Thursday, December 14, 2023

Disaster responses, OHS and COVID

One of many tasks of OHS practitioners is to plan organizational responses to disasters. The most common kind of workplace disaster we develop plans for are building fires. In fact, the laws passed in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire are some of the earliest forms of OHS regulation.

In planning a response to a fire (hint: get out), it can be useful to know how people respond to rapidly evolving, high-stress, low-frequency events and why they respond that way. Last week, I ran across a 2004 article entitled “Why people freeze in an emergency: Temporal and cognitive constrains on survival responses

Basically, the author looked at the literature, examined disaster inquiry reports, and interviewed a bunch of disaster survivors to verify the existence of freezing behaviour in disasters and quantify it. He concluded:

Responses to unfolding disaster can be divided broadly into three groups.

In the first group, between 10‐15% of people will remain relatively calm. They will be able to collect their thoughts quickly, their awareness of the situation will be intact, and their judgment and reasoning abilities will remain relatively unimpaired. They will be able to assess the situation, make a plan, and act on it.

The second group, comprising approximately 75% of the population, will be stunned and bewildered, showing impaired reasoning and sluggish thinking. They will behave in a reflexive, almost automatic manner.

The third group, comprising 10‐15% of the population, will tend to show a high degree of counterproductive behavior adding to their danger, such as uncontrolled weeping, confusion, screaming, and paralyzing anxiety (Leach, 2004).

This finding is important because, generally speaking, the mechanisms we create to allow people to protect or save themselves in such situations requires them to take immediate and sensible action (e.g., use fire exits, put in a life vest, open an emergency exit on a plane). If only 10-15% of people can be relied upon to do so, then these mechanisms likely won’t achieve their desired result (i.e., nobody dies).

The author attempts to explain maladaptive emergency behaviour by conjecturing that sub-optimal responses are related to our brains’ information-processing limitations. He asserts that, when faced with a novel event, our brain requires time to assess it, develop a plan, and execute it.

Disasters, which are novel and complex and involve significant stress, often unfold too quickly for us to meaningfully react. However, he says, since your brain can select among a pre-existing behaviours much faster than it can design new behaviours, training on how to respond can attenuate this effect. (This is why we do fire drills and why you get a safety briefing before every time a plane takes off.)

The explanation advanced by this article has intuitive appeal (i.e., it sounds plausible on first blush), but the question is whether the explanation is correct. Recall that the conclusion (i.e., brain too slow) is conjecture, rather than the results of any empirical testing. I spent some time looking for evidence that this conjecture was correct and didn’t find much (although this isn’t my field and maybe I looked in the wrong places; I also ran into a bunch of paywalls that I could not get past).

What I found was:
So maybe there is something to the original author’s explanation for this well documented phenomenon but YMMV. An important barrier to proving it is simulating the necessary degree of stress in an experiment.

The reason this article came up in my feed (I think on Bluesky but maybe Twitter) is that someone was likening the three-group typology to explain people’s reactions to Covid. Basically the asserted that the calm, muddled, and counterproductive groups in the 2004 disaster study are analogous to active avoiders, passive avoiders, and minimizers.

This analogy was intuitively appealing, bolstered by the seeming authority of the original study. It is useful, though, to deliberate a bit about whether the disasters that the original article looked at (e.g., a ferry sinking or a plane catching fire) is similar enough to Covid for conjectured explanation to apply. A key difference that jumps almost immediately to mind is the time scale.

Contemporary Covid behaviours are the result of a lengthy process. While Covid is a novel event, the time-scale is not the same as the disasters that the original author explored (where the speed of the disaster may have outpaced decision making).

So, while the proportion of active avoiders, passive avoiders, and minimizers may (or may not) mirror the groupings in the disaster study, the similarities between disasters and Covid are likely superficial and coincidental. Thus, we ought not put much stock in the claim that the 2004 study is in any was applicable or instructive to understanding Covid responses.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, November 20, 2023

Bill 5 continues government interference in collective bargaining

Canada has a long tradition of governments using their power as legislators to give themselves a further advantage in their role as an employer. This is called permanent exceptionalism. Basically, governments pass laws undermining public-sector workers’ bargaining power, justifying them as temporary and exceptional interventions, except they are neither.

My colleagues Jason Foster and Susan Cake and I published a study of legislative interventions in labour relations from 2000 to 2020 in a recent issue of the Canadian Labour & Employment Law Journal (vol 25, issue 1) called “Catch me if you can”: Changing forms of permanent exceptionalism in response to Charter jurisprudence.”

The upshot is that, during a time when the Supreme Court was finding that workers’ associational rights in the Charter included the right to collectively bargain and strike free from substantial interference, the rate of government interference significantly increased (tripling over the 1990s). Basically, governments have become addicted to rigging the game against public-sector workers.

Back in 2019, Alberta’s UCP government passed the Public Sector Employers Act. The PSEA allowed the government to give public-sector employers secret and binding bargaining mandates. This made the 2020 round of public-sector bargaining a hollow and fettered process (our study about this is currently in review) and let the government drive home a combination of wage freezes, miserly wage increases, and other rollbacks. This built upon a similar strategy use by the NDP government in the 2017 round of bargaining that also delivered several years of wage freezes.

