Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Some thoughts on work and COVID

So we’re a month in to COVID-19 here in Alberta. I have some preliminary thoughts on work during an extended period of crisis. Some are general, others are more specific to Athabasca University.

Planning matters

As far as I can tell, most of the public sector had no effective plan for a pandemic. This is weird because pandemic planning was all the rage in 2004/05 (post SARS). The most public example of this has been the federal government’s bumbling rollout of enhanced income support. To the fed’s credit, they have at least tried and appear to be succeeding (likely because of their hard-working staff).

By contrast, Alberta’s response was completely inadequate, probably by design (to drive costs to the feds). A question for labour market policy wonks going forward is whether some form of basic income might be much more functional (and fairer and more efficient) than the collection of income support programs currently on offer.

Workers matter

My own institution had zero plan and its response (despite bumps) has largely been successful due to hard work, mostly by the lowest paid employees. The importance of poorly compensated workers in managing the crisis is evident everywhere (e.g., hospital cleaners, grocery store clerks, delivery people). Whether these workers can convert this momentary glimpse into their importance into meaningful improvements in their working conditions and job security going forward is an open question.

Certainly they have stored up some social capital that they may be able to use to demand things like a living wage and job security. Employers get this potential source of power and some have tried to undercut it with hazard pay. Galen Weston Jr. giving grocery workers an extra $16 a day to risk their lives won’t turn him into a folk hero. But this hazard pay will be used as a "good corporate citizen" fig leaf the next time exploitative working conditions or price fixing hits the media.

Workers don’t actually matter to employers

My employer has focused on ensuring staff can be productive at home and quickly rolled out laptops and spiffy new software. But it has done little to find out about and resolve broader issues associated with home work. People don’t have adequate workspaces so are becoming injured. Workloads have risen. A paltry payment of $50/month (before tax!) to cover extra costs was rolled out a month in, even though that is less than what regular home workers get.

Last week, the president announced that anyone who can’t work full-time from home (presumably due to conflicting demands, such as childcare) will soon have to choose between their job and their other commitments. So basically, “Ladies, thanks for helping us out during the crisis; tough luck about having kids.” (But, remember, we’re OneAU folks!). I didn’t think morale could sink lower or people could be angrier at the boss, but there you go.

Managers add little value

What I’ve seen among my colleagues is basically people are working hard and using their initiative to solve problems, even while working at home and able to play hooky. For the most part, they are doing fine and right by the people they serve.

Managers have added little value to this effort. Indeed, most of the managing that is happening is actually counter-productive, performative management with unnecessary surveillance and meetings, mostly to give managers something to do (since most seem unable or unwilling to make decisions).

Conservatives suck

Yeah, I know, profs are supposed to be even-handed and this just feeds into the narrative that we’re all lefties. But looking at the evidence (specifically at Jason Kenney and Alberta’s UCP), its clear that conservatives are just out to benefit the wealthy (specifically oil and gas companies via tax cuts for, loan guarantees to, and direct investing in a dying industry) while destroying the public services people rely on.

The government’s attack on the doctors continues DURING A FUCKING PANDEMIC and doctors are publicly making plans to reduce services and leave the province. Educational assistants have been laid off, just when they are most necessary to help students adjust to home schooling. Other public servants have been given a reprieve during the pandemic but layoffs and wage rollbacks will continue thereafter. 

My own institution has been told to reduce expenditures by 20% in this budget year (which could mean 300 layoffs from a full-time staff of 750, basically causing the university to collapse) at the same time as enrollments are surging (because we’re uniquely able to educate during a pandemic). 

I imagine this all makes ideological sense to conservatives, but the practical impact of their shitty public policy (backed by constant lying, corruption, and childish behaviour) clearly tells the rest of us that they and their war-time posturing need to go. Probably forever.

Labour is becoming bolder

The inadequacies of neoliberal policies (and the modest skills and bad instincts of conservative politicians) are emboldening workers and union leaders. I expect a wave of strikes (probably wildcats) will hit Alberta as COVID-19 recedes and conservatives push forward with more cuts. Greater class consciousness is a huge gain from COVID-19. An interesting question will be whether this class consciousness will extend to white-collar workers.

So, with that off my chest (and I feel WAY better for it), I’ll go back to trying to sort out myriad student woes while trying not to lose my sanity.

-- Bob Barnetson

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