Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Farm fatality highlights gaps in Alberta's new Employment Standard Code

Power take-off (PTO) from a tractor.
Alberta’s Bill 17 amended the Employment Standard Code. These amendments including extending certain employment rights to farm workers. One of the gaps in Bill 17’s coverage of farm workers is that there continue to be no rules around the hours of work, rest periods, and over time.

Farm workers are guaranteed four days of rest in 28 (a variation on the one-day-in-seven rule everyone else faces). Given the seasonal nature of farm work, the lack of rules to manage fatigue represent a clear health-and-safety issues that the government ducked.

This is more than just a notional concern. On June 29, a fatality inquiry into the 2014 death of farm worker Stephen Murray Gibson was released. Gibson was killed on January 31, 2014 after he was pulled into an unguarded drive shaft on a power take off (PTO) and killed. According to Justice Brown:
8. Mr. Gibson turned off the PTO from the tractor and began to clear by hand the jam in the 
auger. He then went to the tractor, started the PTO and returned to the auger, once more reaching up to clear grain; before Mr. Hamilton’s horrified gaze, part of Mr. Gibson’s clothing caught on the unshielded PTO and drew Mr. Gibson into the machinery, killing him instantly. 

One of the factors contributing to Gibson’s death was that the PTO did not have a guard to prevent entanglement on it. The 40- to 50-year-old PTO had originally been manufactured with one, but it was missing when the PTO was purchased by the farmer. Had there been a guard, Gibson likely would not have been killed.

A secondary factor may have been Gibson’s fatigue. The inquiry notes that, prior to his death, Gibson had not had a day off in the last 28 due to winter feeding and calving. Reaching into the augur while the unshielded drive shaft was spinning was a poor decision. Fatigue often impairs our decision-making capabilities.

Bill 17 largely ignores the hazard posed to farm workers by fatigue. By excluding farm workers from such protections, the government has prioritizing production demands over the health and safety of farm workers. Consequently, we’ll continue to see such deaths going forward.

The fatality inquiry makes two recommendations: (1) mandatory OHS education in PSE courses, and (2) annual government certification of farm equipment, including PTOs.

Recommending mandatory OHS training in post-secondary ag programs is a good idea. But safety education has been found to be demonstrably ineffective at preventing injury or changing farm safety practices in Canada. And OHS education has no effect on the presence of the hazards that contributed to this death (unguarded PTO and fatigue).

The second recommendation (although laborious to implement) would reduce the use of unsafe equipment on farms. It will be interesting to see if the farm OHS regulations that come out of the Bill 6 consultations entail any program of equipment inspection (since farm equipment often has a long lifespan and is subject to user modification).

Given this, the government may wish to revisit its position on regulating the hours of work for farm workers in Alberta.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, July 14, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: My Hometown

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “My Hometown” by Bruce Springsteen. It is a song inspired by Springsteen’s life in Freehold Borough, New Jersey which was marked by racial strife.

Where the song starts to hit on labour is the third verse:
Now Main Street's whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain't nobody wants to come down here no more
They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain't coming back 
This noting of the hollowing out of US industry is a recurring theme in the heartland rock wave that Springsteen rode in the mid-1980s. The closing verse talks about the hard choices workers have to make when jobs dry up.



I was eight years old and running with a dime in my hand
Into the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man
I'd sit on his lap in that big old Buick and steer as we drove through town
He'd tousle my hair and say son take a good look around

This is your hometown
This is your hometown
This is your hometown
This is your hometown

In '65 tension was running high at my high school
There was a lot of fights between the black and white
There was nothing you could do
Two cars at a light on a Saturday night in the back seat there was a gun
Words were passed in a shotgun blast
Troubled times had come

To my hometown
My hometown
My hometown
My hometown

Now Main Street's whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain't nobody wants to come down here no more
They're closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain't coming back

To your hometown
Your hometown
Your hometown
Your hometown

Last night me and Kate we laid in bed
Talking about getting out
Packing up our bags maybe heading south
I'm thirty five we got a boy of our own now
Last night I sat him up behind the wheel and said son take a good look around
This is your hometown

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Research: Media representations of Chinese labour mobility

I recently ran across a book chapter entitled “Media representations of investment and labour in Alberta’s resourceeconomy” by Cassiano, Dorow and Schmidt. This chapter examines how two different discourses about Chinese transnational mobility related to Alberta’s oil sands are represented in two newspapers (2007 to 2013), these being direct foreign investment and temporary labour.

The nub of it is that investment = good and labour mobility = bad. The threat posed by Chinese workers and business practices to the social and political fabric of Canada makes Chinese transnational mobility threatening while, at the same time, valourizing Canadian values and practices. The result is a racist othering, primarily of Chinese workers.


-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, July 7, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Tragic

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture features the novel “Tragic” by Robert Tanenbaum. Tannenbaum is a former prosecutor turned crime/court writer and Tragic is the 25th book in a series featuring an ever-prepared New York prosecutor putting away the bad guys.

Much like Tanenbaum’s earlier novel “Absolute Rage”, the baddies in this one are corrupt union officials. This time they are New York dockworkers who are in bed with the mob and also stealing the members’ pension funds (there is also a subplot about workplace injury). (In “Absolute Rage”, the bad union bosses were in bed with the coal companies and stealing the member’s pension funds. In “Trap” (which I haven’t read yet) the antagonist is a corrupt teacher’s union president in bed with skin heads.)

The really bad union president has one of his not-quite-so-bad rivals bumped off to prevent him from demanding a Department of Labour investigation into a rigged election (which is exactly the same premise as Absolute Rage). The difference in this book is that the writing is atrocious and there is basically no tension as the prosecutor (who is basically the author in disguise—the whole series leans a bit towards being a roman à clef) anticipates everything the moronic defense council tries.

Overall, Tanenbaum’s novels seem to pretty much align with the tendency of American media to portray unions as corrupt. As an aside, the Publisher’s Weekly reviews of his books on his website are masterfully backhanded (“…well, if you like this kind of thing, then he’s done it again.”) The author is a bit of a blowhard: consider this quote from his website about one of his own books:
I cannot predict that in the decades hence Echoes of My Soul will be remembered. I firmly believe it will be. And, if it is, it will be analyzed and postured as a splendid reflection of the values that define us.
Barf.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Monetizing occupational cancer in Canada

Earlier this year, a study examining the economic cost of occupational cancer in Canada was released. “Costs of productivity loss due to occupational cancer in Canada: estimation using claims data from Workers’ Compensation Boards” found that the average annual cost of occupational cancer to the workers’ compensation system between 1996 and 2013 was $68 million (excluding costs paid by the medical system).

