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Labour + Industry

Ten Books to Read on the Job

Want to understand the shifting world of work? Read these works. Recommended by BC leaders in the field of labour.

Justin Langille 9 Sep

Justin Langille is a Vancouver-based journalist with a focus on the landscape of work.

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'Ya know, this Karl guy is starting to make sense.'

As part of The Tyee's Labour Week coverage, we asked a range of leaders and experts in B.C to share the books that keep them informed, inspired and up to speed on the changing landscape of work. Here is what they recommended reading:

B.C. Labour Minister Murray Coell's choice for history and context around unions and labour solidarity in B.C.:

No Greater Power: A Century of Labour in B.C. by Dr. Paul Phillips

This is a definitive account of the initial trade unionist movement that flourished in B.C. during the early 20th century.

Beginning with the fur trade, the book works through the tumultuous depression and wartime eras, and the unification problems faced by the B.C. Federation of Labour as it amassed a membership of 125,000 in 1966.

The book's author, Dr. Paul Phillips, noted in 1967, "The trade union movement in B.C. is older than the province itself. It bears the character of the province's rapid yet often unstable development."

Phillips' life could have been its own lengthy volume. Born in Hong Kong to missionary parents and raised in British Columbia, Phillips worked as an economics researcher and Royal Canadian Air Force pilot to finance his Ph. D. in labour economics. A collector of labour and protest songs, Phillips was also a noted folk singer/multi-instrumentalist with skills on the guitar, banjo and autoharp. No Greater Power emerged from research done while completing his thesis. When it was published in 1967, he was the research director for the BC Federation of Labour.

NDP MLA for Vancouver-Kensington Mable Elmore on what to read to understand the plummeting standards of work for new Canadians in B.C.:

Work and Labour in Canada: Critical Issues by Andrew Jackson 

This book puts in perspective what Elmore considers "a growing polarization in Canada's labour market" that includes an increase in irregular, low paid jobs and an increasing number of temporary foreign workers taking up these occupations, who are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

"Another very important note is that the Canadian (and B.C.) economy is moving towards a more knowledge-based economy, which necessitates the importance of training and skills upgrading, especially with workers in low paid work," says Elmore.

In particular, the MLA thinks, "the issue of systemic racism [Jackson] raises in the area of governments failing to recognize credentials of foreign trained professionals is an issue that we can improve here in B.C."

Jim Sinclair, president of the BC Federation of Labour recommends reading about an epic labour battle of the past:

Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America by J. Anthony Lukas

Here is a dramatic account of the warfare between a radical miner's unions, company interests and the government in turn-of-the-century Idaho.

Despite being set in the U.S., the book hinges on "the roots of power and class in society. The battles that were fought by the Western Federation of Miners," says Sinclair, "were many of the same battles that were fought here."

Sinclair sees further parallels between events in B.C. and Lukas's book. "In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when all this was happening, it was also happening here. There was a major coal miner's strike on the island where Mother Jones came and spoke to them. Miners felt connected."

The book is "partly a reminder; it's partly an inspiration," says Sinclair. "This strike was all about some miners getting ripped off and all the other miners joining with them to have a strike so that they kept the standard of the industry up. This is not just about miners, it's about working people in general." Though the book is historical, Sinclair says the issues haven't changed. "All these things are more important than ever."

Barry O'Neil of CUPE on what to read to understand how to benefit local economies and communities:

The Small-Mart Revolution by Michael Schuman

One reason for O'Neil's book choice is that he relates with Schuman's ideas: "The Small Mart Revolution itself really talks about what I've talked about for a long time, and that's really not about stopping anything, but starting something different." O'Neil believes "if we're inundated with global, global, global everything... I think people want to see some initiative that's closer to home, that they can participate in without reading NAFTA."

The book is "really about how you develop new kinds of revenue streams in communities" says O'Neil. It offers advice on "the kinds of things that you can do in rural communities that can make a difference to quality of life. It's more relevant now than it's ever been."

"I think that if local communities get behind something, there's nothing more powerful than that."

Jim Britton, vice president of CEP western region, on what to read to understand the history of the oil industry and labour in Canada:

Tracking the Canadian Formula by Wayne Roberts

"It's an interesting book for workers to understand how the oil industry evolved along with the labour movement in Canada," according to Britton.

Tracking the Canadian Formula explores how there used to be "a much larger, viable oil industry in B.C. than there is today. Right now on the coast, there is only one operating refinery, which is Chevron, but at one point there was Chevron, Shell and Petro Canada all operating. Before that was Petrofina." Britton thinks the book "may be of interest to Canadian workers" because it explains "that the west coast, at one point, was a major player in the oil industry. It wasn't always just about Alberta. We were a thriving refining province."

