The Canadian Labour Movement: A Short History. 2nd ed.


202 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 1-55028-522-X
DDC 331.88'0971





Reviewed by Dave Bennett

David Bennett is the national director of the Department of Workplace Health, Safety and Environment at the Canadian Labour Congress in Ottawa.


The key to understanding labour history lies in the nature of work, the
“industrial process,” and the structure of the particular industry
in which people work. When these structures are meshed with the cultural
expectations that workers bring to the job, the result is a connected
series of aspirations such as union organization, concerted industrial
action, and communal responses to individual predicaments.

Labour historians approach these socio-industrial phenomena in a number
of ways. Some see them primarily as social expressions that are
essential to a comprehensive historical description of a society. Others
see the phenomena as political, as part of a “labour movement,” or
as material for the history of the “working class.”

Heron’s historical endeavour is restricted to the “most active,
articulate, independent and cohesive elements” within the working
class. This inevitably leads to a bias in favour of militant,
politically motivated rank-and-file action at the expense of the
“bureaucrats” in centralized union organizations. But this bias is
always explicit and always argued, qualified, or juxtaposed with rival
views; it is never merely asserted.

This excellent introduction to the history of Canadian labour is
succinct, lucid, and balanced. The book’s only flaw lies in its view
of the role of government in industrial relations. Although the primary
relationship in labour history is between workers and employers, the
government is almost always a third player, whether in the background or
in a more explicit position. Heron depicts the government role in terms
of “the state.” In the absence of any definition of “the state,”
we have to assume that it signifies what Hegel and Marx took it to
mean—something that the nonspecialized reader cannot be expected to
do, still less to concur with.


Heron, Craig., “The Canadian Labour Movement: A Short History. 2nd ed.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed February 21, 2024,