October 19, 2012

De-bunking the myth of the good old days - part 2

St Catharines auto plant workers, 1944

by Ryan Sparrow

This article is part two of a two-part series.

Racialised and gendered work is a common feature of the development of capitalism. The need for a super-exploitable vulnerable group of workers is beneficial to the big business community as it helps bring about a much lower floor of wages and working conditions.

In the post-war era, the overt racism and overt gender discrimination of workers was still around, although less prevalent.  Institutionalized racism and sexism, however, was still very widely practised.  Racialised and gendered labour therefore represented a super-exploited strata of the working class in the post-war era. This article continues from the historic framework of analysis and presents some examples.

Racism in Auto

Racialized male workers had a variety of differing experience which allowed for their discrimination in the labour market.  For example, in the auto industry of southern Ontario black male workers were segregated into certain jobs. The policy, when it came to hiring black workers, varied from employer to employer.

Chrysler, for instance, entirely prohibited black male workers from working on their assembly lines until they were forced to change their policies with the Ontario Fair Employment Practices Act in 1951. By 1953, a Federal Fair Employment Practices Act had also (officially) been put into effect.

Other auto manufacturers like Ford and McKinnon Industries were more accepting of black workers. But these workers faced other barriers within these companies, like being segregated into specific occupations based on racial stereotypes.

Genetic resistance to heat

According to sociologist Pamela Sugiman, foundry work was one of the racialised occupations since employers stereotyped black men as“…strong, robust, and muscular worker[s]…” who were more suitable for the job, while some even claimed that “…coloured men, in particular, could endure these excesses because of a genetic predisposition to withstand heat”.

Another racialised occupation in the plants was janitorial work as firms tended to employ black males for this line of work. It is important to note that while there was nothing formal about the segregation of employment for racialised workers in the Ontario auto industry, it was a widespread practice.

Aboriginal workers

The experiences of Aboriginal male workers confirm a pattern of racialised segregation in the labour market, where the shift from rural life in the prairies to wage labour is marked by both mismanagement and intentional exploitation.

Historian Joan Sangster for example explains that the “Fordist” economic arrangement completely excluded Aboriginal and M├ętis populations in the northern prairies and was a “… class accommodation that marginalized many working people, often on the basis of gender and race.”

The government intentionally created racialised labour segregation on behalf of private interests with acts of coercion like the “cessation of welfare payments as a means of forcing families to accept sugar-beet work”, Sangster writes.

Lower pay, bad jobs

Instead of the employers offering wages and working conditions to attract workers, the state intervened to provide a very precarious workforce for the growers. Further, the economic data points to systemic racism where  “…Metis and Indian households always earned less than white ones in similar geographical areas”.

Aboriginal communities had very unstable employment, according Jean Lagasse’s interviews of native peoples in the 1950s, holding many different jobs with the changing of the seasons. In the post war period, Aboriginal and racialised male workers were typically stuck in the lower rungs of the labour market, the secondary labour market and some in the subordinate primary market jobs.

Women workers and racism

Historically, the dominant patriarchal view of women was that they should be confined to domestic work, tied to a man with the state and employers encouraging such an arrangement. At the same time, capitalism has regularly relied on women's labour not just to reproduce and maintain workers but also in the working class. The trade union movement historically fought for a family/breadwinner wage; therefore even in the labour movement, women’s wages were seen as a secondary income.

Women from racialized communities had it hardest. There was not a single black woman employed in all of the 50 post-war United Auto Worker (UAW) organized plants in Windsor. The segregated labour markets also created segregated communities, with the newly formed suburbs housing a predominately non-racialised, white middle class community, while the city housed a more racialised workforce.

Maggie Holmes, a domestic worker describes how all the white males travel to the city during the morning and came back to the suburbs during the evening, while she and many other racialised domestic workers were going the opposite direction towards the cities. Their jobs were tough, often leading to aliments like arthritis.


While there was representation of white Anglo-male workers in all three labour markets, the experiences of racialised workers and women workers in the post-war era confirm segregated labour markets existed in Canada.

White women and racialised workers rarely went beyond the subordinate primary market.  Racialised women had faced the most discrimination in the labour market with very few examples of them advancing out of the secondary market for labour.

Ultimately, the configuration of the labour market in the post-war era provides an revealing insight into systemic racism and sexism today.

This article has been edited.


Acker, J,(1990). “Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations,”
                Gender & Society, 4, 2,139-158.

Edwards, E. (1979). Labour Re-Divided Part 1: Segmented Labor Markets. Contested Terrain: The              Transformation of the Workplace in the Twenthieth Century. Basic Books: New York.

Jacoby, S. M. (1984). The Development of Internal Labour Markets in American Manufacturing Firms. Internal Labour  Markets. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 23-69.

Sangster, J. (2010). “Aboriginal Women and Work in Prairie Communities.  Transforming Labour: Women and Work in Post-War Canada. University  of Toronto Press: Toronto. 199-23

Sugiman, P. (2001). Privilege and Oppression: The Configuration of Race, Gender, and Class in Southern                Ontario Auto Plants, 1939 to 1949. Labour/Le Travail . Retrieved from         http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/llt/47/04sugima.html

Turkel, S. (2009). Studs Turkel’s Working: A Graphic Adaption. New York, New York: The New Press.

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