Maker by Jim Upton

One of my high school English teachers once said that CanLit was about any combination of the following things: sex, religion, politics, and weather. I’ve found this to be largely true – with some deviations or expansion on the four core topics. Occasionally you come across a novel that deviates from these core topics, stepping so far away that it can’t be accurately shoved under one of these. Enter Maker, by Jim Upton, a novel best described as being about labour. Not only that, it’s a novel about labour action with a female main character. Set in Montreal! Our reluctant star, Nicole, ends up being the president of her labour union, in a heavily male-dominated industry! There’s a lot of trailblazing happening here, and a keen labour story told. 

“This novel explores the tensions within the union, the tensions within management, and the reality that negotiations never really stop.”

Nicole, a former competitive swimmer and Olympic hopeful, failed to qualify for the Games in Barcelona when she was 18, which carefully destroyed the plans she had for herself and her future. Not only that but the reason for her lack of focus during the trials? She was pregnant. After a brief, abusive marriage to her high school boyfriend, Nicole returns to her parent’s house with her daughter Julie, to try and figure out her life. And this is where she gets set on the path which would lead her to be a union president at a major factory during labour unrest: her father mentions there’s an opening at an aerospace company, called Tanner and Ward. After she gets her foot in the door, Nicole works her way up into safer, more skilled positions, supported by her friend and co-worker Annie. 

Just as the union is set to go into contract talks with the company, there’s a vacancy in the role of union president. After some urging, Nicole allows her name to stand for election – and wins. Just in time for her to grapple with contract negotiations, an impasse, and the unfortunate timing of figures from her past emerging while she’s trying to get her coworkers a fair deal from a company that refuses to budge. 

While there are lots of interesting things about Nicole as a character, Maker is primarily focused on the negotiations and labour action carried out by Nicole’s union. This novel dives deep into the relationships between workers and managers, owners and labourers, profit and wages. I wish there had been more focus on Nicole’s leap from athlete to tradesperson, as well as some of her more current personal dramas and relationships, including the one with her daughter. As a fictional telling of difficult contract negotiations and subsequent labour action, Upton’s expertise as a union member and former member of the negotiating committee shines here. This novel explores the tensions within the union, the tensions within management, and the reality that negotiations never really stop.  

Upton’s style is simple and matter-of-fact, with short chapters lending themselves well to the pace of action and creating a sense of urgency and tension, particularly as the negotiations heat up in the story. If you’re interested in labour action, want to learn about what labour negotiations can look like, and climb inside the heads of people from all sides of the negotiations, Maker is a great choice and certainly fills a gap. 

Jim Upton worked for twenty-five years in unionized jobs at an aerospace plant. During this time, he participated in several sets of contract negotiations, including one as a member of the union negotiating committee. He lives in Montreal. Maker is his first novel.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Baraka Books; 1st edition (Sept. 1 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 220 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771862599
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771862592

Alison Manley bounced around the Maritimes before landing in Miramichi, NB, where she works as a hospital librarian. She has an honours BA in political science and English from St. Francis Xavier University, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. When she's not reading biomedical research for her work, she likes reading poetry, contemporary and historical fiction, and personal essays. Noted for a love of bright colours (and lipstick), you can find her wandering the banks of the Miramichi River with a book and a paintbrush.