Friday, October 21, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Click, Clack, Moo

This week’s instalment of Labour & Pop Culture looks at the children’s book Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin. The crux of this fable (which you can listen to below) is that the cows find a typewriter and ask Farmer Brown for electric blankets to warm up the barn.

Framer Brown refuses and the cows (and hens) withhold their labour. Eventually the two sides come to an agreement: the animals get electric blankets and they give up the typewriter. But then the ducks start making demands.

I love Click, Clack, Moo because it highlights (in a very inoffensive way) a number of lessons about labour relations. In no particular order:

Class conflict: Farmer Brown depends on the cows and hens to make a living. When they want better working and living conditions, he balks (presumably because of the cost). Herein lies the crux of class relations: conflict over the distribution of profits arising from the labour of workers.

Collective power: Once the workers (cows and hens) have some way to articulate their class interests and express them to the boss (Farmer Brown), they suddenly have power. Farmer Brown eventually caves. 

Interestingly, the concession he demands is not higher production, but rather that the workers agree to not strike again (by giving up their type writer). What this tells us is that boss’s power depends (in part) on the acquiescence of the workers and he will accommodate worker’s monetary demands as long as he can maintain control over the workplace.

Gender: Note how the workers (hens and cows) are all female while the boss (Farmer Brown) is a man? Note how pissed off and dismissive Farmer Brown gets when the womenfolk get uppity? I wonder how he would deal with a bunch of angry bulls and roosters (who are far more physically threatening). I suspect he’d shoot them.

The Farmer Wins: In the end, the workers go back to their jobs and order (i.e., the employer extracting surplus value from workers) is returned to the barnyard. It is interesting to speculate what would have happened if Farmer Brown dug in his heels and, say, cut off the feed to the animals or turned them out of the barnyard.

Cat’s Out of the Bag: Once the ducks see how successful the hens and cows were, they too start making demands using the typewriter. This speaks to both the universal and enduring nature of class conflict in capitalist societies.

This book also allows us to reframe some of the angst in Alberta’s agricultural community about the possibility that unionized farm workers will (one day) be able to strike. In this book, the workers’ strike for decent living and working conditions looks pretty reasonable (Farmer Brown’s refusal less so). 

So why all the angst when it comes to other humans requesting the same thing? The answer is that it is about power and privilege. Farmers have long been the undisputed masters of their domain (acknowledging the broader economics dynamics of commodity producers in producers have little bargaining power). 

Losing that control on the farm feels like an attack on their authority. Further, giving workers the right to strike compels some farmers to confront the fact that their operations are only economically viable if they can externalize costs onto workers in the form of low wages and poor working conditions.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Holding out for a (course) hero

For those of you hoping for some awesome 1980s music, please amuse yourself with the video below (yes, a tractor duel between Justin Trudeau and Kevin Bacon was high-quality entertainment in the 1980s…).

Now for the rest of you, let’s talk about Course Hero. Course Hero is a website that allow students to upload assignments, quizzes, exams and other materials. If you upload enough of your stuff (or just send the cash), you can then access the material (so-called “study aids”) uploaded by others.  

Reviewing the work of others can certainly seem like a quick way to complete assignments. Alas, it is also an easy way to run afoul of the university’s Student Academic Misconduct Policy, which requires you to do your own course work.

But it is not just downloaders who are in peril: uploading materials is also likely a violation of Section 2.5 which prohibits the distribution of assignments and other course material.

One of my jobs right now is academic integrity officer for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (basically I’m the plagiarism guy). Over the past few months, my workload has risen dramatically because faculty are complaining about uploaders. Year-long suspensions and notations of misconduct on transcripts are pretty common for first-time offenders.

Course Hero is not the only such website, but its recent popularity has pushed the university to speak out against all websitesthat offer “study aids”. You’d be wise to heed the university’s advice about these websites and remove any of your materials from them.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Union avoidance at Rogers Place

Edmonton’s new arena (Rogers Place) recently opened (with generous public subsides). Food service in Rogers Place is provided by Aramark. Last week, Aramark sent a letter to its employees providing them with “information” about possible unionization efforts.

