Monday, September 27, 2021

Labour & Pop Culture: More Brooklyn 99

It looks like Brooklyn 99 will be using the Policeman’s Benevolent Association as a recurring antagonist in its final season. In Episode 3 (The Blue Flu), the uniformed officers fake an attack on an officer (mouse in a burrito) in order to pressure the NYPD to support the officers and buy them new tactical equipment. (These are likely reasonable demands from the perspective of the workers, but they are not explored and simply dismissed as self-interested.) When the NYPD won’t play along, the officers call in sick (i.e., strike illegally) and the main characters have to investigate and foil this job action.

Again, recognizing that writing a police comedy is tricky these days, there was a lot of interesting stuff packed into this show. First up, we don’t often see workers engaging in direct action on television. While the direct action is eventually contained by the employer, that the workers forced the employer to respond highlights how effective direct action can be. I’m not sure that was the intent of the writers, but it was an interesting facet of the show.

The sick out is basically treated as illegitimate. But one of the workers' demands was for new tactical gear (i.e., personal protective equipment), which you’d think the main characters might have some sympathy for. This suggests that there may be more to this work stoppage than worker laziness and manipulation (which is how it is presented).

The speed at which the main characters (who are generally written as moral, upstanding, and sometimes politically aware) jump to bust the patrol officers’ job action is quite striking. This again highlights how police officers sit in a conflicted position as workers. The main characters are workers but their job is to act against other workers on behalf of the powerful. That none of them (particularly Rosa, who left her job as a cop because of racist policing practices) were in any way discomforted by this was a missed opportunity.

To fill out the ranks while the patrol officers are out sick, detectives are dragooned from other precincts. The other precinct captains use this demand as an opportunity to take out the trash, dumping their least productive detectives on the 99th Precinct (my wife and I laughed aloud, having witnessed this exact play in government). This requires Amy to figure out how to covert these detectives’ capacity to work into actual work. She does this by offering an incentive program linked to pedometer metrics. The workers immediately subvert this effort, which is played for laughs and further amplifies the lazy worker trope.

The sick out is eventually brought to an end when the Captain tells the union rep that the strike has revealed that fewer patrol officers actually resulted in better policing. The threat here is that, if the patrol officers stay off, they won’t have jobs to return to when they come back. This is a classic management power move (threatening jobs to gain worker compliance). It has echoes of employers threatening to dump a product line, close a business, or automate a process if the workers don’t do management’s bidding.

While the police union has only appeared in two episodes, it seems that Brooklyn 99 is drawing upon the corrupt union (or union boss) trope to create a recurring antagonist for its final season. This makes sense given that the show is trying to highlight racist and violent policing, to which police unions have contributed, while also trying to be a comedy. To the degree that viewers don’t distinguish between this particular example and the behaviour of the broader labour movement, Brooklyn 99 is likely doing workers a disservice.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, September 20, 2021

Labour & Pop Culture: Brooklyn 99

Brooklyn 99 is a police comedy series that has just released its final season on Netflix. The first episode (“The Good Ones”) deals with police brutality and the role of police unions in shielding officers from the consequences of their actions. The release of the final season was delayed as the writers sought to write a police comedy in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

Two of the characters (Rosa and Jake) investigate the assault, arrest, and false charging of an African woman by two NYPD police officers (to generate overtime payments, according to their captain). The police union (the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association) bars Rosa and Jake from talking to the officers and accessing bodycam footage that might demonstrate the charged woman is innocent. When Jake and Rosa steal the footage from the union offices, the precinct captain deletes it and explains how the disciplinary system is broken.

The plot and characterization of the police union was interesting in several ways. In no particular order:
  • The assault and false arrest is explained as the officers seeking to extend their shift and receive overtime. This may well happen but this explanation seems to ignore the racial context of the George killings.
  • The union official is written as a caricature (living with his mom and loving the NYPD and Billy Joel) prepared to overlook any bad behaviour by his union’s members. The union member are also shown as caricatures (making ridiculous complaints, dressing like RWNJs).
  • There is collusion mooted between the union and the employer to undermine any discipline the officers might experience. In the end, the only outcome is the charges are dropped against the African woman.
Before jumping into any analysis, it is worth appreciating that Brooklyn 99 is a comedy show that is trying to navigate tricky terrain. And using tropes (e.g., corrupt union officials protecting irresponsible union members) is a common way for television shows to engage with unions (because viewers can much more easily understand the plot).

