Thursday, February 28, 2013

Research: Regulation of safety among young workers

I’ve run across two studies about young workers and workplace safety this past week that are worth a look.

Teenage work: Its precarious and gendered nature” examines the workplace experiences of youth in British Columbia. The author finds that BC’s regulatory mechanisms are inadequate to deal with the working conditions faced by BC teens. Of specific concern were the few remedies available for dangerous working conditions, harassment, excessive or inappropriate hours of work or problems with pay.

Waiting for safety: Responses by young Canadian workers to unsafe work” examines how young workers in Ontario and Manitoba react to workplace hazards using the voice, exit, patience and neglect typology. Most recent workplace safety campaigns in Canada seek to inform young workers of their rights and thus trigger voice activity around safety hazards. What this study found is that young workers are reluctant to give voice to their concern (related to fear of being fired, among other factors) and thus workers tend to adopt patience strategies (i.e., hoping something will change). Where voice activity is unsuccessful, young workers tend to revert to patience or adopt neglect strategies rather than continue to agitate for change.

One common theme in these articles is that complaint-driven enforcement of workplace rights doesn’t appear to be particularly effective or realistic. This is not a new or particularly startling conclusion yet it is wildly ignored by policy makers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Government bargaining directly with teachers?

Minister of Education Jeff Johnson was on the radio this morning, chatting about the ATA’s rejection of his latest offer for a province-wide deal.  One of the more interesting things he said was that the ATA’s positions on instructional caps differ from what he’s “hearing from teachers on the ground”. That is to say, he is suggesting that teachers want something different from their union. Johnson’s knowledge of what teachers want may stem from an email he sent to individual teachers a few weeks back.

This question of who knows best what teachers want raises the issue of just who is negotiating with whom in what is frankly a completely mess. The ATA is the bargaining agent (acting through its various locals). Typically, the union articulates its members’ demands to the employer, generally after a period of (often acrimonious) intra-organizational bargaining among its members. 

The employers are the 62 school boards. That said, the school boards are beholden to the government and apparently have to get the government’s okay on any contract they sign, so the whole process is a bit of a sham. The true employer (luring just off stage) is the provincial government. Periodically, the government jumps back onto the stage, with several attempts to get a province-wide deal. Or by making a province-wide offer or threats of imposing a deal with wage rollbacks and salary freezes (cue olde time villainous music).

This, of course, muddies the waters. The school boards (quite understandably) are happy to sit back and watch while the government pressures the ATA to knuckle under. And local bargaining stalls. Which is, of course, the kind of thing that causes workers to get pissed off and strike—which is the outcome Johnson explicitly says the government does not want. So you’d think he’d want to stop running his mouth.

Coming back to the question of who negotiates with whom, labour laws typically preclude employers from interacting directly with union members. There are two reasons for this. First, employers bargaining directly with union members is an age-old way for employers to undermine the power of the union by playing groups of workers in a bargaining unit off against one another. We certainly see the government attempting to do that here by suggesting that the ATA is not representing what (some of) the teachers want.

Second, allowing the union to voice the demands of its members brings a degree of coherence to the bargaining table: the union can tell the employer what it is going to take to get a deal and the employer can then respond (or not). Johnson (the sometimes employer) purporting to have a kitchen cabinet of teachers “on the ground” telling him what they want is, in fact, creating a situation where no deal will ever be possible.

The reason for this is that it is hard for an employer and a union to come to an agreement they can both get ratified by a majority of their principals. Getting a deal which satisfies everyone (i.e., generates consensus among teachers on the ground) is impossible. If Johnson is now bargaining directly with individual teachers, he’ll have to please both those who want instructional caps and those want smaller classes sizes.

And then he’ll have to please those who will want every Friday off and clothing allowances and extra support staff and monkeys for their science class—the list of member demands is usually pretty incoherent and full of contradictions during the intraorganizational bargaining stage. This is why unions articulate a single position—everybody (including employers) benefits from this.

