My latest book, Not Talking Union: An Oral History of North American Mennonites and Labour, is published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.
How does one write a labour history of a people who have not been involved in the labour movement in significant numbers and, historically, have opposed union membership? While North American Mennonites have traditionally been associated with rural life, in light of the adjustments demanded by post-1945 urbanization and industrialization, they in fact became very involved in the workforce at a time of important labour foment.
Drawing on over a hundred interviews, Janis Thiessen explores Mennonite responses to labour movements such as Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, as well as Mennonite involvement in conscientious objection to unions. This innovative study of the Mennonites – a people at once united by an ethnic and religious identity, yet also shaped by differences in geography, immigration histories, denomination, and class position – provides insights into how and why they have resisted involvement in organized labour. Not Talking Union adds a unique perspective to the history of labour, exploring how people negotiate tensions between their commitments to faith and conscience and the demands of their employment.
Not Talking Union breaks new methodological ground in its close analysis of the oral narratives of North American Mennonites. Reflecting on both oral and archival sources, Thiessen shows why Mennonite labour history matters, and reveals the role of power and inequality in that history.
Manufacturing Mennonites examines the efforts of Mennonite intellectuals and business leaders to redefine the group’s ethno-religious identity in response to changing economic and social conditions after 1945. As the industrial workplace was one of the most significant venues in which competing identity claims were contested during this period, Janis Thiessen explores how Mennonite workers responded to such redefinitions and how they affected class relations.
Through unprecedented access to extensive private company records, Thiessen provides an innovative comparison of three businesses founded, owned, and originally staffed by Mennonites: the printing firm Friesens Corporation, the window manufacturer Loewen, and the furniture manufacturer Palliser. Complemented with interviews with workers, managers, and business owners, Manufacturing Mennonites pioneers two important new trajectories for scholarship – how religion can affect business history, and how class relations have influenced religious history.
Manufacturing Mennonites has been reviewed by the Canadian Historical Review, Oral History Review, Oral History Forum d’histoire orale, Mennonite Quarterly Review, and the Journal of Mennonite Studies.