Review of Boom, Bust and Crisis in Labour/Le Travail

Boom, Bust and Crisis
Labour, Corporate Power and Politics in Canada

Edited by John Peters  

Boom, Bust and Crisis is the second installment in Fernwood’s “Labour in Canada” Series, which explores the effects of political and economic terrain on Canadian workers and their responses. The goal of the series is to enhance debate on these political and economic shifts, while highlighting new strategies by working people to regain influence. An introduction by volume editor John Peters opens the anthology, exploring boom, bust , and crisis in 21st-centruy Canada. Setting the contemporary stage, Peters details how “for Canadians, what should have been a era of prosperity, the twenty-first century, was one of worsening jobs, declining incomes and more insecurity about their future.” (8) Focusing specifically on three of the nation’s key industrial export sectors – auto, steel and resources – the authors, also explore deregulation and its effects on, along with the responses of, Canadian workers and the labour movement; they illustrate that few have reaped the benefits of a resource boom, while many have been left by the wayside. As the contributors illustrate, government has done little to reduce this growing inequality or to protect good jobs. The book is divided into three parts: the first sets the foundation of political and economic change in Canada over the past decade. John Peters, Sean Cadigan, Diana Gibson, and Regan Boychuk highlight how a privileged few have been the main beneficiaries of an economy firmly planted within the natural resource sector, with an emphasis on Alberta and Newfoundland. A concurrent long-term decline in manufacturing, with a focus on auto and steel, is situated in global and political forces by John Peters and Stephen Arnold respectively. A “resource curse’ is characterized by this growing dependence on a resource-based economy; a rising dollar, trade imbalances, and the expansion of the finance, real estate, and service industries have fed into a low-wage economy. All authors clearly position these trends in political choice. Part Two explores such political choice more fully, illustrating how contemporary government policy has largely benefitted a privileged few in Canadian society. David Fairey, Tom Sandborn, and John Peters review ”the biggest roll-back of worker rights in Canadian History” (108) when the Campbell government in BC set the course of massive labour deregulation in British Columbia. Peter Graefe explores similar political choices in Québec, where “Québec and Canadian capital rallied to American models of neoliberal restructuring.” (12) Both locate their discussion in a larger trend of deteriorating rights and benefits for the majority of Canadians. The third section investigates new challenges in workers’ organizing, health, and safety amidst this context of labour deregulation. Yale D. Belanger offers an insightful piece on the challenges of organizing in First Nations casinos. A thoughtful analysis of the threats precarious employment presents to occupational health and safety in Ontario is provided by Wayne Lewchuk, Marlea Clark, and Alice de Wolff, a potent reminder that broader political and economic factors are also deeply personal and can be a matter of life or death. As the authors illustrate, the health of workers is more at risk today than any point since the 1980s, due in part to the increase in workplace fatalities. Students of politics, the economy, and labour will benefit from reading this. Given the diverse range of topics, this collection is surprisingly cohesive and well organized, providing the analytical tools to question contemporary neoliberal orthodoxy. The book features an abundance of statistics, charts, and graphs; however, the addition of more interactive material could make this a more engaging resource in the union or university classroom. For example a list of questions or links to electronic resources at the end of each article would be a welcome addition helping students digest what is, at times, very dense material. As well, the voices of workers could have played a more prominent role in this text. Some voices from the picket line are featured in Stephen R. Arnold’s “Steel City Meltdown” an article that concentrates on “the history and current state of the Canadian steel industry through the stories of the Hamilton-based giants Stelco and Dofasco, now U.S. Steel Canada and Arcelor Mittal Dofasco.” (84) Otherwise, the only article to engage substantively with worker interviews is the final piece on occupational health and safety. This collection also would have benefitted from some historical context. Analysis is largely limited to the contemporary period, with historical content seldom reaching back beyond the 1970s. As such, the ways that the “New Economy” can be seen as large steps backward to an earlier economic model is largely unaddressed. For example, many parallels could be drawn between a “natural resources boom that has redefined the economy” (30) and earlier days when natural resource extraction by colonial powers left many Canadian residents as “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” The history of colonialism is of course deeply tied to raw resource extraction and export, and a weak or non-existent manufacturing sector. Overall, this is an excellent volume that not only offers critical engagement with the contemporary economic and political structure in Canada and beyond, but also provides many practical alternatives and suggestions for the current labour movement in strengthening its position and worker rights in Canada. As the authors compellingly show in their contributions, without an empowered labour movement, living standards for the majority of Canadians are bound to deteriorate.

— Christine McLaughlin

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