Presently, the legislature is debating Bill 5, which amends the PSEA. The headlines around this Act have focused on how the government will be better able to attract certain types of public-sector workers (i.e., wages are too low) while also now controlling the wages for non-unionized workers via secret bargaining directives. In the house, the NDP is flagging how Bill 5 opens the door to pork-barrelling for public-sector CEOs.

Almost no one is examining how Bill 5 extends the original secret mandate powers. The new bill allows the government to create employer committees and associations to coordinate (and perhaps perform) bargaining, potentially on sector-wide bases. This is pretty much how it works at the big tables in education, health-care, and the core civil service now.

But, for the 250-odd bargaining tables among agencies, boards, and commissions, these amendments would allow for big changes. In theory, employers could bargain cooperatively against dozens and dozens of disparate small unions and union locals, each bargaining on their own. Combined with an inflexible government mandate, this would make it very hard for these workers to get a decent deal and would make it much easier for the government (via these employers) to drive further concessions into these contracts. There are no similar provisions for sectoral bargaining arrangements for workers.

Alberta is already suffering from significant staffing shortages in health-care and education. Further grinding wages and hollowing out of public sector-bargaining (combined with the government threatening to take control of Albertan’s Canada Pension Plan contributions and its efforts to grab up public-sector pensions) will make Alberta an unattractive place for new graduates to stay.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Alberta Labour 2023 Annual Report

Alberta has released its 2023 annual report for the part of the government that was at one time called Labour and that relate to Albertans being safe and treated fairly in the workplace.

Fairness at Work Declines

The number of employment standards complaints filed were up by about a third in 2022/23. Complaints tend to reflect a fraction of overall violations; most workers don’t bother reporting things like wage theft.

This is an interesting reversal of a long-term decline in employment standards complaints.

Notably, the time to begin an investigation tripled and the time to resolve a complaint doubled. This has long been a bugbear in the employment standards system. The report asserts this reflects increasing volume and complexity.

The number of complaints investigated with signs of human trafficking jumped from 102 in 2021/22 to 208 in 20223/23.

The number of administrative penalties issued to employers dropped from 3 in 2021/22 to zero in 2022/23.

Safety: Losing the Will to Enforce

Worksite inspections plus re-inspections totalled 13,717 in 2023/23, down 12% from 15,569 in 2021/22. If you look later in the report for some context, this is about 6% fewer inspections/re-inspections than in 2018/19 (14,590), which was the last full year when the NDs were in power. At this rate, the inspection cycle is theoretically about once every 15 years (give or take).

About 80% of inspections were the results of complaints while the remaining 20% were targeting industries with safety problems. There were 1207 proactive inspections in 2022/23 resulting in 1725 orders issued. This is down from 2021/22, with 2100 inspections and 2548 orders. I couldn't find any historical data in this to provide context.

The number of investigations (e.g., of injuries) dropped by 60%, from 2245 in 2018/19 to 888 in 2022/23.

Orders written were up slightly over 2021/22 to 9099. This may be good (more enforcement) or may be bad (more violations occuring)—hard to say. If you look at 2018/19, there were 16,680 orders issued.

Ticketing of violators was down. There were 27 tickets with a total value of $11,280 issued in 2022/23. This is slightly fewer than in 2021/22 (32 tickets, $11,500). This reporting leaves out important context. If you look at 2018/19, there were 479 tickets issued.

Administrative penalties were also down. There were 17 penalties worth $62,025 issued in 2022/23. This is notably fewer than in 2021/22 (37, $314,250).

Convictions were also down, with 2022/23 seeing $1,740,750 in fines assessed. This is down from $1,919,000 in 2021/22. There was no reporting of the number of convictions but a hand count suggests the number is stable the last few years at around (hand-waggle) 10 per year, down from more than 20 in 2018/19.

Injury Rates are Up: Yeah, it’s mostly COVID.

The lost-time claim rate rose for at least the seventh straight year. Much, but not all, of this increase is due to COVID-19 injuries.

The disabling injury rate (lost-time plus modified work) is also up. Again, much but not all of the increase is due to COVID injuries.

The absence of meaningful government protocols related to aerosol spread put responsibility for these COVID-related increases squarely on the shoulders of government.

Interestingly, the absolute number of accepted fatalities is down to 120 (from 136). There is no real analysis of that change. It could be the result of changes in the workforce composition. It could also just be random variation (small numbers tends to be swingy).


Overall, it looks like the government continues to lose the will and/or capacity to meaningfully enforce workplace safety rules under the UCP. Not surprisingly, the rate of injury has risen, likely because workplaces are more dangerous.

There has also been an uptick in complaints about employment standards (basically wage theft). This could be caused by more workers knowing to and being willing to come forward. I’d guess, though, that this reflects employers knowing it is open-season on workers under the UCP and, thus, stealing wages more frequently.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

John Oliver on Union Busting

A friend sent me this clip of John Oliver exploring union busting in the United States.

Very applicable to Canada as well.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Climate change and safety: treeplanters and wildfire smoke

A few weeks back, the Tyee ran a story on the effect of increasing levels of wildfire smoke on tree planter OHS. This story is interesting because it looks at the effect of climate change on worker safety.

