The workplace and labour studies face a challenging future

Friday, May 30, 2014

Doug Junke

Despite hard-fought gains over the years, the Canadian labour movement knows that it is not a time to stand still and be complacent.

That was evident at the Canadian Association for Work and Labour Studies (CAWLS) plenary session at Congress 2014 on Thursday, entitled “The past, present and future of work and labour studies.”

In her wide-ranging talk, Stephanie Ross, founding president of CAWLS and a political science professor at York University, said there “has been a real thirst for progressive research” but that it has been “a struggle to get labour studies into universities and to keep them there.”

Joining Ross on the panel were Bryan Palmer of Trent University and Winnie Ng of Ryerson University.

Ross said that existing university programs – many developed in the 1960s at a time of rank and file rebellion – were not comfortable for working-class students, “and that is still true today.”

There are some issues to be dealt with, Ross continued. Labour studies programs are in a precarious place. Some are growing, some barely hanging on. Among her concerns:

  • There is a world view of managers that is still prevalent in courses today.  
  • Programs are under-resourced
  • Some programs only exist because they are a particular professor’s “labour of love.”
  • There is a lack of secondary school labour studies
  • There are not enough experienced union people in the classroom
  • Many students are disillusioned with the labour movement because of a lack of job opportunities
  • She fears union partnerships with universities have changed and “not necessarily for the better”

But Ross remains cautiously optimistic. Labour studies have a central role to play, not just for the workplace but also social justice. “They are more relevant than ever... they can be a transformative experience for students and a vibrant source of knowledge.”

Outside of the classroom, she said the labour movement must “broaden its focus” and place “a renewed emphasis on non-union parts of the economy.”

Meanwhile, Palmer, a Canadian Studies professor, warned the union movement not “to take anything at face value or accept conventional wisdoms.”

He said if Canada’s well-documented labour history and authors have told unionized workers anything, it is that “we can always reach out for more.”

And he later added, “We must orchestrate a new future.”

Ng, a labour rights activist who holds the CAW-Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson, said labour must shift its “theme from ‘I’ to ‘We’ in our organizing.”

She cited South Korea where “they have so little but are doing so much” to mobilize workers.

To help accomplish that in Canada, labour education needs to take on a greater role, she said, since it is the “heart and soul” of the labour movement. Shen said union representatives and stewards must become more involved at the local level to “nurture solidarity.” Labour study programs are missing for the rank and file, she added.

She added that race and gender and their roles must be part of future conversations.

“The labour movement has a window of opportunity with [a new Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) leader] Hassan Yussuff,” she said.

Elected May 8, Yussuff is the CLC’s first person of colour elected to the position of president. He was born in Guyana, South America, and immigrated to Mississauga, Ontario where he worked as a mechanic. The CLC represents some 3.3 million Canadian workers.

“Equity and fairness will be critical in shaping the next chapter of the labour movement under Yussuff,” she said.


Congress of the Humanities and Social SciencesCongress 2014