Wednesday, April 28, 2010

On the Side of the People

Jim Warren and Kathleen Carlisle, On the Side of the People: A History of Labour in Saskatchewan (Regina: Coteau Books 2005)

Alvin Finkle
Athabasca University
Labour/Le Travail

COMPREHENSIVE HISTORIES of working people in Canadian provinces are few and far between. This is certainly one of the best, and deservedly won the Saskatchewan Book Award in 2006 for the best scholarly book that year. Researched and written by trade union activists, with funds donated from both unions and progressive individuals, On the Side of the People focuses on the evolution of the province's trade union movement and on union struggles. The book is based on interviews with trade union leaders, extensive archival materials, the labour press, and secondary works. It succeeds very well in demonstrating continuities and changes affecting the labour movement in Saskatchewan throughout the period of non-Aboriginal settlement in the province and in linking provincial labour, political, and social history. But its analyses are limited by a populist approach which, while progressive, downplays debates within the union movement about political and industrial strategies, and ignores discussions about changes in the composition of the labour movement over time and its impact on possible class strategies. 

The book begins with a chapter on the fur-trading period which the authors acknowledge is mostly based on the work of the excellent Saskatchewan labour historian and trade union activist Glen Makahonuk, who died in 1997 at age 46 of a brain tumour. Makahonuk's work is reflected in other chapters as well and one cannot help but think that had he lived a little longer that he would have been one of the authors of On the Side of the People. This chapter reflects both the strengths and the weaknesses of this book's approach. On the one hand, it details every known strike of fur trade employees in the area that later became the province of Saskatchewan, and denounces the Hudson's Bay Company as an exploiter of workers. There is a short, but reasonable analysis of the Hudson's Bay Company's strategy for organizing its labour force, as well as its labour relations strategies. What is missing is any notion that there is a debate among scholars about the relative success of the Company in dominating its labour force, for example, in debates between geographer Frank Tough, who sees the paucity of documented strikes as evidence of largely uncontested bourgeois power, and historian Edith Burley, who argues the opposite. This is populist history in which every strike is a people's victory and there is no need to assess the overall balance of social forces.
Excellent chapters follow on the workers who built the cpr and their labour struggles, and then the boom years, followed by a bust, from 1892 to 1914 when Saskatchewan became a major destination for immigrants and a trade union movement, mostly craft-based, expanded quickly. The various political options that unionists chose are discussed but keeping with a general strategy in this book to emphasize labour unity over labour internecine warfare, there is no suggestion of any clashes among those who supported rival ideologies of labourism, socialism, and syndicalism.

The chapter on the early post-war period could hardly escape a discussion of rivalries among movements with very different senses of what the objectives of the working class should be and how to reach them. But it is an anemic discussion. "OBU ideas and Russia's Bolshevik revolution were threatening enough to provoke government repression, and what had looked like a powerful new strategy to meet labour's needs no longer seemed so promising." (71) Nonetheless, the book provides an even-handed account of the obu's efforts to organize coal miners in the province, and gives a sympathetic biography of P.M. Christophers, the obu mine organizer from Alberta who made a valiant effort to organize the miners but was ultimately defeated by the murderous violence of the employers abetted by the Saskatchewan provincial police.

The chapter on the Great Depression gives pride of place to leading Communists both from Saskatchewan and from outside the province who led the major strikes of the decade, and organized the unemployed. The authors rightly note that the popularity of many of these leaders had little to do with ideology and much to do with the respect workers had for their militancy. But the conservative craft unions are simply not discussed in this chapter, creating a false sense of a unified labour movement during the 1930s inspired by radical ideas. Warren and Carlisle do provide evidence that labour radicalism was widespread during this period and that it had an impact on electoral politics, with labour carrying every seat in a Regina council election, and labour playing a key role in the fledgling CCF. One would appreciate however a bit of analysis about how important labour was to the early CCF in Saskatchewan. Was that party indeed labour-friendly in opposition and later in government as some analysts suggest? Or was it a petit-bourgeois party of farmers and small businesspeople, not especially different in most of its policies than Alberta Social Credit, as sociologist John Conway has argued?

Warren and Carlisle are more forthright about the split between craft unionists and industrial unionists that initially led to the break-up of the American Federation of Labor and later the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada than they are about earlier splits in the labour movement. They outline the efforts of the Congress of Canadian Labour to organize workers in the province. They also demonstrate the assistance that the labour movement received in its efforts to increase membership when the CCF government was elected in 1944 and, influenced by David Lewis and other Ontario-based CCF officials, passed progressive trade union legislation that led, among other things, to early unionization relative to other provinces of most provincial government employees. Though the province's labour force was growing at a slower rate than the national average, its rate of unionization increased at almost double the national average between 1946 and 1955. But the authors demonstrate that the CCF government was often an employer like many others, unwilling to bend to workers' demands and certainly unwilling to involve workers or their unions in company management. Union militancy was often necessary to bring the CCF government to heel in dealings with its employees.
Though the authors' evidence suggests that the CCF government's attitude to workers became less friendly over time, they also make it clear that the unions continued to support the CCF and later the NDP. In part, this was because the unions supported the social agenda of the government, particularly its pioneering efforts in the areas of first hospital insurance and then medicare. But the more important reason was that the other government, on offer, the Liberal Party from the 1940s to mid-1970s, then the Conservatives until the mid-1990s, and now the Saskatchewan Party, has always represented the most anti-union elements of the business and farm communities. As the book makes clear, the lot of workers and the strength of unions suffered during the premierships of Ross Thatcher from 1964 to 1971 and Grant Devine from 1982 to 1991. Over time, in any case, a small number of leading members of the labour movement came to play significant roles in NDP governments and to insure that labour was onside with the NDP at election time even though between elections, large sections of the labour movement were contemptuous of NDP governments that appeared to cowtow to business demands at labour's expense.

Labour's infatuation with the NDP ebbed in the 1990s because Premier Roy Romanow and his Finance Minister, Janice MacKinnon, followed neo-liberal policies that meant job cuts and service cuts for working people in Saskatchewan. Warren and Carlisle outline a series of mainly public worker strikes and emphasize the unwillingness of workers to accept their NDP government's new anti-Keynesian, unabashedly pro-capitalist policies. But there is little discussion of what, if any, attempts were made to either establish a political alternative to the NDP or to force that party to accept more progressive policies. 

At the end of the book, the authors opine: "...despite organizational or philosophical differences, union people from the right and the left have a fundamental bond in common. They are all on the side of the people." (287) These are fine sentiments and a book that underplays the conflicts of the various elements of left and right in the trade union movement in favour of an approach in which workers are always united against their bosses makes these sentiments seem valid. But the weakness of this otherwise thorough and ambitious book is that it only rarely recognizes that competing groups "on the side of the people" have not historically at all times felt that they should work together or indeed that they should not be at war with each other. Of course, striking a balance between stories of inter-class warfare and intra-class warfare is always necessary in labour history. But I think the book that will likely remain Saskatchewan's chief account of workers' history for many years to come has underplayed the role of the latter in defining the labour movement at various times.

No comments:

Post a Comment