB is directed to maintain “approximate parity with the cost of living.”

When the WCB had this power prior to 2018, it indexed benefits to CPI minus 0.5 per cent. Workers with permanent wage losses (as well as dependents of workers killed on the job) saw their purchasing power decline over time. The longer they received benefits, the worse loss they experienced. Again, the only plausible explanation for offering the WCB this flexibility is to allow the WCB to set rates below inflation and thereby reduce the cost of employer premiums.

Limiting Psychological and Disease Claims

Generally speaking, injuries are eligible for compensation if they arise from and occur during the course of employment. Determining whether some injuries meet this “arises and occurs” test can be challenging. For example, some occupational diseases have long latency periods and murky causality. These sorts of injuries are sometimes “deemed” to be compensable by the WCB. If you have the injury and worked in a specified industry (sometimes for a specified length of time), your claim is automatically accepted.

There is a list of deemed diseases in the Workers’ Compensation Regulation. Prior to 2018, this list had not been meaningfully updated since 1982. In 2018, a committee was struck to periodically review new medical evidence and recommend changes. Bill 47 disbands this committee and simply charges the minister with a review every 10 years. Given the speed of medical research, updating the list every 10 years is unfair to workers.

Whether a psychological injury is compensable can also be tricky to determine. In 2018, the Workers’ Compensation Act was amended such that psychological injuries were deemed to be compensable if (1) a worker was exposed to a traumatic event in the course of work and (2) was diagnosed with a psychological injury unless (3) the injury was proven not to have arisen and occurred from work. Bill 47 eliminates this deeming of psychological injuries. This means workers will need to prove psychological injuries arose and occurred from work. This will be a very difficult threshold for many injured workers to meet.


In 2018, the Workers’ Compensation Act was amended to create an obligation on employers to re-employ injured workers when workers were able to return to their duties. Prior to this, workers’ only recourse if their employer sacked them after an injury was a lengthy (around two years) process with the Human Rights Commission. After 2018, employers who illegitimately did not comply with their return to work obligation faced financial penalties. Bill 47 entirely does away with this obligation. This change is profoundly out of step with the Canadian norm.

Bill 47 also creates specific obligations on workers to co-operate with the WCB in vocational and other rehabilitation plans. Workers who don’t co-operate can have their benefits cut off. While this may sound reasonable, the history of vocational and other rehabilitation at the WCB suggests there is a significant risk the WCB will use this power in ways that reduce workers’ compensation (in order to lower employer premiums) or force workers to accept modified work plans that may damage their health.

Appeal System

Workers’ compensation claims are complex. Workers who are dissatisfied with the adjudication of their claim often face an uphill battle navigating a complicated set of policies and appeal steps. Further, the 2017 review of the WCB identified that the WCB had a “culture of denial” around claims and that the internal appeal process may have worked against workers’ interests. In 2018, a Fair Practices Office was set up to create some distance between the WCB and the internal appeal bodies, as well as to help workers navigate the appeal process.

Bill 47 largely scraps this new process. It also tightens the timelines on when a worker can appeal a decision and allows the appeal bodies discretion about whether to suspend the termination of wage-loss and other benefits while an appeal is under way.

Heroes Fund

Bill 47 contains within it a new act entitled the Heroes’ Compensation Act. This act provides for the payment of $100,000 to the dependents of any first responder or corrections officer who dies as a consequence of their work. This payment is in addition to the fatality payment any workers’ dependents receive when a worker dies, as well as any wage-loss payments for which those dependent may be eligible. There are, on average, 10 fatalities among first responders per year. Of these fatalities, approximately 90 per cent were firefighters who died from occupational diseases.

This new benefit broadly mirrors an existing Government of Canada program (the Memorial Grant Program for First Responders). This federal program provides $300,000 payments to families of firefighters, police officers and paramedics who die as a result of their duties. Additionally, these workers are also almost entirely unionized and, consequently, have life insurance as part of their benefit packages.


At the beginning of the 20th century, Canadian workers gave up their right to sue their employer for work-related injuries in exchange for stable, predictable and immediate compensation. Over time, workers’ compensation has expanded to include more workers (such as women). More kinds of injuries are also compensated, as our understanding of the negative consequences of work deepens.

Alberta’s legislation long lagged behind the Canadian norm, reflecting a history of conservative governments and agencies that were essentially captured by employer lobbyists. The 2018 changes to WCB brought Alberta’s laws into alignment with the Canadian norms. Bill 47 reverses many of these changes.

Labour Minister Jason Copping suggested that Bill 47 is designed to “restor[e] balance and fairness to the workers’ compensation system to meet the needs of workers and job creators now and in the future.” This is half true. Employers will benefit from Bill 47 through lower premiums. (It is notable that Minister Copping ignores that lower premiums reduces employers’ incentives make workplaces safer.)

The cost of this will be borne by workers. Under Bill 47, workers will be less likely to have their injuries compensated, their benefits will be reduced, their access to the appeals system will be impeded, and they will be less likely to return to their pre-injury job. In effect, this is a return to the state of affairs pre-2018, where the WCB was effectively a creature of employers and had a culture of claims denial.

The Heroes Fund will benefit relatively few workers, who are mostly well insured men. The most useful way to see the Heroes Fund is as a craven PR exercise. By providing marginal increases to valorized workers, the government can deflect attention away from changes that financially benefit employers while making workplaces more dangerous for workers and reducing the compensation paid out when workers are injured.

-- Bob Barnetson and Jason Foster

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Bill 47 makes Alberta workplaces less safe

This post previously appeared on the Parkland Institute Blog.

On Nov. 5, 2020, Alberta’s United Conservative government introduced Bill 47 (Ensuring Safety and Cutting Red Tape Act, 2020). Bill 47 makes substantial changes to the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act and the Workers’ Compensation Act and contains new legislation creating a payment for first responders who die from work-related causes. Overall, Bill 47 represents a significant rollback of workers’ safety protections in Alberta. This is the first of two blog posts examining Bill 47. This post focuses on changes to the OHS Act that, if passed, will come into effect Sept. 1, 2021.

