Friday, October 30, 2015

Friday Tunes: Between the Wars

This week’s installment of labour themes in popular culture is Billy Bragg’s “Between the Wars”, a song he wrote during the UK coal miner’s fight with Margaret Thatcher. The key theme in the song is the sense of betrayal by the government among the working class over Thatcher’s austerity agenda:
I paid the union and as times got harder
I looked to the government to help the working man 
I kept the faith and I kept voting
Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand
The poor treatment of the miner, docker and railway man—the kinds of people who historically have risked and sacrificed their lives for their countries in the expectation of a fair shake—represents a betrayal of that sacrifice.
Call up the craftsmen
Bring me the draughtsmen
Build me a path from cradle to grave
And I'll give my consent
To any government
That does not deny a man a living wage
We heard echoes of this sentiment in the recent federal election, with many voters appalled by the Harper government’s treatment of veterans. Whether it is denying disabled veterans benefits or destroying the industries that provides workers with a living wage in order to break the power of workers, governments that renege on the social contract eventually pay a price.

I don’t particularly care for Billy Bragg’s voice so I’ve selected an acapella cover by The Young’uns.



I was a miner
I was a docker
I was a railway man
Between the wars
I raised a family
In times of austerity
With sweat at the foundry
Between the wars

I paid the union and as times got harder
I looked to the government to help the working man
And they brought prosperity down at the armoury
"We're arming for peace me boys"
Between the wars

I kept the faith and I kept voting
Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand
For theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is a faith in my fellow man
Theirs is a land of hope and glory
Mine is the green field and the factory floor
Theirs are the skies all dark with bombers
And mine is the peace we knew
Between the wars

Call up the craftsmen
Bring me the draughtsmen
Build me a path from cradle to grave
And I'll give my consent
To any government
That does not deny a man a living wage

Go find the young men never to fight again
Bring up the banners from the days gone by
Sweet moderation
Heart of this nation
Desert us not, we are
Between the wars

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Gendered energy extraction in Fort McMurray

Three weeks ago, AU Press published a new book entitled Alberta Oil and the Decline of Democracy in Canada. You can download the entire book for free from Athabasca University Press. Sara Dorow’s chapter entitled “Gendering energy extraction in Fort McMurray” examines the gendered nature of social reproduction that underlies the tar sands economy. 

Basically, Dorow looks at how the role of women in Fort McMurray's economy often becomes to support men’s participation in the oil industry—through not working (at least for pay) or working part-time or working in “town” jobs in order to free up men to work in the plants and mines.

Dorow’s analysis is very interesting. Here are a couple of snap shots:
First, consider that in 2011 nearly one-third of the resident labour force in the [Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo] census area worked in “trades, transport and equipment operators and related occupations,” and 90 percent of those workers oil industry ads and billboards is, ironically, more a reflection of the work that female bodies do to publicly produce the idea of inclusive economic participation than of the reality of work on the ground. (p. 279) 
Median earnings for men in the RMWB were almost three times those of women, and were still more than twice as high when we consider only those individuals working full-year, full-time (see table 10.1). This is considerably more of a gap than in the province as a whole, which already has one of the highest gender wage gaps in Canada. (pp. 279-280)

In this context, complained the spouse of an oil industry professional, “as much as the companies certainly say, ‘Balanced life, that’s what we want,’ there’s certainly that dichotomy between ‘Make sure you’re staying healthy and not working too much’ but ‘Could you come in and work tomorrow?’” (p. 281) 
A second form of flexibilization entailed women taking a paid job that worked around a male partner’s schedule in the oil patch. Often this was part-time work found in public, nonprofit, or service industry employment in town, given the relative dearth of part-time work with the oil companies themselves. (p. 282)
Dorow’s chapter also touches upon the experiences of (mostly racialized) live-in caregivers, which Dorow has previously discussed in this report. Overall, this is a very different take on the oilsands and well worth the read.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

International Conference on Regulation, Change and the Work Environment

From November 30 to December 2, the University of Ottawa will be playing host to the International Conference on Regulation, Change and the Work Environment. I am sad I can't attend this conference as it is quite a good program.

