restricted access “Just Business”: 1970s Management Paternalism and Failed Service Sector Unionization
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“Just Business”:
1970s Management Paternalism and Failed Service Sector Unionization

The 1970s was a period when Canadian workplaces changed significantly. High inflation, wage controls, generational difference, and electoral politics led workers to either considering unionization or to exercise their rights as union members to push for better working conditions. Indeed, in October 1976, the Canadian labour movement mounted a one day protest that was the closest thing to a general strike in the post-World War II decades. These developments occurred as service sector employment flourished across the country. The mid-1970s were also years when employers in both Canada and the United States showed increasing willingness to challenge the right of workers to organize and form unions.1

We know much about the nature of the post-war labour relations system from work done by various authors on the increased hostility shown by both the state and capital toward labour beginning in the 1970s. The labour relations system was in many ways focused on manufacturing industries, and analyses of those industries have generally addressed unionized workers and their employers. There have been fewer analyses of non-unionized workplaces and occupations. Research on labour-management relations in North America in the post-war period has often looked at workplace conflict from the perspective of workers rather than management. Some employers were more hostile toward labour than others, and some went to great lengths to avoid [End Page 129] unionization. Labour historians in Canada and the United States have made significant efforts to improve our understanding of how management operated in the post-war decades, but have largely done so by examining labour-management interaction at larger workplaces, and often at workplaces that either unionized or at least witnessed a major dispute before unionization failed.2

This article discusses a case study of union avoidance that is part of a larger study that focuses on the development of management as an occupation in the four decades following World War II. The firm that is at the center of this analysis – Hobbs Hardware – is best described as a place that was in between those workplaces that have already been discussed in post-war labour history. Founded in London, Ontario in 1876, it was a hardware distributor that purchased a range of consumer goods from manufacturers and sold them wholesale to retailers. It was part of the vast distribution network that linked manufacturing to markets. As Nelson Lichtenstein has observed, even management theorist Peter Drucker felt that little was known about how distribution networks operated in the post-war decades.3 Companies like Hobbs were part of that distribution network, and were linked to the growing postwar service sector. The company went from a family-owned enterprise to eventually being taken over by Aikenhead Hardware in 1968. From there, both Hobbs and Aikenhead became components of the Canadian-owned Molson conglomerate in 1971. Although it was part of the retail industry, the Hobbs Hardware head office was located on Oxford Street East in London, firmly in the city’s busy industrial area. Major workplaces that were organized by the United Auto Workers (uaw), such as General Motors and 3M, were just a couple of kilometres down the road from the Hobbs Hardware facility.4

Hobbs Hardware was important because it was unlike so many other workplaces that have been the focus of existing studies of labour-management conflict in the post-World War II decades. Hobbs Hardware was not large even though it became part of Molson. Unionization was not the cause of a long struggle like the one that Eileen Sufrin examined at Eaton’s. Hobbs Hardware workers were not employed in manufacturing like those who have been studied [End Page 130] at companies like Dofasco, Kodak, and rca. It was a fairly anonymous place in comparison to larger, more well-known companies. Its anonymity made it important because places like Hobbs Hardware show how management in the post-war period – in this case the mid-1970s – orchestrated effective campaigns to keep low-wage workers out of unions. This is especially true for those workers who toiled in seemingly inconsequential workplaces that were part of the growing service sector...