Thursday, September 27, 2012

CBC Calgary series on farm worker rights

CBC Calgary has being doing a series on farm worker safety. Here are links to the three videos they've done:

Lack of WCB coverage

Migrant farmworker housing

Farm worker protection

You can also see a couple of longer clip of an interview with Eric Musekamp (Farmworkers Union of Alberta)

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Video of migrant farm worker quarters in Alberta

CBC has posted a video tour of migrant worker living quarters in Alberta (a 2010 video). The quality of the video bad but there is lots of evidence of mold, over crowding, cooking in the laundry room, etc.Seventeen workers lived in this three-bedroom house. In this video, we see that for migrant workers, workplace health and safety often goes beyond the worksite into the housing that is provided for them (or more likely rented from) employers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, September 24, 2012

More on drug testing

A reader sent me a link to a column from the Winnipeg Free Press on drug testing. It makes for fairly compelling reading around the issue of false positives (i.e., drug tests that flag workers as users when they are not):
With a 99 per cent accuracy, it seems reasonable to think only one per cent of employees will be wrongly accused of doing drugs. Not so, because of a little thing called the base rate: If 10 per cent of workers are actually on drugs (the base rate), a test 99 per cent accurate will falsely accuse people eight per cent of the time, not one per cent. That means almost one out of every 10 people testing positive will be innocent. 
How does that work? Here’s the math. Assume we test 1,000 people. Of these, 100 are intoxicated (10 per cent base rate) and our test will identify 99 of them. Nine hundred are not intoxicated but the one per cent error rate in the test means nine of them will be falsely identified as intoxicated. So in all, 108 people will test positive for drugs, of which nine (or 8.3 per cent) are innocent.
It takes a minute to grasp the math but it is worth the effort. Then, as the article continues, imagine what happens when the tests aren't 99% accurate, but more like 38-68% and then add in gaming of the tests (psst... can I borrow some urine?). Suddenly the potential impact false positives takes on more urgency and the concerns of labour groups is more understandable. Not only do these tests not reduce the incidence of workplace injury, but they raise a significant spectre of false accusations. Makes you wonder what is behind this whole endeavour.

For those keen to learn more, an interesting (albeit older) article on this topic is "Predictive probabilities in employee drug testing".

-- Bob Barnetson

Migrant Worker Film, September 30

A new film The End of Immigration will be shown at the Edmonton International Film Festival at noon on September 30. This documentary looks at temporary foreign workers (including some from Alberta) and their experiences. It will also be shown in Montreal on October 2 and 15.

In related news, a new report examines how Canada's employment and immigration laws make temporary foreign workers vulnerable to exploitation.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Farm safety tussle continues

Alberta is the only province that continues to deny Alberta’s ~12,000 farm workers basic safety rights, such as the right to refuse unsafe work or the right to know about dangers in their workplace. You can see me chatting about this issue on Alberta Primetime last week here. CBC is also working on a series about this issue.

Last year, the Alberta government struck the Farm Safety Advisory Council. This council was designed to provide the government with advice on issues around farm safety and comprised mostly industry and government representatives (there was one appointee from UFCW to represent the voice of labour). Many people (including myself) saw this as a stalling tactic by the government, which was hoping the issue of regulating farm safety in Alberta would go away.

It hasn’t and likely won’t.  Farm safety is a good wedge issue for the Liberals and the NDP. There is little urban appetite for workplace rules that result in maimed and killed farm workers (including kids and migrant workers). Yet, if the PCs attempt to mollify urban voters by regulating safety, they will lose more rural support to the Wildrose. I expect further political hammering on this issue.

In the spring, the Council provided the Minister of Agriculture with a report about farm safety regulation. Neither the Minster of Agriculture nor the Minister of Human Services have made any public moves on this report (like releasing it) for seven months. On the weekend, the Calgary Herald revealed it had a copy of a draft report, which was confirmed as broadly representative of the final report.