The conference opens with a panel discussion entitled "Sick of Work: The Health and Safety Challenges of Insecure and Precarious Employment – Global Perspectives and Lessons for Canada" that includes Michael Quinlan, Annie Th├ębaud-Mony, David Walters, Laurent Vogel and Katherine Lippel.

The next days sees sessions that include:
  • Occupational Health Put to the Test of Deregulation: The Paralysis of European Policies on Occupational Cancers 
  • The Global Workforce and Workplace Safety in Australian Horticulture: Managing Without Obligation or Commitment
  • (in French) Local Labour Union Action on Occupational Health and Safety: Varieties in Forms, Leverage and Obstacles
Overall, this looks like a good conference on a timely theme!

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 23, 2015

Friday Tunes: Shift Work

This week’s installment of labour theme in popular culture is Kenny Chesney’s (rather uninspiring) “Shift Work”. Shift work—work that requires workers to work outside of regular week-day hours—is a growing trend in Canada. The most common form of shift work is rotating schedules, when a worker cycles through a series of day, evening, and night shifts. Shift work disrupts our biological clock, family patterns and is associated with unhealthy behaviours, including smoking, poor diet and increased alcohol consumption

Research compiled by my colleague Jason Foster (with whom I’m writing an open-source OHS textbook) reveals shift work causes a wide range of health effects. In the short term, shift work leads to shortened and less restorative sleep, chronic tiredness and lack of alertness, as well as stomachaches, indigestion, and heartburn. Shift work is associated with increased risk of workplace incidents and injury.

Longer term exposure to shift work is associated with a series of illnesses and conditions. Shift workers report significantly higher rates of burnout, emotional exhaustion, stress, anxiety, depression, and other psychological distress. Shift work increases a worker’s risk of developing diabetes and some studies have also found a greater risk of heart disease. Some studies have also suggested a link between shift work and pregnancy complications.

Likely the most significant long term risk of shift work is increased risk of cancer, in particular breast cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has concluded that disrupting shift work is “probably carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2B) – the second most conclusive category in the IARC.

Chesney’s song is remarkable for lyrically focusing on this aspect of job design and, more broadly, the difficulties faced by blue collar workers. About the most interesting observation he makes is that, in seeking a break from shift work, the singer accesses services that also run on shift work.

What is most striking is how brutally sexist Chesney’s video is. While women comprise a significant percentage of all shift workers, they show up only a handful of times in the video (three times, may) as examples of workers. The rest of the time, shift work is clearly constructed as the preserve of (mostly white) men engaged in “log it, mine it, pave it” work.

The major exception to the absence of women is the models pretending to be gas station attendants who writhe around the car in the service station parking lot that serves as the main set for the video. Seriously, would anyone lean over a hot engine to check the oil in a crop top with their boobs hanging out? This creates an interesting contrast to the “real workers" (i.e., men) in the video who are shown often wearing appropriate personal protective equipment.

Brutal sexism, Kenny. Just brutal.



Shift work, hard work, tired body
Blue-collar shirt and a baseball cap
You knew me

He's hot, sweat drops, 'round the clock
Door never locks
Noise never stops
Not all day

Work seven to three
Three to eleven
Eleven to seven

Shift work, tough work for the busy convenience store clerk
Two feet that hurt, going insane
She's mad at some lad

Drove off and didn't pay for his gas and he won't be the last
'round the clock pain
Work seven to three
Three to eleven
Eleven to seven

[Chorus:]

Talking about a bunch of shift work
A big ol' pile of shift work
Work seven to three
Three to eleven
Eleven to seven

Well I work, shift work,
Ten years man, I hated that work
I made a break with the money I saved
It took me to the beach to have a beer by the edge of the sea

And this 'round a clock place
I drank my money away
We partied
Work seven to three
Three to eleven
Eleven to seven

[Chorus]

[Chorus]

Work seven to three
Three to eleven
Eleven to seven

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Regulatory capture: Trading worker's health for profit

Two weeks ago, a new book entitled Alberta Oil and the Decline of Democracy in Canada was published by Athabasca University Press. You can download the entire book for free from Athabasca University Press.

