Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Paid sick leave and cost transfers

Last week, the Toronto Star ran a story about how lack of paid sick leave provisions affects workers health. Currently, Ontario workers are entitled to unpaid sick leave, although employers with fewer than 50 workers (i.e., most employer) aren’t required to provide any such leave.

This leaves 1.6 million Ontario workers with no access to employer-paid sick leave. Many must keep working (to the detriment of their health) in order to pay their bills:
What began as a scrape quickly festered into a hand infection, a wound that would have easily healed if the low-wage Toronto dishwasher didn’t have to keep dunking it in dirty water. But without access to a paid sick day, Dr. Kate Hayman says her patient had no option but to keep working.
One way to look at this arrangement is as a cost transfer. Employers who don’t provide paid sick days, transfer the cost of injuries and illness (often the result of work) onto workers, who will work while sick and often become more sick. 

This, in turn, transfers costs to the taxpayers, who must fund medical services for these (now) sicker workers, workers who must often access care through expensive acute-care facilities because they cannot take time off to visit a medical clinic during normal working hours.

Workers in Alberta are in a similar boat as employers are not required to provide paid sick leave. Many will, but those who don’t are often (in my experience) the employers of the most vulnerable workers. Employers don't need to directly pressure these workers to work while sick--the low wages paid by the worker do this for the employer. Further, while employers cannot legally terminate workers for being sick, most workers have no meaningful remedy if an employer does do.

There is also a gendered dimension to this. Women are disproportionately responsible for child- and elder-care. While there are statutory provisions and financial support (via Employment insurance) for providing care in the cases of serious illness, there is no statutory recognition of the day-to-day challenges when a parent falls at the grocery store and bangs his head or a child comes down with the flu. The financial and career costs of managing these family responsibilities often fall to women.

It may be time for Alberta to consider remedying these gaps in the legislation through paid sick leave and family responsibility leave.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, March 25, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Coal Miner's Daughter

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Coal Miner’s Daughter” by Loretta Lynn. The song is essentially autobiographical, telling the tale of Lynn’s experiences growing up in the grinding poverty of a coal town.

As I’ve been working through my list of “songs about work” (now sitting at 250), I’m surprised by how many touch on mining (and specifically coal mining). It is easily the most written about industry.

I’m not sure what that is about. Perhaps it reflects the lengthy history of coal mining (spanning the beginning of the industrial revolution to today), the dangers of mining, and the central place that mining plays in the history of many towns (where everyone would work for the mine, directly or indirectly).

One of the more interesting articles I’ve read about Lynn comes from her own website and examines how she broke ground by singing about the experiences of marginalized populations:
“She is telling the tale that a million other Appalachian American people never got to tell about their own life story, and how beautiful of a thing when someone who is in a position of power can relate a story for people who don’t have a voice.” 
…With songs like “The Pill,” and “One’s on the Way,” Loretta Lynn broke ground by speaking honestly from a woman’s perspective. White sees Lynn as the “ultimate feminist songwriter.”

“She told me 14 of her songs had been banned by country radio over the years,” White says. “And you know if you have your music banned, it’s probably got some deeper cultural meaning.”
Perhaps, then, hearing songs that recognize experiences of marginalization also helps explain the enduring musical legacy of coal. Someone has married the song with clips from the movie by the same name (below). This saves you having to sit through the film, which I recall as thoroughly depressing.

Well I was born the coal miner's daughter in a cabin on a hill in Butcher Holler
We were poor but we had love that's the one thing that daddy made sure of
He shovel coal to make a poor man's dollar

My daddy worked all night in the Vanleer coal mine all day long in the field hoein' corn
Mommie rocked the baby that night and read the Bible by the coal oil light
And everything would start all over come break of morn

Daddy loved and raised eight kids on a miner's pay
Mommie scrubbed our clothes on a washboard everyday
Why I've seen her fingers bleed to complain there was no need
She's smiled in mommie's understanding way

In the summertime we didn't have shoes to wear
But in the wintertime we'd all get a brand new pair
From a mail order catalog money made by selling a hog
Daddy always managed to get the money somewhere

Yeah I'm proud to be a coal miner's daughter
I remember well the well where I drew water
The work we done was hard at night we'd sleep cause we were tired
I never thought I'd ever leave the Butcher Holler

But a lots of things have changed since the way back then
And it's so good to be back home again
Not much left but the floor nothing lives there anymore
Just the mem'ries of a coal miner's daughter

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Pay equity legislation in Alberta