This is a useful study because it monetizes the cost of occupational cancer, which is the leading work-related cause of death. Like all studies, it has some weaknesses. As noted above, it does not consider costs borne by the publicly funded medical system or by cancer victims and their families. The author’s note there have been some attempts to monetize these costs:
Hopkins et al. [18] use data from the Canadian Community Health Survey, as well as published numbers from the literature to estimate the national-level cost of occupational cancer in terms of wage loss in 2009. They estimate that workers (patients) and their families have lost $ 3.18 billion [18]. Orenstein et al. [19] estimate that the indirect costs (loss of economic resources and reduced productivity) in Alberta alone are approximately $64 million per year, and that the province incurs approximately $16 million per year in medical system costs (Wranik, Muir and Hu, 2017).
There are also some methodological and data-related limitations that likely skew this study’s estimate downward. That is not a criticism of the study, just an acknowledgement that how you count and what you count affects the end result.

Perhaps the most salient things that the study highlights is that (1) there remains significant under-reporting of occupational cancer and, more broadly, (2) there is significant under-reporting of occupational fatalities.

The most commonly cited data is from the Association of Workers Compensation Boards of Canada, which “rolls up” provincial and territorial WCB stats. But unclaimed (or unaccepted) fatalities (of which disease claims form a significant portion) are missing from these stats.

Steve Tomb’s 1999 study of British occupational fatality statistics revealed the real rate of fatalities to be five times the officially reported rate. Given that fatalities are considered to be one of the firmer (or “harder”) measures of occupational injury in Canada, it would be interesting to see similar estimates of true the true level of fatality.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, June 30, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Talkin bout a Revolution

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Talkin bout a Revolution" by Tracy Chapman. Chapman wrote this song in response to her experiences of the wealthy disregarding the lives and struggles of the poor and blue-collar people.

The song pretty clearly identifies the American proletariat of the day:
While they're standing in the welfare lines
Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation
Wasting time in the unemployment lines
Sitting around waiting for a promotion
It then suggests that the hopelessness of their situation will result in social instability:
Poor people gonna rise up
And get their share
Poor people gonna rise up
And take what's theirs
An interesting question is, to what degree, have we seen this talk of a revolution play out snce the song was released in 1988? We might consider the growing divide between rich and poor (often along racial lines) and the creation of an underground economy as one response. It isn’t a revolution in the 1960s, CIA sense of the term. But it is a rejection of (or a work-around to) mainstream American society.

A different angle is to look at the broad support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election—often by poor people who are now being harmed by his policies. Was this support about looking for an outsider who (at least superficially) addressed the needs of poor and dispossessed (white) people?



Don't you know
They're talkin' 'bout a revolution
It sounds like a whisper
Don't you know
They're talkin' about a revolution
It sounds like a whisper
While they're standing in the welfare lines
Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation
Wasting time in the unemployment lines
Sitting around waiting for a promotion

Don't you know
They're talkin' 'bout a revolution
It sounds like a whisper
Poor people gonna rise up
And get their share
Poor people gonna rise up
And take what's theirs

Don't you know
You better run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run
Oh I said you better
Run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run

'Cause finally the tables are starting to turn
Talkin' bout a revolution
Yes, finally the tables are starting to turn
Talkin' bout a revolution, oh no
Talkin' bout a revolution, oh
While they're standing in the welfare lines
Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation
Wasting time in the unemployment lines
Sitting around waiting for a promotion

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

New case study documents WCB failings

The Alberta Workers’ Health Centre recently concluded a multi-year project aimed at improving the health and safety of new Alberta workers. The summary report is here.

One of the most interesting outcomes is a case study of a new Alberta worker who was injured on the job. "Betty" experienced great difficulty in obtaining compensation for a debilitating workplace injury.

Among the challenges Betty faced were:

1. Neither her doctors nor her employer reported her injury to WCB. Continuing to work while injured lead to an intensification of her injury, which has now resulted in a permanent disability.

2. When she finally filed a WCB claim, her employment was terminated.

3. The WCB jerked her around in accepting her claim, including treating a specialist medical diagnosis as just a preliminary opinion.

4. The WCB made multiple changes to her wage-loss benefits, often without notice to her and have yet to pay her everything she is owed.

5. The WCB assessed her as able to secure work in a job that does not meet her medical restrictions and which does not exist. After several months of job search assistance, the WCB then deemed her to hold this job and cut off her wage-loss benefits.

Betty is now unemployed with no income and, because of her injury, has no reasonable prospects of employment. Betty’s case is both fairly typical and fairly spectacular.

It is typical in that many injured workers face these problems.

It is spectacular in that Betty’s faced almost every problem injured workers possibly could face in filing a claim and she documented how poorly the WCB treated her.

Betty’s overall assessment is “If I’d known how awful this would be… I would have never applied for WCB.” Hopefully, the WCB Review that was conducted over the last year will address some of the systematic problems.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, June 23, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Welcome to the Working Week

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Welcome to the working week” by Elvis Costello. This song appears to be directed at someone (a woman, based on the first line) who has had some success is breaking out of her class background and has perhaps left her old life behind.
Now that your picture's in the paper being rhythmically admired
and you can have anyone that you have ever desired,
All of your family had to kill to survive,
and they're still waitin' for their big day to arrive
Yet not everything about the subject’s success is wonderful:
I hear you sayin', "Hey, the city's all right
when you only read about it in books.
Spend all your money gettin' so convinced
that you never even bother to look.
One of the more evocative interpretations of this song is that a young woman has gone off the city to become a model. She’s tried to leave her old life behind but, in doing so, finds herself trapped in a life she doesn’t particularly enjoy—perhaps at the edges of the sex trade.

I had a tough time finding a video of the song with audible lyrics so I picked this cover by These Animals.



Now that your picture's in the paper being rhythmically admired
and you can have anyone that you have ever desired,
all you gotta tell me now is why, why, why, why.

Welcome to the workin' week.
Oh I know it don't thrill you, I hope it don't kill you.
Welcome to the workin' week.
You gotta do it till you're through it so you better get to it.

