Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Employers whine about first OHS review in 41 years

Last week, Alberta announced a review of its occupational health and safety system. Alberta has not done a comprehensive review of its OHS system since it was created in 1976. 

Not surprisingly, employers representatives (such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses) were quick to whine about the government reviewing whether it is possible to make workplaces safer and reduce injuries and fatalities for the first time in 41 years. 


According to the government press release:
The review will examine the OHS Act, as well as compliance, enforcement, education, engagement and prevention efforts in Alberta’s OHS system. It will also clarify employer and worker responsibilities, improve worker engagement and maintain Alberta’s strong focus on illness and injury prevention.
There is both a discussion paper and an online survey. Opportunities to submit feedback close on October 16. The discussion paper hints that mandatory joint health and safety committee and greater government enforcement are under consideration. The paper also suggests a need to create (and disseminate) more robust data about occupational injury.

Based on what we have seen from Alberta’s government so far, it is likely that the whatever OHS changes occur will be along the lines of bringing Alberta’s legislation back into the Canadian mainstream. Some specific issues we may see swept into these changes include violence (or, at least, robbery) prevention in gas stations and convenience stores, anti-harassment provisions, and OHS regulations for farm and ranch workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, August 18, 2017

Labour & Pop: Electric Avenue

This week’s installment in Labour & Pop Culture features “Electric Avenue” by Eddy Grant. The song refers to rioting in April of 1981 in the Brixton area of London. The local community (predominantly of African or Caribbean descent) faced significant economic troubles and racism. Rioting broke out in April and left hundreds (mostly cops) injured as well as significant property damage.

The song talks about the terrible conditions and frustrations faced by the residents of Brixton:
Workin' so hard like a soldier
Can't afford a thing on TV
Deep in my heart I'm a warrior
Can't get food for them kid, good God
The chorus promises to “Rock down to Electric Avenue/And then we’ll take it higher”. Electric Avenue was the first place with electric street lights in Brixton (although not a site of significant rioting). Taking it higher refers to the need for the poor to protest in the neighbourhoods of the rich, rather than trashing their own communities.

I first heard this song in 1984. We used to make a summer trek from northeastern BC to the homeland (Saskatchewan) each year. Often my mother would buy a new cassette tape for the van for the trip. She ran into Zellers to get a copy of Eddie Rabbit’s new tape (he was a folk singer) but got confused and bought Electric Avenue. Several hundred kilometers later, hilarity ensued.



Boy
Boy

Down in the street there is violence
And a lots of work to be done
No place to hang out our washing
And I can't blame all on the sun, oh no

We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue
And then we'll take it higher
Oh we gonna rock down to Electric Avenue
And then we'll take it higher

Workin' so hard like a soldier
Can't afford a thing on TV
Deep in my heart I'm a warrior
Can't get food for them kid, good God

We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue
And then we'll take it higher
Oh we gonna rock down to Electric Avenue
And then we'll take it higher

Oh no
Oh no
Oh no
Oh no

Who is to blame in one country
Never can get to the one
Dealin' in multiplication
And they still can't feed everyone, oh no

We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue
And then we'll take it higher
Oh we gonna rock down to Electric Avenue
And then we'll take it higher

Out in the street
Out in the street
Out in the daytime
Out in the night

We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue
And then we'll take it higher
Oh we gonna rock down to Electric Avenue
And then we'll take it higher

Out in the street
Out in the street
Out in the playground
In the dark side of town

We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue
And then we'll take it higher
Oh we gonna rock down to Electric Avenue
And then we'll take it higher

We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue
And then we'll take it higher, Electric Avenue
We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue
And then we'll take it higher, Electric Avenue

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Store design puts profit ahead of safety

Four workers sustained minor injuries on Saturday when several sets of shelves at a Windsor Plywood in Edmonton collapsed domino-style. The shelving units were six feet wide, up to 20 feet tall, and full of thousands of pounds of lumber. It is something of a miracle that no one was killed by the shelf collapse.

It is unclear what caused the shelves to tip over. One employee reported a worker had leaned a ladder against a unit, causing it to topple over and creating a cascading effect. I’m surprised this would cause a shelving unit to topple. Most shelves are bolted down. My first thought was a forklift error would be the only way to generate enough force to topple a shelf.

The employees told reporters that the shelves were not bolted to the floor. This is surprising given that the tipiness of shelving units is a well know hazard (hell, IKEA gives you anchors if you buy a bedroom dresser taller than three feet!). Dave Greenfield, the owner of the store, asserts the shelves were bolted down. Perhaps there were unusual circumstances at play (e.g., structural weakness plus the force of the ladder). We’ll have to wait (likely a year or more) for the OHS report to come out.