The precinct captain explaining the officers’ behaviour as economic is a very interesting way to portray how racism (which is the root issue) can be obscured by how the issue is framed. It is way easier for an organization to grapple with time theft than with systemic racism. I wonder if the elision of racism by the framing should have been made clearer? But perhaps I am under-estimating the audience.

The characterization of the police union officials and members was unsympathetic (but funny). These NPCs created an interesting foil for the main characters (who viewed themselves as “the good ones”) and allowed the show to highlight how good intentions often get subverted by systemic pressures. That said, this episode contributes the almost universally negative framing of unions and union members.

Near the end, there is an interesting discussion of how the discipline system works. Essentially, says the captain, trying to discipline the officers will not work. They will simply get a paid vacation, any finding of wrongdoing will be overturned on appeal (because the employer colludes with the union), and the officers will simply return to the job emboldened (while the female captain’s career gets sidelined for breaking the code).

There is a lot to unpack in that one scene. That the police officers would be placed on paid leave pending a hearing seems to be framed as rewarding bad behaviour (and it is certainly far different from most American’s experience of employment at will). Yet, if you think about it, a collective agreement compelling the employer to abide by the principle of innocent until proven guilty is a good thing.

The idea that the employer will collude with the union to prevent the police officers from being disciplined highlights how police unions operate in a far different realm than every other union. One of the functions of police officers is to (essentially) protect private property. In practice, this means that they act against workers on behalf of employers (who own most private property). This makes police officers effectively agents of capital. Consequently, their employer may excuse behaviour that no other employer would.

The position of the captain (who views herself as one of the good ones) is also an interesting study in the conflicted role of middle managers. The captain is basically a disposable tool of the employer (if she does the objectively right thing, her career is over). So, she does the “best” she can, which leads her to fix the immediate issue while, at the same time, enabling the officers’ ongoing bad behaviour.

The captain rationalizes her behaviour, in part, as an equity issue. She is one of the few female captains. Doing the right thing (by a racialized person) will set back gender equity in the NYPD. This was a really fascinating analysis of how racists systems can create conflicts of interests between and among racialized and non-racialized people.

Overall, this episode provided a lot of meat to chew over about systemic racism and the structures and dynamics that perpetuate it.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, August 20, 2021

Labour & Pop Culture: AP Bio


Netflix has recently begin carrying A.P Bio. The show follows a misanthropgic former Harvard philosophy professor (Jack Griffin) who is forced to teach advanced placement biology to nerds in Toledo while living in his dead mom’s Jesus-adorned home.

Episode 2 of Season 1 sees Jack in trouble for failing to supervise his students. Jack is forced to choose between a short suspension and fighting the discipline. If he fights the discipline, he remains suspended with pay and has to hang out in “teacher jail” playing cards and such. Niecy Nash (who is hilarious) plays the union rep “Kim”.

There are two interesting aspects of this storyline. The first is that the union rep and the principal (played by Patton Oswald) have a long history and the union rep uses the grievance to get back at the principal  We rarely get into the complex relationships that develop between union and management reps over time and how these relationships colour the handling of grievances and other business. The idea of a grudge shaping decision-making is quite (and perhaps unintentionally) accurate.

The second is that teacher jail is framed as a bit of a ridiculous place where bad people go to kill time on full pay. This plays a bit into the “malingering worker” trope. What is interesting about teacher jail is how at odds it is with how discipline workers in both in Canada and especially in the US. Basically, workplace discipline sees workers as guilty until proven innocent. If they are innocent, they may get some compensation for their lost wages or jobs but few non-unionized workers can afford to fight discipline.

Arrangements where a worker is suspended with pay pending the employer proving discipline (i.e., innocent until proven guilty) are few and far between, even in unionized environments. Yet this seems like the fairest approach, since the burden of proof falls on the employer and the employer imposing sanctions without actually proving the worker did anything works a great unfairness on workers. It is telling that Jack only has access to this kind of approach because he has a union that’s negotiated a solid contract.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, August 9, 2021

Alberta Labour 2020/21 Annual Report

Alberta Labour released its annual report for 2020/21. As usual, there are a number of interesting tidbits to be found in amongst the spin doctoring. For example, the report (p.18) identifies that the Minimum Wage panel (struck in 2019) to examine the impact of minimum wage changes (and likely to support reducing the minimum wage for servers) reported (I’m told in the spring of 2020) and the government is sitting in the report.

Given the difficulty that many minimum-wage employers are having recruiting staff, it will be interesting to see if the government goes ahead with re-introducing this two-tier wage structure and, if it does, whether employees will be able to take advantage of it and grind server wages.

