Friday, April 20, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Night Shift

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Night Shift” by Bob Marley and the Wailers. The song explores Marley’s experiences in Delaware after his mother re-married and moved there from Jamaica.

Marley worked at the Chrysler Assembly plant in Newark before hitting it big as a musician. I don’t see a lot of hidden meaning in the song: its just recounts the repetitive nature of working nights driving a forklift in the parts plant.



The sun shall not smite I by day,
Nor the moon by night;
And everything that I do
Shall be upfull and right.
And if it's all night,
It got to be all right!
If it's all night,
Got to be all right!

Your mamma won't lose this one;
You're the lucky one under the sun.
If you make me move,
Then you know you got the groove:
All night, it's all right!
All night, yeah! It's all right!

Working on a forklift
In the night shift;
Working on a night shift,
With the forklift,
from A.M. (Did you say that? Why did you say that?)
to P.M. (Working all night!)
Working on a night shift, yeah!
(Did you say that? Why did you say that? Upfull and right!)
Well, if it's (all night!) - if it's (all right!)
all night (all night!) -

Warehouse (all right!),
You're empty, yeah!
Go around the corner,
Bring your goods!
Go around the other corner,
Bring your suitcases. (All night!)
By the sweat of my brow, (All right!)
Eat your bread! (All night!)
By the sweat of my brow, (All right!)
Eat your bread!

All night (all night)! All right (all right)!
All night (all night)! All right (all right)!
Oh, yeah! (moon by night)
Why did you say that? Oh, yeah! (Upfull and right!)
Working on a night shift
With the forklift. (Moon by night!)
Working on the night shift,
Oh, yeah! (Upfull and right!) [fadeout]

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Athabasca faculty file unfair labour practice complaint

Last week, the Athabasca University Faculty Association filed a complaint with the Alberta Labour Relations Board. The crux of the complaint is that Athabasca University is violating sections 60 and 148 of the Labour Relations Code. I have reprised the LRB notice to the right (click to get a bigger version).

Section 60 of the Code addresses collective bargaining. Essentially, it says that the employer and the union and shall meet within 30 days of one being served notice to bargain by the other and, with 15 days of the first meeting, the parties shall exchange bargaining proposals.

Section 148(1)(a)(i) and (ii) of the Code addresses employer behaviour in the workplace. They prohibit employers from interfering in the formation and administration of a union and the union’s representation of employees.

Although the notice is a touch vague, the union is alleging two basic things in its complaint:

1. The employer is routinely ignoring its obligations under the collective agreement and otherwise jerking the union around. This interferes with the union’s ability to represent its members and, consequently, undermines the credibility of the union with the membership. Freezing out the union is a typical union-busting tactic because it undermines the support the union enjoys from the employer.

2. The employer is stalling bargaining (specifically, it will not meet within the 15-day timeline to exchange proposals despite having months of notice that bargaining was coming). Again, this kind of bad faith bargaining undercuts the unions’ credibility with its members and is a typical union-busting tactic.

To be fair, it may be simply be that the employer is incompetent in the management of its labour-relations functions (rather than being intentionally obstructive). Having seen the full complaint, I'd be pretty skeptical that this is solely about incompetence--it looks like a (bad) strategy. In the end, what is driving this behaviour won't matter much because the effect is the same.

This pattern of behaviour is not new at AU. For example, in 2015, the employer went on a tear of evading timelines and stalling grievances and bargaining. The university eventually apologized for that and said it wouldn't do it again.


In 2016, the employer stalled bargaining by being available to meet (by my count) only five times in nine months. When they arrived to bargain, they were routinely unprepared, hadn't done what they said they would do at the end of the last meeting, and, at one point, started arguing against proposals that they had advanced (no, seriously, that actually happened!). Not surprisingly, bargaining hit the skids and went to arbitration. 

During these antics, the faculty association had no access to meaningful remedy for such unfair labour practices because of the structure of Alberta’s labour laws. That has now changed. Alas, the employer’s behaviour hasn’t.

It is notable that the employer has, so far, refused to circulate the notice of this complaint to its staff as it was instructed to do “immediately” by the Labour Board on April 12 (in the past they have just emailed it around). The faculty association has been forced to post the notice so its members are aware.

Why the employer would also pick a fight with the Labour Board by being obstructive is a bit of a mystery. It is also a touch ironic that the university can’t meet the timeline for circulating a notice about a complaint that it can’t meet timelines… .

A response from the employer is due on April 26 and a hearing will be scheduled thereafter.

-- Bob Barnetson

Research: Working from home boosts productivity

There was an interesting study about the effectiveness of working from home out of Stanford. You can read a brief summary in this article.

The study examines a large Chinese firm and followed 500 workers, half of who worked from home and half in the office. The upshot was that home workers:
  1. Worked longer (almost a full day longer each week—a work-time gain of 13%!).
  2. Concentrated better (so were more productive while they were at work).
  3. Were cheaper (no office space costs)
  4. Had 50% lower attrition, less sick time, and took fewer breaks.
  5. Had a smaller carbon footprint (less commuting, more intensive use of home space).
I’ve been working from home since 2007 and this is pretty consistent with my experience. The key drawback was half of the home workers felt lonely. And there were a few people humping the dog (which was more than offset by gains among other workers).

Letting workers chose whether to work from home (self-selection) resulted in an overall increase in productivity of 24%. If you can stand it, you can watch the author do a 14-minute talk about the study below. He’s reasonably funny and pretty smart but zzzzzzz….



The usual caveats apply to this research: single study, foreign country, YMMV. But it certainly has a lot of face validity for me.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, April 13, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Mining for Gold

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Mining for Gold”, most famously performed by the Cowboy Junkies. The very haunting song speaks to the human cost associated with mining (specifically hard rock mining).

This song is timely given the death of Barrack Gold founder Peter Munk at the end of March. Munk was widely lauded as a visionary business leader, with lofty ambitions and visionary goals. A look at the record of Barrack Gold is sobering.
And as the company’s mining empire expanded, so too did the social criticism, with accusations of abuse at mines in Papua New Guinea and Tanzania drawing protests and reprimands. 
But Munk was unapologetic, and held fast in his convictions that the company was overall a source of good as part of a globalized world of capitalism. 
“Someone has got to create and generate wealth,” Munk said at his last annual general meeting in 2014.
What the Toronto Sun is avoiding talking about in detail are the gang rapes and shooting of workers at various Barrack mines in the developing world. But at least he generated shareholder value. 

The Beaverton pretty much nailed it with its headline “Barrick Gold entombs fifty foreign miners in Peter Munk’s pyramid so he’ll have workers to abuse in afterlife”
“He was such a generous man,” said a Barrick Gold VP, about the ex-chairman whose company is responsible for dozens of atrocities throughout the world. “He would insist on Barrick Gold giving our miners more violence, more heavy metals in their groundwater, more sexual assault. It’s only fair that in return these fifty men be forced to accompany him to paradise.” … 
In addition to Munk’s compulsory entourage, he will also be buried with a thousand barrels of industrial cyanide so he can poison the hereafter’s freshwater sources, a bulldozer for tearing down the homes of heaven’s indigenous population, and a few hundred million dollars in case he needs to bribe God to look the other way. 
“I thought Peter was crazy when he said he could get away with killing hundreds of people if he also dug up a shiny rock once in awhile,” said one longtime friend and member of the board of directors. “Boy is my face red, not to mention my hands!”