The media coverage focused mostly on the event and the proximate cause of the incident (i.e., employee on ladder). It is worthwhile giving some thought to the root causes of this incident. The crush hazard in this store was ultimately created by the employer’s decision to stack stock on high shelves (a common practice in DIY stores). 


The reason employers do this is to maximize their profitability: the entire store becomes retail space with excess stock stored above the shoppers and workers (instead of in a separate stockroom space). The risk this employer choice creates for workers (and shoppers) is (normally) attenuated by bolting the shelves down, restricting access to aisles when overhead work is underway, and providing appropriate training for workers using rolling ladders and forklifts to access the stock.

But none of these strategies would be as effective at reducing the risk of workers and shoppers being crushed to death as would limiting shelf height to six or eight feet. Employers, of course, aren't prepared to double their square footage to create an adequate stockroom space in the back of the store. And, in doing so, they choose to trade their workers’ health for greater profitability.

It will be interesting to see the OHS report and (depending on the facts) whether Alberta chooses to fine or prosecute the employer for their stocking practices.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, August 11, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Dump the Bosses Off Your Back

This week’s installment in Labour & Pop Culture features “Dump the Boss Off Your Back” by Utah Philips.

This is an old IWW song from a live album in 1984 (I think set to the music of “What a friend we have in Jesus”). There is a lengthy preamble that is worth a listen to as it identifies how blame of inequity is manipulated.

The lyrics are surprisingly direct (to my ears, anyhow) such as “All the agonies you suffer/You can end with one good whack”.



Are you poor, forlorn and hungry?
Are there lots of things you lack ?
Is your life made up of misery?
Then dump the bosses off your back.

Are your clothes all patched and tattered ?
Are you living in a shack ?
Would you have your troubles scattered ?
Then dump the bosses off your back.

Are you almost split asunder?
Loaded like a long-eared jack?
Boob - why don't you buck like thunder,
And dump the bosses off your back ?

All the agonies you suffer
You can end with one good whack
Stiffen up, you orn'ry duffer
And dump the bosses off your back.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Research: Safety audits don't predict injury

An interesting new article out of Ontario has appeared in the Journal of Safety Research entitled “Developing leading indicators from OHS management audit data: Determining the measurement properties of audit data from the field.”

The crux of the article is that OHS safety audits (which are a tool used in Alberta) don’t have much ability to predict future workers’ compensation claims (claims being a proxy for injury).

Safety audits have long been mooted as possible leading indicators of occupational injuries.
An OHS management audit is used to evaluate the state of a workplace's management structure and processes related to OHS. It determines whether an organization is conforming with a particular standard, such as its own policies and procedures, applicable legislation and regulations, or another standard external to the organization (p.2)
The author’s key hypothesis was safety audit compliance should be inversely related to workers’ compensation lost time claims. Basically, higher compliance scores on the audit should make workplaces safer and thus lower the rate of serious, compensable injuries.

Most of the firms in the sample had very high audit scores. This, the authors suggest. May be an indication of auditor bias towards passing firms (in interesting finding in itself).

The most interesting finding was that, overall, there was no statistically significant relationship between audit scores and claims records (although with enough parsing of the data some relationships could be found). The authors moot that the most likely explanations for the lack of a relationship were “audit score is reflective of recent preparation for the audit and not of true implementation, and… annual claim count data have a large amount of measurement error” (p. 9).

This reflects my own suspicion that safety audits are basically paperwork exercises that have little effect on actual operations and that claims data is an inadequate measure of injury. The upshot is that OHS audits do not, at present, show much hope as leading indicators and should not be viewed as meaningful measures of organizational OHS performance.

-- Bob Barnetsona

Friday, August 4, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: 1632

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture examines the novel 1632 by Eric Flint. Last fall, Mark McCutcheon and I published an article about the absence of trade unions in science fiction and this is last of the examples of unions I sci-fi that I’ll delve into.

In 1632, Flint throws a small modern–day Appalachian mining town back in time to the middle of Europe’s 30 Years War. A historian and labour activist, Flint gives the local chapter of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) an important political role in the story—providing an organizing structure, principles and leadership cadre as the characters cope with the violent and autocratic world they face.

