Friday, March 24, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: In the City of Chicago

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “In the City of Chicago” by Christy Moore. This song talks about the immigrant experience of Irish who fled the Irish potato famine of 1845-1852 and settled in Chicago. During this period, approximately 1 million Irish died and another million emigrated.

Emigration is often best understood by considering both push and pull factors. Contemporary research suggests that push factors include the need to seek employment and, more importantly, a sense of dissatisfaction with life in their home community.

Pull factors included employment prospects in the destination community, as well as the desirability of the destination (e.g., ability to find and integrate into a social community, availability of housing). As the Irish potato famine (or the more recent exodus of Syrians from their country) reminds us, sometimes the push factor overwhelms the pull.



[CHORUS]

In the City of Chicago,
As the evening shadows fall,
There are people dreaming,
Of the hills of Donegal.

1847, was the year it all began,
Deadly pains of hunger, drove a million from the land,
They journeyed not for glory,
Their motive was not greed,
A voyage of survival,
Across the stormy sea.

[CHORUS]

Some of them knew fortune, some of them knew fame,
More of them knew hardship,
And died upon the plain,
They spread throughout the nation,
They rode the railroad cars,
Brought their songs and music,
To ease their lonely hearts.

[CHORUS]

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Alberta Labour's 2017-20 business plan

Alberta Labour has released its 2017-2020 business plan. Business plans provide a high-level indication of where government departments are headed and how they will assess their progress.



EMPLOYMENT STANDARDS
Employment Standards will need to make some significant performance improvements to meet its targets this year. Its rate of investigation completions within 180 days (six months!) of a complaint being filed was 49% in 2015/16. By the end of the 2017/18, it is expected to be at 60%, increasing to 70% by 2019/20.

Over the past few years the target has been 63% and the government has achieved in the mid-40%. Achieving 60% (let alone 70%) will be a challenging. As I noted in November, there were only 45 employment standards officers in Alberta and they are responsible for roughly 80% of paid employees. The options the government has include:
  1. Hire more employment standards officers.
  2. Change the internal processes to increase speed of resolution.
  3. Hope the volume of claims goes down.
The government has implemented changes in its internal processes in the past few years. This netted a four percent increase in completion rates. I suspect that this kind of efficiency gain is mostly tapped out. Completion speed may also be affected by the surge of complaints noted in 2016 (it is unclear if this surge continues).

One of the internal changes the government could make is to increase voluntary settlements between workers and employers. The current rate of settlement is 79% and the target for next year of 85%.

The key risk of emphasizing voluntary settlement is that this often requires workers to give up some of the wages they are entitled to in order to get resolution (otherwise, why would the employer agree to pay up?). This sits uneasily with the basic notion of employment standards as a set of minimum entitlements. An interesting indicator would be wages owed versus wages recovered through settlement.

OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY
The government is also seeking an increase in OHS inspections, from 9100 in 2015/16 to 10,500 in 2017/18. (The 2015/16 inspection total was reported at over 9500 in the annual report, but there may be some data definition differences). A longer-term target is 11,500 inspections.

This is a positive trend but needs to be seen in the context of (1) there being 150,000ish employers in Alberta and (2) some inspections will be re-inspections of employers found to be non-compliant. 

Basically, inspection rates remain very low and, overall, Alberta continues to have a complaint-based system of enforcement. This system relies upon workers to report violations, which they may not be able to identify and which they may be scared to report.

LABOUR MARKET TRAINING
An interesting omission in the Business Plan is any specific mention of the Canada Jobs Grant (CJG). This federally funded (but provincially administered) program was foisted on the provinces by former federal employment minister Jason Kenney in 2013/14.

The CJG was supposed to help unemployed workers connect to the labour market and, by covering 66% of training costs, encourage employers to spend more on skills development. It displaced the 2008-2014 Labour Market Agreements (LMAs) that were doing a good job of helping unemployed and disadvantaged workers attach to the labour market and stripped funding away from LMA-funded training programs.

A preliminary evaluation of the CJG on behalf of the provinces and territories hints that the CJG is less effective at helping unemployed Canadians attach to the labour market than was the LMA. Of particular concern is evidence that suggests the CJG has shifted training dollars from programs that benefited diverse groups of unemployed Canadians to training that benefits (mostly) white, able-bodied men who already have post-secondary credentials and who are already employed in high-skill jobs (the BC report in the link above is particularly searing). 

