Labour Le Travail: A Significant Collection in Canada's Working Class History

by Dana Brown — last modified 2008-10-29T10:30:07-04:00
Labour / Le Travail is a bilingual and biannual journal covering a broad range of approaches to studying the working class in Canada. Based out of Newfoundland's Memorial University, L / LT has received international acclaim as a pioneer in Canadian working class history. This journal was born out of the political and socially tumultuous years of the '60s and '70s. Labour / Le Travail emerges from the New Left movement, and it might, as Verity Burgmann alludes, be a product of increased access by working class youth to universities across the country during the ‘50s and '60s.[1] The journal received its intellectual inspiration by a circle of historians inside the Communist Party of Great Britain, such as Eric Hobsbawn and E. P. Thompson.[2]

By Dana R. Brown

Labour / Le Travail is a bilingual and biannual journal covering a broad range of approaches to studying the working class in Canada. Based out of Newfoundland's Memorial University, L / LT has received international acclaim as a pioneer in Canadian working class history. This journal was born out of the political and socially tumultuous years of the '60s and '70s. Labour / Le Travail emerges from the New Left movement, and it might, as Verity Burgmann alludes, be a product of increased access by working class youth to universities across the country during the ‘50s and '60s.[1] The journal received its intellectual inspiration by a circle of historians inside the Communist Party of Great Britain, such as Eric Hobsbawn and E. P. Thompson.[2]

Labour/Le Travail is funded and run by members of the Canadian Historical Association, who in turn have established the Canadian Committee on Labour History. The Committee is designed to promote and study working class and labour history. It defines labour and working class history in the broadest terms and at the same time, recognizes the diversity of disciplines and methodological approaches to studying this field.[3] Gregory S. Kealey, now at UNB as Vice President of Research, has dominated the editorship since the first issue in 1976. Bryan D. Palmer took over for Kealey when he stepped down in 1997.

Labour / Le Travail deals exclusively with Canadian working class and labour history. However, the mandate of the journal is set extremely broad. The editorial board calls for papers dealing with trade and industrial union organization, social and cultural aspects, labour in relation to politics and the economy, and the local community. The editors also call for biographical treatments of labour leaders and radicals, their ideologies, as well as comparative studies with other countries.[4] The journal also started publishing book reviews in ‘79, and since then the review section has grown significantly, becoming one of the most important and highly anticipated aspects of this journal.[5]

For the most part this is a professional journal, which features articles written, and edited by and for other historians. However, the journal does have a popular appeal to it, in that labour history is a field that attracts non-academics, trade unionists, historical enthusiasts, and community activists. Bryan D. Palmer, in referring to the journal's 50th volume anniversary, noted the presence of “non-academic journal readers and trade union figures who simply took the opportunity to attend and express their support of a publication that they had been contented subscribers to for a number of years.”[6] The journal has for most of its life, included worker poetry in its pages. This signifies the journal's desire to be relevant to academics and a popular audience by examining working class culture.[7]

It is no surprise, considering the nature of the intellectuals who inspired L / LT's creation, that many of the contributors are Marxist historiographers. It appears that most take the lower case “m” approach to marxism, that is they do not take the teleological view of history. They have divorced class analysis techniques from the Marxist pre-determined approach, and adopted this to working class/labour history. L / LT has broadened its ideological horizons to include a variety of socialisms, feminisms, and liberal standpoints. It is important to point out that new approaches have emerged, incorporating a broader analysis that is more inclusive of race and gender.[8]

Part of this review involves picking out the different trends that occurred in history over the years. Lawrence Stone explores the rise of “the new history” which, as he explains, occurred in the late '60s and early '70s. Social-science methodologies characterize this new type of history. Generally, the new history involved studying different subjects. Thus, the history of the masses becomes popular. It is no surprise then that the journal predominantly displays the 'new history'. We can see that L/LT emerges within this trend, as it studies the Canadian working class exclusively.

