Not Talking Union: An Oral History of North American Mennonites and Labour

WPA mural depicting a ’30s era lunch counter, Coit Tower, San Francisco. Photo copyright Janis Thiessen.

Not Talking Union: An Oral History of North American Mennonites and Labour is the title of my forthcoming book from McGill-Queen’s University Press.

From the introduction:

This book is an experiment in a different kind of labour history: one which examines the history of people who (for the most part) were not labour activists, and which investigates not the story of union members or unionized workplaces but of people’s historically-constructed attitudes toward unions. Additionally, this book is a contribution to growing scholarly efforts to bring labour historians and historians of religion into conversation with each other; it does so in part through the use of oral history. Finally, this work is an internalist history in that it attempts to understand a particular religious group on its own terms and from its own perspective(s)….

Members of three Mennonite groups – the GCs, MBs, and MCs – were the people I interviewed. I chose these three because they were the largest Mennonite denominations, because I was interested in examining the experiences of the most assimilated of the various Mennonite groups, and because they have received less scholarly attention than some other Mennonite groups…. Another, more important, reason I chose the groups of mainstream Mennonites I interviewed was because they were – by virtue of their more urban locations – more likely to have personal familiarity with unions. As those perhaps most confronted with the challenges of post-war capitalism, their stories were more likely to shed light on the question of how people with a history of “labour quietism” – that is, a reluctance to become involved in the labour movement – navigated late twentieth-century capitalism. Their stories would provide insight into why so many working North Americans – Mennonite or otherwise – are not union supporters, and how people in general negotiate tensions between their moral commitments and the demands of their employment. Unlike folk singer Pete Seeger’s classic song, North American Mennonites, by and large, were not “talking union.”[i]

[i] The Almanac Singers, “Talking Union,Talking Union and Other Union Songs, Smithsonian Folkways Records, 1941.

A significant part of this research consisted of more than 100 oral history interviews I conducted with Mennonites in 3 Canadian provinces and 3 US states: Manitoba, Ontario, British Columbia; Ohio, Indiana, and California.

Chapter 1: “I tell you these things because it cast my view of God”: Narratives of Religious Belief
Chapter 2: “Not part of the landscape”: Attitudes toward Unions
Chapter 3: “What would you say, for the archives?” California Mennonites and Migrant Workers
Chapter 4: “What is said publicly must be carefully framed”: Mennonite Memory of California Conflict
Chapter 5: “They work with troubled conscience”: Conscientious Objection to Unions in Manitoba
Chapter 6: “It’s easy to write a paper; it’s not so easy to live”: The Faith-Based Workplace

The book will be available in Spring 2016.