The Sudbury Experience: Report on an Oral History Project from a Labour Perspective – by Jim Tester (Part 1 of 2)

Jim Tester (1913-1995) was the former mine mill president of Local 598 from 1969-1974 which represented the Falconbridge workers in Greater Sudbury. He is a prominent person in Sudbury’s labour history and wrote a column for Northern Life from 1974 to 1993 in which he shared his considerable knowledge of union struggles and socialist causes.

This is an address by Jim Tester to the Labour Panel of the Canadian Oral History Association, University of Ottawa, June 8-10, 1982.

I was some what surprised to learn there is some questioning in academic circles about he relevance of labour movement oral history. There seems to be a pervading fear that the interviewer will lead the interviewed in such a way as to give one-sided responses that reflect the interviewer’s prejudices.

That is a real danger, but what historian can be successfully accused of being unbiased? I recall Churchill being asked how Britain would be able to justify before history the terror bombing of open German cities during World War 11. He replied simply that there was no problem with that because, quote: “We will write the history.”

There is some feeling in the academic community that its members are the most competent oral historians because they are able to exercise the greatest objectivity. That is learned nonsense. Any good craftsman has to intimately know his materials and how to use his tools. Otherwise, despite the best intentions, his work will be a failure. The creative process requires knowledge, skill and preparation in order to resolve the problems en route to the finished product.

I have always been struck by the sensitivity of great novelists to their characters. Undoubtedly, all such novelists have spent most of their leisure time making mental notes in discussions with people, in all walks of life. Their novels are the essence of such oral discourse. Their characters, while invented, are typical of the human forces in real-life situations. Through these characters we observe the conflicts of interests and temperament, in certain historic settings. Through their interaction we can understand the dominant social forces at work in that place and period.

Tolstoy in ‘War and Peace’ tells us more about the reasons behind the Russian Revolution than a hundred history books. Sholokov in his ‘And Quiet Flows the Don’ vividly portrays the struggles to win the Cossack population for socialism and for battles to transform a backward nation into a modern society. The sweep of his characters shows us the contradictory forces at work better than all the official explanations or declamatory propaganda.

What I am saying is that a good novel is an extension of oral history. It is the stuff of which the ancient sagas were made, of heroic deeds against impossible odds. These were the first artistic means for sustaining morale and giving real purpose to life’s struggles.

I think a good oral history interviewer must have an understanding of human society. He should have some sympathy for ordinary people and an appreciation of the historical process in the development of leaders. If possible, he should have had actual experiences that relate to those of the person being interviewed. If one has been there, it puts one a big step ahead in empathy and giving direction to the questioning. Of course, such experience can be an obstacle, if the interviewed has a rigid interpretation of such events and is unwilling to give the interviewed free reign to his recollections.

A lack of personal experience can be overcome to a certain extent by research and preparation. As a matter of fact, even the most involved participant in labour struggles needs a perspective that has resulted from studying often contradictory sources. Research is indispensable to a good understanding and to good interviewing.

A couple of years ago, Laurentian University in Sudbury, set up a special department on Labour-Industrial Archives. The idea was to collect historical material from individuals, unions and companies that related to the building of industry in Northeastern Ontario, and to the social problems flowing from that experience.

The concept was an even-handed approach, neither favouring management or the unions. The results so far are that many individuals who participated in the labour movement have deposited a great deal of material with the university. Virtually nothing has come from the companies, or their representatives.

This was not unexpected. I had suggested to the archivists that if the Mine Managers’ Association were to give their old minute books the university collection, that would provide some clear insight into their thinking and actions to defeat unions, in the mining areas, from before the turn of the century. Evidentially, that kind of material, like radioactive spent fuel, is still too hot to handle.

On the other hand, labour activists are quite free and open about their activities. Retired union leaders are especially good sources of information. Most of them have little to hide and have few reservations.

This contrast between labour and managements’ willingness t tell all is not accidental. Labour wants people to learn the lessons of history, to help carry on the struggle for a better life. It represents the majority of people. Management, on the other hand, represents a small majority, but maintains a front of operating in the interests of everybody, especially the community in which it has its plants. The truth about its past might well prejudice its operations in the future, especially when dealing with the younger generation.

Oral history is a rare thing from captains of industry. Most prefer to give their story to a biographer, or prepare a carefully edited version in collaboration with a professional writer, ghost or in the flesh. Two such books are “For the Years to Come” by John F. Thompson and Norman Beasley, and “As I See It”, an autobiography by J. Paul Getty. Thompson, a former president of Inco, told his story in long interview sessions with author John Beasely. Presumably, J. Paul Ghetty wrote his own story. Both were carefully edited.

These two industrial leaders come through as strong figures, with good personalities and an understanding of people. Both showed a grasp of organization and the ability to surround themselves with competent people. Getty, in particular had a wry sense of humour, which he, indeed needed to have survived five unsuccessful marriages. He mainly blamed himself for being an incompetent husband, because he rarely found time for family affairs, so engrossed was he in expanding his empire of oil.

In the body of the work, Thompson gives no mention of the unions at Inco. He does give a couple of paragraphs about the union movement in a chapter titled “Recorded Conversations”, a short question and answer section near the end of the book. This was part of his philosophical rambling, in which he mentioned nothing about Sudbury, despite his connection with  Inco management from 1906 until 1960. For Getty, unions simply did not exist.

Both these men had many commendable qualities. They knew technology and people, but both were autocrats who believed in the divine right of the rich to run things. Both were highly successful as industrial leaders and accomplished a great deal for their companies. Neither showed much concern, or interest, in the lives of their workers. Their consciences never bothered them, simply because they had no sympathy for democratic ideas, in the real sense. Although, it must be said, that Getty had some sympathy for Roosevelt and the New Deal. As the world’s richest man, that was an accomplishment beyond most of his corporate contemporaries.

One has to have, at least, a grudging admiration for such captains of industry. But what about the masses of workers who made all their scheming and dreams possible? What about the leaders who represented those workers, who indeed were produced by them, in their efforts to improve their lives on and off the job.

To be continued in the next posting.