Author Tags: Graphic Novel, Labour
SFU labour historian Mark Leier of North Vancouver is the province's expert on the Wobblies--the Industrial Workers of the World--created in 1905 in Chicago as a revolutionary force for industrialized workers. Active in B.C. as early as 1906, the Wobblies led a strike of 8,000 railway workers in 1912 in response to dreadful working conditions and exploitation. Leier has written Where the Fraser River Flows: The Industrial Workers of the World in British Columbia (New Star, 1990), as well as a labour biography entitled Rebel Life: The Life and Times of Robert Gosden [See below] and Red Flags and Red Tape: The Making of a Labour Bureaucracy (University of Toronto Press, 1995).
Also an editor of Labour/Le Travail, Leier has edited and introduced a perceptive summary of B.C.'s racial politics by Saturday Night journalist Agnes C. Laut from 1912, Am I My Brother's Keeper? A Study of British Columbia's Labour & Oriental Problems (Subway Books, 2003). Born in Ontario and educated in Manitoba, Laut (1871-1936) was a popular historian who was a reporter on the Manitoba Free Press prior to emigration to the U.S. She wrote a variety of books on subjects such as the Hudson's Bay Company and the Sante Fe Trail.
As an associate professor in SFU's department of history and the director of SFU's centre for labour studies, Leier has examined the life and ideas of "anarchism's first major thinker" in the biography Bakunin: The Creative Passion (St. Martin's Press, 2006) [See below]. "After 9/11," Leier says, "[Mikhail] Bakunin was explicitly singled out as the original theorist of terrorist violence by all kinds of pundits and analysts. It was pretty clear that they didn't understand anarchism or Bakunin, and so the book became a project to set the record straight."
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Rebel Life: The Life and Times of Robert Gosden, Revolutionary Mystic, Labour Spy
Red Flags & Red Tape: The Making of a Labour Bureaucracy
May Day: A Graphic History of Protest (Between the Lines, 2012) $6.95 978-1 926662-90-9. By Mark Leier with Robin Folvik, Sean Carleton, and illustrations by Sam Bradd and Trevor McKilligan.
Bakunin: The Creative Passion (St. Martin's Press, 2006). $25.95 U.S. Hardcover; also Thomas Dunne Books, ISBN: 0-312-30538-9.
Rebel Life: The Life and Times of Robert Gosden (New Star, 1999; revised and reprinted 2013).
Red Flags and Red Tape: The Making of a Labour Bureaucracy (University of Toronto Press, 1995).
Where the Fraser River Flows: The Industrial Workers of the World in British Columbia (New Star, 1990)
Agnes C. Laut from 1912, Am I My Brother's Keeper? A Study of British Columbia's Labour & Oriental Problems (Subway Books, 2003). Edited by Mark Leier.
“Dissent, Democracy, and Discipline: The Case of Kuzych v. White, et al.”. Appears in Work on Trial: Canadian Labour Law Struggles. (Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, 2010).
Rebel Life (New Star $18).
Mark Leier first stumbled upon Robert Gosden—a B.C. firebrand who openly advocated sabotage, violence and revolution—while researching the International Workers of the World, aka the Wobblies. Then a former student of Leier’s found a document that confirmed Robert Gosden also worked as a paid RCMP spy. After 15 years of tracking down archival letters and 80-year-old newspaper accounts, Leier has produced a portrait of the mysterious turncoat in Rebel Life (New Star $18).
Born in England, Robert Gosden was one of thousands of unskilled migrant workers who chased seasonal jobs by ‘riding the rods’ across North America. Leier, an SFU historian, reports that 50,000 men were killed jumping freights between 1900 and 1905 alone. Claiming to be a veteran of the Boer War, he landed in Prince Rupert in 1910 to work road construction at $3 a day. Appalled by working conditions, he soon helped organize the Prince Rupert Industrial Association, affiliated with the ‘Wobblies’.
