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American health and safety expert Charley Richardson is a pioneer in the area of work-related stress. In his presentation to national conventions health and safety forum he pointed to the employers insatiable appetite for increased productivity as the driving force behind the problem.

“Its not bad management thats the problem. Its good management,” he says. “The goal of the employer is to make the work process faster and more efficient.”

He told delegates management is glad to talk about better keyboard designs and more ergonomic workstations. “Theyre happy to keep us on that level. But discussion ends the minute you want to talk about changes to the work itself.”

Technology has played an important role in the employers goal to boost productivity. The internet, word processors and cell phones have forced workers to be more productive, more accessible and more isolated. And Richardson has found evidence that technology is being used to tear unions apart.

For example, some companies have offered their employees the opportunity to bring their service vehicles home overnight. Workers jumped at the chance because it meant theyd no longer have to drive to work and pick up their service vehicles before making their calls. But this practice known as home garaging has taken a dramatic toll on worker solidarity and on the unions themselves. Once workers no longer had to go to the garage, they began to lose touch with other workers. In the end, they were caught off guard as the power of their unions diminished.

“Solidarity is based on day-to-day interaction,” he says. “When you take that away, what do you have left?”

Richardson believes this trend can be turned around but its not going to happen overnight. Contract negotiations are a good place to start. To put a stop to the employers call for increased productivity, unions need to think very carefully about their demands.

“In the long run, good language on technology change and contracting out can often be more important to the bargaining unit than the issue of money,” he says.

Despite the monumental task thats before the labour movement, Richardson remains optimistic. “Were going to have to deal with the people that make the (funding) decisions,” he says. “Were all facing the same shit and that in itself could be a unifying force across the labour movement.”

Rich Janecky