The ready supply of cheap female labor powered Toronto’s growth as a trade and manufacturing centre. According to the 1911 Census, 15,097 women and girls, 35.2% of the female work force were employed in factories, .
In 1894 The Evening Star had exposed the practices and conditions in Toronto’s “sweat dens”. One particularly nefarious practice was mentioned –subtracting the workers’ thread used in their sewing from their piece-work wages.
Among the most difficult garments that operators were required to make were overalls and knickerbockers, the former requiring the making of numerous pockets and work with stiff fabric. The Evening Star reporter pointed to the irony that, while the male laborer who wears the overall has the power to organize in his trade to demand better work conditions he “little thinks of the poor sewing woman”.
The Braime Factory Strike
A 1910 strike by the 60 female workers at an overall and knickerbockers factory on King and Bathurst streets was sparked by outrage over the cost of thread being regularly taken from the pay.
Celebrating it in the daily’s trade union column as “a plucky strike against a practice that is long out of date”, (Feb. 12, 1910) The Toronto Daily Star acknowledged the symbolic importance of the Bream “factory girls” at a key moment of discontent and union organizing in the city’s garment trade. (Feb. 9, 1910)
660 King street west formerly T. E. Braime factory 658 King street west
Star, Jan. 5, 1910 p.3 Possibly the Braime employees drew inspiration from the New York shirt waist operators strike that winter of 1909-1910.
The report of the actions of the strikers, from their initial scrum at the factory entrance, to their march to the Church street Labor Temple and finally, their picketing at the factory entrance highlighted the fact that the young women were learning as they went, acting outside a union structure and male leadership
The Strike in a Nutshell. Scene—T.E. Braime and Co. 658 King street west. Time—8 o’clock this morning. Cause—Girls forced to pay for thread they use. Wages—$5 to $7 per week. On strike—60 girls. Staying in—3 girls in same department. Girls organize at Labor Temple. Female labor said to be scarce.
Only Three Stayed.
The strikers are employed to sew overalls, knickerbockers, and shirts in the Braime factory. They say that there are only three young girls who lacked the necessary nerve to join them and fight the firm.
One of the girls stated their position to The Star:
“We have been forced to pay for the thread we use all along. We work on piece work, and we have to keep at it very hard to make enough to live on. And I tell you it means a big hole in our pay every two weeks when they take out the price of the thread. They do not charge us the full retail price, but on the average our pay ranges from $10 to $14 for the two weeks, and the cost of the thread deducted from our pay averages from $2 to $3.
“This matter has been discussed among us for a month or more. Finally, we all signed a petition to the firm asking that the price of the thread be not taken out of our pay. The answer was that if we didn’t pay for the thread the rates on piecework would have to be cut. And five or six cents for a pair of overalls isn’t high is it?
Marched to Labor Temple
When the girls went on strike this morning they gathered on the sidewalk in front of the factory and discussed the situation.
Charles Cooper, foreman of the factory, came out and opened negotiations with them.
“Mr. Braime will never give in,” he said.
“That’s all we want to know,” replied the girls, and down King street they marched to the Labor Temple.
On the way they sought out James Simpson, the well-known labor unionist, remembering his handling of the telephone girl’s strike several years ago. They asked him to give them advice in regard to organizing and conducting the strike.
The girls say that the Braime firm has been advertising in the Toronto and Hamilton papers for help, and they think that female labor in their line is scarce.
At the Labor Temple the girls met behind locked doors and formed a temporary organization. A strike committee of seven leaders was chosen to manage the fight.
Pickets were appointed to patrol King street in the vicinity of the factory and persuade girls from accepting offers of employment in the Braime shop. The girls have secured the use of a room in the Labor Temple and will meet their daily.
Before their Police Court appearance on a charge of intimidation while picketing, three Bream Factory strikers went before the Labour Council on February 17 to complain that a policeman had told the group that they were forbidden from speaking to anyone. Following the lead of Jimmy Simpson, a founder of the Star and popular labour organizer, a resolution was passed by the Council condemning the police action, and assuring the picketers that a letter would be sent to the police commissioners and Mayor Geary. (Star, Feb. 18, 1910)
In court, the two “intimidation victims” stated that they were discouraged by the three picketers from applying for work at the Bream factory; they nevertheless entered and were hired. However, on the following day the newly hired workers were again stopped by the same picketers. When police told the group to disperse, the picketers followed the new hires down King street west as far as Portland. There, “on the advice of the officer” the hired workers returned to the factory.
Magistrate Denison determined that the female picketers were within their rights to confront those appearing for work at the factory in order to warn them of the strike and alert them that they would have to pay for the sewing thread. His sympathy with the strikers turned on the fact that the word “scab” was never uttered, that the young women did not seem to be angry at each other in the courtroom, and that the picketers did not continue to pursue the workers when, encouraged by the police officer, they returned to the factory.
The Star showed its colours by closing the article with counsel’s words , ““I would like you to order the officers to keep their hands off these girls. They have a perfect right to do picket duty, and give information.”
Although the Braime strike is a forgotten footnote of labour history, it represents a small victory in Toronto women’s claim for public space in the early twentieth century. In a period of high police vigilance and strict rules of conduct on the street the factory girls maintained their right to picket. Taking the image of f the sewing thread tax on their pay to the pro-labour press and that of police intimidation to the labour establishment, they effectively leveraged their victimization for optimum power.