The goal of the IWW was to overthrow capitalists and government by uniting all ‘enslaved workers.’ Gosden, a determined disciple, loved the limelight and was on his feet at public meetings grilling local politicians about higher wages and better working conditions, confronting future B.C. premier Duff Patullo in the process. After a railway workers’ strike turned ugly, Gosden was jailed with other union leaders. Three months behind bars hardened his revolutionary zeal. He ventured south to California, claimed to have ridden with Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution, and was again jailed during San Diego’s free speech rallies. His prison letters to the Wobbly newspaper denounced capitalists, self-serving craft unions and socialist politicians who had bought into the ‘system.’ “We have enough members in America to tie up every industry at any time if we use sabotage,” he wrote.
By 1912 he was back in B.C. among Vancouver Island coal miners embroiled in a two-year strike marred by violence, government sanctioned scabs and arrests. A Miners’ Liberation League was formed to work for the released of jailed miners. At a public meeting its new president Robert Gosden upped the ante. “By the end of this year all peaceful measures will have been exhausted,” he warned. “If they are not released by the time the New Year is ushered in, if Sir Richard McBride [the Conservative premier], Attorney-General Bowser, or any of their minions go hunting, they will be very foolish for they will be shot dead. These men will also be advised to employ some sucker to taste their coffee in the morning before drinking it if they value their lives.”
Mainstream labour leaders quickly distanced themselves from Gosden’s threats and he was denounced by the press. The Victoria IWW soon collapsed and famed American leader Joe Hill. who had earlier helped striking British Columbia fishermen, was framed for murder, then executed by firing squad in 1915. Alienated from the traditional unions and socialist politicians, Gosden returned to manual jobs. The following year Gosden resurfaced working for the provincial Liberal party. Eager to attract the labour vote, the Liberals hired him for his waterfront connections during a bye-election. So begins the sensational ‘plugging scandal.’ An election commission determined Gosden was part of a vote-rigging scheme that paid men to come from Seattle, assume identities of absentee voters and cast illegal ballots. Some pluggers voted ten times. Gosden’s testimony implicated the Liberal candidate, who in turn filed perjury charges.
Leier speculates Gosden felt justified aiding a party that might be persuaded to advance a labour agenda (which he advanced at the first opportunity). He despised the governing Conservatives who had launched the militia against striking coal miners. As well, the money for his work was ‘a tempting twenty dollars a week.’ From the zenith of his work with the Miners’ Liberation League, Gosden had now become something of a political pariah. He was now portrayed as an opportunist who loved grandstanding and would do anything for money.
In Rebel Life, Leier chronicles ideological wars, the evolving Socialist Party of Canada, the shooting of labour leader Ginger Goodwin, blacklisting and the rise of the Bolsheviks. Following WWI, unskilled workers faced increasing hardship. Plans were afoot to pick up where the Wobblies had failed and create a movement to unify all workers: One Big Union. Gosden again entered the fray, this time as a RCMP informer ‘Agent 10’.
He secretly reported to the RCMP that the Socialist Party of Canada was manipulating control of the OBU (One Big Union) and, if successful, would eventually impose ‘absolute anarchy’ on the country. Gosden urged the RCMP to kidnap labour leaders and have them ‘disappear’ to throw fear into the movement. But to quell revolution Gosden simultaneously suggested some far-reaching, progressive reforms such as “standardization of hours, minimum wages compatible with the cost of living and big public works of national importance.” His report eventually reached the Prime Minister’s Office but was ultimately dismissed. Decades later his proposed reforms would become manifest.
What motivated Gosden to betray former comrades? Leier suggests a web of factors—from thwarting old political foes to the realization that a revolution of the masses would never happen. Change could only come from the top down. As well, Gosden’s love of intrigue and sense of bravery influenced him. “He appeared to see no contradiction between conspiring against workers and advocating reforms for them and he wove all these strands into a useful, if inconsistent and self-serving, world view,” Leier writes. “Gosden’s life story boils with rage. It is the rage of the oppressed, of those who are damned to a life of harsh toil. It is a rage Gosden shared with many other Wobblies, and it is something that is often neglected when we study labour history.”
Mark Leier’s previous books are a history of the IWW in B.C., Where the Fraser River Flows, and Red Flags and Red Tape. 0-921586-69-8
[Mark Forsythe / BCBW Autumn 1999]
Am I My Brother’s Keeper?
