The Study of Working Class History | The Canadian Encyclopedia


The Study of Working Class History

The Canadian worker has been a neglected figure in Canadian history. Workers have contributed in many ways to the development of Canadian society, but the history of working people — their families, communities and work places — has only gradually become part of our view of the past and an important component of understanding how we came to occupy our present.

Early Historiography

Each period in the recording of Canadian labour history (see Working Class History — English Canada and Working Class History — Québec) paralleled specific concerns that grew out of the practical struggles of the time. In 19th-and-early-20th-century Canada, workers were not prominent subjects of scholarly production. Royal commissions provided copious evidence of the conditions of work and of labour's attempts to organize, and a few advocates of the working class offered their evaluations of Canadian workers' emergence as a social and political force. But concern with workers was a pragmatic one with explicit political purposes, and when studies were commissioned, as with, for example, R.H. Coats' 1915 examination of the cost of living, they were related directly to the perceived needs of the moment.

Between 1929 and 1945, in Britain and the United States, the study of labour history was channelled into examinations of political activity, the growth and consolidation of unions, and the gradual winning of collective bargaining rights, improved wages and better conditions. In Canada, individuals associated with an emerging social-democratic milieu had similar concerns and were advocates of public ownership, an active state and the preservation of civil liberties.

Leading this moderate socialist contingent was historian Frank Underhill, and associated with him were social scientists, economists and researchers at both McGill University and the University of Toronto, including Frank Scott, Eugene Forsey and Stuart Jamieson. Forsey eventually produced Trade Unions in Canada 18121902 (1982), an important overview of the institutional development of Canadian unionism in the 19th century, and Jamieson published Times of Trouble (1968), a government-commissioned monograph on strike activity over the period 190066. But in the 1930s and 1940s such figures played a more political role, sustaining the League for Social Reconstruction, and helping the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF).

Often it seemed as though the academic advocates of Socialism regarded workers as the passive recipients of the social reform intellectuals sought to stimulate. Those associated with social-democratic thought eased labour into scholarly discourse and defined the character of working-class studies. They regarded the labour movement as one of the forces upon which they could rely for support, but they had little intrinsic interest in labour as a class. The study of labour thus encompassed concern with unions, with labour's political activity, and with extolling the appropriate and humane leadership and reforms that only the CCF could offer.

Postwar Scholarship

After the Second World War, labour history first began to be written in Canadian universities. Often, especially among professional historians, it was a by-product of other concerns. "George Brown, Sir John A. Macdonald, and the 'Workingman'" in the Canadian Historical Review (1943), by Donald Creighton, indicated how concerns with central political figures might provide a footnote to labour's as-yet untold story. D.C. Masters' The Winnipeg General Strike (1950) was purportedly part of a projected exploration of Social Credit in Alberta. J.I. Cooper published "The Social Structure of Montréal in the 1850s" in the Canadian Historical Association's Annual Report (1956), which took a preliminary step toward the exploration of workers' everyday lives.

Most studies of Canadian workers were not actually done by historians. Political scientist Bernard Ostry wrote on labour and politics of the 1870s and 1880s. The most innovative work came from economist and economic historian H.C. Pentland (Labour and Capital in Canada (16501860), 1981), whose studies challenged conventional wisdom, and from literary critic Frank Watt. They argued that labour had posed a fundamental criticism, through physical struggles and journalistic attacks on monopoly and political corruption, of 19th-and-early-20th-century Canadian society well before the upheaval at Winnipeg and the appearance of the Social Gospel and the CCF.

Such studies probably had less force in the universities than among historically minded associates of the Communist Party such as Bill Bennett and Stanley Ryerson, who penned histories of early Canada and Canadian workers. Within the established circles of professional historians, Kenneth McNaught exerted a far greater influence. McNaught was a product of the social-democratic movement of the 1940s, and attained significance not so much for what he wrote — which, in labour history, was rather limited — but because he taught a number of graduate students who pushed the subject of workers and their organizations into prominence in the 1970s.

