Review: Action Then Reaction

Few historians delve into the role of violence in Canada’s economic and political life. It’s an awkward topic, layered with disapproval. Yet of four Fathers of Confederation honoured with statues on Parliament Hill, two were shot, and incidents of workplace violence are commonly cited in case law by labour boards and tribunals.

Could street violence be a rational response to government over-reach in a democracy? Certainly Britain, the U.S. and France have a 300-year history of it. Now, historian Jeremy Milloy of Trent University asks, could workplace violence be a rational and predictable response to economic dysfunction?

“It is crucial that we do not fall into the trap of naturalizing violence by essentializing working class men as violent,” writes Milloy. “Instead, we need to look at the social structures and cultural contexts that have increased the likelihood of violent actions.”

Good point. We hear of workplace violence at factories and employee cubicles, never yacht clubs or bank boardrooms. Wealthy people need not resort to sabotage or assault; all conflict is quickly resolved with a call to a lawyer or the mayor’s office.

“When we look closely at workplace violence, we learn that individual violence cannot be separated from structural factors,” writes Milloy; “Even when violence is used to communicate, it is often a brutalist form of communication deployed when the hierarchical gap between actors inhibits understanding or empathy.”

An example: In 1967 a Chrysler stock checker, Willie Brookins, went off-site to buy a snack on his lunch break. Returning to the factory, Brookins carried a paper bag: “He showed the bag’s contents to the plant guard stationed at the gate – two hot sausages, purchased at a nearby deli – and passed through,” writes Milloy.

“As Brookins continued walking to his spot on the assembly line, a second guard demanded Brookins show him the bag, hinting that perhaps it contained a bomb. Brookins ignored the guard and got on an elevator.” More security guards were summoned.

“When the captain arrived, an altercation broke out between Brookins and the two guards,” Milloy continues. “One guard allegedly dumped Brookins’ meal and stomped it into the factory floor. According to another source, Brookins hit the captain in the arm with a pair of wire cutters and punched him in the face with his fist.” Police were called, and pelted with a hail of bolts and washers thrown by workers.

Blood, Sweat And Fear is fresh, unpredictable and candid. Milloy examines workplace culture in postwar Chrysler plants in Ontario and Michigan, a “hyper-masculine” environment, he writes. “Violence at work in Windsor Chrysler plants was not aberrant, bizarre or senseless,” says Milloy. “It was just the opposite: In both Detroit and Windsor plants, violence was built into labour processes, workplace practices and the shop floor culture.”

Milloy’s research is meticulous. He examines why people do what we do. Blood, Sweat And Fear spares the moralizing. In 1971 there were 68 incidents of sabotage at Chrysler Canada plants, typically targeting hated supervisors. Yes, of course, sabotage is wrong, but Milloy raises the more compelling point: Why did it happen? The answer is intriguing.

“When I was working on this project, another historian asked what my category or analysis was: Class? Race? Gender?” writes Milloy. “After thinking for a moment, I replied that it was violence.”

By Holly Doan

Blood, Sweat and Fear: Violence at Work in the North American Auto Industry 1960-80, by Jeremy Milloy; UBC Press; 228 pages; ISBN 9780-7748-34544; $29.95

Back to Top