There was some interesting analysis this year that higher youth wages do not appear associated with job losses among youth (which was the pretext for introduce a lower youth wage in 2019). There is also some suggestion that lower youth wages have not resulted in improvements in youth unemployment. In June, youth (age 15-24) unemployment was 18.1% in Alberta, basically double overall unemployment (9.3%).

The emphasis on helping unemployed Albertans return to work (either via additional training or labour market services) is notable and reflects the 6.6% drop in employment in 2020. The government also reduced by about a third the number of spots available to migrant workers who wish to become permanent citizens to, in part, “enable more job opportunities for unemployed Albertans” (p. 36). Interestingly, the department continued to make efforts to increase labour mobility within Canada by lowering the already low barriers to having certifications from other provinces recognized (pp.37,39).

Employment Standards



The number of Employment Standards complaints dropped by about 35% between 2018/19 and 20201/21. This likely triggered drops in other ES metrics (some of which are positive). There is no analysis of why complaints dropped or which kinds of complaints declined. Potential explanations include fewer Albertans working and fewer Albertans willing to complain given the high level of unemployment.

There is no data provided on what percentage of complaints were found to be valid or how much unpaid wages were recovered (or not recovered). The number of human trafficking investigations jumped from 59 to 95 (no data on outcomes) and single administrative penalty was issues to an employer who derived economic benefits from non-compliance. The report pumps this up as the biggest fine ever issues. What is ignored is that pretty much all valid ES complaints involve the employer enjoying an economic benefit. So a single employer being penalized is not really a huge success.

Occupational Health and Safety



The number of OHS inspections was way up last year, likely reflecting the demands of COVID. The number of orders written was, however, way down. The explanation offered is a bit hard to parse but I think it says that basically OHS only lowered the boom when there was repeated noncompliance. What this tells employers is that they basically get a free pass on their first offence (unless someone gets injured or killed), which does not really incentivize voluntary, pro-active compliance by employers.

There were 55 tickets issues in 2020/21 (mostly to workers). Once again, the report omits important context which is that, under the UCP, ticketing has dropped off to essentially nothing. In 2018/19, there were 479 tickets issues. This dropped to 22 tickets in 2019/20 and remains low in 2020/21.

There were also 18 administrative penalties issued to employers, totalling $62,500. This number is up over last year (14) but I can’t find the data to track the dollar value. Seventeen charges were laid this year against employers (about the same as last year). Fines as a result of convictions dropped from $5.2m to $1.9m because, you guessed it, the number of charges in previous years dropped.

Injury Stats



While injury rates an not very good measures of injury due to massive under-reporting, they do offer year-over-year a measure. There was a significant jump (8%) in lost-time claims and is at the highest level since 2011. COVID explains part of the jump this year, but it is notable that there has been a long-term trend (since 2016) upwards. This suggests that Alberta injury prevention efforts are not working. Accepted fatalities sat at 130, which is about the same as last two years.

Labour Relations



The number of certification applications in 2020/21 was way down (51%). This is likely the result of the reintroduction of mandatory votes (which makes certification drives riskier for unions) and COVID. On the upside, the Labor Board finally began allowing electronic filing (dumping their outdated paper/fax-only system).

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Alberta's 2019 injury data released

Alberta finally released its annual report on injuries and fatalities for 2019. Some of the key findings are that, from 2017 to 2019:
  • Lost-time claim numbers and rates are up slightly,
  • Modified work numbers and rates are down some, and
  • Overall, the number of disabling injuries is up slightly (likely population growth related) while the rate is down slightly. 
Industry-related data was not super surprising. Ag and forestry is the most dangerous and saw large growth in injury rates (~24%). I suspect this reflects the implementation of mandatory WCB in agriculture.



Manufacturing, processing and packaging was another sector with relatively high injury rates. We should expect this number to spike in 2020 and 2021 given the COVID waves that swept through the meat-packing plants. We’ll likely also see something similar in the public sector (particularly education and health care). We may also see this in mining, given the oilsands camp outbreaks.

There has been a long-term increase in occupational fatality rates in Alberta.


This has included a long-term reduction in the proportion of fatalities caused by motor vehicles accidents (blue bar in chart below) and an increase in workplace incidents (orange bar).



Claims related to harassment and violence doubled from 2015 to 2019. This may reflect, in part, greater awareness and acceptance of these sorts of injuries as a result of changes to the OHS Act and Code made by the New Democrats.


