Labour of Love: The Fight to Create a More Humane Canada

March 1 st 1999

Labour of Love: The Fight to Create a More Humane Canada by Buzz Hargrove with Wayne Skene (Toronto: Macfarlane, Walter and Ross, 1998, 247 pp., $29.95)

Autobiographies written in mid-career often amount to little more than defensive spin-doctoring on ongoing issues—promotional packages printed in hardcover that are sold rather than given away. The importance of protecting reputations and maintaining necessary working relationships make it difficult to provide candid reflection on events of public interest. Current affairs junkies buy these books hoping to gain background on persons or events in the news. There is usually so little new in them that reviewing them makes as much sense as reviewing yesterday's newspaper.

If your purpose in picking up Buzz Hargrove's autobiography is to gain insight on events like the Canadian Airlines or GM strikes, the ongoing protest between labour and Ontario's government, or the CAW staff strike, the result is disappointing. There is little in this book that hasn't previously been reported.

What makes Hargrove tick?

But this autobiography succeeds where most of its type fail—in providing insight into what makes its subject tick. While no one who has followed Hargrove's career and public pronouncements will be surprised by the events recounted, they will put down the book understanding more clearly the circumstances that give rise to his ideology and the fundamental worldview that forms its bedrock. Hargrove deserves credit for presenting himself with a disarming candour which is often lacking in public discourse.

This autobiography demonstrates again that beliefs about the fundamental issues of life are shaped by personal experiences. Hargrove portrays his father as an authoritarian "miserable son of a bitch" who took care of himself first, separated from his mother when Buzz was 13, and eventually died of a heart attack at work in the bush, where there was no medical care available to resuscitate him.

He admits his subsequent family life was less than perfect, acknowledging three children born out of wedlock in addition to the two daughters he had with his wife, a relationship that also had its rocky times. One of his daughters became actively involved in a Heritage Front type gang, influenced by a leader who "preached vicious anti-black, anti-Asian, anti-Jewish rhetoric." Hargrove's frankness in discussing these personal details, and the lessons he learned from them, help us understand him. There is little that Hargrove papers over.

An Agent for Social Change

Hargrove's view of the union movement is broad-ranging.

The urge to be an agent for social change is as strong as the desire to do well at the bargaining table. We strive to be a mechanism for working people to make progress, but our mission is about community as much as it is about collective bargaining. We want to see our communities prosper. We want them to develop values that are inclusive, not exclusive. . . . Challenge triggers debate. Debate strengthens an organization. Strong organizations with progressive ideas make a stronger society. (127-129)

The objective of union activity is not only focused on the workplace and the working lives of its members, but is directed towards social change. To those who question whether this is a union's role, Hargrove is unapologetic. "The CAW is a social movement because you can't leave the remedy for social damage to those who caused it (135)."

Power is the Key

Hargrove is direct in identifying what he considers the key to both politics and collective bargaining.

Politics, like collective bargaining, is about power.

Power—the ebb and flow of influences among adversaries—is what allows us to achieve our goals. It allows us to improve our members' lives. Power is not about sharing." (168)

Those "good earnest people" who advocate that labour work in partnership and cooperation with management and government "fail to understand that the main goal of employers—and of governments like Harris's—is to increase the companies' power by diminishing labour's" (168-9).

The only intelligent response on the part of labour, says Hargrove, is to negotiate "supported by a well-informed membership that's ready to fight" while also seeking political action. "If the labour movement does not start thinking again in those terms—demanding gains for workers while seeking to influence the political environment—we'll be marginalized completely."

Understanding how Hargrove views the world—as a basic battle between the powerful and the powerless—is the key to his view on most issues. His convictions were formed early; he describes how he was turned off from religion as a kid when the preachers told "us to sacrifice a place now for a place in the Great Hereafter" when "just across the aisle were the well-to-do people of the community. . . . Why the hell did I have to wait for my rewards when these other people had everything?" ( 46). It wasn't just what they had; it was the power that allowed them to get such things that stoked Hargrove's ire.

Fighting words

None of this is surprising. Hargrove makes no apologies for identifying himself with the ideological left, a democratic socialist. The cover describes this book as "Fighting Words from Canada's Unofficial Leader of the Opposition"; the target is clearly the "corporate agenda." It's a modernized version of dusty class-struggle rhetoric.

Hargrove speaks bluntly to his soulmates on the left and challenges some of their sacred cows. He describes the "third way" approach that the NDP currently appears to be directed towards as a "death wish," and he minces no words in describing what he perceives as their lack of courage, challenging them to debate their convictions. He criticizes the Canadian Labour Congress for "its reluctance to debate the most archaic practices" for not allowing workers to leave one union to join another. "A union member is like an indentured servant. It makes no sense in an age when we talk about worker democracy" (201). For this, Hargrove is to be commended.

Hargrove's critique of the excesses of naked capitalism are valid. While the illustrations he chooses to demonstrate his point are decidedly one-sided, no one with a conscience can deny the damages that unrestrained capitalism can cause. But one looks in vain for balance and helpful suggestions. In fact, Hargrove's appeal is a strident plea for honesty, courage, and a return to ideological purity on the part of the political left.

Agree or disagree with him, Buzz Hargrove is an influential labour leader whose opinions and actions are of consequence for Canadians. His autobiographical musings reveal an individual with chutzpah, driven by ideals, and willing to take on some of the left's established assumptions, some of which it would be simpler to remain quiet about.

There is a most interesting mix between the personal and the public which Hargrove brings to light. He explains his motive for sharing painful details of personal and family history as part of what is expected in those who choose to take on public positions—" you give up your claim to a completely private life" (65).

But he goes further. "I also feel it's important to be candid about life experiences because a lot of people carry huge personal problems and feel alone in their struggles. In truth, of course, we've all screwed up at times, and we've all suffered , and caused others to suffer, in one way or another" (65).

Hopeless reflection

At its most fundamental level, this book is a reflection on the hopelessness that pervades labour relations thought. Labour and management are sworn enemies; the process is by definition adversarial, and the game is purely political. The spoils go to the powerful. Hargrove simply resigns himself to this and suggests that the best approach is to acknowledge the pain and suffering we all experience and fight to improve our lot. Sharing is therapeutic; fighting is our only way to get ahead. But at the end of the day, there are no real solutions.

The hopelessness of this view pervades Hargrove's Labour of Love. He effectively communicates his passion but also is resigned to the limits of this passion. A humane Canada seems beyond reach; his goal is only that it be less inhumane. And even that takes "the fight."

It would be beneficial for all Canadian workers if Hargrove, at the end of his career, were able to write an autobiography that reflects a more hopeful view of life and the world of work. But for that to happen, Hargrove will need to reflect on a worldview a little more substantive than just therapeutic sharing and fighting the good fight.

 

Ray Pennings co-founded Cardus in 2000 and currently serves as Executive Vice President, working out of the Ottawa office. Ray has a vast amount of experience in Canadian industrial relations and has been involved in public policy discussions and as a political activist at all levels of government. Ray is a respected voice in Canadian politics, contributing as a commentator, pundit and critic in many of Canada’s leading news outlets and as an advisor and strategist on political campaign teams.

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