Two Tuesdays ago was International Women’s Day and two interesting reports were released. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Oxfam released “Making Women Count: The Unequal Economics of Women’s Work”. This report asserts that gender inequality is an important contributory factor to economic inequality. The nub of the report is this:
Education alone is not sufficient to overcome discrimination in wages and employment; clearly other forces are at play. Key among them are the distribution of unpaid work, the undervaluing of work in predominantly female fields, the concentration of men and women in different fields of work, and the often unspoken social norms that see men offered higher wages and rates of promotion than women from the very beginning of their working lives. (p. 2)
This led nicely into a Parkland Institute report that examines what Alberta can do about gender-based economic inequality. “Equal Worth: Designing Effective Pay Equity Laws for Alberta” follows up on a 2015 report entitled “The Alberta Disadvantage: Gender, Taxation and Income Inequality.” Alberta has the largest gendered income gap (41%) in Canada.

Alberta’s human rights laws precludes discrimination on the basis of gender (i.e., you cannot pay male and female servers different wages). But Alberta has no laws requiring employers to pay workers the same wage for work of equal worth such as pipefitters and child-care workers. (Note I just made up that example; it may not be accurate). This matter because of the gendered segregation of Alberta’s labour force (i.e., there often are not male wages to offer comparators in some occupations.

The Parkland report takes a holistic look at wage inequity and makes a number of recommendations to enable women to achieve economic parity with men. These include affordable childcare, pay equity legislation and workplace practices, and tax reform. The report does a good job of explaining the ripple effect of lower wages for women through various aspects of their lives in ways that basically mean women earn about half of what men do.

The report also does a good job of unpacking what pay equity laws might looks like. This provides a useful yardstick for evaluating whatever policies or legislation the Status of Women Ministry may eventually enact. Section 5 of the report also examines how federal and provincial tax structures create a disincentive for women to participate in employment, one that might be attenuated by access to low-cost daycare (an important plank in the New democrats’ election platform).

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, March 18, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Wisconsin

This week’s installment of Labor & Pop Culture is “Wisconsin” by Whitehorse. It was released in 2012 and is about Wisconsin’s 2011 Act 10 (the so-called Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill). This bill sought to address the state’s $3.6B deficit by cutting public services, public service wages and healthcare and retirement benefits as well as restrict collective bargaining.

The Bill was remarkable for its attack on public-sector collective bargaining rights.
Total wage increases could not exceed a cap based on the consumer price index (CPI) unless approved by referendum. Contracts would be limited to one year and wages would be frozen until the new contract is settled.

Collective bargaining units are required to take annual votes to maintain certification as a union. Employers would be prohibited from collecting union dues and members of collective bargaining units would not be required to pay dues. … 
Local law enforcement and fire employees, and state troopers and inspectors would be exempt from these changes.
Home-care, child-care, health-care and university professors also lost the right to bargain. It is interesting to contrast this response to a deficit with Alberta’s current response (which is to maintain funding for core public services). And, in this sitting of the legislature, the government is also expected to extend the right to strike to public-sector workers (following a Supreme Court ruling on a Saskatchewan case).

They're bustin' unions in Wisconsin
We got mojitos by the pool
We got a talent for distraction
No reaction to the colic and the cruel

They're sinking battleships at midnight
We change the channel on a dime
When they break to a commercial, dress rehearsal
In our catatonic prime

Time is moving on
There's no marching band
Just some fuzzed out credits
Names of strangers
And a night cap in your hand

They're digging ditches in Zuccotti
We're getting famous by the hour
All our pirates are Johnny not Somali
Trading bad seeds for flowers

Everybody's got a ticket and a backstage pass
Everybody's going somewhere, someday
Even the mighty, they won't last

Night I had a dream... you were there
Weaving through the burrows
Down the highline
With daisies in your hair

They're bustin' unions in Toronto

I'm coming down from wishful thinking and the like
I'm sober as a judge
But the jury's out...
Drinking tonight

They're bustin' unions in Wisconsin
And praising Jesus in the schools
They keepin' science in the basement
Speaking tongues and making fools

-- Bob Barnetson

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Affordable child care and public-sector strikes

Two interesting pieces out of the Parkland Institute this week. This first is an op-ed by the Parkland's executive director expanding upon the importance of affordable child care for wage equity. I will have more on the Parkland report it is based upon next week.