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

U of A grad student organizing drive?

This spring, it is expected that Alberta will introduce legislation giving faculty associations the right to strike (and be locked out). This is a part of the province’s efforts to comply with the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Saskatchewan Federation of Labour.

This change will have significant effects for collective bargaining in universities. My own faculty association has begun strike planning. A secondary question is whether the government will allow faculty to periodically choose different (or no) bargaining agents.

This question has become more salient because it appears that efforts are underway to organized graduate students at the University of Alberta. Grad students are currently represented by the Graduate Students’ Association (GSA) of the University of Alberta.

Like the rest of Alberta’s GSAs, the U of A GSA sought to retain the current labour provisions in the Post-Secondary Learning Act. This would both prelude strikes and prevent students from selecting a different bargaining agent. A number of grad students have vocally objected to this position.

A Student Worker Action Group (SWAG) is hosting an organizing meeting on Monday, March 27, 2017. SWAG styles itself as “an organizing committee of academic labourers at the University of Alberta”. Its concerns include worker rights, compensation, tuition, safety, and racism/sexism/discrimination.

(There was an identically named drive at the U of A about 10 (?) years ago that was associated with the Wobblies that seems to continue here on Facebook  It is unclear if the same folks are involved this time around (the name could be coincidence).)

The SWAG that is hosting the March 27 meeting could be a self-organizing effort by students. Alternately, it could be an effort by organized labour to make in roads into the post-secondary system. If the latter, then this would be one of the first concrete effects of Alberta’s proposed changes to PSE labour relations.

In either case, a more radical, labour-oriented graduate student association (whether affiliated with a specific union or operating as independents—and that may depend on the government’s changes to PSE labour law) would be a big shift. While it is unlikely that Alberta GSAs would soon be undertaking action along the lines of the 2012 Quebec student protests, they could hardly fail to be more active and powerful than the moribund GSAs that Alberta has had historically. 

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, March 17, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Dead End Street

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Dead End Street” by the Kinks. The 1966 song looks at poverty among the lower class in the UK. The song was written to highlight that not everyone experienced the 1960s as fun and flamboyance.

Instead, many remained trapped by a strict class system that included high level of un- or under-employment. This is reflected in the lyrics “Out of work and got no money” and:
What are we living for?
Two-roomed apartment on the second floor.
No chance to emigrate,
I'm deep in debt and now it's much too late.
Interestingly, as Guy Standing notes in The Precariat, not all that much has changed for many Britons. There remains a significant intergenerational transmission of advantage and disadvantage in the UK and elsewhere.

The video (wherein the band play Victorian undertakers) was one of the first ever music videos:



There's a crack up in the ceiling,
And the kitchen sink is leaking.
Out of work and got no money,
A Sunday joint of bread and honey.

What are we living for?
Two-roomed apartment on the second floor.
No money coming in,
The rent collector's knocking, trying to get in.

We are strictly second class,
We don't understand,
(Dead end!)
Why we should be on dead end street.
(Dead end!)
People are living on dead end street.
(Dead end!)
Gonna die on dead end street.
Dead end street (yeah)
Dead end street (yeah)

On a cold and frosty morning,
Wipe my eyes and stop me yawning.
And my feet are nearly frozen,
Boil the tea and put some toast on.

What are we living for?
Two-roomed apartment on the second floor.
No chance to emigrate,
I'm deep in debt and now it's much too late.

We both want to work so hard,
We can't get the chance,
(Dead end!)
People live on dead end street.
(Dead end!)
People are dying on dead end street.
(Dead end!)
Gonna die on dead end street.
Dead end street (yeah)
Dead end street (yeah)
(Dead end!)

