- Manufacturing Mennonites: Work and Religion in Post-War Manitoba by Janis Thiessen
Janis Thiessen has written an important study of religion, business, and the working class, focusing on three Manitoba Mennonite businesses and their workers. The book is a welcome development within Canadian Mennonite history, which thus far has focused primarily on the rural experience of this ethno-religious group. The study is well written and researched and demonstrates clearly the importance of identifying the potential role of faith in understanding the motivations and behavior of both business owners and employees. Theissen is aware that in some workplace contexts, religion has provided the basis for, or strengthened, existing oppositional working-class consciousness. She references the extensive literature on this topic in the US and Britain, and identifies most of the relevant Canadian work. She argues that in the Canadian Mennonite context religion served more to inhibit than to encourage unionization. Her monograph presents a number of reasons to explain why this was the case.
Thiessen begins with a detailed discussion of Mennonite history and theology, providing a clear explanation of the key Mennonite concept of “yieldedness,” the individual’s submission both to God and to the faith community. As Theissen argues, the way in which this concept was understood, and the linkage of Mennonite concepts of “non-resistance, yieldedness, and neighbourly love,” led to “the exclusion of questions of justice and power from Mennonite discourse.” (30) Thiessen is clear that Mennonite social beliefs were potentially malleable. However, she notes the influence of 20th-century Mennonite theologians and historians such as Harold Bender, whose interpretations of Mennonite theology and history focused on issues of yieldedness and non-resistance rather than on the “socially radical nature of early Anabaptism,” (27) which could have led Mennonites to more actively challenge workplace inequities.
After laying out the socially conservative religious ideals espoused by Mennonite intellectuals, Theissen chronicles the development of the three successful Mennonite firms she studies: Loewen Windows, Friesen Printers, and Palliser Furniture. Here one starts to see the strength of her source base, which includes 66 interviews with workers, managers, and owners of the three companies, as well as the use of many other relevant primary sources.
Loewen Windows and Friesen Printers began in the early 20th century in small Mennonite Manitoba towns, while Palliser Furniture began in Winnipeg in the 1940s. All three companies started as, and at least into the late 20th century remained, family-run firms. In addition to providing brief histories of the early years and the subsequent dramatic growth of these firms, Theissen begins in this chapter to provide a close study of the religious beliefs of their founders, and of the children and grandchildren who continued to lead them.
In the following chapter Theissen focuses on the ideological impact of Mennonite faith on the firms, primarily through the development of “corporate mythologies.” These corporate mythologies were both explicitly Mennonite, most blatantly in the religious services that were a mandatory part of the workday at some firms, and more implicitly, with a focus on humility, service and a strong work ethic being part of the paternalistic message of the owners. In exploring corporate mythology Thiessen provides a detailed analysis of one particular advertising campaign by Loewen Windows, [End Page 269] which exemplified the Mennonite corporate mythology. She argues that this corporate mythology served capitalist needs “by promoting worker assiduity, loyalty, and deference.” (83)
In the next chapter, Theissen argues that the first post-war generation of workers largely accepted this mythology, perhaps less because of religious faith and more because postwar Manitoba workplaces, no matter how exploitative, were better than the refugee experiences many had recently endured in Europe. By the 1970s, however, a new generation of Canadian-born workers had emerged who were less deferential and increasingly unhappy with the changes in the labour process that occurred as the companies grew, reducing worker control and direct personal contact with management. Theissen provides some fascinating examples of how workers responded to this shift and the ways in which paternalism became increasingly less effective. However...