My own chapter entitled “Worker safety in Alberta: Trading health for profit” examines how the former Conservative government undermines workers’ rights to safe workplaces in order to privilege the interests of employers. The story is a bit winding and includes a concerted effort to weaken Alberta’s labour movement and also appease rural interests to maintain electoral support.

I think the most interesting part of the chapter is the discussion of regulatory capture of Alberta OHS system.
Regulatory capture occurs when a state agency designed to act in the public interest instead acts to advance the interests of an important stakeholder group in the sector its regulates (Shapiro 2012). Regulatory capture occurs when groups with a significant stake in the outcome of regulatory decisions aggressively seek to gain advantageous policy outcomes. Focused efforts are often successful, because the public (who individually have only a small stake in the outcome) tend to ignore regulatory decision making.

Under a situation of regulatory capture, the dominant stakeholder group can then use the captured regulator to impose costs on other stakeholders, even if such costs are contrary to the public interest. Captured regulators may see themselves as partners of the captors they are supposed to regulate and may even find themselves financed by that group (p. 236).
It is important to recognize that regulatory capture is a contested concept (there are competing definitions and approaches). That said, there is ample evidence to suggest that it had occurred in Alberta’s occupational health and safety system under the Tory regime. The evidence includes the state:
  • ineffectively regulating workplace safety, 
  • deeming employers to be “partners” in regulation, 
  • being reliant on employer funding of regulatory activity, 
  • allowing employers preferential access to policy making, 
  • enacting policies that reward the appearance of safety rather than safety itself, and 
  • promulgating a narrative that blames another stakeholder (i.e. , workers) for workplace injuries.
The key policy question going forward is what changes the New Democratic government might make to the operation of the occupational health and safety and workers’ compensation systems that might reverse this capture.

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Professor. Associate Professor. What's the difference?

I had some good news from Athabasca University yesterday (a rare event indeed!) regarding my final promotion. This clip somehow seems funnier now:



I'm sure there is some sort of teachable moment here, but I'm really too tired to even try.

-- Professor Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Deaths of farm children are mostly preventable

The death of three young farm kids in Alberta last week is (rightly) being reported as a tragedy. The reports are bit unclear but it appears that the girls (13, 11 and 11) were sitting on a truck while canola seed was being loaded, somehow fell into the truck bed, and were buried, eventually dying of asphyxiation.

One of the more vexing aspects of the media coverage are “man-on-the-street” comments along the lines of “it’s a farm, what are ya gonna do?” Although this narrative has been less pronounced in the coverage of these deaths than in other tragedies, it is still visible in the coverage.  For example:
Fred Bott said he was invited to the Bott farm often while growing up in Rocky Mountain House, Alta. 
He said many might question why the children weren't more closely monitored on the farm. 
"Anytime we went to visit, you were always out playing out in the haystacks, playing in the barn loft, playing in the grain. That's what farm kids do."
There certainly truth in this statement: farm kids routinely come into contact with hazards and this contact is widely accepted as a part of farm life. Yet, at the same time, most of these contacts—and the injuries they sometimes cause—are not inevitable.

Crudely speaking, injuries and fatalities are caused by an individual being in proximity to an uncontrolled hazard. If you control the hazard (e.g., by eliminating it or otherwise limiting contact with the hazard), you prevent the injury or fatality. This the basic “logic” of hazard control in occupational health and safety.

