- Labour Goes to War: The CIO and the Construction of a New Social Order, 1939-1945 by Wendy Cuthbertson
Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2012
228 pp., $85.00 (cloth); $32.95 (paper)
World War II, unions often pointed out, was fought in the mines and factories as much as on the front lines. Without tanks and airplanes, without the iron and coal necessary to produce them, and indeed without the uniforms that soldiers wore and the foodstuffs workers milled, slaughtered, canned, and shipped, no victory was possible. Labor was clearly important to the war effort, a fact with any number of consequences. A tight labor market, particularly after a decade of economic depression, gave workers some leverage in the workplace, but the war emergency provided ideological constraints against striking and—as significant—an occasion for state repression if they did.
All of this is true among the belligerent countries, but the Canadian (and, more specifically, the Ontario) case examined by Wendy Cuthbertson in Labour Goes to War is particularly interesting. She explains how the war dramatically reshaped both the labor movement and the industrial relations system and led workers to demand much more from the postwar state. This was a particularly intense transition, and, as Cuthbertson suggests in her subtitle, it led to the construction of "a new social order."
Many of the players here will be familiar to historians of US labor history, but the context and outcomes were quite different from those that prevailed south of the border; and, although this is not the focus of Cuthbertson's study, those differences raise interesting questions about the different trajectories of the Canadian and US labor movements and social policy. The 1930s had been especially challenging to Canadian workers, particularly because they witnessed the emergence of the CIO in the United States—and the passage of the Wagner Act, which created an entirely new terrain upon which US workers could organize—without making comparable gains north of the border. Although the CIO name inspired valiant efforts, the new industrial unions in Canada were small and mostly moribund at the end of the 1930s.
The war dramatically transformed the Canadian economy and society, which had started at a relatively lower industrial base than either the United States or Britain: the volume of Canadian manufacturing was two and a half times greater in 1945 than when the war started six years earlier. But a weak CIO, an utterly transformed working class—often with few union traditions—and unremitting hostility from capital and the state made it difficult to take advantage of this situation. Cuthbertson's careful exploration of how the CIO unions turned this around, both in membership and in militancy, constitutes the heart of the book. The tasks of organizing and forcing employers to the bargaining table are explored in the detail they deserve, reminding us that organizational gains were often tenuous. Transforming these into real and permanent successes required building a deeply rooted culture of labor. As United Steel Workers leader Charlie Millard commented in 1944, the task was to ensure that members "become unionists as well [End Page 114] as organized" (77). This involved, Cuthbertson explains, the creation of a union-based "democratic sociability" (78) wherein the culture of belonging to a union, as well as the tools of democratic debate and action, developed through myriad means. In union conferences, conventions, educational classes, debating clubs, and open-air rallies and in the development of union spaces, meeting halls, and the like, the rituals, iconography, and language of the labor movement prevailed. A vigorous labor press tied this increasingly self-contained community together. Communities assumed a degree of equality that was implicit in unionism but that at the same time was challenged by hierarchies beyond. Cuthbertson explores the victories and the challenges in organizing ethnic workers and workers of color and, particularly, women workers, focusing on the important and complex fight for equal pay.
The broader context, of course, was the war, and Cuthbertson's most significant contribution is a nuanced discussion of the ways in...