5 Questions About NOT Talking Union

We ask authors of books reviewed in Oral History Review to answer 5 questions about why we should read their books. In our latest installment of the series, Janis Thiessen discusses her book NOT Talking Union.

See Leyla Vural’s review of Janis Thiessen’s book online now and in the upcoming Spring 2021 48.1 Issue. 

What’s it about and why does it matter?

NOT Talking Union is a labour history of a people—North American Mennonites—who have not been involved in the labour movement in significant numbers and, historically, have opposed union membership. This is an incredibly important history, because the majority of workers in Canada and (even more so) in the United States are not unionized, and this book helps us understand why. At the same time, the book reveals the utility—indeed, the necessity—of oral history for understanding late-twentieth-century religious history.

How does oral history contribute to your book?

The book is rooted in 115 oral histories that I conducted while traveling through Manitoba, Ontario, British Columbia, Ohio, Indiana, and California. These are now archived at the Mennonite Heritage Archives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

What do you like about using oral history as a methodology?

Listening to and learning from people’s stories can be life-changing! Some of my own religious understandings and practices were transformed as a result of conducting these oral histories. As I write in the book, “oral history has the potential to bring about reconciliation for both individuals and communities by providing opportunities for people to be heard at length without judgment—a prospect that is all too rare outside the oral history interview context—and by bringing individuals into conversation with each other through books like this one.”

Why will fellow oral historians be interested in your book?

Fellow oral historians will appreciate its transparency and self-reflection on oral history methodology, as well as its discussion of reticence and collective memory. They’ll also be captivated, as I was, by the stories of American Mennonites and the the United Farm Workers’ strikes in California led by Cesar Chavez in the 1960s, and by the stories of Canadian Mennonites and conscientious objection to unions in the 1970s.

What is the one thing that you most want readers to remember about the book?

Reading/hearing uncomfortable stories is not the same thing as acting on those stories; I hope readers are inspired to seek justice. To quote the Almanac Singers (as I do in the book), “take it easy, but take it.”