Activism: It’s Not Just for Labour Day

It’s Labour Day weekend, and as many of my colleagues ruefully note, this is the one time every year when labour and union issues are guaranteed to get some attention in the news. And it’s usually mentioned in this news coverage that unions’ activism doesn’t just benefit their own members, but also improves society at large. When I teach industrial relations, I always talk about how workplaces don’t have things like minimum wages and regulated working hours because employers woke up one morning and voluntarily decided to give these things to their employees. Those things are required by law – and while unions were among the activists fighting to get those laws passed, the unions wanted better working conditions not just for their own members, but for everyone.

I’ve been thinking about this kind of activism in a very roundabout way recently, because of the outcry over anti-gay legislation in Russia, and how this might affect the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Some commentators have paralleled the situation in Russia to the situation in Germany prior to the 1936 Olympics, when there was active discrimination against Jews and other ethnic and demographic groups. In 1936, there was a Canadian campaign for a boycott of the Olympics, and unions were involved in that campaign.

I got to learn about the 1936 boycott campaign when I researched the history of the Workers’ Sports Association of Canada (WSA), an offshoot of the Young Communist League that provided sport opportunities in many communities across Canada. Many WSA members were also social activists in other areas, including union organizing. For example, some of the Finnish immigrants in British Columbia who were involved with the WSA were instrumental in the founding of BC’s first unions in the logging and fishing industries. The WSA was one of the major Canadian participants in the campaign to boycott the 1936 Olympics – a campaign which argued that the Games were being used as an excuse to promote the Nazi regime, and that some athletes might face discrimination or danger while in Germany. (Guy Walters‘ excellent book Berlin Games has very thorough discussions of the political machinations that led to the 1936 Summer and Winter Olympics Games being awarded to Germany [and staying there], and the opposition to those Games.)

Sampo Hall, at Webster's Corners in Maple Ridge, BC. It was built in 1915 as a community hall for the Finnish settlers in the area. Many of those settlers were also political and union activists. (credit: own photo)

Sampo Hall, at Webster’s Corners in Maple Ridge, BC. It was built in 1915 as a community hall for the Finnish settlers in the area. Many of those settlers were also political and union activists. (credit: own photo)

The 1936 boycott campaign was, obviously, unsuccessful, so there is no way to tell if an Olympic boycott would have reversed the course of events in Germany after 1936.  There have been boycotts of various Olympic Games since then,  and the general consensus is that none of them achieved their intended political purposes.  However, having read a lot about that 1936 campaign, I’m really struck by the similarities of the discussions in 1936 and in 2013. Should a country be able to tell another country what its laws should say, or shouldn’t say? Should a sporting event be drawn into political conflicts? Is a boycott unfair to the athletes who have worked hard to participate? Are there other, possibly more effective ways to express opposition to the laws that wouldn’t involve a boycott?

It’s these kind of bigger questions that activism draws our attention to and makes us think about. When I researched the WSA’s involvement with the 1936 boycott movement, I was quite surprised at how newspapers such as The Worker (the Communist Party of Canada newspaper) had much more comprehensive and accurate news coverage of the troubling trends in Europe than the mainstream Canadian media. When larger Canadian newspapers mentioned the boycott campaign at all, it was mostly to dismiss it as the evil work of “Communists”, or to suggest that athletes who supported the boycott, such as Eva Dawes, were mindless dupes of the “Reds”. Without activists and their efforts, some of what was going on in Europe in the mid-1930s, might not have been noticed at all, or noticed too late to make any difference.

So on this Labour Day weekend, I’m going to think about how activism by unions and others can make important changes. Admittedly, sometimes it’s hard to be positive; today I looked at the first chart on this page on the Human Resource and Skill Development Canada website, and was appalled to see the caption “The unionization rate in Canada has decreased gradually over time” when the chart actually shows union membership increasing in 2012. The ongoing anti-union attitudes of Canada’s federal government show no sign of abating, but unions – and activists – are not going away any time soon. And that’s good, because questioning and challenging society’s dominant structures is essential for building a just and equitable world.


  1. I’ve just been reading Tony Benn’s Diaries for 1991 – 2001 and noted his view that the union leaders were hand in glove with the Blair government in permitting a deterioration in workers’ rights.

    I don’t know to what extent in Canada union leadership has become part of a ruling caste but it certainly seems to have become the case in the U.K.

    1. This is a really interesting point, Helen. I think that because the UK unions have a formal relationship with the Labour party, there is more opportunity for them to directly influence government policy. In Canada the unions and the New Democratic Party are allied, but much less formally, and the NDP has never been the governing federal party. The NDP has formed some provincial governments, though, and I don’t think you would see the same kind of deteriorating worker rights in those provinces during those periods that the NDP was in power.

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