We are miners, hard rock miners
To the shaft house we must go
Pour your bottles on our shoulders
We are marching to the slow

On the line boys, on the line boys
Drill your holes and stand in line
'til the shift boss comes to tell you
You must drill her out on top

Can't you feel the rock dust in your lungs?
It'll cut down a miner when he is still young
Two years and the silicosis takes hold
and I feel like I'm dying from mining for gold

Yes, I feel like I'm dying from mining for gold

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Is Convocation leaving Athabasca?

Photo by bulliver
Last Thursday, the mayor of Athabasca was on the radio taking questions. One listener queried whether Athabasca University planned to move convocation out of the town after this year’s ceremonies.

That would be a significant economic blow to the town, as convocation is one of the biggest events in the community each year. And it would be another step in diminishing the university’s presence in town.

Since 2013, a quarter of AU’s professional jobs in Athabasca have disappeared and the university’s executives have all moved away. And, several years back, there were efforts to locate a new building in St. Albert despite there being lots of space on the Athabasca campus.

The mayor couldn’t confirm what the university’s plans were and, when I asked the university about this, it tweeted back (two hours later) that this was just a rumour and convocation 2019 was set to occur in Athabasca.



It was odd that the university didn’t make any definitive statement last week about this issue. An email to staff would take about 30 seconds and would kill the speculation. It is also interesting that the President’s weekly email to staff didn’t appear last week. This week's presidential email was early. It ignores the dust up and quietly confirms that convocation is in Athabasca in 2019.


This response to a potentially big issue was weird so I started asking around.

From what I have been able to find out from multiple independent sources, the university’s executive decided some time ago to move convocation away from Athabasca after this June. I suspect this happened during the budget process, but no one would confirm this. (Convocation was shrunk from 3 days to 2 this year.)

The strong reaction to the announcement leaking out last week may have caused the executive to reverse course (at least for the moment). Assuming this is true, it raises a number of questions:

1. What was the rationale for moving convocation? It can’t possibly be appreciably cheaper to host it in Edmonton. Is it part of a multi-stage plan to slowly shift staff and functions away from Athabasca, until there is nothing much left—a death by 1000 cuts approach?

2. Who authorized this move? The Board of Governors members I’ve spoken to have all denied any knowledge. This suggests the university’s executive made the decision. Do they have that authority? If so, when was the executive going to tell the Board?

3. How does this decision (seemingly the latest effort to diminish the university’s presence in Athabasca) square with the direction AU received in January of 2017 from Advanced Ed Minister Marlin Schmidt when he said:

“We have stressed to the board and the administration that Athabasca University has to maintain a strong presence in the community [of Athabasca].”

Was the government’s commitment to Athabasca University in Athabasca just empty rhetoric? Or has AU’s leadership just decided to ignore the government’s direction?

4. How will this affect the university’s efforts to acquire $5+ million in additional funding from the government to advance the goals of the university’s strategic plan? The university’s future in Athabasca was a big local issue in the last election. If I were the government and hoping to keep the seat in Athabasca during the 2019 election, I wouldn’t be happy with a university admin that keeps pissing off local voters.

5. How does withdrawing employees and function from Athabasca align with the new strategic plan? The plan seems silent on moving locations. You’d think a concerted effort to move operations out of town would warrant a bullet point somewhere. Or is the strategic plan just motherhood and apple pie and there is some other, actual plan afoot?

6. How will this kerfuffle affect relations between the university’s administrators and the Board of Governors? Already, only half of the Board voted in favour of the university’s new strategic plan. And 5 of the 7 public members voted against the plan or abstained from voting on it. Those kinds of numbers suggest a degree of dissatisfaction with the direction proposed by the university’s executive. I imagine getting surprised by a potentially explosive political issue like this will not play well at the next Board meeting on May 25

7. Why the silence? If this was an unfounded rumour, a quick “nope, this was never on the table” would have killed the speculation. I suspect the silence was an effort to finesse the issue. Specifically, the university executive is trying to message “Convocation 2019 is in Athabasca” to dampen down local angst while avoiding a denial that this had been, in fact, the plan (which could be undercut by (for example) emails to the contrary). This strategy leaves open the possibility of announcing convocation is moving once the heat is off (say, for 2020).

It will also be interested to see how the university’s open house in Athabasca on Wednesday (from 6-9) goes. Putatively, this open house is intended to explain how the new strategic plan will benefit the community of Athabasca. I imagine that local residents will have difficult questions in light of recent press coverage about job losses, the potential loss of convocation, and the abandonment of the community by the senior leadership of the university.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, April 6, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Back on the Chain Gang

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Back on the Chain Gang” by the Pretenders. 

The title of the song, the images in the video, and a cursory reading of the lyrics suggests it is about forced labour (whether is be prisoners labouring in factories or factory workers labouring in prisons). For example:
Put us back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang 
The powers that be
That force us to live like we do
Bring me to my knees
When I see what they've done to you
However, the title is more metaphorical. The song is actually about the Pretenders guitarist, James Honeyman-Scott. He died of a drug overdose in 1982, about a month before the band recorded this song. That context suggest the lyrics casts the song in a different light. For example, the opening verse speaks to the band’s shock but resolve to continue playing;
I found a picture of you, oh oh oh oh
What hijacked my world that night
To a place in the past
We've been cast out of? Oh oh oh oh
Now we're back in the fight
We're back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang
Framing music as working on a “chain gang” suggests that perhaps the nature of the work is at least partly responsible for Honeyman-Scott’s death:
The powers that be
That force us to live like we do
Bring me to my knees
When I see what they've done to you
Certainly many workers will easily relate to this sentiment, as they sacrifice their happiness or health in order to learn a living, often against their will. This verse also suggests that there will be a reckoning at some point:
But I'll die as I stand here today
Knowing that deep in my heart
They'll fall to ruin one day
For making us part
While the notion of judgment (or karma or some other mechanism) that evens things out in the end is a popular one, there is troublingly little evidence that the powerful ever pay for their exploitation of others. Which is, of course, one of the reasons they continue to act this way.



