“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…)
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.
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the middle of my teens (although I love comic strips in newspapers), so my knowledge of the comics industry is pretty outdated.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…)
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.
Jobs in “human resource management” – the part of organizations that manages employee-related functions such as hiring, training, and pay – are becoming more professionalized. Professional designations such as Certified Human Resource Professional, which require human resource (HR) practitioners to demonstrate specific HR-related knowledge and skills, are becoming more common among HR staffers. But at the same time, working conditions for many employees are becoming worse.
This doesn’t make sense, because most human resource management (HRM) professional associations have codes of practice that explicitly state HR professionals should promote ethical and fair treatment for workers. For example, the guidelines of the US Society for Human Resource Management’s code of professional responsibility include “strive to achieve the highest levels of service, performance, and social responsibility” and “advocate for the appropriate use and appreciation of human beings as employees”.
Also, the concept of “socially responsible HR” has emerged as part of discussions of corporate social responsibility (CSR) – the idea being that organizations have responsibilities to society as well as to their stakeholders, and that HR practices within the organization should align with an overall CSR strategy by encouraging fair treatment of employees. So if organizations have publicly committed to making positive contributions to society, but at the same time are allowing their own employees to be disrespected and mistreated, why aren’t HR practitioners doing something about it?
Two research studies – one from 2013, one just published – have explored that very intriguing question. The two studies (more…)
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…)
Student evaluations of teaching (SETs) are standard practice in almost every Canadian university and college. These are in-class or online questionnaires that students fill out anonymously to rate and comment on the instructor and the course, with the results passed along to the instructor and, usually, to their supervisor.
But although SETs are standard practice, they’re also controversial. SETs can provide instructors with valuable feedback that they can then use to improve the course or their teaching – the so-called “formative” purpose of such evaluations. But SETs are also often used by universities and colleges as a measure of the quality of the instructor’s teaching – the so-called “summative” purpose. Using SETs for summative purposes can be a problem because there are lots of factors beyond the instructor’s control – such as the difficulty of the course material, the class schedule, the timing and content of the evaluation itself, and even the instructor’s gender or race – that can unduly influence students’ ratings. That is why we’ve seen pushbacks from faculty members and unions at several Canadian post-secondary institutions on SETs being part of (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…)