There are several reasons why this particular hazard and worker group are worth examining:
  • Intensity of exposure: Tree planters often work in close proximity to wildfires and their work is physically demanding (increasing respiration and heart rate). Consequently, they are likely to have one of the highest intensities of exposure to wildfire smoke.
  • Duration of exposure: In addition to long working days, most tree planters live in camps (e.g., tents) and lack any respite from the smoke in their off hours. This means these workers have a much longer duration of exposure than, say, a worker who might face dust in the workplace but then go home to clean air at the end of the day.
  • Lack of specific controls or OELs: There are no specific occupational exposure limits (OELs) for wildfire smoke and general OELs for dust were not designed with wildfire smoke (which has very tiny particles) in mind.
  • Latency: Injuries due to inhalation often have long latency periods and murky causality, thus the link between the work exposure and the ill-health can be hard to see.
  • Proxy for nonworkers: The exposures experienced by tree planters can be useful in predicting larger population effects caused by increased wildfire effects (essentially the dangerous working conditions experienced by these workers create a natural experiment).
  • Compliance: PPE slows tree planting work. Tree planters are generally paid on piece-rate basis. This pay structure basically forces tree planters to trade off their own health against their need to earn an adequate income and almost certainly reduces compliance. Contractors also have production targets, which means they too have an incentive to trade worker safety for profit.
A notable take-away from the article is the complete lack of a regulatory response to the risk posed by wildfire smoke. WorkSafeBC acknowledges the risk but can’t be arsed to issue any directives. Alberta’s OHS minister couldn’t even be bothered to respond to the reporter. This likely reflects regulatory capture of regulators by the forestry industry.

By contrast, Oregon and California require air quality monitoring and the availability of respirators when air quality gets to a specific point. This doesn’t mean these controls are adequate, but they are at least something.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Another worker dies, nothing much happens.

Yesterday, CBC reported that three companies had been charged in a November 2021 workplace death. The worker was testing a pipe when a valve broke and killed the worker. Among the notable parts of the story is that the employer failed to conduct a hazard assessment and failed to identify a hazard.

The effectiveness of the OHS system rests on employers identifying hazards. When an employer fails to do this rudimentary task, the rest of the system doesn’t work because unidentified hazards can’t be controlled and workers die as a result.\

Unfortunately, Alberta employers often don’t bother to identify hazards. A 2018 survey of 2000 Alberta workers found only 50% of their employers had hazard assessments. And only 59% regularly provided information about hazard-control strategies for at least some of the hazards workers faced.

So, now that OHS has filed charges almost two years after the event, what is likely to happen in this case? The rest of the CBC article talks about other fatalities and gives you a pretty good idea.

The employers’ lawyer(s) will likely stall some. A year or two from now, one of the employers will plead guilty to a single charge and pay a relatively small fine ($100-300k). In the meantime, it will be business as usual.

If you think this sounds like a pretty ineffective approach to protecting workers, you’d be right. The same study found that roughly 1 in 5 Alberta workers reported injuries (of varying degrees) each year and 1 in 11 received a disabling injury (where they could not do some or all of their job the next day).

Underlying ineffective enforcement is basically a lack of political will to punish employers to maiming and killing workers. Indeed, the UCP substantially weakened OHS laws during its first term. Not surprisingly, the rate of worker injury has risen under the UCP’s watch.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Six Worries for Workers This Labour Day

This blog was originally posted on the Parkland Institute blog.

What can Alberta workers expect from a United Conservative Party government over the next four years? The UCP’s first term cheapened labour costs for employers. Its 2023 election platform contained few promises related to labour and employment issues beyond the usual nostrums about low taxes creating jobs. We think workers should watch six issues.

1. Low wages, high unemployment, and Inequity

While the number of jobs in Alberta has increased, more job seekers and layoffs mean Alberta’s unemployment rate remains the fifth highest in Canada. For those with jobs, the purchasing power of their average hourly wage has fallen by 4.95% (or about $3,000 per worker) over the past 10 years. Alberta is only one of three provinces to experience this loss.

By October, Alberta’s minimum wage will be the third lowest in the country while Alberta’s cost of living remains among the highest. The UCP is unlikely to raise the minimum wage from 2018’s $15 per hour. This means inflation will further erode the purchasing power of 11.5% of Alberta workers, the majority of whom are women.

Not surprisingly, Alberta also continues to have the highest gender wage gap in Canada. In July of 2023, Alberta women earned 84 cents for every dollar men earned (averaging $31.52 per hour vs. $37.61 per hour). The UCP is unlikely to address this gap.

2. Illusion of low-cost childcare

Under an agreement with the federal government, the UCP has promised to implement $10 per day childcare by 2026 as well as create 70,000 additional spaces. While childcare fees have declined, $10 per day childcare is likely to be a chimera.

In February, the UCP established a cost-control framework for childcare. Government funding will ensure that “core” childcare is provided for $10 per day. But the UCP is encouraging providers to charge fees for “enhanced” childcare, such as food, activities, playground equipment, and better qualified staff. Providers are being told they do not have to spend all of these enhanced fees on the enhanced services (i.e., private providers can pad their profits with these fees).

Since demand for childcare spaces will continue to outstrip supply, parents who decline to pay the enhanced fees (i.e., want $10 per day childcare) may have difficulty securing a space because they reduce the providers’ profits. Further, low wages and limited training and professional development opportunities suggest the goal of 70,000 additional spaces may be wildly optimistic.