Alberta’s OHS Act is intended to prevent workplace injuries. It sets out the general rights and obligations of workers and employers and the role of government. (More specific safety rules are set out in the OHS Code.) The OHS Act was significantly amended by Alberta’s former New Democratic government in 2017 to improve workers’ ability to refuse unsafe work and create mandatory joint health and safety committees (JHSCs).

Joint Health and Safety Committees

Alberta instituted mandatory Joint Health and Safety Committees for employers with more than 20 workers in 2018. Workplaces with five to 19 workers are required to have a health and safety representative. Alberta was the last province to require JHSCs.

The logic of a joint committee is twofold. First, workers’ knowledge is useful and make workplaces safer. And second, workers and employers sometimes have different priorities around safety, and joint committees give workers a meaningful voice on safety issues.

Bill 47 guts the JHSC system, leaving committees as employer-dominated shells. The specific changes include:
  • Employers determine who sits on the committees, instead of workers electing or unions appointing the worker representatives. This allows employers to appoint compliant worker members.
  • Rules specifying the need for co-chairs (one worker and one employer), the development of procedures by the committee, meeting quorum and schedules, duration of membership, public posting of membership, and training requirements have been removed from the act. Combined with employer control over who sits on these committees, these omissions mean employers will control the committees.
  • The duties of JHSC have been reduced to receiving worker concerns, participating in the employer’s hazard assessment process, making non-binding recommendations, and reviewing inspection results. Of particular concern is the absence of any requirement for workers to participate in regular worksite inspections or the investigation of serious injuries and incidents. The right to inspect is an important duty and enshrined in most other provinces.
  • The requirement for regular (i.e., quarterly) worksite inspections appears to have been eliminated from the act.
These changes are out of step with the Canadian norm. They allow employers to render JHSCs ineffective. And the absence of required inspections means workplaces will become more dangerous.

Right to Refuse and Retaliation

The right to refuse unsafe work can save workers’ lives, although it is rarely used in Alberta because workers fear employer retaliation. Nevertheless, it is one of the most important safety rights workers have. During the COVID-19 outbreak at the Cargill meatpacking plant earlier this year, workers protected themselves and others by using their right to refuse. Bill 47 narrows the circumstances in which a worker can refuse unsafe work, makes it more difficult for them to refuse and weakens their protection against reprisal.

Presently, Section 31(1) of the OHS Act says workers may refuse work “if the worker believes on reasonable grounds that there is a dangerous condition at the worksite or that the work constitutes a danger to the worker’s health or safety or to the health or safety of another worker or another person.” Bill 47 replaces “dangerous condition” and “danger” with the narrower term “undue hazard.”

Bill 47 defines undue hazard as “a hazard that poses a serious and immediate threat to the health and safety of a person.” This has two implications:
  • The word serious is not defined but its inclusion narrows the kinds of dangers that can be refused. For example, presently, workers might be able to refuse work that could result in a laceration or mild burn (an injury they should not be forced to experience on the job). Such hazards would likely not be grounds for refusal under Bill 47.
  • The word “immediate” is not defined but generally means “occurring without loss of time.” This means workers facing hazards that take time to result in injury (e.g., most chemical, biological, radiological, vibration, and noise hazards) may not be able to refuse unsafe work. This definition may have prevented Cargill workers from refusing work due to COVID.
Bill 47 also eliminates the presence of a worker representative during the investigation of the allegedly unsafe work. If the employer assigns another worker to do the dangerous task, the employer is no longer required to notify the other worker of the first refusal unless the first worker had complained to an OHS officer (which almost never happens). Further, the employer is not required to tell the second worker they have a right to refuse the work as unsafe. Employers are also no longer required to pay workers while they are refusing unsafe work, which will suppress workers’ willingness to refuse.

Bill 47 also reduces workers’ protections from employer retaliation for exercising their rights (such as the right to refuse). Presently, no one is allowed to take discriminatory action against a worker for exercising their rights under the OHS Act or Code. Bill 47 replaces the phrase “discriminatory action” with “disciplinary action.” The government press release explains this change as necessary in order to “avoid confusion with human rights laws.”

This rationale may (or may not) be true. What this explanation does, though, is obscures the most important effect of that change. Disciplinary action is a far narrower term than discriminatory action. For example, assigning a worker who previously refused unsafe work to permanent night shift is discriminatory but not disciplinary. This change in language dramatically expands the ways employers can legally retaliate against workers if workers exercise their health and safety rights. Essentially, Bill 47 increases the risk for workers who act to make workplaces safer.

Exemption from Safety Rules

A new provision allows an OHS director to waive requirements of the OHS Code for specific employers or industries. The new measure, called allowances, stipulates that they can do so only if the waiver does not materially affect a person’s health or safety. This qualification may prevent a serious undercutting of safety standards, but it does put at risk the principle that safety protections apply equally to all workers.

The creation of allowances raises the possibility of loosening protections for some employers, thereby reducing the overall level of protection for their workers. A provision of this nature requires us to believe that government officials will not cave to pressure from employers or employer-friendly politicians. There is no requirement that the government publish who has received what exemptions from the OHS Code.


Labour Minister Jason Copping asserted that Bill 47 is about “improving safety for Alberta workers and making workplaces safer.” Bill 47 will achieve neither of these outcomes. Instead, it will make Alberta workers more vulnerable to injuries by reducing their ability to remedy and resist unsafe working conditions.

The changes proposed to joint committees will render useless one of the few tools workers have to pressure employers to remedy unsafe workplaces. Allowing employers to populate the committees and determine how they will operate means employers can turn them into paper tigers. Savvy employers will appoint docile representatives, hold few meetings and take little action. The elimination of a requirement for quarterly worksite OHS inspections will also mean hazards are likely to go unrecognized for longer — likely until a worker is injured.

