Falling on the first Monday in September, Labour Day in Canada is typically associated with the last gasp of summer before the weather cools and the obligations of autumn set in. But the holiday has much frostier roots, originating in 1872, when the Toronto Typographical Union went on strike to demand a nine-hour workday at workplaces that included The Globe newspaper. In December of that year, several unions banded together in support of the typographers to host the first Labour Day Parade. Since Labour Day’s roots lie with the workers who put the printed word together, we’ve compiled a list of 10 new books about work to peruse over the long weekend.
Written by technology ethnographer Alex Rosenblat, Uberland (UC Press, 2018) details how Silicon Valley companies, led by the now-ubiquitous ridesharing service, have upended the workplace norms that labour activists first fought to establish over a century ago. For Uber drivers (and their peers at other “sharing economy” startups like Foodora, TaskRabbit, and PostMates) bosses have been replaced by algorithms; performance reviews by app-delivered star ratings; and employment stability with poverty wages dressed up in the neoliberal rhetoric of startup culture. Rosenblat’s book is an important — if frightening — summary of how companies like Uber have upended the labour landscape in North America in a short period of time.
In 2011, a few short months after Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were elected in a majority government, two of Canada’s largest private sector unions (the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union) decided to merge into Unifor, which was officially established in 2013. Authored by Fred Wilson, Unifor’s first director of strategic planning, A New Kind of Union (Lorimer, 2019) details the debates and decisions that went into the merger. More importantly, Wilson addresses how Unifor’s creators sought to create a union that would be newly relevant in an age of worker-side disengagement and neoliberal austerity. Listen to rabble’s interview with Wilson here.
Louise Toupin’s book chronicles the divisive anti-capitalist feminist movement of the 1970s, in which women across the globe demanded wages for domestic labour on the grounds that such labour was central to the functioning of capitalism. While the success of its tactics continues to be debated, the influence of Wages for Housework on contemporary feminism is undeniable, because it provided women with the language to name the myriad and uneven forms of labour they perform in relationships outside the workplace. Wages for Housework (UBC Press, 2018) “is a worthy read in its ability to pay homage to the women who mobilized, seeing themselves not only as mothers and wives, but as true workers contributing valuable, though economically undervalued, labour, often in isolation,” writes Jessica Rose in her review of the book. “Their contributions, themselves undervalued in history, helped to create a future in which women could demand more.”
If Wages for Housework is about how feminists’ fight to have domestic labour recognized, then Cracking Labour’s Glass Ceiling (Fernwood, 2019) covers the opposite fight: the struggle for women in the labour movement to achieve equal levels of influence and recognition. Authored by Cindy Hanson, a professor of adult education at the University of Regina, Cracking focuses on women’s labour education in Canada and the United States. The book offers guidelines and practical examples for those interested in developing their own women’s labour education programs.
If Donald Trump’s election in 2016 seemingly validated mainstream narratives about the working class’s disillusionment with leftist politics, then the teachers’ strikes of 2018 profoundly challenged that narrative. Red State Revolt (Verso, 2019) looks at how education workers mobilized in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, and other Republican strongholds. Author Eric Blanc, a former teacher and activist himself, examines how the strikes arose in response to years of deep education cuts and also extracts lessons for future forms of worker mobilization.
Naomi Klein is known for her ability to capture the seismic political shifts that define our contemporary moment. For the past several years, her focus has been on climate change — the absolute and inescapable need to stop it, the lack of mainstream political will to do so, and the progressive movements around the world that are saying no to corporate and political apathy. In On Fire (Penguin Random House, 2019), Klein details the case for the Green New Deal, a set of proposed legislative changes making waves in Canada and the U.S. that would address economic inequality and climate change at the same time. Climate change will inevitably alter the nature of work, not least because we need a healthy climate in order to have a functioning economy in which workers can participate. Klein’s book makes the connections between work and the climate that everyone needs to think about if we are going to mitigate climate catastrophe.
This recently published book by the New York Times‘s long-time labour correspondent Steven Greenhouse links the decline in worker power to a wide swath of issues currently plaguing the United States, from precipitous income inequality to the persistent gender pay gap. Beaten Down, Worked Up (Penguin Random House, 2019) combines historical analysis of how unions have effected political change in the past with a picture of what work looks like today — from seasonal agricultural workers to Uber drivers and home-care aides. By connecting the worker mobilizations of the past with the forms of collective action being undertaken today, Greenhouse also challenges the idea that unions are no longer relevant.
The seeming inescapability of technology has elicited the predictable backlash from several corners — from former Silicon Valley execs warning against the dangers of Facebook to Instagram influencers announcing social media cleanses….on Instagram. In How to Do Nothing (Melville House, 2019), San Francisco-based artist Jenny O’Dell takes a different approach. If the digital revolution has turned us all into unwitting 24/7 tech workers producing data for Google and Amazon, then O’Dell suggests that the most effective way to resist is to simply…do nothing. Since that’s easier said than done, O’Dell’s book provides productive suggestions as well as thoughtful meditations on how to reimagine productivity and happiness.
Between May 15 and June 25, 1919, a general strike by over 30,000 workers almost entirely halted economic activity in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Released as part of the 100th anniversary commemorations of the strike this year, 1919 (Between the Lines, 2019) is a graphic novel that recounts the strike as an impressive show of solidarity amongst several different groups of workers. The book’s preface details how a commercial elite in Winnipeg encouraged the strikers to turn on one another. Instead, “recent immigrants, women, British born trade unionists, white railroaders, black porters, thousands of returned soldiers, and even the police united behind their common interests, and a vision of Winnipeg and a wider world where a powerful few did not get to rule over the powerless many,” as Bill Blaikie writes in his review of the book.
This new book by Susan Ferguson (Between the Lines, 2019) looks at the relationship between women and work through several different lenses, considering women’s unpaid domestic labour (like that explored in Wages for Housework, above); women as workers; and how women’s work has historically helped to sustain capitalism.
Christina Turner is an assistant editor at rabble.ca and a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Toronto. She lives in Toronto.