People live on dead end street.
(Dead end!)
People are dying on dead end street.
(Dead end!)
Gonna die on dead end street.
Dead end street (yeah)
Dead end street (yeah)
Dead end street (yeah)
Head to my feet (yeah)
Dead end street (yeah)
Dead end street (yeah)
Dead end street (yeah)
How's it feel? (yeah)
How's it feel? (yeah)
Dead end street (yeah)
Dead end street (yeah

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Submission on Bill 6 Recommendations


The Government of Alberta is seeking feedback on recommendations made by industry working groups about the application of the Employment Standards Code and the Labour Relations Code to farms and ranches in the wake of Bill 6. You can view the recommendations and provide feedback here. Here are the thoughts I sent in:

Thank you for the opportunity to provide feedback on the Bill 6 Employment Standards and Labour Relations Working Groups’ reports. I have broken my response into six sections.

In reading the recommendations, it is worth noting that only 29% of Alberta farms employed waged labour in 2011. Most of this employment occurs on farms with annual revenue of $250,000 or more. These farms can afford to provide fair and safe workplaces.

EXPANDING EMPLOYMENT STANDARDS EXCLUSIONS
The working group makes a number of recommendations that effectively roll back protections for various workers.
  • In some cases, the working group seeks to have family members who are also waged employees excluded from Employment Standards under the pretext that many families do not comply with the existing standard. 
  • In other cases, the working group seeks to have portions of the agricultural industry that are currently covered by some Employment Standards provisions (i.e., nurseries, sod farms, greenhouses, and mushroom farms) deemed to be primary production operations and, therefore, excluded from these provisions.
The main purpose of Bill 6 was to extend the rights of farmworkers. These recommendations have the effect of rolling back existing rights and, therefore, are fundamentally incompatible with the legislative intent of Bill 6.

The rationale for family exemptions is essentially “well, since we already ignore your laws, you may as well roll them back.” This is akin to suggesting that speeding could be resolved by raising the speed limit (instead of enforcing the existing limit).

The rationale for excluding operations already subject to some employment standards is stated as: 
The nature of work and type of product from these establishments is generally similar to those in the agriculture sector as a whole. Consequently, they should be classified as ‘primary production’ and be subject to the same rules and regulations as the rest of the agriculture industry. (p.13)
The assertion that these operations are the “generally similar” to those in the agricultural sector is not perfectly true. These operations typically do not have the weather- or reproductive-based time pressures of farming and ranching respectively. Further, they tend to be more labour intensive operations, often employing significant numbers of paid staff. Consequently, these operations look less like most agricultural operations and more like small manufacturing operations. Further, ignoring the different nature of these operations sits uneasily with the working group’s own objective of having regulations that are “product-specific” and “recognize the diversity of the industry” (p.3).

Given this, there is no rationale for expanding the exclusions to Employment Standards and these recommendations ought to be ignored.

HOURS OF WORK, DAYS OF REST, AND BREAKS
The Working Group recommends excluding farm workers from the provincial rules around hours of work, days of rest, and breaks. The key argument for these standards is safety: long hours contribute to fatigue, which, in turn, increases the risk of injury. For example, being awake 17 hours is the same as having a blood-alcohol level of 0.05 (i.e., being legally impaired in Alberta). Given that agriculture is already one of Canada’s most dangerous industries, failing to regulate fatigue poses a threat to the health and life of workers.

The working group has also recommended exempting agricultural operations from overtime provisions. Alberta normally requires overtime pay when employers demand more than 8 hours of work in a day, or 44 hours in a week. The purpose of this standard is to discourage employers from imposing on workers long work weeks (via a wage premium).

Eliminating the rules around overtime—especially in conjunction with eliminating maximum hours of work—will reduce wage costs for agricultural owners. The cost of this change will be borne by farm workers (whom Bill 6 is designed to protect) because they will receive lower wages and be placed at higher risk of fatigue-related injuries.

The argument that “An overtime rate would only lower the base pay rate which would not increase total earnings of employees and furthermore cause complications in calculating pay (p. 9)” seems specious since (1) most farm workers make only slightly more than the minimum wage (thus there is not far for the base rate to fall) and, (2) farms are subject to labour market dynamics (wherein reducing the base rate of pay may impede recruitment).

The working group is also recommending eliminating extra pay for farm workers who work statutory holidays. There is no real argument for this recommendation, except minimizing employer wage costs.

Overall, these recommendations are designed to externalize labour costs (in the form of low wages and unsafe working conditions) from producers onto workers. This is inconsistent with the intent of Bill 6 and these recommendations should be disregarded.