Narrowing the definition of unsafe work means workers will be even less likely to refuse unsafe work. And, when they do, employers will have a freer hand to simply ask another worker to do the job without making it safe. Employers are also better able to punish workers for exercising their safety rights. And employers – or at least politically connected employers – will be able to get exemptions from the OHS rules.

There is no clear and compelling rationale for weakening Alberta’s health and safety laws. Indeed, Alberta already has among the highest per capita rates of reported injuries and fatalities in Canada. This poor record reflects high levels of employer non-compliance with basic OHS rules. Non-compliance reflects historically anemic enforcement and the absence of penalties. Indeed, there has been a drop in inspection activities and in penalties meted out for violations since the United Conservative Party took power. Weakening worker’s OHS rights will result in even less safe workplaces and even more dead and injured Albertans.

-- Bob Barnetson and Jason Foster

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Alberta government continues rollback of worker protections

 Written by Professors Jason Foster and Bob Barnetson, Athabasca University 

This post previously appeared on the Canadian Law of Work Forum.

Last week the Alberta UCP government introduced Bill 47: Ensuring Safety and Cutting Red Tape Act. The bill makes sweeping changes to the Occupational Health and Safety Act(OHS Act) and the Workers’ Compensation Act. It also creates a new act, the Heroes’ Compensation Act, which provides a lump-sum payment to families of first responders who die as a result of their duties. Media reports have stated Bill 47 repeals many of the protections enacted by the previous NDP government, but the bill actually goes much further, rewriting many longstanding aspects of Alberta’s OHS and WCB system that will undermine worker safety in the province.

OHS Act Amendments

The Bill provides a complete re-write of the OHS Act, making a wide range of changes. The most significant include gutting the rules related to joint health and safety committees, weakening workers’ right to refuse unsafe work, and permitting variances from requirements under the OHS Code.

In 2018, the NDP made joint health and safety committees (JHSCs) mandatory for employers with more than 20 workers, making Alberta the last province to do so. In addition to mandating JHSCs, they established a series of requirements for their establishment and operation to ensure their effectiveness, including member training, worker and employer co-chairs, worker selection of worker representatives, and the right to participate in inspections and incident investigations. 

Bill 47 maintains mandatory committees but eliminates most of the rules governing them. The new Act eliminates co-chairs and permits the employer to appoint worker representatives (after “consultation” with any certified union). The bill strips committees of their right to participate in inspections and investigations, reducing them to receiving worker complaints and issuing non-binding recommendations. It also eliminates the requirement that the JHSC inspect the worksite quarterly, a key tool for identifying hazards, leaving no meaningful requirement that the workplace be inspected regularly.

For the UCP, rules regulating how JHSCs do their job is “red tape” to be reduced. For workers, effective JHSCs are one of the few mechanisms they have to exercise their safety rights and make sure their workplaces are safe. By transforming JHSCs to employer-dominated shells, they have stripped one of three worker safety rights, the right to participate, of any real meaning.

The bill also weakens the second worker safety right, the right to refuse, by restricting its definition and weakening protection against reprisal. The current OHS Act states workers have a right to refuse work “if the worker believes on reasonable grounds that there is a dangerous condition at the worksite or that the work constitutes a danger to the worker’s health or safety or to the health or safety of another worker or another person” (s. 31(1)). Bill 47 replaces “dangerous condition” and “danger” with the narrower term “undue hazard”, which it defines as “a hazard that poses a serious and immediate threat to the health and safety of a person” (s.17(1)).

The change appears to do two things: narrow the range of dangers which trigger the right to refuse by adding “serious”; and eliminating the ability to refuse over dangers that are not “immediate” such as chemical exposure or noise hazards. For example, workers at the High River Cargill plant evoked their right to refuse during the COVID-19 outbreak in their plant in May to protect themselves from the virus. Under the new definition, those refusals would likely be illegal. The bill also bans worker representation at the refusal investigation and strips other workers of their right to be informed of the refusal. The bill makes the right to refuse, already a weak right in practice, even harder to exercise.

The third change has the potential to be insidious. Bill 47 introduces a new provision, called “allowances” which allow an OHS Director to permit an employer or group of employers to “vary” from any provision in the OHS Code, the detailed OHS rules. Waiving provisions will be allowed only if the Director “is satisfied that no person’s health or safety is materially affected by the allowance” (s. 21(1)). No definition is provided of “materially affected”, leaving the door open to undermining of core safety standards. The provision incentivizes employers to find ways to avoid complying with the Code by asking for these variances.

WCB Act Changes

Bill 47 also makes a number of changes to the WCB Act which undermine injured workers’ rights to fair compensation and will reduce employer costs through lower WCB. The first wave of changes will negatively impact the compensation injured workers receive. The bill re-instates an insured earnings cap, which limits the amount of wages eligible for compensation. It also eliminates automatic cost of living increases, returning to Board discretion, meaning rates could erode over time. The bill removes employer obligation to pay for health benefits for injured workers, potentially cutting them off from important health services. Finally, it gives the WCB Board the power to unilaterally cut the benefit level provided injured workers. Currently, the WCB Act stipulates that an injured worker shall receive 90% of net wage losses in compensation. Bill 47 removes the reference to 90% and leaves it to the Board to determine a fair compensation level. This could result in a decision to reduce benefit levels for all injured workers going forward.

The second group of changes undermine workers’ ability to navigate the complex WCB system and receive fair decisions. The most common worker complaint about WCB is its complexity and the difficulty in accessing appeals processes and assistance in those processes. The NDP government established two offices independent of the WCB, Fair Practices Office and Medical Panels Office, to help workers navigate the system. Bill 47 closes both offices and creates a new review office set up under the oversight of the WCB.

