Introduction to Labour History

Introduction to Labour History

♪♪♪ My name is Henry Smith,
and I want to tell you the story of how unions began, and
why workers in Canada joined. We need to travel back
to medieval Europe, where most people were peasants
farming land controlled
by feudal lords. In England, as early as
the 1500s, the lords began to fence off communal lands. This process of enclosures
made some peasants into
dependent workers, who relied almost
exclusively on wages. The government always made sure
that employers had
the upper hand. Restrictions prevented workers
from leaving to seek better
wages or conditions. Masters and Servants Acts required workers to contract for long periods, and made
workers’ resistance criminal offences. Employers could dismiss workers
for many reasons, but workers accused of
violating their contract were often arrested and brought before hostile
magistrates. Fearing revolt, the government
eventually enacted a series of Poor Laws. The first such law,
in 1536, was called An Act for the Punishment of Sturdy Vagabonds and Beggars. Most of the time,
the unemployed
were forced back to their home parish
and put to work
in the workhouse. Families were broken up.
Children were apprenticed off to farmers and
other employers. Gradually, the economic system
changed, and capitalism first emerged in Britain
and the Netherlands. Long distance trade
and new technologies dramatically increased
production. This process
of industrialization required large numbers
of workers to toil in the first
“manufactories”. The factory owners
began breaking down jobs
into distinct parts that could be done
by untrained workers. Some even hired women
snd children, because they always preferred
to employ the cheapest
labour possible. Employers exploited workers
in ways that would be
considered intolerable today, leading to frequent injury
and early death. The new class of capitalists
gained vast profits and put this money back
into more machinery, and their own
luxurious consumption. Only property owners could vote, and basic rights to speak out
or organize did not exist. As artisan workshops gave
way to factory operations, skilled workers tried to deal
collectively with employers. Many, such as masons,
and boot-makers, belonged
to guilds. Guilds could determine
the qualifications for
apprenticeship and for becoming
a journeyman, as well as what they would charge
and how much they would produce. By 1800, British law regarded
unions as “combinations in
restraint of trade” and the penalties for
trying to form a union
were severe. The Tolpuddle martyrs
serve as an example. These six farm labourers
in Dorset, England formed a Friendly Society
of Agricultural Labourers in 1832, to pressure employers
to stop decreasing their wages. They were arrested, tried,
found guilty of swearing a secret oath,
and deported to Australia. The governments of
Western Europe conquered
far-off lands to supply raw materials for industry
and cheap food for their
rapidly growing populations. When the French
and their rivals, the English,
began to colonize what would become Canada,
the settlers found an
inhospitable but bountiful land that was already
well populated
by Native peoples. Canada’s regions
developed distinctly because commodities
like fish, fur, lumber, wheat
and minerals were exported. The cod fishery
and the fur trade
were the first two important European
industries in Canada. Both were controlled
by small numbers
of rich merchants who relied on European
and indigenous workers
to harvest and process the fish and fur.