The selection of an emergency management committee pits former CEO John Simpson against local union leader Mike Stearns:
He [Mike] forced Simpson away from the microphone with his own equivalent of assertive self-confidence. And if Mike's aura carried less of authority, and more of sheer dominance, so much the better. 
"I agree with the town council's proposal," he said forcefully. Then, even more forcefully: "And I completely disagree with the spirit of the last speaker's remarks." 
Mike gave Simpson a glance, lingering on it long enough to make the gesture public. “We haven't even got started, and already this guy is talking about downsizing.” 
The gymnasium was rocked with a sudden, explosive burst of laughter. Humor at Mike's jest was underlain by anger. The crowd was made up, in its big majority, of working class people who had their own opinion of “downsizing.” An opinion which, unlike the term itself, was rarely spoken in euphemisms.
The displaced mining town introduces several democratizing strategies to the early modern society in which it finds itself, strategies like “committees of correspondence” that disseminate democratic principles and distribute social services such as food, education, protection to citizens in adjacent cities, thus creating a democratic insurgency in otherwise autocratic states.

While 1632 frames unionization as a way to democratize society by undermining existing power structures and hierarchies, the ultimate goal of these actions is to facilitate a transition to industrial capitalism to bolster Grantville’s sole strategic advantage in the 17th century. In this way, the progressive social role of unionization identified with enlightened modernity (not to mention American patriotism). Alternative forms of organization (such as co-operatives and credit unions) are hardly mentioned anywhere in the book series and only in passing.

1632 creates an alternative universe wherein trade unions are considered normal and undertake constructive, progressive social functions: the democratic principles and processes that underlie trade unionism become a model for democratizing an autocratic society. That said, 1632 valorizes an avidly capitalistic future, as if capitalism remains an important precondition for political democracy. All Flint’s characters ultimately seek to achieve is to make the political economy of the 17th century world in which they find themselves more amenable to 20th-century middle class values.

You can get a free e-book copy of 1632 on the publisher’s website.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Presentation: Pushing back: How to make Alberta workplaces safer

Anybody seen my hair? Can you check under your tables?
On April 28, I had the chance to make a presentation that Jason Foster and I wrote to 250 OHS delegates at AUPE’s occupational health and safety conference. Attached below is the text.

Pushing back: How to make Alberta workplaces safer
AUPE Occupational Health and Safety Conference, April 28, Edmonton
Jason Foster and Bob Barnetson

You’ve all probably seen a swing-stage scaffold. It's that big long metal platform that they hang over the side of tall buildings when they are washing windows or replacing them. It’s got the ropes and pulleys on either end and usually a little motor and goes up and down?

So it’s Christmas Eve, 2009. And there are six workers repairing balconies on a Toronto high-rise. The men are all newcomers to Canada—from Latvia, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine. And they don’t speak much English. The project supervisor is Vadim Kazenelson. He was on one of the balconies handing the workers tools.

There were only two lifelines on that scaffold. And only one worker was tied off. For some reason, Kazenelson jumped from the balcony onto the scaffold. And the impact caused the scaffold to split in two. Kazenelson managed to climb back onto the balcony. And he pulled up the one worker who was wearing a lifeline.

The other five workers fell 13 stories—more than hundred feet.

Four died. And one was permanently and horrifically injured.

The OHS investigation that followed revealed that the scaffold was faulty. It hadn't been designed or inspected properly by the scaffolding company. And the workers—remember, they didn't speak much English—hadn’t been trained on working at heights or the use of fall protection. And, even if they had, the employer didn’t bother supplying enough lifelines.

During the investigation, Kazenelson tried to cover a lot of stuff up. He gave the worker who was tied on an English-language safety manual (he didn’t read English) and told him to say that Kazenelson had been on the ground when the scaffolding broke.

Six years later, in 2015, prosecutions in the case finally wrapped up. The scaffold supplier got dinged $400k. The construction company employing the men was fined $750k. And Kazenelson got three-and-a-half years in jail.

This case is one of the few instances I’ve seen where a workplace injury resulted in a successful prosecution and jail time. Despite that, I mostly think of this case as an example of how the health and safety system is a failure.

Anyone want to guess why we think the case is an example of a failure?

In my view, the system clearly punished the employers. But mostly the punishment was monetary---and employers treat that as the cost of doing business. The one guy who got jail time was the lowest-ranking supervisor. But, most importantly, the system failed to prevent injury and death. And that’s the actual purpose of an occupational health and safety system.

So you often hear about how Alberta workplaces are getting safer. The injury stats that these claims are based on are deceptive. Employers and governments normally use lost-time claim rates as their main measure of injury. A lost-time claim is an accepted WCB claim where a worker could not go work the next day due to an injury and got wage-loss benefits from the WCB.

