- Union Power: Solidarity and Struggle in Niagara by Carmela Patrias and Larry Savage
Carmela Patrias and Larry Savage
Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2012
x + 212 pp., $26.95 (cloth)
Much of the labor and working-class history that has been written in the past forty years has relied on local case studies to reveal broad regional, national, and even international themes. Union Power: Solidarity and Struggle in Niagara by Carmela Patrias and Larry Savage does not buck that trend. It is a study of the Niagara Region on the northern side of the US-Canada border. This region is now primarily known for tourism; its rich industrial past is quickly receding from popular memory as massive deindustrialization has made Niagara heavily dependent on a service-based economy. Patrias and Savage appear to have intended this book for both academic and nonacademic audiences and seek to remind their readers of the struggles waged by the Niagara Region's workers from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century.
The importance of collective struggle is at the center of this book's narrative. Patrias and Savage cover a lot of ground, both literally and figuratively, in their analysis. The Canadian Niagara Region, much like its American counterpart, is a collection of interrelated communities. Bounded by Lake Ontario to the north, Lake Erie to the south, and the Niagara River to the east, it has historically included a remarkably diverse range of workers and industries. The topics that Patrias and Savage cover include worker agency in the construction of the first Welland Canal, the struggles of immigrant labor in agricultural work, the arrival of CIO unionism, the role of communist organizers in the 1930s, welfare capitalism, the impact of the Cold War on Niagara labor, union opposition to free trade, and service-sector organizing. In many ways, they describe a region that was a microcosm of the wider labor and employment trends and struggles that existed across Canada during the twentieth century.
The usual historiographical themes that social historians would hope to find in a book like this one are amply evident. For instance, immigration played a key role in the Niagara Region's labor market. Likewise, women's activism is described through events such as the 1984 Eaton's strike, as are the efforts of paper mill workers to resist deindustrialization in 1999 through plant occupation. Both public- and private-sector union activism are discussed in this book: from autoworker activism to labor's role in founding Brock University. Workers and their organizations engaged in collective action in communities across the region: from Welland in the south to St. Catharines in the north and Niagara Falls in the east. Many of these communities became dependent on specific industries or employers. St. Catharines was the location of a McKinnon Industries plant that was eventually owned and expanded by General Motors. A range of paper mills was located in Thorold, and Niagara Falls and Welland were home to large manufacturing facilities. [End Page 140]
The Canadian Niagara Region is a crucial economic, social, and cultural conduit between Canada and the United States. In important ways, there is almost a common wider Niagara Region shared by Ontario and New York. There are close family ties that bind people across the border, workers cross the border each way for employment, and Ontarians and New Yorkers share two of the Great Lakes and the Niagara River. This book refers to American branch plant operations in the Canadian Niagara Region, but it would have benefited from fuller consideration of how workers and their communities were linked to their counterparts on the American side of the river. Toronto exerts tremendous economic influence over Ontario and, more broadly, across Canada, and the role that Toronto capital played in the Niagara Region could have perhaps been given more attention.
This book is a welcome addition to North American labor history literature despite these relatively small criticisms. It will find its way onto the syllabi of introductory labor history courses and, perhaps more critically, into the hands of students in union education programs. The most unsettling aspect of Patrias and...