Hazard elimination is tricky on farms. Of the roughly 100 farm fatalities each year in Canada, about 70% are machinery-related (roll-overs, run-downs, caught in machine, collisions, pinned by machinery). Drowning, contact with animals and falls account for most of the rest. About 2% of fatalities are caused by asphyxiation by grain or soil.

Many farm hazards are inherent in the work (thus cannot be eliminated) while others would be extremely costly to mitigate. It is, however, possible to reduce the risk of death appreciably. Consider roll overs (the biggest risk to farmers, nationally). Driver training can reduce the risk of tractor roll overs. And roll bars can decrease the likelihood and severity of injury from a roll over.

Now think about kids on farms. There were 61 fatalities involving minors on Alberta farms between 1997 and 2013. The causes broadly mirror national data on child farm deaths:
Machine runovers: 41.9%
Drownings: 15.2%
Machine rollovers: 11.1%
Animal-related: 6.5%
Crushed under an object: 5.1% 
A small percentage of these deaths are likely unpreventable. For example, anyone who gets on a horse can get thrown and a small subset of those thrown will die as a result. But most of these deaths are preventable by excluding children from the area containing the hazard, either with physical barriers or via firmly enforced rules.

Excluding the children from the area around grain or seed loading operations, for example, likely would have saved the three girls who died this week. Yes, children can break rules, but most likely won’t. And it is up to parents to enforce these rules.

What this analysis suggests is that allowing farm kids to be exposed to hazards is a choice (i.e., academics would call it a cultural practice). As a choice, this practice is amenable to change. The question is show to effect such a cultural change, given how adults tend to diminish injuries and near misses to children by framing these events as educational (“that’ll learn ya”).

There is some logic to this “natural consequences” approach to parenting. We certainly do all learn from experience. Yet allow kids to learn from first-hand experience in the face of risks with potentially fatal consequences is not responsible parenting. While educating children about the risks on the farm is certainly one possibility, it is important to remember that it is adults who determine the dangers children face on a farm.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 16, 2015

Friday Tunes: Money for Nothing

This week’s installment of labour themes in popular culture is Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” (suggestion courtesy of my colleague Jason Foster). The song is written from the perspective of an apparently real New York appliance-store worker who was watching music videos and contrasting the life of rock stars with everyday workers. 

Many of the lyrics are based upon the worker’s actual comments on the videos. Front and centre in the lyrics is the worker’s jealousy at the relative ease of the rock stars' lives: get up late, plays some music and watch the cash roll in:
Now look at them yo-yo's that's the way you do it
You play the guitar on the MTV
That ain't workin' that's the way you do it
Money for nothin' and chicks for free
This is contrasted with the worker’s own experience of (hard) work:
We gotta install microwave ovens
Custom kitchen deliveries
We gotta move these refrigerators
We gotta move these colour TV's
There is an interesting class analysis here: there are different segments of the working class and their different levels of success create natural fissures that can be exploited by capital to impede class solidarity. I think the interesting part of the lyrics is how the appliance worker blames himself for his lack of labour market success.
I shoulda learned to play the guitar
I shoulda learned to play them drums
Internalizing failure can be a productive strategy if one’s failure is caused by factors within one’s control. If so, then working harder or making different choices is a good path forward. My guess here (recognizing that my data is a rock song and a cartoon…), though, is that the worker’s labour market prospects were constrained (although not necessarily perfectly determined) from the get-go based upon his talents and the small demand for rock stars.

Now sure, there are many examples of hard working bands beating the odds to find success (which is why this is a musical archetype). But I’d guess these success stories are dramatically outnumbered by musicians that tried and failed and then got so-called real jobs pushing appliances.

This brings me around to the fight for a $15 minimum-wage movement. There are lots of social justice arguments for increasing the minimum wage. A fairly pragmatic one is that our society requires a large cadre of workers to do service-sector work. Since we require this work to be done and many of us will spend our lives doing such work, we ought to establish a minimum wage that provides a decent living. 