Over time, we’ve seen the number of lost-time claims drop significantly. But it’s not clear if that reflects safer workplaces or employers gaming the system—perhaps by pressuring workers not to file claims. Because that lowers employers WCB premiums.

A further problem with lost-time claims is that they only record a small fraction of all injuries. It ignores injuries not accepted by the WCB. It ignores injuries where the worker could go to work but had to have modified duties because they were hurt. It ignores injuries that required a trip to the doctor, but no time off. It ignores all minor injuries and most occupational diseases. And it ignores any time-loss injury that should be reported but wasn’t—which might be 40-70% of all injuries.

Setting aside those concerns about the validity the lost-time claim measures, they still shows us there were 25,000 serious injuries in Alberta last year—injuries so serious that the worker couldn’t go to work the next day. And that tells us that Alberta workplaces are really dangerous. And it also tells us the government’s injury-prevention system doesn't really work: 25,000 serious injuries a year is a catastrophe. There is no other way to view those numbers.

So why is the OHS system broken? Well, the bottom line is it’s designed to fail. The current system is 46 year olds—the same age as me! It started in Saskatchewan in 1971 and was built by Bob Sass. Alberta followed suit in 1973.

The crux of the internal responsibility system is the three safety rights: the rights to know, participate, and refuse. These rights were seen as a huge victory for workers in the 1970. Because, for the first time, they gave us some real ability to address deeply unsafe workplaces.

As a result, workplaces today are safer. There are fewer worker deaths per capita today than there were in the early 1970s. Mind you, we’re still killing the same number of workers each year—there are more workers to spread the deaths across.

The key question we should ask is whether today’s workplaces are safe enough? And 25,000 lost-time claims we saw last year suggests the answer is no. And the reason for this is that the designers of the IRS system made two mistakes that undermine the system’s potential to make workplaces safe.

The first problem is that the system downplays the significance of the power imbalance at work between workers and employers.

The second problem is that the system ignores the motivation and ability of employers to thwart the efforts of workers to make their workplace safer.

Basically the IRS system was designed with the idea that both employers and workers have an equal interest in keeping workers safe. As it turns out, workers are much more interested in safe workplaces than employers are. But workers have much less power to do anything about that than employers do.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying employers are going out, happily hurting their workers. They are human, too, and don’t want to see anyone get hurt. The problem is that employers have other priorities that distract them and shape their decisions about safety.

In the case of private-sector employers, their interest is in profit and productivity. Employers have to profit and fail. And they try to shift costs away from their business. For the public sector, it is productivity and the ongoing pressure to keep costs down so politicians can keep taxes down. These priorities shape how much safety employers want to pay for.

This design flaw has real consequences. For example, we have performed relatively better on acute safety issues over time – preventing slips, falls, that kind of thing. However, we have made absolutely no progress at all on preventing occupational disease.

That’ s because acute injuries have an immediate cost for employers: lost productivity and higher WCB premiums. By contrast, occupational diseases don’t affect employers. Symptoms can take decades to appear. When they do, the workers who are affected are long gone.

In fact, employers are motivated to resist fixing things that cause disease, like exposure to carcinogens, because the fix is usually more expensive for the employer than letting workers get injured. Eliminating hazards or segregating workers from hazards is costly.



So, in practice, employers usually address biological or chemical hazards by equipping workers with personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE is demonstrably less effective at protecting workers than other controls. So why use PPE? Because it’s cheaper. For employers.

Employers’ have also tried to make the system work in their favour by changing the rules of the game. In the 1980s, the governments were pretty active at enforcement—much to the annoyance of employers. And in the 1990s, employers started a vigorous campaign to roll back enforcement. And Ralph Klein was right their with budget cuts to help them. And suddenly we were “partners in safety”, except it was an abusive, one-sided relationship.

The upshot is that today we have about 130 enforcement officers – AUPE members who care a lot about their jobs and the 10,000 inspections they do every year. The problem is that we have 150,000 or more employers in Alberta. So the inspection cycle for your average workplace is once a generation or less. The result is that only the worst and most obvious hazards are dealt with and most employers can do whatever they want. Unless you kill or maim a worker, its unlikely you’ll ever see an OHS inspector on your job site.

Employers have also used their power and influence to shape the nature of OHS regulations. And they use their power in the workplace to curtail worker efforts to do more about safety. So, workplaces are safer now than they were – no question – but they are not safe.