I found a picture of you, oh oh oh oh
What hijacked my world that night
To a place in the past
We've been cast out of? Oh oh oh oh
Now we're back in the fight
We're back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang

A circumstance beyond our control, oh oh oh oh
The phone, the TV and the news of the world
Got in the house like a pigeon from hell, oh oh oh oh
Threw sand in our eyes and descended like flies
Put us back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang

The powers that be
That force us to live like we do
Bring me to my knees
When I see what they've done to you
But I'll die as I stand here today
Knowing that deep in my heart
They'll fall to ruin one day
For making us part

I found a picture of you, oh oh oh oh
Those were the happiest days of my life
Like a break in the battle was your part, oh oh oh oh
In the wretched life of a lonely heart
Now we're back on the train
Oh, back on the chain gang

-- Bob Barnetson



Tuesday, April 3, 2018

AUPE Labour School and Movie Monsters

Last week, I spent a day in Banff at the AUPE labour school. Chatting with union members, activists, and staff, several commented on the Alberta’s 2018 Speech from the Throne. This passage caught everyone’s attention:
The people who work across our public sector are integral to the services Albertans rely on. We have already reached practical agreements with no raises and better job stability with many labour partners, including teachers and nurses, and a tentative agreement has been reached with our allied health professionals, such as paramedics, lab technologists and X-ray technologists.
The government has sought (and achieved) wage freezes as a way of reducing the cost of government. As a result, most public-sector workers’ wages will decline by the value of inflation for the next two years. For some workers (such as teachers), this will mean they have taken wage freezes in five of the six most recent years.

Wage freezes are often unpopular because they can have big implications for workers. Continuing with the teacher example, for example, these workers saw the real-dollar value of their salaries decline by more than 7% over the past six years due to un-addressed inflation. These losses affect their wages forever (due to lost compounding) and there is also a knock-on hit to their pensions.

Unions undoubtedly make gains when taking zeros (e.g., workload limits, better contract language) but forgone wages represent a significant transfer of money from workers to the government. Essentially, workers are subsidizing the operation of public services.

Several workers in Banff went further, noting that what the New Democrats (like the Tories before them) were doing was taking money from workers and using it to subsidize rich people and corporations (through income and corporate tax rates that are inadequate to pay for public services).

This was a pretty astute observation (many of my PhD-holding co-workers struggle to grasp this dynamic). And it raises interesting political questions. For example, what is the ND’s electoral thinking behind telling your supporters that “you gotta take a freeze so I can get re-elected”?

Probably it goes something like “you can be mad, but Jason Kenney will be worse so who you gonna vote for in 2019”? Now certainly Jason Kenney would be far worse for public servants. Personally, I loathe him.

I also loathe Dracula. But I don’t think it follows that, just because I hate vampires, I’m necessarily going to be a fan of Frankenstein’s monster. ("Better dead than undead!") And I’m certainly not going to cheer as it throws the public service into the lake to drown.

The anger about what amount to a betrayal of public-sector workers was palpable. I wonder how it will affect the ND’s electoral support come election time. Will public-sector workers fall in line? Or, will they be pissed enough to get out their torches and pitchforks?

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, March 30, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: The Irregular

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is the 2017 novel “The Irregular” by H.B. Lyle. The setting is London in 1909 and the main character is Wiggins (I’m not sure we ever learn his first name). Wiggins is an adult version of one of Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars—a group of street urchins periodically employed by Holmes in his cases.

The novel is historical fiction, mixing facts with fiction to create a fairly decent thriller. Wiggins is recruited by the government to form what will eventually become MI5 and MI6 (he becomes Agent 00). His task is to unravel a spy ring in a munitions factory that is leaking secrets to Germany. There is a separate plot line about Wiggins seek to avenge the death of one of his friends at the hands of Russian anarchists.

Unions and workers form part of the backdrop of the story. London in 1909 is a pretty nasty place for the working class. There are rallies and protests (not covered by the press), with Marxist revolutionaries mixing with workers wanting 8 hour work days and decent pay and suffragists wanting the vote. The government’s response is to try to suppress demands demands made by the working class, often with the police.

It is interesting that the workers are painted with a fair bit of sympathy by the author--particularly with regard to the immigrants who came to London from all over the world. Indeed, Wiggins is clearly of the lower class, in his appearance, manners, and values. Yet his main job is to save the empire—which treats his fellow workers so shabbily. It will be interesting to see how this conflict plays out in future novels.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

PSE exec wages and the ghostship HMCS Athabasca



Last week, Minister of Advanced Education Marlin Schmidt and University of Alberta president David Turpin had a nasty spat. The exchange seemingly came in wake of the U of A’s announcement that it would be cutting 4% in spending and raising a variety of student fees.

These cuts undermined the government’s messaging that they are maintaining core services by providing several years of 2% PSE funding increases. Last Monday, Schmidt attacked the university’s budget via Turpin’s enormous salary (over $800k):
It’s concerning to me to see the president lining his own pockets while he’s cutting money being spent on classrooms and students.
Turpin fired back, claiming the government had green-lighted this approach and now scoring cheap political points at his expense:
Everybody in government knew what the University of Alberta was planning and we were told, 'Yes, you should get your financial house in order.' 
And we're now seeing a minister of the Crown in this province attacking volunteers that he has appointed and criticizing their decisions. … 
I've worked at three of the country's finest universities in three different provinces and this is the first time I have been personally and publicly attacked by a minister of the Crown.
The announcement of a long-overdue cap (and, therefore, likely a cut) in university executive pay in Alberta’s 2018 budget may play a factor in this dispute, alleged Turpin:
For the last year, we've been working with the government as they work to put in place legislation which is going to force boards to roll back compensation at universities for senior executives. 
So what we're seeing here is the minister using this as an opportunity to set this up for a public announcement [Thursday].
Schmidt took a hiding in the press for attacking Turpin. While I suspect there was more to this exchange than meets the eye, it certainly cements Schmidt’s reputation as a minister with a short fuse and no tolerance for institutions that defy or embarrass the government.

Given that, it is interesting Schmidt has been so quiet about things at Athabasca University. Back in 2015, there was concern that the university would become insolvent and suggestion that being located in the town of Athabasca was a barrier to recruiting staff. This raised concerns about the university moving some or all operations out of town.

In January of 2017, Schmidt told the press that:
We have stressed to the board and administration that Athabasca University has to maintain a strong presence in the community. I've made it very clear that our government wants to make sure that Athabasca University maintains a strong presence.
The resulting third party review of Athabasca University released last summer directed the creation of a fully costed report for an enhanced and focused presence in the town of Athabasca. There is no sign of that report yet and AU’s bevy of new strategic plans (with bumper-sticker management titles like IMAGINE, RISE, and EMPOWER) hardly mention the town of Athabasca.

What has emerged instead is disturbing new data about job losses in Athabasca. As the pictures at the top of the post indicate, the mothership's empty offices and buildings are like the Mary Celeste. The key facts seem to be:
  1. Professional positions leaving: In 2013, there were 125 professionals based in Athabasca. In 2018, there are 93. Professional positions at AU are among the best paid jobs in town. This entails a loss of about $3.5m to the local economy. This is a big issue in a small town.
  2. Executives leaving: In the past three years, the President, Vice President of Information Technology, University Secretary, Director of Human Resources, and Labour Relations Officer have all become based out of Edmonton. Traditionally these positions were based in Athabasca. They represent the loss of another $1m from the local economy. These departures also speak to the declining importance of the main campus.
  3. Bar on advertising jobs in Athabasca: The university is quietly forbidding most job applications from specifying a position is located in Athabasca. President Neil Fassina told the local paper that “this allows the university to cast a wider net to find better employees, who can then be persuaded to move to Athabasca.” There is no evidence that the university can't recruit to positions in Athabasca and clearly the university is not persuading new hires to move there.
Despite the president’s assurances that all is well, the slow drain of good jobs from Athabasca a growing political issue. New Democrat MLA Colin Piquette narrowly won the riding in 2015 and did so in part based on concerns that electing right-wing candidates would mean the university would die out.

