A Short History of the Labour Studies Program at Simon Fraser University

The Labour Studies Program and the Morgan Centre for Labour Research

The history of Labour Studies at SFU stretches back many years; the original program was created in 1975 by Jack Blaney, then Dean of Continuing Studies, later the President of SFU. Since that time, there has been a continuous presence of Labour Studies at the University.

Until the late 1990s, however, it was not a strictly academic program; it was housed in Continuing Studies, and saw its role as sponsoring many different kinds of programs designed for the union movement  -- leadership schools, CLC weekend schools, forums on labour studies, the Summer Institute for Union Women, film and video series, workshops on labour history, and conferences, to name some of the activities.

In 1999, it began to develop a more academic front, and by the year 2000, it was possible for SFU students to complete a Minor and a Certificate in Labour Studies.  The Program, however, could not grow because of university budgetary restraints, and, from about 2000 to 2009, it appeared destined to remain as limited as it was.  This changed in 2010 with a substantial donation from Margaret Morgan*.

In August 2010, after lengthy negotiations, Margaret Morgan signed an agreement with Simon Fraser University in which the university agreed to the expansion of the Labour Studies Program into a degree-granting program, a Major, in exchange for her generous donation.  We are on track to accomplishing the initial goal of a BA in Labour Studies, hopefully in 2016.

Program development

In the meantime, in January 2013 we hired our first full-time faculty member, Dr. Kendra Straus, who we are very pleased to have in the Program, and who immediately became a valued colleague with an obvious commitment to building the Program. We also increased the number of courses, adding the first new course in January 2011 (from 2 to 3), gradually increasing the number to 12 listed in the calendar in 2015. We currently offer roughly 30 classes in a year, over 3 semesters. Aside from Dr. Strauss, the courses are taught mainly by a group of well-qualified and very dedicated sessional instructors.  We are, moreover, supported by an excellent team of 5 staff members who divide their work-load between Labour Studies and the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, with which we have very good relations.  Our enrolments have increased every year (now well over 600 students per year), pointing to a modest but growing interest in and demand for our courses.  

Beyond the University: Community Outreach

We have expanded our ties with organizations outside the University.

  1. We are co-sponsoring with the Labour Heritage Centre (LHC) and the BC Federation of Labour a large and important project to write a new book on the history of BC labour
  2. With the LHC we are also co-sponsoring a lecture series on key dilemmas facing working people and their unions, beginning in the Fall 2015.
  3. We have opened discussions with several unions to create co-op job opportunities for our students.
  4. We have agreed to co-sponsor a lecture series on issues of the global labour market, with the Hari Sharma Foundation, which provides generous funding for scholarships in the Program and whose President sits on our Advisory Committee, also to begin in 2015. 
  5. And we have an inaugural endowment fund-raising conference in October 2015 on ‘migrant workers’ rights,’ co-organized with two labour law firms, Leo McGrady (McGrady & Co.) and Claude Melancon (Melancon, Marceau, Grenier &Sciortino, Societe en nom collectif, Avocats).

We are developing this new Program by building on existing strengths in the university, with some assistance from the Dean of Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, progressively adding courses, instructors, and related activities as funding permits, with the purpose of providing students with post-secondary skills and knowledge related to the nature of work and trade unions. The Program will serve as a place for students and trade unionists to learn new skills, and study and debate the current economic, political, and social trends as they relate to the working world.

Administrative Structure

Between 2000 and 2011, the Program was housed in the History Department; since September 2011, however, to reflect the projected growth as a social science program, it has been housed in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. This is an administrative arrangement that has worked very well for Labour Studies, but the Program remains entirely independent and self-directed. Its executive is a Steering Committee composed of SFU faculty members from several different departments, and it is advised by an active Advisory Committee made up of representatives from unions and community organizations.

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*There is an article on Margaret and Lefty Morgan in SFU’s AQ magazine.