The third set of changes puts injured workers long term income security at risk. The bill removes an employer’s obligation to re-hire an injured worker, giving employers the opportunity to use a workplace injury as an excuse to fire an unwanted worker. The Bill also establishes new penalties for workers who fail to cooperate with vocational rehabilitation demands, permitting the WCB to reduce or cut off their compensation payments.

Bill 47’s name is only half right. Most of the bill is about cutting so-called red tape and reducing WCB premiums for employers, but it decidedly does so at the expense of workers’ safety. Workplaces in Alberta will be less safe when this bill is implemented and injured workers will receive less compensation for their injuries. Compounded with other recent anti-worker bills introduced by the UCP government, the erosion of workplace standards and worker rights in Alberta has reached unprecedented levels.

-- Jason Foster and Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Why are public-sector employers “good employers”?

Source: D'Arcy Norman, Wikipedia Commons

Last week, I ran across an OHS order directed at the University of Calgary. Apparently, the U of C was found to have violated of s.391 of the OHS Code.

That section is about training workers and harassment and violence:

391. An employer must ensure that workers are trained in

(a) The recognition of violence and harassment.
(b) The policies, procedures and workplace arrangements that the employer has developed and implemented to eliminate or control the hazards of violence and harassment.
(c) The appropriate response to violence and harassment, including procedures for obtaining assistance, and the procedures for reporting, investigating, and documenting incidents of violence and harassment.

These provisions came into effect in June of 2018. The order was issued in September of 2020. I wasn’t able to find out much in terms of details, but we can make some guesses:
  1. Likely the U of C hasn’t provided adequate OHS training on these hazards.
  2. This order likely stems from a complaint or an injury (since random inspections are basically non-existent in Alberta). 
  3. I’d also guess that this violation is likely long-standing (since falling out of compliance once an employer has set up a training system is unlikely).
This is not an issue unique to the U of C. For example, less half of the teachers in recent study by the Alberta Teachers Association indicated they had received training to managing bullying and violence.

My own university failed to provide OHS training, received an order, and then stalled responding for months. The training we were eventually provided was terrible. And a revised training developed by the joint occupational health and training committee has been waiting implementation for more than 6 months.

Widespread violations of health and safety rules by public-sector employers is often hard for people to reconcile. Aren’t public-sector employers “good employers”? I think this dissonance stems from confusing good jobs and good employers.

Public sector workers are more likely than private-sector workers to have good jobs, with decent wages, job security, benefits, pensions. (This isn’t a universal experience in the public sector, but there a definite pattern.)

These good working conditions don’t reflect employer benevolence. Rather, they reflect that unionization is high (~67%) in the public sector and union contracts limit how bad employers can make public-sector jobs.

While most public-sector collective agreements contain some language on OHS, the bulk of the rules flow from the OHS Act and Code (which is effectively unenforced in Alberta). So health and safety is an area where public-sector employers can let their true managerial colours show.

And this generally shows up by ignoring their obligations (because most violations don’t result in a serious injury that would attract government sanction). In this way, public-sector employers save cost (however marginal) on safety. Training is particularly easy to ignore unless, in my experience, there is a joint health and safety committee populated by knowledgeable actors who will push and prod the employer and maybe complain.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

One-Day Wildcat Strike by Alberta Health Workers Likely Just the Beginning

This blog previously appeared on the Canadian Law of Work Forum.

Albertans woke up on Monday October 26 to news that support workers at one of the province’s busiest hospitals were refusing to start their shifts and were striking outside the main doors. Soon word spread that almost 1000 workers at up to 45 health facilities in 33 Alberta municipalities had walked out. The workers were members of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) and perform a range of support services such as laundry, food preparation, janitorial services and other important functions that keep facilities operating.

Energy built through the day, with labour leaders and members of other unions walking the picket line in solidarity. The workers’ collective agreement has expired and negotiations are ongoing, but the union was not yet in a legal strike position. Late Monday night, the Alberta Labour Relations Board (ALRB) declared the strike illegal and ordered striking workers back to work. Here is the decision.

In Alberta, illegal strikes face significant penalties, including fines against the union of $1,000 per day, fines against individual workers, suspension of union dues for up to six months, and possible contempt of court charges. Early Tuesday morning, AUPE announced that all workers had returned to work.

Despite its short duration, this wildcat strike is likely just the beginning of worker action in response to provincial government cuts to health care, so there is value in looking more closely at the strike.

The strike took place as a direct response to UCP government plans to privatize health care support services. On October 13, Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced a plan to privatize laundry, food service, laboratory, and other services, which will result in lay-offs to up to 11,000 health care workers. Just three days before the strike, the first phase of the plan was announced, leading to the lay-off of 425 AUPE members. It should also be noted that these announced lay-offs are taking place as Alberta’s COVID cases are rapidly climbing and COVID-related hospitalizations on the rise.

It is likely this strike is not the last direct action we see from Alberta’s public sector workers. The UCP government is engaging in a series of high-profile conflicts with its workers. A burning war with Alberta’s doctors remains unresolved. The announced health privatization plan is regarded by many as the first step towards a more aggressive move toward American-style health care. Dramatic funding cuts to education, social services, and post-secondary institutions are leading to thousands of layoffs in those sectors. And the government has strongly hinted at demands for wage rollbacks for all public sector workers in current bargaining rounds. On many fronts, public sector workers have reason to be concerned, angry and prepared to take action.

The other illuminating aspect of the strike is the government’s aggressive response to the strikers. Finance Minister Travis Toews issued a statement criticizing the action: “Going forward we expect that all unions respect the bargaining process and stop putting Albertans’ safety at risk. … We will not tolerate illegal strike activity”. He also said the workers and the union would “be held accountable” for the strike.