3. An Alberta Pension Plan

Alberta has been flirting with the idea of leaving the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and creating an Alberta Pension Plan (APP) since 2019, putatively to lower premiums. The UCP did not campaign on the APP, likely because more than half of Albertans are opposed to the idea.

Withdrawing from the CPP requires three years of notice. The terms of Alberta’s departure are difficult to predict since no jurisdiction has ever left the plan. Departure may constitute a major change in the plan, which would require the approval of 7 of the 10 provinces (representing two-thirds of the population) and the federal government.

There are many unanswered questions about an APP, including its financial stability and likely returns, operating cost, the portability of contributions, and its susceptibility to political meddling. Quebec’s experience with running its own pension plan suggests that doing so does not necessarily result in lower premiums.

4. Public-sector bargaining

In 2019, the UCP gave itself the power to foist secret bargaining mandates on public-sector employers, rendering collective bargaining a fettered and hollow process. All unions eventually settled for wage increases well below inflation, after years of prior wage freezes. Despite the negative impact that uncompetitive wages have on recruitment, retention, and productivity, it is likely the UCP will go back to this well in the hope of further grinding public-sector wages.

It is unclear whether Alberta’s public-sector workers and their unions have the will to meaningfully resist such a tactic. Resistance would require workers to strike and, perhaps, to do so illegally in the face of back-to-work legislation. That is a risky proposition for both workers and their unions’ leadership. That said, only last fall, Ontario’s unions forced the Ford government to walk back legislated contracts through an illegal strike by education workers that looked set to escalate to a general strike.

Public-sector workers are also likely to see further privatization of their jobs, as the UCP did with laundry and laboratory services in health care. The UCP may also provide more public funding to private-sector providers of education and health-care services.

5. Recruitment and Retention

Not surprisingly, declining compensation, childcare shortages, and uncertainty about the CPP have meant some Alberta employers are struggling to recruit and retain workers. The UCP has promised a $1,200 tax credit for workers in fields such as health care, childcare, and the skilled trades who come and work in Alberta for at least a year, and a $3,000 to $10,000 tax credit (spread over multiple years) for new graduates in unspecified fields who stay in Alberta to work.

These promises are essentially an admission that Alberta is not an attractive place to live and work. Neither promise is very significant in monetary terms and, if implemented, they are unlikely to have much impact on worker shortages because of the negative impact of the UCP’s education and health-care agenda. Increasing post-secondary tuition and a defective K-12 curriculum (e.g., “find gravity on a globe”) make Alberta an unattractive place to study or raise children. Ongoing staffing shortages, the unavailability of rural obstetrical care, and the botched privatization of laboratory services suggest the health-care system is also failing.

6. Union Dues and Bill 32

The UCP has promised to fix one of their controversial changes to Alberta’s labour laws (commonly called Bill 32) that accidentally cost community organizations $2.5 million in lost donations from unions. This happened because Bill 32 required unions to get each member to authorize dues deductions for activities beyond collective bargaining and contract administration. This was designed to constrain unions’ abilities to participate in political and advocacy campaigns but also affected donations.

Before the election, many unions quietly decided to simply ignore Bill 32. It will be interesting to watch how (and, indeed, if) the UCP handles enforcement. It may choose to pursue legal action against these unions. Or it may take the position Bill 32 achieved its political goals and ignore widespread non-compliance.


The UCP has a difficult course to navigate over the next four years. Its political goals include low taxes, low wages, a diminished public sector, and increased privatization. None of the outcomes of these goals are attractive to the skilled workers that Alberta requires. Indeed, declining real-dollar wages, failing health-care and education systems, unstable retirement income, and unavailable childcare are likely to impede both worker recruitment and retention.

-- Bob Barnetson, Susan Cake, and Jason Foster

Monday, July 24, 2023

Hollywood strikes highlight undercurrent of violence in labour relations

Two strikes, one affecting writers and the other actors, have brought most Hollywood productions to a stand-still over the past two months. 

You can read a summary here but the gist is major studios are trying to cheapen work in order to gain a greater portion of the surplus value generated by labour.

The bosses’ strategy, at least with respect to the Writers Guild of America, appears to be simply starving out the workers. According to Vanity Fair, the bosses expect writers to run out of money by October and, once the workers are facing homelessness, they will resume negotiations and press for concessions. Starving workers until they give up is an age-old employer tactic.

Actor Ron Perlman, in a now deleted video, reacted to the bosses’ plan this way:
The motherfucker who said we’re gonna keep this thing going until people start losing their houses and apartments — listen to me motherfucker. 
There’s a lot of ways to lose your house. Some of it is financial. Some of it is karma. And some of it is just figuring out who the fuck said that — and we know who said that — and where he fucking lives.

There’s a lot of ways to lose your house. You wish that on people? You wish that families starve while you’re making 27 fucking million dollars a year for creating nothing? Be careful motherfucker. Be really careful. Because that’s the kinda shit that stirs shit up.
Perlman’s statement got quite a lot of media play because it is out of step with most people’s understanding of how contemporary strikes play out (basically people stop working and walk around with signs until the boss decides to negotiate). Suggesting that bosses might face violent, real-world consequences for trying to get even richer by economically destroying workers’ lives is pretty uncommon these days.

