Canadian Labour Policy and Politics
Review By Peter Graefe
July 21, 2023
This book is designed as a textbook, bringing together experts to write introductions to their areas of expertise in labour policy and politics in Canada. It is a wonderful collective achievement of the Canadian labour studies community to make their knowledge accessible to students in one place. Framed by four essays setting out global pressures on labour markets and protective social policies, the book then devotes six chapters to labour policy (including chapters on precarious employment, health and safety, migrant workers, poverty, and the labour code) and another five to the labour market (low wage work, deindustrialization, care work and health care work, workforce experience of Indigenous people). Three final essays round out the book, looking at the labour movement’s relationships to climate change, partisan politics, and strategies for improving work.
Is it a successful textbook? It contains useful pedagogical elements (chapter summaries, suggested readings, a well-executed glossary) without being overwhelmed by them. There are plenty of tables and figures, but no pictures or drawings. The authors have kept the writing accessible, but it would be easier to use in a third or fourth-year course as many chapters assume some familiarity with concepts in political economy. It will also be a useful reference for non-experts seeking a primer on a specific topic (such as migrant work or health and safety), especially as the chapters are well endnoted.
I tried reading this book through the eyes of a student, and it highlighted two features worth addressing in a subsequent edition. First, most of the authors write from the perspective of a marxisant political economy. This produces a very pessimistic book, where chapter after chapter catalogues the many ways that the structures of global capitalism and other structures of oppression produce misery for working people. And they are not wrong! Still, it might help to balance this with more discussion of workers’ political and policy agency, which is concentrated in the final two chapters of the book.
Second, the volume, like others in its tradition, falls into a repetitive “Golden Age” narrative. Many chapters tell a variation of the story of how labour and social policies produced better lives for working people in the post-war period, but that this ended with the adoption of neoliberalism in the 1980s and things have been getting worse since. For most users of this book, the early 1980s were twenty years before they were born – they might as well be the Dark Ages! Would more variety in narratives or temporalities framing the chapters increase their resonance with students? On this score, many chapters referenced how other societies made different choices, and perhaps that dimension could be developed further.
Readers of this journal may find the book to be not that useful for understanding British Columbia. The text usefully includes a chapter on the role of provincial governments, given their importance in setting labour and social policies, but the interest is on provinces in general rather than what distinguishes one from another. The particularities of BC’s working-class politics, and the manner in which that translated into distinct modes of interest representation and policy participation, is not canvassed. On occasions when a province is used as an example, it is usually Ontario, although there is more discussion of BC in the chapters on care work and on climate change. If one was using this text in a BC classroom, there would be value in integrating texts discussing the local particularities and experiences that make BC labour politics stand out in the Canadian landscape.
The book includes material about the COVID pandemic in all chapters, explaining how the trends of interest to the chapter played out or became particularly visible by the events of 2020. This has the benefit of providing tangible illustrations that likely will capture the attention of students in 2023, but may give the text a dated feel sooner than it deserves.
Peters, John and Don Wells. Canadian Labour Policy and Politics. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2022. 216 pp. $45.00 paper.