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Capital and Labour in the British Columbia Forest Industry, 1934-1974

By Gordon Hak

Review By Roger Hayter

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 159 Autumn 2008  | p. 155-7

few exceptions aside, the remarkable escalation of books that have investigated British Columbia’s forests and forest economy in recent years have not paid much attention to labour. Yet labour’s role is vital to the evolution of forest industries, labour helps define the limits to the power of capital, and labour’s interests are closely allied to regional and community development. Gordon Hak’s Capital and Labour is a timely, noteworthy contribution towards addressing these issues. The time period from the early 1930s to 1970s is well chosen. Employment and unionization in British Columbia’s forest industries grew rapidly and reached their zenith then, helping to shape British Columbia’s global role and its differentiated but interdependent core-periphery structure. In recent decades, forestry employment and unions have fared less well within contemporary imperatives of flexibility that have confronted labour’s hard-fought accommodations with capital, which are the focus of Hak’s book. 

By the early 1970s, British Columbia’s forest industries were dominated by large-scale export-oriented commodity production, to an important degree controlled by large integrated firms, in large factories that employed unionized labour. Work routines were highly structured by province-wide collective bargaining between big business and big unions, a classic example of a so-called Fordist production system. Hak’s (2) objective is to explain how the “work routines” achieved in collective bargains came about between the two central institutions of business and unions. The book begins with a lengthy quotation describing the work environment and typical work routines in a big pulp and paper mill. In practice, the heart of the book (chapters 3, 4, and 5) involves the detailing of the rise of unions, the nature of internal and inter-union union politics, and the often tense roles of unions in linking labour with management in the “daily grind.” The book also generally addresses the relationship between labour and technology (Chapter 6) and, less satisfactorily, the relationship between labour and environmentalism (Chapter 7). This latter chapter says little about labour, and environmentalism becomes much more important after the 1970s.

Hak’s analysis is especially strong in revealing the murky, confrontational, and sometimes dirty politics involved in the formation of unions in the face of antagonistic employers and governments, in the equally complex politics among the unions themselves as they competed for the hearts and minds of workers, and in their contradictory roles in dividing the economic pie with business through cooperation and opposition. As a historian, Hak is concerned about the issue of whether workers should have been more revolutionary in their approach to capital. His argument suggests not. As Capital and Labour demonstrates, workers understood the issues, the options to unionize or not, and which union leaders and ideologies to support. Workers faced tough moral choices in times of depression and both hot and cold wars, and their choices involved courage and self-sacrifice. In an institutional landscape, workers are neither simply factors of production nor dupes of capitalism and victims of liberal discourse. Rather, unions are a part of the discourse and for them (and society) collective bargaining was a landmark legal victory.

In its methodology, Capital and Labour leans towards the ideographic and a close attention to detail and immediate causation with respect to when events occurred and how they specifically unfolded. Thus, the discussion eschews the formal testing of hypotheses or the qualitative interrogation of a conceptual framework of the relationships between capital and labour. In effect, Capital and Labour provides a wealth of information to inform and qualify generalizations about unionism and labour practices in a way that allows readers to decide for themselves the implications for theory and advocacy. Moreover, Capital and Labour explicitly identifies broader issues through a useful discussion of the ideas of Fordism, the labour process, and discourse ideologies in a lengthy Introduction (for some reason not considered a chapter). Overviews of business history (Chapter 1) and government policy (Chapter 2) in British Columbia’s forest sector also precede the detailed examination of union history. 

Hak adopts the widely used epithet of the “daily grind” to summarize the routines of work negotiated by unions. At the same time, between the 1930s and 1970s collective bargains in British Columbia’s forest sector provided workers with dignity, stability, and democracy. In particular, the fundamental principles of seniority and job demarcation arrested arbitrary management practices and unhealthy competition among workers, and it transparently structured hiring, promotion, training, lay-offs, and rehiring. Structuring unions as “locals” also allowed for some local variation in negotiations (as well as contributing to their overall bureaucratic nature). Collective bargains contributed greatly to community identity. Business, it might be noted, gained much from gaining control over stable, specialized workforces in order to create productivity and profits, which, in turn, provided the basis for increasing wages and non-wage beneWts to labour. By the 1970s, the forestry towns of British Columbia were rich communities. 

In summary, Capital and Labour enriches understanding of unionism in a crucial period of labour history in British Columbia’s forest sector. The book should be read, however, with broader objectives than it states in mind; in practice, it examines the history and politics of unionism as well as work routines. Union history (politics) and work routines are closely related but are not the same. More attention might have been given to how collective bargaining agreements actually structured the “conventions, routines and habits” of workers, notably with respect to types of workers (industry type, occupation, gender, and location) and their daily routines and career paths, including the interruptions created by business cycles and technology change. These themes are mentioned, but less consistently than the history and politics of unionism. Bearing in mind that early chapters on business and government exclude labour, the book also takes some time before addressing its central concern.

Finally, as Gordon Hak recognizes, capitalism is a dynamic process, and recently the historical achievements of collective bargains have been threatened by technological changes, market dynamics, and recessions. In consequence, business has increasingly demanded flexible labour markets that threaten employment levels, not to mention the principles of seniority and job demarcation. Not surprisingly, this shift continues to be controversial. Should unions resist the imperatives of flexibility or seek to influence them? Gordon Hak’s book is not simply valuable history: it also helps us to understand that flexibility is another profoundly difficult choice facing labour.