McNaught's work stressed the importance of leadership in the experience of Canadian workers, and he was drawn to the institutional approach of labour-economist Harold Logan. Logan had been active in teaching and writing labour economics since the 1920s, and he produced the first adequate overview of Canadian trade-union development in Trade Unions in Canada (1948). His writing in the 1930s and 1940s emphasized the struggle within the Canadian labour movement between CCF followers and associates of the Communist Party.

Logan's arguments against communism, together with the practical confrontations of the period, molded social-democratic intellectuals in specific ways: for example, anti-Marxism (equated with opposition to the Stalinist Communist Party) was forever embedded in their approach to Canadian labour. Their horizons seemed bounded by the study of institutions, social reform and the question of proper leadership of the progressive movement and labour itself. McNaught's A Prophet in Politics (1959), which was a biography of J.S. Woodsworth, father of Canadian social democracy and a central figure in the history of radicalism, was the exemplary study in this genre.

In 1965 Stanley Mealing published "The Concept of Social Class in the Interpretation of Canadian History" (Canadian Historical Review, 1965). He concluded that little historical work in Canada had been directed toward workers' experience and that the main interpretive contours of our history would not be dramatically altered by attention to class. Important studies of the Communist Party, the CCF-NDP, early radicalism and labour's general political orientation soon appeared.


By the early 1970s studies of such major working-class developments as the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the consolidation of the AFL before the First World War, western labour radicalism and the Winnipeg General Strike were underway or had appeared in print. They were followed by examinations of the One Big Union, the government response to immigrant radicalism, and conditions of life and labour in early 20th-century Montréal.

Leading figures in this proliferation of working-class studies were Irving Abella, David Bercuson, Robert Babcock, Ross McCormack and Donald Avery. Their work, in conjunction with labour studies undertaken by social scientists such as Paul Phillips, Martin Robin, Leo Zakuta, Gad Horowitz and Walter Young, as well as historians Desmond Morton and Gerald Caplan, served to establish labour history as a legitimate realm of professional historical inquiry. Their labour histories were written, perhaps unconsciously, out of the social-democratic concerns of the 1940s: leadership, decisive events, conditions demanding reform, the nature of ideology and the evolution of particular kinds of unions. Labour-history courses were taught for the first time, a committee of the Canadian Historical Association was created, and a journal, Labour/Le Travailleur, was launched in 1976. In 1980 Desmond Morton and Terry Copp published Working People, an illustrated history of Canadian workers. The 1970s and 1980s also saw a growing number of popular histories of unions. By the 1990s three overviews of Canadian labour history were in print: Morton’s and Copp’s illustrated history had gone through a number of editions, supplemented by Bryan D. Palmer’s Working-Class Experience (1983 & 1992) and Craig Heron’s Canadian Labour Movement: A Short History (1996).

After 1975, a new group of working-class historians had emerged, influenced less by the social democracy of the 1940s and more by the Marxism of the late 1960s and early 1970s. These historians were first struck with the general importance of theory, and looked to a series of debates within Western Marxism after 1917 for the nature of class structure and the character of subordination of the working class in capitalist societies.

Second, many drew inspiration from American and British studies (by E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, David Montgomery and Herbert Gutman) that appeared in the 1960s and heralded a break with earlier histories of labour. Finally, the emergence of women's history provided a third and complementary influence, which forced consideration of the process through which labour was reproduced in the family and was socialized into a particular relationship to structures of authority and work.

Generally speaking, those who were fashioning labour history in the early 1980s were united in their commitment to write the social history of the working class. If labour's institutions, political activities and material conditions of life were of essential importance in this broad social history, so too were unexplored aspects of the workers' experience: family life, leisure activities, community associations, and work processes and forms of managerial domination affecting both the evolution of unions and the lives of unorganized workers.