So how do employers get away with that? An important tactic they use is to blame workers for their injuries. This idea that workers are stupid or lazy or careless is everywhere—even in government injury prevention materials. It focuses our attention on workers’ behaviour and the proximate (or immediate) cause of an injury. In doing that, it obscures structural factors that are the root (or real) cause of injury.

Basically, the careless worker myth renders invisible how employers contribute to injuries by designing job to include hazards.

This is a 2008 video the government produced aimed at young workers. There are six of these—we’re going to watch the shoe-store video. It is a touch gory but not too bad. But if that freaks you out, just avert your eyes for 90 seconds. Don’t worry if you can’t hear the audio—just watch the video and story it tells. And ask yourself who is at fault for this injury? And how it could have been prevented?



The message here is pretty clear: the worker wore unsafe shoes, climbed a rickety ladder, over-reached, and fell. What a dummy. Now let’s watch the video again and ask yourself what could the employer have done to prevent that injury. Anyone have some ideas?
  • Ladder: Ladder was employer-supplied equipment that was clearly defective. Employer should have identified this hazard and replaced it. $100 fix
  • Light fixture: Light was unguarded and vulnerable to breakage. Employer should have caged it. $20 fix
  • Stock room: Stock was stacked up high and unstable. Employer likely needed a bigger stock room to lower the stacks and maybe also better shelving. Both of those are costly fixes and trading retail space for stock space reduces sales.
  • Clothing: Worker works in a shoe store so likely faces employer pressure to wear fancy shoes. She’s not going to keep the job if she’s wearing flats with a ladder-safe tread. So the employer could have mandated safer shoes or prohibited ladder work on heels.
  • Working alone: We don’t see this hazard clearly but this worker is likely working alone. So she is vulnerable—if she gets hurt there is no one to call for help and she may also be at greater risk of robbery or assault. The employer should double up staffing. But that doubles labour costs. And tin the minds of employers, that’s “not reasonably practicable”.
The key lesson of the video is that the focus on worker behaviour is so pervasive that even the government blames workers for injuries. The role of employers in causing injuries is rendered invisible. Videos don’t have to be this way. Here is a short Ontario video that covers the same ground:



Note the questions that the injured worker asks about how her employer could have prevented the injury. This video preceded the Alberta video and it shows you how hard Alberta worked to incorporate blaming the worker into its videos.

So this is a pretty gloomy presentation so far! Let’s change tracks and focus on what we can do to make workplaces healthier and safer. The solution starts in the past. We need to take back OHS as a bargaining issue, as an activism issue, and as a political issue.

The laws of the 1970s didn’t just come out of nowhere. Part of the history that I left out – and is usually left out – is that the 1960s were marked with strikes – in some cases wildcats – over safety. Rank and file workers knew work was killing them. Their employers were killing them. And they mobilized to force their employers to do something about it. In Canada, Elliott Lake is the example to look up.

Their unions were, at first, reluctant to do that. But, as Ralph said, smart politicians figure out where the parade is going and get in front. And the unions eventually got on board and started agitating governments for legal changes. That lobbying and pressure resulted in OHS laws and the system we have today. Which aren’t perfect but are agood start.

The problem is that we thought we had won. When really things had just gotten started.

Over the last 40 years, we’ve allowed OHS to become professionalized. There is an entire industry of consultants, safety officers, and technical experts who have emerged to show us how to “be safe”. And a good portion of work is about shifting blame and responsibility from employers—where it belongs—onto workers.

Even in our unions, we’ve delegated safety to a sub-set of our activists and staff. They are without a doubt committed, dedicated, smart people. But they are often left to do their “safety thing” in the corner.

The answer to this is that safety has to become an issue for all of us. And I don’t mean we all have to make sure we work safely – although we do. I mean that agitating and advocating and arguing and fighting for safety needs to become something we all do.

You don’t need to know how to calculate load ratings for harnesses. Or what the toxicological reports say about a chemical. Or the physiological effects of shift work.

You just need to know EVERY job has dangers. And that more can be done to remove those dangers. And then we need to have the determination to work with our co-workers and union brothers and sisters to force the employer to do more.

It is about organizing. And to be honest, that is the only way any worker issue will get fixed. Ever. The clear lesson of labour history is that employers don’t give shit about you. They don’t. So we need to shift the power balance at work so the system works the way Bob Sass intended. And that takes all of us.

Now people—very powerful people—aren’t going to like that.

Think back to the 2013 jail-guard wildcat. There were a lot of issues there, but that was a safety strike. The government came down hard—in part because the escalation of the wildcat strike profoundly challenged the government’s authority.

