Lefty's Legacy, Margaret's Hope

by Ron Verzuh
illustration by Jeff Burgess

SFU alumna Margaret Morgan (MA'76) and her husband, left-wing radical Richard Ernest "Lefty" Morgan, were life-long learners, educators, and activists, so it seems appropriate that SFU's research centre for labour studies should be named the Morgan Centre for Labour Studies.

Many alumni from SFU's "bad old days" in the late 1960s would probably agree that the Morgan Centre is a near-perfect fit with the university. As Hugh Johnston put it in his 2005 book Radical Campus, the new university was a spawning ground for "the New Left and student radicalism." A student strike in 1967 and the arrest of 114 students at a campus protest in 1968 gave SFU the public image that Lefty could appreciate. Still, there may be some lingering doubts about whether SFU can live up to his radical image.

Like SFU in its founding years, Lefty was seen as a radical's radical in his day. Born a southpaw in Ontario in 1914, he came by his nickname honestly. But he was also a heavy-duty left-wing activist from the 1930s until his death in 1987. Historian Benjamin Isitt describes him as a "leftist railroad worker" and "CCF dissident" in his 2011 book Militant Minority. The Tyee website dubbed him an "anarcho-syndicalist cowboy." And Lefty's biographers say he defied ideological labels, seeing himself simply as a "democrat."

Saskatchewan-born Margaret, who died of a stroke on July 19, 2011, was a radical in her own right as a founding member of the NDP and B.C. Civil Liberties Association, a long-time member of Amnesty International, and the first paid president of the Coquitlam local of the B.C. Teachers' Federation. She also had a longstanding connection to SFU where she took her master's of education in 1976.

When she approached the university with a sizable donation about four and half years ago, Margaret hoped that her alma mater would help her realize the dream of improving the educational chances of working-class students. She and Lefty knew that educating working people was a necessity if the world was to become a fairer place.

Doug Puffer, SFU director of planned giving, recalls that she wanted to give about $2 million worth of properties in Deep Cove to the university. The properties had been purchased long ago using about $13,000 that Lefty had won in a wrongful dismissal case with the Pacific Great Eastern Railway.

"She always viewed SFU as more of a people's university," Puffer says. "She felt there was much more of a human presence, an action-oriented, left, social-thinking environment here than at many other universities." But her visit came at a time when everything was being cut back.

Enter B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair to move the process closer to realizing Margaret's hope. Sinclair had previously visited the Columbia Foundation, a Vancouver organization with close ties to the labour movement. He suggested that it administer the Morgan bequest but that it be situated at SFU.

Sinclair also visited SFU and found that although the administration liked the idea of using the Morgan money to establish an undergraduate degree-granting program in labour studies, it would be difficult if the money came from an outside institution. "It was Margaret's vision that made this happen," Sinclair said. "She had a dream that working people should be part of this university and be respected by it."

Puffer went to work to make sure her vision would bear fruit, suggesting that the university advance the program about $150,000 a year for 10 years based on the Morgan properties. This proposal, which was accepted by the university, gave Morgan Centre director Gary Teeple the green light to set up the new degree program. Like Puffer, he shares Sinclair's enthusiasm for respecting Margaret's wishes, but he is also a realist about the timing of that first graduate. "It's probably six years away," he says.

Teeple's first chore is to find a workable definition of labour studies, something he found little agreement about in his recent study of similar programs. At the same time, the sociology professor is developing the new courses that will be offered in addition to the three that have existed since 2000 when a minor and certificate were created.

This fall, in addition to Labour History 101 and 301, students can take a course on labour and film and another on labour in China. Eventually, there will be six courses offered.

It all sounds like it would be right up Lefty's alley, especially since Teeple is committed to teaching labour studies from a class perspective that "focuses on the experience of working people.
"It's a black irony, but I can't think of a better time for labour studies than now," he adds. "The fact is that unions are under even harsher attack than a decade ago."

Sinclair, too, sees the program as timely. "The challenges facing most working people are enormous: the race to the bottom, the globalization of capital, the degradation of the environment. Just those three things are such a huge challenge for working people."
Margaret and Lefty lived with those challenges and they saw education as a way to meet them. "Lefty always said you have to think for yourself," Margaret told The Tyee not long before she died. "I hope students in the program will learn to do that."

The centre that now bears her name is being designed to accomplish exactly that goal, even if the size of SFU's working-class student population may still be more wishful thinking than reality. SFU historian Hugh Johnston has written that in 1965, "working-class origins were a badge of honour at SFU." But he also notes that "claiming them was a stretch for more than half of the students who turned up."

Mark Leier, former director of the labour studies program, says he has seen fewer working-class students since he began as a student at SFU in 1982. A survey of first-year students conducted in June 2010 supports this comment. The survey revealed that about 43 percent of students' fathers graduated from high school and 35 percent graduated from university. About 48 percent of their mothers graduated from high school and 30 percent graduated from university. That would suggest a strong middle-class student body.
Statistics aside, observers agree that there is no better time than now to launch the BA program. They further agree that graduates will find jobs. But they also have thoughts on what the Morgan Centre and the program should strive to accomplish.

It should "equip people to be activists in a wide range of social justice issues," says Leier, now chair of the Department of History. It should strive to give students "that critical perspective, that ability to think outside the box, to reach out to other people."

Another former director of labour studies, Elaine Bernard, suggests that the new program "can't just be about studying unions or studying labour markets. They actually have to be a partnership with labour." The executive director of Harvard's Labor and Worklife Program also wants the SFU program to "look beyond Canada."

Teeple agrees. "The link with the community, particularly the trade union movement, I consider central," he says. To that end, one of his plans is to make the program accessible to union members of whatever age. "The role of the centre should also be to make working people conscious of the fact that they've got a right to be here."

That statement would have been music to the ears of Lefty and Margaret. They knew that educating the working class is still seen as a threat in some quarters of society.

"The priority will be to enable university students to get a labour degree just like they could get a business degree," Sinclair says. But will they find jobs when they graduate?

The modern labour movement is certainly a potential employer as are agencies in government and the non-profit and non-governmental sectors. They are looking for self-starters who can think for themselves. And Leier reminds us that some people come to SFU not just to get a job but to make a difference. "Labour Studies gives them some fabulous skills and knowledge for doing that."

With Teeple at the centre's helm, students can expect that to continue. "This program needs to make people critical thinkers," he says, adding that "to honour Margaret and Lefty's memory it has got to be considered the top of the line as an accreditation for people in labour studies."

To Teeple and others, it must also strive to be a credit to the university. SFU president Andrew Petter, for example, sees the centre helping "to build our reputation as Canada's most community-engaged research university." Puffer agrees that "it will definitely elevate our reputation. We will be the only school west of Manitoba to offer a degree program in labour studies." Bernard suggests that with SFU's large international student body, "you can really see a centre for labour studies that eventually develops an international reputation."

For the labour movement, the centre promises to honour Lefty's legacy and realize Margaret's hope. As Sinclair puts it, the centre "offers us the possibility of being part of shaping ideas that will shape the province and among those ideas will be ideas that reflect the interests of the working people of B.C."

These are goals worth fighting for in the name of both the Morgans.