Class and Labour

In all of this work there was a concern with working-class history as an analysis of the place of class in Canadian society. Class was conceived as a reciprocal, if unequal, relationship between those who sell their labour and those who purchase it. Some studies concentrated on the structural, largely impersonal, dimensions of class experience (the size of working-class families, the numbers of workers associated with particular sectors of the labour market, the rates of wages and levels of unemployment), whereas other works unearthed the cultural activities of workers and the conflicts they have waged at the work place or in the community. Finally, this group was generally less willing to immediately dismiss the radicalism associated with Communist and socialist union activists.

Some published works by this generation of historians — including Joy Parr's Labouring Children (1980), an examination of the labouring experiences of pauper immigrant children; Bryan Palmer's A Culture in Conflict (1979), a discussion of skilled labour in Hamilton in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; Gregory Kealey's Toronto Workers Respond to Industrial Capitalism 18671892 (1980), a similar study of Toronto workers; and Dreaming of What Might Be (1982), an examination of the Knights of Labor in Ontario, 18801900, by Kealey and Palmer — attempt detailed explorations of working-class experience.

A host of articles and postgraduate theses attested to the treatment of subjects that a previous labour history never envisaged: ritualistic forms of resistance, patterns of craft inheritance among shoemakers, the place of the family economy in Montréal in the 1870s and 1880s, the riotous behaviour of early canallers, the significance of the life cycle among Québec cotton workers, 191050, the effects of mechanization and skill-dilution upon metalworkers in the First World War era, the nature of life in coal communities, or the role of literacy, housing, tavern life and the oral tradition among specific groups of workers. While those defending the traditional institutional approaches saw the new emphasis on culture as leading away from politics, this was not the intention of writers drawing from social history. Rather, they believed that working-class culture, however imprecise an idea initially, was intimately connected to other vital areas of labouring life such as unions and parliamentary politics.

Scholarship Proliferates

With an increasing number of graduate students and professional historians taking up these subjects, the labour history of the late 1980s and early 1990s both revisited familiar themes and charted new directions. Detailed statistical research delineated the major waves of workplace conflict and proceeded alongside explorations into the histories of the labour movement in many urban areas. Bush workers and Bosses (1987), Ian Radforth's study of loggers and technological change in Northern Ontario, The New Day Recalled (1988), Veronica Strong-Boag's account of women between the wars, and Working in Steel (1988), Craig Heron's examination of steelworkers, filled in notable gaps in the historical record, as did research on miners across Canada, the Depression-era relief camp workers, and many articles and monographs on skilled artisans. This work contributed to the record of union growth and economic change, in particular with the transformation of labour processes in the workplace, a subject addressed in Craig Heron’s and Robert Storey’s edited collection, On the Job: Confronting the labour process in Canada (1986).

Inquiries into the particular dilemmas of immigrant workers — Eastern Europeans, Italians, Jews — advanced our understanding of workers' social and cultural worlds. Important pioneering studies were Franca Iacovetta's Such Hardworking People (1992), Ruth Frager's Sweatshop Strife (1992), Carmela K. Patrias’s Patriots and Proletarians: Politicizing Hungarian Immigrants in Interwar Canada (1994), and Mercedes Steedman’s Angels of the Workplace: Women and the Construction of Gender Relations in the Canadian Clothing Industry, 19001940 (1998).

An important part of the "new" working-class history of this period took issue with the regional stereotypes that figured so prominently in earlier studies. In particular, "western exceptionalism" — the idea that western Canadian workers were more radical than their eastern counterparts — was challenged through research into the activities of socialists, syndicalists and Communists in central and Atlantic Canada. Recent studies by Mark Leier, entitled Red Flags and Red Tape (1995), and Robert McDonald, with Making Vancouver (1996), have also begun to question the extent and nature of radicalism in the West, instead pointing to the diversity of political beliefs among both skilled craftsmen in urban centres and unskilled workers in resource-based company towns. David Frank’s J.B. McLachlan: A Biography (1999) did much to clarify the radicalism of the Cape Breton miners in the opening decades of the 20th Century. In short, a great deal more came to be known about the various political tendencies supported by workers and how conflicts between conservatives and radicals were central in shaping the path of the labour movements. This would all later feature prominently in Ian McKay’s reconsiderations of the Canadian left, especially his Rebels, Reds, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History (2005) and Reasoning Otherwise: Leftists and the People’s Enlightenment in Canada, 18901920 (2008).

