Deindustrialization and the Working-Class Politics of Our Times

Lachlan MacKinnon

Following the industrial crisis of the 1920s and the Great Depression in the 1930s, consecutive provincial governments in Nova Scotia turned their efforts towards state-led economic development. Despite its market orthodoxy, the “infrastructure liberalism” of Angus L. Macdonald spurred the completion of projects such as the Canso Causeway in an effort to shift portions of the economy towards tourism and service. After the election of Robert Stanfield and the Tories in 1956, a wholesale modernist planning model was unveiled. Indeed, Stanfieldian economic policy in Nova Scotia was predicated upon the belief that direct state-led interventionism was necessary to offset regional inequity. Industrial Estates Limited, Voluntary Planning, and renewed interest in a state-driven industrial relations paradigm were central in the province’s efforts to revitalize its flagging economy and offset predicted decline in the Cape Breton coal and steel industries.

This presentation examines the fate of the Clairtone Sound Corporation, one of Nova Scotia’s “new industries” that had emerged out of these state-led development efforts. A case study of this firm, based in Stellarton in the aftermath of the Springhill disasters, reveals the ways in which the structural processes of deindustrialization produced crisis even within firms that were completely distinct from the provinces cornerstone industries of coal and steel. This includes a reflection upon the class composition of the modernist state in Nova Scotia; in contrast to the cooperative models of state planning demanded by the province’s unionized coal miners and steelworkers during the 1940s, the interventionist model that was developed in Nova Scotia was one that wedded regionalist capitalists to the levers of political and bureaucratic power. This represents a convergence of the historiographical focus on state-led, high modernist industrial development in the Maritimes and recent literature found within deindustrialization studies that more explicitly calls for class-based analysis of the political decisions leading to industrial decline and closure.


Petra Dolata

This conceptual contribution will discuss the connection between deindustrialization and energy transitions. As recent studies on the precarity of coal miners and energy labourers more broadly have heightened awareness of the agency of people to spur, alter or divert energy transitions, it proposes that in the case of basic energy industries, we should examine deindustrialization processes through labour perspectives informed by energy histories. Most worksites of energy exploration are part of larger energyscapes, environmental sacrifice zones and global hydrocarbon-based energy systems thus constituting important regional substories in the era of the so-called Great Acceleration. International changes in energy use impacted these industries disproportionately and energy labourers and their families have been at the forefront of changes in energy systems. Focusing on workers’ experiences in the 1970s, during which discussions of energy crises and structural changes in primary industries intersected, helps us to understand that energy transitions are also always social transitions.


Fred Burrill

This paper proposes a focus on Saint-Henri, a neighbourhood in the Southwest of Montreal that was a key site of struggle for the left in the 60s and 70, and a community that looms large in Quebec’s collective imagination. Relying on oral histories and archives from grassroots groups, it will argue that many of the local political initiatives that flourished in the 1960s and early 70s were tied up in working-class efforts to navigate the treacherous waters of job loss occasioned by patterns of deindustrialization extending as far back as the 1930s. As major employers like Stelco and Dominion Textile left the neighbourhood, they were temporarily replaced by non-unionized, tertiary industries that employed young, local women and migrant male labourers. Initially, there was significant overlap between these workers’ shopfloor militancy and the new forms of community-based political advocacy emerging in the 60s. But as deindustrialization continued, resulting in the increasing technical de-composition and cultural disintegration of Montreal’s industrial working class, significant sections of the community sector-based Left turned to "social economy" models, collaborating with the private sector in the hopes of generating employment and housing for low-income residents. This gamble was ultimately unsuccessful, and these contradictions continue to impact working-class life and memory in the neighbourhood.


Lauren Laframboise

Based on my MA project, this presentation will focus on the 1983 “Grève de la fierté” in Montreal’s garment industry. It was the industry’s first strike in 43 years, and was largely organized by rank and file immigrant women taking a stand against the layoffs, closures, and deteriorating working conditions prompted by industrial restructuring and deindustrialization. The campaign leading up to the 1983 strike, organized by the Comité d’action des travailleurs duvêtement, articulated a series of demands for the improvement of workplace health and safety conditions, better benefits, and more representative union leadership. With original archival research and oral history interviews, I argue that the 1983 strike illustrates how the historically entrenched gendered structure of labour relations shaped the pathways of deindustrialization in Montreal’s garment industry.