Asserting that unions should “respect the bargaining process” is difficult to reconcile with the UCP government repeatedly interfering with public-sector bargaining and bargaining rights in the past 18 months. They unilaterally postponed arbitration deadlines that were enshrined in collective agreements. They gave themselves the right to impose binding and secret bargaining mandates on public-sector agencies. They tore up a legally negotiated deal with Alberta’s doctors, imposing a legislated contract. They have passed bills constraining workers’ rights to picket. Their recently passed Bill 32 imposes a series of restrictions on union activity, including limits on the right to strike. Apparently, the government expects unions to abide by the law, no matter how unfair, while at the same time affords itself the right to change rules that are inconvenient for the government.

The wildcat strike and the government’s response to it remind us of the conflict inherent in public sector labour relations. The government is both the employer and the body that sets the rules, establishing a dynamic stacked against public sector workers. It is no surprise that public sector workers see through this conflict of interest and take matters into their own hands when they believe their jobs are at risk.

-- Jason Foster and Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Research: Interjurisdictional employment in Canada, 2002-2016

Researchers at Memorial University has issued a new report analyzing tax data on inter-jurisdictional employment in Canada between 2002 and 2016. There were approximately 409,000 Canadians who worked outside of their home jurisdiction in 2016. In this study, a jurisdiction is a province or a territory (due to the granularity of the data available).

Men represented an average of 62% of interjurisdictional workers, and around 45% of such workers were between the ages of 25 and 44. The second largest group swing from 18- to 24-year-olds pre-2008 to 45 and older workers afterward.

The top industries in which inter-jurisdictional employment occurred were health care and construction (this varied over time and by jurisdiction). Ontario and Alberta were among the jurisdictions most likely to receive interjurisdictional workers.

Atlantic Canada, Manitoba and Saskatchewan were consistent sending jurisdictions. Atlantic Canadian provinces saw significant volatility in the number of workers sent over time. Approximately, 8% of aggregate earnings in Newfoundland and Labrador were from interjurisdictional employment.

This broadly accords with (but helpfully expands) other research on interprovincial labour mobility. The growth in interprovincial labour mobility suggests that disruptions (e.g., COVID, economic downturn) may be more acutely felt in sending regions. The return of mobile workers to their home provinces and territories during downturns may also muddy provincial unemployment data, depending upon where workers claim their EI.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Workers as robots: the entanglement of sci-fi and capitalism

A few years back, a friend and I wrote an article about how unions were represented in contemporary sci-fi. It was an interesting experience in multi-disciplinary research and, for me, a pleasant diversion from the gloomier topic of workplace injury. Over the intervening time, another friend (Olav Rokne) has extended this analysis. He ran an interesting panel with some of the authors whose stories we included in our study.

Last month, Rokne published a fascinating blog post about how sci-fi turned away from early concerns about working conditions and the plight of workers and, since the 1940s, come to accept “broadly accept hegemonic ideas that centre the aims of capital and capitalism. The depiction of workers was replaced with stories that centred industrialists, non-working-class inventors, and the military.”

Rokne then examines some of the historical mechanics by which this change came about, including editorial preferences and the emergence of agency-less robots as a metaphor for the working class. Robot/workers as mindless slaves complements the tendency of sci-fi writers to frame collectives (as a proxy for unions) as monstrous antagonists (e.g., Frankenstein, Cylons, Borg).

-- Bob Barnetson, Worker 889398

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Athabasca University Threatens to Exploit Peculiar Alberta Labour Law to Weaken Union

This post previously appeared on the Canadian Law of Work Forum.

The decision as to who is in (and out) of a bargaining unit in labour law can be a hotly contested issue because the decision affects a union’s subsequent bargaining power. Canadian labour law (for example, s.35 of Alberta’s Labour Relations Code) typically empowers Labour Relations Boards to review whether a proposed bargaining unit is “appropriate for collective bargaining” purposes and then accept, reject or alter the unit description.

Labour Boards apply a set of general principles to determine if a unit is appropriate. For example, Alberta’s Board notes that a unit must make labour relations sense. The factors that drive this decision include community of interest, employer’s bargaining history, nature of the employer’s organization, the viability of the proposed unit, avoiding fragmentation of bargaining structure, and (sometimes) the agreement of the parties. Usually unions are provided some leeway in deciding the unit of employees they want to represent, subject to overriding concerns about a proposed unit causing serious labour problems for the employer.

Bargaining units can be established in other ways. For example, many public-sector units are established or have the bargaining unit description set by statute. In Alberta, the unions that represent post-secondary faculty were created by the Post-Secondary Learning Act (and predecessor legislation). This peculiar piece of legislation delegated to the Board of Governors of each post-secondary institution (i.e., to the employer) the authority to determine which employees or categories of employees were considered academic staff and therefore entitled to be in a bargaining unit represented by a union.

Allowing an employer to designate which employees are members of a union creates the obvious risk that an employer will use this power to advance its labour relations interests. For example, when I worked in the college sector in the late 1990s, college boards would sometimes respond to bargaining demands for better terms for (as an example) librarians with the threat, “if you pursue this demand, we’ll just de-designate the librarians from your unit.”

While this tactic was obviously unfair, the only constraint upon the behaviour of post-secondary Boards was to meaningfully consult before they de-designated. In the mid-1990s, the Lakeland College Faculty Association challenged the de-designation of a librarian. In 1998, the Alberta Court of Appeal ruled that the absence of objective criteria upon which to base a de-designation meant that the college’s consultation was inadequate.

In 2017, Alberta’s NDP government altered post-secondary labour relations. In addition to introducing strike-lockout, the government amended the Labour Relations Code to allow designation decisions to be appealed to the Labour Relations Board. Post-secondary Boards of Governors retained their power to designate.