Such letters are legal in Alberta and this is a pretty typical example. It notes that, if employees unionize, they will pay dues. It then trots out the bogey man of rich union staffers spending dues however they like (ignoring the internal democracy of unions).

The employer cleverly avoids saying that it will sack employees if they unionize by saying “Job security comes to our organization if all of us work together as a team to ensure that our organization is a competitive and successful business.” You’d have to be pretty stupid not to read between the lines of that statement.

The letter ends with apple-pie statements like “We feel that nobody will ever represent you better than yourself.” This, of course, ignores the profound power asymmetry in individual employment relations that render employee representations basically useless and advantages the employer.

Union avoidance is big business in the United States. A few weeks ago I flagged an episode of the comedy “Superstore” that dealt with it. Last week, I also ran across a hilarious mash-up of Wal-Mart’s and Home Despot’s union avoidance videos.

They are hilarious because the “workers” in both videos are the same. Now maybe the “employees’” pay packets are so small that they need to have two jobs (and NO UNION!)… . But the near verbatim scripts suggests otherwise.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 14, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Harlan Man

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Harlan Man” by Steve Earle. This bluegrass song is about coal mining in 1970s in Kentucky. During this time, the miners sought to unionize. The resulting strike went poorly for the miners. The strike is documented in an excellent film called Harlan County USA.

Mining (like construction) is a hyper masculinized occupation. There are very few female miners. I remember working a strike vote at a strip mine west of Edmonton in 2001 (or 2002?) and there were two (or maybe three?) women in the unit and some of the other miners immediately brought this up with me as an issue (it was completely unrelated to what we were talking about).

The hyper masculinity is evident in the lyrics which talk about doing dangerous work because the worker has to provide for his family. The singer grew up poor in rural Kentucky and goes down in the mine because that is the easiest way to make a living. Only later does the true cost of the decision become apparent but, by that time, the singer is caught because he has a family to support. This is a point of pride for the singer, carrying on a long family tradition based upon manual skill and stick-with-it-ness despite poor treatment by the boss.

I'm a Harlan Man
Went down in the mine when I was barely grown
It was easy then
'Cause I didn't know what I know now

But I'm a family man
And it's the only life that I've ever known
But I'm a Harlan Man
Just as long as my luck and lungs hold out

I'm a mountain man
Born in east Kentucky and here I'll stay
And if it's the good Lord's plan
I'll wake up in the mornin' and find

I'm lookin' at the end
Of another long week and I can draw my pay
'Cause I'm a Harlan Man
Never catch me whinin' cause I ain't that kind

I'm a union man
Just like my daddy and all my kin
I took a union stand
No matter what the company said

I got me two good hands
And just as long as I'm able I won't give in
'Cause I'm a Harlan Man
A coal minin' mother 'til the day I'm dead

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Submission on faculty collective bargaining

The Government of Alberta is currently consulting on amendments to the framework that governs collective bargaining for faculty in Alberta's public colleges, universities and technical institutes. This consultation was sparked by the Supreme Court's 2015 decision re: strikes as constitutionally protected activity. This is my individual submission. You can make a submission here.

Dear Mr. Sims,

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the Faculty and Graduate Students Labour Relations Model Review.

I’m a professor of labour relations at Athabasca University. From 1996 to 2001, I worked for the Alberta College-Institute Faculties Association. Since 2007, I have been involved in collective bargaining and grievance handling with the Athabasca University Faculty Association. During the intervening years, I worked for the Alberta Labour Relations Board and the Alberta Labour.

The study guide correctly identifies a number of issues with Alberta’s current model of faculty labour relations contained in the Post-Secondary Learning Act (PSLA). While, in theory, it might be possible to resolve these issues by inserting the required provisions of the Labour Relations Code into the PSLA, the more parsimonious solution is to make faculty subject to the Labour Relations Code.

In answer to the specific questions posed:

2. Faculty should be subject to essential services legislation because some faculty have responsibilities that, left untended, could result in profound harm to the public. That said, the argument made by some student associations that instruction is an essential service is ridiculous. Certainly instruction is important, but its temporary cessation (however inconvenient) does not “endanger the life, personal safety or health of the public” and is not “necessary for the maintenance and administration of the rule of law or public security.”