The second is a short analysis of the likely effect of Alberta's new essential services legislation that I wrote. The crux is that Alberta providing most public-sector workers with the right to strike is unlikely to dramatically alter public sector bargaining.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Sexist dress codes and the OHS perils of breastaurants

A few weeks ago, several major chain restaurants came under scrutiny for sexist dress codes. Basically female servers were expected to wear sexualized clothing (such as that pictured to the right). The servers' comments about their employers' dress codes were pretty scathing.
"The dress is so tight that you can see your underwear through it," says a current employee of Joey Restaurants, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job. 
"I was often told that I needed to show more skin. I was 17 years old. No 17-year-old should be getting in trouble for not showing enough skin," another woman said.
Earl’s responded to this negative publicity by modifying its dress code to allow female servers to wear pants (wow--way to jump into 1980, Earl's!). While many online commentators have been dismissive of this issue, there s good research to suggest that restaurants that sexualize female servers are causing them harm.

A 2015 study entitled “Linking Sexually Objectifying Work Environments among Waitresses to Psychological and Job-Related Outcomes” examined the work health effects of women who work in restaurants that require female servers to wear revealing or body-accenting clothing.

These restaurants, called “breastaurants” in the article, create environments where the servers are sexually objectified as part of their work. The sexualization occurs in the hiring selection process (picking stereotypically “attractive” women), mandated uniform requirements (tight-fitting or revealing clothing), and regulated behaviour toward customers (expectations of flirtatious friendliness).

The study, a survey of 300 waitresses, finds servers in these types of restaurant experience greater rates of unwanted comments and sexual advances than workers in other restaurants. It also finds the work environment results in negative psychological and vocational health outcomes, such as an increased incidence of depression arising from feelings of powerlessness, ambivalence, and self-blame.

This study is one that Jason Foster and I examine in our forthcoming textbook (Health and safety in Canadian workplaces) as an example of psychosocial hazards and how employer choices about the structure of employment can give rise to harm.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, March 11, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Blackhawk

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is EmmyLou Harris’ “Blackhawk”. This is a song a Facebook friend suggested and one I hadn’t heard before.

On the surface, it is a melancholy look back at the lives of two working class Canadians in Hamilton (which is where the Dofasco steel mill is located). The most evocative bit of lyric is this:
Hold on to your aching heart
I'll wipe the liquor from your lips
A small town hero never dies
He fades a bit and then he slips
Down into the blast furnace
In the heat of the open hearth
And at the punch clock, he remembers
Blackhawk and the white winged dove
So what has happened here? Obviously something happened to Blackhawk. But whether it was a literal slip into a blast furnace or some sort of nod to spiritual death due to the unrelenting nature of the work, is a bit unclear.

I’m more inclined to the “grind” explanation as the song continues to talk about raising kids and being in the arms of the union. Perhaps it is about the death of idealism and hope, helped along by industrial work in a dying industry?

Well, I work the double shift
In a bookstore on St. Clair
While he pushed the burning ingots
In Dofasco stinking air
Where the truth bites and stings
I remember just what we were
As the noon bell rings for
Blackhawk and the white winged dove

Hold on to your aching heart
I'll wipe the liquor from your lips
A small town hero never dies
He fades a bit and then he slips
Down into the blast furnace
In the heat of the open hearth
And at the punch clock, he remembers
Blackhawk and the white winged dove

I remember your leather boots
Pointing up into the sky
We fell down to our knees
Over there where the grass grew high
Love hunters in the night
Our faces turned into the wind
Blackhawk, where are you know?
Blackhawk and the white winged dove

We were Blackhawk
And the white winged dove
We were Blackhawk
And the white winged dove

Do you still have the ring I gave
On the banks of Lake Black Bear?
Where I felt certain that I knew you
My cool and distant debonair
Now we drink at Liberty Station
Another cup of muscatel
Wrapped in the strong arms of the Union

Raisin' kids from raisin' hell
I remember your leather boots
Pointing up into the sky
We fell down to our knees
Over there where the grass grew high
Love hunters in the night
Our faces turned into the wind
Blackhawk, where are you know?
Blackhawk and the white winged dove

We were Blackhawk
And the white winged dove
We were Blackhawk
And the white winged dove
We were Blackhawk
And the white winged dove
We were Blackhawk
And the white winged dove
We were Blackhawk
And the white winged dove
We were Blackhawk
And the white winged dove.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Individual rights claims as disguised collective action

As the video above suggests, there are many kinds of power in the workplace. Some is based upon authority and the ability to officially levy punishment. And some is based upon skill and the ability to throw a spanner in the works.

Over time, workers have developed different strategies to exert power. The most often discussed on is through unionism. Employers and the state have both acted to constrain this power. The state has limited the ability of Canadian workers to seek redress for grievances through strikes (strikes are legally limited to contract renewal disputes). Employers have limited workers’ power through various union evasion and busting tactics.

Something we don’t hear much about are the strategies that vulnerable workers use to advance their interests. An interesting article in Comparative Political Studies entitled “Disguised Collective Action in China” was published a few weeks ago.