The gist of the report (which I have not seen) is (not surprisingly) that farming should remain outside the ambit of provincial OHS laws and that industry should use education and some form of self-regulation to make things safer. To be fair to the government, it has not taken a position on whether or not it will live up to the commitment made by the Premier last September to regulate farm safety. But this report is rather discouraging.

The assertion that education is a more effective way to reduce injuries than enforcement is simply untrue. Studies indicate that farm safety education has no impact on injury rates—likely because hazardous conditions remain unmitigated. This recommendation ought to give the government significant pause about adopting the council’s (self-serving) report.

The political bind for the government is that doing something may cost significant rural support (and may set off a feud in caucus). Yet (once again) doing nothing means the government will have the blood of the next dead farm worker plainly on its hands. If that farm worker is a kid (and there is a good chance a kid will die doing farm work next year), platitudes about how the death is “tragic” and “deeply saddening” may not be enough to sweep the issue under the carpet. 

Eventually, urban voters are going to wonder why the government keeps accepting the recommendations of the foxes about hen-house security in the wake of all of these dead chickens.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

More on random drug testing...

Last week I was on CBC discussing random drug testing, noting that there was no evidence random drug testing reduced injuries. You can see a summary of the research that I posted the other day after several folks requested it. 

I provided a link to this summary to the organization behind the random drug testing because they wanted a copy of the studies I'd reviewed. Tonight I got a letter from them. I responded and I thought posting both bits of correspondence (since the letter to me was copied to CBC!) might be insightful for students interest in how evidence contributes (or not) to policy making.
-- Bob Barnetson (not Bartensen!)

September 11, 2012

Pat Atkins, Administrator
Drug & Alcohol Risk Reduction Pilot Project

Dear Dr. Bartensen:

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me on the phone this morning to discuss your guest appearance on the CBC Edmonton radio show on September 5, 2012.

During the CBC segment you indicated that you were not able to find any studies that link workplace safety and alcohol and drug testing, and could not find any evidence of the deterrent effects of random testing. When I asked if you could provide me with copies and links to the research you mentioned on the radio, you said you could not remember any specific studies and that you based your conclusion on what you learned from a journal browse in the library.

As the Administrator of Alberta’s Drug and Alcohol Risk Reduction Pilot Project (DARRPP), I have accumulated some of the current research on the subject of alcohol and drug testing in the workplace, and I thought it would be helpful to share some of this information with you so you can refer to it in the future.

I also have some other relevant information to share relative to alcohol and drugs generally.

First, I am attaching an article from Cornell University which indicates a strong link between the implementation of alcohol & drug testing and increased safety in the construction industry. It is entitled “Construction companies find benefits in testing for drugs, Cornell study finds.” This study found that the implementation of drug testing reduced injury rates by 51% within two years of implementation.

I would also like to refer you to the US Department of Transportation (DOT) study, also attached. Random alcohol and drug testing was implemented by the DOT for motor coach carriers in 1995, and, in 2008, they had achieved a 47% decrease in positive tests for drugs and a 60% decrease in positive tests for alcohol for workers who were in a random testing program for both drugs and alcohol. This same study showed that in 2008, for workers in random testing, the post-incident positive test rate for drugs was down to 1.24%.

In addition, a separate study of the U.S. road transportation industry, which looked only at fatal crashes where alcohol was involved during this same time period showed a 23% decrease for workers who were random-tested. This shows that random testing can be successful in deterring workers from being impaired on the job and endangering themselves and others.

In our conversation I pointed to recent events at Toronto Transit. In 2007 a serious accident occurred on the job where the operator was killed and several workers seriously injured. In a post-incident test, the operator was found to have measureable levels of THC, likely consumed during his work shift. Following this incident, a comprehensive A&D testing program was approved by the TTC, which was implemented in 2010. At that time, random testing was recommended but not approved. In 2011, another accident occurred resulting in the death of a passenger. The driver was charged with criminal negligence causing death and possession of cannabis. Following this event, the TTC approved random testing. I think these studies and findings are quite relevant.

