labor

Good Jobs and Bullshit Jobs

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…)

Scabby the Rat: Good Times, Bad Times

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.

At the time of my previous post, Scabby had mostly made appearances in the US. But  this past summer Scabby showed up in my own country, rising above the fence at Ontario Place in Toronto during a lockout of stagehands at the Canadian National Exhibition. And now it seems that Scabby has gone international, as he was part of a recent case in New Zealand involving alleged defamation during contract negotiations.

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 December 2018, an employment court judge ruled that the duty of good faith “does not require bargaining to be undertaken in a courteous way” and dismissed the employer’s complaints. Scabby’s presence at the protest was deemed (more…)

Helping Workers Get To Work

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…)

Mediation, Arbitration, Mediation-Arbitration, and Back-To-Work Legislation

Last week, Canada’s Parliament started the process of passing a law to end the rotating strikes at Canada Post. The Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) has been negotiating with Canada Post for more than a year for a new collective agreement, and the union is showing it’s serious about its bargaining demands by strategically timing its strike actions for when people and small businesses are relying on Canada Post’s services for holiday deliveries. However, complaints about backlogs of undelivered mail and the lack of progress in negotiations apparently made the federal government decide it was time to intervene in the bargaining process.

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the types of interventions that can be used to resolve bargaining disputes – particularly mediation-arbitration, which is not used very often, but which is what this law proposes to settle the contract. An explanation of each type of intervention will help in understanding the potential outcomes of (more…)

What’s a Rotating Strike?

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…)

The “Skills Gap”

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…)

Post-Secondary Institutions and Precarious Work

In February, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released a study of precarious employment in Ontario colleges and universities. Last week, some of the challenges identified in this study became very real when contract workers at York University in Toronto went on strike. The bargaining issues that the union and the university haven’t agreed on include job security for contract workers and guaranteed funding for teaching assistants.

The CCPA report is extremely valuable – not only because its analysis has suddenly become even more relevant, but also because (more…)

Harry Leslie Smith’s ‘Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future’

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.

Smith grew up in (more…)

Back (sort of)

I’ll be returning to posting more regularly in the next little while. But in the meantime, here’s updates on two earlier posts. (more…)

A Strike That’s Gone On Too Long

Last week there was a significant event in Nova Scotia that went largely unnoticed in the rest of Canada. Unfortunately it’s not a positive event, and it deserves more attention.

Over 50 unionized newsroom employees at the Chronicle Herald newspaper in Halifax have now been on strike for more than 500 days. Yes, almost a year and a half. (The length of the average work stoppage in Canada is six days.) The strike started on January 23, 2016, after (more…)