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Reviewed by:
  • Capital and Labour in the British Columbia Forest Industry, 1934–74
  • Ian Radforth
Gordon Hak . Capital and Labour in the British Columbia Forest Industry, 1934–74. University of British Columbia Press. 272. $29.95

In this engaging study of the British Columbia forest industry, labour historian Gordon Hak pays equal attention to the history of the companies and unions, critically assessing the emergence and functioning of the labour relations system during the middle third of the twentieth century. In addition, Hak tackles several other themes: technological change in the woods and mills, contrasting patterns of development on the coast and in the interior, the state's role in mediating conflicts between big and small business, clashes within the labour movement, everyday union activities in the era of the so-called postwar compromise, and the rise of an environmental movement that challenged both companies and unions. The prose is clear, the narrative well organized, and the focus firmly – perhaps too firmly – on the region.

It is refreshing to read a labour history that troubles to study company strategies and management perspectives carefully as well as critically. This is evident in the first chapter, which surveys corporate consolidation on the coast and the proliferation of small operators in the province's interior. It is apparent, too, where Hak makes a case for the relative autonomy of the state in British Columbia's management of Crown forest resources. In one of the strongest parts of the book, Hak demonstrates how the province's postwar system for allocating timber resources spurred the organization of small operators and led them to deploy a public rhetoric that harangued corporate monopolists and celebrated free enterprise. When discussing the environmental movement that arose in the late 1960s, moreover, Hak credits the companies for introducing a strategy that modified certain policies and energetically defended the industry's claims on the forest resource. The unions, by contrast, floundered in articulating a vigorous, independent position.

The heart of the book is a history of the industry's labour relations during the Fordist era, a period when large corporations used mass-production techniques to churn out consumer commodities that workers could afford to buy, corporations and unions reached accords that promoted stability, and the state worked to manage the economy and provide social security. Hak rightly emphasizes that the labour-management accord in the forest industry was not easily reached, and that it followed an extended period of labour militancy that drove companies reluctantly to recognize unions and make concessions. Indeed, the accord did not cover the whole of the province's forest industry until the mid 1950s, fully halfway through the period Hak labels as Fordist. Even then, as the author shows, labour peace was never guaranteed, and instability was further exacerbated by conflicts between craft and industrial [End Page 354] unionists, communists and their opponents, and national and international unionists. Nevertheless, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, when Fordism began to fall apart, corporations could pursue their interests secure from fundamental threats to production and property.

In the usual run of events, what Hak calls 'the daily grind,' management and labour worked to ensure that contract provisions were met, and they squabbled mainly over job classifications and grievances involving just one or two employees. Hak disagrees with scholars who condemn postwar labour leaders for having been coopted by management. He argues instead that with their limited financial resources and usually inactive memberships, the democratically elected leaders did what they could to maintain hard-won union powers such as they were, and that these leaders left wider social issues to the political parties, usually the CCF/NDP. Confirmed critics of the postwar compromise will not likely be persuaded by Hak, who presents a limited amount of evidence on this matter – as he does on several others. But then this book has the merit of exposing readers to a wide range of significant issues in just 193 pages of text, which makes it highly suitable as an addition to course reading lists.

Ian Radforth
Department of History, University of Toronto
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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 354-355
Launched on MUSE
2008-06-04
Open Access
No
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