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Review

A Hard Man to Beat: The Story of Bill White, Labour Leader, Historian, Shipyard Worker, Raconteur

By Howard White

November 4, 2013

Review By Mark Leier

Selected as one of ten Vancouver books reprinted to celebrate the city’s 125th anniversary, A Hard Man to Beat is perhaps even more important now than when it was first published. Then, Bill White’s lively memoir of life on the left from the 1930s to the 1950s delivered personal insights on well-known events: the Ford strike, labour leaders and strikes, the ties between politicians and business leaders, the role of the Communist Party, and the rise of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). Since then, much of this has passed from common knowledge and White’s book serves as a crash course in labour history.

But it is much more than that. In 1983, White’s warning that the world was entering a new depression seemed alarmist. It now seems prescient. White, who died in 2001, warned “they call it the new conservatism, but it’s the same old conservatism to me…. it’s the same broken record they’ve been playing for the forty years that I’ve listened to them….” (242-3) We have since seen nearly 30 years of declining wages, worsening work conditions, and the dismantling of much of the social safety net, all made possible by the weakening of the labour movement by capital and the state.

As new movements look for new ways to fight back, White has much to offer. He outlines plainly and without abstraction concepts such as hegemony, legitimation, social construction of history, bureaucracy, and the relative autonomy of the state, though these are expressed vividly and plainly and as part of the common knowledge, common sense, and experience of workers rather than the special province of academics.

White belonged to the Communist Party for several years, and his reflections on his experience there are particularly useful. White neither whitewashes nor redbaits the Party. He credits the Party’s bottom-up organizing and direct action for its successes in the 1930s and 1940s and notes that the “Party line” was of little interest to rank and file members and most officers. He condemns conservative unionists for their cowardice and pillories the CCF for its top-down capture of the labour movement and its dream of political action that would prove as utopian as any dream of revolution. White is, however, highly critical of the machinations of the Party elite, its growing separation from the shop floor, its tactical and strategic blunders, and the foibles of its leaders. Taken together, his analysis of the Party is of more value than those of its opponents who insist it was nothing more than the Canadian arm of the Comintern and those of its acolytes who insist it never made a misstep.

New generations may also learn much from White’s experience as a trade unionist and leader of the Marine Workers and Boilermakers Union. He contrasts the shop steward movement of the 1930s and 1940s, built on militancy and direct contact with the rank and file, with the bureaucratized labour movement of the 1980s. White characterizes the contemporary movement as one in which “the typical union today has very little presence in the workplace” and where “most fellas in a union today, they hardly know they’re in it.” White points out the dangers of collaboration, noting that “it’s bad enough not being able to tell the bosses from the labour leaders by looking at them but the worst of it is half the time you can’t tell when they talk either.” (241-2) These observations are just as telling today.

The book offers some warnings to those who do oral history.  Bill White’s blunt, common sense language is carefully preserved and represented by his collaborator, Howard White (no relation). It inspires confidence in Bill White’s accounts of events and people, much as Orwell’s language does. But in both cases, the reader needs to look past the manipulation of language before coming to judgements. Candour is not the same as accuracy, and White has a few scores to settle. Howard White is careful to point out that this is Bill White’s story and interpretation; it is not fact-checked and corroborated. White engaged in a 10-year legal battle to win the closed shop, for example, but his version of the final conclusion to the case is only one of three competing versions. And while White dismisses his opponent, Myron Kuzych, as the stooge of bosses who opposed the closed shop, Kuzych was an anti-Stalinist, anti-bureaucratic left-winger. Nor does White seem to appreciate the irony regarding the Kuzych case when he notes “the closed shop has a lot to do with” the subsequent bureaucratization of the labour movement. (241)

A Hard Man to Beat is part history, part adventure, part diagnosis, and part prescription. Pointed, cranky, lively, and authentic, it has lost none of it power to inform and entertain. It remains an excellent text for a range of history and labour relations courses, a useful primer for social activists, and an insightful read for the general public.

 

A Hard Man to Beat: The Story of Bill White, Labour Leader, Historian, Shipyard Worker, Raconteur
By Howard White 
Maderia Park: Harbour Publishing, 2011. 256 pp, $21.95 paper; first published by Pulp Press Book Publishers, 1983