Saturday, 1 December 2012

Book Review: Working People in Alberta

--edited by Alvin Finkel, with contributions by Jason Foster, Winston Gereluk, et al, AU Press, Edmonton, 2012, 345pp.

Working People in Alberta: A History was written in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) in 2012.  It was published with the assistance of the Alberta Labour History Institute (ALHI) and received financial support from the AFL, assistance which was provided with “no strings attached”.

Anniversary commemoratives—even labour ones--sometimes fall victim to a certain sanitization of the history of the organizations they are written to celebrate.   The published products of such efforts, while appropriate for the coffee table, are lessened as works of significant historical value.

Fortunately, this is most emphatically not the case with Working People in Alberta. On the contrary, this book is an in-depth and invaluable resource covering the history of working life as complex and diverse as the physical geography of Alberta itself.  From far-flung communities in the Rockies, foothills, forests, badlands, and plains emerge the stories of the women and men “who built Alberta” and who did so despite the ravages of colonialism, capitalist exploitation, the gendered division of labour, racism and the determination of governments and employers to supress the labour movement and union struggles.  These stories, it should be noted, put to rest the notion that Alberta is a “placid province” where oil industry wealth has eliminated all communitarian convictions in favour of individualist conservative ones.

Not limited just to the AFL’s 100 years, this beautifully illustrated book is really a “social history of working people, including both unorganized workers and the trade unions”.  Significantly, it begins with the history of work during the 13,000 years or more when First Nations people were the sole inhabitants of what is now Alberta.  Chapter 1, “Millennia of Native Work” looks at the dynamic organization of work in their communities and the social relations between individuals and the well-being of the collective—all “undergirded by Native spirituality”.

This is followed by an exploration of how traditional First Nations economies and societies were affected by fur trade companies and their workforces, and the influx of European goods and ideas, as well as the commercialization of the previously “ceremonial and subsistence relationship” between First Nations and the bison.  The subsequent European settlement period was marked by brutal attacks on and racist marginalization of Native and Metis peoples, “unequal treatment of natives and whites with respect to farming”, and as industries developed, “exploitation and class divisions as well as resistance” among workers and minorities.

The bulk of Working People in Alberta consists of a chronologically organized account of workers’ experiences and struggles and the political events surrounding them and is accompanied by descriptions of the political economy in which they were grounded.  In the late 19th century, when European settlement was reflected in the development of farming, initial industrial projects to support the needs of agriculture (railway construction and coal mining) saw the emergence of an industrial working class. Barbaric working conditions imposed by employers, the Master and Servant Act , the North West mounted Police and a total lack of medical facilities gave rise to unrest and strikes, initially without union organization.  Later, (such as in the Lethbridge coal miners’ strike of 1906) strikes were led by the radical IWW and in other cases, by more conservative craft-based unions. 

Remaining chapters involve interviews with the actors in events as well extensive use of “the documentary record”.  One explores the founding of the AFL in 1912 and World War I and the inter-war period of “relative economic stagnation”, the 1921 – 1935 period when the United Farmers of Alberta took provincial power, the “growing class consciousness” among urban Alberta Workers, the impact of the Depression years and the appearance of the Communist movement and the CCF as political manifestations of the “reinvigorated industrial union movement”.

Other chapters assess changes to working-class life upon the discovery of huge gas and oil deposits in the 1940s and 50s in the context of the anti-labour Social Credit government; the impact of the “Boomer” generation as it entered the work force and the coming to power of the equally anti-labour Progressive Conservatives; the 1980s (described as possibly “the most radical period of labour history in Alberta to date”) within the context of emerging neo-liberalism but punctuated with such memorable events as the three general strikes of the United Nurses of Alberta and the still-resonating six-month Gainers’ strike of 1986; and finally the triumph of neo-liberalism in the 1990s and beyond, the domination of the energy industry, collapse of province’s manufacturing base and the struggle of the labour movement to resist this onslaught.

The final two chapters of Working People in Alberta emphasize two important themes:  how women workers and care givers have been “disproportionately victimized” (all too often manifested within the labour movement itself), and the racialization of work in Alberta as reflected in the treatment of aboriginal workers and the racist policies launched against non-white immigrants and workers of colour over the years (including the somewhat spotty record of labour in addressing this reality).  While unions have made major strides in recent years to take on both of these issues, it is the honesty and insistence on presenting an unvarnished history of the victories and set-backs of workers and the union movement in Alberta that makes this book so compelling.  

Special thanks to guest blogger and reviewer Evert Hoogers

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