In Northern Alberta, many organizations have had extensive safety programs in place for decades, making every effort to take actions to ensure the health and safety of workers and the public. Most have also had A&D testing programs in place for 10 years or more, as well as education programs, training for workers and supervisors, availability of EAP and treatment programs (often paid for by the organization), speakers and symposiums for workers and supervisors. In spite of these efforts, drugs and drug paraphernalia are still being found in camps, on heavy equipment and on work sites, and workers continue to test positive in post-incident tests. Pre-site access testing still results in substantial numbers of positive tests, in spite of the fact that workers are aware that the testing will occur.

One organization also found that close to six times more alcohol and drug abuse problems are revealed in substance abuse expert assessments after incidents occur than pre-emptive tests prompted by supervisor observations – and this is in spite of years of extensive education and supervisor training. Continuing to maintain the status quo and ignore the pressing need to improve workplace safety would be irresponsible on the part of site owners, who have a legal obligation to maintain a safe workplace. Given the data we have about the positive effects of random testing as a deterrent and its clear, measurable impact on improving workplace safety, the introduction of random testing for safety sensitive positions in Alberta’s oil sands and construction industries is a reasonable and responsible action.

DARRPP will also provide accurate Alberta wide statistical information relative to alcohol & drugs. The scope and efficacy of such information ought to allow intelligent and insightful conclusions to be drawn. This is part of the reason this is a “pilot project”

Employers are also responsible for respecting the human rights and privacy of employees. DARRPP participants all accept their obligations under the Alberta Occupational Health and Safety Act, the Alberta Human Rights Act, and the Personal Information Protection Act. For your reference, I am also attaching DARRPP’s participant guidelines, which clearly document these obligations.

Random workplace alcohol and drug testing is a powerful tool that has been proven to deter irresponsible behavior, prompt people with dependencies to get help, reduce injuries and save lives. As DARRPP’s Administrator, I can assure you that the pilot project has been designed to respect human rights and privacy, and I am confident that the testing will be implemented responsibly by participating employers.

As a former oil sands worker and resident of Fort McMurray for over 30 years, I am concerned at the alcohol and drug-related risks that are present in Alberta’s oil sands and construction industries. I trust you will find this information useful. Please let me know if you need additional information.

Pat Atkins, Administrator
Drug & Alcohol Risk Reduction Pilot Project

CC: CBC Edmonton Radio


Thanks for your letter.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of your letter, but I did want to clarify a few things,

First, the assertion I made on the radio and on the phone was that I could find no studies that linked random workplace drug testing (as opposed to alcohol testing) to injury reductions and that I could find no studies that linked drug use to increases in injury rates. When you asked for the studies, I indicated that I didn’t happen to have a list, rather I had simply spent some time in the library reading studies.

But I did undertake to provide you with a list. I emailed you a link to my blog (where I posted the studies I reviewed) alone with a summary of each. You’ll find that they do indeed support my assertion. Most of interest to you will be the systematic review done for the government of Alberta in 2006—it is the most recent and most comprehensive.

Second, the Cornell study which you referred me to (and which I provided you a copy of since you hadn’t bothered to get a copy or read it!) did not refer to random drug testing (which is what is at issue). Rather, it refers to drug testing generally (which may or may not include random testing). Additionally, it isn’t a very good study (low response rate, small sample). So it doesn’t support random drug testing as a way to reduce injuries, which would have been evident if anyone at DARRPP had bothered to read it.

Third, I can’t comment on the DOT study (it was not attached) other than to observe that a study that finds random testing led to a reduction in positive tests does not tell us anything about whether random testing resulted in a reduction in injuries. All it tells us is that positive test results dropped.

Fourth, the study about random alcohol testing is not relevant to random drug testing. Alcohol and drugs appear to be quite separate issues and I have little concern with alcohol testing if there is some good reason to do so.

