Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Union safety effect confirmed in Ontario construction industry

The Institute for Work & Health (IWH) recently released a follow-up study about the union safety effect in the construction industry. Based on data from 2012 to 2018, the report confirms that unionized construction firms had a 31% lower rate of lost-time claim injuries.

This report did not confirm earlier findings that unionized construction firms also reported more no-lost-time injury claims. It appears a more refined methodology is responsible for this non-finding. When the more recent data was analyzed with the older methodology, the older finding returned.

Company size was found to matter. The union effect on lost-time claims was larger for larger companies. No union effect was found for companies with 0 to 4 full-time equivalent employees. The vast majority of construction firms fall into the 0-4 FTE category.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Labour & Pop Culture: Tillsonburg

Over the holidays, I heard a Stompin’ Tom Connors song called Tillsonburg. Tillsonburg is a town located just southeast of London, Ontario and was once a centre of tobacco production. The song recounts the experience of a worker recruited for field work.

This song shines some light on why Canada continue to operate programs bringing migrant agricultural workers to Canada (now focused more on vegetable and fruit production). Essentially, workers who have options, aren't prepared to work and live in the conditions offered by agricultural operators.

While a way down in Southern Ontario
I never had a nickel or a dime to show
A fella beeped up in an automobile he said "Do you want to work in the tobacco fields of Tillsonburg?" (Tillsonburg x3)
My back still aches when I hear that word

He said "I'll only give you seven bucks a day" but if you're any good you'll get a raise in pay
Your bed's all ready on the bunkhouse floor if it gets a little chilly you can close the door

Tillsonburg (Tillsonburg x3) my back still aches when I hear that word

I'm feelin' in the morning anything but fine
The farmer said "i'm going to teach you how to brane"
He said "You'll have to dawn up a pair of oil skin pants" if you want to work in the tobacco plants of Tillsonburg (Tillsonburg x3)
My back still aches when I hear that word

Well we landed in a field that was long and wide with one whole horse and five more guys
I asked him where to find the cigarette trees
When he said "Bend over" I was ready to leave
Tillsonburg (Tillsonburg x3)
My back still aches when I hear that word

He said to pick just the bottom leaves
Don't start crawlin' on your hands and knees
Prime your load cause you'll get no pay
For standin' there pickin' at your nose all day around Tillsonburg
(Tillsonburg x3)
My back still aches when I hear that word

With a broken back from bendin' over there
I was wet right through to the underwear
And it was stuck to my skin like glue
From the nicotine tar on the morning dew of
Tillsonburg (Tillsonburg x3)
My back still aches when I hear that word

Now the nearest river was two miles from
The place where they was waitin' for the boat to come
When I heard some talk of makin' the kill
I was down the highway and over the hill from
Tillsonburg (Tillsonburg x3)
My back still aches that word

Now there is one thing you can always bet
If I never smoke another cigarette
I might get taken in a lot of deals
But I won't go workin' the tobacco fields of
Tillsonburg (Tillsonburg x2)

My back still aches when I hear that word (x3)

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Labour & Pop Culture: The Factory Witches of Lowell

Recently, a new novella arrived on my desk. It tells the story of a strike by young female mill workers (“mill girls”) set in Lowell, Massachusetts during the mid 1830s (probably, as a work of historical fiction, the story is vague). Facing severe health effects from the work and a reduction in wages, the workers strike.

As the title implies, workers in The Factory Witches of Lowell are, well, witches. I’m not much for the fantasy genre, but I am interested in representations of union in science fiction. There are slim pickings in the sci-fi genre so I’m like, fine, bring on the dragons and unicorns and whatnot.

Without giving away the plot, the workers use witchcraft to create an unbreakable solidarity among the workers as well as control the production process. This gives them the leverage to hold out against the pressure of bosses.

Overall, the book left me a little flat. Using magic as a proxy for solidarity and direct action was an interesting idea that, to my mind, never really went anywhere. Perhaps, though, I’m just less interested by allegory than I am by more realistic representations of workers exercising power?

I have, however, ordered The Future of Another Timeline, which explores a covert war between rival factions of time travellers over women’s and human rights. The events they attempt to influence include moments in the labour movement.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Research: Trajectories of union renewal: Migrant workers and the revitalization of union solidarity in Saskatchewan

A recent issue of Labour/Le Travail contained a study examining the intersection of migrant workers and union renewal in Saskatchewan. This research note extends our knowledge of Canadian union’s responses to migrant workers through a survey and interview of migrant workers, Canadian workers, and union staff.

The study provides an interesting comparison of the attitudes of migrants and Canadian workers on various issues. There were interesting points of agreement in the survey results. Both groups strongly supported unionization and the belief that unions make workers’ lives better. There were also points of disagreement. For example, Canadians are more likely than migrants to believe migrants lower wages and take jobs from Canadians.

This is an interesting point of contention that might warrant some unpacking. Off the cuff, I would have said employers seek out migrant workers to fill jobs that Canadians will not take (given prevailing wages and working conditions). In this way, migrant workers do lower Canadian workers’ bargaining power by loosening the labour market. But perhaps I'm out to lunch here. And whether this plays out as wage reductions and/or worker displacement is probably complex, with unionization possibly attenuating (or exacerbating) these issues due to reduced employer flexibility around wages rates.

The qualitative results suggest that Saskatchewan unions (in general) have not responded effectively to the experiences or needs of migrant workers. Author Andrew Stevens suggests that unions may find a pathway towards membership renewal by understanding and taking action on the interests of migrant workers. Overall, this was a very interesting article.

-- Bob Barnetson