CHILD LABOUR ON FARMS
The application of Alberta’s child labour laws (as presently written) would preclude children (under 12) and adolescents (aged 12–14) from being hired to work on farms. Bill 6 already exempts family members from all employment rules, so these standards apply only to children and adolescents whom farmers seek to hire as waged workers.

The working group proposes allowing adolescents to work on farms subject to two caveats:
  1. Workers aged 12 and 13 can only work 20 hours per week. This is different from the normal rules for adolescents, where work is limited to two hours on a school day and eight hours on a non-school day. The impact of this proposal would be to lengthen the allowable work day and work week during the school year, but shorten it during the summer (which seems contrary to the educational interests of adolescents).
  2. Workers under 16 can only be employed if the work has no negative impact on schooling, parental consent is be obtained, and the work is not detrimental to the health, education, or welfare of youth. These requirements basically already exist in the Employment Standards Code and regulations.
Given the high rate of injury associated with agriculture and the particularly vulnerable nature of adolescents at work, allowing adolescent employment in agriculture is not good public policy. It will only be a matter of time before a teenager is maimed or killed on the job. How soon will depend upon which occupational health and safety rules apply to farms, and whether farms bother complying (as we saw above, farmers already admit to not complying with certain Employment Standards).

The working group is also seeking to reduce the minimum wage for workers under 16 years of age to 75% of the normal minimum wage. The working group’s rationale is that a lower minimum wage will encourage agricultural employers to provide work experience for young people. This rationale obscures farmers' financial interest in minimizing their labour bill. Further, will young workers really flock to farm jobs if such jobs pay less than jobs in any other industry? Given that Alberta only recently ended lower wages for workers who serve alcohol, I see no rationale for lower wages for young workers.

PUBLIC EMERGENCY TRIBUNALS
The Labour Relations Working Group recommends adding “imminent and irreversible damage to crops and/or livestock welfare in primary agriculture” (p.8) to the circumstances when the government can impose a Public Emergency Tribunal (thereby ending a work stoppage) under the Labour Relations Code.

While the working group’s concern for animal welfare is commendable, there is no reason to believe that a work stoppage would imperil animal welfare. Employers have 72-hours of notice of any work stoppage (a savvy employer would have even longer notice) and be able to take appropriate action to ensure animal welfare. In this recommendation, the working group is catastrophizing as a way to justifying limits on workers’ constitutional right to strike.

The argument the working group makes for declaring a PET due to risk of crop loss is equally without merit. Many employers face significant disruption in production (including unremediable losses) due to work stoppages (e.g., companies the ship spoilable products or companies that host events). The threat of such disruption is the reason why work stoppages are effective tools.

The real issue here is that farm employers don’t want to be periodically subject to effective collective bargaining pressure by their workers. This desire by employers to interfere with constitutionally protected worker rights is evident in the “strategic options” advanced, such as excluding agriculture from the ambit of the Labour Relations Code and entirely banning strikes and lockouts in agricultural labour relations.

THE ONTARIO MODEL
The working group identifies the Ontario Agricultural Employees Protection Act as a possible framework for unionization and collective bargaining in agriculture. It is important to recall that this legislation was enacted in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Dunmore and was designed to provide the thinnest set of labour rights that were (then) constitutional. Recent jurisprudence has substantially expanded the scope of protected activity under Section 2(d) and significant portions of the AEPA are unlikely to be found constitutional. This model should be rejected in favour of the same model of labour relations available to every other worker and employer in Alberta.

BARGAINING UNIT SIZE
The working group advances the strategic option of a minimum agricultural bargaining unit size of 5 (versus the norm of 2). This limit is unnecessary because of structural pressures. Recent research I’ve conducted into rural organizing in Alberta using the provincial government’s collective bargaining data-set suggests that bargaining units smaller than 20 workers are uncommon in rural, private-sector operations. This is because (absent very specific circumstances) such units are economically unviable for unions to organize and operate. This analysis suggests that unionization activity is likely to be limited to large agriculture operations that have a significant number of employees (e.g., feedlots, green houses).

Thanks you for the opportunity to make comment upon the working groups’ recommendations.