Fifth, the TTC examples are interesting, but again they do not provide any evidence that random drug testing reduces injury rates or the much more basic issue of whether drug use (outside of work or while at work) results in an increased rate of injury. An equally valid interpretation is that TTC got spooked and decided to cover their ass via testing after the second incident.

Sixth, your assertion that this is a “pilot study” is problematic in a couple of way. This study is not occurring in a laboratory with willing participants and disinterested researchers. You members are compelling their workers to participate in this study (which is unethical). These “researchers” have multiple and often conflicting interests at play which compromise their judgment. There is no reason to believe that your intervention will be effective based on the available data. Having such a belief is generally a precondition to experimenting on humans, where the experiment could result in significant harm (in this case, reputational and career consequences). And the rationale you are using justify invading the privacy of workers (i.e., that drug testing will make the workplace safer) assumes the hypothesis you are researching is true. Yet all of the available evidence indicates the opposite! 

Seventh, you note that:
“Random workplace alcohol and drug testing is a powerful tool that has been proven to deter irresponsible behavior, prompt people with dependencies to get help, reduce injuries and save lives.”
On the issue of random drug testing, this simply is not true. There is no evidence of this! What you are making is an ideological statement. You are entitled to have this opinion, but when you take action that affects the livelihood of others, you need to be able to substantiate such a statement and you have not done so.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The evidence for drug testing in Alberta workplaces

Last week, I appeared in a CBC call in show about the implementation of random drug testing among Suncor employees as part of the Drug and Alcohol Risk Reduction Pilot Project (DARRPP) in Alberta’s energy and construction sectors. 

The basic argument made by DARRPP for random testing is a safety one: violating employee privacy rights is warranted because random testing will make workplaces safer. Preparing for the interview, I read a number of studies that (to my surprise) indicate (1) random drug testing (as distinct from other kinds of drug testing) is not generally associated with a reduction in injuries and (2) drug use (as distinct from alcohol use) on the job or off is not associated with an increase injuries. This seems to undercut the safety argument almost entirely, which was the message I delivered on the show.

Since then, I’ve had a fair number of emails and phone calls with people asking about the evidence. This is a complicated request: (1) there are many studies, and (2) designing and executing a study often entails significant tradeoffs so sometimes findings require some expertise to understand. There is also the matter that it is not possible to prove a negative (i.e., that drugs never cause injury rates to go up and that random drug testing never causes injury rates to go down). Rather, we typically require those who assert a relationship (i.e., DARRP) to show evidence that it exists, so let’s start there.

The DARPP website cites two studies. The first indicates random alcohol testing of drivers in the US transport industry reduced fatal crashes by 23% among large trucks. DAARPP doesn’t tell us which study that is and I didn’t run across it. But the question at hand is whether illicit drug testing (not alcohol-testing) reduces injuries, so this study has no real bearing on the issue.

The DARRPP website cites another US study that shows mandatory alcohol and drug testing reduces positive tests by 50%. Again, I couldn’t find the study but let’s assume this is correct. The question is whether a reduction in positive test results is associated with any difference in injury outcomes? On this, we have no information. As drug tests measure prior use (but not impairment), positive tests might have little to do with workplace injury rates. Or the reduction might indicate gaming behaviour (“Psst. Buddy, can I borrow some urine?”). If so, a reduction in positive tests is largely meaningless.

DARRPP also kindly sent me a press release about a 2001 study they thought I should look at: Gerber, J. and Yacoubian, G. (2001). Evaluation of drug testing in the workplace: A study of the construction industry. Journal of construction engineering and management. 127(6): 438-444. While this study found that firms that implemented drug testing saw a 51% reduction in injury incident rates, there was no indication that these results stemmed from random drug testing (as opposed to pre-employment, reasonable cause and post-incident testing—none of which are the subject at hand). This study also has a small sample and poor response rate. Overall, this study really tells us nothing useful about the impact of random drug testing on workplace injuries.

