Labour Studies, Undergraduate

New Major in Labour Studies to Launch in Fall 2018

October 24, 2017

In today’s context of a rising “sharing economy” or “gig economy” which can also create increased job insecurity, it may be more important than ever for students to study and understand the history and changing nature of work. Beginning in Fall 2018, students at SFU can pursue an in-depth study of labour history, economics and policy through a new Major offered in Labour Studies. Building on the success of the Certificate and Minor in Labour Studies, the Major allows students to specialize and gain skills in the study of work, workers' experiences and labour movements. The development of the Labour Studies Program has been made possible by the generous legacy of SFU alumna and labour activist Margaret Morgan who, with husband "Lefty" Morgan, worked for decades to advance workers' struggles in Vancouver and beyond.

Associate Professor and current Director of Labour Studies, Dr. Kendra Strauss, says that the program emphasizes the importance of “an in-depth understanding not just of labour history and labour economics but also of labour policy.” Strauss notes that in Labour Studies, students are also challenged to understand how we came to view the period after the Second World War as the so-called “Golden Age” of Keynesian Capitalism, and how “labour struggles and goals that have been fought and won over the long-term have not been applied equally. Gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, and patterns of human migration have shaped the impact on workers.”

According to Strauss, students taking labour studies will be more prepared to critically analyze policy—a skill that will be crucial given the current context of employment scarcity, low job security, and a rise in precarious labour. In the context of the “sharing” or “gig” economy, for example, Strauss says “the precariousness of that work is now something that is affecting the middle class or more educated workers which was not always the case. That is certainly not to say that the rights of one type of worker matter more than another but to note that the struggle for decent, permanent jobs is something that is impacting more people.” Strauss says this is also a context where “our governments are not powerless” and “where creating labour policy can and does matter. Students taking labour studies are preparing for this kind of work with a foundation not only of labour history and economics but the ability to critically read and analyze labour policy.”

Students who are already in the Labour Studies program are excited about the development of a major and speak highly of their experiences thus far. Undergraduate student Dylan Webb appreciates labour studies’ interdisciplinarity and says his experiences have been “genuinely engaging”: “In all of its interdisciplinary beauty, labour studies presents itself as a set of genuinely engaging courses that blend theory and practical applicability to tackle understand the most important aspects of our day-to-day lives within the economy as well as outside of it.” Undergraduate student, Erik Sagmoen, says he was drawn to labour studies because “it was an opportunity to reflect on my own work experiences in an academic setting.” One of Sagmoen’s favourite assignments included not only a term paper on private and public liquor stores in BC, but also an art installation and exhibition:  “For the art exhibition I coated a hammer in shredded American paper currency, and in a statement used the money-coated hammer to discuss course themes such as the politics of labour and the labour movement. The term paper was about the difference in working conditions between private and public liquor stores. It was my first term paper and I didn’t think I could do it, but I got an A+!”

"For the art exhibition, I coated a hammer in shredded American paper currency, and in a statement used the money-coated hammer to discuss course themes..." -Erik Sagmoen

For both Sagmoen and Webb, taking Labour Studies has introduced them to new ways of seeing and thinking about labour, from both theoretical and practical perspectives. Sagmoen says the program’s professors and instructors have “extensive knowledge and experience,” and they bring these to the classroom from variety of backgrounds: “they are scholars, lawyers, and union researchers sharing valuable perspectives drawn from their careers.” Webb says the program has challenged him intellectually and personally. Not only does Labour Studies ask students to “question some of the fundamental beliefs we hold about our lives, values and social/economic systems,” he says, studying labour studies has positively influenced his own values, political disposition, and career options: “SFU Labour Studies is an academic program that offers far more than just memorization of theories and data. I would strongly encourage any SFU student to, at the very least, try a labour studies course and, ideally, to commit themselves to a Major in Labour Studies advancing the struggle of working people in BC, Canada, and across the world.”