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Review: Rethinking the Politics of Labour in Canada

[Stephanie Ross and Larry Savage, editors. Rethinking the Politics of Labour in Canada. Halifax & Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2012.]

This book is, I think, tailored for use in labour studies courses. The selection of essays on various aspects of political action by Canadian unions and workers would serve very effectively as an introduction and as an overview. The writers approach the topic from a pro-labour perspective that is nonetheless quite capable of being critical of the movement but is never polemical, and the criticism is mostly tempered by a sober appreciation of practical constraints.

The first section sets some of the context and it is where the collection does some modest but useful work to introduce new ideas for thinking most generally about labour politics. I quite appreciated Donald Swartz and Rosemary Warskett’s conceptualization of the labour movement’s history and the challenges it faces today through the frame of evolving forms of solidarity and the capacity of those forms to meet (or not) certain practical challenges. I also think that Stephanie Ross’ materialist complication of the ideal-types of “business unionism” and “social unionism” is an important piece of groundwork for effective discussions about labour’s future directions.

The second section is about labour and electoral politics – the NDP, the different trajectory between labour and parties in Quebec, strategic voting, and electoral reform. All four of these pieces combine history and contemporary analysis. I think that the essay on the NDP will be useful to me as a resource to inform discussions on the left about what we can and cannot expect from future NDP governments, particularly the author’s patient cataloguing of recent NDP regimes at the provincial level and his illustration that not a single one has been even marginally non-neoliberal since 1988. I also got a lot out of the piece on Quebec, about which I previously knew relatively little in this area. The final section is on extra-parliamentary activism, with chapters on gender equity, indigenous people, the environment, community unionism, anti-poverty organizing, migrant workers, and the prospect of progress through the courts. In each case, the included essays present useful mixtures of history, current activity, possibilities, and limitations, none of which should be taken as the final word on any of the topics but all of which provide a good basis for further discussion.

The two main limitations I see with the book are both connected to its form. The first is its (presumed) classroom orientation. While careful scholarly criticism is certainly more useful than, say, tired Trot or anarchist polemics that read current events into eighty year-old debates in ways that make it harder to respond dynamically and radically to contemporary circumstances, I think scholarly criticism has limits as well. In particular, I think one important way to learn about labour politics is to read things produced in the midst of struggle which are less concerned with obedience to the demands of academic civility and careful-speaking: For instance, instead of just hearing about the trajectory of conventional unions interacting or not with community-based direct action anti-poverty work, let’s include a pull-no-punches account from someone involved in the latter about the pros and cons of working with conventional unions. The same for immigrant workers of colour, and for indigenous workers, and so on. I wouldn’t want that material to displace what’s already there, but I think it could be a useful and powerful supplement.

The other limitation that I see in the collection has to do with the ways in which the survey form can make it very easy for us to ignore the interlocking and intersecting character of apparently disparate issues in how he read, write, think, and act. When you produce a collection that divides one broad topic into a number of specific elements, you inevitably produce a certain kind of organization for the knowledge that you present. Often, the fact that this is going on is not obvious because such division tends to reproduce already-existing dominant assumptions about the centre and periphery of the overall topic, and to naturalize the divisions between the components. Of course pieces need to have a focus, and no piece can do everything. But when you have one piece that is designated as your piece about indigenous workers, and one piece that is very clearly your piece about the NDP, and one piece that is about the environment, and one that is about migrant workers, you are setting up a situation in which intersections among these can easily be ignored. You make it more likely, for instance, that the analysis of the NDP will centre the category “worker,” which in North America tends to centre whiteness when that is not explicitly disturbed, and so you get an essay that does not necessarily have much to say about how workers of colour have experienced the NDP. Or, say, the one on the environment doesn’t do anything with indigenous/settler dynamics, presuming that to be a topic for a different piece, and the mainstream assumptions of what “labour movement” and “environmental movement” mean displace any possibility of approaching the question with an anti-colonial environmental justice lens. In other words, the survey form makes it look like we are covering all of the bases in terms of voices and critical orientations, but in fact it allows us to isolate them in individual chapters rather than taking them into the core of what we are doing. (In noting this, I don’t at all mean to detract from the good things that the collection does, and I certainly recognize that the choice to use this particular form is a practical and common one, and that the choice to do things in a different way would inevitably face push-back. Still, I think critical attention to interconnection and to challenging the received social organization of knowledge is absolutely crucial for building the movements that we so desperately need.)

Despite these limitations of form, I think this book is a very useful one, and one that I hope is widely read. I’m happy to have it on my bookshelves as a good first-line reference for future reading, thinking, and writing I might do on these many and varied topics related to the politics of labour in Canada.

[Scott Neigh is a writer, parent, and an activist based in Sudbury, Ontario. Fernwood Publishing recently published his two books looking at Canadian history through the stories of activists, which you can learn about here and buy here. This review originally appeared on his personal blog, as have many other book reviews.]

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