In 1912 Agnes C. Laut was commissioned by muckraking Saturday Night editor Frederick C. Paul to report on why B.C. was exceedingly fearful of both Asian immigration and the Wobblies union movement. Her shrewd articles proved so popular that Saturday Night reprinted them in 1913 as a pamphlet. SFU labour historian Mark Leier has edited Laut’s reflections on racial politics for Am I My Brother’s Keeper? A Study of British Columbia’s Labour & Oriental Problems (Subway Books, $14.95, 1819 Pendrell St., #203, Vancouver, V6G 1T3). “Nearly a century later,” he writes, “we see neo-liberal governments, closely linked to big business, create chaos by attacking labour, reducing the minimum wage, breaking contracts and relying on the police for protection. They might heed Laut’s warning that radicalism is caused by the injustice of the ‘free’ market and a lack of democratic process.” 0-9687163-4-2
Where the Fraser River Flows
Mark Leier's Where the Fraser River Flows is a history of Industrial Workers of the World within B.C. which reveals the 'Wobblies' were not only pitted against bosses and government, but also against conservative elements within the labour movement. He recounts the IWW's glory days in 1912 when the dream of establishing One Big Union was becoming a force for revolution in B.C.
Where the Fraser River Flows
In 1912 THE INDUSTRIAL WORKERS OF the WORLD, or "Wobblies", were a revolutionary force in British Columbia. Thousands of striking railway workers in the Fraser Canyon were supporting the lWW's international goals, established in Chicago in 1905: to abolish the wage system, to "take control of the earth and the machinery of production", and to realize the impossible dream of "One Big Union". Renowned labour balladeer Joe Hill arrived to bolster the spirits of the Wobblies with "Where the Fraser River Flows," one of the first enduring folk songs ever penned in B.C. In retaliation, to support the Canadian Northern Railway bosses, the Conservative provincial government of William McBride hired "special constables" to attack the strikers. "A few people were killed," says historian Mark Leier, author of Where the Fraser River Flows: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World in British Columbia (New Star $14.95, $24.95), "One was run over by a small train engine. Joseph Biscay, an organizer, was beaten up, kidnapped by constables and special agents, and chucked in jail in Kamloops. .." The 1912 labour unrest culminated in Free Speech demonstrations in Vancouver. Police on horseback routinely clubbed the Wobblies and tossed them in jail. Following World War I the IWW was made an illegal organization. "The IWW was absolutely against signing contracts," Leier explains, "Because every contract said that during the life of the contract there would be no strikes, lockouts, slowdowns, this kind of thing.
"If it's a two-year contract it gives the boss two years to prepare for a strike. To stockpile, to run the plant 24 hours a day, so that when there's a strike he locks the doors and says, 'Who cares?'" The popular term Wobblie' was apparently born in Vancouver in 1920. According to IWW mythology a Chinese restaurant owner, prior to extending credit, asked one his customers if he was a member of the "I Wobbly Wobbly". The amused unionist told his friends and soon afterward all IWW, members were calling themselves Wobblies. 'There is an account from a Wobbly writing in prison in 1921 saying this is writing in prison in 1921 saying this is how the term originated," says Leier, "But no one's been able to verify it beyond that."
Following the Bolshevik revolution, anarchist-inspired Wobblies soon found themselves in clashes with Russian inspired communists. These schisms widened during the Depression. Labour's best-known theme song, Solidarity Forever, was written by a Wobbly, Ralph Chaplin, who was ironically drowned out from speaking at a meeting in the 1930s by fervent communists singing his lyrics. The IWW's reputation with the American government caused a brief surge in membership in the 1960s when membership in the IWW, the American Communist Party or other 'subversive organizations' prevented entry into the American army. "During the war in Vietnam," says Leier, "2,000 people discovered that for two dollars a month, which was the price of an IWW membership, you could get out of the draft!" Today there are roughly 600 Wobblies worldwide. On the third Tuesday of every month, at 7:30 p.m. at the Trout Lake community centre in Vancouver,
B.C. Wobblies gather to keep the flame of idealism alive~ Write to P.O. Box 65635, Station F, Vancouver, B.C. V5N 5KS. There are numerous books about in the Industrial Workers of the World and a monthly newspaper, Industrial Worker, available from IWW, 3435 North Sheffield, Suite 202, Chicago, Illinois, 60657.--by Ian Robbin
[BCBW Winter 1989] “Labour”
Essay (January 2000)
SFU News asked associate history professor Mark Leier, an SFU 2004 Excellence in Teaching award winner, to express his thoughts on teaching and how it influences the professorial role. Here is what he wrote:
I face 300 students in our first year post-Confederation survey course, and most of them know only one thing about Canadian history: that it is boring.