Work in early Canada
was dangerous and difficult. Some of the workers
were indentured servants
from Europe
and both African
and Indigenous slaves. By the 1800s, many Canadians
supported themselves as independent farmers,
fishers, or craftworkers. Entire families contributed
to produce and sell goods. Wage earning was
most often seasonal- – few waged work opportunities
lasted year round. Yet, a growing number
of wageworkers were required
to extract resources and construct the canals
and railways needed
to transport goods. Toronto and Hamilton grew
into cities, joining Montreal,
Canada’s first city. Gradually, women and children
were no longer employed
for wages as frequently as men. Company towns relied
on the production of
a single resource, like coal, and provided some stability
for the skilled workers. When violence erupted,
usually because of
the grinding conditions endured by unskilled labourers,
the companies would close the company-owned store
or call in the militia. When confronted with
a sudden strike by
“rough” labourers, some employers could replace
the rebellious employees
with other hungry immigrants. Many navvies, or canal builders,
faced this in the 1830s
in Ontario and Quebec, as did miners in Cape Breton,
and railway construction workers in western Canada
in the early 20th century. From the 1840s onward,
skilled craftsmen like
iron moulders, carpenters, joiners and cigarmakers
founded dozens of
trade union brotherhoods- -so many in fact, that
by the 1850s, Canadian
newspapers accused them of leading an
“insurrection of labour”. Craft workers took advantage of
periodic upswings
to join unions, and made substantial gains
for their families when their
skills were most in demand. In the 1870s, over 200 strikes
were recorded: triple the level of work
stoppages in the
previous decade. When economic times were bad,
even unions of skilled workers found employers
unwilling to bargain. Craft unions in Canada
began to come together
as a labour movement when they established
local assemblies, and joined British and American unions
in their trade. Canada’s first unified
working-class movement
came about when craft workers formed
leagues to reduce
the working day to nine hours- -first in Hamilton,
then rapidly elsewhere. In their own bid to
secure a nine-hour day, Toronto printers
went on strike in 1872. Their employers had
18 printers arrested. Seizing an opportunity
to gain workers’ favour,
the government passed the Trade Unions Act. Unions were legal
for the first time. But many restrictions
also limited their power. Employers were under
no obligation to recognize
or bargain with a union, and picketing remained
a criminal offense. Large parades around
this time were becoming
regular labour festivals. Craft unionists proudly
showed off the important place they’d established for
themselves in their
communities. They believed the skills
that earned decent wages
and social respectability made them an
“aristocracy of labour”. Their celebrations were
the forerunners of Labour Day. ♪♪♪ My name is Wasyl Eleniak,
and I have a story to tell you,
about industrial unions, and workers in Canada for
almost one hundred years
since Confederation. Our lives were forever
transformed by factories,
which grew and spread because the railway
linked distant communities
and opened markets. At first, craft unions
flourished. They resisted
employers’ efforts to destroy apprenticeships
and control the labour process. New types of skilled
workers, like machinists
and locomotive engineers, eagerly formed unions.
But they put up
walls around each trade to keep out competitors,
and the great majority
of workers were still excluded from the modest gains achieved
by skilled workingmen. This set the stage
for “the great upheaval”: In the 1880s, politicized workers
became interested in an aggressive “new unionism”
to improve conditions
for all workers. Socialists in British coal
mining towns created all-in
unions for the first time. Life in tight-knit industrial
towns or neighborhoods encouraged a sense of solidarity
and community-wide unionism. The Knights of Labour
were one of the first unions to organize the unskilled and
include women and black workers. They promoted the ideal
of the “honest workingman”. Established in the US,
the Knights quickly spread through Ontario, Quebec
and BC, forming almost 450
local assemblies. Their success so concerned
the government, it was
one reason for appointing the Royal Commission on
the Relations of Labour
and Capital, in 1886. The new unions faced
many obstacles. First, craft unions expelled
their own members if they also joined
an industrial union. Secondly, employers could easily
fire employees suspected
of organizing a union. And of course,
governments and courts
frequently intervened in labour conflicts
on behalf of employers
to protect this so-called
“industrial peace”. Even the Industrial Disputes and
Investigation Act of 1907
did little to redress the power imbalance between
unions and employers. Nevertheless, early
industrial unions were
able to extract some concessions. Unionized
coal miners, for example,
forced employers and the state to make their occupation
less murderous.
Many workers also joined or supported socialist
or labour parties, which were increasingly successful
in electing their
own candidates. Still, others doubted
meaningful reform could be achieved through the
ballot box, and turned instead
to ideas of revolution. The Industrial Workers
of the World aimed
to unify all workers into one union to
overthrow the
capitalist system. The Wobblies, as they were
called, rapidly gained support
in western Canada. Fearful of the IWW’s commitment
to free speech
and direct action, employers and the government
recruited labour spies and vigilantes, and would
arrest or simply
murder Wobblies. When the “Great War” erupted,
many workers made a bloody sacrifice
on Europe’s battlefields. Joining the military meant,
among other things,
earning a steady wage. Failing to entice enough
recruits, the government
conscripted more. Conscription angered
many workers.
