Labour studies

The world of work through an academic lens

Illustration for labour studies article

Nick Ruhloff is an intelligent, articulate young man who has just completed a master’s degree at McMaster University. Later this year he’ll be entering Osgoode Hall Law School. By almost any standard he’s on a path that many people would envy, and he gives a lot of the credit for that to his undergraduate experience in the Labour Studies program at Brock University.

Brock is one of five universities in Ontario that offers a program in labour studies. The others are York University, McMaster University, Laurentian University and the University of Windsor.

The program at Brock was launched in 1989.

“One of the reasons the program was initiated was to recognize the immense contribution that working women and men had made to the university,” says Larry Savage, Director of Brock’s Centre for Labour Studies. Savage points out that the university was built, in part, owing to thousands of union members across the Niagara region who donated a day’s pay each year for five years to the university’s building fund.

“And so that history also plays an important role in teaching and learning about labour issues at Brock,” he explains. (For more on the history of Brock University see Rothwell, Education Forum, Winter 2015, p. 11.)

As with all the other labour studies programs in Ontario, the Brock program looks at more than just traditional union-management relations. “Our program and courses all revolve around examining work with a critical lens—who controls it, how is it allocated, how do we make work better,” says Savage.

Nick Ruhloff is emphatic about the value of the program. “I think it’s a very sophisticated program intellectually and academically,” he says. “It’s interdisciplinary, so you rely on sociology, political science, anthropology, geography. You get a wealth of perspectives that you won’t get in most other programs, and it provides an opportunity for truly rigorous academic work. Because of my background in labour studies, I just felt much better prepared to deal with what was in front of me at a master’s level.”

Labour studies, though, is much more than a strictly intellectual or academic pursuit. It is arguably as relevant to almost anyone’s real-world experience as any field of study.

“Labour studies is not an abstract discipline,” says Stephanie Ross of the Work and Labour Studies program at York University. “We all have to work, and work plays an important role in our lives and has a huge impact on what kind of life we end up living. So the central questions we explore have everything to do with what students will encounter in their lives.”

Rather than considering workers and the work they do from the viewpoint of management, as in a business or commerce program, a labour studies approach is concerned with the perspective and the interests of workers themselves.

“We look at the relationship between workers, employers, governments and the broader society, and we concern ourselves with how workers experience those relationships,” says Ross. “Rather than seeing workers as a problem for managers to solve, labour studies provides students with the tools to ask critical questions about how work is organized in our society and who gets access to what kinds of work. Questions about what work is considered valuable or meaningful and is well enough remunerated to support a decent life, and what work is not valued in that way.”

Labour studies programs are concerned not just with examining and understanding the forces at play within the world of work, but also with exploring the ways we can make work a better experience and confront what Ross calls the “systems of inequality that are expressed in the labour market and in our workplaces.”

An obvious way to confront workplace inequality, of course, is through a union, and labour studies programs invariably explore how unions and collective bargaining bring about significant improvements in salaries and working conditions, and ensure that workers are treated fairly and have access to due process when they are not.

Robert Storey, Director of the School of Labour Studies at McMaster University, says, “Our students learn that, historically speaking, the ways in which working people have been able to right the wrongs and redress the inequalities is by standing up to the bosses, and for the most part that needs to be done collectively. That’s the way you secure your rights—even your individual rights. These things are very important to know as people try to find their way in this very confusing and sometimes threatening world of work that is emerging.”

Of course, the most threatening feature of the current labour market is the extent to which precarious work is becoming the norm, particularly for young workers. The prevalence of low-wage, part-time jobs and short-term contracts create workplace environments where it’s virtually impossible to organize a union. This has given rise to non-traditional kinds of collective organizing. Stephanie Ross says that her students at York examine not just the kinds of economic conditions and government policy decisions that create a precarious labour environment, but also the kinds of actions workers are undertaking to fight it.

“Our job as professors is to try to help students understand how precarious work came to be, and also to look at groups of people within the province or across North America who are collectively trying to fight against precarious work,” says Ross. “These groups are developing all kinds of interesting strategies, whether it’s the Fight for $15 movement, or new kinds of workers organizations that are not just workplace based. They are trying to deal with the fact that people might have multiple employers or are always on contract or working freelance, but who still need a way to collectively defend their rights an advocate for themselves.”

A common concern among labour studies departments is that high school graduates considering what they want to study in university are almost invariably unaware of the programs. They’ve never encountered anything like labour studies in secondary school, and the programs don’t seem to be on the radar of most guidance counsellors. Consequently, the students who end up graduating from labour studies often start their postsecondary career pursuing a different academic discipline. Students who have an activist inclination or are involved in the social justice movement often gravitate toward labour studies after their first year. And sometimes students from more mainstream programs will take one labour studies course as an elective and discover that they find it more compelling than their current major. Often that’s because labour studies will turn a critical eye to certain assumptions that are inherent in other areas of study.

“I’ve seen people from business and commerce and human resource management programs come into labour studies and have a kind of epiphany,” says Stephanie Ross. “They realize that they have to challenge a lot of what they’ve been talking about in those programs.”

A labour studies degree gives students more than a gratifying academic experience and a solid understanding of the multiple issues that will impact their working lives. Graduates, in fact, generally have a high degree of success securing meaningful employment, often closely related to the focus of their studies. Not surprisingly, many find careers in labour relations, but others find their way into public policy and administration roles with governments or non-profits, or opt for advocacy roles in organizations focused on social justice. And some graduates, like Nick Ruhloff, go to law school.

Of those who do move into labour relations careers, not all end up working on the union side of the table. Reuben Roth of the Labour Studies program at Laurentian University points out that labour studies graduates are often attractive recruits for human resources departments.

“Far from being turned off by a graduate with a labour studies degree, smart employers who are unionized actually look for students who can understand both sides of the fence,” says Roth.

But whatever role they end up in, labour studies graduates tend to find themselves in positions where they can influence change.

“Our graduates have had impact well out of proportion to their numbers,” explains Ross. “They almost inevitably end up in leadership roles.”

And it certainly can’t be a bad thing for people in leadership roles to have an informed and nuanced understanding of the world of work, and an inclination to put the interests of workers at the forefront.

About Michael Young
Michael Young is the editor of Education Forum and

1 Comment on Labour studies

  1. Not quite true students have no contact with labour studies in school. It’s a component of Gd 10 Intro to Business, Gd 12 International Business, a whole unit of Labour law is taught in Gd 12 law and I just completed a new chapter in Labour law for Gd 11 law text Law in Action.

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  1. In the News | Ontario's Labour Studies Programs featured in OSSTF's Magazine - Canadian Association for Work & Labour Studies

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