One of the most compelling charts is buried at the end of the document and it tracks injury rates over 10 years. Combined with the fatality rates chart above, the biggest take-away is that not much has changed. 



This suggests that the injury-prevention strategies mandated by successive Alberta governments (which have emphasized education and voluntary compliance coupled with anemic enforcement) have not really moved the needle on worker injuries or workplace safety.



-- Bob Barnetson












Tuesday, June 8, 2021

New data on injury under-reporting, claims suppression, and risk in small workplaces

Some new research updates have been published by the Institute for Work and Health. A study in BC looked at injury claiming behaviour. It found that approximately half of workers who have a work-related injury or illness that requires time away from work do not report the injury to the BC workers’ compensation system. Key explanations include workers not knowing they are entitled or how to apply or not thinking it is worth their time to do so. Further, between 4 and 13% of people with work-related injuries experience inducements or pressure from their employer not to report the injury.

You can read the full report here and a shorter policy briefing here. This table (nicked from the policy briefing) summarizes the recent evidence on underclaiming and suppression in workers' compensation claims.


The key take-aways are that there is pretty consistent evidence that only half of injured workers report injuries to the workers compensation system. That is to say, workers’ compensation data (which is basically what we use in Canada to assess injury rates and drive public policy) consistently and significantly under-estimates the true level of injury. Further, one of the factors that drives under-reporting by workers is employer claims suppression behaviour.

Interestingly, claim suppression is not the most common cause of under-reporting in the BC study. Workers not knowing to or how to report was a significant factor. This is followed by workers not thinking it was worth their while to do so (in part because some employers offer alternative forms of injury compensation).

A second study investigated the reasons underlying higher risk of injury to workers at small firms. The upshot of this study was that inadequate safety policies and procedures at smaller firms were the major source of higher injury rates. When this variable was controlled for, differences disappeared. This suggests that smaller workplaces are not intrinsically less safe and the greater risk of injury can be attenuated by improved organizational processes

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Boss makes a dollar, we make a dime...

Everyone's friend, Bonhomme (not a boss).
One of the challenges of organizing workers to resist an aggressive employer is the tendency of workers to disbelieve (at least, at first) that their employer could actually mean to treat them so badly. 

This initial denial often reflects underlying anxiety (because the boss is powerful) and manifests itself in several ways. For example, workers may:
  • question whether the union is mis-informed about what is happening or mis-understands it,
  • suggest the employer has made an innocent error and can be talked around or shown the error of their ways, or
  • try to make excuses for the employer (“they have no choice”).
Workers can eventually move past these initial responses, especially when the employer repeatedly misbehaves (which eventually creates a “the boss who cried wolf” dynamic). A sly employer can draw out the period of denial with a good “bonhomie” routine or by creative gaslighting. 

One strategy unions can use to get past this is to help workers understand that bosses really aren’t like them. Sure, they wear a skin suit and have kids and like to wakeboard and go on Disney cruises. But their world is fundamentally different.

But how to show this? Well, money talks. So a peak inside the boss's house is a great way to illustrate—in an immediate and material way—that the boss isn’t worried about where their next paycheque comes from. And, when the boss takes a wage freeze or tiny rollback, it doesn't have the same effect as when they try to push that on workers.

My most recently previous boss's house is up on the market and, through the miracle of virtual tours, we can see how the 1% really lives. The address in the posting isn’t exactly correct, based on my pre-picket scouting during our last round of bargaining. I’m not sure how long this posting will be live (the virtual tour is something) so I screen capped a few of the photos.



I’ve been to a lot of members' homes—usually for good reasons, sometimes for sad ones. None of them have come close to this size (3800 sq ft on 3/4 of an acre backing onto a pond) or level of luxury.



The main floor boosts a huge living room (with piano), dining room, kitchen, and master suite. The quality of the finishes put my house (which is pretty nice) to shame.



The master suite includes a soaker tub with its own fireplace, which is important when you need to relax after the difficult days of grinding workers’ wages.



And satin sheets will help you sleep away your guilt at pretending to care about keeping jobs in the Athabasca region, while actually moving them away.



The upstairs has an enormous bedroom (not shown), while the basement features a wet bar area that connects a massive family room with a rec room. What better place to gather your minions and hatch plans to bust your workers’ union!