When unions aren’t allowed to generate a clear bargaining position because the employer is interacting directly with the members, bargaining fails. This basic dynamic explains (for the most part) why we have the collective bargaining laws and structures we do—they work and have an internal logic to them (even though that logic is not necessarily readily apparent).

It is unclear of Johnson doesn’t know what he is doing, or is getting really bad advice, or is intentionally trying to drive local bargaining onto the rocks to justify back-to-work legislation. In any event, if two-and-half-years of province-wide bargaining didn’t come up with a deal, then likely there is no province-wide deal to be had. So Johnson needs to butt out and let the employers sort it out with the locals—this being how collective bargaining works under the laws his government enacted.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Minister to teachers: freezes or cuts, your choice

The Calgary Herald is reporting that Education Minister Jeff Johnson has attempted to restart province-wide “negotiations” between teachers, school boards and the province that went off the rails in late 2012.

Those 2012 negotiations saw the teachers offer pay “raises” of zero, zero, one and three percent over four years in exchange for caps on instructional time. The province balked because instructional time caps might affect some small (i.e., rural) school boards negatively.

Now Johnson is shopping around a proposal offering zero, zero, zero and two percent “increases”. Plus there are some one-time payments (i.e., they don’t change long-term compensation) of one percent in each of years three and four.

So basically Johnson’s trying to grind off half of the long-term increases offered by the teachers in exchange for instructional time caps. Oh, and also there is meaningful no cap on teaching time.

Now we’d all like to have our cake (no teacher work stoppages) and eat it too (insanely low raises stretching out into a future where costs will rise and no meaningful cap on instructional time, which would entail a rollback of some contract provisions already won). But we also know that no union is going to recommend such a lousy deal.

Johnson has “sweetened” the offer by saying, if the teachers don’t sign before the budget drops on March 7, then he’ll legislate this and hinting maybe there will be salary rollbacks and/or layoffs:
“I must stress these incentives – both financial and the membership of the Exceptions Committee – will not be carried over if we need to reach a deal after the provincial budget is tabled.”
The minister writes that his proposal means teachers will remain the best paid in any Canadian province, and “prevent the possibility of salary rollbacks.”

He adds: “I also want to minimize as much as possible reductions in teaching staff.”
"Well, sign me up!" say the teachers. Oh no, wait, they are actually giving the minister advice about sex and travel. Lip reading is indeed a tricky business. Fortunately, the sign language helped.

There is, of course, no real reason why this deal wouldn’t be available to teachers after March 7 (the budget will be the same regardless), except that the Tories are trying to stop what is looking like it will be a(nother) ugly fight in a spring where they have been battered on a daily basis. Attempting to bully the union just drives the membership together to resist and will eventually result in work-to-rule campaigns and/or work stoppages.

It will also undermine the personal support the premier derives from parents and teachers that won her the leadership. It is unclear if the Tories don’t understand this. Or, more interestingly, perhaps some of them do understand the impact this is having on the Premier’s “base” and are pushing this agenda intentionally.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, February 22, 2013

Regulating child labour on Alberta farms

Alberta PrimeTime did a piece on farmworker safety this week. The interviews were fairly interesting. The discussion centred on protecting paid child farm workers, rather than all children working on farms. I would think the proportion of child farm workers getting paid is pretty small—most children working on farms are going to be working on their families’ farms for no wages.

The political attraction of protecting this (effectively fictional) group is that farmers will buy in because it won’t affect them. But it means that the majority of children working on farms won’t be protected. Which can’t possibly be in the public interest.

The other interesting piece is when the Wildrose Agricultural Producers' president recounted speaking to Dave Hancock (minister in charge of occupational health and safety) two weeks ago who apparently indicated that it is rural PC MLAs who are blocking efforts to extend basic safety rights to farm workers. This jives with the electoral explanation that most analysts subscribe to—but nice to see it confirmed by a lobbyist.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, February 15, 2013

Premier on farm safety case?

