- Union Power: Solidarity and Struggle in Niagara by Carmela Patrias, Larry Savage
In Union Power: Solidarity and Struggle in Niagara, Carmela Patrias and Larry Savage trace the region’s vibrant and contentious labour history, from the struggles of the immigrant labourers who built the Welland Canal to the current fight to unionize Niagara’s casinos. Their book excels at relating the major features of this history but often lacks the analytical rigour that would put these struggles in perspective. While the who, what, and where are present and correct, the how and why are elusive.
According to the authors’ brief introduction, union power, unlike corporate power, “is not built on profit, status, or prestige,” but on “the twin concepts of struggle and solidarity” (4). They proceed to narrate a labour history of the region that highlights these two themes. This approach effectively demonstrates that worker struggle and class conflict have always been a major aspect of the region’s history. It also shows how many of the major dynamics of Canadian labour history have played out in the Niagara area.
Patrias and Savage begin their account of these struggles with a vivid retelling of the brutal exploitation of immigrant canal workers and their [End Page 470] response, including the rise of the Knights of Labor. Ethnicity and radicalism were two major elements of Niagara’s early labour history, as racialized workers from Europe, crowded into labour camps and flammable shacks, occupationally and geographically segregated from the Anglo-Saxon elite, responded with radical labour organizing, touching off bitter battles. Multi-ethnic organizing had its limits, however, as many workers spoke out against the hiring of ethnic Chinese labourers during the First World War.
Union Power notes that radicalism was again central to the next significant “what” of Niagara’s working people, as communist organizers helped the area’s unemployed launch a highly effective relief strike in Crowland. The relief strike was followed shortly by recognition strikes at several of the region’s manufacturers. This set the stage in Niagara, as in the rest of southern Ontario, for strong union presences in the manufacturing sector, and a concomitant rise in wages and benefits for a mostly white male group of manufacturing workers. Despite postwar red-baiting, Communists remained an active and radical presence in many local unions, including the ue and uaw. Patrias and Savage make sure to point out, however, that not every local manufacturer was unionized. Their fascinating study of welfare capitalism at Plymouth Cordage is an important reminder that union avoidance techniques were sophisticated and often successful, even at the height of Canadian private-sector unionism.
In the book’s second half, the authors discuss the push for gender and racial equality among Niagara workers, important strikes at General Motors and Eaton’s, and the decline of the region’s labour movement in the face of neoliberalism and deindustrialization. They also give detailed accounts of recent struggles, most notably of hotel and casino workers in the tourism economy, the importance of which has expanded in the wake of the manufacturing and capital flight that has ravaged the region. As this review suggests, the book covers an enormous range of subjects within its 185 pages. Well-chosen photographs and maps add a valuable dimension. As a concise, lively account of Niagara’s labour history, this book will be of great value to the region’s citizens, activists, and undergraduate students.
However, the book is not without its shortcomings. The brief capsules allotted to each struggle sometimes obscure as much as they reveal. The authors are too often uncritical of the area’s unions, which, despite continued struggle and solidarity from workers, have lost much economic and political power in Niagara. Union power does depend on solidarity and struggle, but it has been also predicated on a model of capitalism and the state that is no longer operative in Canada. [End Page 471]
One significant example of these issues is the section on women’s struggle to achieve equality and respect in Niagara workplaces in the...