That hasn't always been true, though. Underlying every job action is the potential for violence. Often it has been used by bosses to bust a strike. But, occasionally, workers will destroy the bosses’ property or attack them directly. The post-war labour compromise in Canada has attenuated this risk, in part by strictly regulating strikes and strike behaviour.

But, when the bosses refuse to negotiate in good faith (or the system looks otherwise completely rigged against them), worker commitment to obeying labour law may fray because it is no longer in their interest to do so.

We most often see this dynamic play out in wildcat strikes. But worker frustration doesn’t have to be channelled in that direction. A worker or smnall group of workers could, as Perlman hints, just destroy a boss’s house or yacht or factory or mine or whatever.

It is worthwhile for both bosses and workers to pay attention to the potential for this kind of behaviour as they strategize how to bargain. Bosses who decide to play hardball, may be opening Pandora’s box. And worker may be overlooking a significant source of leverage by discounting alternatives to picketing.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, June 30, 2023

Update: AUFA members to vote on reversing exec decision

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) executive deciding to make a cash donation to a member. Yesterday, the AUFA membership forced a special meeting on the issue and will soon be voting of a motion to reverse this decision.

A good outcome of the meeting was support for the development of a formal member emergency fund. There are lots of examples to choose from. Most have these features:
  • a low- or no-interest loan for a fixed period of time,
  • available to members on application,
  • a requirement for some disclosure of the circumstances giving rise to the need, and
  • decisions being made by a committee without a real or perceived conflict of interest.
The meeting itself flushed out some additional information about the executive’s donation. While I am hopeful that a recording of the meeting will be available to all AUFA members prior to the vote, I worry that the disclosure of the member’s identity by a member of the incoming executive during the meeting may preclude the union from sharing the recording. So, for those who could not attend, here is a recap (I have flagged the new info below):
  1. In early June, the executive held an emergency meeting three days before a regularly scheduled executive meeting.
  2. The purpose of the emergency meeting was to vote on a donation to a member whose salary had been cut off for refusing to comply with an employer direction (i.e., the member choose this outcome).
  3. NEW The member did not ask for this money. Rather, this motion was an initiative of a member of the executive.
  4. The executive was not told before voting on the donation that the member could have their salary restored simply by complying with the employer’s demand.
  5. NEW The donation was to another member of the executive.
  6. The recipient was not named in the notion meaning the payment could not be implemented.
  7. Multiple members of the executive resigned over the decision.
  8. The executive did not communicate this unprecedented move to the membership until nearly a week later and under pressure that I would tell the members if they did not. 
  9. The eventual disclosure (which occurred after voting for the next union executive had concluded) left out important information about the donation, including the resignations that had resulted from it.
So, is this decision by the executive one that should be reversed by the members?

One way to answer that is to look at how far the executive’s process deviated from the typical approach to emergency funds that I set out above.
  • There was a donation in lieu of a no-interest loan. There is no explanation for this.
  • The member never asked for the money; this was an initiative of an executive member. This raises the question of whether the member is even in need of the money? 
  • Key facts were not disclosed to the decision makers. Specifically, (1) evidence of hardship, and (2) that the member was refusing to take action that would restore the member’s salary (which is a bit like drowning in a bathtub because you refuse to sit up).
  • The recipient was a member of the same committee that made the decision. This may not create a conflict of interest (that is very hard to tell given the information the executive has provided) but it creates the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Overall, this was a bad process that led to what looks like a bad decision that was then communicated in way that was untimely and incomplete. Consequently, I think this decision, at the very least, warrants a do-over using a better process. The way to achieve that is for the members to pass a motion reversing the decision. The executive could, of course, rescind their decision and do a proper job of it once they have a fund set up.

It is notable that the executive has not followed through on the other motion it passed during the emergency meeting: strike a committee to establish a member emergency fund. Had they done that, members could be voting on that right now (there are lots of examples to cut and paste from, including AUFA’s emergency fund from its strike prep). This inaction is notable because the executive are, on the one hand, aggressively defending their decision but, on the other hand, taking no actual steps that would get their decision implemented (and get the member the money).

Several other motions planned for the meeting (including a non-confidence vote in the lame-duck executive) did not get discussed. An important issue going forward is that AUFA members (who almost all work from home) have no effective mechanism to discuss matters of concern as a group. Hopefully next year’s executive will do something about that.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, June 16, 2023

AUFA executive resignations follow unusual payment to member

Last Friday, the executive of the Athabasca University Faculty Association (AUFA) held an emergency meeting. After an apparently acrimonious discussion, the executive voted 5-4 to “donate” $2500 to another member. Subsequently, five members of the executive resigned and the treasurer is unable to make the payment because of the wording of the motion. 

The remaining members of the AUFA executive finally released some information about this payment a week later, after I threatened to go directly to the members. But the executive have left out important context and the subsequent resignations. These omissions are very troubling. This information also comes only after the union’s elections have concluded.

This post compiles the information I have been able to verify about these very concerning events. I believe this decision shows very poor judgment and that the remaining members of the executive who voted in favour of this motion should resign. I understand that one of them has done so this morning.


I’ve redacted some of the details but the gist is that a member declined to comply with an employer direction (i.e., was insubordinate). After several unsuccessful attempts to gain compliance, the employer placed the member on an unpaid leave.

As much as I don’t generally like how AU behaves, placing a member on unpaid leave is permissible in these very specific circumstances (that I am carefully not discussing). This has happened periodically over the past 15 years that I’ve been active with the association and is not an unprecedented situation (what is unprecedented is the payment).