The point here is that bosses superficially look like workers. But they don’t share our circumstances or our interests. And revealing that difference to workers—in material terms—can go a long way towards undercutting the boss’s messaging.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, May 20, 2021

No evidence paid sick leaves kills jobs

Canada and the US are outliers in historically having no statutory paid sick leave. Alberta’s opposition party has proposed 10 days of leave as a pandemic response measure. This logic of this proposal is basically that paid sick leave would help some sick workers decide to stay home by providing security of employment, income, and benefits. Yesterday, Alberta’s premier called paid sick leave a “job killing” proposal.

A 2010 report by the World Health Organization (in the wake of H1N1) suggests that paid sick leave has benefits that far outweigh its costs in Europe. The benefits include:
  • Access promptly medical care and the opportunity to follow treatment recommendations 
  • Recuperate more quickly 
  • Reduce the health impact on day-to-day functioning 
  • Prevent more series illnesses from developing 
  • Reduce the spreading of diseases to the workplace and community (p.6).
The costs of paid sick leave are mooted to be greater costs (for the state or employers, depending upon the arrangement), loss of productivity, and the potential for abuse by workers (i.e., taking sick days when not sick).

The WHO report suggests European costs are relatively low (averaging just under 200 Euros per year per capita), and paid sick leave is associated with greater productivity.

A US study examined the effect of sick leave mandates in several US cities and states on the number of private sector jobs. These proposals see workers accrue sick leave over time (kind of like; vacation entitlements). The upshot is that there appears to be effectively no impact on jobs numbers (i.e., sick is not a job-killing policy).

A separate study focused on New York’s employer paid sick leave mandate (which extended sick leave to millions of employees) also suggests paid sick leave is no big deal. 
  • Most employers experienced no cost increases and those who did (14%), the majority reports <3% change. 
  • More than 91% of employers reported no reduction in hiring
  • 97% of employers indicated that they did not reduce hours 
  • 98% of employers reported virtually no abuse of sick leave and percentage of no-abuse reported was higher for small businesses. 
  • 96% reported either no decline or an increase in productivity.
Basically, modest statutory sick leave provisions are a significant public health boon and can be implemented at virtually no cost. There is no credible evidence I could find in a quick search that paid sick days are “job killing”.

Not providing sick leave, by contrast, is likely to increase in the spread of COVID (as workers come to work sick for fear of losing their jobs or not being able to pay their bills). In this way, Premier Kenney’s unwillingness to consider paid sick leave is a “worker killing” policy.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, April 30, 2021

Presentation: Science fiction and organized labour

An interesting presentation by Olav Rokne about the the presence and absence of unions in science fiction.



Thursday, April 22, 2021

Proposed changes to joint committee rules in OHS Code review

Alberta made sweeping changes to the OHS Act last year with Bill 47. Most of the OHS changes will take effect in September. Among these changes were significant rollbacks to the language around joint health and safety committees. At that time, the changes included:
  • 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.
Alberta is presently consulting on changes to the Occupational Health and Safety Code. One of the elements of the Code that is under review is the provisions for Joint OHS Committees. The consultation includes possible new wording. These proposals suggest the new OHS Code may contain some of the provisions previously eliminated from the Act. The shuffle of provisions is challenging to track, but here is my best effort.

  • Membership: Worker reps will be selected by workers or the union(s) (in a unionized workplace). A new provision would allow the employer to select worker reps if the workers/union(s) refuse. There remain no rules about the duration of membership. 
  • Terms of reference: The legislation is now silent on who establishes the rules by which the committee operates (previously this was jointly determined). This opens the door to the employer establishing the terms of reference unless the worker representatives can (somehow) resist this.
  • Co-chairs: Each “side” chooses its own co-chair but the requirement for alternate chairing of meetings is not present. Neither is the assertion that chairs can participate as full committee members (that may be a minor point).
  • Posting: The Code appears to restore the requirement that the employer post the names and contact info of committee members (although the committee can agree to alternatives to physical posting). There appear to be no requirement to post minutes such that workers can see them.
  • Quorum: The quorum requirements would be re-established. But it would no longer be explicit that meetings held and business transacted in the absence of quorum would be void.
  • Meetings: The Code allows OHS officers to convene a special meeting of the committee. There continues to no longer be any requirement for the committee to meet (ever!).
  • Inspections: The requirement for the committee (or anyone) to inspect the workplace quarterly has not been replaced and there is no requirement for the committee (or anyone) to inspect the workplace ever.
  • Training: Provisions requiring committee members take OHS training approved by the Minister are dropped and replaced with a general obligation on the employer to ensure committee members are competent to do the work of the committee. The requirement that workers be paid for taking training would be eliminated. 
These proposed changes to the OHS Act remedy some of the gaps left by Bill 47. But the following issues remain unaddressed:
  • The duties of JHSC remain very narrow (i.e., to receiving worker concerns, participating in the employer’s hazard assessment process, making non-binding recommendations, and reviewing inspection results) and this will further limit the effectiveness of committees. 
  • There is no requirement for the committee to meet (let alone regularly), for workers to participate in regular worksite inspections (or, indeed for any inspections to occur ever), or for workers the investigation of serious injuries and incidents. 
  • Training will be left to employer fiat and, if any training is offered, there is no requirement to pay workers for taking training. 
In effect, Bill 47 and these proposed changes leave Alberta’s nascent and weak OHS committees even weaker and less effective than they were before. This reinforces my belief that Labour minister Jason Copping’s assertion that Bill 47 was about “improving safety for Alberta workers” was misleading. Bill 47 was about reducing costs to employers and rendering committees less able to identify workplace hazards and push for remedy. This will result in workplaces becoming less safe.

