Around twenty years ago when I worked in the labor movement, I used to go up to Toronto to help a hotel workers’ union fight the boss. During one contract dispute, union members and staffers had an understanding with the cops and management that they could stand in front of a car attempting to enter the property for exactly a minute before letting the vehicle pass. As we were in Ontario, there were a lot of U.S. license plates amid the Canadian ones. The difference between the two groups was striking: the Canadians took the whole thing in stride, waited for their minute to pass, and then went on their way. But the U.S. drivers were enraged! A lot of them screamed and cursed and said that we “had no right” to delay their journey, and urged the cops, blandly looking on, to bust us. What I took from this episode was a sense that Canadians, regardless of their politics, accepted unions as part of their political culture. They were institutional articulations of the working class. Americans just viewed unions as a nuisance—a special interest.
In Labor and the Class Idea in the United States and Canada, Barry Eidlin, a sociologist at McGill University, has confirmed my anecdotal intuition with a lucid and provocative work of historical sociology. Eidlin wants to understand why and how the fortunes of the labor movements in the United States and Canada so sharply diverged beginning in the mid-1960s. At that time, union density in both countries stood at between 25 and 30 percent. But since then American union density has steadily declined to its present 10.5 percent, as low as it was at the start of the Great Depression, while Canadian union density went up, declined a bit, and then stabilized at its current 28 percent.
So what happened? Eidlin argues that the seeds of this disparity were planted during the 1930s and 1940s. At that time, the U.S. labor movement had more power and success than its Canadian counterpart. Franklin Roosevelt, faced with an upsurge of labor militancy, “. . . adopted a co-optive response to worker and farmer upsurge,” writes Eidlin, signing the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), supporting union organizing (sort of), and making labor an indispensable part of the New Deal. Union growth skyrocketed through the late 1930s and, again with the administration’s support, during the Second World War. Meanwhile, in Canada, the Liberal Party attracted no politicians as strategically adroit as FDR. The ineffective William Lyon Mackenzie King, who served non-continuously as prime minister for over eighteen years beginning in 1926, was closer to Herbert Hoover than Roosevelt. As Eidlin puts it, he “hesitated to implement comprehensive collective bargaining policies because of an ideological commitment to a value normally viewed as classically American: voluntarism.” R. B. Bennett, the Conservative leader who served as prime minister from 1930 to 1935, doubled dow...
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