With 340,000 words in the main text, a further 75,000 in the 130 pages of footnotes, more than a hundred illustrations, a 50-page bibliography, and 45 tables online, this is a magnum opus in every sense of the term. Ian McKay calls it a masterpiece, and I can see why. Craig Heron integrates feminist and labour historiography in a rich description of how Canada’s leading industrial city was transformed in the early twentieth century. The historical argument, that there was change but little improvement for the working class, will surprise many, but it is his historiographical argument that will fuel debates for years to come. Heron argues that gender is fundamental to class formation, in a way that the social relations of production are not.
The structure illustrates well this revisionist argument. The book is divided into four parts, totalling 18 chapters. It opens conventionally enough with sketches of the city’s two distinct classes as “view[ed] from the mountain”: the bourgeois world of “Hobson’s Hamilton” (Robert Hobson was the long-time CEO of Stelco) and the working class of “Studholme’s people” (Allan Studholme served as the Independent Labour MPP for East Hamilton from 1906 until his death in 1919).
The five chapters on “keeping the wolf from the door” explore the constraints facing working class families in Hamilton. The point of departure is the “labouring for love” of the housewife. This subject receives twice the length needed to address the difficulties of “bringing home the bacon.” This inversion of the presumed primacy of the male head foreshadows the main argument of the book: working-class culture is not forged in the crucible of workplace struggles. Next is how working-class children and youth were disciplined by “school bells and factory whistles.” What families consumed is then surveyed in “spending the hard earned bucks.” The main theme in both chapters is clear: working people’s situation changes in the half century prior to the Second World War, but it does not qualitatively improve. Throughout the period, “the last resort” remains seeking help from outside the working class. Here there is an evolution from a completely private, philanthropic system to one that does recognize a circumscribed role for the state based on citizen’s rights. This is not yet the welfare state, but rather, to use a simile my late father often evoked, a system that is “as cold as charity.”
Two hundred pages into the work, we finally pass through a factory gate with three chapters on “punching the clock.” This is the only section to be partially organized chronologically, because it is where Heron argues there was the greatest change over time. “Hold the fort” critically reviews the last two decades of effective craft unionism in the city. Although craft unionism was losing ground by 1906, the fundamental weakness of strategies designed to protect the skilled are sharply revealed with “the whip hand” of the Second Industrial Revolution. Much more is at stake here than merely continuous processing guided by scientific management. Heron concludes Hamilton became an “open-shop heaven” (p. 303), as company after company followed the hard line championed by the major corporations in the severe recession of 1913–1915. Once the unions were broken, a corporate [End Page 205] welfare regime was built on the racist and gendered divisions of the new social relations of production. Amazingly, “standing up to the boss” continued to happen with a remarkable frequency and inventiveness given the extraordinary power of management. None of the three extended periods of militancy, 1910–1914, 1916–1921, and 1929–1936, however, succeeded in creating “long-lived organizations rooted in production to sustain and enhance a distinctive collective identity as wage-earners” (p. 303).
If not there, then where? This is the topic of 250 pages over seven chapters on “the ties that bind.” Heron begins with “the family circle,” whose focus is on the free time after supper and before bed, on Sundays, and eventually on Saturday afternoons. At the centre of the circle...