labor

The Right to Disconnect

The boundaries between home and work became blurred when the COVID-19 pandemic caused many jobs to be shifted online. Workers who were not permitted to come into their workplaces were working on computers in their living rooms, dining areas, spare rooms (if they had one), and even closets and bedroom. But even before that, boundaries were already being blurred by communications technology such as cellphones, text messaging, and email, allowing employers to contact employees at any hour of the day or night – which for many workers made them feel as if they are never really off work.

Ontario’s labour minister has proposed a legal “right to disconnect” is a step toward solving the problem of employers expecting workers to always be “on”. This is an important initiative, and the problem needs to be addressed. But this on its own is not going to fix the more fundamental and widespread workplace issues that the pandemic has highlighted, and which should be more of a priority.

The legal “right to disconnect” was first implemented in France in 2017, allowing employees to not answer work-related emails or calls during their time off. Canada’s federal government struck a task force in 2020 to explore the possibility of similar legislation for federally regulated occupations.  Ontario’s proposed legislation would require organizations with 25 or more employees to develop policies around work-related communications, such as establishing expectations for response times to emails.

It might seem that policies like this could cause even more stress for workers and employers, by compressing working time while maintaining expectations of continued productivity. However, (more…)

“The Power of a Collective”: The Experience of Unionizing at a Chapters/Indigo Store

As an author and as a reader, I love bookstores. I want to support bookstores that treat their employees fairly and respectfully, because knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff are the difference between a good bookstore and a great bookstore. So I was delighted when the staff at my local Chapters/Indigo store became members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, and recently reached their first collective agreement.

Traditionally, retail outlets staffed by younger or part-time workers have been perceived as challenging to unionize. I was curious about the process that led to the formation of the Indigo 771 union, so I got in touch with Ariel Popil and Alex Johnson, the two union stewards at the store. They graciously agreed to be interviewed via email about the experience of organizing the union.

[Note: since this discussion took place, workers at another Chapters/Indigo location, at Kennedy Commons in Scarborough, Ontario, have started a certification campaign.]

How many full-time and part-time staff work at Indigo/Chapters Pinetree? How many of those staff are in the union?

There are about 30 part-time staff members at any given time, and we have one full-time staff member. All part-time and full-time staff are part of the union.

When did the organizing campaign start, and why did it start? What was happening at the store that made the workers want to be represented by a union? (more…)

Pandemics, Productivity, and Gender

After ten months of pandemic-related lockdowns, rescheduling, and cancellations, it’s almost becoming clichéd to say that “work as we know it may have changed forever”. But it’s true. The key word, though, is “may”. We don’t know if the way many of us are working now is going to be the way we’ll always work. We don’t know if employers and organizations are permanently changing the way that they’re going to organize or run their operations.

But one thing we do know is that the pandemic has had an unequal effect on workers’ productivity. Both women and men are working at home more, but (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…)

A Crisis at Work

There’s more than enough chaos going on in the world right now. But amidst the coronavirus crisis, a couple of trends in the world of work are becoming more important.

We have been told for years that (more…)

Uber, Lyft, and Independent Contractors

Ridesharing officially came to British Columbia in January, when the provincial Passenger Transportation Board approved operating licenses for Lyft and Uber.  Vancouver is one of the last major cities in North America to get ridesharing, partly because of opposition from the local taxi industry and partly because of the lengthy process to amend the complex provincial legislation regulating rides for hire.

At the moment, ridesharing is limited to the Lower Mainland area (which includes Vancouver), and ridesharing drivers are more strictly regulated than they are in other regions. Uber and Lyft drivers in BC are required to have the same type of driver’s license as a taxi driver, and also have to pay a per-vehicle licensing fee in every municipality they do business in. Those costs will make it difficult for Uber and Lyft to get the types of drivers they do in other cities, who (in Uber’s words) are part-timers “fitting their driving around what matters most” and usually aren’t commercially-licensed drivers.

