- Rebel Youth: 1960s Labour Unrest, Young Workers, and New Leftists in English Canada by Ian Milligan
In 1965 I was in high school and punching the clock part-time at a Canadian Tire store. We unloaded trucks, filled orders, and played practical jokes, and when the summer came and postal workers went out on strike for collective bargaining rights, we wondered idly if we would ever have a union at our own workplace. Meanwhile, there was a lot more going on in Toronto, including big demonstrations in front of the US consulate and a burgeoning street scene in Yorkville. One of the starting points of Ian Milligan’s original account of the 1960s is the insight that very few young people at the time went to university (fewer than one in seven or eight in 1965) but that there was nonetheless among this generation a broad youth culture with shared ideals of anti-authoritarianism and personal liberation. While industrial relations experts in the early 1960s believed that labour unrest was on the decline owing to the stabilizing effects of the post-war compromises between labour and capital, this did not turn out to be the case. A wave of wildcat strikes erupted in 1965 and 1966. Labour leaders were often perplexed by the indiscipline of young workers, but unions benefited from their energy, and membership increased markedly. By the early 1970s, unions seemed to have regained the place they had earlier occupied as one of the country’s major social reform movements.
This is the essential context for a tightly argued study of the relationship between the New Leftists of the 1960s (or, more accurately, the decade from 1964 to 1973) and the labour unrest of the same era. While studies of the 1960s have proliferated, most have remained focused on developments within the universities or on the anti-nuclear, civil rights, and anti-war movements. Milligan begins in this territory, but through a careful canvassing of archival documents and an impressive number of interviews he demonstrates the “outward” movement of New Leftists into surrounding communities and workplaces. In Saskatchewan, for instance, University of Regina students were welcomed by labour councils and the National Farmers Union in campaigns that contributed to the New Democratic Party’s return to power in 1971. Meanwhile, the aftermath of the student unrest at Simon Fraser University in 1968 and 1969 led to new projects in Vancouver, including the feminist initiatives behind the Service, Office and Retail Workers Union of Canada. In Ontario students supported striking journalists, women workers, and immigrants, perhaps most prominently at Artistic Woodwork in North York, where the picket line became a who’s who of the Toronto New Left. Often these were not the specific battles favoured by the union [End Page 507] establishment, nor were they struggles led by their own generation of young workers, but they did serve to draw needed attention to general issues such as strikebreaking and first contract legislation. Milligan also singles out the experience of New Leftists in Nova Scotia, who supported fishermen in their efforts to change archaic labour laws and gain recognition for the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union, even as the president of the Canadian Labour Congress, still mired in Cold War animosities, warned that certification of a “red” union would “usher in a decade of violence and destruction.” Ultimately, organized labour made its peace with those New Leftists who had sufficiently demonstrated the practical elements of their idealism, and, like student activists in other sectors of society, they came to have an influential place within the next generation of union leadership. In this respect, Milligan notes that his study is limited to English Canada and that in Quebec the Quiet Revolution encouraged a greater openness to the infusion of new ideas into the labour movement.
Throughout this period there was a long-running uncertainty about the proper scope of the New Left agenda, and Milligan keeps our attention on the changing context of debates over alliances between students and workers. Despite...