Monday, August 29, 2005

Review: Cold Warrior

(Doug Smith. Cold Warrior: C.S. Jackson and the United Electrical Workers. St. John's: Canadian Committee on Labour History, 1997.)

This book is a biography of Clarence Shirley Jackson, who for forty years led the Canadian district of the United Electrical Workers. A son of the middle class of northwestern Ontario, he helped guide what ended up being the most successful of the left-wing unions in Canada in the middle of the twentieth century. The UE ended up merging with the Canadian Auto Workers in the '90s and in any case the electrical industry in Canada has been eroded by neoliberal economic forces since long before such a term was even in use, but the union managed to successfully resist the attacks of business, governments, and social democrats which caused most of the left-wing unions in Canada to purge their Communist leadership or to lose most of their membership to raids after being expelled from the mainstream of the labour movement. The UE was expelled and attacked, but it held most of its membership, and advanced a consistent and often, in retrospect, accurate critique of the political course of the country.

Jackson's success was tightly tied to his devotion to the workers in his union -- politics were important, but fighting like a dog for bread and butter issues for the members was the pinnacle. It was this strength that defanged, in most areas, the anti-Communist rhetoric of the CCF partisans who tried to woo away the membership to other unions. Jackson himself claims not to have been a party member after 1941, though his affinity for the CPC's politics and his commitment to an independent, socialist Canada did not waver between then and his death in the early '90s. His cantankerous and aggressive nature comes through in spades in the book, which truly illustrates that he was a "brilliant, tyrannical, vindictive, class-conscious, patriotic old bugger."

I read this book because one of my project participants was chief steward for the UE local at the Westinghouse plant in Hamilton for many years. Unfortunately, because that plant was probably the single most secure UE stronghold in the country, there is less content about it than those in which the CCF/NDP-associated unions had to be aggressively beaten off. Nonetheless, the book paints a good picture of the institution of the UE as well as Jackson as a man. It has also made me realize that I need to read Cy Gonick's biography of Bill Walsh, who for two decades was a staffer at the local that covered the Westinghouse plant; I look forward to doing so.

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

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