They resented wartime profiteering and their
bosses’ unwillingness to
recognize unions. Prices rose faster than wages. More than 400 strikes
erupted in 1919, prompting a worried government
to establish another inquiry, the Royal Commission
on Industrial Relations.The Winnipeg General Strike
and sympathy strikes like it, symbolized this
“great labour revolt”. Delegates at the
Western Labour Conference
in Calgary, formed the One Big Union,
and sent fraternal greetings to comrades in the
newly formed Soviet Union. The 1920s did not roar
for working-class families. Many were unemployed and
at least half were poor, struggling constantly for food,
shelter and clothing. It was a period of retreat
for organized labour. Most employers took advantage
of the downturn to fire troublemakers, roll back wages
and install company unions. A minority of large companies
implemented welfare schemes and joint labour-management
councils, to co-opt workers
and secure workplace harmony. By 1929, untrammeled capitalism
led to a spectacular
market crash. A decade of depression ensued.
About 1 million Canadians were unemployed,
or one in four workers. Many left home to scavenge,
and single men were
sent to work camps. Unemployed workers organized
the On-to-Ottawa Trek, a cross-country march starting
in Vancouver, that the RCMP
violently disbanded in Regina. Poverty and despair increased
the appeal of radical politics, and workers embraced
new political parties. The communists organized
the unemployed and
families on relief. The CCF would eventually form
the first socialist government
in North America, when Tommy Douglas became
Premier of Saskatchewan. The sit down strikes of
US autoworkers and early successes of the
newly formed Congress of
Industrial Organizations inspired industrial
workers in Canada. When General Motors sped up
production in Oshawa and refused to recognize union
representatives, more than
4000 workers walked out. The strike was won in 15 days,
marking a coming of age of
industrial unionism in Canada. The 1935 Wagner Act –
part of the New Deal in
the United States – compelled private sector
employers for the first time to bargain
with union representatives. Some Canadian provinces
followed suit,
including Alberta in 1938. But it was not until 1944
when the federal government declared Privy Council
Order Number 1003, that a new regime of compulsory
collective bargaining began to affect
all of Canada. The government was trying
to maintain
wartime production, because full employment
had encouraged Canadian workers to strike in
unprecedented numbers. The system of modern
industrial relations was cemented by strikes
after the war, like Ford Windsor,
which led to what is
called the Rand Formula. The labour movement
accepted a major trade off. Giving up on workplace militancy
and attempts to
control production, to instead pursue
gradual increases in
purchasing power. This was the post-war
compromise, and in the
“golden years” that followed, social programs
of the welfare state
provided security. Negotiated wage increases
and benefits improved the standard of living
for many Canadians- especially for members
of industrial unions. But unions were expected
to behave responsibly, and were legally required
to police their own members. During the Cold War,
the struggle against the Soviet Union became
the pretext for unions to purge
progressive thinkers, and for governments to enact
restrictive anti-union
legislation. For labour, the future
looked uncertain. ♪♪♪ CHANTALE: Hi there!
My name is Chantale Turgeon, and I have a story to tell you
about how government
employees came to think of themselves
as workers, and surged to the
forefront of Canadian labour. In the first half of the 20th
century, Parliament and
provincial legislatures grudgingly supported collective
bargaining between workers
and private sector employers. The public sector was
considered different. Government employees saw
themselves as civil servants, and had no say in their
working conditions. The few jobs governments
created were doled out to individuals with connections
to elected officials. A change of government meant
wholesale firings of
civil servants. In 1885, Manitoba was the
first province to legislate
a Civil Service Act, and made it clear that any
request for a raise “shall be considered as a
tendering of the resignation”. The view that public sector
workers were servants
persisted for decades. As late as 1964, Quebec’s
premier proclaimed, “The Queen does not
negotiate with her subjects.” Post offices were among
the earliest public
services to organize. The wages of letter carriers
failed to keep up with
rising costs of living- -they were not awarded
even a single salary increase
for thirty years. The Railway Mail
Clerks Association
formed in 1889. A union of letter carriers
formed two years later,
and of postal clerks in 1911- -but they were lobby groups
rather than recognized
collective bargaining agents. During the turbulent
years around World War I, civil servants faced high
inflation and followed the lead
of private sector workers who established unions.
