A Labour Day book recommendation: On the Line, by Rod Mickleburgh

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      Today, I received an email from Press Progress, which is the witty and irreverent media arm of the Broadbent Institute.

      This time, however, Press Progress delivered a serious message on Labour Day.

      "Canadian workers built this country from the bottom-up," it stated. "But experts say many students are graduating from Canadian high schools with little knowledge of labour history or their rights as workers."

      It urged recipients of the email to get the word out that this needs to change.

      I can attest to the lack of labour-history education going through B.C.'s K-12 public school system many years ago.

      For seven years, I taught journalism at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, where incoming students also knew little about labour rights and labour history.

      A topic that invariably elicited tremendous interest from my students was employment standards. I would start this section of the course by asking the students to raise their hands if they had ever been required to buy a uniform for a job.

      Usually, three to five hands would go in the air. Then I would tell them that it was illegal for employers to force them to pay for uniforms. That always generated a bunch of chatter and interest in the topic.

      If I were teaching that course today, I would have been able to recommend an outstanding book on the labour history of B.C., which was released this year by Harbour Publishing.

      Written by veteran journalist Rod Mickleburgh, On the Line: A History of the British Columbia Labour Movement tells a nuanced story about the evolution of workers' rights and some of the colourful and important events dating back to the 19th century.

      The ruthlessness of the Dunsmuir coal empire of the 19th and early 20th centuries is exposed. Mickleburgh uncovers the little-known history of Indigenous workers coming together to advance their rights in the labour force.

      There's a fascinating section about the fishing strike in 1900, when cannery owners tried to use divide-and-conquer tactics against a united front of Nikkei, Indigenous, and white fishermen. And the famous Depression-era trek to Ottawa also receives its due, as does the struggle for greater rights during the long reign of former premier W.A.C. Bennett, in which the police were regularly used to quell disturbances.

      On the Line reviews the collapse of what's now known as the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing during construction on June 17, 1958. Seventeen workers were killed and another diver perished during the rescue operation. The vivid details make this section unforgettable.

      In addition, Mickleburgh covers key differences between the leaders of the B.C. Federation of Labour and the first NDP government led by Dave Barrett. Anyone who thinks that Barrett and his labour minister, Bill King, were pawns of union leaders like Len Guy will come away with a different perspective after reading this book.

      In fact, the B.C. Federation of Labour even called for the firing or resignation of King after he introduced amendments to the B.C. Labour Code giving the Labour Relations Board greater jurisdiction.

      Mickleburgh emphasizes in On the Line that he wasn't trying to cover every event in the history of B.C.'s labour movement. Rather, he delved into major developments to provide deeper insights into the broader currents. An example is how former prime minister Pierre Trudeau's wage and price controls affected contract negotiations in B.C.

      Employing this approach, Mickleburgh is able to demonstrate the rising importance of women in the labour movement and explain why union leaders adopted a more pragmatic, businesslike approach after a Fraser Institute–influenced free-market zealot, Bill Bennett, became premier.

      There are also some compelling sections on the battles waged by the B.C. Teachers' Federation against the former B.C. Liberal government, as well as former B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair's dedication to workplace safety.

      "Some reactionary forces in today's world would have us believe unions have gone out of style and outlived their usefulness," Mickleburgh writes in the introduction. "Yet it is recognized that the greatest threat facing western societies today, British Columbia prominent among them, is the widening gulf between rich and poor.

      "As this book definitively shows, no force in society has proven more effective at promoting fairer distribution of the fruits of all peoples' labours than unions—which makes them more relevant in today's world, not less."

      On the Line was an initiative of the B.C. Labour Heritage Centre, which received financing from Community Savings Credit Union and WorkSafe B.C.

      The book includes dozens of newsy photographs of key figures and events, which reflect the frustrations and jubilation of B.C. workers and union leaders in their struggles for justice.

      If you're interested in the history of B.C. and you have some free time on Labour Day, why not drop by a bookstore or visit the Harbour Publishing website and order a copy?

      That's far preferable to buying from Amazon, which has never been a favourite of those who advocate for workers' rights. 

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