Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Craig Heron

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Craig Heron

Craig Heron is a professor, a leading Canadian labour historian and a prolific author. His latest book, Lunch-Bucket Lives (Between the Lines Books) takes a look at the lives of Hamilton's working people — the men, women, children and families whose survival was mainly dependent on wages — from the 1890s through the 1930s. Craig takes the reader into and beyond the workplace, to the households, neighbourhoods, churches and dance halls of Hamilton's working-class in the early twentieth century.

Today, Craig is tackling our Lucky Seven Interview Series, a seven-question Q&A that gives readers a chance to hear about the writing processes of talented Canadian authors and gives authors a space to speak in depth about the thematic concerns of their newest books.

Craig talks to us about portraying a nuanced view of working-class people, the importance of books that shake up the way we think and exercise as a means to aid productivity.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.

Craig Heron:

Lunch-Bucket Lives is the product of many years of thinking about how working-class Canadians dealt with the large structural forces that have shaped their life. The book examines a half century of profound change in the daily lives of working people in what is perhaps Canada’s best known industrial centre, Hamilton, Ontario. It provides a close examination of the challenges workers confronted and the diverse ways they responded. It uses Hamilton as a leading example of what industrial workers across the country had to confront in an era of disruptive social change.

The book falls into four major parts. The first looks at the big picture to see where workers worked and where they went home every night. Here we encounter the large new factories that opened after the turn of the twentieth century — the Steel Company of Canada, International Harvester, Canadian Westinghouse and many more. We also meet the thousands of newcomers who migrated from the British Isles and Continental Europe to find work in the new factories and settled, often only briefly, in rapidly expanding working-class neighbourhoods around this booming city.

The second section examines how they made ends meet. Here the spotlight is first on the housewife whose labour kept working-class families clean, well nourished and healthy, and then on the members of the household who were able to bring home some wages, both the father as chief breadwinner and teenaged children who also contributed. The section also looks closing at spending patterns of families on limited incomes and on the charity and welfare programs that the poorest had to turn to for help.

The third probes the changes they faced on the job. Here the story traces the managerial and technological transformation in factories that produced a “Second” Industrial Revolution and the resistance that various groups of wage-earners threw up as their work intensified and their dignity suffered. From the turn of the century through the 1930s, there were several waves of unionizing efforts and tumultuous strikes.

And the fourth sections follows the various ways workers associated together, in their families, within their own gender and ethnic groups and through diverse forms of politics, from persistent working-class Toryism to Labourism, Socialism and Communism.

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

CH:

I argue that we should be wary of seeing workers as either downtrodden victims or heroic figures always raising a clenched fist. Instead, I suggest that a more nuanced view of working-class responses to their material situation is one that recognizes a persistent working-class “realism.” That does not mean that they were invariably cautious and conservative, but rather that they evaluated possibilities in their lives according to the resources at their disposal, which could shift and change. So, for example, a fear of losing their jobs and facing poverty could constrain them, while a period of full employment could give them new confidence to push for more ambitious demands. This is what happened in Hamilton and across Canada at the end of World War One, including the famous Winnipeg General Strike. It would be fair to say that this perspective on working-class history was not pre-conceived, but rather emerged out of the research and writing over many years.

OB:

Did this project change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

CH:

The roots of this project lie in a PhD dissertation, completed in the early 1980s, in which I was mainly interested in what happened in the paid work force and in local politics. After setting aside that thesis for several years, I returned with a new interest in how the issues I had taken up interacted with what working people did in their households and their communities. I wanted to pull together a more comprehensive view of working-class life that integrated the many levels of their experience. I began that new project about twenty-five years ago, but set it aside several times as other projects crowded onto my research agenda. In the end, the other books that I produced on the workers’ revolt at the end of World War One, on drinking cultures and on Labour Day helped to shape the emerged manuscript for Lunch-Bucket Lives.

OB:

What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

CH:

For many years I have worked on a computer at a large desk in my home study. Until recently, morning coffee was essential. So was complete silence—I must be alone, and I never listen to music while I work. I also tend to work in long bursts of research and writing in order to hold the concentration, though I find a break for exercise at the Y aids productivity.

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

CH:

For a historian, discouragement can be a frustration with the inadequacy of the primary sources, which is all too often insurmountable, or a degree of confusion about how to interpret your research notes. I often find that turning to other books to see how their authors have tackled similar dilemmas is helpful.

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

CH:

Great books have to be well written and as accessible as possible to a broad readership, but more importantly they need to give the reader a completely new perspective on a subject that shakes up the way people think about the world. As I look back, E.P. Thompson’s justly famous Making of the English Working Class was such a book. So was a book in US history by David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness, which confronted so many of us with the inadequacies of our understanding of race in history. And, about the same time, Joy Parr’s Gender of Breadwinners made a similar impact with her discussion of gender.

OB:

What are you working on now?

CH:

I am completing a manuscript on time, work and leisure, which looks at how, over the past 150 years, Canadians debated and struggled over time off the job—the eight-hour day, the weekend, the paid vacation and so on.

Craig Heron is a professor of history at York University. One of Canada’s leading labour historians, he is the author of numerous works on Canadian history, including The Workers Festival: A History of Labour Day in Canada, Booze: A Distilled History and Lunch-Bucket Lives: Remaking the Workers’ City.

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