Radio: Learning for today from working-class history

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On this week’s episode of Talking Radical Radio, I speak with York University labour historian Craig Heron about his multiple award-winning book Lunch-Bucket Lives: Remaking the Workers’ City (Between the Lines, 2015), and about what movements today can gain from paying attention to the past.

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How did ordinary people who came before us live? How did they struggle against oppression and injustice? Once upon a time, history — meaning the academic discipline — couldn’t answer those questions and really didn’t care. That began to change as the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s swept through universities, and a new generation of historians began to do their work differently — to take seriously voices and stories previously excluded, such as those of women and people of colour and workers, and to re-narrate the past we all share in ways that took them seriously.

Craig Heron was a white working-class Ontario kid who was politicized as a university student during those turbulent years. He went on to become a labour historian, and he has taught history and labour studies at York University in Toronto for more than three decades. His latest book, Lunch-Bucket Lives, is a massive study of working-class life in the industrial city of Hamilton, Ontario, between 1890 and 1940. It brings together examinations of all manner of changes across multiple aspects of life in the workplace, the household, and the community. It explores what working people in that era did to survive under very harsh conditions — often, Heron suggests, they took an approach he describes as “working-class realism” that manifested in different ways through survival strategies at individual, household, and community levels, but which also, at least sometimes, included moments of collective confrontation with the powers that be through strikes, efforts to unionize, riots, and the creation of independent working-class political organizations.

This detailed examination of collective resistance that — and this is crucial — places it firmly in the broader context of everyday life may assist movements today in making decisions about how to organize and mobilize in increasingly stark times. Moreover, Heron points out that the era covered by the book may be particularly relevant to today’s struggles, as the unfettered capiatlism, precarious employment, grinding poverty, and near total absence of a social safety net at that time closely resembles what for the last thirty years the forces of neoliberalism have been relentlessly trying to return us to. Heron speaks me about working-class life and resistance in early 20th century Ontario, and about the relevance of history to social movements today.

To learn more about the book, check out its page on the Between the Lines site or this review.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada. We give you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show in general, visit its website here. You can learn about suggesting topics for future shows here.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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