In theory, the labour market should correct itself when wages get too low because workers will withdraw from work or will seek work elsewhere. Yet workers’ need to put food on the table and their limited access to other work means the labour market does not operate freely. This creates conditions ripe for exploitation, which is why we developed minimum wages in the first place.

I’ve embedded the original video (even though there are better versions of the song) because the video really brings out the perspective of the putative narrator.



Now look at them yo-yo's that's the way you do it
You play the guitar on the MTV
That ain't workin' that's the way you do it
Money for nothin' and chicks for free
Now that ain't workin' that's the way you do it
Lemme tell ya them guys ain't dumb
Maybe get a blister on your little finger
Maybe get a blister on your thumb

[chorus]
We gotta install microwave ovens
Custom kitchen deliveries
We gotta move these refrigerators
We gotta move these colour TV's

See the little faggot with the earring and the makeup
Yeah buddy that's his own hair
That little faggot got his own jet airplane
That little faggot he's a millionaire

[chorus]

I shoulda learned to play the guitar
I shoulda learned to play them drums
Look at that mama, she got it stickin' in the camera
Man we could have some fun

And he's up there, what's that? Hawaiian noises?
Bangin' on the bongoes like a chimpanzee
That ain't workin' that's the way you do it
Get your money for nothin' get your chicks for free

[chorus]

Now that ain't workin' that's the way you do it
You play the guitar on the MTV
That ain't workin' that's the way you do it
Money for nothin' and your chicks for free
Money for nothin' and chicks for free

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Petroleum, Politics, and the Limits of Left Progressivism in Alberta

Last week saw the publication of a new book entitled Alberta Oil and the Decline of Democracy in Canada. You can download the entire book for free from Athabasca University Press.

Trevor Harrison’s chapter entitled “Petroleum, Politics, and the Limits of Left Progressivism in Alberta” examines the conventional wisdom that Alberta is a conservative province, looking at the history of left-progressivism as well as the role of specific historical events and socio-economic and political factors in shaping Alberta’s political terrain. While acknowledging that a democratic governance can be challenging in resource-based economy, Harrison also notes that politics matters.

I found the latter part of his chapter particularly interesting, wherein he chronicles some of the contradictions of Conservative policies. Or example, the Conservative party found itself unable to raise taxes or increase royalties because of its ideological choices and financial dependence on the oil industry even when the province’s economic expansion required additional revenue. Among the issues that limited the Tory’s ability to respond to this problem was the very democratic deficit that oil dependence had created:
It was not just the Alberta state that lacked relative autonomy from the petroleum industry; the same was true of many Albertans who had grown dependent, psychologically as well as economically, upon the petroleum industry for their well-being and sense of identity. Many oil workers in Alberta earn enough money to be safely placed within the top 1 percent of income earners, making them unlikely recruits for a proletarian revolution; hence, also, many Albertans, tied either directly or indirectly to the industry, tend to go to the barricades to defend the oil companies when there is any sign of criticism from outside the province or, indeed, from internal naysayers.
The Tory’s inability to politically cope with the contradictions of petroleum dependence created space for the (re)emergence of left-progressivism in the 2015 provincial election.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Federal OHS program deteriorating

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives recently released a study about the state of occupational health and safety in the federal jurisdiction (i.e., the federal civil servants plus workers in banking, telecommunication, rail, interprovincial trucking, etc.). 

While occupational health and safety in the federal jurisdiction is largely unstudied, the Lac-Megantic derailment (right) shows us why safety inspections in the federal jurisdiction are so important.