Bob Barnetson, Professor
Labour Relations
Athabasca University

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Guest post: Lousy journalism and youth unemployment

This weekend, CBC posted an article entitled 'The Millenial side hustle,' not stable job, is the new reality for university grads. CBC is usually the best remaining traditional media source. 

But, as Erik Strikwerda, Assistant Professor of History at Athabasca University points out, not everything CBC publishes is reliable.

-- Bob 


How to write a misleading semi-long Sunday morning read and pass it off as hard investigative journalism.

Step One: Come up with a provocative title that seems true, and generally confirms what many people already think.

“The ‘Millennial Side Hustle,’ not a stable job is the new reality for university grads”

Check.

Step Two: Begin lead paragraph with an anecdotal story that supports the title.

One young man who recently graduated from university with a mechanical engineering degree can’t seem to find a job, despite applying for 250 jobs in his field.

Check.

Step Three: Imply the anecdotal story is representative of a much wider trend by asserting that the subject of the anecdote isn’t alone.

Check.

Step Four: Use completely misleading or irrelevant figures to ‘verify’ that the anecdotal story is representative of a wider trend.

“More than 12% of Canadians between the ages of 15 and 24 are unemployed and more than a quarter are underemployed, meaning they have degrees but end up in jobs that don’t require them.”

Check.

This is really meant to be the meat of the analysis. But obvious questions come to mind, even to a casual reader. “Canadians aged 15 to 24” represents nine years. However, most university students won’t graduate with a degree before the age of 21. So fully six years of the 12% unemployment figure aren’t relevant to the story.

Most of the Canadians represented by the statistic, then, couldn’t possibly have completed a university degree.

But 12% sounds like a lot, so, whatever.

How many of the remaining Canadians between the ages of 21 and 24 actually have a university degree? We don’t know, because the story doesn’t say.

But 12% sounds like a lot, so, whatever.

It gets worse.

“… more than a quarter (of Canadians aged 15 to 24) are unemployed, meaning they have degrees but end up in jobs that don’t require them.” Wow. More than 25% of Canadians with university degrees can’t find work in their field?

Wait a minute! Canadians aged 15 to 21 don’t have university degrees because they’re either a) still in high school or b) still finishing their degree or c) aren’t in university at all. How does the article account for this? It doesn’t.

But more than 25% sounds like a lot, so, whatever.

What about Canadians aged 21 to 24? Surely they all have university degrees! Some do, that’s true enough. But many don’t because a) they didn’t go to university or b) they did go to university but left before graduating. How many fit into this category? We don’t know because the article doesn’t say.

Still, more than 25% sounds like a lot, so, whatever.

Step Five: Introduce more statistics that aren’t relevant.

“The latest numbers from Statistics Canada show that the unemployment show rate for 15-to-24 year olds is almost twice that of the general population.”

Check.

Well, this is true enough (even if we don’t bother accounting for the fact that employment statistics are notoriously unreliable, failing to take into account people who have stopped looking for work for example, or ignoring people who aren’t in the job market at all, for a variety of reasons).

After all, the 12% unemployment rate among 15-to-24 year olds is ‘nearly twice’ the current average unemployment rate of all age groups (6.6%).

And surely this 12% unemployment rate includes some people in the 15-to-24 age group with university degrees. But it also just as surely includes many more people who a) are still in high school b) have dropped out of high school c) didn’t go to university or d) didn’t graduate from university.

How does this 12% unemployment rate statistic bolster the story’s premise that having a university degree doesn’t translate into a job? It doesn’t.

But unemployment ‘almost twice that of the general population’ sounds dramatic. So, whatever.

Step Six: Ignore statistics that don’t support the original assertion.

Research from the very Canadian Teachers’ Association report on which the story relies shows that unemployment rates for actual university graduates have been steadily falling, from just under 10% in the early ‘90s to around 4% by the late 2000s.

Further, figures from 2011 show that Canadians with a university degree earn more in the workplace than their counterparts without a university degree, too. University-educated Canadians earned an average of $80,000 per year. High school graduates with no university degree, by contrast, earned less than $50,000.

Step Seven: Having ‘established’ the numbers that don’t back up the story, bury them by piling on more anecdotes that, without context, are completely useless.