The member decided to continue not complying (and thus not be paid). While being placed on an unpaid leave can certainly create a financial emergency for a member, this is not a labour-relations emergency for the union.

Subsequently, a member of the executive sought an emergency executive meeting to authorize payment of $2500 in financial aid. AUFA does not presently have a system for providing financial aid to members. The union did create an emergency-loan system in anticipation of a strike last year. Absent a work stoppage, that system does not operate because the members have not approved expanding its parameters.

Consequently, this request was brought to the union executive as an ad hoc motion. Article 12.8 of the AUFA bylaws permits the executive to authorize unbudgeted payments of up to $5000 without seeking membership approval.

Nine (of then 13) voting members of the executive were able to attend the emergency meeting:
  • Davina Bhandar 
  • Pamela Holway
  • Jonathan Leggo,
  • Gail Leicht
  • Katie MacDonald
  • Darka Pavlovic
  • Kristin Rodier
  • Rhiannon Rutherford
  • Ching Tan
After an in camera discussion, MacDonald and Bhandar moved:

“AUFA make a one-time donation of $2500 to the member in question in support of undue hardship.”

This motion passed 5-4 with Leggo, Leicht, Pavlovic, and Rutherford opposed. A subsequent motion established an ad hoc committee to look into establishing a formal member emergency fund (which is a good idea).

While no one has been prepared to discuss all of the details of the in camera discussion, some attendees have characterized the information provided to them an incomplete. For example, they were not told that the member could have their pay restored by simply complying with the employer’s direction.

Over the next several days, Leggo and Pavlovic along with Florene Ypma and Dave Powell resigned from the executive over the motion. Leicht (who is also the treasurer) has also indicated she will be resigning as soon as the executive can put someone in place to perform financial oversight functions. In the meantime, she has declined to issue the cheque because she does not have a name and mailing address to permit the issuance of a cheque.


A number of questions jump to mind:
  1. Why it was necessary to call an emergency meeting last Friday when there was regularly scheduled meeting three working days later? An emergency meeting likely reduced the number of executive members able to attend.
  2. Why the secrecy within the executive about who the member is? How can the executive make an informed and accountable decision without recording to whom the payment was made (even if this information is shared only on a need-to-know basis)?
  3. Why was the executive not informed during the discussion that the member who received the payment could have their pay restored by ceasing their insubordination?
  4. Why was the funding provided as a donation, rather than as an interest-free loan?
  5. Has this decision established a precedent whereby other members who refuse to comply with legitimate employer directions (i.e., are insubordinate) can now seek financial support from the union?
  6. Why did the remaining executive not inform the AUFA membership of this significant departure from past practice and the subsequent resignation of five executive members in a timely manner? This question is especially salient since (1) there was an immediate member request for disclosure (within minutes of the meeting ending) and (2) the payment decision was made in the middle of union elections wherein some of the executive members who voted in favour off the payment were running for office.
  7. Does this expenditure fall within the definition of non-core expenditures under the Labour Relations Code (as amended by Bill 32 several years ago) and, therefore, does it require the executive to get the permission of members to collect and expend these dues notwithstanding the bylaws? If so, will payment open AUFA up to a complaint to the Labour Relations Board?


While the union executive can spend up to $5000 on its own initiative, this sort of expenditure (which was not an emergency) should likely have been subjected to meaningful consultation with the membership. Indeed, many of the executive members who voted for this motion ran last year on a slate that promised greater transparency.

Savvy union leaders go out of their way ensuring that union decisions, particularly about spending, are transparent and above reproach. Last Friday’s decision does not demonstrate this sort of political acumen. Instead, we see executive members:
  1. Calling an unnecessary emergency meeting that only a portion of the union executive could attend.
  2. Authorizing an unprecedented payment to another member (with the support of only 5 of 13 executive members).
  3. Failing to disclose to the executive members in attendance that the member could resolve their problem on their own by complying with the employer’s direction.
  4. Not naming the member who is to receive the funding in the motion, which has resulted in the treasurer being unable process the payment.
  5. Disclosing information about the decision only after members threatened to release the information directly to the members and only after the end of the union election, in which some of the remaining executive members were candidates.
  6. Possibly created a precedent where the union is on the hook to financially support other members who are insubordinate (or, at least, having to fight off claims for such support).
This behaviour demonstrates why it is important for members to pay attention to union operations and be very choosey about who they elect to manage the affairs of their union.

Now What?

The good news is that a new executive will take control of AUFA as of September 1. Many of the key players in this decision will not be a part of that executive.

AUFA members could also call a special meeting (under Article 5.4 of the bylaws). At this meeting, they could demand an explanation from the remaining executive and/or they could advance motions. These motions could include overruling the payment, voting nonconfidence in some or all of the remaining executive members, or setting up a committee to develop an emergency loan system with meaningful oversight and sensible parameters.

Really, though, the simplest way for the remaining executive to restore membership confidence in the executive would be for the members of the existing executive who voted in favour of this motion to tender their resignations. I understand one of them has done so already (that is six resignations now, if you're keeping track). This would still leave enough executive members to get through the traditionally slower summer months and hand the organization over to the incoming executive in September.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Woes at Concordia U of Edmonton continue

Tim Loreman, CUE President and Mansion Enthusiast
Concordia University of Edmonton (CUE) has been struggling since its strike almost 18 months ago. As I wrote last month, CUE has engaged in behaviours that include layoffs and a large number of disciplinary investigations. Meanwhile, enrollments are tanking, governance procedures are being hollowed out, and programs are being identified as not meeting quality standards.