All of your family had to kill to survive,
and they're still waitin' for their big day to arrive.
But if they knew how I felt they'd bury me alive.

Welcome to the workin' week.
Oh I know it don't thrill you, I hope it don't kill you.
Welcome to the workin' week.
You gotta do it till you're through it so you better get to it.

I hear you sayin', "Hey, the city's all right
when you only read about it in books.
Spend all your money gettin' so convinced
that you never even bother to look.
Sometimes I wonder if we're livin' in the same land,
Why d'you wanna be my friend when I feel like a juggler
running out of hands?

Welcome to the workin' week, oh, welcome to the working week.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Successfully operationalizing Athabasca's third-party report

Last week, Athabasca University released an independent report about the way forward. The report suggests (and the university’s board has promised) a rapid response to the recommendations with a major rethink of operations to be completed by May 2018.

This Thursday, there is a joint meeting of the Board of Governors and the General Faculties Council to discuss the report. Both the Board chair and president are relatively new. They may wish to consider four issues that they will need to navigate if this rethink is going to be successful.

LOCATION
The first is the issue of location. The report recommends moving some staff (including the president) to a new consolidated location in the Edmonton area while retaining registrarial, student support, and specialized services in the town of Athabasca (pp. 29 and 38). Relocation became a real issue last year when seemingly secret plans to relocate portions of the university to St Albert hit the news.

This kind of back-room dealing deeply damaged institutional trust. The university (and its jobs) are very important to the town of Athabasca so the report's relocation recommendations have triggered some angst. Will good jobs be lost to the city? Will AU’s main campus slowly (or quickly) be hollowed out?

The arguments for this shift are (1) transportation is too costly (the evidence of this is thin, especially set against the cost of space in Edmonton) and (2) the local labour pool is small and living in Athabasca is unattractive (again, the evidence is thin and this argument is deeply offensive). Alternate explanations for recruitment difficulties (e.g., a decade of atrocious management leading to high turnover) might suggest different solutions.

A major shift in staff (which will damage the town socially and economically) is unlikely to be politically acceptable to the government. This discussion is distressing to current staff who live in Athabasca. If a major shift is off the table, then making clear the parameters of any change early on will go far to encouraging staff buy-in to the process.

LEGITIMACY
A part of the rethink required by the report is a review of the university’s existing offerings with an eye to closing programs and courses that are “unsustainable” or “incompatible” with some (unknown) institutional standards. This plan needs to be complete by November 1 (p. 35). This rapidity of this seemingly sensible recommendation (which is a part of the institution’s ongoing process of review) raises the spectre of layoffs driven by a sham review process.

These concerns reflect the deep lack of trust created by the last two administrations, which (respectively) said (1) “everything is fine” and the sacked 1 in 7 full-time staff, and (2) forced a student contact model (the “call centre”) on faculties against the wish of many academics. Essentially, previous administrations’ behaviour has demonstrated that the institution can’t be trusted to act in good faith. So why would I, as a staff member, bother to participate in this new process in any way?

Certainly some folks suggest the institution just needs to move forward. I think this view underappreciates the degree of distrust and disengagement among staff and the limited political capital of the administration. While we do have a new chair and a new president, many of the long-term players remain and their wretched behaviour is front of mind. Sweeping the past under the rug (which the report tries to do) isn't going to cut it.

There certainly seems to be little willingness to address past wrongs. For example, the institution cries poverty but won’t consider ditching four former senior administrators who were given tenured full professorships as perks without having to prove their merit through the normal peer-led, academic tenure process. These perks (which also violate the faculty collective agreement), cost the university about $1 million per year until these folks retire or die in harness. But the rest of the staff need to tighten our belts and take wage roll backs?

Whatever review process the institution envisions occurring (very rapidly over the summer when no one is around…), it will need to have a high degree of face legitimacy to avoid staff apathy, resistance, and/or sabotage.

CAPACITY
Carrying off a fundamental rethink (and subsequently reorganization) of the university’s operations is going to be labour intensive (unless the process is a complete sham...). I question whether AU has staff capacity to do this after years of hiring freezes and rapid management turnover. Consider the finance portfolio, for example.

Working from top to bottom, in 10 years, we’ve had four VPs (one was acting). All of the directors have turned over (often more than once and with increasing speed). In HR, there is no HR director or labour-relations manager (since the last 8 have each abruptly disappeared after shorter and shorter periods of time on the job). The HR shop itself looks like the Marie Celeste, operating at half staff with no leadership and zero capacity to take on additional work (or even do their current work properly).

This kind of capacity issue—although perhaps to a lesser degree than in HR—exists across virtually the whole institution. Can the institution make (or even plan) major changes in the next year? I’m skeptical. Whatever the plan is going forward, it must recognize the stretched (and, in many cases, burned out and flailing) nature of its workforce. A significant increase in work may cause some operational areas to collapse.

DEATH-SPIRAL NARRATIVE
Over the past five years, the university has used the threat of financial collapse as a club to bully its staff into taking wage freezes and accepting other changes. This tool is now yielding negative institutional value for two reasons.

First, staff (being smart people) have noticed that the institution’s projected deficit always turns out to be a surplus. The institution’s explanation that this is the result of “one-time savings that cannot be repeated” is now widely disbelieved and contributes to the lack of political capital among institutional leaders.

While there is actually a wolf at the end of the parable about the boy who cried wolf (as there may well be for AU), the actual lesson of that story is that people don’t fucking like being emotionally manipulated. And, if you do it often enough, they will turn on you and you, in turn, will fail at your job. That is an important lesson for the new president and board chair to pay attention to.

Second, the death-spiral narrative has leaked out into the public and is damaging the institution’s reputation. This narrative poses an existential threat to the report’s suggestion that AU can grow its way to success. Students, employers, and other PSEs are not going to want to sign on to a seemingly sinking ship. There even seems to be some institutional recognition of the problem created by the death-spiral narrative.

Yet, the death-spiral narrative appears in the report (p.44) and was immediately picked up by the media and the staff. The president tried to waive aside this issue during “conversations with the president” last week by noting only three media outlets pick up the death-spiral narrative while 380 didn’t. This bit of spin looked both desperate and amateurish given that the outlets that did go with “death spiral” are the largest media outlets in Alberta.

