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Recent Studies in Canadian Labour History from the Great Depression into the 21st Century
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Perry Anderson’s observation that “studies of the working class anywhere in the world, once a staple of history and sociology, have declined along with labour movements as a political force”1 is undoubtedly true. This comment expresses an important point about the relationship between a particular kind of academic writing and its historical context. It is also worth noting that contemporary studies are less influenced by Marxist understandings of capitalism and class than those of the 1970s and 1980s, and less concerned with questions connected to the working class as a political force. Contemporary research also tends to be more sensitive to gender, race, and other social relations that mediate class relations.

In spite of the turn away from studying the working class noted by Anderson, histories of the working-class movement in Canada are still being written. The four books considered here are all focused squarely on unions, though political parties rooted in the working class are also considered to varying degrees and organizations of the unemployed figure in two of them. Each book, in its way, contributes to “the history of labour’s combativity and defence of its material circumstances” that is “important in charting a new politics of resistance” today.2 A strong Marxist influence is only discernible in one of them, but none are marked by postmodernist social theory either.

Until the appearance of Stephen Endicott’s Raising the Workers’ Flag, there was no major published study of the Workers’ Unity League (wul ), the organization of unions formed and led by the Communist Party of Canada (cpc ) during the Great Depression.3 Raising the Workers’ Flag is the result of many years of research and aspires to offer a “comprehensive understanding of the outlook and practice” (424) of the wul . Its 327 pages of text, nearly 50 pages of illustrations, and almost 100 pages of notes, bibliography and appendices are testimony to the author’s commitment to telling the wul ’s story. The motivation for this effort is clearly not just a desire to fill a gap in the academic literature. Endicott contends that the “continuing salience” of the struggles of the activists of the wul lies in the fact that “the same erratic system of private market capitalism that they faced in the 1930s remains in charge of the Canadian and world economy in a new century” and that “many of the traditions fostered by the Workers’ Unity League” (xi) are relevant to resistance to the many depredations of capitalism today.

Raising the Workers’ Flag opens with a brief overview of the working class and unions in Canada in the late 1920s and a chapter that introduces readers to the Communist International (Comintern), the Red International of Labour Unions (Profintern), and the relationship of the cpc to them. It describes some of the events leading to the creation of the wul : the Profintern’s “cautious” (23) February 1929 letter to the cpc , its directive of October 1929 to form a “’revolutionary trade union centre’” (31) in Canada, the decision the following month by the cpc ’s Political Committee to do so, and the low-key founding conference in May 1930. It then surveys the wul ’s earliest activities in the sectors where small cpc -led industrial unions already existed – the needle trades, lumber workers in Northern Ontario, Alberta miners – and among Cape Breton miners, where Communist support was significant. As Endicott briefly mentions, in workplaces where hostile employers refused to recognize any union those activists who were members of the cpc or who worked closely with Communists were “understandably cautious” (37) about the project of trying to build brand-new highly militant industrial unions affiliated to a very small union centre that, as the Canadian section of the Profintern, was openly pledged to revolution. In Nova Scotia, the attempt to form a wul mineworkers’ affiliate flopped when the leading radical in the province’s labour movement, cpc member J.B. McLachlan, declined the nomination to head the new union (a move that infuriated the party’s young provincial organizer). (41–42)

After a chapter centred on the Profintern congress of 1930, Raising the Workers’ Flag proceeds to examine the wul ’s struggles...

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