Friday, June 03, 2016

Review: Lunch-Bucket Lives

[Craig Heron. Lunch-Bucket Lives: Remaking the Workers' City. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2015.]

Back in March, I was travelling far away from my new-again home of Hamilton, Ontario, and as I often do when I have a spare moment, I was reflecting (obsessing?) about the path that I want my work to take. I won't bore you with the chain of connections that got me there, but some part of this thinking about what I want to write led to me thinking that I might like to read more things about where I am and where I came from. Which does not point towards any particular interest in writing, say, local history, but it does point to a desire to read some. After I returned home, I did some poking around to find a relevant book, and this recent publication by a well-known Canadian labour historian jumped out immediately as an obvious choice.

Lunch-Bucket Lives is a massive, detailed look at the social history between 1890 and 1940 of working-class people in Hamilton. As I often find with the sort of methodical, detail-attentive writing necessary to do good social history, it managed to be both an interesting read and rather a slow one. I don't bring any formal disciplinary expertise to the reading of history, but I have read a fair bit of it and written some, and I was pretty impressed with this book. I really appreciated the rich and well-documented sense that it gave of everyday life for working people in that era. I appreciated the breadth of topics that it covered. I very much appreciated how thoroughly considerations of gender were integrated into the length and breadth of the book, and how central spaces of reproduction were made to the telling of this history, in contrast with how labour historians of earlier years might have focused purely on production and the public sphere. I appreciated how effectively some complex ideas about how the social world works and how power works were presented not with inaccessible language and abstraction, but with patient, detailed description of the actual course of actual events. For instance, I really liked the chapter on caring-work and health-related labour, and the one on education, and how they both showed the uneven but relentless push through which the state came to take a bigger and bigger role in working-class lives (or, to express it slightly differently, how working-class people were increasingly organized into state practices). I appreciate how in discussing working-class response to everything from education initiatives to popular culture, the book stressed the agency of working people in the face of social forces, and the active and negotiated ways in which they were incorporated into communities and lives.

There isn't much that I would ask the book to do differently or to cover in greater depth. Perhaps the only thing that stood out for me in this regard was the contrast between how gender was handled versus how race and sexuality were handled. As I said, the gendered character of experience and the gendered aspects of social relations were carefully considered throughout. Questions of racial background and white supremacy (not to mention settler colonialism) were much less thoroughly integrated. In part, I suspect this is a response to the major contours of social life in Hamilton in that era: Indigenous, Black, and Chinese presence in the city were, precisely because of how white supremacy and settler colonialism were playing out, very small in those years. The most palpably present Other against which dominant identities were formed in the Hamilton of that era were the much larger Eastern and Southern European immigrant populations, which are indeed given plenty of attention in the book. And certainly those three colonized/racialized communities were not ignored, nor was the role of what David Roediger wrote about in the US context as the 'wages of whiteness' in the identity formation of the Anglo-Celtic portion of the Hamilton working-class. But these things were not integrated nearly as thoroughly into the book as gender. And as for sexuality -- well, the book did give some consistent if low-key attention to shifts in heterosexual relationship forms and practices over the era in question. And I completely understand that historical resources for understanding manifestations of queerness in that era are not necessarily easy to come by, especially (as the book itself notes) outside of major metropolitan centres that had more developed networks and spaces for same-gender erotic practices in those years like Toronto and New York. On the other hand, I know from reading a few pieces years ago by Canadian historian Steven Maynard, things like urban planning in Canadian cities in that era were very much informed by the impulse to foreclose possibilities for men to have sex with men, so I can't help but wonder whether more attention than the scant few paragraphs it received in this book might have been possible. Anyway, as much as those are real questions, it is always easier to ask for more than it is to actually do it; this book does a tremendous amount and does it well, and I don't want to detract from that.

I think the last feature of this book that I want to draw attention to is one that is perhaps difficult for people committed to social movements and to struggle, but one that I think it is extremely important for us to be totally honest about as we decide how to engage in collective efforts to push for change. There was an earlier generation of labour history that focused very much on strikes and riots and union drives, and on other forms of confrontation in the workplace or the political realm. And, certainly, those are talked about in detail in this book. But they are talked about in a way that refuses to do what those earlier historians did, and detach these generally pretty rare instances of collective and confrontational mobilization from their context. This book is very, very clear that while such collective resistance mattered a great deal to a great many people in certain moments, most of the time the collective agency exerted by the vast majority of working-class people in response to crushing poverty, hostile capitalists, and an indifferent state was in the form of everyday resistance and mutual aid. This is not to dismiss the project of organizing -- of seeking to support the combining of moments of everyday resistance into more overtly collective and confrontational resistance -- but it is perhaps to encourage folks on the left to think more carefully about how to better relate to the just-as-collective but much differently organized responses to harsh conditions that working-class people have engaged in much more often than the sorts of movements we often treat as the be-all and end-all.

Anyway. This is a great book, and I'm very glad I read it, but I'm a little cautious about recommending it -- it is, as I said, physically massive and a slow read. If the themes I've identified in this review speak to you, though, and particularly if you also live in Hamilton, then by all means don't hesitate to put in the time it will take.

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

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