Wages for Housework politics and local organizing in three Canadian cities, 1960s-1980s

Christine Hughes, MA student, History Department, University of Victoria

Margaret Little, Gender Studies/ Political Studies Departments, Queen’s University

Lynne Marks, History Department, University of Victoria

Karissa Patton, Postdoc, Vancouver Island University

Morghan Watson, MA student, History Department, University of Victoria.

Wages for Housework (WFH) is an international revolutionary Marxist feminist organization that sought to transform how we think about labour, and particularly women’s unpaid labour, with a strong analysis of race, class, sexuality and gender.  WFH had chapters in a number of countries in Europe, North and South America, and included the autonomous but linked organizations Wages Due Lesbians and Black Women for Wages for Housework.   In their local communities WFH members formed alliances with racialized, immigrant, working class, sex worker and low-income women’s struggles. 

Despite their distinctive political theory and important grassroots activism, WFH has not been adequately addressed in the history of the Canadian women’s movement.  While there has been some scholarly work on the relationship between Wages for Housework and welfare rights organizing, as well as about the National Action Committee on the Status of Women’s (NAC) refusal to include them in this Canada-wide feminist organization, much of WFH’s local organizing remains unstudied.

In this paper we use archival and oral history interviews to explore the “on the ground” activities and impact of Wages for Housework (WFH) in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Toronto during the 1960s-1980s.  This paper focuses particular attention to immigrant, welfare rights, and lesbian WFH politics during this time, while also examining the impact WFH organizers and ideas had on broader welfare rights, lesbian and immigrant women’s organizing in these cities.

Organizing Working Women: Labour Feminism in the 1970s and 1980s

This panel will explore various efforts to organize working women specific to the 1970s and 1980s, with particular focus on the connections between labour and feminism. From the late 1960s, many feminists and feminist organizations directed new attention to efforts to organize women who worked outside the home for pay.  Some eschewed the existing labour movement, seen as conservative and disinterested in organizing women, and established their own innovative strategies and organizations. These efforts might focus on a certain kind of worker (eg service labour), on a certain city or region, or a particular workplace. Not all these efforts were successful, but it is important to analyze why they emerged, their successes and limitations, and especially the mix of ideas that motivated their adherents.

Joan Sangster, “The Waitresses Action Committee”

When the Conservative Ontario government announced it was re-thinking its minimum wage policy in late 1976 and early 1977, it suggested that the differential between the minimum wage for most workers and that for servers in restaurants (which was lower) might be widened, rather than reduced or eliminated as many servers hoped. The Waitresses Action Committee (WAC) used this opportunity to mount a public campaign to eliminate the differential entirely and raise the minimum wage for all. The WAC emerged from the Toronto group, Wages for Housework (WFH) and Wages Due (Lesbians); they argued that defending lower-paid, precarious women workers, who had few employment choices and were often supporting families, related to WFH’s goals.  The WAC mounted an impressive campaign of opposition to the government’s plan, garnering the support of many feminist and social movement groups (though not the traditional trade unions), and using the press, petitions, and lobbying of MPPs to get their message across. Their campaign included a sophisticated analysis of the gendered and sexualized nature of waitresses’ labour, and the intersection between gender and class in the labour market. Though not successful, their campaign reveals how fleeting efforts helped to build labour feminism, and how feminists were re-thinking and challening women’s working conditions, often outside of the established union movement. 

Julia Smith, “Feminist labour activism in Manitoba, 1970–1990”

Scholars have documented how and why the number of unionized women in Canada increased in the second half of the twentieth century, but there is a lack of detailed historical studies of specific forms of feminist labour activism in particular regions and provinces, including Manitoba, and how the labour and feminist movements interacted and influenced one other during this time period. This paper will present preliminary findings from an ongoing research project on women who combined labour and feminist activism to address issues of gender inequality in Manitoba in the 1970s and 1980s. As in other regions of Canada, in Manitoba the number of women organizing around issues related to work and gender inequality increased significantly during this period, often referred to as the “second wave” of the women’s movement. Some women fought individual battles in their workplaces while others joined large established organizations, such as unions and the Manitoba Action Committee on the Status of Women. Still others formed new grassroots groups, like Winnipeg Women’s Liberation, that were active on a number of issues, including those related to work. Examining the groups and activists who engaged in feminist labour activism in Manitoba during this period will contribute to a more complete history of women, labour activism, and struggles for gender equality in Canada.