The presence of the death-spiral narrative in the report is designed to suggest that the institution must change or die (and, indeed, the report (p.40) recommends the government wind down operations if the university’s plan doesn’t meet with the government’s approval). Basically, the report (and the university) seem to find the narrative an irresistible tool to “motivate” staff to do things they don’t want to do (like take contract rollbacks, as hinted at on page 28 and 35-36).

As blogger David Climenhaga notes, the university will only close if the government wants that to happen. The government is unlikely to close the university in the run-up to the 2019 election. And, more broadly, no government is likely to close a rural institution that is the major employer in a town (although the Tories tried to starve AU to death in 1994-1997 and again in 2009-2013).

So the effect of the death-spiral narrative is limited to pissing-off staff, annoying residents of Athabasca, and scaring off students and potential collaborators. The best approach for the institution is to simply stop using the death-spiral narrative internally and hope it goes away. Whether the board and administration can resist the temptation is an open question.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, June 16, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Man Alive

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture features “Man Alive” by Billy Talent. This song evinces deep skepticism about the proposition that hard work and loyalty are rewarding and rewarded.
Well at first you're fine with working overtime
10 years go by til you're caught up in the grind
And can't escape the fact your youth is fading fast
These times won't last and once they're gone they don't come back
In particular, the song seems to take issue with the Harper government’s treatment of veterans (although this verse could be read literally or metaphorically):
Attention all personnel!
Stand single file, resistance is futile!
We're gonna raise your hopes up
Just to knock them down
You got a bright bright future
If you can shut your mouth
And if you work the front lines
To keep us safe and sound
You won't be compensated
Until you're in the ground
So don't waste a single breath
On what society expects
If history don't lie
They're gonna take you for a ride until you die!
The best video I could find was this simply track+lyrics piece.



Man alive!
Don't stand aside!
While people make demands
At first they'll take your liberties
Then tie them 'round your hand
Man alive!
Don't stand aside!
While people make demands
When time goes by some day you'll find
Their words are your command

Well the bloodsucker society, is looking for recruits
I took a sip of their sobriety, it doesn't taste that good

Well at first you're fine with working overtime
10 years go by til you're caught up in the grind
And can't escape the fact your youth is fading fast
These times won't last and once they're gone they don't come back

Man alive!
Don't stand aside!
While people make demands
At first they'll take your liberties
Then tie them 'round your hand
Man alive!
Don't stand aside!
While people make demands
When time goes by some day you'll find
Their words are your command

They try to fill you with anxiety, until you bite the hook
They drop a line of notoriety, they got a big cheque book

Oh they'll turn you blind for a nickel and a dime
Don't waste your time with their simple frame of mind
You can't escape the fact your youth is fading fast
These times won't last and once they're gone they don't come back

Man alive!
Don't stand aside!
While people make demands
At first they'll take your liberties
Then tie them 'round your hand
Man alive!
Don't stand aside!
While people make demands
When time goes by some day you'll find
Their words are your command

Attention all personnel!
Stand single file, resistance is futile!
We're gonna raise your hopes up
Just to knock them down
You got a bright bright future
If you can shut your mouth
And if you work the front lines
To keep us safe and sound
You won't be compensated
Until you're in the ground
So don't waste a single breath
On what society expects
If history don't lie
They're gonna take you for a ride until you die!

Man alive!
Don't stand aside!
While people make demands
At first they'll take your liberties
Then tie them 'round your hand
Man alive!
Don't stand aside!
While people make demands
When time goes by some day you'll find
Their words are your command

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Faculty association wins again. What up with that?



Earlier today, Athabasca Faculty Association members got word that we’d won our salary arbitration for bargaining that began in February of 2016. This means salaries will increase 2% per year retroactively to July 1, 2016 in order to keep pace with inflation (this is pretty consistent with other settlements).

Arbitration is decided largely by looking at settlements obtained at comparable institutions (because this provides a good guide to what would have been achieved through negotiation or a work stoppage). This is the third win in a row for the faculty association at arbitration. According to the arbitrator:
[108] Having examined the components of the University’s final offer individually, the totality of its offer is also not in line with any of the comparables at other Alberta universities and colleges.
Ouch. That the employer keeps advancing unrealistic offers at arbitration that propose big rollbacks and lead to impasse warrants some scrutiny. In the words of SNL’s DeAndre, what up with that?

Well, it could be that the employer is just bad at collective bargaining and unknowingly chooses to advance unrealistic offers. There is some truth to this—they have repeatedly failed to make a timely opening offer in bargaining despite hiring expensive lawyers to bargain for them.

More likely, though, the university is intentionally making low-ball offers, hoping to trigger impasse, and then get lucky at arbitration. If they win, then labour costs rise more slowly. If they lose, they can at least say they tried to cut salaries, blaming the arbitrator and the greedy employees.

This tight-fisted approach is also consistent with the “death spiral” narrative the institution has been spinning to its staff for the last five years. Basically, the institution pleads poverty, threatens layoffs or closure, and hopes terrified employees take wage freezes or cuts. The arbitrator notes an important difficulty with this narrative:
[102] …Its history of projecting successive deficits is undercut by the reality of actual surpluses at the end of its financial years.
Basically the university always projects deficits that (magically) disappear. I’ll have more to say about the effects of the university crying wolf and the death-spiral narrative on Tuesday.

The interesting bargaining question is how will the university behave next spring when (1) the institution finally has an obligation to bargain in good faith under the Labour Relations Code and (2) bargaining impasse is (for the first time) resolved by strike-lockout?

The faculty association has already established a strike fund and commenced planning for a work stoppage. The university has not. (When I bring strike-lockout up with admin types, they mostly look confused and slightly panicked.)

If the university’s plan is to once again not engage in meaningful bargaining, it will find itself in front of the Labour Board (and in the press). And, if it drives bargaining impasse, it may well find itself weathering a strike. Such a strike will (I promise) be profoundly damaging to the university’s already tattered reputation.

Perhaps, this is an opportunity for the university to strike (cough, cough) a new tone in bargaining. And perhaps it is time to clean out the staff and contractors who have been responsible for the current antagonistic approach to bargaining?

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Impact of Bill 17 on Alberta farms and ranches


Last week, Alberta passed Bill 17, which made important (but not earth-shattering) changes to the Employment Standards Code and Labour Relations Code. While there was little public discussion of it, this Act also affected farms and ranches.

