Manitoba History: Review: Doug Smith, Let Us Rise! An Illustrated History of the Manitoba Labour Movement
by Jim Pringle
At long last Manitoba has a history of its unions and working people. Our political life has been moulded by the conflict between classes. Yet, until the publication of Let Us Rise! the history of the labour movement has been blurred if not ignored. It is a failure of our institutions of higher learning that the book was not written by an academic, nor was it produced or funded by a university.
Instead, we have a collaboration between an informed journalist and the Manitoba Labour Education Centre. The result is a different and welcome book. It is first and foremost an accessible work. Highly readable and attractively presented with lots of white space, ragged right columns and an excellent selection of photographs, the book is “user friendly.”
Let Us Rise! is not only about working people, it is also for working people. As Ken Osborne states in the introduction, “until recently most Canadian historical writing was elitist, sexist, heavily political and nationalist. This book is none of these.” Smith has also chosen not to burden us with a pretense of “balanced objectivity.” He is unabashedly pro-worker when assessing the conflicts between workers, governments and business.
Organized into six concise chapters, the author guides us through the history of Manitoba as seen through the eyes of a pro-union, political worker. Primarily using previously-available sources, he introduces us to developments from the beginnings of unions in the 1880s to the challenges they faced a century later.
The early craft unions are described as elitist, “but the only type which survived the fiercely anti-union climate of the nineteenth century.” The craft unions were challenged by the Knights of Labour who attempted to organize women, the unskilled and immigrants, and who were more intent upon engaging in politics.
It is these two trends — apolitical or anti-political elitism and a politicized social unionism — which have competed for the allegiance of workers. The ebb and flow of these two approaches continues to this day.
The consequences have been significant. As Smith points out, governments at the civic and provincial levels have more often than not been opposed to the aims and goals of workers. The differences between governments and labour have been prolonged and deep. For instance, during a strike of street car employees in 1906, Winnipeg Mayor Sharpe was mistaken for a striker and assaulted by a company detective, and yet bore the company no hard feelings.
There were many people equally as determined to advance the cause of working people, and it is here that Smith has done his readers the greatest service. We are introduced to many previously-unknown individuals including Edith Hancox, who was a leader of the National Association of the Unemployed in the 1920s, William Kolisnyk, the first Communist Party member elected to office in Canada as a Winnipeg city councillor in 1926, and nameless others whose thoughts have been recorded. We meet a miner’s wife during the 1934 Flin Flon strike who says, “Standing on those steps, arm in arm with those other women, I realized some-thing. I used to think they were different from me — one Ukrainian and one was a Pole. They talked different and kept to themselves. But during the strike, they struck up with me and they became my friends.”
Much of what is covered will be familiar to those interested in labour history. But there is also much that is new: the Winnipeg newspaper strike which spawned the Winnipeg Citizen; the building of the Churchill rail line; sections on teachers and Winnipeg civic employees. There is also a fascinating view of garment workers in the 1930s and 1940s. Their controversial business agent, Sam Herbst, boasted that not a day had been lost to strikes while he ran the union. He also attempted to get $1 million in dues money from the union’s U.S. headquarters to give to garment factory owners so they could build a multi-storied garment centre. Meanwhile workers’ wages remained abysmally low.
Smith’s critical assessment of Herbst is veiled and circumspect. Here lies one of the problems with Let Us Rise! Criticism of leaders and unions is not forthright. The union movement has been rife with rivalries. Nothing is gained by downplaying the reasons behind the rivalries, or the consequences of the rivalries for workers. The role of the Trades and Labor Congress in combining with business and government to defeat the One Big Union is only mentioned. The same is true of the TLC’s insistence on organizing craft unions almost exclusively, and how this left thousands without unions for decades.
Smith demonstrates that women have acted as organizers, as leaders and as ready participants in labour struggles. Their contributions to the workplace and the union movement are well documented. But despite Smith’s efforts this aspect of the book is the least satisfying.
Women’s direct participation in the labour movement has been consistently downplayed by historians. Smith does not repeat this error. But women’s participation has also been characterized by male opposition and denigration. There is no doubt that the union movement has been, and to a large extent remains, male dominated. Unions have slighted women. The acceptance of the idea of the “family wage” justified low wages for women. After World War II some unions acted in collusion with employers and government to force women out of the workplace. Unions have accomplished much for women, but Smith tends to ignore union shortcomings and failures. Moreover, he does not explore women’s major roles and experiences in the whole labour movement, as wives, sisters, mothers and daughters of male employees trying to wrest concessions from employers.
This is a thoroughly social democratic book. Politics is generally equated with elections won and lost. Thus the 1920s, a dark decade of defeat for labour, is described as one of political advancement because of the election of a few socialist and Communist city councillors and MLAs. This is too narrow a definition of political. With the founding of the NDP it appears as if the MFL has unanimously given unqualified support to the party. But a significant minority, led by the postal workers, have argued at conventions for withholding the blank cheque and placing conditions on labour’s support.
Criticism of the union movement should not be seen as divisive, nor as an attempt to undermine, but rather as an attempt to help labourers profit from mistakes. To mention other weaknesses, Let Us Rise! also lacks an attempt to assess the effects of the mass media, the rise of suburban life, and the breakdown of community. These are not quibbling criticisms, but they should not detract from the fact that Doug Smith has given us an admirable and long-overdue look at Manitoba’s labour movement. He can be proud of a book which deserves to be widely read.
Page revised: 3 September 2011