Do Status Differences among Workers Make a Difference during Economic Crises? the Case of Depression Hamilton

Article excerpt

The present analysis is part of a larger study of Hamilton workers during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Because approximately 70% of Hamilton's local economy centred around the making of iron and steel and various capital and consumer goods from them, it was particularly damaged by the crisis. Rates of "short time" and unemployment among construction workers, "unskilled labourers" in general, and all categories of workers compared unfavorably with most other Canadian cities, as did the proportions of working-class individuals and families on public relief (Archibald, 1992). Furthermore, when 100 men and 100 women who had lived and worked for pay in Hamilton for at least two years between 1929 and 1939 were asked whether the Depression had made their lives "much worse" (see Archibald, 1996a), a majority (56.1%) replied that it had.

Nevertheless, deprivation among workers was not uniform. There were large differences among industries. Workers employed in the textile and clothing and domestic service as well as public service industries were much less affected than those in construction and the manufacture of iron and steel products. However, there were also large differences within industries. Thus, "skilled," "craft" workers and those with higher pay and occupational status more generally often lost less time than "unskilled" and lower-paid and lower-status workers, yet this was not always true. Indeed, craftsmen in construction lost so much time that many left the industry for much lower-paid, but also more secure employment as maintenance workers in factories.

Similarly, older and middle-aged workers who had entered the labour market and obtained full-time jobs well before the onset of the Depression seemed to fare better than younger workers, yet there were also reports in the literature that because there was no minimum wage for male factory workers in Ontario, some employers were giving more work to younger and cheaper workers. As was true more generally, women workers in Hamilton suffered less short time and unemployment than men did, but it is not clear whether this was a result of employers preferring women because their labour was cheaper, or simply of women having been concentrated in industries and occupations which were shielded from the crisis (Dominion Bureau of Statistics, 1938: 172-73; Weaver, 1982: 131; Horn, 1984: 11).

Finally, statistics for Ontario in general indicate that on average, workers of British ancestry lost less time than did those whose origins were from central and southern Europe (Dominion Bureau of Statistics, 1937: 276). Oral historians (e.g., Broadfoot, 1975: Chapters 14 and 26), claim that prejudice and discrimination against workers from minority racial and ethnic groups greatly increased during the 1930s. Among the workers we interviewed, even a majority of white workers of British ethnicity agreed that this was the case, yet quite a few workers of other races and ethnicities claimed that they had not suffered from discrimination. Some of the latter were employed in industries and occupations buffered from the Depression, but some even claimed that their peasant origins and traditional food and recreational preferences gave them an advantage over majority workers. We also suspected that some employers may have preferred to hire minorities as well as women, because they were also cheaper to employ.

These inconsistencies seemed to warrant further research.

The literature provides numerous predictions for the effects of status differences during economic crises. Rubery et al. (1988: 3, 15) delineate three popular hypotheses: 1) "recession opens up new opportunities for women workers as employers, pressed to cut costs and increase the flexibility of production, substitute women for men within their workforces;" 2) "women are a flexible reserve, to be drawn into the labor market in upturns and expelled in downturns;" and 3) "According to the job segregation hypothesis, there is rigid sex-typing of occupations[;] hence demand for female labour is dependent on demand in female-dominated sectors; employment trends will thus be related more to secular trends in sectoral and occupational structures than to cyclical factors"(emphases added). …