Friday, July 17, 2015

Textile Strike Montreal, 1912

Coats Eaton's Catalogue circa 1912. These luxury items were the first items in the catalogues. No surprise, Edith Nicholson, 27,  of Threshold Girl wrote in a letter home that she hoped to get a 'pony' coat and this despite her tiny teacher's salary.  Her mom thought it too extravagant!


I have a new IMPORTANT scene for my Threshold Girl Novel on Kindle.

It takes place on Saturday, June 20th, 1912. Marion Nicholson is walking along Prince Arthur, with Mrs. Cleveland and as they turn the corner, they are met by policeman on horseback who is leading a parade of striking garment workers, men at the front, some with bullhorns, some carrying sleeping toddlers, and some women walking behind, all looking a bit tired but some yelling out, No More Sweatshops. No More Piecework. (No, I should have the women carrying the toddlers, as men didn't do that in those days.)

Marion will have an idea about the reasons for this strike, because some of her pupils at Royal Arthur School in South Central Montreal will have parents in the garment trade.

The Montreal Gazette of June 25, decribes the route these strikers took, in the hot summer of 1912. Craig to St. Laurent, a long,long way to march in hot weather, so many marchers dropped out.

The women were described in press reports as 'well-dressed, some even pretty."

The men's looks were not described. What a surprise!

Anyway, I have to figure out, for my book, what Future Union Leader Marion Nicholson might have felt on this occasion.

These female marchers would have been Jewish.

As it happens, earlier in 1912, in February, 35 male Eaton's garment workers in Toronto went on strike. They were protesting against having to do women's work, lining coats. Mr. Eaton threw them out on the street, so many other Eaton's factory workers, in Toronto and Montreal went on strike in solidarity.

Ruth. A. Frager writes about it in an article for Canadian Woman Studies. She says this is a rare occasion where the interest of men and women workers came together.

Men didn't want the lower prestige (and possible lower wage) lining work and women didn't want to lose their jobs.

It was framed in the press as a kind of Jewish solidarity. And that was the problem. Non-Jewish workers failed to support the strike, so it failed.

A Mrs. Chown, suffragist leader in Toronto, tried to get the various women's groups to support the strikers, to no avail. They were not sympathetic, in large part because these society do-gooders were, essentially, ahh, xenophobic.

They couldn't even be persuaded when told of how certain young, pretty female workers were forced to 'go out' with the bosses. THE SOCIAL EVIL. Oh my.

And, as it happens, on June 6, 2012, the Presbyterians held their annual Congress in Edmonton.

"We cannot close our eyes to an increasing foreign element," they said, in their Annual Sermon.

The sermon also warned against the social evil as per usual (now an industry, they claimed) and the evils of drink (tied to the social evil) and the opium trade (tied to the social evil) and the danger of looming warfare among nations (true enough)and the danger of "the Industrial War" Class Warfare. Strikes.

"In the last twenty years, there have been 1,000 strikes a year on this continent. There is another war cloud, even more alarming, the industrial war, the war against the classes, becoming more and more acute year by year. In the past, this tension was not felt because there was a wide field for individual enterprise. In Canada, there is still an expanding frontier in which there is scope for individual energy. But even in Canada doors of opportunity are closing, natural resources are being exploited and the day for free and fair competition is largely past. Hence, capital and labour are highly organized and have locked horns and tested strength and endurance in many a struggle of varying lengths and intensity."

They also warned about the dangers of wealth accumulating in the hands of a few. Hmm. (There's been a lot of press lately about the salary of the top 100 Canadian CEO's, whose salaries proved recession-proof and who, on average, make the average Canadian worker's salary by noon, January 3.)

So, my issue, how is this event going to impress itself on my Marion? I know she was in Montreal, she returned to Tighsolas in the first week of July, Thorburn Cleveland in tow.

(I found an account of this Thorburn's marriage in 1921, to a niece of Sir Montague Allen. Very ritzy. He was a dentist. The Cleveland's were well connnected, I guess. They were an old Richmond family.)

Now, no article I've pulled up about the 1912 strike in the Gazette discussed the issues around the women workers (who were the majority). I will have to have someone (perhaps a mother of a student) tell Marion about how the system works, how PATRIARCHAL factory work was, how it mimicked family structures of male dominance and protection, how the male workers (often older) treated the female workers (usually younger) like baby sisters.

Because that is what Marion would have found distasteful.

In 1912, she has just been turned down for 'higher work" at her school, teaching the 7th form. "They have hired a boy out of Macdonald and given him 800. to start. It makes me sick,"she wrote in a letter home.

The teaching arena was also patriarchal, with the Principal (often an inexperienced inept) lording it over his female workers, who were in the vast, vast majority.

This is a VERY INTERESTING and relevant bit about the boycott of Eaton's from the Frager article which you can view in its entirety on the York University Website.