"What's happening with the economy in British Columbia, with the solid wood sector closing down," says Britton, is that "there are a great number of people living in B.C. but working [in the oil sands] in Alberta. It's created this transient workforce from Alberta to B.C."

Kelly Pollack, executive director of the Immigrant Employment Council of B.C., on what B.C. employers can read to better their relationship with immigrant employees:

Recruiting, Retaining and Promoting Culturally Different Employees by Lionel LaRoche and Don Rutherford

Pollack is enthusiastic about this read, touting it as an essential resource for employers who want to "do a better job of attracting, hiring, and retaining immigrants" as employees. Pollack notes, "with the coming demographic shift and potential labour shortages in many areas in our labour market," employers "can use all the tools they can get and one of the tools is this book."

"Our workforce has changed," says Pollack. This book is about how to "use that changing workforce to assist your business to grow and also to [ensure] that the employees within your business work as a team."

Marc Lee, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, suggests a book that details the economic benefits of living and working in a society where equality counts:

The Spirit Level: Why more Equal Societies Almost Always Do It Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

"It is not a huge tome, as one might expect from such a broad topic, weighing in at just 265 pages of text (including lots of figures mapping inequality against some health and social statistic, and some clever cartoons). That space, however, offers up a rich synthesis of empirical findings and some theorizing about how unequal societies -- largely (except for the poorest countries) irrespective of per capita income -- do worse on almost every important health and social indicator we might care about," wrote Lee in a review of The Spirit Level that appeared here on The Progressive Economics Forum blog.

B.C. author and activist Allan Engler offers this book to understand how the modern financial industry came to be, and how it falls short:

The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward and Delusion on Wall Street by Justin Fox

Engler considers Fox's work "a biography of the ideas and the people involved in supply-side economics." He was particularly interested in "the central role that this ideology, the notion that moving money, moving income from wage and salary workers to profits, to corporations, to the owners of the wealth, would actually be a good thing for the economy."

"With globalization," says Engler, "there is no reason to think that putting more money in the hands of investors in British Columbia is going to lead to more jobs in British Columbia. It can actually mean more money going to places with cheaper labour and higher rates of profit, and that is, in fact, what is happening."

Mark Leier, history professor at Simon Fraser University and director of the SFU Centre for Labour studies, on how to understand what it means to be in the throes of late capitalism:

Capital by Karl Marx

"This book tells us is that in the last 150 or 200 years, the best brains that capitalism has put up to look after itself have been unable to come up with a single new idea," says Leier. "The minute the profits dip, the only response they have is 'How do we cut wages, how do we cut people?'" Marx's work is a reminder that it's "the system itself that we have to be critical of," and that it's not always about "an inept premier or evil capitalists."

Looking forward, Leier says that "Even in the worst of times... progress is made when people organize. That's the key for people to think about the future. It's not about electing Vision Vancouver, it's about all kinds of struggles that people need to take up. If we sit back and let the bosses do it for us, we're going to get more of the same."

Leier offers three bits of professorial advice on how to read Capital:

Skip ahead. "The beginning is awful. I would absolutely not start at the beginning. I would start with part eight, which is actually a historical account of how capitalism got started. I would end up with reading part one. I would read part eight, then parts three to seven."

Read with your friends. "I think it's a good to try to read it in a group with people. Everyone reads this and comes away with something different. In fact, while the ideas are couched within this dry, odd language, the ideas are not that difficult to grasp." Marx's racy references to oral sex, employee violence and the vampiric tendencies of capitalist economies should the get your reading group going, Leier told The Tyee.

Consider your personal circumstances. "If you ask yourself, 'How does this work itself out in my workplace?' it becomes much easier to figure out. Because, as I said, the rules of the game haven't changed at all since he was writing."

Bill Saunders, president of the Vancouver and District Labour Council, recommends a book to help people resist the daily grind of the future:

The End of Work by Jeremy Rifkin

Rifkin's book suggests that "In the future, we're going to value personal services a lot more... things that help us live a better quality of life, like recreation leaders... which are actually very low valued jobs right now," says Saunders.

"I think it's important for people to understand that we're looking at a future where maybe we're really not so based in heavy industry," Saunders notes. In the future, it may be that "we're paying a lot more attention to our quality of life and especially things that help us live as better human beings."

"The labour movement has to start focusing a lot more on not on just more wages, more benefits... but the essential aspect, which is that we want our families to have a good quality of life." That means a good environment, a job that's meaningful to us and that we appreciate doing. "This book opens the door to thinking that it's not just about grinding more stuff out of the earth, that's just not the direction. It's about people. That's what’s important."

Tomorrow: Visiting the longest running picket line in B.C., the UFCW striking workers at Loblaws grocery in Maple Ridge.  [Tyee]

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