fact checking

Unionizing Starbucks

Just a few years ago, if someone had said that more than 200 Starbucks outlets in North America would be unionized, the response would have been something like this.  Yet here we are, just after Labour Day, and….more than 200 Starbucks outlets are unionized, including several in Canada. These unionizations are remarkable not just because they’re happening, but also because the successful unionization campaigns look nothing like what unionizing efforts are supposed to look like.

Starbucks is a huge and very wealthy international corporation, so it has lots of resources to oppose unionization in its “stores”. With many of its locations in the US, it benefits from US labour laws that are generally less union-friendly than in Canada – for example, captive audience meetings are banned in Canada but permitted in the US – so US employers tend to be more successful at resisting unionization. And because of how Canadian and US labour laws are structured, unionizing a company like Starbucks, with multiple locations, generally means the union has to run an organizing campaign at each individual location, rather than being able to unionize all of them at once. (In 2021 Starbucks had over 1300 locations in Canada and nearly 9000 locations in the US, in addition to licensed outlets operated in partnership with other retailers.)

Most traditional union organizers would look at this situation and say that it would be just too difficult and too expensive to organize unions at Starbucks, and that any attempt to do so would probably fail. To have any chance at success, a union would have to be very experienced, and have skilled organizers and major resources, to combat the extensive anti-unionization campaign and anti-union tactics that Starbucks would undoubtedly roll out. Also, because the food service sector tends to have high rates of employee turnover, most large unions have avoided organizing workplaces in that sector, because of the very real possibility that workers supporting the union might leave or be fired before the union is formally recognized.

So it’s incredible not only that there are now so many unionized Starbucks locations, but that (more…)

The Weight of a Name

When an organization is hiring someone to fill a job, it’s very difficult to avoid bias in the hiring process – because, at some point, the hiring decision is subjective. The applicants for the job may have very similar qualifications and experience, which then usually leads to assessments such as how well each applicant would “fit” within the organization. “Fit” is a subjective assessment, and when subjective assessments become an exercise in “how much is this person like the people that are already here”, that’s when unintended or explicit bias can affect the hiring decision.

Numerous studies have shown that hiring decisions can be biased by factors like the ethnicity of the applicant’s name, their appearance, and their social class. Now, two economists, Qi Ge and Stephen Wu, have published a very interesting research study of another possible source of bias in hiring: how difficult it is to pronounce the applicant’s name.

The data that these researchers used for their study was taken from (more…)

Fact-Checking Card-Checking in British Columbia

In April, the British Columbia government introduced legislation that would change the Labour Relations Code and allow automatic certification in union organizing campaigns. This change would make it much easier for unions to become the legal workplace representative for employees. The usual pro-business pro-management organizations – Chambers of Commerce, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, the Business Council of BC – are complaining that this change would “weaken the democratic right for workers to exercise choice through a secret ballot”.  The Business Council has also sent a letter to BC Premier John Horgan with a lengthy list of complaints about the legislation’s potential impacts.  And the “non-partisan” Fraser Institute has called the proposed legislation “unfair to workers”.

At best, these statements are misleading. At worse, they reflect an implicit belief that unions can only hurt businesses’ operations and profitability – a belief which is also highly inaccurate.

To understand why these statements are so troubling, it’s useful to know what automatic certification is. When a union (more…)

“It’s Beyond Frustrating”: Why Athletes are Still Being Abused

The Olympics are supposed to be an exciting and enjoyable experience, for athletes and for spectators. But for figure skating fans, the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing could best be characterized as stressful and depressing.

After the team event – the first skating event on the schedule – it was revealed that 15-year-old Kamila Valieva, the favourite to win the women’s event, had previously tested positive for a banned drug intended to treat chest pain. After an emergency hearing by the Court for Arbitration in Sport, Valieva was allowed to continue competing, but the medals in the team event were not awarded. Valieva ended up placing fourth in the women’s event, and her teammate Alexandra Trusova, who came second, had an emotional meltdown at rinkside, shouting that she hated skating and would never go on the ice again.

