Exchange: The Violence of Work

Historians in the News
tags: labor, work

Associate Professor University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign School of Labor and Employment Relations Affiliate Faculty, Gender in Global Perspectives Program and European Union Center, and Co-Director, Regina V. Polk Women's Labor Leadership Conference Author, Politics of the Pantry: Housewives, Food, and Consumer Protest in Twentieth Century America (Oxford University Press, 2017)

According to a recent study by the AFL-CIO, on average 275 workers in the United States die each day due to job injuries and illnesses caused by working in unsafe spaces. In Canada, a 2020 report indicates 1,027 workers died of work-related causes in 2018, marking an increase of 76 from 2017. A new book, The Violence of Work: New Essays in Canadian and US Labour History (University of Toronto Press, 2021) takes on this topic and offers new perspectives on an old story – when your workplace is a dangerous space.

Edited by two Canadian labour historians, Jeremy Milloy and Joan Sangster, The Violence of Work focuses attention on the everyday violence of the workplace often “ignored” by scholars and seeks to “…zoom out to reveal the wider violences of work under capitalism…” (7). Further, by analyzing violence, the book’s contributors provide “…a promising way to understand and theorize more broadly about work under capitalism.” (5)

For this Labor Online forum, I posed a series of questions to co-editor Jeremy Milloy and two Canadian scholars and book contributors, Sarah Jessup and Mary Anne Poutanen, whose work overlaps with my area of research – sexual violence in the workplace. (And, full disclosure, I am also a contributor to the volume.)

Jeremy Milloy, who co-edited The Violence of Work with historian Joan Sangster, is the author of Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Violence at Work in the North American Auto Industry, 1960-1980 (2017) researches, writes, and teaches about work, violence, addiction, and capitalism in Canada and the United States. Mary Anne Poutanen teaches interdisciplinary studies at McGill University in the Programme d’études sur le Québec and at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and part-time in the Department of History at Concordia University where she is an affiliate professor. She is the author of the book Beyond Brutal Passions: Prostitution in Early Nineteenth-Century Montreal, for which she received the Prix Lionel-Groulx by L’Institut d’histoire de l’Amérique française in 2016. Her essay, “The Perils of Sex Work in Montreal: Seeking Security and Justice in the Face of Violence, 1810-1842,” explores life in Montreal brothels and the “real and potential violence” of everyday life and how female brothel owners, unable to rely on the criminal justice system, “… introduced a number of measures to make their workplaces and homes, both on the streets and in brothels, as safe as possible.” (17) Sarah Jessup, a PhD candidate in Canada Studies at Trent University, researches the relationship between policy, gender, and workplace bullying in Canada’s health care settings. In “The Murder of Lori Dupont: Violence, Harassment, and Occupational Health and Safety in Ontario,” Jessup “…traces how the murder of Lori Dupont…ultimately came to catalyse a shift in understandings of domestic violence…as a workplace safety issue in Ontario.” (133).

In the introduction, Milloy writes “… analyzing violence is a promising way to understand and theorize more broadly about work under capitalism.” (5) This is the foundation of the volume which traces violence at work from the early 1800s to the present day.

In an effort to further explore this argument, I asked Milloy, Pouttanen, and Jessup, “Does a system of capitalism mean that violence in the workplace is inevitable?”[1]  For Milloy, the answer is yes. “As Marx observed, there is a fundamental conflict at capitalism’s heart, between the capitalist, or their manager, who wants to get the absolute most labour out of a worker possible, and the worker’s own interests, which, since they are alienated from their labour, usually do not align with the boss.” 

Read entire article at Labor and Working Class History Association

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