Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Review: Kent Rowley, the Organizer

[Rick Salutin. Kent Rowley, the Organizer: A Canadian Union Life. Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, Publishers, 1980.]

I read this book because its subject, Kent Rowley, was married for many years to Madeleine Parent, whom I interviewed for my project. She recommended this book as a source of context for understanding her own activities.

Like Parent and C.S. Jackson, books about whom I have already reviewed on this site, Rowley was a product of the left wing of the Canadian trade union movement in the '30s and '40s. He was born into a middle-class anglophone family in Montreal that fell into working-class circumstances during the Depression. He was active even as a high school student and later began his labour career by organizing office workers in the '30s and then textile workers in the '40s. He and Parent were central to a few of the most important strikes in Quebec in the late '40s and early '50s. After being thrown out of their AFL-affiliated textile union they began a long path of organizing first an independent Canadian textile union and then an entire small (never more than 40,000 members) but vibrant nationalist labour central, the Confederation of Canadian Unions, that harried the much larger Canadian Labour Congress and pushed a militant, class-conscious, nationalist trade unionism as a counter-example to the business unionism in most of the U.S.-dominated CLC affiliates. Rowley and Parent were very effective in turning strikes by CCU unions into larger social issues that drew support from the rank and file of the broader labour movement and other progressive social movements.

Though he was involved in Communist-led youth organizations in the '30s and remained personally close with some party-affiliated trade unionists throughout his life, Rowley was never in the CPC. Though he was a committed socialist, he differed from the CPC on a number of grounds, including his take on the "national question" and how it applied to Canada and the labour movement. Like many on the left, he was interned for a couple of years during World War II. He tried to volunteer for the armed services repeatedly because he wanted to "fight fascism" but was rejected, ostensibly for medical reasons. Despite this enthusiasm for the war he was deemed dangerous to the war effort and locked up. He concluded this had more to do with the fact that when the army turned him down he went back to organizing workers and endangering profits rather than because he was in any way against the war effort. He and Parent were also repeatedly persecuted by Quebec Premier and right-wing thug Maurice Duplessis, including an eight-year saga revolving around groundless charges of seditious conspiracy kept alive by corrupt courts, and for many years they were targeted by more right-wing elements in the labour movement.

The book is well written and accessible. It is a bit more adulatory than I might hope for, but then from my few interactions with Parent, I suspect Rowley was someone well worth admiring. Though the book does not omit Parent's role entirely, and it is after all a biography of Rowley and not of both of them, I think the ways in which the book makes her visible and invisible in different ways are tightly wrapped in the broader phenomenon of how women's contributions to history get underemphasized and excluded. Nonetheless, it is a solid book about an important corner of Canada's labour history.

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

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