Two weeks ago, he rather ambivalently commented in the local paper “Work needs to be done to ensure all the positions that make sense to be in Athabasca are here.” This is hardly a rousing defence of his constituent’s interests in good local jobs and will affect his chances of re-election in this traditionally conservative region. It also sets up a fight between the town council (which includes some staunch ND supporters) and the government.

It will be interesting to see if Schmidt cracks down on Athabasca University’s quiet and gradual defiance of his government’s policy direction as sharply as he did on the U of A’s public defiance. If not, that may suggest that the residents of Athabasca need to turn up the heat on the government.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, March 23, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Proud to be a union man

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Proud to be a union man” by Neil Young. On the surface, the lyrics are a pretty straight up expression of support for unions (specifically, the American Federation of Musicians or “A F of M”). The AFM represents about 80,000 professional musicians in the US and Canada.

While young often pushes progressive causes, I can’t get past the slightly sarcastic tone of the lyrics and his voice, such as:
I make those meetings when I can, yeah
I pay my dues ahead of time
When the benefits come
I'm last in line, yeah.
My google-fu was weak and I could dig up no bad blood between Young and the AFM to support that interpretation.

I couldn’t find a video for this—just an audio over top some pictures. Being from 1980, it pre-dates videos. It is also a touch more country than Neil Young usually is.



I'm proud to a union man
I make those meetings when I can, yeah
I pay my dues ahead of time
When the benefits come
I'm last in line, yeah.

I'm proud to be a union man.

Every fourth Friday at 10 am
There's a local meeting
of the A F of M, yeah!

This meeting will now come to order
Is there any new business?

Yeah, I think 'Live music are better'
Bumper stickers should be issued.

What was that?

'Live music is better' bumper stickers
Should be issued

The gentleman says
'Live music is better' bumper stickers
Should be issued
All in favor of what he said
Signify by sayin' "ay"

Ay!

If, however, you are opposed
Signify by saying "no".

I'm proud to be a union man.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

U of L loses at Labour Board

A few weeks back, I reported on an application before the Alberta Labour Relations Board (ALRB). The crux of the issue was that the University of Lethbridge was trying to compel the faculty association (FA) to negotiate two collective agreements: one for regular faculty and one for sessionals.

This issue had come to a head because, in the spring of 2017, the government moved faculty collective bargaining mostly under the ambit of the Labour Relations Code. Most FAs are currently in their first round of bargaining in this new arrangement and both sides are maneuvering for advantage under the new rules.

Typically an employer tries to carve up the workforce into multiple units in the hope of weakening the union’s bargaining position (and, specifically, its strike power). For example, the employer might go after the weaker unit for rollbacks and then use these rollbacks to try to whipsaw the stronger unit into a cut.

Last week, the ALRB issued its decision. The question before the Board was:
Does the [Labour Relations] Code allow for or preclude the possibility of more than one bargaining unit for the academic staff and/or more than one collective agreement for the academic staff?
The Board’s decisions was (1) there is a single bargaining unit, and (2) the parties can conclude multiple collective agreements (each covering a portion of the unit), but (3) neither side can force the other side to accept more than one agreement.

In crude terms, the union won and the employer lost. The Board largely dismissed the university’s arguments, excepting the U of L’s argument that the Code allowed for the possibility of two collective agreements. This win by the U of L was undermined by the ALRB’s decisions that U of L cannot force two collective agreements on the FA if the FA does not want this arrangement (which was the whole point of the application).

This decision has some other interesting points. Relying on the Interpretations Act, the ALRB largely rejected the unions’ arguments that the wording of the LRC (which is in the singular) preludes the bargaining of more than one collective agreement. It is interesting to speculate why the unions would argue a point so easily dismissed--perhaps there is a meta-game afoot here?

The Board also rejected the argument that the authority of FAs is limited because of how they are created under the Post-Secondary Learning Act. Instead, the ALRB asserts that the 2017 amendments to the Code makes FAs bargaining agents. This means that FAs can, for example, represent workers other than those designated as academic staff members.

One of the stranger aspects of this case is that U of L relied on internal staffer to argue their case. He was up against three union-side labour lawyers. The reports I have from the hearing are that this contest was (not surprisingly) a real mis-match.

This choice of representation was a strange one, given that these early PSE cases are essentially setting the ground rules for labor relations going forward. The speculation I have heard is that U of L was trying to limits its legal costs. This may reflect the big chunk of change it would have dropped on last year’s Tony Hall discipline case.

I have also heard that the government has been paying attention to the amount that post-secondary institutions are spending fighting their employees. And is pointedly questioning whether this is the best use of taxpayers dollars. It will be interesting to see whether such attention causes a change in the tone of labour relations or whether institutions just choose to continue fighting, but with one hand tied behind their backs.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, March 16, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Safety Training

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture looks at the recent Superstore episode entitled “Safety Training”. This episode centres on a minor workplace injury to a worker (Mateo). There were three main subplots of note.

First, the store is keen to get Mateo to accept a small monetary payment in exchange for waiving his right to sue. The waiver includes a background check on Mateo (who is undocumented) so he declines the initial offer of $1000. This triggers an escalating series of offers that eventually reaches $50k.

This fear-of-litigation dynamic speaks to a key reason why Canadian employers typically support workers’ compensation system: it limits employer liability for injuries. The historic trade-off in workers’ comp is that workers (usually) get stable, immediate and predictable compensation but give up their right to sue.

Second, the series of safety incidents in the store results in the employer offering a refresher course in workplace safety. The training (e.g., how to mop) is completely demeaning to the workers. It also has no relationship to the incidents that caused the incidents. This kind of biting commentary of corporate training is one of the reasons Superstore is worthwhile watching.

Third, there is a darker subplot wherein a previously injured worker finds out the employer lowballed him on its settlement for cutting off his finger. Seeing the potential for financial gain, the worker then commences trying to re-injury himself. In the end, the insanity of this behaviour becomes clear even to the dim-witted worker. This sub-plot is a sharp critique of the notion that workers will malinger on compensation.

I couldn’t find a link to any on-point clips of the episode. But I did find this digital exclusive where Garrett developed a VR training simulation of how to close up the store. It is worth a watch.


-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

PSE bargaining conference reveals interesting dynamics

I spent last Friday in Calgary at a post-secondary labour relations conference that was organized by the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations. While the conference covered a wide range of topics flowing from last spring’s decision to move PSE bargaining under the Labour Relations Code, the sessions with the most engagement addressed work stoppages.

Of particular interest was the session on the University of Manitoba’s 2016 work stoppage, which contained a significant amount of practical “how-to” advice. The side conversations—which were mostly about strike-lockout—were also quite interesting.

