Debunking the Myth of the “Good Old Days”: Sexism, Racism and the Working Class in Canada After WWII, Part One

by Ryan Sparrow

Racialised and gendered work is a common feature of the development of capitalism. The need for a super-exploitable vulnerable group of workers is beneficial to the big business community as it helps bring about a much lower floor of wages and working conditions.

The historic 1945 Ford Strike in Windsor

In the post-war era, the overt racism and overt gender discrimination of workers was still around, although less prevalent.  Institutionalized racism and sexism, however, was still very widely practised.  Racialised and gendered labour therefore represented a super-exploited strata of the working class in the post-war era.

The Drive System

The history of discrimination of the working class in the Canadian “labour market” comes about from its very beginning. There were “preferred” labourers, and the male Anglo-white labour was given a privilege position within the industrial framework.  While the Anglo-white male labourer was indeed heavily exploited, the exploitation of racialised and female labourers was even greater.

At the turn of the century, the primary management method by which employers managed to increase productivity was the drive system. The drive system was used to increase the worker’s effort at the job by “…close supervision, abuse, profanity and threats” and hold down the cost of labour.

Toss an apple

During this period of time, the foreman was the supreme ruler on the shop floor, hiring was, at times, arbitrary – some employers tossing an apple to a crowd of workers and whoever caught it would work. At other times, hiring was rather nepotistic — ie. the friends and family of employees being unfairly favoured. Many workers were hired for jobs based on ethnic stereotypes.

Due to the large amount of surplus labour supply, workers who the foreman found unsatisfactory or did not like could be removed with impunity. The foreman typically had the power to set wages too, so there could be many different wages for workers doing the exact same job.

HR is born

Eventually, as a response to the class struggle and growing pressure from the labour movement in Canada and internationally (including the gains by working people in USSR and socialist countries), as well as tighter labour markets, the capitalists were forced to replace this system with somewhat more equitable forms of management.

Human resource departments became more common and formal rules were established for firms as a way to retain employees. This process was not uniform, however.  Labour historians identify three distinct labour markets that emerged in the post war era. The three types of markets were not equally accessible for gendered and racialised workers.

Three categories of workplaces

The “secondary labour market” was the lowest. Comprised of small manufacturing, service, retail sales, and temporary office work, workers in the secondary labour market had very little control over the labour processes.  The secondary labour market jobs were also the lowest paid, the least secure, with very little union coverage and almost no seniority provisions.

Above the secondary was the “subordinate primary market.” The jobs in subordinate primary market are more stable, have seniority, are more likely to be unionized, and have relatively higher wages. Work in the subordinate primary market includes jobs with major manufacturers, secretary jobs, and assembly line work.

The “independent primary market” employed workers in professional fields, like skilled trades, teachers, lawyers, consultants and technicians.  Independent primary labour allowed for even higher wages, benefits, and transferable skills making their working lives much more stable since they can transfer easily to other firms.

*Note: This article has been edited from the original essay. A full biography is presented in part two. This article is also available on the Rebel Youth blog.

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