Several challenges to Uber and Lyft’s operations are already under way. BC taxi companies have filed a lawsuit against Uber and Lyft being granted permission to operate, arguing that the ridesharing firms have an unfair advantage because their licensing requirements are different from taxis. The mayor of Surrey has refused to allow Uber and Lyft to operate in that city. And riders with disabilities are upset that they may not be able to use Uber or Lyft because neither company requires its drivers to have accessible vehicles.

However, one of the most interesting challenges to Uber and Lyft’s arrival actually happened before either company was given permission to start operating. That challenge came from the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, which has already (more…)

Unions and Their Unions

A lot of people don’t realize that unions that represent workers in interactions with employers are also employers themselves. The union’s leaders are members of the union and are elected by the other members – but most unions, especially larger national or international unions and labour federations, also have administrative, executive, and staff employees. These employees keep the union running day to day, and might have special expertise, like researching or negotiating, that the union can use during its organizing campaigns or collective bargaining.

What a lot of people also don’t realize is that employees of unions are often unionized themselves. The employees don’t belong to the same union that they work for – that would be a conflict of interest. So they are members of a different union, usually one that includes workers in similar occupations. As an example, the employees of the union I belong to, at a provincially-funded university, are members of a local of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, a national union that represents many public sector workers.

A union’s employees being unionized also means that, like any other group of unionized workers, they negotiate with their employer for a collective agreement. And that is where things can get kind of tricky. (more…)

Un-Cooperative

The co-operative business model is intended to be an alternative to the traditional capitalist business model, in which the business’ owners or their representatives (managers) run the business and receive the profits from the business’ operations. In a co-operative, the customers of the business are also the owners of the business. Customers usually have to purchase a membership in the co-operative to use its products or services. The members elect a board of directors which is responsible for overseeing the business’ operations, and profits from the business are returned to the members in the form of dividends or reduced prices.

Many co-operatives were formed in areas or industries that traditional businesses refused to serve – either because they did not think there was enough of a market, or because they did not think they would make enough profit. So the co-operative business model is not only an alternative to capitalist business; it’s also a direct challenge to that model. As such, you would think that co-operatives would also challenge the traditional top-down relationship between managers and workers, and treat their employees fairly and respectfully. But workplace disputes at three different co-ops are showing that unfortunately this doesn’t always happen.

In Saskatchewan, unionized workers at the Saskatoon Co-op, (more…)

Unionizing Comics

I probably stopped reading comic books in the middle of my teens (although I love comic strips in newspapers), so my knowledge of the comics industry is pretty outdated. However, I’m always interested in unionizing campaigns for any type of worker, so I was intrigued when I came across the Twitter account Let’s Unionize Comics. Sasha Bassett runs that account; she is a Ph.D student at Portland State University and a self-declared “all-around pop culture junkie”. She has also conducted a survey of workers in the comics industry about their working conditions and their workplace concerns. Sasha graciously agreed to be interviewed via email about the comics industry and her vision of how it could become unionized.

Fiona: For readers who may not be familiar with how the comics industry works, can you describe its structure? For example, is it dominated by major companies, or is there a significant number of independent firms? Do comics artists work on their own and then try to sell their work, or are they usually commissioned to do specific projects?

Sasha: The structure of the comics industry is complex and fairly non-standardized. The market is absolutely dominated by (more…)

LabourWatch is Back

The Canadian LabourWatch Association claims that it exists to “advance employee rights” and to provide “balanced” information about unionization in Canadian workplaces. However, this group’s real intention is to undermine Canada’s labour unions and Canadian workers’ legal right to choose to be represented by a union in their workplace.

In recent years, LabourWatch was one of the main supporters of Bill C-377 – a proposed federal law that would have required much more stringent financial reporting from unions than from other federally-regulated organizations. LabourWatch has also lobbied against mandatory union dues, and has been used as a resource by companies with unionized workers on strike in encouraging those workers to decertify their unions.

After the defeat of Bill C-377, and after the Conservative party lost the 2014 Canadian federal election, LabourWatch gradually became much less visible. The last newsletter posted on its website is from February 2017, and despite initiatives such as a review of federal minimum wage rates that would seem to be relevant to a group allegedly promoting “employee rights”, LabourWatch has been all but silent.

Until now.

On June 24 and 25, LabourWatch is (more…)