New Interpretation and Debate

New interpretations have spawned discussion and debate. Much of the resulting controversy first developed around contrasting interpretations of the 1919 general strike wave and the One Big Union with the early work of scholars like McNaught and Bercuson being rethought in numerous books, articles and theses. Commentaries such as The New Democracy (1991) by James Naylor and Larry Peterson's "Revolutionary Socialism and the Industrial Unrest in the Era of the Winnipeg General Strike" (Labour/Le Travail, 1984) sought to combine attention to local particularities with an eye on national trends and international politics.

An explosion of regional studies of class formation was perhaps best exemplified by developments in Newfoundland, where the work of Sean Cadigan has been relentless in its critical revisionism of past conventional wisdoms. See especially Hope and Deception in Conception Bay: Merchant-Settler Relations in Newfoundland, 17851855 (1995) and Death on Two Fronts: Newfoundland Tragedies and the Fate of Democracy in Newfoundland, 19141934 (2013). Like work on the Newfoundland fisheries by Miriam Wright, Marilyn Porter, and Barbara Neis, Cadigan’s work necessarily addresses class, gender, the state, and the ways in which industrialization on the resource frontier affected the environment. Old questions of the politics of labour and the meaning of culture were not so much ignored as taken in new and fruitful directions, as was evident in Paul Craven’s edited collection of aspects of the working-class history of Ontario, Labouring Lives: Work and Workers in Nineteenth Century Ontario (1995) or Craig Heron and Steve Penfold’s, The Workers’ Festival: A History of Labour Day in Canada (2006). Often this new work highlighted new ways in which the history of workers could generate fresh debates and controversies.

Labour's relationship with the state, for instance, has been the subject of differing histories. In broad terms, social-democratic historians have welcomed the creation of the reform-oriented welfare state and the enshrining of collective bargaining rights in law, while Marxists and others such as Bob Russell, in Back to Work? (1990), and Jeremy Webber, with "The Malaise of Compulsory Conciliation" (Character of Class Struggle, 1985) present a more critical view, emphasizing how industrial legality limited the potential of what unions could achieve by channelling struggles into an arena in which the related forces of governing and employing authority would always be more powerful than workers. This perspective was challenged by Laurel Sefton MacDowell in her treatment of a critically important labour lawyer who often acted for unions and left-wing organizations, Renegade Lawyer: The Life of J.L. Cohen (2001).

Nonetheless, the coercive elements in Canadian state formation have come to the fore as scholars piece together the creation of the surveillance state during the First World War and the use of the RCMP and deportation procedures to break strikes and expel socialists, anarchists, and other radicals. Such methods were intensified during the Cold War purges of Communists from many industrial unions. Rarely the neutral arbiter of industrial relations, the Canadian government, at all levels, has tended historically to intervene in disputes in ways which reinforced the rights of capital, as with the complex, often ironic, impact of minimum wage laws, workers' compensation acts, and other labour legislation. The importance of the state, labour law, and policing has emerged in a number of recent writings, among the most important of which are Judy Fudge and Eric Tucker, Labour Before the Law: The Regulation of Workers’ Collective Action in Canada, 19001948 (2004); Fudge and Tucker’s edited collection, Work on Trial: Canadian Labour Law Struggles (2010); and Reg Whitaker, Gregory S. Kealey, and Andrew Parnaby, Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America (2012).