Waiting to happen: Why we need major changes to the health and safety regime in federally regulated workplaces details some alarming issues that include:
  • The number of health and safety inspectors has dropped from 151 inspectors in 2005 to 67 as of April, 2015 (>50% loss).
  • Between 2002 and 2013, 684 employees died as a result of workplace injury.
  • There were nearly 21,000 disabling injuries in the federally regulated sector in 2012 alone.
At the same time, changes to the federal Labour Code (hidden in the Conservative’s 2013 omnibus bill) reduced the power of the remaining inspectors and weakened workers’ ability to refuse unsafe work. Overall, this report details shameful public policy that is negatively affecting the health of 1.2 million workers and endangering the Canadians that they serve.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 9, 2015

Friday Tunes: A Month of Sundays

This week’s installment of labour themes in popular culture features Don Henley’s “A Month of Sundays”. The song is sung from the perspective of an old farmer who is reflecting on the changes he’s seen since the 1950s (I think this was released in about 1985) and seems like an appropriate harvest-season song.

There is a lot (lyrically speaking) to chew on. One theme is the farmer’s pride in his work and ability to earn a living in difficult circumstances:
Between the hot, dry weather and the taxes, and the Cold War
It's been hard to make ends meet
But I always put the clothes on our backs,
But I always get the shoes on our feet
Yet this pride is tempered by a sense of loss as the industry has changed:
The big boys, they all got computers, got incorporated too
Me, I just know how to raise things
That was all I ever knew
Now, it all comes down to numbers
Now, I'm glad that I have quit
Folks these days just don't do nothin'
Simply for the love of it
While it is easy to get lost in the emotion of this verse, there is a bit of an untold story here. The trend towards agricultural consolidation into larger and more highly capitalized farms is undeniable as possibly unstoppable given the cost-price squeeze facing farmers in late capitalism. Yet, setting aside questions of environmental sustainability, are such farms inherently undesirable?

While corporate agriculture makes an easy target, there is often a false dichotomy between so-called family farms and corporate farms. It is possible to increase farm capitalization in ways (e.g., cooperatives) that don’t entail moving towards corporate farming. Perhaps this farmer’s inability to let function dictate form (i.e., his desire to hang onto his independence as a sole producer) is as much the cause of his misfortune as is the pressures of capitalism?

Hard to work that complexity into a catchy song, though. Anyhow, here is Henley singing at Farm Aid 1985:



I used to work for Harvester
I used to use my hands
I used to make the tractors and the combines that plowed and harvested this great land
Now I see my handiwork on the block everywhere I turn
And I see the clouds 'cross the weathered faces and I watch the harvest burn

I quit the plant in '57
Had some time for farmin' then
Banks back then was lending money
The banker was the farmer's friend
And I've seen the dog days and dusty days
Late spring snow and early fall sleet;
I've held the leather reins in my hands and felt the soft ground under my feet
Between the hot, dry weather and the taxes, and the Cold War
It's been hard to make ends meet
But I always put the clothes on our backs,
But I always get the shoes on our feet

My grandson, he comes home from college
He says, "We get the government we deserve"
My son-in-law just shakes his head and says, "That little punk, he never had to serve"
And I sit here in the shadow of suburbia and look out across these empty fields
I sit here in earshot of the bypass and all night I listen to the rushin' of the wheels

The big boys, they all got computers, got incorporated too
Me, I just know how to raise things
That was all I ever knew
Now, it all comes down to numbers
Now, I'm glad that I have quit
Folks these days just don't do nothin'
Simply for the love of it

I went into town on the Fourth of July
Watched 'em parade past the Union Jack
Watched 'em break out the brass and beat on the drum
One step forward and two steps back
And I saw a sign on Easy Street, said "Be Prepared to Stop"
Pray for the independent, little man
I don't see next year's crop
And I sit here on the back porch in the twilight
And I hear the crickets hum
I sit and watch the lightning in the distance but the showers never come
I sit here and listen to the wind blow
I sit here and rub my hands
I sit here and listen to the clock strike, and I wonder if I'll see my companion again

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, October 8, 2015

A window on power and influence in Alberta politics

This week saw the publication of a new book entitled Alberta Oil and the Decline of Democracy in Canada. You can download the entire book for free from Athabasca University Press.