The new provisions in the Labour Relations Code (s.58.6(2)) outlined some factors that the Labour Board may take into account where hearing an application about designation. These include the history of and policies about designation, the results of any consultation between the employer and union(s), the potential for managerial conflict in the context of collegial governance, arrangements for the transition of affected employees, the views of other affected unions, and any other factors the Labour Board considers relevant.

The history of designation meant that the membership of faculty associations vary significantly across Alberta. Teaching staff and librarians are generally included in the association. The practice around administrators (e.g., deans, departments chairs), administrative professional staff, and other professionals (e.g., IT and course production staff) varies. The new provisions allowed faculty associations to challenge long-standing issues.

For example, in February of 2019, the Labour Board issued a decision regarding the inclusion of departmental chairs in the faculty association of Northern Lakes College. The Labour Board declined to rule on the application, citing a lack of consultation between the parties prior to the faculty association applying to the Labour Board. The Labour Board subsequently provided some guidance about how it will handle such applications going forward. Drawing upon the 1998 Lakeland decision, the Labour Board noted that post-secondary Boards of Governors should establish objective criteria upon which to base designation (and de-designation) decisions.

In December of 2019, Athabasca University (AU) presented its faculty association with a new Designation as Academic Policy (DAP). The new policy contained a very specific list of job duties required for an employee to be considered an “academic”. The proposed policy also named a number of new exclusions that included deans, associate deans, managers, and systems analyst (a very broad term, potentially encompassing AU’s entire IT department).

The effect of the employer’s proposed policy appeared to exclude approximately two-thirds of the faculty association’s current membership, leaving only professors with research duties in the faculty association. Through nine months of consultation, the university refused to confirm (or even discuss) this estimate (although, periodically, university representatives would slip up and acknowledge some of the exclusions). One of the knock-on effects of de-designation appears to be that de-designated employees will no longer being able to participate in the pension plan, another implication of the policy that Athabasca University refused to discuss.

The only rationale advanced by Athabasca University for the policy was compliance with the Labour Board’s requirement for objective criteria. AU already had, however, a set of objective criteria in its 1983 policy. Under the 1983 policy, all professors and professional staff (e.g., administrators, editors, IT staff, librarians) were in the faculty association except for a small number of staff who conducted or had access to information about collective bargaining.

The new policy proposal appears to be a part of a lengthy union-rejection strategy by the university that has included:
  • Refusing to respond to communications about violations of the contract.
  • Missing timelines around grievance and appeal processes.
  • Forcing the union off campus due to a “lack of space” ( the former union office are now a barely used storage room).
  • Forcing simple issues to grievance hearings.
  • Failing to respond to a notice to bargain and violating the statutory freeze period.
  • Advancing bargaining proposals (e.g., company doctors) that lead to impasse before walking away from virtually all of them.
  • Delaying the negotiation of an essential services agreement.
  • Refusing to continue a long-standing workload buyout for the union president.
  • No longer allowing union staff to coat-tail on the union’s employer-administered benefit plan.
Union members applied significant pressure to the employer over the policy (e.g., petitions, letters, a march on the boss, social media posts) that prevented the immediate de-designation of IT staff, deans, associate deans and managers. In September of 2020, Athabasca’s Board of Governors approved a slightly amended DAP. This policy still allows the university to begin de-designating these union members at any time. The faculty association will appeal any dedesignations at the Labour Board, having secured a funding commitment from the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

The faculty association is also increasing the reputational and financial cost of de-designation to the university. The faculty association has escalated member action to include public picketing of university events as well as gathering boycott pledges from other faculty associations. Athabasca is heavily reliant upon tuition from visiting students. If Athabasca de-designates faculty association members, faculty across the country are prepared to no longer send visiting students to Athabasca University or, in some cases, recognize transfer credit from Athabasca.

The ongoing fight at Athabasca highlights the perils of allowing the employer to wear two hats. Athabasca appears to be using its power to decide who is in the bargaining unit to advance its labour-relations interests. This conflict of interest was pointed out to Alberta’s former New Democratic government in 2017 when it amended the law. And avoiding such conflicts is one of the reasons that Labour Boards are typically given the responsibility to determine who is in and out of a bargaining unit.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

New study on farm safety views in Alberta

A new study about safety on Alberta farms is now available. “Occupational health and safety on family farms in Alberta” was funded by the now defunct OHS Futures Grant from government. The study comprises 37 interviews with far operators, family members, employees, industry and worker groups and regulators in 2018/19 (so under the NDP’s now mostly defunct Bill 6 rules). At present, the majority of non-family employee son farms are excluded from statutory OHS, employment standards or labour relations rights.

The findings include:
  • There is an awareness that unsafe work is unacceptable among operators,
  • Workers and farm operators have different views about the level of safety on farms.
  • Fatigue is a key risk factor.
  • Power imbalances in the employment relationship appear to negatively affect the safety of non-family employees. This often goes unrecognized by industry and safety professionals.
  • There was general agreement that some OHS and injury-insurance requirements are necessary; employers were less supportive of rules hours of work despite the safety risk of fatigue.
Overall, this research jives with the broader body of research on farm safety. Of particular note is the impact that pressure (time, finances) have on the decision about working safely and the normalization of unsafe work (by farm operators) as just a part of the job.

This research also highlights how workers and employers see safety differently, even though they may share some of the same risks in the workplace. The impact of a lack of childcare options on the safety of children on the farm was also insightful.

Of interest on the insurance side was the devaluing of the no fault nature of WCB (i.e., the tort bar) because few operators thought they would be sued over an injury. Overall, the study highlighted that there was significantly more nuance to operator views about farm worker rights and regulations than one might thing from the reaction to Bill 6 back in 2015/16.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

New course: LBST 325: Labour mobility and migrant workers


Athabasca University has opened a new online course.

LBST 325: Labour Mobility and Migrant Workers examines various forms of labour mobility and how they affect workers, their families, and the sending and receiving communities.