Agriculture was brought into the ambit of Alberta’s employment laws in late 2015 (with the passage of Bill 6) but the full effect was delayed to allow for almost a year of consultations. The Employment Standards and Labour Relations working groups reported in late 2016 and additional feedback was sought on these recommendations in 2017.

Bill 17 entails a number of changes for agricultural employers. Effective January 1, 2018, most farmworkers become subject to most Employment Standards. That said, there continue to be no rules around hours of work, rest periods, and over time. Farm workers will be allowed 4 days of rest in 28 (at the employer’s discretion). Given the seasonal nature of farm work, the lack of rules to manage fatigue represents a clear health-and-safety issue the government ducked.

Children under 13 will not be allowed to work for pay. Children aged 13-15 will be restricted to light work (which has yet to be defined) or jobs for which they receive a permit. They will need to be paid the minimum wage. These rules do not apply to family members working on farms. How exactly this will play out on farms is unclear. The family-exemption creates a significant loophole whereby most child labour on farms remains unregulated.

Farm workers will be allowed to unionize under the Labour Relations Code (like any other group of workers) including accessing first-contract arbitration. The Public Emergency Tribunal (PET) provisions of the Labour Relations Code have been amended to allow the government to impose a PET if there is a serious threat to crops of livestock.

Employer-side stakeholders (under the umbrella of the Agricultural Coalition) are voicing several complaints, including:
  1. The Bill 6 consultations focused on the applicability of (now) old legislation. The changes made by Bill 17 (e.g., giving employees job-protected) sick leave were not contemplated.
  2. The government rejected many (although not all) of the recommendations made by the working groups, leading employers to question how seriously these recommendations were considered.
  3. Employers don’t want their workers to be able to join a union or collectively bargain with them.
Complaints that there was no consultation with agricultural producers around various new leave entitlements are simply untrue. There was a public consultation process around Employment Standards and nearly 5000 submissions were received. If agricultural producers did not choose to participate, that is on them.

It is impossible to say how seriously the government treated the working group recommendations. That some of the recommendations were adopted suggests that the recommendations were read and considered. Many of the recommendations would have thwarted the basic intent of Bill 6, so it is not surprising that the government didn’t implement them.

Similarly, the government is obligated to provide farm workers with some way to express their associational rights. While it isn’t surprising that agricultural employers don’t want their workers to unionize, expecting otherwise was not a reasonable expectation in light of the recent trend in Charter jurisprudence.

I think the most useful way to view the Agricultural Coalition’s response is as blame shifting. The Ag Coalition’s representatives resisted the basic thrust of Bill 6 during the working group process. As a strategy, this was a forlorn hope and Bill 17 is evidence that the Coalition’s strategy was not particularly successful. Rather than acknowledge that its strategy was a pretty weak one, the Ag Coalition is trying to deflect responsibility by inflicting political cost on the government.

I wonder if this approach is going to be any more effective? Given the anger over Bill 6 in rural Alberta (and the “seems fair” response in urban Alberta, where ND MLAs mostly come from), I’m not sure there is any more political damage the Ag Coalition can do to the government. Indeed, the proposed redistribution of riding boundaries is more evidence that the political salience of rural Alberta is fading (particularly given that this issue is basically rural employers seeking to roll back rural workers’ rights).

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, June 9, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: King Harvest

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “King Harvest” by The Band. This is a complicated song about the complicated relationship between farmworkers (I think specifically sharecroppers, who work the land of others and give up a portion of their crop in payment) and unions.

The song details the difficulties the farmer has had:
Last year, this time, wasn't no joke,
My whole barn went up in smoke
Our horse Jethro, well he went mad
And I can't remember things bein' that bad
A union organizer appears offering some way to level the playing field:
Then there comes a man with a paper and a pen
Tellin' us our hard times are about to end
And then, if they don't give us what we like
He said, "Men, that's when you gotta go on strike"
But will the union be able to overcome the power of the landowners?

Historically, land owners in the American south responded to sharecropper unions with violent repression, reflecting both the economic threat posed by the unions and the racist history of the region (many sharecroppers were black). Eventually, mechanization provided landlords with a more efficient way to farm large tracts and sharecropping disappeared.




Corn in the fields
Listen to the rice when the wind blows 'cross the water
King Harvest has surely come

I work for the union 'cause she's so good to me
And I'm bound to come out on top
That's where she said I should be
I will hear every word the boss may say
For he's the one who hands me down my pay
Looks like this time I'm gonna get to stay
I'm a union man, now, all the way

The smell of the leaves,
From the magnolia trees in the meadow
King Harvest has surely come

Dry summer, then comes fall,
Which I depend on most of all
Hey, rainmaker, can't you hear the call?
Please let these crops grow tall

Long enough I've been up on Skid Row
And it's plain to see, I've nothing to show
I'm glad to pay those union dues,
Just don't judge me by my shoes

Scarecrow and a yellow moon,
And pretty soon a carnival on the edge of town
King Harvest has surely come

Last year, this time, wasn't no joke,
My whole barn went up in smoke
Our horse Jethro, well he went mad
And I can't remember things bein' that bad

Then there comes a man with a paper and a pen
Tellin' us our hard times are about to end
And then, if they don't give us what we like
He said, "Men, that's when you gotta go on strike"

Corn in the fields
Listen to the rice when the wind blows 'cross the water
King Harvest has surely come

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Research: Preliminary 2016 Ag Census Results

StatCan has started the roll out of the results of the 2016 agricultural census (this often takes place over the course of a year or 18 months). Some of the early results of the Ag Census for Alberta are as follows:

The number of farms in Alberta dropped between 2011 and 2016 by 6.0%. This is similar to the national trend (down 5.9%). This change is also consistent consistent with the long-term trend in Alberta. Further data releases will be necessary to tease out what kinds of farms disappeared.


This data indicates that, so far, fears that Bill 6 would cause producers to close up shop enmasse have not materialized. To be fair, Bill 6 was passed in late 2015 and the Ag Census data was collected starting in early 2016, so we may see an increased rate of farm closures in the 2021 census.

I did not see any Alberta specific and detailed data about changes in farm size or gross receipts. I would bet we’ll see a continued growth in very large farms at the expense of small and medium-sized farms.