For example, just before the conference began, the University of Lethbridge Faculty Association posted a bargaining update. It included a high-level summary of February 26 meetings the faculty association had with (unnamed) government representatives. The key take-aways were:
  • The government is committed to stable and predictable funding for the Post-Secondary sector, in keeping with its election promises and previous actions: “Past behaviour is the best predictor of future action” one official said.
  • The government provides operating funds to the University, we were told, but does not instruct management as to how those funds should be spent or how to bargain with its employees.
  • The provincial government would look very unfavourably on any attempt by employers to force employees into concession through job action.
On the first point, we’ll have to wait to see what the budget brings on March 22.

The second point is probably correct in a narrow sense: Boards of Governors are charged with making due with whatever funds they get. Yet, the point about not telling Boards how to spend funds or bargain rings a touch hollow. The government has made it clear to its agencies, boards and commissions that it expects wage freezes.

For example, in November, the Minister of Finance spoke approvingly of wage freezes in the most recent Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) collective agreements in a press conference (while denying he wanted to negotiate in the press):
"That's what my hope is ... that people will see the benefit of long-term job stability and the fact that there are no raises, they'll have their ongoing jobs," he said. "That's what I hope will occur in negotiations throughout the other contracts."
Subsequently, the unions representing nurses and health-science workers have taken zeros as well. Non-unionized government employees have also seen a wage-freeze.

Given this, it is not surprising that at least one PSE institution has disclosed to its faculty association that the government (in a letter dated February 8, 2018) has notified the institution of the government’s expectations for the monetary outcome of the upcoming round of negotiations. The institution declined to provide the letter or summarize its contents, but I think it is fair to assume the crux was “get a wage freeze”.

Indeed, lowering PSE wage settlements was one of the explicit goals of the legislation moving PSE bargaining under the Labour Relations Code, according to government MLA David Shepherd. The evidence suggests Shepherd’s assertion that arbitration leads to higher settlements is largely untrue. For example, from 2012 to 2017, most universities saw (non-compounded) wage settlements totaling between 8.0% and 9.5% (so 1.33% to 1.58% annually). Average annual inflation in Alberta during this period was about 1.3%.

More interesting was the key high-side outlier: the Mount Royal University Faculty Association negotiated (non-compounded) increases totaling 14.2%. It is notable that MRU is the only university to have had strike-lockout in its contract and to have taken a strike vote (although, there were other factors at play).

The final point made by the government officials was that “the government would look very unfavourably on any attempt by employers to force employees into concession through job action.” I would imagine this is true, politically speaking: alienating a key base of electoral support in the year leading up to an election is likely something the NDs want to avoid.

Whether this has any practical meaning once negotiations start is a difficult question to answer. On the one hand, the officials asserted that the government does not tell PSE Boards how to bargain. So, presumably, an institution can do what it believes necessary (including locking faculty out) during bargaining to achieve whatever goals its has.

On the other hand, the government clearly is directing bargaining outcomes (by setting wage expectations) and has given institutions a way to achieve them (via the power to lock its workers out). Perhaps the government would look dimly on a lockout, but might allow it to happen anyhow.

To be fair, government is large and not monolithic. The government officials the U of L faculty association met with on February 26 may have had no idea about the letter that (presumably) other government officials sent to institutions on February 8 specifying bargaining outcomes.

That said, this whole “who’s on first” routine (wherein the government is not at the table but seems to be calling the shots) is very reminiscent of the problems faced by Alberta’s teachers over the years. Specifically, teachers were forced to officially negotiate with school boards, but (since school boards relied on the province for money) the teachers were really bargaining with the Conservative government.

This very dynamic was discussed explicitly in one of the conference presentations. The similarity between the ATA’s past problems and the current dynamics in PSE bargaining was the topic of significant post-conference discussion.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, March 9, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Goodbye again

This week’s instalment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Goodbye again” by John Denver. This song picks up on last week’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane”. Denver noted that the songs really belong together, even though they were written about five years apart.

The themes of stress caused by travelling for work are similar in both songs. This song, though, has some added depth in that it explores Denver’s reason for travelling.
I have to go and see some friends of mine, some that I don't know
And some who aren't familiar with my name,
It's something that's inside of me not hard to understand
It's anyone who listens to me sing
He also examines how this internal drive to perform in part makes him who he is and also provides a contrasting absence that makes the time they spend together the sweeter.
And if your hours are empty now, who am I to blame
You think if I were always here, our love would be the same
As it is the time we have, is worth the time alone
And lying by your side, the greatest peace I've ever known
It was a bit hard to find a video but this one from Japan in the early ‘80s really captures the honesty of his voice nicely.



It's five o'clock this morning, and the sun is on the rise
There's frosting on the window pane, and sorrow in your eyes
The stars are fading quietly, night is nearly gone
And so you turn away from me, and tears begin to come

And it's goodbye again, I'm sorry to be leavin' you
Goodbye again, as if you didn't know
It's goodbye again, and I wish you could tell me
Why do we always fight when I have to go

It seems a shame to leave you now, the days are soft and warm
I long to lay me down again, to hold you in my arms
I long to kiss the tears away, "and" give you back the smile
"But" other voices beckon me, "and for" a little while

It's goodbye again, I'm sorry to be leavin' you
Goodbye again, as if you didn't know
It's goodbye again, and I wish you could tell me
Why do we always fight when I have to go

I have to go and see some friends of mine, some that I don't know
And some who aren't familiar with my name,
It's something that's inside of me not hard to understand
It's anyone who listens to me sing

And if your hours are empty now, who am I to blame
You think if I were always here, our love would be the same
As it is the time we have, is worth the time alone
And lying by your side, the greatest peace I've ever known

But it's goodbye again, I'm sorry to be leavin' you
Goodbye again, as if you didn't know
It's goodbye again, and I wish you could tell me
Why do we always fight when I have to go

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Research: Unions in rural Alberta

The Journal of Rural and Community Development has recently published a paper entitled “Understanding the absence of unionized workers in Alberta, Canada”. The paper is an open-access publication so you can download it in its entirety for free.

This paper spatially located 333,881 unionized workers in Alberta. As Table 1 suggests, a disproportionate percentage of unionized workers are found in the province’s seven urban centres. Overall, urban residents are more than twice as likely as rural residents to be union members.

Further, most unionized rural workers are found in large, public-sector bargaining units. Unionized rural workers in the private sector are typically employed by a small number of large employers with industrial-style operations, such as meat-processing plants, refineries, mills, and mines.

Interviews with trade unionists suggested three broad explanations for low union density across rural Alberta:

  1.  reluctance by rural workers to unionize, 
  2.  reluctance by unions to organize small bargaining units, and 
  3.  a regulatory structure that impeded organizing. 
The most interesting explanation centres on rural workers perceiving unionization as a less effective way to improve their lot in life than the other strategies available to them. .