Immigration, Ethnicity and Labour

Elizabeth Kirkland, “Bonus Allowed”: Immigration Agents and the position of Female Domestics in the Settler-Colonial Project, 1880-1914.

In 1903, Montreal-based Mrs. E.F. Francis launched a new career - she was to be paid $3 by the Canadian government for every woman or girl that she could place in a domestic service position in Canada. She herself gathered eligible candidates from Glasgow and Liverpool, promising each one a safe escort, a job, and a new life in Canada. She was just one agent among many involved in the migration of thousands of women and girls crossing the Atlantic every year between 1880 and 1914 to take up positions in domestic service. This paper explores the ways this migration process was embedded in the settler-colonial project, sponsored by state governments and facilitated by various charitable and for-profit parties. It examines the insistence that labouring settlers should conform to specific codes of gender, class, race, age and sexuality.

Manuel Salamanca Cardona, “Possibilités et limites des organisations syndicales et du syndicalisme communautaire pour la défense des Travailleurs immigrants etnoracisés (TIE) en Québec.”

La présentation a deux buts : décrire quelques évènements historiques entre 1995 et 2019 pour comprendre la fluctuation des relations entre la Fédération de travail du Québec et la Confédération des syndicats nationaux avec l’immigration. Ce but inclus d'analyser la matrice des relations établies entre ces organisations avec le syndicalisme communautaire qui défend les droits des im/migrantes. Ensuite, la présentation compare deux évènements qui ont eu différents résultats pour la justice migrante : d’un côté, l’approbation de la loi 8 en 2014, ce qu’illustre la dispersion de l’action collective entre ces deux acteurs. Une autre, la collaboration du CTI et de l’ATTAP (Association des travailleurs temporaires d’agence de placement) avec la CSN entre 2014 à 2018 pour confronter la question des agences de placement. Les conclusions décrivent les éléments clés pour comprendre les distances, différences et complémentarités entre les organisations syndicales et les organisations de défense des im/migrants.

Roberta Lexier, “Labour and the NDP:  David Lewis and the Jewish Labour Bund”

Although historians of the social democratic left in Canada have long recognized the influence of Christian traditions, especially the Social Gospel, on the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and the New Democratic Party, this presentation instead considers the role of the Jewish Labour Bund in the development of the electoral left. In particular, it centres David Lewis, “the most important single individual” in the party according to Desmond Morton, and evaluates the way his background in the secular, social democratic, internationalist, and anti-communist Bund led to the fuller integration of labour into the organizational structures of the new party in 1961; for Lewis, the electoral left was inherently interconnected with the labour movement. This analysis further complicates our understanding of the relationship between labour and the New Democratic Party.

Labour History and Critical Theory I:

Capitalism and Colonialism

Bryan D. Palmer and respondents

Colonialism, Racism, and Labour

Sean Carleton, “Racism at Work: Indigenous Teachers in British Columbia’s Indian Day Schools, 1880s-1930s”

In 1935, after almost twenty years of teaching at the Alert Bay Indian Day School on Vancouver Island, George M. Luther, an Indigenous teacher, wrote to the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) in Ottawa to tender his resignation. Owing to his ill health and poverty resulting from years of being poorly paid for his labour, Luther tried to negotiate a small pension – as teachers had recently secured in the province’s public schools – but he was unsuccessful. Instead, the DIA granted him two months of salary upon retirement, a total of $180. This meant that Luther’s annual salary, at the end of his career, was $1080. By comparison, the average public-school teacher in British Columbia’s elementary schools made close to $1,500. 

Two decades of correspondence between Luther and DIA officials about pay grievances and the lack of pedagogical support reveals the racism at work in British Columbia’s Indian Day Schools. Indeed, the DIA constantly opposed the hiring of Indigenous teachers, preferring to hire “white” teachers where possible because of their presumed superiority and advanced skill set. Nevertheless, this paper will establish that, against the wishes of the DIA, Indigenous teachers comprised a significant portion of the day school workforce in British Columbia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Moreover, surviving DIA records and correspondence offers a window into the previously undocumented working conditions, racism, and grievances these teachers experienced.