On February 8, the Farm Workers Union of Alberta issued a press release indicating Alberta Premier Alison Redford had promised to personally work on Alberta’s farm safety issues. Below, you can see Redford and Eric Musekamp (president of the FUA) shaking hands on February 6.

It is a bit hard to follow who’s on first in farm safety for the government so here is a quick summary:

Back in 2011, Redford promised to take action on farm safety. In February 2012, the government got a report from its latest farm safety stalling consultation (10 years at least two consultations into this issue…) and promptly buried started to review it (very slowly though, as it still hasn't been released). A bootlegged version shows it recommended no real change, not surprising since the vast majority of members were farmers or ag-business types.

In December, Redford told the Edmonton Journal, “We’re going to put in place the right approaches at the right time” although she declined to say what “the right approach” is, or when “the right time” will be. She also said “We’re not going to find ways to avoid making commitments, but we are going to do the right thing and sometimes those are short term, sometimes they’re medium term and sometimes they’re longer term.” Whatever that means.

Then, in January, the government confirmed no legislation would be forthcoming in the spring session (so now we know what it means!). Then, in February, the premier announces she's taking a personal hand in the file. I presume she is earnest in her concerns. But what “taking a personal hand” means is a total mystery. It sounds encouraging (which may be the political purpose) but there is no specific promise or deadline for action.

While Alberta farm workers continue to have the unique privilege of working without basic safety rights (like the right to know about workplace hazards or refuse unsafe work), a couple of new studies on farm safety have just been published.

In “Childhood agricultural injuries: An update for clinicians” (published in Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health), the authors examine US childhood ag injuries and conclude: 
Agricultural injuries follow predictable patterns and are largely preventable. …Since rural children may be placed in harm’s way because of economic necessity and entrenched cultural traditions, strategies to effectively remove the child from the hazardous agricultural work environment are paramount. These include increased options for off-site child care, safe play areas on farms, and enhanced child labor laws. …Research has shown that education alone is not effective in changing behavior, and voluntary guidelines are often ignored.
In “Economic worry and the presence of safety hazards on farms” (published in Accident Analysis and Safety), the authors examined the interaction of economic pressure and safety on Saskatchewan farms and conclude:
“We observed that financial conditions on farms appear to contribute to the decisions that farm operators make about safety. …Why is economic worry associated with the presence of physical safety hazards on farms? First, farms with higher economic worry appear to be less able to invest in equipment with modern safety features. Second, economic circumstances on farms may also influence safety conditions though individual behaviours. For example, farm operators in more disadvantaged circumstances may work more hours in a fatigued state, or even de-emphasize the need for safety on the farm as one response to maximize productivity. These decisions directly affect the safety of farm workers, and also have an indirect effect on the safety of vulnerable populations such as preschoolers, teenage workers, and the elderly.”
So, economic pressure can cause farmers to attend to safety less, thereby endangering children. And child farm injuries are preventable, mostly by removing children from farm work and enforcing such laws. These conclusion are not exactly a revelation from the almighty, but perhaps provides some suggestions about protecting all farm workers from injury.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Bad employers? We don't see no bad employers.

In 2010, the Auditor General identified that the government of Alberta was (among other things) not doing a good job of identifying high-risk employers and made some recommendations (which the government has still not addressed). This is an issue because a part of Alberta’s largely complaint-driven enforcement strategy is based upon focusing inspection activity on high-risk employers. The Alberta Federation of Labor tried for years to get this list of unsafe employers but has given up.