The course draws upon research done by scholars associated with a recently concluded SSHRC grant (On the Move) with an emphasis on labour mobiilty in western Canada.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Massive drop in Alberta OHS ticketing

Alberta Labour and Immigration’s annual report for 2019/2020 is now available online. Here are the highlights of the employment standards and occupational health and safety sections. The most interesting item is the 96% drop in OHS tickets issues in the past year.

Employment Standards

The number of employment standards complaints was pretty static but there were significant improvements in complaint processing times. That said, it still takes an average of 45 days for a complaint investigation to begin, which isn’t great if your employer just scooped your wages or fired you without notice or pay in lieu.

Interestingly, the number of anonymous tips jumped a lot (about 10% of these tips were investigated). There was also a significant percentage jump in workplace inspections. That said, the overall percentage of workplaces inspected remains very, very low.

Occupational Health and Safety

Workplace inspections were down about 20% this past year. Fewer inspections is attributed to pulling staff from frontline duties to train new OHS officers (really?) and a new system whereby employers can pinky swear that they fixed problems and avoid a re-inspection (eye roll). Orders written and unique worksites visited were also down. 

In terms of enforcement, 22 tickets were issued in 2019/20 (15 of which went to employers). Although the report doesn't mention it, this was down from 479 tickets in 2018/19. Hmmmm. This 96% drop in tickets cries out for explanation. At a guess, I’d say inspectors were told to stop issuing tickets because ticketing is up for review in 2020/21. Issuing virtually no tickets creates ”evidence” that this form of penalty is unnecessary and thus can be done away with as “red tape”.

Five administrative penalties were also issued to employers. Again, not mentioned is that this was down from 14 in 2018/19. Complaints of discrimination for exercising OHS rights were up this year (90 versus last year). Five of these were upheld, 23 were dismissed, and 62 remain under investigation. OHS charges were up, however, from 16 to 18 this year. This is a very low number given the number of injuries and fatalities.

While injury rates are not very good measures of injury due to massive under reporting, they do offer a year-over-year measure. Overall, both lost-time and disabling injury rates were stable in 2019 but were higher than they were in 2015. There were 129 fatalities accepted by the WCB in 2019—about the same as the year before.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Labour & Pop Culture: He thinks he’ll keep her

My wife flagged this 1993 song by Mary Chapin Carpenter as labour related. It traces the journey of a women who, at 36, opts to leave her marriage and role and primary caregiver to re-enter the workforce.

Most of the song chronicles the unpaid, social reproductive labour that the women does. It is interesting to see this work treated so explicitly as both skilled and demanding labour. And yet these skill have little market value when she decides to rejoin the paid workforce. It also nicely tease is out the often hidden power dynamics of one-income marriages.

I’m not a huge fan of the new country era, but the backup singers on this video are are pretty amazing. Trisha Yearwood, Emmylou Harris, and Patty Lovelace, to name a few.

She makes his coffee, she makes his bed
She does the laundry, she keeps him fed
When she was twenty-one she wore her mother's lace
She said, "forever," with a smile upon her face

She does the carpool, she P.T.A.'s
Doctors and dentists, she drives all day
When she was twenty-nine she delivered number three
And ev'ry Christmas card showed a perfect family

Ev'rything runs right on time
Years of practice and design
Spit and polish till it shines, he thinks he'll keep her

Ev'rything is so benign
The safest place you'll ever find
God forbid you change your mind, he thinks he'll keep her

She packs his suitcase, she sits and waits
With no expression upon her face
When she was thirty-six she met him at their door
She said, "I'm sorry, I don't love you any more"

Ev'rything runs right on time
Years of practice and design
Spit and polish till it shines, he thinks he'll keep her

Ev'rything is so benign
The safest place you'll ever find
God forbid you change your mind, he thinks he'll keep her

For fifteen years she had a job and not one raise in pay
Now she's in the typing pool at minimum wage

Ev'rything runs right on time
Years of practice and design
Spit and polish till it shines, he thinks he'll keep her

Ev'rything is so benign
The safest place you'll ever find
At least until you change your mind (he thinks he'll keep her) all right

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Labour & Pop Culture: Good Girls Revolt

If you are looking for an interesting historical dramatization to fill you winter evenings, Amazon Prime is presently offering Good Girls Revolt, a 10-episode miniseries set in 1969 and 1970 at Newsweek Magazine.

Amazon cancelled the show after one season. But what a season it was! The show is based upon a book the chronicles a sex discrimination lawsuit by female researchers at Newsweek.  The researchers are exploited horrendously, often being more qualified and better writers than the male reporters, but paid a fraction of their wages and denied credit.


The most interesting part of the show is how it documents what is essentially an organizing campaign by the women to assert their rights. I can’t think, off hand, of another mainstream series that follows an organizing campaign over time. Usually collective action is framed as spontaneous or the result of a long-standing power base. 


In Good Girls Revolt, we get to see a group of workers create a new power base in a workplace. This includes recognizing and articulating their interests and how they differ from the interests of other workers (the men). It also engages how race and class can affect solidarity within a group. The character’s flaws and mis-steps are also realistically portrayed. 


-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Labour and Pop Culture: Frankie Drake

I recently had the… opportunity?... to watch a few episodes of CBC’s Frankie Drake Mysteries series. The series centres on an all-female detective agency in 1920s Toronto (so kind of a flapper lady Matlock dealie). The series is available on Amazon Prime but perhaps also the CBC website.

Episode 2 of the first season (“Ladies in Red”) sees Frankie hired to investigate an attack on a factory owner. The owner is convinced the attack was the work of communists in his plant (that manufacturers some kind of confusing glass window product). The show makes reference to the 1919 Winnipeg strike as well as the 1920 Wall Street bombing (which may have been the work of Italian anarchists or communists… or maybe not) to explain the owner’s concerns.