The data I’m most interested in seeing has to do with the hiring of employees. I could not find any province-level data but, at the national level, total employees numbers dropped 5.8% between 2010 and 2015. There was also a shift towards hiring year-round employees (full-time and part-time) and away from seasonal employees. As in past years, a minority of farms hired most of the employees:
Agricultural operations with high gross farm receipts accounted for a smaller proportion of agricultural operations but employed a larger share of employees. Almost half (46.8%) of all employees were employed by agricultural operations with receipts of $1 million or more in 2015, while these agricultural operations represented 7.6% of total agricultural operations.
It will be interesting to see both what trends are evident when we get Alberta specific data and what political use get made of them.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, June 2, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Capitalism Stole My Virginity

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Capitalism stole my virginity” by the (International) Noise Conspiracy. While there are lots of popular songs about work, there are far fewer songs that engage with the political-economy in which work occurs.

This song notes (via metaphor) how capitalism commodifies workers and their dreams:

All dreams corrupted in front of our eyes … 
Distasteful ugly and cheap
That is how you make me feel, I said
Capitalism stole my virginity 
We are all sluts, cheap products
In someone else's notebook
The result is a loss of commitment to capitalist social formation and the potential for resistance.
Robbed out of our bleeding hearts
Smashed our illusions, tore them all apart
Now we are unsentimental, unafraid
To destroy this culture that we hate
While obvious not everyone has lost faith is capitalism as an economic system, as an increasing proportion of the population is unable to access what is promised by the “American dream” (e.g., housing, food, education, good jobs), the potential for citizens to disengage politically and/or engage in fringe movements promising to make American great again increases.



Nowhere's untouched by the shame
Who said we could get by with our childhood games
Days of innocence are all long gone
Avoid the shock honey and try to live on

Woke up all paralyzed
All dreams corrupted in front of our eyes
On every forehead of every little whore
There's a sign that says, 'baby don't come back no more'

Distasteful ugly and cheap
That is how you make me feel, I said
Capitalism stole my virginity
Capitalism stole, capitalism stole
Capitalism stole my virginity

Robbed out of our bleeding hearts
Smashed our illusions, tore them all apart
Now we are unsentimental, unafraid
To destroy this culture that we hate

So tired of being nothing
When, when we should be everything
On every forehead of every little whore
There's a sign that says, 'baby we're all born to die'

Distasteful ugly and cheap
That is how you make me feel, I said
Capitalism stole my virginity
Capitalism stole, capitalism stole
Capitalism stole - yeah

We are all sluts, cheap products
In someone else's notebook
We are all sluts, cheap products
In someone else's notebook
We are all sluts, cheap products
In someone else's notebook
We are all sluts, cheap products
In someone else's notebook

Distasteful ugly and cheap
That is how you make me feel, I said
Capitalism stole my virginity
Capitalism stole, capitalism stole
Capitalism stole my virginity, oh
Capitalism stole, capitalism stole
Capitalism stole my virginity, oh yeah
Capitalism stole, capitalism stole
Capitalism stole my virginity, oh

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Research: Psychological OHS risks for long-term care workers

Ageing International just recently published an article about the experiences of Canadian long-term care workers with psychological health and safety on the job provocatively entitled “We’re told, ‘Suck it up’.”  The article examines the experiences of workers in four provinces with work overload, low worker control, discrimination, and disrespect.

Interviews with 87 staff at eight long-term care homes (two each in BC, MB, ON, and NS) were used in the study. The research revealed that workers face significant psychological harm from unremediated hazards, employers and regulators don’t “see” the hazards causing the harm very clearly, and workers are largely left to deal with things on their own (which is itself a psychological hazard).

The voices of the study participants are powerful. They clearly note that employer staffing decisions take a significant toll on both the staff and on patient care.

[W]e’re told ‘Suck it up. It’s your job.’ And that’s so frustrating because that’s not my job. It’s not my job to come to work and expect to be punched in the face. You know, it’s not my job to come to work and expect to be hurt because you didn’t staff the building properly so now I can’t take care of my own family. You know what I mean? (CCA, Manitoba) 
Okay, well we’re short two CCAs and one LPN and…we as nurses care for two houses, you know, we care for all these people with only three [staff]… . There’s just nobody to help and there’s nobody to cover, right? So you just basically go through a shift hoping you’re going to have a good shift and nothing big happens because if it does, I mean you have to deal with it. But there’s nurses here that go without breaks because you just don’t have the time. A lot of nurses go without breaks and that’s again cause for burnout, right? (LPN Nova Scotia)
[The] ratios are key because every nurse and LPN and care aide wants to give amazing care and that’s why we have so many leaving the profession, right? It’s because the ethical and moral distress that you cannot do your job the way you’re supposed to be doing your job and you’re just trying to just make it through the day. So if there was funding put into having, you know, the appropriate ratios then yeah, of course it would work. It would be amazing wouldn’t it? (RN British Columbia)
As the Points West Living lockout in Cold Lake moves past 150 days, it is important to reflect that a significant issue is the workers’ demand for mandatory staffing levels such that the employer can’t run short-staffed if someone calls in sick or goes on vacation.

-- Bob Barnetson

Monday, May 29, 2017

Bill 17: Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act


Last week, Alberta introduced Bill 17 which makes significant changes to employment and labour law in Alberta. I did a short analysis of Bill 17 for the Parkland Institute which is available here. This gist is that Bill 17 has some real gains for non-unionized workers but, overall, represents modest change. There may also be some unanticipated outcomes from these amendments.

An interesting way to look at the Bill is as part of the New Democrats' re-election strategy which seems to be (in part) based upon appealing to women and middle-class families (much like Alison Redford did in 2012).

Friday, May 26, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Talk a Walk

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Talk a Walk” by Passion Pit. Electropop isn’t really my thing but this song is catchy and was featured in an episode of The Newsroom.

This song offers a sympathetic portrayal of the life of a business man (or men) who is down on his luck. Each verse of the song is based upon the experiences of a different family member of the lyricist.

The result is the singer’s perspective and/or circumstances is constantly changing (i.e., the singer does not stay in character). In a May 2012 interview, Michael Angelakos stated:
It's about very specific family members, the male hierarchy, and how the men in my family have always dealt with money. I've always been really fond of a lot of my family members and not so fond of others. All these men were very conservative; socially very liberal but for some reason, they all came here for capitalism, and they all ended up kind of being prey to capitalism.
Overall, a more metacognitive spin on being a worker than most songs about labour.



