Authors: Rob Kristofferson and Simon Orpana
“Workers in there are still afraid.”
“What they’re afraid of losing we’d all stand a better chance of gaining if we stood together.”
Showdown! is a small piece of a huge puzzle. It distills the story of the North American labour movement by telling us about a specific labour struggle that took place in Hamilton, Ontario in the 1940’s, a struggle culminating in the multiple strikes of 1946.
We see the unbearable conditions that lead to widespread labour discontent. We see the depression era effectively silencing this discontent and forcing workers to accept deplorable working conditions, abusive bosses, long hours, and paltry wages.
We then see how during the Second World War the American and Canadian governments compelled employers to recognise workers? unions in order to safeguard the manufacture of arms for the war effort.
After the war ended and the atrocities of fascism became well known, the sleeping dragon awoke; workers launched a rallying cry for democracy at home. Why, after all, had they risked their lives to protect democracy only to return to what amounted to forced labour?
Step by step the labour movement evolved and gathered steam. Desperate circumstances called not only for desperate measures but also for vision, creativity, and determination. In the end the workers? struggle altered the world for the better, manifesting a new set of social conditions that it alone had envisaged and brought into being.
The 1946 Stelco picket line provided many opportunities for logistics and contingency planning (It’s not surprising to note that many of the workers were WWII veterans). These workers took the picket line seriously, defending it with their very lives. They managed to consistently interrupt road traffic, rail travel, boats bringing in supplies and strikebreakers, and skulking pedestrians trying to sneak things into and out of the blockaded plants.
We see illustrated again and again the futility of acting when the conditions aren’t right as well as the urgency of quickly taking advantage of helpful circumstances as they arrive. The war, as regrettable an event as it was, provided an avenue for agitation. It was also serendipitous that during this period Hamilton had a pro-labour mayor, Sam Lawrence, a man whodunnits’d worked at International Harvester and who knew from experience why workers were pushing back.
There are many droll moments, such as when Stelco president Hugh Hilton buys a full-page ad in the national paper, calling for the government to squelch the “minority pressure group” behind the strike. It was clear that the bulk of the city’s population was made up of either striking workers or their families, friends, and sympathisers. No minority here, Mr. Hilton.
It’s moving to read about the solidarity shown not only among workers and their families but also to witness the waves of love that came from local community members, other Canadian union locals, and even American unions. The entire city of Hamilton appeared to have mustered its resources to care for the strikers and their families. And when Stelco, for example, tried to ship to Quebec the steel made by its strike-breakers, unionised workers there refused to fabricate it. Railway workers refused to cross the picket line. And thousands of unionised workers from other locals showed up to show support for the strikers.
There’s also a lesson for management in all this, and it has to do with the folly of assuming that one always has a choice. When labour relations hit an impasse employers are sometimes forced to admit one irrefutable truth: you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. The question as to whether unions help or hinder the economy is moot in light of the clear limits to what workers will tolerate? and the limitlessness of what they can do once they realise they have nothing to lose and everything to gain from collective action.
Showdown! manages to be an entertaining read while drawing on an extensive and rigorous body of scholarship, working from the memories and photos of those whodunnits’d participated in the struggle as it unfolded. The black-and-white graphics aren’t pretty, chic, or artsy, but neither were the events that inspired them, and the rough outlines and busy pages beautifully express the gritty reality of workers? lives during this period.
Telling this story in graphic novel form makes it come alive and forces writers to reduce text to a bare minimum. Key ideas, such as the illustrated “domino effect” of the
Stelco strike on other industries is easily shown in graphic terms. Spaghetti dinners being delivered to the picket line, Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger entertaining the strikers and their families, strikers in the courtroom singing “Solidarity Forever” while an anti-union council member tries to persuade the city to invoke the law of mob rule?these are all images that quickly become etched in the mind.
This book should be required reading in every Canadian high school. The 1946 strikes in Hamilton as elsewhere were the instigators of a greater independence and autonomy for the working classes, of a sense that the people had the power to compel government and business to act with fairness. Out of this movement emerged a commitment to social welfare that eventually created old age pensions, employment insurance, universal health care, and a host of other measures, and the lessons learned during the 1946 labour struggle continue to echo today in the occupy movements, as well as in ongoing labour, feminist, and race struggles.
Showdown! manifests five of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for books well worth reading.
– It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
– It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence.
– It displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering.
– It renews my enthusiasm for positive social action.
– It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.
Wanda also writes the blog The Mindful Bard:The Care and Feeding of the Creative Self.