Here’s a young woman, featured in the article, with a political science degree working as a bartender, a yoga instructor, and a house-sitter. Is her experience the norm? She says many of her friends are in the same boat, so I guess it must be the norm.

Here’s another women who is a precariously employed contract instructor at a university. The nature of the university contract worker business these days means that she has to reapply for her job every four months. She’s been doing this for nearly 20 years. Is this fair? Absolutely not. But the deeper question is why do university administrators continue to rely on contract instructors rather than offering them job security? Does the article ask this question? Nope.

The contract instructor says most of her students don’t believe they’ll be precarious workers once they graduate. Doubtless this is true. Unfortunately for these students, according to the article, “economic indicators that track employment reveal a trend toward more precarious jobs.” 

The article offers no source for these economic indicators. Nor does it offer any context for the assertion itself. Are these precarious jobs being filled by university graduates, and therefore relevant to the story? We don’t know, and the article is silent on the matter, save the story about the contract instructor.

Check.

Step Eight: Completely miss the opportunity to raise some hard questions about the state of post-secondary education in Canada.

In what ways do universities make available to employers a highly skilled, publicly subsidized workforce that helps their bottom line?

Why are universities increasingly relying on contract instructional labour rather than replenishing the ranks of retiring full-time faculty? Is it in order to cut costs in an era of chronic state underfunding of post-secondary institutions?

What role should universities play in readying graduates for the labour market?

Should universities tailor their programs and degrees for the capitalistic marketplace? Or should they focus on turning out highly skilled graduates with wide sets of knowledge and competencies?

I know traditional media is going through hard times these days but sheesh! This article doesn’t even pass the very basics of logical reasoning, let alone research!

-- Erik Strikwerda

Friday, March 10, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Convoy

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Convoy” by C.W. McCall. The 1975 song follows a group of truckers as they drive non-stop from the west to eats coast of the United States in a fictitious rebellion. It isn’t clear what they are rebelling against (maybe the 55mph speed limit?) but “the man” (embodied in police and the national guard) seem to be the target.

Independent owner-operators historically played an important role in the trucking industry. These operators get paid by the trip thus, the faster they make their run, the more runs they can make, and the more they earn. Governments sought to limits such behaviour for safety reasons by mandating rest periods. This comes up in the song:
We tore up all of our swindle sheets,
And left 'em settin' on the scales.
Swindle sheets were logs that truckers sometimes falsified in order to drive longer than allowed. They were verified at state-operated weigh scales. It is easy to blame workers for avoiding this safety system. But it is worthwhile considering why truckers felt pressured to drive long hours. The answer is that companies had set up the employment arrangement so as to minimize labour costs. The result is that the true cost of transport is externalized onto truckers and the public in the form of less safe roads and resulting injuries.

In a related note, there is a fascinating US subculture on driving and evading the cops (e.g., Smoky and the Bandit, BJ and the Bear, Sheriff Lobo, Duel). I picked the Paul Brandt cover of this song for the video as it is a bit of a more contemporary arrangement (shot in Alberta our at CFB Wainwright).



Was the dark of the moon on the sixth of June
In a Kenworth pullin' logs
Cab-over Pete with a reefer on
And a Jimmy haulin' hogs
We is headin' for bear on I-one-oh
'Bout a mile outta Shaky Town
I says, "Pig Pen, this here's the Rubber Duck.
"And I'm about to put the hammer down."

'Cause we got a little ol' convoy
Rockin' through the night.
Yeah, we got a little ol' convoy,
Ain't she a beautiful sight?
Come on and join our convoy
Ain't nothin' gonna get in our way.
We gonna roll this truckin' convoy
'Cross the U-S-A.
Convoy!

By the time we got into Tulsa Town,
We had eighty-five trucks in all.
But they's a roadblock up on the cloverleaf,
And them bears was wall-to-wall.
Yeah, them smokies is thick as bugs on a bumper;
They even had a bear in the air!
I says, "Callin' all trucks, this here's the Duck.
"We about to go a-huntin' bear."

'Cause we got a great big convoy
Rockin' through the night.
Yeah, we got a great big convoy,
Ain't she a beautiful sight?
Come on and join our convoy
Ain't nothin' gonna get in our way.
We gonna roll this truckin' convoy
'Cross the U-S-A.
Convoy!