If the government had gotten a court and directed cops to arrest jail guards and court house staff and the cops had refused, the government would have effectively lost control of the province. That shit makes governments—especially authoritarian governments like the Tories—very angry and very scared.

And, job actions like that also make unions nervous. Union executives don’t like real wildcat strikes because its shows that they don’t have control over their members. Phony wildcats are totally cool. But real ones hints that the exec are in the wrong side of an issue.

Think back to the 1995 laundry worker’s strike in Calgary. That resistance to the Klein cuts got squashed, in part, by the union leaderships. Because an all-out fight wasn’t want the union leadership wanted. In retrospect—as a civil servant—an all-out fight might have been a good thing. Cause the last 20 years have sucked.

It also takes time to build organizational commitment to things like workplace injury. Most of us don’t really want to think about it. It is really uncomfortable to realize that our employer might well be poisoning us. Or exposing us to dangers that could kill us. Or are happy to have managers bully us into working harder. Because how do we fight back? Do we refuse unsafe work? In theory ,the employer can’t punish for that. But the reality is that refusing is a career-limiting move.

One place to start is organizing within bargaining units and work groups around health and safety. Maybe identify a safety issue that is easy for the employer to fix: loose carpet, uncomfortable temperature, noise, lighting.

Ideally you want an issue affecting a popular worker (or everyone) and you wanna have a sympathetic manager. Then build some support for the issue among the work group. Then politely confront the manager with both the problem and the solution. Or, better yet, get the workers to make the pitch.

The report the win back to the workers. A win helps build confidence and commitment. Then pick a harder issue and repeat.

Eventually, the employer’s gonna push back. But, by that time, workers will be used to winning. And they’ll have internalized the ideas that they have a right to a safe workplace and that they have collective power. That’s the time for an escalation: maybe threaten to call OHS or take some very minor job action.

Bringing an issue up every single day, that’s really disruptive. And its upsetting to employers because it confronts them with the fact that they are acting immorally. This isn’t some regulatory violation. They are threatening our health and our lives and that wrong.

Or have the workers do a safety audit. There’s lots of things you can do. The point is to have a plan. Because what you’re building is a culture of injury prevention and empowerment in the workforce—one that’s separate from the tedious management safety crap that we normally have to endure.

This culture is contagious—especially if you start claiming the victories in meetings with other work groups. It builds the kind of support needed for pushing a bigger issue, like a harassing manager or structural hazard.

I think I’m going to stop here and open up the floor. Anyone have experience about improving safety they want to share--a success or a failure. Or maybe you think I’m full of crap and wanna have go? I’m up for that.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, July 28, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Manic Monday

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Manic Monday” by the Bangles. Written by Prince, this song chronicles the life of working woman who wakes up Monday morning and wishes it were still the weekend.

You can see why. She has a long commute to work and, as we see near the end of the song, she’s paying the freight for both of them while he is unemployed and depressed about it.

Perhaps not the deepest song ever written about employment. But it captures the sense of work as a treadmill that we might prefer to step off.



Six o'clock already
I was just in the middle of a dream
I was kissin' Valentino
By a crystal blue Italian stream
But I can't be late
'Cause then I guess I just won't get paid
These are the days
When you wish your bed was already made

It's just another manic Monday
I wish it was Sunday
'Cause that's my fun day
My I don't have to run day
It's just another manic Monday

Have to catch an early train
Got to be to work by nine
And if I had an air-o-plane
I still couldn't make it on time
'Cause it takes me so long
Just to figure out what I'm gonna wear
Blame it on the train
But the boss is already there

It's just another manic Monday
I wish it was Sunday
'Cause that's my fun day
My I don't have to run day
It's just another manic Monday

All of the nights
Why did my lover have to pick last night
To get down
Doesn't it matter
That I have to feed the both of us
Employment's down
He tells me in his bedroom voice
C'mon honey, let's go make some noise
Time it goes so fast
(When you're having fun)

It's just another manic Monday
I wish it was Sunday
'Cause that's my fun day
My I don't have to run day
It's just another manic Monday
I wish it was Sunday
'Cause that's my fun day
It's just another manic Monday

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

"Culture of denial": Alberta's workers' compensation review

In early July, the government released the final report of Alberta’s Workers’ Compensation Review Panel. The central message of the review is that the Alberta WCB has drifted away from doing right by workers. For example, the panel notes:
…the WCB can be overly efficient, and tends to manage the claim in aggressive accordance with strict rules, even when the resulting decisions fly in the face of common sense. This raises frustration among workers and employers alike and it contributes to a perception that the WCB has a “culture of denial” (p.8).
The panelists don’t explain what has motivated the WCB to act this way. My belief is that the WCB has been trying to navigate both political pressure and its legal obligations.