I looked back through my notes and browser history and started to pull together what I reviewed for the CBC interview. Rather than attempt a half-assed systematic review, what I’ve done is selected those articles which present such reviews themselves. This should allow anyone who is keen to do so, the ability to go back and review each article on their own.

Institute of Medicine (1994) Under the Influence? Drugs and the American Work Force. Washington: National Academy Press. This book-length review is one of the better reads, despite the relative age. It found no good studies on the effectiveness of random drug testing (pp. 226-227). The effect of a drug in a laboratory varies and can be either positive and negative (depending on dose and testing). It is difficult to transfer this knowledge to determine the impact of drug use in the workplace. There was too little data to indicate that drug use was associated with increase injury and it is unclear if there is a causal relationship (i.e., some other factor may be at play).

A slightly more recent review is Macdonald, S. (1997). Work-place alcohol and other drug testing: A review of the scientific evidence. Drug and alcohol review. 16(3): 251-259. This article also indicates that there was little evidence for a linkage between drug use and workplace injury and no evidence drug testing significantly reduces workplace injury.

A study by three Alberta researchers for the government of Alberta is Beach, J., Ford, G. and Cherry, N. (2006). Final report: A literature review of the role of alcohol and drugs in contributing to work-related injury. Edmonton: University of Alberta, Department of Public Health Sciences.  On the issue of “is personal drug use associated with workplace injury”, this study is worth quoting at some length:
Overall this literature is difficult to evaluate, and probably inadequate to reach a definitive conclusion. If drug use is associated with work-related injury it appears to be more apparent among males, possibly more likely to occur with cocaine use, and possibly only occurs in certain situations such as when driving or in other ‘high risk’ work. Further, while a slim majority of studies appear to show an association of some sort, even within these studies this does not necessarily constitute causation. (pp. 13-14)
The authors found the evidence also too slim to know if drug use at work or immediately before a workplace injury increased the risk of injury. On the question of whether drug testing of any type affected workplace injuries, the studies were too weak to say anything definitive.

Moving onto actual studies, one of the larger studies is Hoffman, J. and Larison, C. (1999) Drug use, workplace accidents and employee turnover. Journal of drug issues. 29(2): 341–364. This study used nationally representative US data to find that drug use in general is not associated with a higher risk of workplace injury, with little indication of any such relationship in higher risk occupations such as construction, transportation and skilled labour.

An interesting study is Macdonald, S. (1995). The role of drugs in workplace injuries: Is drug testing appropriate? Journal of drug issues, 25(4): 703–23. This study uses self-reports to conclude illicit drug use is not a major cause of job injuries. This study seeks to control for (and understand) the impact of other variables on the relationship between drugs use and injuries—a failing of many other studies.

One of the studies that is sometimes cited as indicating random testing is effective is Miller, T., Zaloshnja, E. and Spicer, R. (2007). Effectiveness and benefit-cost of peer-based workplace substance abuse prevention coupled with random testing. Accident analysis and prevention. 39(3): 565-573. A careful read shows that the interactive effect of peer-based interventions and random drug testing was associated with a one-third drop in workplace injuries. The authors note that is not possible to disentangle the effect of the two interventions (peer intervention and random drug testing). The time series data shows the vast majority of the reduction followed the peer intervention; injury data is effectively flat after random testing starts. It may be the threat of testing may have contributed to willingness to participate in peer intervention, but we don’t know that.

Another construction-specific survey is Olbina, S., Hinzo, J. and Arduengo, C. (2011). Drug testing practices in the US construction industry in 2008. Construction management and economics. 29(10): 1043-1057. This study reports a statistically significant relationship between positive random drug tests and higher injury rates, suggesting drug use can increase the change of injury. There were a number of limitations noted in the study: 14% response rate, with only two-third using random testing, small sample size (53 firms), and a bias towards larger firms. An average of 2.23% of random tests were positive, suggesting illicit drug use is minimal.