Today, CBC is reporting that Alberta is still refusing to release its list of unsafe employers despite the information and privacy commissioner’s office suggesting it has no basis for such a refusal. This is rather odd because Alberta does maintain a publicly searchable database of employer injury records. Back in 2010, then-Minister of Employment and Immigration Thomas Lukaszuk touted the database as an example of Alberta leading the nation in safety record disclosures:
Mr. Lukaszuk: Mr. Speaker, if you want to talk about transparency, you would be glad to know that Alberta is the only province in Canada if not in North America that actually has a full online, free-of-charge disclosure of the occupational health and safety record of virtually every employer in this province. So get on the computer, look up your employers, and you’ll see exactly what their safety track records are. Only in Alberta. Alberta Hansard, March 9, 2011, p. 267
Unfortunately, it is not realistically possible to do compare and contrast search of employers using this database to identify which employers a worker might not want to work for. This seems contrary to basic (neoliberal) principle that workers are responsible for their own safety by choosing safe employers:
Mr. Lukaszuk: Thank you again, Mr. Speaker. Well, I am glad that this member brought this question forward because one of the reviews that I’m doing right now is whether I am able to release not only the records of employers who are underperformers but all employers in Alberta so that Albertans can take a look and see how their place of employment is faring and whether they choose to work or not work for that particular employer. Alberta Hansard, April 15, 2010, p. 786.
Three years later, apparently the government has decided that…“release of the information would harm business interests.” 

Yeah, because protecting employers from the consequences of their own bad behaviour is the compelling public interest here… . Why is it that Alberta publishes a list of employers who rip off workers, but not a list of employers who repeatedly maim and kill workers? 

CBC applied for a review by the office of the information and privacy commission. Even before the review started, the government indicated it would not be changing its position. CBC has now applied for an inquiry which might (eventually) force the government to disclose this list.

It is useful to have some context around freedom of information in Alberta. The idea is that the public should have access to their own personal information held by the government as well as general information collected by the government (subject to certain exclusions). This kind of access creates transparency and accountability.

My experience has been that Alberta’s government goes to great lengths to avoid releasing information that will make its policies or its corporate buddies look. Here are some examples of stuff I have seen in labour relations over in the past 10 years:
  1. Data about controversial matters being burned to CDs/DVDs (later labeled “ABBA tunes” and “Mom’s recipes”) rather than stored on government servers in order to hide this data from FOIP requests (because the files won’t show up in a records search of the servers).
  2. Being asked to destroy materials in anticipation that a FOIP request would be coming in. "Sorry, no records were found!"
  3. Endless delay in releasing publicly funded survey data (via appeals) only to have the (relatively innocuous) data released on the government website years later with no fanfare and buried deeply in the site.
  4. Outrageous fees associated with requests. I was quoted $10,000 to get a count of child labour complaints in Alberta. And $236,000 for records around injury rates. When I got the injury-rate stuff (after scaling down the request to only $4000), virtually the entire three-inch pile was redacted.
Based on chats with other researchers, these examples are hardly unique and this behaviour is not limited to just the field of labour relations.

The government's reluctance to release this data is likely based on this chain of reasoning:

  1. If we identify who the repeat offenders are, people will ask what we've been doing about them and how effective that has been. 
  2. Since we've been doing nothing that has proven effective, we'll look bad. 
  3. Someone will also compare the list of bad actors to the list of employers who hold "Certificates of Recognition" for their injury prevention efforts (and get workers' compensation premium rebates).
  4. This will make clear that the whole partners in injury reduction program is basically smoke and mirrors.

The conservative government clearly has a culture of hiding information from the public to benefit itself and its friends. That this endangers the health and safety of workers is apparently a price the government is satisfied to pay.

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Legislating teacher contracts only “if the kids are affected”?

Education Minister Jeff Johnson noted in an interview with the Calgary Herald that he would consider legislating teacher contracts only as a last resort.
“It obviously would be a last resort, something that we don’t want to do,” he said of a legislated contract. “We would only really look at this seriously if we felt kids would be impacted.”
It is useful to examine Johnson’s assertion that strikes impact children (negatively, one presumes). There is a modest but conflicting literature addressing the effect of work stoppages on student achievement (Lytle and Yanoff, 1973; Brison and Smith, 1978; Caldwell and Moskalski, 1981; Caldwell and Jeffreys, 1983; Crisci and Lulow, 1985; Wilkinson, 1989). Zirkel (1992) provides a thorough analysis of the Canadian and American literature to approximately 1990. His conclusions are:
  1. studies addressing the impact of strikes on student attitudes towards school are too remote and flawed to draw meaningful inferences from, 
  2. it is not possible to draw conclusions regarding the effect of strikes on student attendance and drop-out rates because the data is too thin and results too mixed, and 
  3. the most charitable interpretation of the data on how strikes affect student achievement is that they have a partial and short-lived effect. 
More recently, Thornicroft (1994) comparison of Ohio districts and Zwerling’s (2008) comparison of Pennsylvania districts found no relationship between work stoppages and student achievement. In Canada, Baker (2011) and Johnson (2011) studied Ontario strikes in the late 1990s and early 2000s to identify how labour disruption affects elementary school performance.

