The Struggle for Rights at Work: Electrical Workers, Shop-Floor Action and Industrial Legality, 1940s-1960s
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One of the central elements of post-World War II Canadian labour legislation is the ban on strikes and lockouts during the term of a collective agreement. Unions and employers are expected to settle any disputes over contract interpretation through grievance and arbitration procedures. Some historians and most legal scholars who have an opinion on this matter consider the provision to be a necessary compromise to ensure peace between the relevant parties and to allow a form of limited workplace democracy to flourish. Others view the prohibition against work stoppages dealing with shop-floor grievances to be an unjustifiable denial of workers’ right to strike. Few have probed the actual historical experience of unions, workers and employers with the grievance and arbitration system. This paper explores one element of this issue through a case study of workers represented by the United Electrical Workers (UE) at Westinghouse Canada and Canadian General Electric between the 1940s and the 1960s. It asks the following questions. What was UE’s strategy for pressing and resolving shop-floor issues in the context of the grievance and arbitration system? Were there limits to workers’ acceptance of the system? What role did stewards and stewards’ structures play? How did worker, union and employer experiences with the system change over time? What conclusions are we able to draw from this case study about the nature of post-war industrial legality?