And based on their experience, they are right. Too often they've been given a list of facts and dates to memorize. Too often they've been handed a collection of myths they must assimilate without debate or dissent. In either case, boredom, disengagement, and cynicism become forms of self-protection.
How can we break through to make history vibrant and important, to allow and encourage learning? I've approached the problem from two angles. The first is to use a range of teaching methods, from lectures to dramatic readings to films to singing to creative assignments, from using primary documents such as diaries to using the internet.
At the same time, what we teach is as important as how we teach. Getting 300 students to sing The Maple Leaf Forever breaks down barriers and gets attention. But it is when we analyze the song that we understand the meaning and uses of history. What does it mean that the song that was English Canada's unofficial national anthem for years mentions the thistle, the shamrock, and the rose, but not the fleur-de-lis? We can read speeches calling for a Canadian empire from sea to sea, but whether the writer was a father of confederation or an oppressor depends on what we think about imperialism.
My goal, therefore, is to show students that history is about interpretations. These interpretations matter because they form and inform values. People become passionate about the teaching of history in a way they don't about geometry or woodworking because how we understand the past shapes how we understand and act in the present. What we think about Louis Riel, for example, both determines and is determined by what we think about the present.
Interpreting the past means that history becomes something students do, rather than something that is done to them. I ask students to bring their concerns about the present to bear on the past and to take on large political and ethical questions.
Should Canada send troops to Iraq? Should we have sent troops to the Boer War? The First World War? When is war justified, and on what grounds? In all of my courses, the underlying theme is that history is as crucial to acting in the present as it is to understanding the past. History uses what historian Harvey Kaye called "the powers of the past: perspective, critique, consciousness, remembrance, and imagination," to understand the past, to challenge the present, and to think creatively about the future.
We apply these principles to contemporary society when I teach labour studies. Students are constantly getting gobsmacked with conventional and sanctioned ideas about how our society works, but it is when they ask "who rules whom and how?" that they begin to understand the world they live in.
Students need skills to do this properly. They need to learn how to find, examine, and evaluate evidence and interpretations. They need to present their ideas clearly so others can engage in discussion with them.
So I create assignments that develop each of these skills. But they are built on the fundamental idea that our history is not a simple, inevitable unfolding of eternal truth and virtue. History is about the struggles between groups with very different interests and values, and the winners often won because they were more powerful, not because they were right. Once we understand that history is about conflict, not consensus, we understand that the future is up to us to make.
That's an idea that is central to my research as well, and so teaching and research are complementary, not antagonistic. They're complementary in other ways. We have bright, inquisitive students who ask good questions. Often the answers demand research. I've just finished a book on the nineteenth century anarchist Michael Bakunin, and it was questions from my students that helped start me on that project.
Teaching also forces you to arrange and re-arrange your thoughts so they make more sense. It allows you to try out ideas on an attentive audience, and the response is immediate: when you hear snoring, it's time to re-say what you're thinking and to re-think what you're saying.
Of course teaching and research compete for time, and I can never get that balance right. I hope for a dynamic tension but sometimes have to settle for creative scrambling. But teaching is an important part of our job. It's important because intellectual work doesn't take brilliance. It takes time. We're given the time to reflect and think and write, and teaching is one way to acknowledge that. Research is another way, but if we only write for specialized audiences of other professors and experts, it's a much less direct acknowledgement.
If research is a way to say something precisely to a few people, teaching is a way to say something a little less precisely to a much greater number. Teaching demonstrates to a wider audience why our research matters. Teaching can get people excited about what we're doing and thinking, to show them the power and consequence of research, and to put aspects of our work on public display where it is open to broader criticism. In an era when funding for education and research are under attack, teaching is perhaps the most important way we can build broad support for the university. If we aren't in the classroom delivering meaningful concepts and critical skills to students, we can hardly be surprised if people become cynical and skeptical about the value of our work.