The question I’m left is this: if there is no evidence that random drug testing reduces workplace injury rates, why would employers spend money on it?

There are several possible answers. They may have been sold a bill a good by companies that do the random testing. The notion that testing will reduce injuries accords with most people’s (incorrect) common-sense reaction that testing should reduce injury rates so that would be an easy enough sell.

Or there may be some other agenda at play. Testing may dissuade drug users from working at places with testing. If drug-use is associated with other undesirable behaviours (e.g., propensity to quit), then perhaps random testing is really about winnowing out these workers.

Testing also implicitly blames workers for workplace injuries, taking the heat off employers for organizing work unsafely and off the government for doing a poor job of enforcing the rules. And it makes it look like employers are doing something about the problem of workplace injuries. There is also a strong moral dimension to the issue of drug testing that can sometimes cloud people’s judgment.

Or perhaps these companies just believe (contrary to the evidence) that testing works. They are certainly entitled to believe that. Except that testing is a huge invasion of workers’ privacy and is demeaning, so ought to occur only when there is some evidence of its efficacy at increasing safety. Absent such evidence, the case for random testing looks pretty weak.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Bogus new study by Merit Contractors

A couple of labour day stories in the newspaper this weekend. The Journal ran a piece linking this summer’s strike activities using the notion of precarious work. More interesting was an article on another “study” done by Merit Contractors advocating employer friendly changes to the Labour Relations Code. The original study is available on Merit’s website.

Before delving into Merit’s study, some background is useful. Merit Contractors is an association representing non-unionized contractors that has been seeking employer-friendly changes to Alberta’s labour laws for more than a decade. This includes releasing studies, lobbying MLAs and making donations to Tory leadership candidates. This context should make us skeptical of Merit’s “study” at the outset.

The “study” saw 501 Albertans surveyed on various questions about unions. It is important to note that this was a non-random survey. That means that the results are not generalizable to the whole population. So we can’t say “on the basis of this study, XX% of Albertans think Y”. Merit acknowledges this (in small print) but then basically ignores it when it presents the results. It is also important to note that “results have been weighted by age and gender to ensure demographic representation”. I have no idea what that means exactly, but that totally sets my spidey-sense tingling.

Merit also notes that 78% of Albertans in its study are non-unionized, including 58% who have never been unionized. Yet the opinions of those who have never been unionized (58% of the “sample”) are generally given as much weight as those who have union experience. Are those who have never been unionized really able to give meaningful answers to these questions? Do their opinions really matter since they are basically unaffected by the laws and practice of unionization and collective bargaining? Does putting their responses into the mix not skew the results in favour of anti-union conclusions?

The bottom-line question is whether the results of this “study” are meaningful? Broadly speaking, we have a non-random sample (that we can’t then generalize from) that has been tinkered with in some way that reports the opinions of those who appear to have little persona knowledge of or stake in unions. Not an auspicious start.

But let’s look at some of the results.

Merit presents “data” on whether or not union membership (among the 42% of respondents who are/were unionized) was mandatory. In its summary, Merit presents this information in a way that hints there is something wrong with this state of affairs:
For the majority (85%), becoming a part of the union was a mandatory requirement for the job, and most (68%) were unable to resign from their union membership while maintaining their unionized job (p.7).
Setting aside the difficulty with such self-reporting (e.g., memory decay, lack of knowledge), Merit fails to query whether anyone actually wanted to resign their membership! We have no idea what these respondents think about their compulsory membership. Further, Merit presents this finding in a vacuum, ignoring the free-rider problem that is used to justify many cases of compulsory participation. By the implicit logic, I should be able to opt out of that portion of my taxes that goes to prop-up failing businesses.

Merit presents “data” on whether or not unions should have recourse to automatic dues collection (the alternative being the much less efficient approach of unions have to collect dues individually from each member each month). The results of this are evenly split. But when you look at what current union members want (and it is their wishes that ought to count, since they are the ones affected), only 17% agree with making unions collect dues individually from members.