Well, we rolled up Interstate 44
Like a rocket sled on rails.
We tore up all of our swindle sheets,
And left 'em settin' on the scales.
By the time we hit that Chi-town,
Them bears was a-gettin' smart:
They'd brought up some reinforcements
From the Illinois National Guard.

There's armored cars, and tanks, and jeeps,
And rigs of ev'ry size.
Yeah, them chicken coops was full'a bears
And choppers filled the skies.
Well, we shot the line and we went for broke
With a thousand screamin' trucks
An' eleven long-haired Friends a' Jesus
In a chartreuse micra-bus.

Well, we laid a strip for the Jersey shore
Prepared to cross the line
I could see the bridge was lined with bears
But I didn't have a dog-goned dime.
I says, "Pig Pen, this here's the Rubber Duck.
"We just ain't a-gonna pay no toll."
So we crashed the gate doing ninety-eight
I says "Let them truckers roll, 10-4."

'Cause we got a mighty convoy
Rockin' through the night.
Yeah, we got a mighty convoy,
Ain't she a beautiful sight?
Come on and join our convoy
Ain't nothin' gonna get in our way.
We gonna roll this truckin' convoy
'Cross the U-S-A.
Convoy! Convoy! Convoy! Convoy!

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Rumours of Alberta labour law change

There is some speculation that we will see some changes to Alberta’s labour laws on the next two years. A review of the Workers’ Compensation Board is currently under way.

But there have also been musings about changes to the Employment Standards Code (which sets minimum terms and conditions), the Labour Relations Code (governing unionization and collective bargaining), and the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

There is no clear direction on any of these files yet (the Throne Speech was vague, mentioning "modernizing working conditions").

At some point the government will need to move forward on implementing the final pieces of Bill 6 (which extends basic rights to farm workers). Yesterday, the government announced that it is seeking feedback on the working group recommendations about how the Employment Standards Code and Labour Relations Code may apply on farms. The Employment Standards groups came to some interesting recommendations, particularly around child labour.

Other changes that are rumoured to be in the mix include enshrining bereavement leave into the Employment Standards Code and perhaps taking action on violence in convenience stores and gas stations.

Employers, this time in the form of the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, aren’t keen. According to Chamber CEO Janet Riopel, “"We've enjoyed a long period of labour peace, so we don't understand why there would be this need for sweeping changes.”

This characterization is untrue in two ways. First, employers often characterize Alberta as a place where there are few strikes or lockouts. This helps build the narrative that everything is hunky-dory. But there have been strikes and lockouts in Alberta, including a surprising number of wildcats. Here is a partial list generated from memory (I know I’m missing some--these are just the ones that stick out):
  • Gainers and five others (1986)
  • Nurses (1988)
  • Social workers (1990)
  • Foothills laundry workers (1995)
  • Maple Leaf Foods, Hinton Mill, Safeway (1997)
  • Teachers and Shaw Conference Centre (2002)
  • Keep Hills coal mine (2003)
  • Lakeside packers and Telus (2005)
  • Palace casino (2006)
  • Teachers (2007)
  • Hospital support workers (2012)
  • Jail guards and Save-on foods (2013)
  • Artspace Independent Living (2014)
  • Points West Living (2016)
Second, Alberta’s current labour laws suppress conflict (by making is hard to unionize and hard for workers to press their demands). Employers probably do enjoy the suppression of overt conflict--not so much workers. Suppressed conflict tends to manifest itself in a number of ways (e.g., higher turn over and lower productivity).

That employers don’t want workers to have more protections, safer workplaces or greater access to collective bargaining is hardly surprising. The question will be to what degree the government goes along with this agenda.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, March 3, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: BankRobber

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Bankrobber” by The Clash. This reggae song that meanders quite a lot (which is why the song seems so much longer than it really is).