The premise of the book is that Alberta’s economic reliance on oil revenues has created a symbiotic relationship between government and the oil industry. Cross-national studies have detected a correlation between oil-dependent economies and authoritarian rule, a pattern particularly evident in Africa and the Middle East. Alberta Oil and the Decline of Democracy in Canada sets out to test the “oil inhibits democracy” hypothesis in the context of an industrialized nation in the Global North.

The first chapter I read was Ricardo Acuna’s “A Window on Power and Influence in Alberta Politics.” Acuna uses Joe Overton’s theory of the window of political possibility to examine how political discourse has been narrowed in Alberta. The Overton window basically suggests that only a subset of all policy options are considered realistic at any one time.

It is possible to move the window by flooding public discourse with specific messages. For example, if a right-wing lobby group repeatedly says that tax increases will kill jobs and this gets picked up by media, tax increases can slowly begin to appear as unthinkable. Acuna’s analysis specifically looks at how right-wing think tanks and the oil lobby have used flooding to shape public policy around oil royalties.

A particularly salient point in the chapter is how the anchoring of the Overton window on the far right in Alberta leads to political disengagement.
When public policy is seen as inevitable and economic theories are seen as truth, people have no reason to engage with the political processes that impact their lives. This trend is reinforced by messaging from the far right that con- sistently labels government and politicians as irrelevant, inefficient, and self- serving. Voter turnout and participation in political parties in Alberta are both likely to continue dropping for the foreseeable future, further abandoning the realm of public policy to the energy industry and think tanks (p. 309).
It will be interesting to see if the election of New Democrat government in Alberta has any appreciable impact on the Overton window during their first term.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Authenticity (or, why I'm boycotting staff appreciation day)

I’ve just signed a contract with the University of Toronto Press to co-author an introduction to human resource management textbook. As we’ve been working through what topics the text will cover, I’ve been keeping my eyes open for examples of good and bad HR practice that might be interesting case studies.

Authenticity is a word that has had some traction in HR lately as companies grapple with the perennial issue of poor morale caused by economic instability. This Forbes article, for example, extolls the virtues of authenticity at work as a way to ensure worker high performance. But what is authenticity?
… Jay Canchola, an independent human resources consultant, says: “…From an employee point-of-view this turns out to mean that management is true to their word in all communications about the business, both good news and bad news. In other words there is no ‘double-talk.’”
I was thinking about this late last week when I got a series of reminders that Athabasca University was hosting its annual employee recognition event today. The purpose of the event is a bit unclear but it seems designed to celebrate achievements and recognize long-service and retirements—basically an employee appreciation luncheon.

After some thought, I’ve decided not to attend this event. My reason is that the notion that the university appreciates its staff sits uneasily with the university’s recent behaviour. For example, the university has tried to cut our wages by 5% at the bargaining table and has threatened (more) layoffs if we don’t comply. And the university has blamed its financial problems on staff greed, rather than the root causes of poor management and inadequate funding.

Less dramatic (but much more annoying) is that the university has failed to address very real complaints about the poor quality of its “improved” finance and HR systems. For example, it used to take 5 minutes to fill in an expense claim form and about two weeks to get paid. Now it can take up to 7 hours (yes, hours) over several days to fill in the form correctly and months to get reimbursed.

Basically the employer’s words (we appreciate you…) don’t jive with its behaviours (…but we’re gonna treat you poorly). The result is that the appreciation event looks like a sham exercise. Given that I have some discretion about whether or not to attend, I’ve decided to opt out.

While I doubt anyone will care (they may well even be happy I’m not there!), the underlying lack of authenticity can negatively affect morale and productivity. For example, a palpable sense of cynicism permeates most of the meetings I attend and discussions about fixing problems often end in disarray because most workers no longer believe that the employer is capable of taking (or even cares to take) effective action.