-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, March 2, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Leaving on a Jet Plane

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture looks at “Leaving on jet plane” by John Denver (although the Peter, Paul and Mary cover of the song is the most famous version). The song chronicles the emotional strain associated with migrant work (presumably Denver’s travelling as a musician).
All my bags are packed I'm ready to go
I'm standin' here outside your door
I hate to wake you up to say goodbye
But the dawn is breakin' it's early morn
The taxi's waitin' he's blowin' his horn
Already I'm so lonesome I could die
While there is a growing body of literature about the shift of social reproductive responsibilities and family strain caused by employment-related geographic mobility, the emotional stress on such workers is under-researched.

There are lots of versions of the song available. I picked this one because it is an interesting duet with Cass Elliot from 1972 (songs starts at 1:55). Her voice immediately situates the song in the late 1960s and early 1970s.



All my bags are packed I'm ready to go
I'm standin' here outside your door
I hate to wake you up to say goodbye
But the dawn is breakin' it's early morn
The taxi's waitin' he's blowin' his horn
Already I'm so lonesome I could die

So kiss me and smile for me
Tell me that you'll wait for me
Hold me like you'll never let me go
Cause I'm leavin' on a jet plane
Don't know when I'll be back again
Oh baby, I hate to go

There's so many times I've let you down
So many times I've played around
I tell you now, they don't mean a thing
Every place I go, I'll think of you
Every song I sing, I'll sing for you
When I come back, I'll bring your wedding ring

So kiss me and smile for me
Tell me that you'll wait for me
Hold me like you'll never let me go
Cause I'm leavin' on a jet plane
Don't know when I'll be back again
Oh babe, I hate to go

Guitar Solo

Now the time has come to leave you
One more time let me kiss you
Close your eyes I'll be on my way
Dream about the days to come
When I won't have to leave alone
About the times, I won't have to say

So kiss me and smile for me
Tell me that you'll wait for me
Hold me like you'll never let me go
Cause I'm leavin' on a jet plane
Don't know when I'll be back again
Oh baby, I hate to go

Cause I'm leavin' on a jet plane
Don't know when I'll be back again
Oh baby, I hate to go

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Research: Reproductive freedom among migrant workers

Alternative Routes just published a new article entitled ‘Bodies and boarders: Migrant women farmworkers and struggle for sexual and reproductive justice in British Columbia, Canada’. This paper examines the experiences of female migrant farm workers under the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP).

The crux of the article is that the structural features of the SAWP mean that female workers have difficulty making choices about their bodies and sexuality. These structural factors include “…include precarious legal status, poverty, lack of access to primary care services, limited knowledge of the health care system, and workplace insecurity” (p. 92). Workers' sexuality is also subject to intense surveillance (by both their employers and the state), although this surveillance does not seem to prevent their sexual harassment.

The authors document numerous acts of resistance (e.g., rule breaking, speaking out, various forms of concerted action) as these workers assert their reproductive rights. That said, it is striking how these women’s ability to control their bodies is constrained in a country that, at least theoretically, upholds women’s right to make free choices about sexuality and health care.

Among the strategies advocated by the authors are educating health care providers about the unique power relationship that exists in the SAWP program, ensuring workers can (and now they can) access the public health-care system without undue financial constraint, and severing links between the health-care and immigration systems.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, February 23, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Bread and Roses

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Bread and Roses”. This song has its origins in a speech by Rose Schneiderman, a US suffragette and labour activist from the early of the 20th century. She said:
What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with.
The line “bread and roses” gave rise to a poem and then several songs about workers’ need for not just sustenance, but also dignity. The most famous version is by Judy Collins (or maybe Joan Baez), the arrangement that appeared most recently in the movie Pride.



John Denver also recorded it to a different (more Celtic) melody.



As we go marching, marching in the beauty of the day
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses
For the people hear us singing: “Bread and roses! Bread and roses!”

As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men
For they are women's children, and we mother them again
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient song of bread
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew
Yes, it is bread we fight for - but we fight for roses, too!

As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days
The rising of the women means the rising of the race
No more the drudge and idler — ten that toil where one reposes
But a sharing of life's glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes
Hearts starve as well as bodies;
Bread and roses! Bread and roses!

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Research: How temporary are temporary workers?

Over time, Canada has seen a large increase in the number of temporary migrant workers. In 1996, there were ~53,000 temporary workers in Canada. This number increased to ~310,000 in 2015 (green line).

There are several program streams under which temporary workers can come to Canada. Broadly speaking, these fall into two categories.
  1. The Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program includes live-in caregivers, seasonal agricultural workers, and temporary foreign workers. 
  2. The International Mobility Program (IMP) includes workers who come to Canada under bilateral agreements (e.g., free trade agreements, recent international graduates, etc.)
Over time, there has been a shift with the number of TFW entrants (red line) declining (after a 2009 peak) while the IMP entrants are increasing (blue line). This shift likely reflects the rash of free trade agreements signed b the Harper government.

Statistics Canada has just released a paper entitled “How temporary were Canada’s temporary foreign workers?” The paper examines the length and type of stay of TFWs admitted between 1990 and 2009 and identifies factors associated with these outcomes.

The study does appear to include workers who arrived under IMP streams. A limitation of his study is that it does not account for TFWs who remained in Canada without an authorized work permit.

The crux of the analysis is:
  1. Most TFWs left Canada within 2 years of arrival.
  2. Over time, the proportion of TFWs in Canada 5 and 10 years after first admission has increased over time.
  3. TFWs who stayed in the long term mostly obtained permanent resident status.
The study suggests that patterns in staying reflect both the motives of TFWs and program constraint:
Low-skilled TFWs and individuals from countries with low levels of economic development and social stability may be highly motivated to stay longer or to stay permanently in Canada because they have more to gain from Canada’s standard of living and social and physical environments. In cases such as the [Live-in Caregiver Program], where there was a sure transition pathway to permanent residence, the majority of TFWs chose to stay. Even if limited pathways were available, as in the case of the [Low Skills Pilot], a large share of TFWs were able to stay in Canada. But, when no pathway was offered, as in the case of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program, low-skilled TFWs could only stay as temporary residents or leave (no data are available to estimate how many of these TFWs stayed in Canada as undocumented persons).

On the other hand, high-skilled TFWs and individuals from developed economies may have relatively low motivation to stay in Canada permanently because their skills are sought after internationally. The social and economic gains from transition to permanent residence may not be substantial relative to the gains from returning to the country of origin or moving to other countries…. Consequently, the rates of stay for high-skilled TFWs were low to moderate even though there were more available transition pathways for them than for low-skilled TFWs.
The study concludes that the results are contrary to the common belief that host countries do not exercise adequate control over the duration of migrant worker stays. This conclusion should be accepted with caution due to the exclusion of undocumented workers from its scope.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, February 16, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: Laying Pipe

In honour of Alberta’s efforts to expand the extraction of carbon-dense bitumen (thereby accelerating climate change) by forcing a pipeline through unceded Indigenous lands (so much for a more respectful relationship with Indigenous peoples), this week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Laying Pipe” by David Wilcox.