As an OHS committee member, I wonder why I would bother to participate in such a hollow, ineffective system? It would be a much better use of my time to organize workers to do their own inspections and then orchestrate mass work refusals.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Why sectorial bargaining never takes off

The Spring 2020 issue of Labour/Le Travail included an interesting article entitled “Broader-based and sectoral bargaining in collective bargaining law reform: A historical review.” Sectoral bargaining is an alternative (actually, many alternatives) to the decentralized unionism (i.e., a single-employer bargain as with a single union over conditions at a single worksite) that as the norm in Canada.

It is often mooted as a mechanism that could offer significant benefits to workers, particularly those in small workplaces or facing precarious employment, when site-based unionization isn’t viable. There are examples of sectoral bargaining (e.g., Alberta construction registrations system) but it is not the norm and is not available to most workers.

Author Sara Slinn examines the history of labour law reform in English-speaking Canada to understand why sectoral bargaining has never really taken off. She suggests that employer resistance is part of the explanation, but recent resistance has been more moderate this historical resistance.

She suggests other explanatory factors include union resistance. This reflects concerns about losing representational rights (which I think we can understand as a proxy for members and dues), concern that multi-union arrangements may dilute individual union’s bargaining power, and concerns ab out interjurisdictional fights between unions over work. My casual observation of Alberta’s construction industry bargaining suggests these concerns are likely reasonable.

These concerns, suggests Slinn, may make labour centrals reluctant to push this issue. Governments, expecting employer resistance and not getting any pressure from labour, sensibly opt to ignore sectoral bargaining. Overall, this article makes a persuasive case about the politics that shape the uptake on this interesting idea.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Sugaring and sex work

A few years back, Briarpatch magazine did an interesting piece on sex workers working around the closure of online sites to connect with clients by American legislation, such as the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. One website that continued to function was “Seeking Arrangements”, which connected sex workers and clients in longer term arrangements (often called sugardaddying/babying).

One interesting aspect of the article is that it explores this form of sex work in the content of precarious work (or the gig economy), noting how the criminalization of sex work intensifies the exploitability of these workers. The framing of sugarbabying as “dating” is also used to reduce the income of these sex workers.
“I don’t know if this is a hot take or not, but sugar babies should just hook,” [said] … . “They make less money than escorts. I want them to make more than they do.”
Essentially, argues the article, clients seek to manipulate sex workers into taking a lower wage. And the atomizing nature of sugaring sites means it is difficult for sex workers to share info about wage rates or unsafe clients.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Does SFL limit the state's ability to order workers back to work?

The fall 2020 issue of Labour/Le Travail had an interesting essay entitled “Free to strike? What freedom to strike? Back-to-work legislation and the freedom to strike in historical and legal perspective.” This essay by Eric Tucker was one of four in the volume that examines back-to-work legislation.

I’ve never regretted the time I’ve spent reading a piece by Tucker and this was no exception. The essay starts out examining the three strands of the framework that regulate workers’ freedom to strike. These strands include:
  • The liberal order’s foundational commitment to individualism which does not recognize the validity of collective activity (unless the wealthy do it in the form of a corporation). Collective actions, such as strikes, were (usually) suppressed by the state, although this repression was inconsistent and, eventually, a right to strike was recognized.
  • The post-war Wagner Act Model (WAM) narrowed the opportunity for workers to engage in legal strikes a spart of a broader strategy of minimally accommodating workers’ demands while containing the power of putting down one’s tools. 
  • Essential services restrictions were a late addition as the state extended WAM to public services, with strikes either being limited or replaced with binding arbitration. 
Beginning the mid-1970s, governments began actively intervening in labour disputes through back-to-work (BTW) legislation. The majority of Tucker’s piece examines how the constitutionalizing of the right to strike in the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour case in 2015 may affect the state’s ability to legislate workers back to work.