It will be interesting trying to explain the link between (in)authenticity, (il)legitimacy and (non)productivity in this new book. It will also be interesting to see if the research finds that the causality runs both ways. That is to say, inauthentic behaviour may degrade organizational performance but that does not necessarily mean that authentic behaviour can improve it (or reverse damage caused by earlier inauthenticity).

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, October 2, 2015

Friday Tunes: Heart of the Matter

This week’s installment of labour themes in popular culture is Don Henley’s “Heart of the Matter”. This song is mostly about moving on after a relationship ends but the second verse touches on some interesting work-related material:
The trust and self-assurance that can lead to happiness
They're the very things we kill, I guess
Pride and competition cannot fill these empty arms
And the work I put between us,
Doesn't keep me warm
On first blush, Henley’s comment “And the work I put between us/Doesn’t keep me warm” has a nice double meaning: work can serve as a means to create (or be the cause of) distance in a relationship and work is also a poor substitute for a meaningful relationship. That is an important (if prosaic) observation about how work can affect our lives.

This couplet builds on the preceding line that notes “Pride and competition cannot fill these empty arms”. Thinking about this verse more deeply draws my attention to the dynamics and consequences of competition. As Alfie Kohn noted in his book No Contest: The Case Against Competition, competition is often asserted to be an innate state, usually premised upon a mis-application of Darwinism.

Survival of the fittest is often taken to mean that the strongest (fastest, most ruthless, etc.) will prosper (at the expense of the “least” fittest) and, therefore, competitive behaviour is natural and to be lauded. Kohn’s argument is that “fitness” doesn’t require competition and the most successful strategies of survival are based around co-operation.

In fact, most contemporary competition takes place within frameworks of profound cooperation. Employment, for example, often occurs within organizations which require cooperation to operate. And these organizations interact in ways that require cooperation. That there are roads and the rule of law and schools and hospitals reflects almost unimaginable cooperation over very long periods of time. Competition, while certainly existing, exists against this backdrop cooperation and, in fact, often serves to undermine it.

Competition also entails winners (few) and losers (many). The dynamics of competition erode trust (or degrade it to a highly conditional and transitory state). The constant fear that goes along with this dynamic result in a loss of self-confidence that pressure us to each look out for ourselves which (my experience suggests) does not lead to happiness. Coming back to Henley’s lyrics then, I see a metaphorical critique of the dynamics of competition:
The trust and self-assurance that can lead to happiness
They're the very things we kill, I guess
Pride and competition cannot fill these empty arms
And the work I put between us,
Doesn't keep me warm
The point of this is that the ethos of competition that caused the singer to lose his or her love also carries risks when applied to the workplace. The question then is what application to the workplace (if any) has Henley’s remedy of forgiveness? Anyhow, here’s Henley at Farm Aid in about 1990.



I got the call today, I didn't wanna hear
But I knew that it would come
An old true friend of ours was talkin' on the phone
She said you found someone

And I thought of all the bad luck,
And the struggles we went through
And how I lost me and you lost you
What are these voices outside love's open door
Make us throw off our contentment
And beg for something more?

I'm learning to live without you now
But I miss you sometimes
The more I know, the less I understand
All the things I thought I knew, I'm learning again

[chorus]
I've been tryin' to get down to the Heart of the Matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it's about forgiveness
Forgiveness
Even if, even if you don't love me anymore

These times are so uncertain
There's a yearning undefined
...People filled with rage
We all need a little tenderness
How can love survive in such a graceless age

The trust and self-assurance that can lead to happiness
They're the very things we kill, I guess
Pride and competition cannot fill these empty arms
And the work I put between us,
Doesn't keep me warm

I'm learning to live without you now
But I miss you, Baby
The more I know, the less I understand
All the things I thought I figured out, I have to learn again

[chorus]

There are people in your life who've come and gone
They let you down and hurt your pride
Better put it all behind you; life goes on
You keep carryin' that anger, it'll eat you inside

[chorus]

[chorus]

-- Bob Barnetson