This doesn't mean that we should only be teaching things that are practical or utilitarian. One of the worst things that can happen to teaching and the university is to insist that it all be profitable and cost-effective, measurable and quantifiable, judged solely on the basis of whether somebody makes money off it. For that's the way we enforce orthodoxy and convention in our society. That's why too many politicians and business leaders are content to offer more seats at universities without bothering to ensure that the quality of teaching remains high. It is why they leap at cheap fixes, such as using poorly paid sessionals instead of research professors to teach, increasing class size, and relying too much on technology.
They like technological and managerial innovation, but they hate social and political innovation. The problems we face, however, are social and political ones, and these require unorthodox and unconventional thinking. Once we free our conceptions of our past, we are free to imagine our future. That's the challenge and potential of history I try to develop through teaching.
-- SFU News
BAKUNIN: The Creative Passion by Mark Leier
Press Release (2006)
“The passion for destruction is a creative passion,” wrote the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin in 1842. Since then, the popular image of anarchism has been one of violence and terror. But this picture is wildly misleading, and the media has done more to obscure anarchism than to explain it. Focusing on the street fighting and confrontations with police, mainstream commentators are unable to understand what anarchism is or why a philosophy with roots in the nineteenth century has resurfaced with such power at the dawn of the new millennium. To understand anarchism, it is necessary to go beyond the caricature presented by the media. In this new biography of Mikhail Bakunin, Mark Leier traces the life and ideas of anarchism’s first major thinker, and in the process revealing the origins of the movement.
There was little in Bakunin’s background to suggest that he would grow up to be anything other than a loyal subject of the Russian Empire. Instead, he became one the most notorious radicals of the nineteenth century, devoting his life to the destruction of the tsar and feudalism, capitalism, the state, even God. In the process, he became a historical actor and political thinker whose ideas continue to influence world events.
Bakunin is of keen interest these days, though the attention paid to his image continues to obscure the man and his ideas. Using archival sources and the most recent scholarship, Leier corrects many of the popular misconceptions about Bakunin and his ideas, offering a fresh interpretation of Bakunin’s life and thoughts of use to those interested in understanding anarchism and social change. Arguing for the relevance and importance of anarchism to our present world, Leier sheds light on the nineteenth century, as well as on today’s headlines, as he examines a political philosophy that has inspired mass movements and contemporary social critics.
Mark Leier shows that the “passion for destruction” is a call to build a new world free of oppression, not a cult of violence. He argues that anarchism is a philosophy of morality and solidarity, based not on wishful thinking or naïve beliefs about the goodness of humanity but on a practical, radical critique of wealth and power. By studying Bakunin, we can learn a great deal about our own time and begin to recover a world of possibility and promise. It is often said that we are all anarchists at heart. This book explains why.
"The time for Bakunin--the real one, not the caricature--has come again, and Mark Leier has given us just the history that we need. Wonderfully written, scholarly but also packed with fascinating tales and fresh revelations, Bakunin: The Creative Passion is passion with purpose."
-- Paul Buhle, co-editor, Encyclopedia of the American Left and Wobblies! a Graphic History
“Mark Leier mounts a passionate defense of Bakunin and of his creed of anarchism. Even if you do not believe that anarchists, let alone Marxists, have the right answers, Leier’s radical tract will force you to face the question posed by the millions of the world’s poor who deserve a say in their fate, as they wait for the promised radiant future." – Andrew Mango, author of ATATURK: The Biography of the Founder of Modern Turkey
May Day: A Graphic History of Protest
May Day: A Graphic History of Protest (SFU History Department, 2009, $6) By Mark Leier with Robin Folvik, Sean Carleton, Jeremy Milloy, and illustrations by Sam Bradd and Trevor McKilligan.
SFU's Centre for Labour Studies has produced a graphic novel on the history of May Day in Canada. In pictorial form, it highlights the country’s labour history in the context of May Day. Researched and written by SFU students and illustrated by local artists, May Day: A Graphic History of Protest also demonstrates how workers have brought about social change.