I can’t really think of a song that better sums up Alberta’s oil and gas industry and the degree to which Alberta's government is beholden to it. On one level, the song is about men working hard in blue-collar jobs (e.g., drilling for oil, installing sewers, making steel) in an industry where everybody they know also works:
My daddy worked construction
My brother too
He got me in the union
I'm payin' my dues
The job is tough and socially disruptive, but it has its rewards (a boy’s gotta eat, after all):
I don't mind working
If the money's okay
I take the night shift
I sleep all day
On another level, the song is a paean to misogyny—which is deeply embedded in the culture of the upstream oil-and-gas industry. The singer has a gold-digging women that he’s gotta keep in sparkly bobbles:
Oh but the woman I love
Has expensive taste
She's never satisfied
The latest things
A diamond ring
A car with an ultra-glide
Why?

Well, so he can get laid. The whole song is really a clumsy metaphor for screwing women (watch the video):
I'm layin' pipe all night long
Layin' pipe
I'm workin' so hard
I'm layin' pipe
All night long
Layin' pipe
To satisfy that woman
As long as one’s getting some, who cares about anything else? Which pretty much sums up Alberta’s efforts to force a pipeline through BC.



My daddy worked construction
My brother too
He got me in the union
I'm payin' my dues

Oh but the woman I love
Has expensive taste
She's never satisfied
The latest things
A diamond ring
A car with an ultra-glide

I work so hard
Payin' for all that stuff
Eight shifts a week
It's never enough

I'm layin' pipe all night long
Layin' pipe
I'm workin' so hard
I'm layin' pipe
All night long
Layin' pipe
To satisfy that woman

I don't mind working
If the money's okay
I take the night shift
I sleep all day

Dust and mud is in my blood
Underground cable in my way
I punch a clock and start my rig
Don't know how deep I might have to dig

I wish I had a million dollars
To buy her everything she needs
She'd only come back for more and more and more and more and more and more and more

I'm layin' pipe
All night long
Layin' pipe
I'm working so hard
I'm layin' pipe
All night long
Layin' pipe
To satisfy that woman

I put the pipe in
I pull it out again
My back is so sore
I can't work much more
I can't get my traction
The ground's too wet
I take a ten minute break
Ah smoke a cigarette
I don't mind the night shift
The cool breeze when the sun goes down
Winter time the ground is hard
Take twice as long to drill down

I'm layin' pipe
All night long
Layin' pipe
I'm working so hard
I'm layin' pipe
All night long
Layin' pipe
To satisfy that woman

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Research: Defying expectations: The case of UFCW 401

My colleague Jason Foster has recently published a book entitled Defying expectations: The case of UFCW 401. You can download the book for free at the link above.

This book examines how UFCW 401 (a very scrappy Alberta union) has navigated the past 20 years. The first three chapters provided a good, accessible, and very interesting history of 401. (This was really an enjoyable read.)

The second half of the book examines UFCW’s transformation in light of what we know about union renewal. The academic argument Foster makes is that union renewal can emerge through contingent decision-making. This deviates somewhat from most of the literature on union renewal, which tends to focus on carefully planned renewal efforts.

The book also opens up the internal workings of 401 somewhat, which is unusual. Unions are typically opaque organizations to outsiders (and often insiders!) and this case provides insight into decision-making, power structures, and the inner thinking (or narratives) that emerge from and then drive behaviour.

UFCW operates in a very centralized way and relies heavily on the mystique of and trust in its president. An important question Foster raises is what happens when Doug O’Halloran eventually retires? Will the growing diversity within the union membership trigger a move towards greater internal democracy? Or will we see another strong (wo)man take over?

Reading about 401 is important for a number of reasons. It is one of the few unions (two?) unions that engages in a meaningful level of organizing and it does so among private sector employers who often resist having exploitative employment practices challenged. It is not afraid to strike and, recently, it has been winning strikes. And UFCW is responding (albeit it in mixed ways) to the growing cultural and linguistic diversity among Alberta workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, February 9, 2018

Labour & Pop Culture: King of the Road

This week’s installment of Labour and Pop Culture is “King of the Road” by Roger Miller. The song is about a hobo who rides the rails and generally enjoys his freedom. There’s not a lot to this song beyond someone who has basically rejected the strictures of capitalist society.

But this rootless lifestyle has become the basis of a huge book series centering on Jack Reacher. A former army MP who travels around the country solving crimes and hooking up, Reacher is the creation of author Lee Child (a pen name for Jim Grant).

Some writers speculate that Reacher (who left the army after downsizing) was inspired by Child’s own sacking from Garanda Television (after which he wrote his first Reacher book). Child’s, a former union rep, hated injustice and perhaps this explains why the itinerant Reacher always wins against the bad guys.



Trailer for sale or rent
Rooms to let fifty cents
No phone no pool no pets
I ain't got no cigarettes
Ah but, two hours of pushing broom
Buys a eight by twelve four bit room
I'm a man of means by no means
King of the road

Third boxcar midnight train
Destination Bangor Maine
Old worn out suit and shoes
I don't pay no union dues
I smoke old stoogies I have found
Short but not too big around
I'm a man of means by no means
King of the road

I know every engineer on every train
All of the children and all of their names
And every handout in every town
And every lock that ain't locked when no one's around
I sing trailers for sale or rent...

Rooms to let fifty cents
No phone no pool no pets
I ain't got no cigarettes
Ah but, two hours of pushing broom
Buys a eight by twelve four bit room
I'm a man of means by no means
King of the road

Trailers for sale or rent
Rooms to let fifty cents
No phone no pool no pets
I ain't got no cigarettes
Ah but, two hours of pushing broom

-- Bob Barnetson

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

More PSE fun at the Labour Board

This post continues yesterday’s examination of the recent spate of PSE applications in front of the Alberta Labour Relations Board (ALRB). The three applications we’ll look at today all of which touch on who is in the academic bargaining unit.

The Post-Secondary Learning Act (PSLA) is a bit unusual in that it gives the employer the right to designate (after consultation with the academic staff association) who is the association. In almost every other bargaining relationship, the composition of the bargaining unit is determined by the ALRB. This reflects that the ALRB (unlike the employer) has no vested interest in terms of who is in and out of the unit.

Bill 17 retained this unusual designation arrangement but allowed unions to appeal employer decision to the ALRB under s.58.6 of the Labour Relations Code. In the past, there was no meaningful right of appeal unless the employer failed to consult and the union went to court.

NORQUEST COLLEGE UFLP
The NorQuest College Faculty Association has filed an unfair labour practice complaint against NorQuest College. The college laid off a number of academic staff members last June. There are two issues here.

First, the union asserts that the manner of the layoffs entailed the employer negotiating directly with the staff members (instead of with the union). According to the union, the employer called the three permanent employees into a meeting. While the union was given notice of the meeting several days before, it was not told the meeting was about layoffs until minutes before the meeting.

After the group meeting, the college simultaneously met with each employee individually. The union, having arranged for only one rep to attend the meeting, could not then cover each of the one-on-one meetings. During these one-on-one meetings, the college required each staff member to sign an agreement in order to get the severance pay that they were due under the collective agreement. The signed agreement precluded the employees from filing a grievance.