The upshot of Tucker’s analysis (which is really worth a read) is that BTW legislation is probably a Charter violation but may be saved under Section 1 so long as the BTW legislation minimally impairs the affected right. This, argues Tucker, will likely require an alternative dispute resolution process. In effect, carefully written BTW legislation, absent the punitive measures found in Harper-era laws, will likely be found constitutional.

This analysis suggests that a constitutional right to strike has limited practical utility because it is enmeshed in a legal regime that profoundly constrains the right to strike and gives government the ability to end strikes so long as they provide a reasonable alternative way to settle the dispute. A question this raises is how long will workers continue to participate in such a system?

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Working conditions in meat plants

John Oliver recently did an interesting piece on working conditions in meat-packing plants. These working conditions are broadly similar to those in Alberta plants.


These conditions are an important factor in the repeated outbreaks of COVID at these plants. Close proximity, relentless pace, and no breaks are pretty common. Workers get injured often and seriously and receive inadequate medical care. Many workers are vulnerable workers, whose residency in the country may be at risk if they get fire. Others have few options for comparable jobs.

 

Alberta’s response to COVID outbreaks in meatpacking plants have basically been ineffective (kind of like Alberta’s broader response to COVID). Which is why we’ve seen outbreaks in plants High River, Calgary, Red Deer, and Brooks. The High River outbreak was one of the largest outbreaks in Canada. Workers and their family members have died. There has been community spread due to ineffective workplace controls.

 

-- Bob Barnetson

 

 

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Justice delayed and ultimately denied in worker's death

One of the things labour practitioners talk a lot about is the power of delay, and how employers weaponize it against workers.

When an employer breaks a contract, workers are often stuck living with the consequences until they can get a ruling from a tribunal, court, or arbitrator. This “work now, grieve later” dynamic gives employers an immense amount of power and renders many worker righst effectively moot.

Similarly, when a workers’ compensation board denies a worker’s claim or cut the worker off from compensation, the worker must often make do until an appeal can be heard—often years later. In the meantime, kids go hungry, marriages break up, houses get repossessed.

On the OHS side, while workers can refuse unsafe worker, they often won’t because they think it won’t do any good. Among the reasons workers think this are examples of the state delaying attaching sanction to employer violations of the law. For example, in Alberta, it is rare for the state to lay charges following a death or serious injury until just before the two-year prosecution window closes. Then the prosecution starts, with all of the attendant delays of court proceedings.

Two weeks back, CBC broke a story about an abandoned OHS prosecution. Twenty-one-year-old Martina Levick was killed in June of 2017. She was the public works foreperson for the village of Dewberry. She died when a riding lawnmower she was trying to fix fell on her. Levick’s death was one of 26 fatalities Alberta’s OHS officers investigated that year, but the report is not available on the government website.

Two years after Levick’s death, the government filed charges against the Village of Dewberry. The charges alleged 7 counts of violations of the OHS Act. Court hearings kept getting put off. Eventually, the village applied for a stay of the charges. Alberta Justice has agreed to stay the charges. The village has been absorbed into the County of Vermilion River due to financial problems.

So what happened here is that a worker was killed, likely because the employer was operating unsafely. The delay in filing the charges (which is a systemic OHS problem) coupled with the legal wrangling means that there are essentially no consequences for anyone (except the worker and her family).

This sort of systemic failure of OHS to protect workers and punish negligent employers contributes to workers’ skepticism about the efficacy of contacting the government to enforce their rights. And this dynamics enables employers to let unsafe workplaces slide: they know that there is little chance they will be caught violating the rules and, even if they are, there will be few consequences.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Labour & Pop Culture: WCB fraud

 

A colleague passed along this Kids in the Hall skit about construction workers jinning up a fake workers’ compensation claim. The premise is that the worker’s job is so bad he’s prepared to experience a disabling (but non-crippling) injury just to get some paid time off and his co-workers actively help him out.

 

This skit is interesting for several reasons. First, while there are lots of examples of blaming the worker for injuries in popular culture, there are relevantly few that deal with workers’ compensation fraud. 

 

Second, there are almost no reports of workers actually injuring themselves (because workers are not stupid!). Rather, what malingering occurs (and it appears to be pretty rare since being stigmatized as an injured worker is awful) tend to result from workers exaggerating the degree or duration of an injury (the supervisor’s back injury in the skit is actually a good example).

