For nearly a generation now, Canadian labour history has gone beyond a simple identification of its task with the writing of the labour union history. The landmarks of the latter have long been familiar to all students of Canadian history: the 1872 legalization of trade unions, the Berlin Conference, IDIA, Winnipeg General Strike, PC 1003 and the Rand formula. To this list will likely be added the recent trend away from international unions marked by the creation of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW). But it has been Braverman and not Harold Logan from whom labour historians have taken their marching orders.(f.1) Labour history has very much become working class history.
The core of the discipline, like Caesar's Gaul, has been composed of three unequal-sized parts. The largest embraces studies of workplace control, the contested terrain of industrial capitalism. Drawing on the seminal work of Braverman, writers such as Radforth, Heron and the authors of the outstanding On the Job collection have given us a wealth of case studies on the work experience in a broad variety of settings.(f.2) The issue of skill has in particular been well explored, moving beyond simplistic models of de-skilling to more sophisticated understandings of the impact of new technologies and managerial strategies on the control of production at the shop floor level. Working-class culture forms the second part of labour history's core. Palmer, Fingard and many others have helped us to understand the lives of past workers within and beyond the workplace and how gender, ethnicity and other factors have textured those lives.(f.3) Finally, a minority of labour historians has continued to find the political history of labour to be of interest.(f.4) These three approaches can be seen together in one of the field's exemplary works, Kealey's well regarded Toronto Workers Respond to Industrial Capitalism.(f.5)
While these developments place Canadian labour history in the mainstream of contemporary English-language labour historiography, finding uniquely Canadian aspects of the country's labour history has been more problematic. In his review essay on American labour history, Nellis challenged practitioners of that specialty to show how their work impinged on or was impinged upon by other debates and broader themes in national history.(f.6) A similar gauntlet could be thrown down on this side of the line. Kealey's own identification of continental economic integration and regional identities and federalism as "account[ing] for that national uniqueness of the historical experience of our working class"(f.7) has not been pursued. Pentland's ambitious thesis, though admired, has not defined overall chronological developments in a clear analytical framework;(f.8) thus Leir's recent regret over the lack of theory in the writing of labour history.(f.9) Perhaps the most promising candidate for an approach to this problem is national comparison. Similarities and contrasts with the United States are too well known and too invidious to have much merit. An exception would be the approach of Peter Way in integrating the Canadian experience into a broader, regionalized, North American study.(f.10) An appropriate comparison is the Canada-Wales study sponsored by the Memorial-based labour history committee.(f.11) This comparative study parallels work done by the Canadian Science and Technology Historical Association on understanding the history of science in Canada through a comparison with Australia.(f.12)
More than a decade ago, I regretted the lack of any satisfactory treatment of the history of supervisory personnel by labour historians, as well as their obfuscation around the issue of workers versus their unions.(f.13) I can see no reason not to repeat these complaints again now while being blunter about the source of the problem -- the ideological predilections of the discipline's practitioners. Labour history is almost entirely a preserve of the Left and labour historians are, in many cases self-consciously, indeed proudly, sympathetic to their subject matter. …