The author looks at how Chinese workers (who face repression for collectively organizing) nonetheless manage to act collectively. Basically, civil society groups secretly teach workers how to advance individual claims against employers who have acted wrongfully. Such groups can emerge from existing kinship, religious, friendship, cultural, or other networks which can be hard to employers and the state to “see”.

In aggregate, individual rights claims can be powerful because they strike at the moral authority of employers and the state (i.e., “you made rules and you are not following them”). They can also be powerful because of the resource drain they entail on employers. And such actions also largely eliminate the risk associated with collective protests (e.g., strikes and other forms of collective disruption).

Obviously there are weaknesses with this approach. Individual claims can be turned aside or evaded. Workers are always reacting to employer attacks. But employers sometimes make policy changes in the face of such action. And, faced with state-employer repression of collective action, such a strategy may be an effective option.

For example, while Alberta is about to allow farm workers to unionize, it is unlikely many farm workers will join unions and farm workers are not likely to be subject to many organizing drives. Unions seeking to help farm workers might well better spent their energies developing “how-to” kits and workshops for farm workers to exercise their statutory workplace rights. These kits might include not just the mechanics of how to file a claim, but some discussion of how to maximize the effectiveness of such a claim through tactical choices.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, March 4, 2016

Labour & Pop Culture: Speed Up

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is Maria Dunn’s “Speed Up”, a folk song about work in Edmonton’s (now defunct) GWG clothing factory. The Royal Alberta Museum has a brief overview of the history of the factory, one that largely ignores the effect of automation on the workers and only tangentially touches upon the workers’ experiences as immigrants and union members.

By contrast, the Aspen Foundation for Labour Education has built a very interesting curriculum around the GWG experience for social studies teachers. This includes a recording of an hour-long performance that combines video of GWG workers with the Sings of Maria Dunn. https://youtu.be/NvRJ3HCa0N8

“Speed up” is one of the songs from the production. The most interesting part (lyrically) of the song is how the worker understands that the employer is constantly increasing the pace of work:
Now that I’ve gotten good and fast
They’ve upped the ante for my task
Yet the worker accepts this (perhaps because she has no choice) as the price of getting by and building a better future for her children:
Come weekend, it’s another race
Another job, another pace
Each dollar more a saving grace
To bring my family to this place

I’ll tell you how the work went – speedup, speedup, speedup
Not one second was misspent – speedup, speedup, speedup
My fingers nimble, face intent – speedup, speedup, speedup
I’d like to see you try it friend – speedup, speedup, speedup

Now that I’ve gotten good and fast
They’ve upped the ante for my task
Each time I get ahead, they’re back
To raise the bar and stretch the slack

Each extra inch seems like a mile
So bundles take a bit of guile
You snatch the small size with a smile
It’s “head down” for another while

Come weekend, it’s another race – keep up, keep up, keep up
Another job, another pace – keep up, keep up, keep up
Each dollar more a saving grace – keep up, keep up, keep up
To bring my family to this place – keep up, keep up, keep up

My husband, I—we’re healthy, young
Still, who knows what we’re running on
We pass each other the baton
When one comes home, the other’s gone

Sometimes I need a little cry
All I do’s just scraping by
For making friends, there’s little time
It’s “head down” for another while

Each pocket, seam and bottom hem
I’ve sewn for my children
I watch them grow and know for them
It’s worth it all in the end

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

OHS and the porn industry

California is examining its health and safety regulations and held a hearing to discuss their applicability to the adult film industry. The New York Times report on the issue mocked the workers (for example, noting they arrived fully clothed and repeatedly commenting on their outfits) despite the real health risks faced by workers in the industry. There some interesting aspects to this report.

First, the actors note that, if the proposed rules (which include rubber gloves and eye protection) are enacted and enforced, the industry will decamp to Nevada—costing California up to a billion dollars per year in GDP. It is notable that the actors are making (or at least conveying) this threat, rather than employers.

Second, California’s review panel acknowledged that it it already had unenforced regulations for the industry.
“You are already required to wear condoms; you’re just not doing it,” Dave Thomas, the chairman of the work safety board, said Thursday. “That’s the law. It’s just not being enforced.”
The screamingly obvious questions (not taken up by the author) are why aren’t the regulations being enforced and what is the logic behind creating additional regulations (absent enforcement)?

Third, while OHS on adult films is outside of my area of research interest, there have been numerous popular and academic articles about the degree to which employers and worker cooperate to minimize the risk of sexually transmitted diseases. Interestingly, other occupations (MMA fighters, garbage collectors) face similar health risks without the same degree of regulatory interest.

-- Bob Barnetson