I think the crux of the song is that employment is a class system (“some is rich, and some is poor/that's the way the world is”). And the result of the system is alienation for most workers:
the old man spoke up in a bar
said i never been in prison
a lifetime serving one machine
is ten times worse than prison
Not surprisingly, some folks don’t willingly go along with this arrangement, given that life is short:
someday you'll meet your rocking chair
cos that's where we're spinning
there's no point to wanna comb your hair
when it's grey and thinning
Consequently, we should seek to understand the structural roots of so-called deviant behaviour, such a bankrobbing. I picked a more contemporary cover of the song for the video because I can’t deal with The Clash’s vocals.



[CHORUS]
my daddy was a bankrobber
but he never hurt nobody
he just loved to live that way
and he loved to steal your money

some is rich, and some is poor
that's the way the world is
but i don't believe in lying back
sayin' how bad your luck is

so we came to jazz it up
we never loved a shovel
break your back to earn your pay
an' don't forget to grovel

[CHORUS]

the old man spoke up in a bar
said i never been in prison
a lifetime serving one machine
is ten times worse than prison

imagine if all the boys in jail
could get out now together
whadda you think they'd want to say to us?
while we was being clever

someday you'll meet your rocking chair
cos that's where we're spinning
there's no point to wanna comb your hair
when it's grey and thinning

[CHORUS]

so we came to jazz it up
we never loved a shovel
break your back to earn your pay
an' don't forget to grovel

Get away, get away, get away, get away

[CHORUS]

run rabbit run
strike out boys, for the hills
i can find that hole in the wall
and i know that they never will

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Free lecture on farm injury


Two quick items on farmworkers. First, Dr. Don Voaklander from the University of Alberta will be giving a free public lecture on Thursday, March 9 entitled “Old MacDonald had a farm injury”. The lecture will be held in room 2-490 of the Edmonton Clinic Health Academy
building (11405 - 87 Ave) on the University of Alberta campus from 5 to 6 pm MT. The description of the lecture is:
It is the fourth most hazardous industry in Canada for injury. And when it comes to fatality rates, there is no profession more dangerous. Why, then, aren’t farm workers fairly and equitably protected by legislation in their workplace? 
Join researcher Don Voaklander on March 9 for a free public lecture as he examines the frequency, causes and risk factors for farm injury in Alberta. Voaklander will also discuss barriers to prevention, with a focus on the false notion that farm injuries are “all in a day’s work.”
You can also view the lecture using Adobe Connect.

Second, last week the Parkland Institute published a blog post I wrote about a hither unto secret report about farmworker injury insurance commissioned by Alberta’s former Tory government. The report confirms that, before Bill 6, many farmers carried no injury insurance for their workers and almost all farmworkers had inadequate accidental death coverage.

The study tells us four things:

First, the former Progressive Conservative government had evidence that 8,000 farm employees were uninsured or under-insured against injuries but took no action to make workers’ compensation coverage mandatory. It is unclear why the previous government made this policy choice, but I suspect it was about fear of losing the rural votes and seats. Given the reaction to the NDP government's Bill 6, this fear was likely reasonable, yet that hardly justifies leaving nearly 100 injured farm workers and their families each year without financial support.

Second, the narrative that “farmers take care of their own” is not fully true. While the report does suggest some farmers may provide some wage support to uninsured farm employees who were unable to work due to injury, there is no evidence of that. What there is evidence of is that, left to their own devices, medium and large farm employers left more than 8,000 farm workers with no disability coverage. And they left over 35,000 farms workers with no or inadequate accidental death coverage.

Third, farmers' lack of adequate insurance coverage for their workers is not surprising. Like all employers, farm operators are driven by the profit imperative and consequently seek to minimize labour costs. The most practical way to ensure that all farmers provide adequate injury insurance to their employees is to mandate workers' compensation insurance — as the government does for virtually every other employer in Alberta. This is what the government eventually did in Bill 6.

Fourth, for all but the biggest producers, the cost of workers’ compensation insurance is the same or less than comparable private insurance. This suggests that complaints about the cost of WCB insurance are coming from a) farm operators who otherwise would not carry insurance for their workers, b) those who don’t understand the actual cost of WCB coverage, c) the very largest of producers (who are most able to afford WCB coverage), or d) people whose opposition to workers’ compensation has nothing to do with the cost of insurance.

As the Bill 6 working groups finally wrap up their work, the major question facing the government is how to go forward given the ridiculous nature of some of the recommendations.

-- Bob Barnetson