Also important are conflicts within the state; for example, as Gillian Creese observes in "Exclusion or Solidarity?" (BC Studies, 1988), the federal government's control over immigration policy was repeatedly challenged by provincial and municipal politicians. The complexities at the core of immigration policy and experience are detailed in Franca Iacovetta’s study of how immigrant lives were shaped by the state and other forces in post-war Cold War Canada, Gatekeepers (2006). Prior to this, conservative, white trade unionists were eager to prevent the importation of workers seen as racially inferior, such as Asians. These developments and disputes contributed to the maintenance of a racially segmented labour force, as detailed by Alicia Muszynski in Cheap Wage Labour: Race and Gender in the Fisheries of British Columbia (1996), David Goutor, Guarding the Gates: The Canadian labour Movement and Immigration, 18721934 (2007), and Creese, Contracting Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Race in a White Collar Union, 19441994 (1999). The challenges that all of this has raised for the labour movement are evident in recent studies of the intersection of the labour and human rights movements: Ross Lambertson, Repression and Resistance: Canadian Human Rights Activists, 19301960 (2005) and Carmela K. Patrias, Jobs and Justice: Fighting Discrimination in Wartime Canada, 19391945 (2011).

Working Women and Gendered Class Relations

One of the most productive areas of recent research has been that of labour's gendered past, as many of the central concerns of working-class history, whether new or old, have been revisited in light of feminist scholarship challenging the male-centred framework of writing about the Canadian past. The experiences of women working in the needle trades and clerical positions, for telephone companies and auto makers, have all shed light on the historically shifting composition of the sexual division of labour as well as struggles against the sexism of male bosses and unionists. Rather than a natural phenomenon, women's place in the occupational structure has been analysed as the product of conflicts over gendered notions of proper behaviour for women and men. In particular, the family wage — the idea that husbands were the legitimate breadwinner while wives were to be supported while doing the domestic labour — placed strong constraints on women's ability to find well-paying jobs. Nor were women working for "pin money"; instead, most entered wage labour in a context of economic need, trying to support themselves and their families in spite of the family wage ideal.

Exemplary studies by Joan Sangster touch down on these issues and include Earning Respect: The Lives of Working Women in Small Town Ontario, 19201960 (1999) and the more recent Transforming Labour: Women and Work in Post-War Canada (2010). Sangster’s collection of essays, Through Feminist Eyes: Essays on Canadian Women’s History (2011) contains a number of important articles on women’s working-class history, as well as useful introductions that situate the changing contours of the field of labour history and its relation to women/gender. Equally significant, it outlines, in a nuanced way, the divergent perspectives that have emerged around a major interpretive divide separating historians whose analysis embraces the so-called linguistic turn, in which discourse and representation structure understanding, as compared to those researchers who gravitate towards explanations rooted in more material considerations.

Indeed, Sangster’s first book, a study of women in the Communist Party and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation entitled Dreams of Equality: Women on the Canadian Left, 19201950 (1989) was rooted in approach and subject in a socialist-feminist appreciation of class and gender. In a similar vein, the activities of women radicals in the period leading up to the 1919 labour revolt have been unearthed by Linda Kealey, Enlisting Women for the Cause: Women, Labour, and the Left in Canada, 18901920 (1998) and Janice Newton, The Feminist Challenge to the Canadian Left (1995). For Québec, Andrée Levesque has provided extensive commentary on similar themes, especially in two books: Virage à gauche interdit: les communistes, les socialistes, et leurs ennemis au Québec (1984) and Scènes de la Vie en rouge: L’époque de Jeanne Corbin, 19061944 (1999).

Moving beyond the world of work and left-wing politics, scholarship by Bettina Bradbury entitled Working Families: Age, Gender, and Daily Survival in Industrializing Montréal (1993) has revealed the importance of the family as both a resource of resilience and a site of antagonism around issues of economic responsibilities and entitlements. Similarly, the place of family in sustaining workers through precariousness is evident in Peter A. Baskerville and Eric W. Sager, Unwilling Idlers: The Urban Unemployed and Their Families in Late Victorian Canada (1998) and in Magdalena Fahrni, Household Politics: Montréal Families and Post-War Reconstruction (2005).

Historians such as Steven Maynard, Mark Rosenfeld, Craig Heron, and Steven Penfold have focused attention on the gender identities of working men, revealing how class divisions and notions of solidarity and skill were often mapped in terms of popular understandings about masculinity. Joy Parr's The Gender of Breadwinners (1990), a study of working men and women in two small Ontario towns, is notable for its attempt to synthesize many of these historiographical trends, particularly in her exploration of the importance of both male and female gender identities for their experience at work and in the home. A cultural approach to the social construction of masculinity that ventures on to the terrain of the gendered nature of labour is Christopher Dummitt, The Manly Modern: Masculinity in Postwar Canada (2007).