The union alleges this process violates s.148(1)(a)(ii) of the Labour Relations Code, which says:
148(1) No employer or employers’ organization and no person acting on behalf of an employer or employers’ organization shall

(a) participate in or interfere with

(ii) the representation of employees by a trade union,
Basically, the employer negotiated with each of the laid off employers individually when it asked hem to sign a release that waiver grievance rights (rights which properly reside with the union).

Second (and here is the designation tie in), the jobs were then re-created as support staff jobs in the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees (AUPE) bargaining unit. According to the union, the employer’s lack of consultation about this move violates the employer’s obligation under the designation provisions of the Post-Secondary Learning Act (which requires consultation). Further, the “new” support-staff positions have higher academic qualifications than the former academic positions and the duties have not changed meaningfully.

Various responses are available on line. This gist is:
College: We need more details.
Union: Here you go, dude.
College: We didn’t do anything wrong (although we did ask the employees to sign the releases and we’ve stopped doing that now).
NORTHERN LAKES COLLEGES: MUSICAL CHAIRS
There are 120ish academic staff at Northern Lakes College and 10 or 11 department chairs. The union is seeking to have the chairs included in the academic staff bargaining unit under s.58.6 of the Code.

The union asserts the chairs have no authority to hire, fire or discipline and thus are not managers (who would traditionally be excluded from a bargaining unit) and also that the college failed to consult the union when it designated chairs out of the unit in 1997.

The college’s response is that the union’s application is premature as the union did not ask the Board to designate the chairs into the unit. Until such time, the college asserts, the ALRB has no jurisdiction and, further, the 1997 designation decision (made under different legislation) is outside of the ALRB’s jurisdiction. Interestingly, some (or all?) of the chairs have written to the Board and be all like, no way, Jose.

KEYANO COLLEGE: BY HOOK OR BY CROOK
Finally, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) has applied to the ALRB to over turn the college’s designation of contract instructors as academic staff. CUPE currently represents non-academic workers at Keyano. CUPE tried to expand its certificate to include a group of 36 unrepresented instructors last summer but lacked support and withdrew its application.

CUPE then tried to over bargain its certificate and have the instructors into their contract but the employer declined this offer. CUPE then continued its organizing efforts only to find that the Board designated all contract instructors into the academic bargaining unit in December.

CUPE alleges that neither CUPE nor the faculty association were consulted and, by failing to consult CUPE, the college’s designation decision violated the PSLA. It is not perfectly clear what remedy CUPE wants, but it looks like they want the designation over turned, presumably so they can continue to organize among this group.

The college argues that it has no obligation to consult with CUPE since CUPE is neither the academic staff association nor a bargaining agent that represents affected members. The faculty association basically falls in line with the employer, advancing two alternative arguments: the collective bargaining met any requirement for consultation and, since CUPE does not represent academic staff, it has no right to consultation under the PSLA. There is also an argument presented that the ALRB cannot review procedural matters in this case, only the substantive decision.

Overall, these applications suggest there is going to be quite a Bill 7 shakedown cruise over the next bit as the parties all get used to the new rules and try to use them to their advantage. One good thing that has come out of Bill 7 is that there is now a clear and timely process by which unfair labour practices and other issues can be resolved.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

ALRB hearing on U of L bargaining units

In the spring of 2017, Alberta passed Bill 17 (An Act to Enhance Post-Secondary Bargaining), which brought significant changes to the collective bargaining in Alberta’s post-secondary education (PSE) sector. At the time, the biggest change was shifting the way bargaining impasse was resolved from interest arbitration to strike-lockout.

Bill 17 also gave workers and their unions rights under the Labour Relations Code. Not surprisingly, there is now a spate of applications before the Alberta Labour Relations Board (ALRB) that centre on who is in and out of the bargaining unit (colloquially called "designation").

Today I’m going to look at the situation at the University of Lethbridge (U of L). I’ll look at the other applications tomorrow.

The University of Lethbridge Faculty Association (ULFA) has applied to the ALRB for a determination about whether it must negotiate one collective agreement (for all of its members) or (as the U of L contends) two agreements (one for 480 regular faculty and one for 120ish sessionals). There are other subsidiary issues in the application but this is the crux of the dispute.

The U of L likely wants to bargain these groups separately in order to reduce the strike power of the staff and drive rollbacks. ULFA, of course, has the opposite interests. ULFA hinges its assertion that there is a single bargaining unit on s.58.3(1)(c) of the Labour Relations Code, which states:
58.3(1) For the purposes of this Act, 
(c) the academic staff association of a public post-secondary institution is, subject to the future effects of the application of Divisions 4 to 9 under section 58.2(2), the bargaining agent for the academic staff of the public post-secondary institution and has exclusive authority to bargain collectively on behalf of the academic staff and to bind them by a collective agreement.
The U of L makes a lengthy set of arguments based mainly on traditional labour-relations considerations about bargaining units and is trying to get the sessionals placed in a separate unit (or at least forced to negotiate separately).

I suspect at hearing (scheduled for February 12-13) that the U of L’s arguments will founder on the language of the Code, which makes the academic staff association “the bargaining agent for academic staff” which can bind “the academic staff” to “a collective agreement”. All of this is written in the singular which is tough language for the U of L to argue around.

Despite the scheduled hearing to resolve these issues, last week the U of L served notice to bargain just the sessional unit on ULFA. The notice to bargain opens virtually every article affecting sessionals (except wages and a few others). Both the act of serving notice and the scope of bargaining appears like a fairly aggressive move to me.

It is not really clear why the U of L would act this way--I suspect it is about money and grinding cost out of the sessional contract. All of the PSEs are in some financial distress due to the government's tuition freeze and limited grant increases after decades of underfunding by the Tories.

That said, the U of L has become increasingly aggressive with ULFA over the past two years. The most public dispute has been the case of professor Tony Hall (whose views are pretty reprehensible). The meta-narrative is that the university was heavy handed, did not respect its collective agreement (including basic natural-justice principles like due process), and, after legally bungling the whole matter and spending a bunch of dough of lawyers, had to eat a bunch of crow.

The facts are that, in late 2016, the U of L suspended Hall without pay pending an investigation into accusations of anti-Semitism. The manner of the suspension violated Hall’s rights to due process under the collective agreement and ULFA grieved, seeking to send the matter to arbitration. The U of L denied that the collective agreement applied and stalled appointing an arbitrator. 

In January 2017, the U of L also filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission but reinstated Hall’s pay. It is unclear what the status of this complaint it (these take years to resolve) but, as this blog post suggests, it is unlikely to end well for the U of L. Given Hall's behaviour, I expect we'll hear about the conclusion at length.

Things then got procedurally messy and the matter ended up in court (if you care, you can read the facts in the QB decision). In September, 2017, the Court of Queen’s Bench summarily dismissed the U of L’s application to further stall the appointment of an arbitrator.

In November, 2017, Hall’s suspension was lifted and ULFA and the U of L indicated the matter will be dealt with within the scope of the collective agreement (which is what should have happened in the first place). So good work there, U of L... .

-- Bob Barnetson