All these kinds of places
Make it seem like it's been ages
Tomorrow's sun with buildings scrape the sky
I love this country dearly
I can feel the lighter clearly
But never thought I'd be alone to try1

Once I was outside Penn Station
Selling red and white carnations
You were still alone
My wife and I
Before we marry, save my money
Brought my dear wife over
Now I want to bring my family state side

But off the boat they stayed a while
Then scatter cross the course
Once a year I'll see them for a week or so at most
I took a walk

Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
I take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk

Practice isn't perfect
With the market cuts and loss
I remind myself that times could be much worse
My wife won't ask me questions
And there's not so much to ask
And she'll never flaunt around an empty purse

Once my mother-in-law came
Just to stay a couple nights
Then decided she would stay the rest of her life
I watch my little children, play some board game in the kitchen
And I sit and pray they never feel my strife

But then my partner called to say the pension funds were gone
He made some bad investments
Now the counts are overdrawn

I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk

Honey it's your son I think I borrowed just to much
We had taxes we had bills
We had a lifestyle to front
And tonight I swear I'll come home
And we'll make love like we're young
And tomorrow you'll cook dinner
For the neighbors and the kids
We could rent the Wart of socialists
And all their ten taxes
You'll see I am no criminal
I'm down on both bad knees
I'm just too much a coward
To admit when I'm in need

I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The argument for card-check certification in Alberta

It is expected that the Alberta government will introduce legislation this week containing changes to the Employment Standards Code and Labour Relations Code. Employers are expressing concern with the possibility that Alberta will re-introduce card-check provisions that govern how workers can unionize.

Currently, unionization is a two-step process. First, workers sign a petition or buy union memberships. Then the union applies to the Labour Relations Board (showing support from at least 40% of the workers) and, assuming all is in order, the Board conducts an employee vote about 10 business days later.

Card check would (likely) mean that, if a union can show a clear majority of employees had joined the union (e.g., 65%), then the Board would just automatically certify the union and avoid the need for a vote. (Applications with support lower than the card check threshold would likely still require a vote.)

Card-check was universal in the 1970s. Since then, there has been a general, but uneven, drift toward mandatory certification votes.

The principles underlying all certification processes are that (1) employees should choose whether or not they wish to be represented by a union (2) as a group and (3) free from undue influence.

Related to the third principle, labour laws contain a variety of unfair labour practices designed to prevent unions and employers from exercising undue influence. The effectiveness of these prohibitions is uneven.

One Canadian study suggests that 80% of employees facing a certification drive oppose it. Sixty percent overtly resisted certification by, for example, expressing concern or opposition in captive audience meetings or trying to stall the vote. And almost 20% do things that are likely unfair labour practices (e.g., threats, dismissal).

The effectiveness of these tactics is uneven: some seem to drive down certification success rates and some drive them up (data limitations suggests viewing these conclusions with caution). In broad terms, the upshot is that employer interference with certification drives is both common place and damaging.

The key argument for card check is that it denies employers the opportunity to try a sink the organizing campaign during the time between the application and the vote. The likely effect of introducing card check provisions in Alberta is that there will be more and more successful union organizing drives.

The best evidence for this comes from BC. When it moved from card check to mandatory votes in 1984, there was a 50% reduction in certification drives and a 19% reduction is successful private-sector drives. A return to card check in 1993 saw a 19% increase is successful private-sector drives.  Other studies have found similar effects.

Last week, the Calgary Herald came out against card check, opining:
Such a change would strip employees of their privacy and expose them to possible manipulation, or even intimidation. The decision to support certification is a personal one and should be conducted in the same way voters elect their governments, free from the influence of those who may possess their own agenda. 
Requiring private ballots is fair to everyone — employees and employers.
The Herald’s assertion that certification votes are free from employer influence sits so contrary to the evidence that either the editorial board members have no idea what they are talking about or they do know but are wilfully ignoring how labour relations is actually practiced in Alberta.

Equating the selection of a bargaining agent with the selection of a government is a common (albeit facile) comparison that the Wildrose and business groups use. There are many differences between the two. The most important is that the government doesn't typically threaten to take away your job if you vote against them.

Certainly card-check provisions require workers to express support or opposition directly to union organizers (by signing or not signing a union card). Setting aside the awkward fact (for the Herald, anyways) that this also happens under the vote system (because union organizers need to provide evidence of support to get a vote), I’m not sure that is a big deal.

While I didn’t spend all day at, I couldn’t find any academic studies suggesting intimidation is commonplace or any Manitoba LRB decisions about union intimidation (Manitoba had card check until just recently). This dearth of evidence that unions bully employees very much broadly jives with my experience at the Labour Board from 2001 to 2003 where I took one call about union intimidation and hundreds of calls about employer intimidation.

There is some anecdotal evidence that can be read to suggest card check does not demonstrate workers’ preferences. However, this “evidence” can also be read to support the proposition that employers routinely intimidate workers between certification applications and votes.

On balance, card check appears to result in workers being better able to choose whether or not they want to unionized free from intimidation than certification votes do. Perhaps the most interesting question is whether the NDs will support such a change.

Certainly organized labour wants card check. Choosing not to introduce it may undermine the opposition’s narrative that the NDs are in the pocket of the unions and would take away an avenue of opposition attack. (Being in a union, I can assure you that the NDs are not in the unions' pockets….) Such a decision would be consistent with the ND’s broader move towards the political centre as part of their re-election strategy.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, May 19, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Boiled Frogs

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture features “Boiled Frogs” by Alexisonfire. The song is about the monotony of work and how, over time, we lose our capacity to recognize how bad it has become. It also touches on how workers are used (and used up) by employers.

Band member George Pettit told Much Music:
"It's an analogy. I wrote it inspired by my father who worked at a job where he designed refrigerator parts for 26 years. He was coming up to his pension the last three years and I guess when people are coming up to their pension they really put the screws to them. They're up for review all the time, trying to get them to quit so that they forfeit their pension. It really makes it a stressful last three years. The song is kind of about that, about there being no loyalty in the workplace. 
"And my mother went to this conference talking to different generations in the workplace and they referred to her generation as 'boiled frogs.' The analogy is that if you take a frog and put it in boiling water, it will jump right out immediately, but if you put it in cold water and then you slowly turn the heat up, they'll just eventually fall asleep and die. Same way with people in the workplace. If it's too hectic when they first get there, they'll just quit and get another job, but if you slowly up the workload, lower the pay, they're more likely to sit there and just boil."
While the boiling frog story is a myth, the dynamic as it applies to work (in my experience) appears to be real. Many people will choose to accept deteriorating conditions rather than leave. This may be due to the high cost of job change (especially as we age) as well as our perception about whether things will be better elsewhere.