Two weeks ago, CBC ran a story that the CUE faculty had voted no confidence in President Tim Loreman. This was the second non-confidence vote in Loreman since the strike. The Board of Governors doesn’t seem interested in engaging in any dialog over these concerns.


Last week, Loreman responded to the most recent non-confidence vote in missive to staff. He begins by acknowledging dissatisfaction with his performance. 

As many of us are aware, last Friday the CBC published a story about CUEFA’s dissatisfaction with my leadership. This isn’t the first time I’ve been in this situation, but thankfully, I have the ongoing support of the Board of Governors, strong support from many in our community, and a committed personal support system that keeps me grounded. I am not going to allow these tactics to distract me from my efforts to make CUE a great place to work and study. 

There’s a lot to unpack there:

  • He suggests the dissatisfaction with his performance is on the part of the union, subtly ignoring that the union represents its members, the majority of whom voted non-confidence.
  • I can’t tell if “this isn’t the first time I’ve been in this situation” is part of his “the lady is not for turning” routine or just some kind of inadvertent admission. Either way, I can’t see that the admission really gains him anything.
  • The Board does seem to be backing him. But Athabasca University’s most recently sacked president is an instructive example of how fickle Board support it. As soon as Loreman becomes a political liability, that support will evaporate.
  • He's telling the workers that they will need to increase the costs attached to his behaviour in order to get him to change that behaviour.

Then there is this bit:

I would like to see decorum befitting a university community in the way we speak to, and about, each other. … At CUE our responsibilities towards one another can be found in our Code of Conduct and in policy. … It defines how we should interact with one another in order to retain positive, ethical, and healthy relationships. 

One aspect of codes of conduct is that they can be weaponized by the administrator of the code (the boss) to silence legitimate dissent on pain of discipline. It is unclear of Loreman’s statement was meant as a veiled threat, but that is how many CUE faculty are reading it. In the context of between 10 and 15% of faculty being subjected to disciplinary investigations since the strike (which is a wildly huge percentage), the faculty’s inference is pretty understandable.

The message then ends on a positive, “my door is always open” note. In the context of deteriorating staff relations, it is unlikely to convince or interest anyone. 

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, a hearing is scheduled at the Labour Board on June 28th to address an unfair labour practice complaint filed by the union against CUE. Based on the sections of the Code cited in the complaint it looks like a gooder.

Labour Board proceedings are usually characterized by lengthy delay (which is one way the government manages class conflict). But the complaint (coupled with declining enrollments and ongoing staff dissatisfaction) remains a potential landmine for CUE and for Loreman.


-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

U of Alberta faculty association leaves CAFA

The Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations (CAFA) appears to be in the middle of a significant transition that was triggered by the departure of the University of Alberta faculty association this spring.

CAFA was formed in the early 1970s to represent the interests of Alberta university faculty associations, primarily to the government. Over time, the membership has ebbed and flowed. The University of Calgary faculty association has been in and out a couple of times since the 1990s and is presently out.

The departure of the U of A faculty association this spring financially destabilized CAFA, resulting in staff layoffs. The remaining member associations (Athabasca, MacEwan, Mount Royal, and Lethbridge) have decided to soldier on in a reduced capacity.

The good news is that this offers CAFA a chance to pivot away from its focus on lobbying the government. This has not been very effective and there now seems to be space to try something different. This is likely to include greater emphasis on the issues affecting mid-sized universities and cross institution coordination around bargaining and organizing. This is a sensible response to the secret mandates approach the UCP has taken to bargaining.

No one I have talked to has been particularly forthcoming about the reason(s) for the U of A FA’s departure from CAFA. Publicly, this is being portrayed as an amicable parting and a fresh start. Privately, there is a distinct whiff of “good riddance”.

An interesting question is the degree of cooperation that will be possible between CAFA member associations and the U of A FA. Certainly, the CAFA messaging is pretty rah-rah on that. Whether key players in member organizations are prepared to actually play ball is another matter.

Interestingly, members of the U of A faculty association that I’ve spoken to have said they have not been informed their association has left (or is about to leave--the timing is a touch unclear) CAFA (“uhhh… what?”) and I see no mention of it on the FA website. Of particular interest to those members is whether their dues will go down.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, June 1, 2023

Alberta's 2021 Injury and Fatality Report

Alberta released some injury-related reports in April. Here are the highlights from the 2021 Workplace Injury, Illness and Fatality Statistics report:
  • A 12% increase in accepted injury claims (exclusive of COVID claims). 
  • Youth (15-24) continue to have the highest adjusted disabling claim rate (but the lowest fatality rate (likely influenced by the importance in long-latency occupational diseases to overall fatality rates).
  •  There were 135 fatalities accepted by the WCB, including 25 from COVID.
COVID-related claims accepted by the WCB totalled 6814 injuries and 25 deaths. The rules around compensability mean this is a significant undercounting of work-related COVID.