While watching all of this drama and turmoil unfold, I couldn’t help but think that for almost 30 years we’ve known there were problems in the sport of skating. In 1995, sportswriter Joan Ryan’s book Little Girls In Pretty Boxes painted a terrible picture of abusive coaching, unhealthy training practices, and incredible stress placed on young figure skaters and gymnasts. Thankfully, as an adult skater, I got into the sport when I was old enough to be in control of what I did. But it’s no secret to anyone who follows skating that, even after well-documented investigations like those in Ryan’s book, there are still very significant problems within the sport.

So I decided to get in touch with Ryan and see if she would be willing to be interviewed about whether anything has changed, 30 years after her whistleblowing. She kindly agreed, and we talked this week. Here’s a transcript of our conversation.

 

Fiona McQuarrie [FM]: What’s your take on the doping scandal at the Olympics?

Joan Ryan [JR]: The Washington Post asked me to write an op-ed on that a couple of weeks ago, and, you know, I wrote this book 27 years ago now. There has been change on the gymnastics side, unfortunately because of Larry Nassar, and because of the gymnasts themselves. They have risen up like an army, and they are the ones that are going to make sure it finally changes. That’s the only reason I have any hope that it’s going to change now after all these years.

I haven’t followed figure skating as closely over those 27 years, but the US skaters certainly seem healthier to me. I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, but clearly the total destruction of two of the three Russian figure skaters is a clear sign that it’s dysfunctional. There’s clearly (more…)

Jonah Lehrer’s “Mystery”

An unexpected benefit of mask-wearing is being able to say things without being heard. That came in handy a few weeks ago at my local public library, when I uttered “what in the actual f***?” at the completely unexpected sight of a new Jonah Lehrer book.

As you might remember, Lehrer’s writing career derailed nearly 10 years ago when numerous instances of plagiarism and inaccuracy were uncovered in his books and magazine articles. Two of his books were withdrawn from sale by their publishers, and most of the publications he wrote for dropped him as a contributor and removed his discredited articles from their websites. Lehrer gave a controversial speech of apology and co-operated with author Jon Ronson for a chapter in Ronson’s book on public shaming, but since then his writing has mostly been seen on his own blog and in two books that slipped by without much notice.

Mystery, the new book, is indeed mysterious in that it seems to have sprung out of nowhere. I couldn’t find any online news about a new Lehrer book on the way, and there doesn’t seem to have been much advance promotion for the book. So, being intrigued by that additional layer of mystery, of course I read it.

I posted about Lehrer’s previous problems several times on this blog, including an analysis of his now-withdrawn book Imagine which became a featured post on WordPress and attracted thousands of readers. I don’t say this to be boastful, but to be forthright about the reality that I’m familiar with the controversial history of Lehrer’s writing – and that inevitably colours how I look at his current work. I didn’t deliberately go through Mystery looking for things to pick on, but I have to be truthful and say that there were several places where information in the book just didn’t read or feel right. When I encountered those places, I did additional research on the information that Lehrer presented.

The book (more…)

Blowing the Whistle on the CBC

One of the principles that managers are taught is the importance of listening to employees. Listening to employees makes them feel valued and included. But the other side of that principle, which regularly gets overlooked, is that the listening should result in action. If employees express concerns about the organization to managers, and nothing happens, that can lead to a distrust that potentially undermines the employee-manager relationship in the long run.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is Canada’s publicly funded national English-language broadcaster; its French-language counterpart is Radio-Canada. In the last couple of years, CBC has had several internal management-employee disputes that have spilled into public view. After radio host Jian Ghomeshi was fired in 2014, it emerged that several employees had filed formal and informal complaints with CBC management about his harassment and abuse, but no meaningful action was ever taken. Last year, there was criticism of the CBC’s coverage of anti-racism protests in the US, reports that journalist/host Wendy Mesley had twice used the N-word in workplace meetings, and an arbitration decision that found CBC had wrongly dismissed a reporter who criticized comments by (former) hockey commentator Don Cherry. Not surprisingly, CBC employees then publicly expressed concerns about the lack of diversity within CBC’s own workforce, as well as bias in the choices of what was considered “news” and how some issues were presented.

In response to those complaints, CBC editor-in-chief Brodie Fenlon publicly committed to a number of workplace initiatives, including (more…)

Into the Gap

Happy 2021!

