- Manufacturing Mennonites: Work and Religion in Post-War Manitoba by Janis Thiessen
In a community that has historically valued a simple lifestyle, identified by its emphasis on rural agriculture communal equality, what is the role of big business and successful entrepreneurs? Within a social context that values working for oneself over working for someone, how does the identity of Mennonite workers and employers influence the work environment? These are the kinds of questions Janis Thiessen’s new book addresses in her exploration of religion’s role within three influential Mennonite-owned family businesses, namely Friesen Printers, located in Altona, Loewen Windows, founded in Steinbach, and Palliser Furniture, built by the DeFehr family in Winnipeg. Focused primarily on the 1960s and 1970s, the author explores relationships between employers and employees ultimately searching for a rationale as to why Mennonite workers by and large rejected unionism during a time it was highly influential through Manitoba.
According to Thiessen, the ethno-religious identity of Mennonites played a significant role in both employers’ and employees’ experiences. Tracking working conditions, salary, and employment benefits, she identifies an environment she refers to as “a Mennonite corporate mythology.” Within this milieu, employers actively cultivated “a strong work ethic, an emphasis on quality craftwork, and a combination of religious humility and yieldedness” (64). So although class and hierarchy remained intact within these Mennonite workplaces, the Mennonite ideals held by both employee and employer mitigated such a perception. Furthermore, within a relatively homogenous workplace, the personal management style practiced allowed workers to express concerns and discuss issues with the owner or manager directly, thus making the employees feel integrated and important.
This combination of religious obligation for quality work without complaint and a superficial sense of belonging explains, in part, why many workers rejected unionization. However, Thiessen’s analysis also presents a more complex historical perspective. Here, the scholar reminds us that immigrants bring their personal histories and political experiences with them. Mennonites in Manitoba, whose backgrounds in the Soviet Union had been primarily negative, left them suspicious of socialism and unionism, despite the various similarities within their socioeconomic and religious ideologies. Although Mennonite attitudes towards socialism and communism by the early 1970s had shifted significantly, concerns about unionism remained high due to this particular history along with the perception that strikes and work stoppages represented acts of violence (123).
By focusing on this immigrant community, which has been ignored by labor historians, Manufacturing Mennonites sheds new light on a hidden aspect of Manitoba’s labor history. As a first monograph on Mennonite labor, Thiessen structures her argument chronologically through six chapters. Drawing on a wide variety of primary sources, including oral interviews of both employees and employers, corporate records, government records, and labor union sources, Thiessen seeks to track the expansion of successful family-owned businesses and their relationship with the workers. Using employee oral testimonies, the study pays particular attention to the transition during the early 1970s.
The author’s argument, while convincing, would have been reinforced by a more thorough discussion on the social and business structures of class and hierarchy. While such is an unpopular topic amongst a religious group that values ideals of equality, this reader wishes [End Page 83] Thiessen had highlighted this very critical conclusion. In keeping with structural elements of the Mennonite milieu, another structural component the author leaves dangling is the absence of women, both as subjects within the work and within gender analysis. Thiessen makes several passing references to the fact that women received lower wages than men (103) or that it was an employer’s wife who introduced the idea of profit sharing with the employees (148). While based only on anecdotal evidence, Thiessen’s preliminary conclusions that gender played a critical role within broader structural elements beg further evaluation, which would have also strengthened her central argument.
Thiessen’s work raises several critical aspects of Mennonite communal identity that warrant further investigation. This book addresses class, a fact often dismissed...