Firefighters in Edmonton, for example, organized
and won a collective agreement. Teachers at this time were
angry that school boards
decided unilaterally to dock pay for the war effort.
By 1921, two thirds of Alberta’s
teachers had joined the ATA and there had been a major
strike of Edmonton teachers. Governments were typically
intolerant of strikes, and reacted harshly, especially
against those it
considered instigators. In 1924, a national strike of
postal workers was broken
by wholesale dismissals. Police who struck in Quebec and
in Toronto met the same fate. Such firings set an example
and helped discipline
the remaining workers. The government managed
to suppress attempts of
public workers to organize, in part because the
civil service remained small
right up until World War II, when barely 8% of the
Canadian workforce was employed in education, health
or government service. Divisions among public
employees also contributed
to the problem. For example, efforts by
a union to organize all
federal workers met resistance from
white-collar workers who
regarded themselves as a cut above the
blue-collar. The large number of
classifications in the
federal civil service encouraged competition
that obstructed efforts
to create unions. Changing conditions in
the post-war years eventually helped unions
make major breakthroughs
in the public sector. The example of industrial
unions was contagious
and public employees envied the new rights
and steady increases in purchasing power
won by many workers. The public sector began
to grow rapidly, both in size and complexity,
and more workers were required to deliver
the new programs
of the welfare state. Hospitals, schools and suburbs
grew in step with Canada’s
population and affluence. Most new union members
from the mid-1960s forward, were civil servants, municipal
employees, health care workers,
teachers and others. Many worked in occupations
that had no
private-sector counterparts, like air traffic controllers
and lighthouse keepers. Steady growth in government
employment meant that
by the end of the 1960s, one in five workers
was a public employee. In the decade after it
was founded in 1963, the Canadian Union of
Public Employees doubled
its membership and passed the
United Steel Workers to
become Canada’s largest union. It was a sort of
union of the public sector. The face of organized labour
was changing quickly. Public sector unions like CUPE,
gained hundreds of thousands
of female members reflecting the rapid growth
of paid employment
for married women. ♪♪♪ The 1960s were a remarkable
time of new militancy, especially in Quebec where the
Quiet Revolution was underway. Students and feminists
protested, and a new
generation of workers led hundreds of defiant
wildcat strikes from
1964 to ’66. Rank-and-file union members
angrily challenged the ‘deal’
of the post-war settlement, surprising not only employers
and government, but also
union officials. For public employees, the
illegal national postal strike
in 1965 was decisive. By 1967, the Public Service
Staff Relations Actbecame law
giving federal employees the right to choose between
compulsory arbitration,
mediation or a strike. At long last public employees
had collective bargaining rights similar to private
sector workers. The provinces followed
Ottawa’s lead, and the provincial civil
service associations
all became unions. By the early 1970s,
every province had accepted some form of
collective bargaining
with its employees- -except Ontario and Alberta,
which both refused to concede public workers
the right to strike. The Canadian labour movement
would continue to grow
for only about a decade. Union density peaked in
the mid-1980s, with over 40% of Canadian
workers organized in unions. Unionized public employees
came to outnumber
union members from the mostly male
industrial workforce,
which had begun shrinking. Starting in the 1960s
and increasingly thereafter, foreign-owned corporations
began to shut down
branch plants in Canada, laying off hundreds
and even thousands of mill and factory
workers at a time. By 1970, Canada had tipped
into a serious recession that made it seem futile
to go on organizing. The deindustrialization
of the Great Lakes region devastated private sector
unions, and also meant that unionized public sector
workers increasingly found themselves as the vanguard
of a weakened labour
movement. It was a tough time
to be a unionist. Soaring inflation,
economic stagnation, and the energy crisis of 1973,
all gave big business and the state the excuse
they needed to crack
down on unions. Wage controls nearly
provoked a general
strike in 1976, and the free trade agreements
that followed increased the power of corporations