The detectives’ investigations turns up a group of communists (or red sympathizers) in the plant. But their interest is mostly in world peace and perhaps in better working conditions. There is a subplot around sexual harassment and, in the end, the real villain in the plant manager who is skimming, sexually exploiting, and trying to deflect blame onto the workers.

If you can get past the many inconsistencies (e.g., the show is pretty race blind until race is a useful plot point) this episode has a positive portrayal of collective action by workers and highlights the plight of working women in urban Canada after the first war.

I have to admit, by the end I was on my phone googling. But my impression is that the episode ends with Frankie cajoling the plant owner into raising the women’s wages. This seemed very out of character and pretty Pollyanna.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Activists not allies: Organizing in a distributed workforce

This blog was previously published on the Organizing Work blog.

Bob Barnetson describes a campaign by his faculty association at Athabasca University, a public, higher education distance learning institution in Alberta. During a contract fight, the union made the bold move of just mobilizing members for pickets and not relying on community supporters.

In 2017, my 400-person union faced a crisis as a result of new labor laws. For the prior 30 years, bargaining impasses had been resolved by a combination of interest arbitration over wages and a “stonewall” clause over language (i.e., absent agreement, the existing language continued). This resulted in a disengaged membership that viewed bargaining as primarily a technical exercise and would rarely take direct action against the employer.

New laws imposed by a putatively labor-friendly government meant an immediate switch to strike-lockout for faculty associations across our province (including some who were well into bargaining). Like the other faculty associations, my union had no credible strike threat. Not surprisingly, Athabasca University opened the next round of bargaining seeking a wage freeze and serious rollbacks in working conditions backed by the spectre of a 24-hour lockout. These aggressive demands were part of a broader employer strategy of union busting.

A key part of my union’s response to the move to strike-lockout was to engage and mobilize our members in order to create both a credible strike threat and, more broadly, a base of power in the workplace. In addition to a culture of passive unionism, a major challenge we faced was that half of our members worked from home offices spread across the country while the other half worked on campuses in three different cities. The employer’s aggressive bargaining position—a position much more aggressive than required by the government’s mandate of a freeze on the lost of living—created an opportunity to agitate among a relatively privileged set of workers. We then moved towards educating the members about ways that they could push back.

We began with low-risk actions, such as running a series of straw polls. Each week, we would outline one of the employer’s proposals and its implications in an email. We’d then poll our members on whether they would accept such an outcome. These polls were a dress rehearsal for a strike vote. We used the results to agitate and to demonstrate to the employer that, if they really wanted each proposal, they were going to have to chance a lock out. Over time, the employer withdrew or otherwise abandoned these proposals.

Our broader goal, though, was to lay the groundwork for direct action that was not mediated through the union. In particular, we were interested in developing a set of picketers to normalize the behavior (since a work stoppage was looming) and exert public pressure, in the hope of forcing an acceptable contract on the employer. We began by hosting a series of picket sign-making lunches, where we encouraged staff to repurpose university slogans and logos.

Our picketing goals were twofold: (1) to get 100 different members (25% of the unit) out to at least one information picket, and (2) to increase the size of the information pickets each time. While we had access to allies—both from other unions on campus and in the broader labor movement—we decided early on not to rely upon allies for picketing. Although many allies turned up and their support was helpful and heartening, our goal was always to build our own power base, where none had existed, rather than stretch existing labor power by embroiling allies in yet another dispute. Relying mainly on our own members for picketing demonstrated—to both the members and the employer—that we were able to mount a strike if necessary.

Over the space of four months (March to June), we staged four information pickets. Our first picket of a Board of Governors meeting saw 14 members and 1 ally force Board members to sneak in the back door. A second picket saw 32 members (including 27 first-timers) and 5 allies picket in conjunction with the 19th (!) day of bargaining. A third picket (at the Board Chair’s place of business) saw 20 members (including 12 first-timers) and 4 allies make the Chair’s employees and customers aware of how badly she was allowing us to be treated. Our final picket saw 35 members (including 10 first timers) and 20 allies picket a university meeting during the downtown lunch rush in Edmonton, much to the surprise of the university executive. (The high numbers of allies reflects that the university paid these staff to be onsite that day.) An acceptable contract was concluded shortly thereafter.

While we didn’t fully meet our numeric member engagement goals, we did achieve the strategic goals: thwarting the employer’s rollbacks, both by demonstrating we had a viable strike threat and attaching reputational costs to the employer’s bad behavior. More subjectively, the pickets built up the confidence of the members in expressing their dissatisfaction and in realizing that they were not each alone in their opposition to the employer’s terrible behavior. We were very careful to inoculate members about potential employer countermoves. As it turned out, the employer was unable to mount any kind of effective countermove.

Normalizing activism and having an internal group of activists proved important a few months later when the employer escalated its union-busting strategy by taking advantage of Alberta’s unusual labor laws to try and carve two-thirds of our members out of the unit. We immediately organized member actions including petitions, a march on the boss, disrupting four meetings, and an email campaign that applied a lot of social pressure, to support our legal and media campaigns. This issue remains ongoing.

As we head into another difficult round of bargaining, we’re focusing on generating buy-in to our proposal so that members will support making gains, not just defending existing rights. Changes to past practice have included more member engagement in proposal development, members ratifying the opening proposal, regular surveys and blog posts about member issues, and one-on-one telephone contact with members.

While our allies, particularly among the other unions on campus, have been very helpful in our confrontations with the boss, in the end our power flows from the willingness of our members to take actions that attach costs to the employer’s behavior. Our assumption is that, if the cost of bad behavior is high enough, the employer will behave differently. Workers, not allies, can generate the highest costs to employers. Social disapproval, work slowdowns, and work refusals are powerful tools—arguably more powerful than grievances and media campaigns—to resist employer attacks. These require focusing on mobilizing our own members, not coat-tailing on the power of other unions.

-- Bob Barnetson