Recently, the New York Times Magazine had a special theme issue on “The Future of Work: What Makes a ‘Good Job’ Good?”. As it happened, the issue came out while I was reading the new book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by anthropologist David Graeber. This was a lovely bit of symmetry, because both the book and the articles in the magazine address similar questions: with more automation in the workplace, why are we not working fewer hours? If we know as much as we do about organizations and work, why are so many workers so unhappy? Shouldn’t work be getting better, instead of getting worse?
These are very big questions with complex answers. I won’t try to cover everything that’s discussed in the book and the magazine articles, and have a wide-ranging but superficial discussion; I recommend that you read the book and the articles for yourself. But I’m going to pull out a couple of themes that I found particularly fascinating.
Both the book and the articles look at the worsening relationships between workers and employers and show that this trend isn’t just anecdotal. Surveys of job satisfaction over time show (more…)
Several years ago, I wrote about Scabby the Rat, the giant inflatable rat that is regularly used at union rallies and picket lines to draw attention to greedy employer behaviour. Recently, Scabby has popped up (ha-ha) in the news, in a good way and in a bad way.
In 2016, members of First Union were negotiating a collective agreement with the owner of a Pak’n Save supermarket. When negotiations stalled, the union members held a protest outside the supermarket, with Scabby and signs reading “Pak’n Slave”. The employer took the union to New Zealand’s employment court (similar to the provincial and federal Labour Relations Boards in Canada), claiming that Scabby and the signs were defamatory and that they breached the legal requirement to bargain in good faith.
In recent years, there have been dire warnings about work becoming more automated. There’s also been much attention paid to telecommuting, remote work, and other technologically-assisted ways for workers to be able to work anywhere. But the reality is that many jobs still require humans to do them, and many jobs also require those humans to actually be at the workplace. Robots haven’t replaced everybody yet, and telecommuting isn’t something that’s feasible in every kind of job.
The city of Seattle is facing a particularly challenging situation right now in “the Seattle Squeeze” – a three-week closure of the major north-south highway that runs through the city, including its downtown. Although there will be some improvements to public transit during the shutdown, it’s anticipated that a lot of workers are going to experience unusually long commutes getting to and from their workplaces. So what can workers do if they have to be at their workplace and it’s going to take a really long time to get there? (more…)
Some of the most insightful observations about the comparative workplace experiences of men and women have come from people who have gone through a gender transition. Paula Stone Williams recently gave an excellent TED talk about what she learned as a man and as a woman, and she has now written a blog post on the same subject. Her perspective is very enlightening, particularly in showing how men and women can be treated differently in small or subtle ways – but all those little incidents add up to create big power imbalances that can be damaging to individuals and to organizations.
In a Q&A session after a keynote presentation earlier this month, I was asked about my personal discoveries related to gender inequity. Off the top of my head, I could not formulate a list. It did not take long to do so afterwards. In no particular order, here are 12 of my discoveries: In a […]
Right after the day started today, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers began a rotating strike against Canada Post. Workers went on strike in four Canadian cities – Halifax, Edmonton, Windsor, and Calgary – in support of their union in its negotiations for a new collective agreement. In addition to reviewing the terms of the existing collecting agreement, the union and the employer are bargaining over a number of contentious issues, such as the pay gap between rural and urban mail carriers. And these negotiations are happening in the context of a changing market, with lots of alternatives to sending letters through the mail – like emails and private delivery services. That shifting landscape is undoubtedly going to affect what the employer feels it can offer and what the union wants for its members.
A rotating strike (also sometimes called a partial strike) is not always used in bargaining disputes, so here’s an explanation of how it works.
Any kind of strike during negotiations for collective agreements needs (more…)
A lot of recent discussion about the labour force in Canada and elsewhere has focused on the “skills gap” – the alleged mismatch between workers’ skills and the abilities that employers need. One reason for the alleged gap is “digital disruption” – the automation or digitization of job tasks – which is changing how some jobs are done and thus changing the skills needed to successfully perform those jobs. These changes are so rapid that workers’ skills may quickly become outdated. Along similar lines, the Royal Bank of Canada recently released a report calling for post-secondary institutions to improve their graduates’ “human skills”, so as to better equip them for the parts of their future jobs that will involve working with people rather than with computers.
The narrative around the “skills gap” has mostly been controlled by employers and by the business community, and the business media have, generally, uncritically bought into the narrative. But the narrative is misleading in how it portrays the problem. It ignores (more…)
And, um, I’d like to suggest that we should pay more attention to it?
A recent discussion on Twitter raised some provocative points about communication norms in workplaces, especially those norms associated with gender. The research of linguists and sociologists such as Deborah Tannen has shown that men and women communicate differently, especially in the context of work. Men tend to present their views and opinions directly, while women tend to frame their statements with qualifiers such as “I think” or “in my opinion”.
In any workplace, the dominant group’s norms – both linguistic and behavioural – usually become (more…)
Harry Leslie Smith is just about to turn 95, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. But he has also given a tremendous gift to the world: his new book Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future.
His publishers were kind enough to provide me with a copy of the book. Ironically, the print copy they sent by post appears to have been lost by the Royal Mail – a organization that was publicly owned for almost 500 years before it was privatized, in the belief that the private sector is inherently more efficient than the public sector. That’s exactly the kind of flawed economic reasoning that Smith condemns – the “free market” logic that says competitive markets will result in superior products and services, and that says better government is less government.
The spread of that ideology has led to decreases in the amount and availability of state-supported services, such as publicly-funded health care and social assistance. By recounting his own history, Smith shows the very real improvements that those services can bring to individual lives and to the overall well-being of society. He also strongly makes the point that governments should work for the betterment of all, not just to help the rich become richer.
The last couple of weeks have been full of news about workplace abusers and harassers being called out. It seems that every time I look at Twitter there’s a link to yet another story about an accusation of inappropriate behaviour. It’s good that this behaviour is being brought into the open. But two decades ago there was also a huge uproar about harassment when Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas was accused of harassing the staff in his office.
So it puzzles me why we apparently need to have this same conversation all over again – especially when most organizations now have statements or policies about zero tolerance for workplace harassment or abuse.
These discussions of high-profile incidents of obvious harassment also have another effect. They distract attention from other forms of harassment. Harassment isn’t just the big incidents; it’s also the little things that happen over and over again.
Earlier this year, a study pointed out some very good examples of smaller, ongoing harassment. Alice Wu, the author of the study, was (more…)