Beginning in the early 2000s, employers and the former Tory government pressured the WCB to minimize the cost of injury to employers. The WCB was then compelled to find to legally defensible mechanism by which to achieve employer premium reductions. The result is a system of policies and practices that seek to minimize benefits to workers and manifests itself as a culture of denial. This is most visible in the experiences of injured workers.

The panel makes a number of recommendations designed to increase the perceived and actual fairness of the WCB. Recommendations of particular interest to injured workers include:

APPEALS
The panel recommends establishing an independent ombudsperson office (Fair Practices Office) to monitor and address the procedural fairness of the WCB system to address concerns that the WCB treats workers unfairly. In addition, the existing appeals advisor office would be carved out of the WCB and located in the Fair Practices Office and would provide assistance to workers and employers.

The panel recommends that, while a worker is appealing a claims decision, the worker should be entitled to apply for relief of any benefit loss. This recommendation is designed to reduce the negative impact of erroneous decisions on workers’ lives.

MEDICAL PANELS
The panel also recommends implementing a roster system for independent medical examinations (IMEs) here the worker chooses the IME (not the WCB). This should reduce the sense that the fix is in when the WCB sends workers for an examination to resolve a medical question about a claim. And the panel recommends changing the role of WCB-employed medical consultants to attenuate conflicts between treating physicians and the consultants.

The panel also recommends the WCB educate doctors and other medical professionals about the WCB in the hope that this will reduce the reluctance of medical professionals to engage with the system. This recommendation seems a bit Pollyanna because it assumes the root problem is ignorance by medical professionals, not their consistently poor treatment by the WCB.

MEDICAL TREATMENT
The panel recommends workers be allowed to select their own treatment providers (beyond their own physician). The panel also recommends the WCB stop its cookie-cutter approach to treatment limits. For example, the WCB limits physiotherapy to six weeks based on medical literature that suggests most patients make a maximum recovery after six weeks. This limit means that: (1) workers who require more than six weeks of treatment are refused necessary treatment while (2) other workers are pushed through treatment too quickly, creating the potential for additional injury.

RETURN TO WORK OBLIGATION
The panel recommends creating an obligation on employers to assist injured workers to return to work. This is intended to address the moral hazard faced by employers who may wish to evade their duty to accommodate injured workers. This recommendation contains some notable carve outs around employer size, employee tenure, and duration of the obligation.

DEEMING OF WAGES
The panel recommends that when the WCB deems a worker to be employed for the purposes of determining the workers’ wage-loss entitlement, that the WCB should use data that reflects the jobs a worker can realistic acquire and perform give the labour market and the worker’s skills and restrictions. That the panel would make such a recommendation gives weight to concerns that deeming decisions are often illegitimate and designed to reduce employer claim costs. The new deeming process will also contain a way for workers to better understand and contest the WCB’s deeming order.

PRESUMPTIVE STATUS AND THRESHOLD TESTS
The panel recommends the development of an ongoing process by which certain diseases can be granted presumptive status. The current process (which sets these out in Regulation) has meant that the list of diseases with presumptive status reflects the state of medical knowledge in about 1982 (with some recent legislative exceptions won for workers in more “heroic” occupations).

The panel also recommended that the WCB review the threshold test for compensability for some injuries (e.g., chronic onset stress) to determine if requiring work being the predominant cause is too high a bar (effectively creating two classes of injured workers).

OTHER HITS AND MISSES
The panel made a number of other recommendations about the WCB system. It declined to address the wage-loss replacement rate (currently set at 90% of net earnings). The panel did recommend temporary (and tapering off) increases in compensation for workers earning above the maximum insurable earnings of $98,700 (in 2016).

This is a strange saw-off in that it benefits the highest-earning injured workers (by giving them additional wage-loss compensation, albeit for a fixed term on a tapering system) while continuing to penalize the lowest-earning injured workers (who only get 90% of their net earnings as benefits). This might be a recommendation for the government to amend when it issues a response this fall.

The panel also recommended the WCB stops its practice of distributing surpluses from the accident fund to employers. The panel helpfully clarifies that these distributions are not “over-paid premiums” but rather reflect investment earnings. The panel suggests this money should be retained by WCB and used to fund things that make workplaces safer and compensation more just.