and helped deregulate
labour markets. Some call it neoliberalism,
some call it globalization, but whatever the name,
it hasn’t been good for workers or the public services
they rely on. More and more people
count themselves lucky to hold precarious ‘McJobs’
with deteriorating conditions and declining real wages. If public sector unions don’t
defend public services,
who will? ♪♪♪ I’m Sophie Kinoseew,
and I want to tell you
about the history of some of the most
marginalized workers
in Canada, and their important
struggles for fairness
and inclusion. Workers have always
been diverse, but
many unions ignored the needs
of some people,
like indigenous, immigrant, women, or
lesbian and gay workers. Early on, only people
considered radicals grasped important ideas
now generally accepted-
like organizing all workers, and fighting to improve
conditions for everyone. ♪♪♪
[Drums] Since “time immemorial”,
First Nations peoples
lived off the land and shared what
they produced. They made
crucial contributions to our economy
that have largely
been ignored due to persistent
negative stereotypes. Indigenous technology
helped the first European explorers
and settlers to survive. First Nations participation
in the fur trade
made possible the very earliest accumulation
of wealth here. Some ran cottage industries,
and were independent producers. But by the 1850s,
more worked for wages, especially in resource
extraction industries
in British Columbia. In the late 19th
and early 20th centuries, some indigenous people
joined unions or supported
the strikes of other workers. For example, indigenous
workers established some of Vancouver’s first longshore
unions, like the Bows & Arrows
local of the IWW. On the prairies,
the Métis were exploited
as a cheap source of agricultural labour.
When the Red River Colony attempted to establish
its own government, the military violently
crushed their leaders. In 1876, the Indian Act
consolidated previous ordinances that aimed to assimilate
First Nations and
destroy their cultures- -using residential schools,
reserves and other means. First Nations people
gradually lost access to subsistence resources
and racism limited their
success in the wage economy. A cycle of economic inequality
became entrenched. Corporations often only
invested in indigenous
communities when promised low wage rates. When they
closed operations,
these communities were left to deal
with contaminated
soil and water. Today, the indigenous
population is growing
and becoming an increasingly important
part of the labour force. Some unions have
understood this and begun to organize
indigenous workers. Powerful individuals
ensured that
a sense of Britishness, and whiteness, defined
the dominant
Canadian identity. Workers different than
British-Canadians faced
unfair treatment. For French Canadian workers,
class exploitation occurred together with
cultural and linguistic
oppression. Because Anglophones
dominated Quebec’s economy, many workers embraced
nationalism and fought
for sovereignty. Immigration policies in Canada
favoured immigrants from Britain, the US and
Northern Europe, to maintain
the ‘whiteness’ of Canada. Head taxes kept out
unwanted Chinese workers, and the 1910 Immigration Act
made “Race” a restrictive
legal category. Exceptions were made
when there was a shortage
of cheap labour. Ukrainians, Poles, Italians,
and others all came to build new lives
for themselves, and in doing so
they helped build Canada. In the 1960s, restrictions were
relaxed and many
workers of colour from previously excluded
countries in Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America began
to immigrate here. They faced challenges
still familiar to immigrants
today, including discrimination at work
and in all areas of life,
such as finding housing. Until at least World War II,
most unions treated
newcomers as a threat. Craft unions drove workers
they deemed unacceptable out of their occupations,
and included race restrictions
in their constitutions. Racialized workers have
responded to discrimination
in various ways. They sometimes opened
small businesses, like
laundries or restaurants and formed their own unions
fighting for fairness, inclusion and
for their own rights. ♪♪♪ Women’s stories,
the family economy, and ideas about gender
are integral to labour history. Capitalism and wage labour
rely on vast amounts of unpaid work,
much of it done by women. Until at least the 1960s,
the common view was that a woman’s proper role was
as wife and mother, and many objected to
the paid employment of women. In 1898, the Trades and Labour
Congress called for the exclusion of women from
the labour force. Patriarchal norms assumed
that women were ‘kept’ by male breadwinners.
