Cracking the Canadian Formula: The Making of the Energy and Chemical Workers Union


311 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations
ISBN 0-921284-31-4
DDC 331.88'166'0971





Reviewed by Gerald J. Stortz

Gerald J. Stortz is an assistant professor of history at St. Jerome’s
College, University of Waterloo.


Corporate histories have the reputation of being tedious and
self-serving. Labor biographies often also suffer from hagiography,
something approaching piety, and a lack of humor. Therefore, I
approached this book with some trepidation. I need not have worried: the
eclectically talented Roberts, who has worked as a researcher, academic,
investigative reporter, and broadcaster, has produced what should become
the benchmark for such histories.

This work clearly became a labor of love. What started out as a 20-page
pamphlet became a 4-year project, much of it undertaken while Roberts
was employed by a different union. The research materials included 50
boxes of archival sources, hundreds of hours of taped interviews
conducted by Roberts and others, and contributions from several
researchers. The archival collection is described as “probably the
most complete internal record of any union on the continent.” The
result is a hard-hitting analysis of an unusual labor body in an
atypical field—a body that often succeeded by doing the unexpected and
the seemingly irrational. The book’s organization is equally unusual
in that each section is an independent unit without detracting from the
work’s overall unity.

In the introduction, Roberts states that “this is a commissioned
history but not an authorized or sanitized one.” He also thanks the
Union “for allowing a known labour dissident to write a ‘warts and
all’ history of their union.” For example, the accounts of Alex
McAuslane’s alcoholism and its effect on the union is supercritical.

There is a sense of realism in this work. The everday language of union
and workplace is used throughout, though some may object. Humor is also
found throughout the book, both situational humor and that of
Roberts’s refreshingly light-hearted style, which features more than
the occasional pun. The book is visually attractive, with large,
easy-to-read print and well-reproduced photos, cartoons, and graphics.

“The book centres on people and problems not dates and places,” it
promises. Roberts succeeds admirably: relations between company and
union, as well as intra- and interunion problems, are described in terms
of personality.

More than slightly Creightonesque, this book is a refreshing change,
proving that Canadian labor history can be interesting and fun as well
as relevant. Let us hope to hear more from Roberts.


Roberts, Wayne., “Cracking the Canadian Formula: The Making of the Energy and Chemical Workers Union,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed December 7, 2023,