The panel kicked the issue of premiums and rate-setting down the road, recommending further study (perhaps along the lines of the principles set out in Ontario’s Stanley Report). The panel declined to recommend dispensing with experience rating altogether, but suggested that the current process may too heavily weight firms’ individual claims records.

The panel’s decision to not recommend the elimination of experience rating boils down to (1) many factors beyond experience rating contribute to claims suppression behaviours and (2) experience rating creates an incentive for employers to reduce injury rates.

While the panel’s first assertion is true, it should also be noted that experience-rating intensifies employers’ incentive to suppress claims and thereby externalize injury costs. Maintaining this arrangement is bad public policy (“Well, they’re gonna dump mercury in the river anyhow, so what can you do?”).

The panel’s second assertion assumes that experience rating results (at least to some degree) in a reduction in injury numbers and safer workplaces. There is little evidence to support this putative effect, which seems to be the only argument for retaining experience rating. Perhaps the limited utility of (and significant downside to) experience rating will become clearer in further study.

An interesting omission here is the absence of any gender analysis around the functioning of WCB or its outcomes. Perhaps such an analysis awaits the government's response to the report in the fall. For example, the government might examine whether pregnant and nursing mothers ought to have access to workers' compensation if their employer declines to reassign them when their work poses a hazard to their pregnancy or child (as Quebec does).

Overall, this report offers a much-needed review of the system and makes sensible recommendations. I expect the senior leadership of the WCB will find the report discomforting since it suggests (however diplomatically) that management decisions have given rise to many of the WCB’s current shortcomings. Many of the current executives are long serving and I wonder if we’ll see some change at the top over the next year or so.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, July 21, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Electronic Plantation

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture is “Electronic Plantation” by Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine. 

This song examines how employers have made employment precarious through various strategies, such as off-shoring jobs, free trade agreements, and electronic monitoring of employees.

The song is pretty direct about economic globalization:
Pit the whole world against each other
For who will work for the lowest wage
The rest of you can die
As epidemics rage
Yet it also really brings home the relationship between political decisions and the impact these have on the working lives of real people:
Same old job
Now you're just a temp
Less pay, no benefits
No raise, no vacation
Or sick leave days
Some of the lyrics seems a bit polemical:
We monitor you all
Every time you leave your chair
Or talk on the phone
One minute overtime
At the toilet
And you're fired
Yet even in my privileged position, I’m subjected to electronic monitoring (soon to be intensified with the roll out of the Student Success Centre) which will be used to ensure I meet whatever service standards the employer sets. Whether the benefits of this will offset the costs are unclear…

This is a fan video (best one I could find):



Ya-Ha-Ha
Ho Ho Ho
Shipped your job to Mexico
But we got plans for all of you to re-train

Pit the whole world against each other
For who will work for the lowest wage
The rest of you can die
As epidemics rage

Worked hard all your life
Now you must go on line
And stare all day
At a little plastic screen

Electronic plantation
Electronic plantation

Same old job
Now you're just a temp
Less pay, no benefits
No raise, no vacation
Or sick leave days
Chain the slaves to the oars
Faster, faster, row some more!
In carpel tunnel caverns
Til you break

We monitor you all
Every time you leave your chair
Or talk on the phone
One minute overtime
At the toilet
And you're fired

Electronic plantation
Electronic plantation

Only use we've left for you
Is burn you at both ends
Locked in the research triangle
Shirtwaist fire's flames
Lot's of people need your job
And you can be replaced
Replaced
Replaced
Unemployed and overqualified

Strikers who gave their lives
Fighting for basic human rights
That don't mean nothing anymore

Got you back down on the floor
Through the wto
Rich get richer
Poor get poorer

Factory or phd
You are all termites now
Laptop is your ball and chain
Til we downsize you away

Shop at home
Is your reward
Your best friend is a mouse

Electronic plantation
Electronic plantation
Electronic plantation
Electronic plantation

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, July 14, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: My Hometown

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

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



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

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

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

To my hometown
My hometown
My hometown
My hometown

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

To your hometown
Your hometown
Your hometown
Your hometown

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

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Research: Media representations of Chinese labour mobility

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

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


-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, July 7, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Tragic

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

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

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

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

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Monetizing occupational cancer in Canada

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

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

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

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

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

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, June 30, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Talkin bout a Revolution

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

New case study documents WCB failings

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

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

Among the challenges Betty faced were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, June 23, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Welcome to the Working Week

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Successfully operationalizing Athabasca's third-party report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-- Bob Barnetson