Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Some Millennial Reflections on the State of Canadian Labour History

Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Some Millennial Reflections on the State of Canadian Labour History

Article excerpt

AT INTERVALS, someone invites me to comment on the state of labour history. Once it was the Institut d'histoire de l'Amerique francaise; later it was Noah Meltz and Gerard Hebert, armed with a grant to describe the state of industrial relations research.(1) And last May it was Bryan Palmer, inviting prompt submission of twenty-five pages, if possible by the end of June. Bryan has been no great fan of the illustrated Canadian labour history Terry Copp and I produced in 1980 and which recently struggled into a fourth edition.(2) I was suitably flattered and beguiled. I admire the journal he, Greg Kealey and James Thwaites, Andree Levesque, and Jacques Rouillard and how many others have kept going. To contribute to Labour/le Travail (L/LT) is an honour and a responsibility. Moreover, quick turn-arounds are my specialty. And so, to the dismay of my staff, I cut back on my current work and got busy.

Admittedly, what I dropped is so remote from the interests and values of L/LT and its loyal guardians that they may well question Bryan's judgement. After seven years of academic administration and corporate fundraising at the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus, I became the major beneficiary of Charles R. Bronfman's $10 million gift to McGill University to improve the Study of Canada in an old anglophone institution. Since mid-1994, I have earned my wages by trying to provide McGill and its community with rather more teaching, seminars and conferences about Canada than it might otherwise enjoy. My misspent youth with the NDP, under the roof of the United Packinghouse Workers, sometimes seems very far off.

Admittedly, in alternate years at McGill, I teach an upper-year course on industrial relations history. Back in the days of the late H.D. Woods, Jacob Finkelman, and Shirley Goldenberg, this was a field of some significance at McGill. Now the Faculty of Management treats it as a detour for those ill-fitted for business, while Arts spares industrial relations students the full rigours of Economics. Few of my students come from either program. Most encountered unions as they grew up in Ontario or British Columbia or had to join during a summer job. Some had parents who voted NDP; this year, one had been a Tory candidate in British Columbia in 1997. He proved to be more knowledgeable and more pro-union than most of his fellow students. I still do speaking stints for old friends in the Steelworkers, the Firefighters, and even the Public Service Alliance, but frankly, like David Bercuson and Terry Copp, I am better known these days for my historical and political advice to Canada's much-battered military.

So what do I now know about the state of labour history? Less than I should. I read what I can, much of it rationed out by the editorial board of L/LT. Should I, aware of my scholarly limits, phone Bryan and beg off? Then came the May issue of the Literary Review of Canada. There, in a Palmer review of Russell Jacoby's new book, I had my answer.(3) It might not be what he or Jacoby intended, but if I cared, I should write. Eric Hobsbawm's plea that we should be "concerned with changing the world as well as interpreting it" was not restricted to revolutionaries.(4) More than most intellectual fields, the study of the working class is engage. Its goal is not winning a teaching job, tenure, or promotion; it aims to change consciousness and conduct. Jacoby's message, Palmer seemed to suggest, is that those of us who still believe that knowledge and ideas should have practical outcomes should quit hiding behind the academic bric-a-brac and risk getting our hands and reputations dirty.

The changes I seek are not necessarily monolithic or even dramatic. I don't happen to share Palmer's (or Hobsbawm's or Jacoby's) enthusiasm for a revolutionary transformation of society. Georg Lukacs' commitment to "annihilate capitalism" seems premature, given the fate of his alternative. Small victories are better than massive defeat. …

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