Yet, many women
did not have husbands, and many men earned
well below a family wage. This meant, a large number
of women were always
in the workforce. The jobs available to
them were restricted, paid less
and considered less skilled. For example, teaching
and nursing were poorly paid and lacked the
status of professions. Labour shortages during
the World Wars led to
hiring women for blue-collar jobs
normally reserved for men, including in munitions
factories. But at war’s end,
government policy pushed women back into
the home and traditional
“pink collar ghettos”. Women had to organize
within their unions to
tackle sexism in the workplace. The Alberta Federation
of Labour’s annual conventions lacked any resolutions
addressing women’s issues
until 1974. A year later, Grace Hartman
was elected president of CUPE. She was the first woman
to lead a major union
in North America. Unions have made great
strides for women. For example, the Canadian Union
of Postal Workers was the first to win
paid maternity leave, in 1981. Union contracts now help
mitigate sexual harassment, and have reduced the
pay gap between
women and men. ♪♪♪ In colonial Canada,
there was often
an ambiguous attitude towards people who engaged
in same-sex activity, especially in homosocial
work environments like the cod fishery or
the BC gold rushes. Though usually not enforced,
the law did treat lesbians and gays as criminals,
and by the late
nineteenth century, Canadian laws were changed
to police same-sex activities. Employers often regarded
gay or lesbian workers as
suspicious or unreliable. So most lived secret
“double-lives,” and concealed their
sexual identity in public. In defiance of often-violent
repression by police and straight people,
working-class lesbians and gays in large cities established
their own neighborhoods, where they found
a measure of safety. By the 1950s, most
lesbian and gay workers still preferred to remain
in the closet, but this was especially true of those
employed by the state. A series of national
security campaigns targeted and fired suspected
lesbians and gays in
the civil service. By the 1970s, same-sex
workers waged a new fight for freedom from discrimination
in employment, housing
and public services. Canada’s first gay rights march
took place in Ottawa, and the first gay liberation
newspaper was published
in Toronto. Most unions were slow
to support these struggles. The first gay rights resolution
was not heard in a union assembly until 1979,
at the Ontario Federation
of Labour- -and only after allies
promised to disrupt proceedings. The first unions to demand
sexual orientation protection in their collective agreements
were usually those led by young feminists
and socialists. Eventually, many Canadian
workers and some of their unions could claim to have
joined a global movement that, since the end of the 19th
century, is expanding the
decriminalization of homosexuality and defending
the rights of sexual and
gender minorities. ♪♪♪ Throughout history,
employers and the government often played up
differences among workers. A segregated labour market
and employment discrimination have meant some
groups of workers have been corralled into
low-paying, undesirable,
or dangerous work. Yet when workers stood united,
and overcame perceived differences, they took steps
forward for fairness. The participation of
indigenous peoples, immigrants, women,
sexual and gender minorities,
and other workers- in the economy and
in the labour movement- have made an impressive
difference to everyone’s
well-being. Yet in spite of the
great advances, much work
remains to be done. Gender and racial pay gaps
still persist, as do homophobia,
fear and misunderstanding. ♪♪♪ My name is Sarah Ocampo.
