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Manitoba History: Review: W. J. C. Cherwinski and Gregory S. Kealey (editors), Lectures in Canadian Labour and Working-Class History

by Bryan Dewalt
Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature

Manitoba History, Number 12, Autumn 1986

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Lectures in Canadian Labour and Working-Class History. W. J. C. Cherwinski and Gregory S. Kealey, eds. St. John’s, Nfld.: Committee on Canadian Labour History, 1985. 198 pp, ill. ISBN 0-9692060-0-3.

This collection appears at an important time in the unfolding history of relations between workers and employers in Canada. In response to the continuing acute crisis in the Canadian economy, business and governments are attempting to rewrite the rules that have governed relations between labour and capital since World War II. Traditional collective bargaining and social welfare rights are now being constrained or eliminated as a solution to the crisis is sought in the free operation of market forces and the unfettered introduction of “hi-tech” and high-productivity processes in production. Against this background Lectures in Canadian Labour and Working-Class History offers a retrospective look at the experiences of workers in the past and provides some insight into how we arrived where we are now.

Really a document of a lecture series for labour and working-class historians in 1983 and 1984, the book covers over one hundred years of Canadian history and most regions of the country. Despite an overview section and a section on the nineteenth century, however, three quarters of its length is devoted to developments in this century. As in all anthologies the quality of the assembled lectures is uneven. And while several provide satisfying reading, the book as a whole suffers from some fundamental problems.

As befit lectures prepared for a general audience, a number have true popular appeal. Union organizer H. Landon Ladd’s first-hand account of the 1959 Newfoundland loggers’ strike is dramatic and unaffected, with instructive comments on the role of women and the state on opposite sides of this struggle to organize island lumber camps. A popular lecture of a different sort is Michael Cross’s survey “The Canadian Worker in the Early Industrial Age.” Learned and historically sound, it presents a lucid synthesis of Marxist-oriented academic work in the field while avoiding both theoretical jargon and scholarly condescension. As an introduction to newcomers to the study of working-class history, this work by Cross is invaluable.

Slightly less accessible but ultimately more topical is Greg Kealey’s attempt to lay out a periodization of Canadian working-class history. Drawing heavily from Segmented Work, Divided Workers, by the American economists Gordon, Reich and Edwards, Kealey traces a series of crises and resolutions that have punctuated the history of capitalism and class struggle from the early nineteenth century to the present. The implication of this analysis is clear for Kealey. In the midst of the current crisis workers must struggle to ensure a resolution that envisages positive and fundamental structural change, not one that embraces a return to the dog-eat-dog world of the pre-World War II era.

Equally topical are Joy Parr’s and Joan Sangster’s accounts of the history of working women in the twentieth century. Both describe the evolution of women’s involvement in wage labour outside the home and point to a combination of ideological and economical constraints that have limited women to job ghettoes reserved for “women’s work.” However, despite Parr and Sangster’s protestation of the importance of women’s roles in domestic labour and the sphere of reproduction, neither has been able to pass the historical thresholds of working-class homes. A fuller picture of the history of women’s work will have to await this event.

The final asset of this collection is the attention it gives to regional working-class experiences. Ross McCormack provides an informative look at itinerant railway construction workers in the West. Bryan Palmer offers a sweeping, though surprisingly traditional, look at workers’ struggles in the industrial heartland of Ontario. And Leo Roback makes a valiant attempt to render the dynamics of class, language, religion, and politics comprehensible to those of us not well schooled in the history of Quebec. Especially valuable are the works of Ian McKay, David Frank, and H. Landon Ladd on Atlantic Canada. They should help dispel the myth of the Maritimes as a land of conservative country rubes more at home in a sou’wester than walking on a picket line. One notable absence in this admirable attention to region is any sustained reference to the special experiences of resource workers in the Canadian north. With the exception of Ladd and McCormack the writers convey a picture of an exclusively southern, urban, and industrial workforce.

Quite apart from the merits or shortcomings of any of these individual contributions, Lectures in Canadian Labour and Working-Class History suffers from a number of glaring weaknesses. First, it is apparent that it was thrown together in a hurry. Photographs of several authors are missing and some articles are poorly proof-read. For example, Palmer’s piece on Ontario workers contains a misplaced paragraph, and Kealey’s survey of periodization has lost his initial acknowledgment of Gordon, Reich, and Edwards. As well, McCormack’s second lecture on the West could have used a critical and severe editor to remedy its many shortcomings.

Winnipeg Strike crowd at the corner of William Avenue and Main Street, June 21, 1919.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

More annoying is the absence of features that would recommend this book as a lasting reference work. The omission of footnotes would be excusable in a popular work of this kind if a bibliography of selected readings were offered instead. However, neither this nor even an index is provided. But worst of all, the editors have failed to provide an introduction that would orient readers within the general historiographical context of the various lectures. Greg Kealey’s and Eugene Forsey’s surveys of Canadian labour history thus stand side-by-side with little explanation of why they say such different things about the same topic. In the absence of any general discussion of the themes and debates pursued by labour and working-class historians, it also comes as a bit of a surprise to find Robert Babcock alluding half-way through the book to the controversy that has surrounded his work on the influence of American international unions on the Canadian labour movement. Perhaps we should have been forewarned.

These problems can only be blamed on the editors, who should know that one cannot simply reprint a series of lectures and expect them to hang together as a book. Cherwinski and Kealey should have capitalized more fully on the strengths of some of the contributions and given the book some value in and of itself, rather than as simply the sum of a few of its parts. Still, for those who missed the original lectures or want a permanent record of them, this book may be worth a read.

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