Examining 11 strikes between 1998/99 and 2005/06, Baker found reductions in grade 6 mathematics scores among schools that experienced strikes of 10 days, with the primary impact being in the year the strike occurred. Examining 15 strikes and 20 work-to-rule campaigns between 1998/99 and 2003/04, Johnson found labour disruptions were associated small reductions in grade 3 reading and mathematics assessment results. Longer strikes were associated with reductions in grade 6 mathematics results, with the effect concentrated at schools with lower socioeconomic status. Neither Johnson nor Baker addresses the effect of strikes on long-term student achievement.

The upshot is that there is some (but not very much) evidence that strikes and lockouts have a (very) small negative impact on (a small number) of students and that affects tends to be short-term. I’m told that (unpublished) government analysis of the 2002 Alberta teacher strike basically came to this conclusion.

So much for Johnson’s “oh, think of the children!” rationale.

The real impact of a teacher strike is that is messes up childcare arrangements. This was certainly the message I heard from parents during the 2007 strike in Parkland County (I was with the government then and got to take angry phone calls from parents—good times…). The political fallout from strike-triggered childcare woes is what the government is really concerned about, especially since the government already turned down a wage-freeze offer from the teachers and its prospects for legislating teachers back to work are limited.

The government would do well to remember then-Chief Justice Allan Wachowich’s 2002 admonishment that decisions about what justifies abrogating the collective bargaining rights of workers “should be informed and reasonable, not whimsical, speculating or political.”

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Johnson muses legislating Alberta teacher contracts

As predicted, the Alberta government is now publicly mooting legislating public-sector contracts, at least for teachers. According to Metro News, Education Minister Jeff Johnson has queried school boards about whether they’d prefer if the province legislated a teacher contract rather than engage in 62 local negotiations.

Not surprisingly, some Boards would be happy to have the province resolve bargaining for them.
Johnson’s press secretary Kim Capstick said Sunday the ministry had received “mixed” support among boards questioned about a legislated deal, with some openly advocating for the move as a way to remove any threat of labour unrest.
This willingness by some Boards to let the province “negotiate” may reflect that the province already controls school board budgets. School boards must then negotiate without really any flexibility in what they can offer. And when the poop hits the fan, the school board ends up wearing at least some of it. Why not hand that off to the province if money is tight?

Local negotiations started again in late autumn after province-wide talks broke down when the Minister declined the teachers’ offer of two years of salary freezes.  Strange that the government would take a pass on a pretty good deal freely offered and then start musing about legislating a much more politically costly deal only months later. This seemingly about-face is, however, consistent with the crisis-management approach the Redford government appears to have adopted.

And, of course, we don’t know what kind of deal Johnson might legislate. Ontario froze teacher salaries in September. Since Johnson turned down a wage-freeze in the fall and the province’s financial woes appear to have gotten worse in the interim, legislation might include a wage rollback.

It is an open question whether a legislated deal would survive constitutional challenge. If the freedom of association protections of the charter protect the right to some form of meaningful collective bargaining, legislating deals in lieu of bargaining will require Alberta to meet some stringent tests for the legislation to stand.

Of course Johnson could just be trying to soften up teachers (and other public-sector workers) to accept freezes or small rollbacks voluntarily. My sense is that there is still no appetite in the public-sector for such cuts.

-- Bob Barnetson