Class, gender, and the state form the substance of a number of recent writings, including Ann Porter, Gendered States: Women, Unemployment Insurance, and the Political Economy of the Welfare State in Canada (2003) and Nancy Christie, Engendering the State, Family, Work, and Welfare in Canada (2000).

It is worth noting that in Carl Berger's edited collection, Contemporary Approaches to Canadian History (1987), working-class history is the only area of inquiry where the editor felt obliged to present two conflicting assessments of the historiography, one representative of an older, institutional-oriented approach and another indicative of newer efforts to root the history of Canadian workers in broader processes of class formation. In 1996, BC Studies published a critical essay by Mark Leier with responses from Robert McDonald, Bryan Palmer and Veronica Strong-Boag, which resulted in a thought-provoking exchange on the direction of working-class studies, an issue explored in the overview presented in the second edition of Palmer's Working-Class Experience (1992). From its beginnings the history of Canadian labour has been contested terrain. It remains so to this day.

Labour History at the Current Juncture

A variety of published monographs suggest Canadian labour history’s diversity in the early years of the 21st Century. Steven High’s Industrial Sunset: The Making of North America’s Rust Belt, 19691984 (2003) uses a cross-border comparison of de-industrialization in Canada and the United States to outline the continuing relevance of combining working-class history and a political economy orientation that brings in both the state and its policies and the importance of the changing contours of production and exchange. This approach has proven illuminating, as well, in charting the “revolution from above” that has reconfigured contemporary industrial relations. Leo Panitch and Donald Swartz, From Consent to Coercion: The Assault on Trade Union Freedoms (2003) and Yonatan Reshef and Sandra Rastin, Unions in the Time of Revolution: Government Restructuring in Alberta and Ontario (2003) are important studies highlighting the ways in which recent history constitutes nothing less than an attack on working-class well-being and established entitlements, with state initiatives undermining organized labour, especially in the public sector.

The most recent course-designed reader, Bryan Palmer and Joan Sangster, eds., Labouring Canada: Class, Gender, and Race in Canadian Working-Class History (2008) gathers together 28 articles that introduce students to class formation from early colonization and aboriginal dispossession to the state of the unions in an epoch of neo-liberal assault and working-class retrenchment. Gender and race receive considerable coverage, as do state policies, household economies, and class struggles and their advocates. In but one indication of how the field has expanded its inclusiveness, the history of sex work is considered in Becki L. Ross’s critical reflections on exotic dancing, “Bumping and Grinding on the Line: Making Nudity Pay,” which originally appeared in the journal Labour/Le Travail, a forum for much of the new writing in working-class history and labour studies.

Indeed, Labour/Le Travail, which has since its inception in 1976 been something of a bellwether of the themes and concerns of working-class history in Canada, illustrates where the field is going in Canada. The articles that appear in its pages are seldom easily and narrowly categorized as “labour history.” More common are what might be called “cross-over” publications, research that examines working-class life and history in ways that illuminate gender, race, region, age, sexual orientation, and state policy.

Increasingly the writing of labour history is being done by non-historians, who bring to their study of workers interdisciplinary sensibilities influenced by anthropology, sociology, political science, economics, geography, and a host of other academic fields and intellectual approaches. This suggests that working-class history, developing in a sophisticated manner, is a broader packaging of the labouring experience than can be contained in any single approach to the subject. As the labour movement struggled to make the rest of society understand the importance of work, workers, and their discontents, other social movements popularized how women, racial groups, and other subordinate peoples interacted with workers. This helped to shift academic sensibilities towards a broader understanding of what the working class has been and what its past entails. The new writing on working-class lives in the past thus encourages alternative histories that challenge conventional wisdoms about the meaning of society’s makeup and nature.

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