Gabrielle McLaren,“Memorializing the Settler Worker Along the Rideau Canal”

In 2012, Stephen Harper’s conservative government announced that the Rideau Canal’s National Heritage Site designation would be expanded to commemorate the workers who had died during its construction (1826-1832). In framing this expansion, the labour of the 1,000+ workers who died during construction was labelled as “contributions” and the imperial-capital structures responsible for their deadly working conditions became “challenges.” Empire and capital disappeared from the picture. Drawing on public histories and media coverage of the Rideau Canal, my presentation echoes Fred Burrill’s recent critique to argue that working-class history, if divorced from labour’s settler colonial context, both obscures and misrepresents working-class lives and perpetuates the legitimacy of the settler colonial nation-state.

Benjamin Isitt, “Capitalist Commodification, Indigenous Labour, and Treaty-Making in Modern British Columbia”

The commodification of labour and natural resources has been a cornerstone of the capitalist mode of production everywhere, including in relation to the process of colonization of Indigenous lands and waters on the Pacific Coast of North America.

Focusing on recent British Columbia history since the 1990s, this paper examines capitalist commodification and its impact on Indigenous workers, economic practices, and lands. It examines how the imperatives of private capital accumulation have shaped “modern-day” treaties between Indigenous peoples and the governments of British Columbia and Canada.

Treaty provisions discouraging commonly held property, and favouring privately held property, and treaty provisions protecting the economic interests of non-Indigenous capitalist entities, are examined, with particular reference to the Nisga’a and Tsawwassen treaties and other treaties currently under negotiation between Indigenous peoples and settler governments.

The paper also examines the impact of capitalist commodification on treaty provisions relating to governance and political organization within Indigenous communities.

The State, Workers, and Unions

Tyler Wentzell, “The Rise and Fall of Military Strike-Breaking in Canada, 1867-1933”

Early labour organizers could expect to be confronted by every tool in the state’s arsenal, including the coercive power of the militia. This research examines 65 identified instances of the use of the militia in strike-breaking from Confederation until the last peacetime occurrence: the 1933 Stratford furniture workers strike. This research adds to our knowledge by building a dataset of these events and examining the interactions amongst industry, labour, and the military, and further examines the militia as labour, that is, a group of people that was simultaneously an instrument of state power while also being substantially drawn from the working class themselves. Specifically, this research examines the impact of the 1904 transition from using local part-time militiamen with community ties, to full-time soldiers without such connections. This research draws upon the Department of Militia papers and local archives such as the Beaton Institute at Cape Breton University and the Stratford-Perth Archives.

Mason Godden, “Challenging Labour in Cape Breton: The Canadian Mineworkers’ Union (CMU), 1981-1984”

On 17 July 1981, District 26 of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) struck against the Cape Breton Development Corporation (DEVCO), halting the major coal operations in the region, and ending 34 years of industrial peace in Nova Scotia. Despite the organizational strength of the UMWA in the period, District 26 had no strike fund in place to pay its striking members. Frustrated and disillusioned with the effectiveness of their union, a group of dissident miners contacted the Confederation of Canadian Unions (CCU), an independent, left-nationalist labour body established in 1969 to resist American union domination, in the hopes that a stronger union in the Maritimes could be built. To the CCU, American-based international unions such as the UMWA were more concerned with building a union empire than representing their Canadian members. The CCU therefore served as the institutional antithesis to the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), which despite being Canada’s principal labour body was dominated by American internationals during the period.

This paper will explore the CCU’s efforts to challenge the UMWA’s organizing power in Cape Breton and detail the various experimental organizing and protest strategies used by CCU organizers to establish the independent Canadian Mineworkers’ Union (CMU) in 1981 and 1982. It will be argued that despite two unsuccessful attempts at certification from the Canadian Labour Relations Board (CLRB), the CMU was a microcosm of Canada’s militant union organizing that facilitated social change and transformation for the working class in the post-war period. Additionally, this paper will emphasize the strategic and organizational influence that left-nationalism held in the Canadian labour movement beyond its popular heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.