The first few issues display the 'new history' and its methodologies. For example, Judith Fingard, “The decline of the Sailor as a ship labourer in 19th century ports” Stanley Scott's “A profusion of issues: Immigrant Labour, the world war, and the Cominco strike.” all analyze labour in relation to their respective industries. This necessarily takes a sociological or socio-economic approach by utilizing financial and economic techniques. Articles involving poverty, growth of city slums, ideological divides, class and stratification, dominate the ‘70s and early ‘80s of this journal.[9] For example, Bryan D. Palmer's article “Discordant Music” (1978), illustrates the sociological approach to how communities police themselves, establish norms, and act as a group to achieve a common end.[10] The history of science and technology also occupies space in this journal as author's like Doug Baldwin examines the technological aspect of work and how that related to working conditions. The technological approach also involves the examination of the labour market on a macro level. As well, many articles throughout the '80s and '90s make extensive use of statistical methods of presenting data, such as tables and charts. Overall, many techniques are used form sociology and economics at a micro and macro level.

It is also possible to distinguish “the new cultural history” influence. Fast-forward to spring 1989, and one can clearly see what Lyn Hunt describes as the 'new cultural history'. The literary strain is visible as Steven Maynard addresses the social construction of masculinity. Maynard is analyzing text, not for what it says but for what it means and how it works. He is using literary evidence and Foucault’s power as discourse approach.[11]

This journal has given regular voice to women's history. Over the near 30 years of L / LT, over 60 titles appear dealing with women's issues as they relate to labour working class life. Most of them are articles; however some are book reviews or research reports. Since 1987, a concerted effort was made by editors to deal more directly with gender and ethnicity and it appears they have made good on their promise.[12] It is interesting to note that issue 46 was entirely devoted to labour and gender issues.

Unfortunately sectarianism characterizes much of the left in Canada's history. The academic left is no exception to this as many of the classic socialist debates have spilled over into L / LT's pages. One major theme or tension I noticed in L / LT is the pull in one direction to the academy. That is, to keep the journal relevant only to the field of social historians versus the recognized original intention to educate the working class in Canada. It seems that in the late '80s, some contributors realized that no unionists or activists were reading L / LT and that labour and working class historians were out of touch with the real world of the workers.[13] This is very important, as some point out, we are living in an age of marked increase in the power of transnational corporations, which are operating in a heightened neoliberal political climate. There is a recognized need for a journal like L / LT to provide an educational history and an ideological compass for left’s current struggles. Other debates include the historical assessment of labour unions and their possible future roles in class struggle. Feminist researchers have also highlighted differences in how women workers have responded to and utilized union structures as vehicles for change.

Big names in the Canadian historical academy appear in this journal. Names like Greg S. Kealey, Linda Kealey, Desmond Morton, Cy Gonick, David Frank, Bryan D. Palmer, and Ian Mckay. It was interesting to see several professors at UNB's history department that played essential roles in establishing and maintaining this important journal over its near 30 years of life. Overall, I find the journal's intent to become more popular in its approach to be admirable. This endeavour will ensure its relevance as a professional academic journal and a popular publication aimed at educating the Canadian public.

Sources:

[1] Verity Burgmann. “Labour / Le Travail and Canadian Working-Class History: A View from Afar” Labour / Le Travail. Fall Vol.50,( 2002) p.72

[2] Ibid

[3] CCLH Constitution, Executive, and Addresses. Memorial University

[4] Journal Mandate. “Labour / Le Travail Mandate” Labour / Le Travail Vol.1 (1976).

[5] David Roediger. “Top Seven Reasons to Celebrate and Ask More from Labour / Le Travail” Labour / Le Travail. p.92

[6] Bryan D. Palmer. “Editor's Introduction: Labour / Le Travail at 50” Labour / Le Travail. Fall Vol. 50 (2002) p.11

[7] Roediger. “Top Seven Reasons to Celebrate” p. 91

[8] Gillian Creese. The British Columbia Working Class: New Perspectives on Ethnicity/Race and Gender.” Spring Vol.27, (1991). p.193

[9] Doug Baldwin. "The Life of the Silver Miner in Northern Ontario". Labour / Le Travail. Vol. 2 (1977). p.79

[10] Bryan D. Palmer. “Discordant Music: Chivaris and White Capping in Nineteenth Century North America.” Labour / Le Travail. Vol.3 (1978) p.79

[11] Steven Maynard. “Rough Work and Rugged Men: The Social Construction of Masculinity in Working Class History”. Labour / Le Travail. Spring Vol.23 (1989) p.121

[12] Verity Burgmann. “Labour / Le Travail and Canadian Working-Class History: A View from Afar.” Labour / Le Travail. Fall Vol.50, (2002) p.76

[13] Raymond Leger. “The New Brunswick Experience.” Labour / Le Travail. Spring Vol. 27 (1991) p.115

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