Table 3 (reproduced below) shows a pretty good summary. There was a significant drop in non-COVID injuries in 2020, which likely reflects the drop in employment during COVID (plus the crash in oil prices).

It is not clear to me what effect changes in the WCB legislation had on these numbers (I’d need to think a bit more about when the effect of those changes would start to show up).

Controlling for the size of the workforce (the rate per 100 person years worked) we see a drop in the rate of injury. As employment numbers and oil prices bounce back up in 2021, we see numbers and rates start to increase.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Resisting company doctors through moral suasion

Unionized workers can make gains and stave off concessions by attaching costs to employer behaviour in the hope that the employer will decide to behave differently.

Most often, we think about strikes. Strikes attach primarily financial costs to employer intransigence at the bargaining table by disrupting production. If the strike causes the employer enough pain, the employer tends to compromise.

Moral suasion is a different way to attach costs to employer behaviour. Athabasca University’s (AU’s) unsuccessful efforts to impose company doctors on its academic staff provides a useful example of this tactic and its limitations.

AthabascaU’s demand for company docs

In 2018, AU pushed its workers to agree to new contract language around company doctors. Essentially, the employer wanted to be able to send a worker for a so-called independent medical examination (IME) if:
  • the worker used sick leave frequently or for a prolonged period,
  • the employer believed the worker was unable to do their duties due to illness or disability, or
  • the employer believed a worker was mis-using their sick leave.
This proposal would give the employer a largely unfettered ability to impose and IME upon pain of discipline and/or loss of sick leave. Such a power would:
  • interfere with workers being able to choose their own health-care providers,
  • open the door to illegitimate employer demands for non-therapeutic medical examinations, and
  • would end-run the requirement for the employer to get an arbitrator’s order to require an IME. 
Seventy-seven percent of union members were opposed to this proposal. Of particular concern to the union’s members were the possibilities of:
  • worker fear of being sent to an IME might cause them to not use their sick leave when its use was medically required,
  • when workplace harassment had caused a worker’s performance to deteriorate or the worker to go off sick, the employer might weaponize the IME process to further harass the sick member, and
  • the medical opinion of a company-paid doctor may result in a refusal of sick leave or the alteration of work restrictions set out by the worker’s treating physician.
The employer’s rationale for this proposal was cost-savings (i.e., no arbitration hearing required). In fact, the proposal shifted costs from the university (lower financial costs) to the worker and their families (less privacy and greater stress).

There was, of course, no evidence of any meaningful level of sick leave abuse. A review of 15 years of union files (with a membership of more than 400 workers) identified one case where the university officially raised concerns about the accuracy of medical information provided to the employer. This was conern was resolved.

Pushing back on company docs

Resisting company doctors could certainly form part of the basis for a strike mandate. But there is always the risk that members might be willing to accept company-doctor language as part of a package deal (i.e., if the employer offered something good in exchange) or to avoid a strike (if company doctors was the only major issue). Given this risk, the union opted to explore a different approach first.

The company-doctor proposal was obviously repugnant. The union also suspected it was being driven by the desires of the HR shop, rather than being a core mandate from the university’s Board of Governors (which was the ultimate decision maker). These factors opened the door to applying moral pressure on Board members to abandon the proposal.

Activists identified 15 members who (1) were secure in their jobs, (2) had experience with ill-health that required medical leave, and (3) had a reasonable degree of political acumen. The union then used its membership map to divide them into five three-person groups based on pre-existing relationships.

Each team was tasked to write a five-paragraph letter to individual Board members (the union provided contact details). The first and last paragraphs were boilerplate, respectively introducing the issue and asking the Board to drop its proposal.

Each team member wrote one of the middle three paragraphs, disclosing their personal experience with medical leave and explaining how the company-doctor proposal would have affected and harmed them. The letters were heart wrenching and drove home the odious nature of the Board’s proposal.

The union coordinated the members sending their letters such that Board members received a new letter every week. The Board members eventually concluded that their negotiating team’s proposal truly was not worth pursuing because, shortly thereafter, the employer’s chief negotiator said “company doctors (suddenly!) wasn’t a hill to die on” and the proposal fell away.


This example illustrates one (of myriad) ways that workers can attach costs to employer behaviour and, thereby, possibly change it. The costs attached by the letters were mostly emotional. Few people (even employers!) enjoy being shown how their behaviour will profoundly and personally harm others.

The Board members may also have been concerned about being publicly and personally associated with such a disgusting and harmful proposal. That threat was not contained in the letters, but was an obvious next step and was part of the union’s overall escalation strategy.

Having workers write about their very personal experiences of ill-health appeared more effective at driving home to the employer how awful the proposal was than were the union’s broader communications about the proposal. The pressure exerted by the letters was applied discretely enough that there was no real loss of face for the employer in doing so.

The union members, both those directly involved and those who simply heard about the tactic, got to see how they could take effective action to protect their own interests. This built confidence among the members in their ability to resist employer demands and advocate for themselves.

A weakness of this tactic is that it creates the possibility of a rapid reversal by the employer. For example, if the employer catches even one worker malingering or faking sick in the future, it is likely to bring this proposal back to the table. And, because the employer will feel like it got emotionally manipulated into withdrawing the earlier proposal, the employer will likely pursue the renewed proposal vigorously. In this way, both the employer and the union now have a shared interest in ensuring no workers malinger.

-- Bob Barnetson