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Labour Goes to War: The CIO and the Construction of a New Social Order, 1939-45

By Wendy Cuthbertson

Review By Ron Verzuh

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 183 Autumn 2014  | p. 164-65

Labour Goes to War is a welcome new study whose title promises readers an analysis of the major industrial union organizing drive led by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) during the Second World War. Specifically it examines the events that occurred once the spirit of the new union movement began to capture the imagination and the membership cards of thousands of unorganized Canadian workers.

Until 1935 workers were without union representation unless they belonged to the craft-oriented Trades and Labour Congress (TLC). After breaking with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) a few years later, the CIO grew rapidly into an organization that offered all industrial workers a chance to have a strong voice in their workplaces. Based on her 2006 University of Toronto PhD dissertation, author Wendy Cuthbertson tracks the struggle for that voice in Canada.

She purposely isolates the war years when organizers were often rebuffed by employers and faced a fiercely antagonist press, but labour shortages and depression-era conditions also made unions more feasible. Cuthbertson describes that nascent era with clinical research, a careful eye to the richness of union culture, and an understanding of the movement’s potential to challenge capitalism.

Able to tap the archival resources of the United/Canadian Auto Workers (UAW-CAW), she reveals some of its strategies and tactics. She also provides well-sourced accounts of the United Steel Workers of America (USWA) and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), both of which played strong roles in the massive organizing drives that would make CIO a dreaded acronym among Canada’s captains of industry.

Cuthbertson pursues an interest in the cultural aspects of the CIO — its picnics, songs, newspapers, rallies — things that gave vibrancy to the new movement and appealed to all workers, particularly immigrants. As the former CAW communications director notes, “[t]he CIO unions worked hard to develop a ‘workers’ voice’ and to create among workers a sense of a union community” (77).

She also follows the role of women war workers and CIO union support for them as equals in industries that were critical to the Allied war effort. In a chapter dedicated to “Women, Equal Pay, and the CIO,” Cuthbertson notes that some unions “embraced equal pay as a fundamental human right for women” (124). Though some unions may have seen that support as protecting their own rights, they nevertheless advocated for them in a male-breadwinner age.

A mild warning: this is a short book (only 149 pages when notes and references are not included) and it is confined to the war years and is almost exclusively focused on Ontario. CIO organizers in eastern and western Canada were actively signing up members in mines, smelters, logging camps, and fishing fleets, but regrettably Cuthbertson’s study parameters do not allow more than brief references to these struggles.

Cuthbertson’s study also fails to include a full discussion about the anti-Communist politics of the movement’s top leaders. Communists were known to be the best of the CIO organizers, but they were soon seen by CIO leaders as enemies within. A.R. Mosher at the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL-CIO) and the UAW’s (later Steel’s) Charles Millard get too easy a ride here, in my view, for their antipathy toward Communists led to the destructive post-war red purges and eventually to compromises that would defang unionism.

Despite what is left out, there is much here for readers searching for the missing elements of the CIO story in Canada. Cuthbertson offers a fresh perspective on the social role of unions and provides valuable insider insights into the daily grind of organizing and sustaining CIO unions in a decidedly anti-CIO era.

Labour Goes to War: The CIO and the Construction of a New Social Order, 1939-45
By Wendy Cuthbertson
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012. 240 pages, $32.95 paper