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The struggle to build trade unions in the extractive and manufacturing industries of Canada -- mining, forestry, fishing, clothing, furniture, and others -- was meteoric and its demise equally rapid. Raising the Workers’ Flag provides a welcome history of the organization that was at the heart of that struggle, detailing the saga of political infighting and courageous field organizing that marked this stunning bid to found unions that dared to challenge capitalist economic imperatives during the Depression era.
Few historians have tackled their subject with more enthusiasm, insider insight, and eye-popping detail than Stephen L. Endicott has done in this first book-length treatment of the Workers’ Unity League. Aided by newly opened Soviet archives and secret police spy reports, the Toronto historian has recreated the atmosphere of fear and desperation that spurred the call for industrial democracy in the era preceding the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO) in Canada. Leading that call were young men and women, often Communists, who were employed at meagre pay to organize the unorganized masses. Noted for using a strike strategy to foster militant industrial unionism, the WUL blazed across Canada leaving in its wake bitterly fought strikes, police-induced violence, and years of jail sentences for its young organizers.
Endicott enlivens his history with portraits of several of these relatively unsung heroes. Central among them is Arthur “Slim” Evans, leader of the famous On To Ottawa Trek of 1935. Also taking a prominent place is Harvey Murphy, the self-proclaimed “reddest rose in the garden of labour.” (101). Evans did the early spade work in the Alberta coal mining region known as the Crowsnest Pass and went to jail for his troubles. Murphy picked up where Evans had left off, working with the WUL’s Mine Workers’ Union of Canada. He, too, went to jail for his efforts. Becky Buhay’s role in building Women’s Labour Leagues is also thoroughly explored, as is the WUL’s promotion of a greater role for women’s auxiliaries. J.B. Salsberg, the WUL organizer in southern Ontario, Annie Buller, who went to jail for her role in the Estevan coal miners’ strike, and J.B. McLachlan, the venerable Nova Scotia mine workers’ leader, also play significant roles in Endicott’s recounting of the five-year life of the WUL.
Always on the front lines, these leaders aggressively engaged in the fight for workers’ rights, the creation of unemployment insurance, demands for living wages, and health and safety improvements. They also shared a strong belief in women’s equality as well as an undying devotion to rank and file democracy. Yet traditional labour historians have seldom dedicated more than a few pages to this trade union phenomenon. Even the Communist Party of Canada’s own history leaves much unsaid about its offspring.
Endicott revisits WUL-led events like the 1930s Relief Camp Workers’ Union strikes, the furniture workers’ strike in Stratford, Ontario, the lumber workers’ strike in Port Arthur, Ontario, and the brutality of the Copper Mountain and Anyox strikes in British Columbia, providing rigorously researched background for each. And Endicott does not shy from examining the union’s strategic and tactical mistakes, or avoid criticism of the party brass, exposing the reasons why they abandoned a successful organizing powerhouse like the WUL in the winter of 1935-1936.
With Workers’ Flag, we gain an intimate and well-documented account of a Communist-led union that pushed its affiliates to look beyond bread and butter issues to the broader field of social unionism in a society that was edging toward world war. The organizers ultimately failed in that bold initiative “but they led the way,” Endicott argues, and WUL members rejoined the mainstream of the labour movement “enriched by their experiences in the Red unions.” (327). It is a union portrait that contains pertinent lessons for both labour historians and today’s labour movement.
Raising the Workers’ Flag: The Workers’ Unity League in Canada, 1930-1936
By Stephen L. Endicott
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012. 442 pages, $75 (hard cover)
BC Studies, no. 178, Summer 2013.