The Globe and Mail newspaper is currently running a series of articles titled Power Gap: a data-based investigation into gender inequality in Canadian workplaces. I’m really pleased to see attention and resources being directed towards understanding this issue. To date, the articles are doing a very good job of unpicking why there are more men than women in positions of power in Canadian workplaces, and why men are generally better-paid. But the series also shows how difficult it is to address these imbalances in a substantive way, because of data limitations. It’s hard to solve a problem without fully understanding what’s causing the problem.

The complete explanation of the Power Gap project methodology is paywalled, but to summarize it, the analysis relies on data from “sunshine lists” – lists of public sector employees with an annual salary above a certain level, which most Canadian provincial governments release every year. Because these lists are not consistently formatted across provinces – for example, not all provinces release employees’ full names – the data on the lists had to be combined and then adjusted so the data were comparable.

Also, since the purpose of the Power Gap project was to investigate gender inequality, the employees’ gender had to be added to the data set. Gender data were collected through several different methods, including (more…)

Anders Ericsson

I found out a few days ago that Anders Ericsson passed away in early May. Ericsson was a professor of psychology at Florida State University, and his research on the relationship between practice and achievement was the basis for Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-hour rule”.

As I wrote in an earlier blog post, Gladwell selectively interpreted Ericsson’s findings, and overlooked some of the key concepts that are important in understanding the results of that research  – for example, that the quality of practice (“deliberate practice”) is as important, if not more important, than the amount of practice.

David Epstein, whose excellent book The Sports Gene explores all of the factors in addition to practice that make athletes successful, has written a lovely tribute to Ericsson and the impact of his research. I was going to write a longer post myself, but David has said everything that I wanted to say and said it much better. So I’ll link you to his article instead. You can read David’s tribute here.

What Does “Systemic Racism” Mean?

“Systemic racism” is a term that’s been heard a lot in recent weeks, as communities, regions, and societies confront long-standing ugly realities around race and inequality. But what’s lacking in many of the reports about these upheavals is an explanation of what “systemic racism” means.

My expertise on this issue is primarily around how systemic racism functions in the workplace, not how it operaties in policing or in other contexts. However, since the commissioner of Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has finally admitted that there is systemic racism within the RCMP itself, it’s worth remembering that what happens inside an organization or workplace can affect how the organization’s members interact with others. So understanding systemic racism within workplaces can also help to understand systemic racism elsewhere.

It’s also important to remember that organizations don’t make decisions or choices; people do. An organization doesn’t decide by itself to be racist or sexist or ableist. It’s decisions by people within the organization that cause those situations.

So when we talk about changing organizations to become less discriminatory and more inclusive – yes, we have to look at the policies and rules that guide how the organization operates, but we also have to look at the people within the organization, and the patterns of their decisions, and their attitudes. If people don’t change the way they act or think, then the organization won’t change.

To understand what “systemic racism” means, let’s start (more…)

(Not) Helping Canadian Journalism

The Local Journalism Initiative (LJI) is a fund set up by the Canadian government in 2019 to “support the creation of original civic journalism that covers the diverse needs of underserved communities across Canada”.  News organizations can apply for funds to cover the salaries of newly hired reporters, if those reporters are assigned to specific beats that address “news deserts”.   To maintain editorial independence, the fund is administered by a group of news industry associations that oversee the application and adjudication process.

Media organizations everywhere are having financial problems, largely because of competition from free online content and because of advertising buys going to websites and social media. So the intent of the LJI is commendable, especially if it can help support local reporting – which, as we’ve recently seen in the US, is critical in keeping governments accountable, and in building democracy by keeping citizens informed.

But LJI funds should not be going to media organizations that have largely been the architects of their own financial misfortune – and which could also be blamed for creating the “news deserts” that the LJI is trying to fix. Two obvious examples of such organizations that LJI has funded are the newspaper chains Postmedia and Saltwire.

Jeremy Klaszus, publisher of the award-winning online publication Sprawl Calgary, posted a thread on Twitter this week, after Sprawl’s application for LJI funding was rejected for a second straight year. (more…)