 

Third, the skit gives us a chance to ask what is left out. And, much like real fraud detection in workers’ compensation, what is left out is the employer. Employers failing to report payroll accurately and encouraging workers to not file claims is almost certainly a much bigger problem (that no one wants to tackle because employers are powerful) than worker fraud.

 

Finally, there was a joke about the incomplete level of compensation. “Compensation lets you live life to the fullest. Well, 90% of its fullest.” This deeply appeals to the policy wonk in me. Thanks for the tip, Jonathan!

 

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The paradox of small business

I'm not much for podcasts but the Alberta Advantage podcast (basically lefty political economy analysis out of Calgary) is often worth a listen. This episode provides an interesting analysis of the role of small business in society. 

Specifically, the episode examine the valourization of small business and how that is used to run cover for capitalists. For example, when big business advocates for lower wages, they get pilloried as greedy. When small business advocates for lower wages, the conversation is almost always framed around helping "job creators" in the local community stay afloat.

The episode also interrogates the actual track record of small businesses with regard to workplace safety and wage theft (spoiler: lousy, often made worse by the precarious employment that they offer). And it explores how the media flips the narrative on things like wage theft by bosses to time theft by workers in order to obscure how shitty some employers are.

Finally, the episode (like most of their episodes) spends a few minutes calling out the provincial NDP for their opportunist boosterism around small business, generally to the detriment of the interests of workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Farm child fatality report

Back in 2015, Alberta passed laws giving farm workers basic employment rights, including making their employer subject to the ambit of the OHS Act. This reflected that farm work is very dangerous. Most of these changes were repealed in 2019 by the new UCP government, although some basic OHS rights still exist.

During the period that these laws were in full force, there was an incident on a “family farm” in southern Alberta. Laidlaw Ranching Co Ltd. began operations near Bow Island, Alberta in 1970. On the same property as the cattle ranch is a sand and gravel operation (Laidlaw Sand & Gravel Ltd.). The sand and gravel operation was the subject of 17 compliance orders between 2015 and 2020. Both companies are owned and operated by a single family.

On August 14, 2018, an 11-year-old boy (who regularly performed odd jobs on the farm) of one of the owners and a 17-year-old worker (not related to the owners) on the farming operation were hosing off concrete-pouring equipment being used to build a slab near a silage pit. This work was being performed at the bottom of hill.

Another adult worker (of the gravel company) was operating a front-end loader. The loader was poorly maintained. The operator was driving near the location where the young workers were working. When the driver tried to apply the brakes, the brakes failed to engage. The operator then tried to put the loader into reverse. This caused it to stall and made steering difficult and reduced brake functioning.

The child and worker saw the loader coming at them and ran away from of the loader’s direction of travel. At the same time, the loader veered in the same direction the child and worker had run, striking them both. The 11-year-old died while the 17-year-old suffered minor injuries. The fatality investigation report can be viewed here.

At the time, the RCMP characterized the event as an accident and were not contemplating charges (I wasn’t able to find any indication that charges had been laid later). The OHS investigation was completed and referred to Alberta Justice to see if charges were warranted. Justice declined to prosecute and, as far as I can tell, there were no charges, orders (other than a stop work and stop use orders two days after the incident), administrative penalties, or tickets issued to either the farm or the gravel operation.

I have a couple of thoughts.

First, this incident illustrates how workplace injuries and deaths are treated as less serious than injuries and deaths in other contexts. If the loader had been travelling on a roadway when the brakes failed, almost certainly there would have been charges laid and likely a civil settlement (there was a WCB claim during this year, but I cannot tell if it is related to the 17-year-old's injuries).

Second, except for the very unfortunate circumstances (whereby one of the owner’s children died), there were really no consequences for the employer as a result of this incident. Basically, the message for employers is “whaddaya gonna do?” The lack of consequences for even very serious incidents is a long-standing issue in Alberta and is likely a factor in Alberta’s high rate of work-related injury.

Third, while the application of OHS to the farm is often poo-poo’ed by agriculturalists, clearly farm work is dangerous and following OHS principles (e.g., properly functioning equipment, procedures to ensure rundowns are avoided) would have prevented this incident. Further, the notion that small farms are safe is clearly shown to be false. This farm appears to have fewer than 5 regular employees (the test for the application of many employment laws) but includes an onsite gravel operation with heavy equipment.

-- Bob Barnetson