3. The least disruptive approach to bargaining agent status is to deem existing associations as the bargaining agents and then allow faculty association members access to the certification and revocation rights accorded to every other worker in Alberta.

The argument advanced by some employers that current associations (many of which have been representing their members for 40 years) ought to have to win a certification vote to be deemed the bargaining agent is sophistry intended to start a kitchen fire in the house of labour while the employers head to the barn to try and rustle some horses during the ensuing chaos.

Similarly, the argument advanced by some faculty associations that all un-organized employees should be automatically made members of a bargaining unit is equally silly. If workers wish to join a union, they can do so under the certification procedures in the Public Service Employee Relations Act or (after the new model is enacted) under the Labour Relations Code. If a union wishes to represent such workers, it can organize them.

5. My experience with designation is that employers use designation to advance their collective bargaining objectives (e.g., “if you want sabbaticals for librarians, we’ll just de-designate them). No other employers have this power because of the fundamental conflict of interest it entails. Faculty members are workers and the Labour Relations Board has adequate skills and experience to determine what is an appropriate bargaining unit.

6. The current wording of the PSLA makes General Faculties Councils (GFCs) subordinate to Boards of Governors. The precise legal meaning of those provisions in the PSLA may be somewhat ambiguous, but subordination is the effect of the current wording. Consequently, giving GFCs a role in determining bargaining unit status basically means giving the Board that power and this returns us to the conflict of interest issue I flagged in my response to Question 5 above.

9. The Labour Relations Board is competent to adjudicate the ins and outs of a bargaining unit. At Athabasca University, the inclusion of deans (who are effectively managers) in the bargaining unit creates profound difficulties for the faculty association in representing members and their interests. This is precisely the conflict of interest in the membership that the statutory exclusion of managers is designed to avoid and it should be left to the Labour Relations Board to adjudicate disputes.

11. There are no matters that should be excluded from the ambit of collective bargaining. Every other worker has the capacity to negotiate the full range of terms and conditions of their employment. I see no compelling argument that faculty members should be precluded from doing so.

A recurring theme at the consultation I attended was that employers desired a clear distinction between so-called academic and employment matters. The solution to this is to clarify and expand the autonomy of GFCs. When GFCs appear to be subordinate to Boards on clearly academic matters and Boards take actions contrary to the wishes of GFC, it shouldn’t be surprising that faculty members then seek to have their interests heard and addressed in some other venue (e.g., collective bargaining and grievance arbitration).

While Boards might avoid such problems by respecting the traditional autonomy of GFCs over academic matters, recent history suggests Boards struggle to exercise such self control. Consequently, a legislative “fix” to this governance problem is required. Giving GFCs the power to make academic decisions will reduce the pressure that faculty associations experience from their members to take action on so-called academic issues.

17. The statutory reset option is the cleanest option. It provides a clear deadline after which bargaining will take place in the new model. The date of this reset should be far enough into the future that faculty associations have adequate time to build a strike fund and other union infrastructure. The specific situation I worry about if the transition period is short is employers locking out unprepared faculty associations in order to gut contracts.

18. Athabasca University academics mostly work from home offices. Some of these home offices are located in other provinces. It would be useful to consider whether these faculty members will be considered to be in the bargaining unit. The Labour Relations Code does not seem to preclude this (whereas the Public Service Employee Relations Act does explicitly preclude it) but some clarity would be useful.

The Labour Relations Code excludes certain professionals (when employed in their professional a capacity) from the definition of employee (and thus from the bargaining unit). This includes architects, dentists, engineers, lawyers, nurse practitioners, and physicians. Whether teaching is considered being employed in one’s professional capacity may vary between these occupations. Further, some professionals will clearly be employed in their professional capacity while working for a PSE institution. In other jurisdictions, these professionals are generally included in the academic bargaining unit. It may be necessary to provide an exception in the Code to allow these faculty members to continue to be members of a faculty association.

To conclude, I think the most sensible pathway forward is to move faculty association collective bargaining under the Labour Relations Code.