[George] A man sits at his desk
One year from retirement,
And he's up for review
Not quite sure what to do
Each passing year
The workload grows

[Dallas] I'm always wishing, I'm always wishing too late
For things to go my way
It always ends up the same
(Count your blessings)
I must be missing, I must be missing the point
Your signal fades away and all I'm left with is noise
(Count your blessings on one hand)

So wait up, I'm not sleeping alone again tonight
There's so much to dream about, there must be more to my life

[George] Poor little tin man, still swinging his axe,
Even though his joints are clogged with rust

[Wade] My youth is slipping, my youth is slipping away
Safe in monotony, (so safe), day after day
(Count your blessings)
My youth is slipping, my youth is slipping away
Cold wind blows off the lake, and I know for sure that it's too late
(Count your blessings on one hand)

[Dallas] So wait up, I'm not sleeping alone again tonight
There's so much to dream about, there must be more to my life

[George] Can't help but feel betrayed, punch the clock every single day
There's no loyalty and no remorse
Youth sold for a pension cheque
And it makes him fucking sick
He's heating up, he can't say no

(Whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh)[x4]

[Dallas] So wait up, I'm not sleeping alone again tonight,
There's so much to dream about, there must be more to my life.
(So wait up)
So wait up I'm not sleeping alone again tonight
Between the light and shallow waves is where I'm going to die
Wait up for me
Wait up for me
Wait up for me

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Research: Impact of IT outsourcing on employees

The journal Work, Employment & Society recently published an article entitled “‘An end to the job as we know it’: how an IT professional has experienced the uncertainty of IT outsourcing” that foregrounds the experiences of an employee whose work is being contracted out.

The worker’s story starts with the creation of cost-savings targets by the employer. Once communicated to shareholders, the targets set expectations that may (or may not) have been achievable. The result was intense pressure to generate cost savings.

Internal restructuring and efforts to benchmark in-house work against the market” lead to significant anxiety and the spectre that this process was a sham. Eventually, all five IT functional were scheduled for outsourcing (mostly to India). 

The actual savings attributable to the outsourcing is roughly what the CEO receives as a annual bonus. All other savings (and most of the overall savings) could have been achieved by internal staff without the risk of shifting to unstable IT platforms staffed by inexperienced and dis-tinterested contractors.

The impact of this decision on morale was significant, especially given that many of the affected employees had made an extra effort (including accepting pay freezes and unpaid leave to help the company out during previous difficulties). Voluntary redundancies followed, leaving chaos, knowledge gaps, and emotional distress in the wake.

Offshoring was eventually announced with the remaining staff being treated as disposable. The employer skillfully split the workforce into different factions (those continuing and those leaving) to sow division and prevent a coherent response by the workers.

Workers wanting to receive their severance packages were then required to transfer their business knowledge to contractors and sign a gag order. Those who remain have little power and there is a significant emotional cost to all workers involved.

Overall, this short narrative highlights the messy and damaging impact the outsourcing can have on employees and their organization. One effect (not considered in the original projections) is that those workers who remain are constraining their efforts due to the betrayal by their employer of the psychological contract they previously established.

(In retrospect, I should have put a trigger warning in this post for AU employees who are reading this!)

-- Bob Barnetson


Friday, May 12, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Westray

Westray Memorial
This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Westray” by Short Notice. This week marks the 25th anniversary of an explosion at Nova Scotia’s Westray mine that killed 26 workers and injured 11 more. The explosion was the result of the employer negligence and gave rise to (sadly ineffective) amendments to the allowing criminal prosecutions for workplace injuries and deaths.

There are a number of Westray songs. I choice this one because of the themes it pulls out. They include how politics is so closely intertwined with employment in resource-based communities:
Pictou county is Tory blue
Dyed in the wool and blue collar too
Elect a Prime Minister they’ll treat you kind
They’ll give you a job in the Westray mine
Perhaps most important is how workers’ are pressured to trade their safety (and their lives) for employment:
Knee deep in dust they worked every day
Inspectors and mine bosses looked the other way
You want to keep your job you will tow the line
Not a word leaves the bowels of the Westray mine
The song also pulls no punches about who was responsible for the disaster and how little they cared:
Twenty-two families were torn that day
Working men’s dreams simply snuffed away
While Frame and Phillips still live happy lives
They lose no sleep over the Westray mine
Frame is Clifford Frame, the businessman who ultimately controlled the Westray Mine. Phillips is Gerald Phillips, one of the mine managers who took no action on the safety concerns.



The flesh and bone and the steel’s entwined
There’s blood on the coal in the Westray mine
There’s blood on the coal in the Westray mine

Pictou county is Tory blue
Dyed in the wool and blue collar too
Elect a Prime Minister they’ll treat you kind
They’ll give you a job in the Westray mine

The foord seam coal is known to kill
Every scar on her face she has always filled
With the lives of the men who have loathe to find
To stay they must work in a foord seam mine

Knee deep in dust they worked every day
Inspectors and mine bosses looked the other way
You want to keep your job you will tow the line
Not a word leaves the bowels of the Westray mine

Recession makes men work where they should not stay
They will risk their lives for a good days pay
Till gas and politics grew too great to confine
Blew the roof off the ramp of the Westray mine

Bare faced miners and draegermen too
Did all that good brave men could do
But not a living soul was there left to find
After hell had its way in the Westray mine

Twenty-two families were torn that day
Working men’s dreams simply snuffed away
While Frame and Phillips still live happy lives
They lose no sleep over the Westray mine

Many years have passed sadly little has changed
After all this time not one scoundrel’s paid
Till politicians’ lives are on the line
Good men will die in some Westray mine

The death blast roar and the sirens whine
Pray those husbands sons and brothers aren’t yours and mine
Leave their soul on the rock in the Westray mine
Soul on the rock in the Westray mine

-- Bob Barnetson