Sunday, June 12, 2005

Review: Nationalism, Communism, and Canadian Labour

(Nationalism, Communism, and Canadian Labour: The CIO, the Communist Party, and the Canadian Congress of Labour, 1935-56. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973.)

Yep, another book review.

This one is a history of industrial unions in Canada from 1935 until 1956. The start date was chosen because it marked the end of the infamous "Third Period" of Communist activity. During that era they were busy organizing independent, Communist-controlled unions under the banner of the Workers Unity League. There was also a small labour central of national but anti-Communist unions in Canada, called the All-Canadian Congress of Labour (ACCL), and the Canadian Trades and Labour Congress (TLC) was the central for international unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. The TLC remained fixated with craft unionism and was adamantly opposed to the organizing of industrial unions.

In 1935, the Communists went back into the mainstream labour movement. Not too long after that, the Congress of Industrial Organizations -- the U.S. labour central devoted to industrial unionism -- came north. Well, kind of. Actually, most of the money and most of the person-power that went into the organizing came from Canadians, many but certainly not all of them Communists. The CIO was reluctant to put resources into Canada but was pushed into at least lending their name by the vigour of local organizing and, particularly, the Oshawa auto strike of 1937. The CIO unions were initially affiliated with the AFL, but were expelled in 1937 (or thereabouts). The blood was not so bad between craft and industrial unions in Canada, but in 1939 the AFL finally forced the TLC to give the CIO-affiliated unions the boot. In 1939 and 1940, the CIO unions in Canada merged with the ACCL to form the Canadian Congress of Labour.

The years covered by the rest of the book were marked by struggles between Communists and anti-Communists in the labour movement, between the CCL in Canada and the CIO in the United States, and between the national and international unions within the CCL. In 1956, the CCL and the TLC merged to form the Canadian Labour Congress, which is still the name of Canada's central labour body.

This is an interesting and detailed and very useful book, and an important read for anyone wanting to understand the history of Canada's labour movement.

It is also pretty depressing. All of the internal conflicts of this period marked drains on energy that could have been used to organize the unorganized and struggle for better wages and working conditions, and for broader social change. But the one that struck me as the stupidest and most wasteful was the Communist/anti-Communist fight. Both sides were vicious and partisan. Both sides lied and abused democratic process in the worst ways. Neither side had a monopoly in terms of connection to the needs and desires of rank-and-file workers. Eventually the supporters of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation won by either seizing control of unions that previously had Communist leadership or just kicking entire unions out of the Congress.

I suppose I have to temper my gut reaction -- disgust -- with understanding of the historical context. That was an era of extreme polarization within the left, and in fact the battle within the labour movement was a large part of the struggle that ultimately resulted in the transfer of the centre of influence on the left in Canada from the CP to the CCF. It was not an environment that allowed much opportunity for positions distinct from both of those. There were certainly those in leadership positions who tried to carve out positions between the two camps, but sooner or later they became casualties. So, yes, I can appreciate that it was a dynamic bigger than any individual or group, but that doesn't change the fact that I hope that in the future our movements can avoid giving elites such cause for amusement and celebration.

Anyway, another book down, another ten million to go. Or something.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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