This finding reveals the anti-democratic bias of Merit’s study. Dues provisions are approved by the affected workers via ratification of a collective agreement. If the workers didn’t want these provisions, they could elect an executive slate and negotiate these provisions out of their contract. Of course, this never happens because it would financially hamstring the union. Merit’s conclusion?
Employees want more choice (making it optional) when it comes to paying union dues… a majority (63%) agree that … employees should have the option of opting out of all union dues.
This is, of course, only true if we accept that this survey is representative (it isn’t) and that the wishes to employees who are not affected by union dues ought to drive public policy on union security matters (they shouldn’t). Isn’t the more democratic option to leave these decisions to those who are affected to vote on in their workplaces? The only group that benefits from Merit’s recommendation are employers, who would face weaker unions.

Merit asks the respondents whether they think unions have a positive effect on:
  • Employee job security (81%) 
  • Promotion of an innovative working atmosphere (35%) 
  • The ability of a business to compete (32% 
  • The ability for a government to use your tax dollars (26%) 
These results are not surprising. Unions are perceived to be (and in fact are) good at protecting job security, because that is their purpose.

That largely non-unionized workers think unions do a poor job of make businesses competitive or innovative is both irrelevant (that is not the job of a union) and meaningless (how would they know?). The question “Do you think the presence of a union in a workplace has very positive/somewhat positive/somewhat negative/very negative effect on the ability for a government to use your tax dollars” is simply non-sensical. Whether there is a union in a workplace has no direct effect on the ability of a government to use tax dollars.

What these questions are about is reframing the debate. Merit is trying to get policy makers and the electorate to view unions as impediments of economic growth. But economic growth isn’t the job of unions: unions exist to protect their members from the depredations of employers seeking maximal profitability even it means killing some workers or kicking them to curb and letting their families starve. Little wonder unions focus on job security (and other employment rights) rather than helping out the wealthy.

Merit asks questions about unionization drives, questioning whether workers should get information from both employers and unions during them. There is huge support for this proposal (87%) yet it is asked without any context. Merit didn’t inform respondents about the tactics employers have (and do) use to interfere with unionization drives, which is why the state finally told employers to stop screwing around and let the workers decide for themselves about whether they want a union.

Merit asks about whether a secret ballot vote is a good idea. Again, Merit fails to mention that secret ballot votes demonstrable reduce the success of unionization drives and, indeed, the number of such drives because they give employers an opportunity to put the chill on organizing efforts,

Merit asks whether governments should restrict bidding on public contracts to unionized companies. I can’t think (off hand) of an instance where this happens. Rather, this seems to be part of the broader “unions are bad and get special treatment” theme of Merit’s “study”.

Merit asks whether union members should be able to opt out of “non-core” union dues. Merit’s rationale for this line of questioning? According to the Calgary Herald:
Peter Pilarski, Merit Con-tractors Association's vice-president for southern Alberta, said he believes changes to legislation are important because employees are fed up with having their union dues used to make political contributions or support certain social causes.
It is touching that Merit is so concerned about the well being of unionized workers. It is strange, though, that Merit ignores that union expenditures are approved by their memberships each year so they don't really need a nanny state telling them how to run their union. Unless what Merit is trying to do is create public policy that reduces the money unions can spend supporting worker-friendly political candidates.

Overall, this is just another cravenly self-interested employer lobbying effort dressed up as research. Hopefully the government will use actual evidence to guide public policy making. If not, organized labour should do some surveys of its own. It could ask a non-random sample of Albertans questions like:
  • Do you want to make more money? 
  • Do you want better benefits and a secure pension plan? 
  • Do you want clear criteria for hiring and promotion? 
  • Do you want your employer to have to have an actual reason to fire you? 
  • Do you want to have an accessible route of recourse if your employer violates your contract? 
I’m guessing we’d get 80%+ agreement with these outcomes. These are, of course, all outcomes of belonging to a union.

-- Bob Barnetson