In late winter 1912, the whir of sewing machines stopped on the Eaton’s factory floor where male sewing machine operators made coats. The workers refused to continue their tasks, they had heard that they would soon be responsible for “finishing” (sewing-in the coat linings) without an increase to their 65 cent-per-coat pay rate. The hand-sewing had up to then been done by women who under the new rule would be deprived of wages.
Eaton’s locked out the workers and refused to negotiate with their union (ILGWU). The strike grew as over 1,000 garment workers, a third women, walked out in support of the 65 men. The labour action mobilized garment workers across gender and ethnic lines. This solidarity was publicly demonstrated in the heart of Toronto by over 2,000 strike supporters on March 23rd 1912.
Community Solidarity and Support Across Ethnic Lines
Eaton’s clothing factory was the largest employer for the Jewish community, 80 % of its garment workers were Jewish. Yiddish slogans used by strike organizers translated as “We will not take morsels of bread from our sisters’ mouths.” (Frager, 1986)
Although women were secondary to men in Toronto’s Jewish labour movement, activism in the Jewish community started young and involved every family member. Children carried out strikes in their schools, housewives carried out consumer boycotts of kosher food retailers. This activism grew from the physical density and organizational richness of the community, (Frager 1992) but the seedbed of this political engagement was Toronto’s anti-Semitism— Jews were consistently barred by the dominant Anglo-Celtic majority from many professional, educational and economic opportunities.
The 1912 strike was not only an assertion of Jewish solidarity; it represented the Toronto garment workers entrance to a North American union that was expanding in the wake of the New York shirtwaist factory workers strike.
Despite attempts to squelch support for the strike by characterizing it as “a Jewish thing” (Frager, 1992), the boycott of Eaton’s that the organizers called for enjoyed a considerable success due perhaps to the fact that, as Stephen Speisman states in his history of the city’s Jewish community, “the strike did not acquire a specifically Jewish tone.” Instead, it was appreciated was a David and Goliath historical moment as the humble worker took on Canada’s pre-eminent department store and its owner, a scion of the Canadian establishment.
Protest Messaging Through the Press
“$12 a week for the family”
“On Saturday morning several van loads of the children of striking garment workers and cloak makers made a “demonstration in force.” The procession marched thru the business section and circled the Big Store.” Children of Eaton s Striking Garment Workers”, Toronto Sunday World March 24, 1912 illustration (click to enlarge)
Tottering feebly up the steps of the Labor Temple, aged women, helped by joyous grandchildren who reveled in the excitement, joined the great crowd of strikers that Saturday afternoon gathered for the big parade. … Filled and vacant baby carriages by the score littered the entrance and the sidewalk at the Labor Temple. … Five great pleasure vans… [were] … filled with children of the members of the striking garment workers’ union. Sunday World March 24, 1912
The central message of the March 23rd demonstration was that the strikers’ paltry wages deeply affected their families. This was conveyed by the presence of children and the elderly. An article in the Toronto Sunday World reporting on the “family parade”, described it as “a joyous occasion”. In contrast to the alienating spectacle of angry workers shouting slogans, the festive air of the procession with its children, waving flags and blowing horns, was calculated to win sympathy.
The look of the crowd in front of the Labor Temple was documented in photographs published shortly after the demonstration. The strike supporters were dressed in their finest.
Key messages were conveyed through banners, badges and sashes. The brief, catchy texts such as “RUSH SEASON LONG HOURS 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.” were caught by press cameras and inserted among other news as captioned photographs in the following days. Most widely published was the view of the head of the parade where men carried the union banner followed by a large sign “Locked Out by the T. Eaton Co.”
The Sunday World noted how the protest messages, printed on brightly coloured material added to the festive air. “Everyone, even the babies wore a big red badge, and these, with the glaring banners, made a picturesque scene of colour and life as the line slowly pursued its way thru (sic) the streets.”
A studio photograph of children posed wearing sashes and badges with slogans used in the demonstration shows how children carried the strike message in the street.
The group portrait represents a coming of age for activist children learning the art of projecting and controlling an image through the visual culture of a street protest. It includes a pictorial reference to the importance of the press in this activity. The front-line children hold copies of The Labour News and Jack Canuck, the latter a city-based populist protest paper that championed causes against the establishment.
March Route Symbolism
As reported in the Sunday World, the demonstration began at the Labor Temple on Church street and passed along Shuter street to Albert street, down James, and then headed westward along Queen.
Labor Temple history, Canadian Labour council online map
It proceeded to Eaton’s department store to intersect with customers during the weekly peak shopping period, circled the store several times and then passed closely located sites along Queen street: City Hall, the Eaton’s factory and “the Ward”— seat of Jewish immigrant culture and home to many of the strikers.
The strike supporters then marched up Spadina avenue where the garment industry was spreading, east along College to the northern perimeter of the Ward and down the commercial hub of Yonge street to Massey Hall where a large rally took place.
The route connected the places where Eaton’s clothing was produced to those where they were sold. It drew attention to the gulf between the districts where piece-work was carried out in small rooms and the luxurious retail palaces of the shopping district. Most importantly, it demonstrated the proximity between the strikers’ home and work in this way reinforcing the message that his dependents were the real victims of Eaton’s exploitative labour practices.
While ultimately the strike was unsuccessful and workers filed back into the Eaton’s factory without management recognizing the union, it introduced a generation of children to the Jewish labour movement and activism. Its legacy would emerge in the knowledge they possessed to fight the same causes, in the same places twenty years later.
This post is connected to: picket
The Historicist: Sewing the Seeds of Discontent by Kevin Plummer
The Jews of Toronto: a History to 1937 by Stephen A. Speisman