Benoit Marsan, “De l’assurance-chômage à la Prestation canadienne d’urgence : quelles perspectives pour les chômeuses et les chômeurs”

La presentation explore l’histoire du régime canadien d’assurance-chômage de 1940 à nos jours. Dans la foulée des réformes néolibérales des dernières décennies, moins de la moitié des travailleuses et des travailleurs parviennent de nos jours à obtenir des prestations de chômage à la suite de la perte d’un emploi. Dans le contexte pandémique, le programme a démontré de façon explicite son inefficacité. En réponse, le gouvernement fédéral a dû se résoudre à mettre en place des mesures d’urgence. Plusieurs voix s’élèvent depuis pour réclamer des modifications à la Loi de l’assurance-emploi. Compte tenu des développements récents, est-il possible d’envisager un programme universel de protection sociale contre le chômage ou bien cette législation est-elle vouée à demeurer avant tout un outil de régulation du marché du travail ?

Unjust Transition: Collective action, labour, and the environment

Charles Smith  (USask)

Andrew Stevens (URegina)

Emily Leedham (Winnipeg Journalist)

Emily Eaton (URegina)

Doug Nesbitt (Queen’s)

Kevin Skerrett (CUPE)

In December 2019, what became the Cooperative Refinery Complex (CRC) locked out 730 members of Unifor Local 594 amidst record profits in a union-busting drive for further pension concessions, marking a dramatic shift from decades of collaborative relations between refinery workers, their union and the CRC. Several arms of the Saskatchewan state came to the aid of the employer: the courts imposed sweeping anti-picketing injunctions; police repressed demonstrations; the municipal government and provincial environmental regulations accommodated the establishment of a replacement work camp directly next to the facility. Feeding off of general public enmity towards the workers, the CRC exchanged its long-held cooperative principles for practices that align with those of private competitors owned and operated by major oil interests.

This panel explores a number of issues related to the state of the right to strike and picket; the role of government (municipal and provincial) during strikes and lockouts; the prospects for a “just transition” away from Western Canada’s dependence on oil and gas; occupational health and safety and regulations; workers’ voices; the need for labour journalism; the state of pensions in collective bargaining; and the state of co-operates and co-operative values in Canada. Ultimately, this panel uses the lockout as a platform on which to analyze these important themes from a local and national standpoint.

Labouring Culture

Valerie Uher, “Labour denied: resistance to (the work) of family in working class women’s literature”

How can working class people resist labour exploitation in our contemporary environment, where precarious work and worker atomization appears as the status quo? What can be learned from studying how workers struggled against similar conditions in previous eras? While not providing explicit answers, literature by authors of the post-war era such as works by Gabrielle Roy (1947), Myrtle Bergren (1964) and Austin Clarke (1968), provide glimpses of the ways working class women struggled for dignity in their working lives in the context of the Canadian family, whether as wives, daughters or racialized domestic workers. As part of my ongoing dissertation research on depictions of labour unrest in Canadian literature and culture, this presentation will use a social reproduction approach to consider how working class women refuse, undermine and thwart the physical and psychic violence of domestic work, and what insights into our current working lives these depictions might offer. 

Jon Bartlett and Rika Ruebsaat, “Workers in the West Kootenays News:  Songs and verse, 1893-1914”

The presenters are cultural historians with a focus on vernacular songs. Their examination of some sixty local newspapers in the West Kootenays of BC in the mining boom years from 1893 to the beginning of the First World War and the songs and verse found in them suggest ways in which workers in the burgeoning towns and mining camps of the region reflected upon their work, their class positions and their hopes and fears for the future.

Piyusha Chatterjee, “Buskers unite? Not quite: Labour of busking in the neoliberal city”

Drawing on a conflict between street-performers and the city over a busking spot in Old Montreal in 2019, this presentation will understand busking as labour in the neoliberal city. The contestation over space and the inability to organise themselves in this case brings up important tensions around precarious work, economic marginalisation and labour organising in post-Fordist economies. Against this backdrop, the second part of the presentation will examine the history of a metro buskers’ association in Montreal founded in 1982. The trajectory of the association’s evolution, appeal and disintegration highlights the nature and the role of labour intermediaries in this new economic order. Focus on the busker pushes the definition of work, creates space for informality in considerations of the economy, and draws attention to the fuzzy lines between spaces of production and social reproduction of labour. The research combines oral histories with informal archives of the association held by a busker.