In my spare time I volunteer for my union’s history
and archive committee. I want to tell you about
fun ways to learn history, and about why preserving and
sharing your own story matters. History is usually recorded
from a perspective that serves
the interests of rich, powerful individuals,
by recounting famous exploits and a narrow view
of how public events
were shaped. Much historical writing
has ignored the presence
of working-class people, women, natives and
other oppressed groups. Workers have always understood
that to advance their interests, they would need to take matters
into their own hands. In the 1800s, unions began
to publish their own newspapers, because the owners of
the first printing presses were
unsympathetic towards workers. Similarly, workers today
more than ever are actively preserving
and sharing their own stories. They are rediscovering the
people’s history, and uncovering their role in building and
running this country. If workers don’t record history,
they risk being left out of it, or recast in inaccurate roles. ♪♪♪ There are many ways the past
has been preserved, and for
people to learn about history. Documents kept by individuals,
institutions or governments
serve as primary sources. So do artifacts, which are
objects – and much more than just union memorabilia,
like buttons or banners. They include everything
from tools to materials
from homes. Workers have recorded their own
history by writing down thoughts
about their lives and struggles, through their decisions
to join or fund unions
and political parties, or to participate in
cultural activities. Records also exist of
what workers said when they
appeared in courts. Government and union records,
newspapers, and other contemporary writings
are also useful. Labour historians and other
social scientists dedicate themselves to researching
and writing about workers. At first, they focused on
the development of trade
unions and workers’ politics, but a new generation of
historians broadened the field, to examine the experience
and culture of all workers. The writings of historians are
valuable secondary sources. It’s important though to
always identify the political perspective of
the author. Archives, libraries and museums
play an important role in collecting and
disseminating workers’ history. Some are even dedicated
specifically to working-class
heritage and arts. Research collectives,
often staffed by activists, publish accessible materials
from a particular region. The most vibrant of them
rely on the support
of volunteers and the funding of trade unions, foundations
and individual donors. Though much remains to be done,
they have led the way in ensuring workers’ stories
are a part of both, public broadcasts and the
official curriculum
of public schools. As technology has improved,
so too, has our ability to to constantly and accurately
record and preserve
events and stories. Take images, for example. At first, only drawings,
paintings or engravings
existed. Relatively few artists
chose to depict workers as doing so was at times
considered subversive. Though photography was
invented in 1839, it would take decades
before workers were
regularly featured, and even longer before
cameras reached the
hands of ordinary people. Early motion pictures were
more concerned with
providing a diversion than reflecting workers’ lives,
with notable exceptions. Dramas now tell the stories
of characters that
might as well have been real workers,
and documentaries have
surged in popularity. Enough films are about
workers that we can now search labour film databases
and attend labour
film festivals. ♪♪♪ Music is a vital historical
resource. Some musicians and
new media specialists develop video ballads
to retell workers’ stories. Others have reinterpreted
and recorded folk
or protest songs, and many perform at
working-class music festivals. Some novels have been
written as historical fictions, and the roots of labour history
graphic novels can be
traced to a tradition of activist and underground
comics that emerged
in the late 19th century. Many political cartoons used
by unionists to communicate
left politics are now artifacts in
and of themselves. Workers can sometimes find
their history by watching
stage plays and theatre, or by following walking tours.
It is up to workers themselves if public monuments, murals
and place names are
to reflect their lives. Every community has
a working-class history
worthy of its own tour. In the information age,
incredible advances in computing have made a tsunami of
digital resources available. Personal computers and smart
phones also mean that workers
record their history in new formats, like e-mails,
blogs and messages
on social media accounts. Creative specialty websites now
curate historical information, collecting digitized documents
with a view to making the sentiments and struggles
of workers more accessible. Unions have also established
microsites that preserve and share the stories
of their members. Perhaps one of the most
important technological advances for preserving labour history
occurred in the early 1950s, when recording on magnetic tape
came into general use. Tape enabled people
to conveniently record
oral histories, that is, accounts of the past
by word of mouth. For the first time,
workers’ voices could be heard directly, and interviews
with ordinary people began to form the basis of social,
community, and even
union histories. Everyone has a story
worth sharing and preserving. The stories of workers’
lives matter. Working-class history
gives insight into today’s circumstances,
putting lives into a deeper and broader context.
When people see themselves
in history, they gain a new
consciousness and understanding of how
to go forward. Labour history teaches workers
about their own
resiliency and agency- – about their ability
to improve the world,
and shape history’s outcome. They discover it is
the ‘countless small deeds
of many people together who make possible
the significant events
that become history.’ And while no union
was ever perfect, and many
have long since disappeared, unions help unite workers,
and empower them
to make history. Looking back, workers
have faced hardships,
cruelty and exploitation. But there was also
resistance and triumph,
moments in which courage, compassion, and love
defined the day. These stories give hope
and strength to carry on
today’s struggles.

5 thoughts on “Introduction to Labour History

  1. Too many lazy assumptions " unregulated capitalism caused the depression" for instance? Its just false. Chronic mismanagment by the federal reserve had a lot to do..

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