Thanks kindly

Bob Barnetson
Professor, Labour Relations
Athabasca University

Friday, October 7, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Boney Fingers

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Boney Fingers” by Hoyt Axton. This 1974 song is a bit Grand Ole Opry for my tastes, but provides an interesting view into the work-a-day world where there isn’t really much prospect of moving up or life getting better.

If you really listen to the lyrics, the contrast between the exhortation to accept that things suck (“Might as well like it 'cause you're all that I've got”) and hope that “Maybe things’ll get a little better, in the mornin’” really jars with the up tempo music and kitschy stage presentation.

A better song from that period and genre is "One's On the Way" by Loretta Lynn. If you'd prefer to listen to that one, you can find it here.

See the rain comin' down and the roof won't hold 'er
Lost my job and I feel a little older
Car won't run and our love's grown colder
But maybe things'll get a little better, in the mornin'
Maybe things'll get a little better.

Oh! the clothes need washin' and the fire won't start
Kids all cryin' and you're breakin' my heart
Whole darn place is fallin' apart
Maybe things'll get a little better, in the mornin'
Maybe things'll get a little better.


Work your fingers to the bone - whadda ya get?
( Whoo-whoo ) Boney Fingers - Boney Fing-gers.

Yea! I've been broke as long as I remember
Get a little money and I gotta run and spend 'er
When I try to save it, pretty woman come and take it
Sayin' maybe things'll get a little better, in the mornin'
Maybe things'll get a little better.


Yea! the grass won't grow and the sun's too hot
The whole darn world is goin' to pot
Might as well like it 'cause you're all that I've got
But, maybe things'll get a little better, in the mornin'
Maybe things'll get a little better.


-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Is it time to start jailing employers for killing workers?

This past weekend, the Edmonton Journal reported that the government has laid 19 charges against 3 companies following a 2015 workplace fatality. On April 28, 2015, a labourer died after a trench caved in.

The Journal reports:
Haya Homes Ltd., the infill homes developer, faces six charges, including failure to ensure the regulations and code were followed on a work site and failing to ensure Sahib Contracting Inc. — which had been hired to dig the trench — stabilized the soil in the excavation as required. … 
Sahib Contracting Inc. faces seven charges, including [failing to?] stabilizing the soil in an excavation, ensuring workers had a safe entrance and exit from the excavation and ensuring labourers working in an excavation were competent in doing so. 
Sukhwinder Nagra, named as a prime contractor with Sahib Contracting Inc., faces eight charges, including failing to take reasonable care to protect the safety of a worker, failure to assess a work site for hazards, and failure to stabilize the soil in an excavation.
I cannot confirm any of this because (as of Monday) the government hadn’t provide a press release or updated its list of “charges pending”. The summary of 2015 fatality investigations simply says:
A worker entered a 2-3 meter deep newly excavated water main trench. The trench collapsed and the worker was trapped.
The OHS Code requires any trench (i.e., a hole deeper than it is wide) deeper than 4’10” to have some sort of shoring or grading or other means of protecting workers from a collapse (there are other rules around working near a trench wall).

The absence of information about this fatality means we don’t know much about the circumstances. Reading between the lines, it sounds like the worker entered a trench that was six- to nine-feet deep and had not been shored up against the walls collapsing.  Mostly, we're left with questions:

Was he directed to enter the trench? 

Did he balk? 

Did he jump in before the employer could shore it up? 

Did the employer even have proper shoring materials nearby? 

The worker was a day labourer who may have had no training on proper behaviour around an excavation.

Based on the charges, this sounds like a pretty clear case of employer error and the likely outcome is a plea bargain, a creative sentence (wherein the employers donate cash to a charitable group and get to look good for doing so), and everyone moves on (except the dead worker, of course).

This has been Alberta’s approach for the last decade or so and, if the purpose is to meaningfully reduce fatalities and injuries, it doesn’t seem to be working. What might get the attention of employers (especially small employers in the construction industry) is putting some employers in jail for their negligence. Both the OHS Act and the Criminal Code have provisions for this kind of sentencing.

-- Bob Barnetson