Benjamin Anderson, “Building Autonomous Power: Worker Centres and Solidarity Networks in Precarious Times”

From COVID-19 to the so-called labour shortage of late 2021, the last two years have revealed a renewed discourse on labour markets and working conditions. Alongside this discourse, workers in a variety of industries have been organizing to fight the rollbacks, redundancies, and concessions imposed in response to the pandemic and its related financial crisis. From Amazon warehouse workers, to hospitality workers, to informally employed platform workers, the global precarious are rising up.

In addition to traditional labour movement tactics, one tool that has proven powerful and flexible in the COVID period is the autonomous solidarity network. Built from the model of the worker centre, a labour solidarity network is conceived of as a decentralized grouping of workers, organizers and allies, usually operated virtually and at arms-length from formal union structures.   

Following the methodological foundation of workers’ inquiry, this presentation reports on interviews with workers and organizers involved with worker centres and solidarity networks, distilling their experiences and observations into a set of common practices that characterize worker organizing efforts taking place in a number of Canadian workplaces, including hospitality, migrant work programs, platform services, and artisanal industries.

Charles Smith, “Workers in Western Canada.”

When activists and scholars assembled at the University of Winnipeg to commemorate the centenary of the Winnipeg General Strike in 2019, one of the main themes of the conference was to question how the building and waging of the strike could become an educational tool to engender a new generation of workplace activism and socialist organizing. While no clear answers emerged, two questions remained: To what extent were workers aware of their history and did that history have anything to contribute to workers material lives in the twenty-first century? With these questions in mind, this paper has two modest goals: first to briefly map the history of working-class activism in Western Canada throughout the twentieth century and second, to build on that history to investigate the state of workers and working-class activism in the twenty-first century.

Anupam Das, et al. “Interprovincial Unionization and Social Welfare”

In this study, we conduct a quantitative analysis of the relationship between unionization and important measures of social well-being such as income inequality and environmental sustainability. In these areas, it is possible for unions to influence these measures through both their bargaining and political roles, although the environmental measure is perhaps the one least obviously tied to what has been traditionally seen as unions’ collective bargaining mandate. We see to advance the cross-national literature by investigating whether subnational structural differences in unionization can have a measurable impact on provincial welfare measures. This is particularly important when provinces have considerable discretion over the legislation that can facilitate or hinder union formation.

Building Solidarity:  Public Labour History/Labour Education

Alvin Finkel, ALHI

Jordan Thompson, AUPE, “Western Labour Educators Network”

Labour History and Critical Theory II:

Social Reproduction

Meg Luxton “Social Reproduction as Work”

In renewed and growing critiques of capitalism, the concept, social reproduction, is being reworked by academics and activists to stimulate and advance transformative political change. Yet, understanding social reproduction as a form of “work” has sometimes slipped away, leaving behind important anti-racist feminist insights. Engaging with recent contributions from scholars in the U.S., U.K, and Canada, we argue that social reproduction is most useful as a concept and not as a theory and is best understood as “work”. Locating social reproduction in the theoretical framework offered by feminist political economy, we point out ambiguities and contradictions that have produced conceptual confusion across different spheres of theorizing. We conclude that social reproduction, when understood as work, reveals its centrality to processes of capital accumulation and its contradictions to it, supporting efforts to build the mass movements and solidarity necessary for effective anti-capitalist politics.

Creating Space for Utopian Thinking

This roundtable will discuss the necessity of utopian thinking for the contemporary labour movement, the role labour historians’ critical evaluation of theories of transition to post-capitalism can play, how role plays and simulations can be used in the classroom to engage students and expose them to radical discourses, and methods of building capacity for self-organization on a micro-scale in the classroom. With presentations from  Joseph Burton, PhD student SFU history, John-Henry Harter, lecturer SFU labour studies, Mark Leier, professor SFU history, Andrea Samoil, PhD student SFU history, Jim Selby, retired Alberta Union of Public Employees.