This article examines the culturally particular and gendered ways in which Jewish immigrant women in the garment industry negotiated their new Canadian urban environments by participating in labour protest, indicating how the site of the strike was one structured by gender and ethnicity as well as by class. Canada's urban space both facilitated immigrant women's integration into society by enabling their interaction with Canadian political and economic structures and encouraged their retention of culturally particular ways of life by providing sites and spaces for politically charged gatherings that not only reinforced these workers' ethnic traditions but also put their status as militant women on public display. These women strikers' accommodation and resistance to Canadian society was also affected by Anglo Canadians' representations of them, by shifting unionization tactics--from radical to conservative--and by social constructions of gender, ethnicity, and class.
Cet article examine les moyens culturellement particuliers et genres par lesquels les femmes immigrantes juives dans l'industrie du vetement au Canada ont negocie leur nouvel environnement urbain a travers diverses formes de manifestations ouvrieres, en demontrant comment le lieu de la manifestation a ete structure par le genre, l'ethnicite et la classe. L'espace urbain canadien a servi a la fois a faciliter l'integration sociale des femmes immigrees en permettant leur interaction avec les structures politiques et economiques canadiennes et a favoriser leur retention de modes de vie culturellement particuliers en leur offrant un espace et des sites pour des rassemblements a caractere politique qui non seulement ont renforce les traditions ethniques de ces ouvrieres mais ont aussi mis leur statut de femmes militantes au grand jour. La facon dont ces femmes grevistes se sont accommodees et ont resiste a la societe canadienne a egalement ete affectee par leurs representations anglo-canadiennes, l'evolution des tactiques syndicales--de radicales a conservatrices--et par des constructions sociales de genre, d'ethnicite et de classe.
Opportunities to participate politically in the urban public sphere were often limited for the many Eastern European immigrant women who arrived in Canada during the first half of the twentieth century. Labour organization, however, represented one site in which immigrant women could publicly confront socio-economic inequalities. Because of its largely female, ethnic work force, its high levels of militant protest, and its precipitation of both radical and conservative unions, the garment industry in particular represents a valuable sphere in which immigrant women's adaptation to their newly adopted society, through public labour activism in urban contexts, can be studied.
Based on extensive research in garment union records and Department of Labour Strikes and Lockouts files, and drawing upon oral history interviews with garment industry workers, this paper examines the culturally particular and gendered ways in which Jewish immigrant women in the needle trades negotiated their new urban environments by participating in labour protest, indicating how the site of the strike was one structured by gender and ethnicity as well as by class. During the early 1930s a militant Communist-led union, the Industrial Union of Needle Trades Workers (IUNTW), dominated garment workers' activism, and the needle trades witnessed a series of explosive strikes that enabled women to participate in workplace negotiations. After 1935, however, the more bureaucratically organized International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) took command of labour organization, steered workers away from radicalism, and pacified female activism. (1) Using Winnipeg's garment industry as a case study of larger, national phenomena, and drawing upon American historian James Barrett's influential study of the ways in which European immigrants became Americanized through involvement in labour activity, (2) this article provides a nuanced explanation of how Canada's urban space facilitated immigrant women's integration into society--by enabling their interaction with Canadian political and economic structures through strikes and public demonstrations--and encouraged their retention of culturally particular ways of life, by providing sites and spaces for politically charged gatherings that not only reinforced these workers' ethnic traditions but also put their status as militant women on public display. Canadian cities thus enabled simultaneous accommodation and resistance.
These militant spectacles had a distinctive effect on the ways in which Anglo-Canadian newspapers represented women workers' gender and ethnicity. Between 1929 and 1935, a particularly turbulent time in the needle trades, city newspapers produced denigrating renderings of militant female labourers' ethnicity as deviant and their femininity as threatening, suggesting that these women radicals unsettled middle- and upper-class notions of acceptable feminine public behaviour. Their involvement in Communist unions, moreover, interfered with their accommodation to new urban environments. After 1935, less radical tactics of labour negotiation as dictated by Popular Front politics enabled Winnipeggers to reconceptualize ethnic women workers as accommodating and benevolent members of society. Despite these representational shifts, however, both the radical, Communist IUNTW and the bureaucratic ILGWU functioned as sites of interaction between immigrant garment workers and their adopted societies.
This paper thus seeks to contribute to ongoing conversations in labour historiography in three ways: first, by examining the ways in which strikes and labour demonstrations operated both as spaces of immigrant resistance to Anglo-Canadian institutions and assimilative pressures and as sites of accommodation to North American culture and politics; second, by exploring how shifting protest tactics, from radical to conservative, affected the most marginalized of industrial workers--immigrant women; and third, by recognizing the diversity of working women's experiences and by highlighting the value of analyzing ethnic women's radicalism within culturally particular terms.
Women, Garment Production, and Unions: History and Historiography
The story of Winnipeg's garment industry begins in the 1880s. At that time, the prairie boom town's economy was rooted in the production, processing, shipping, and storing of grain and agricultural products; the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) soon fuelled the growth of other industries. The garment trade emerged in response to farmers' and labourers' demand for work clothes suitable to the harsh western prairie climate, while the tailoring trade catered to the city's growing cadre of white-collar professionals. (3) The growth of the garment industry and the parallel expansion of railway and housing construction, lumbering and supplying, and secondary manufacturing was accompanied by an immigration boom, as the Laurier Liberals launched a massive advertising and recruiting campaign in the hopes of attracting Eastern European peasant farmers to the Canadian West. Prominent Winnipeggers feared the government and CPR were more interested in settling the Northwest Territories than in bringing newcomers to Manitoba and embarked on their own effort to attract immigrants. As historian Doug Smith notes, the actions of all three levels of government and the CPR infuriated Winnipeg's labour movement, which interpreted these efforts to recruit immigrant labourers as an exploitative, bourgeois tactic to create a surplus labour pool, depress wages, and obstruct working-class activism. (4)
Initially established as family-run cottage enterprises, then, garment manufacturing businesses were soon transformed by the growth of industrial capitalism and its demand for unskilled labour. After the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, an event that marked the end of Winnipeg's dominance as the largest receiving and supplying hub in Western Canada, garment manufacturers were able to secure abandoned warehouses at low prices and to establish thriving factories, Winnipeg's mass-produced ladies' garment industry continued to flourish in the interwar years as factory owners embraced modern practices of technological mechanization and scientific management. The scale of industrial growth should not be exaggerated, however, as most clothing factories remained relatively small, family-operated affairs with fewer than a dozen workers. The rise of mass consumerism and the growth of chain stores such as Eaton's and the Bay did allow some larger producers to diversify their factories and enabled select immigrant entrepreneurs to challenge the dominance of established manufacturers. By 1937 Winnipeg possessed thirty-eight factories, ranging from miniscule family operations to larger mechanized production systems, which employed 1,223 workers, 1,000 of which were women. (5) The vast majority of these women were newcomers from Eastern Europe. The garment industry was one of the few spheres in which female immigrants could obtain employment in Winnipeg's discriminatory and paternalistic economy.
Garment workers' class, religious, and ethnic loyalties were often at odds in needle trades factories. "The workers in this ruthless industry," according to the Winnipeg Free Press, "are nearly all of foreign birth or parentage. A few English names are on the pay sheets, but a great majority are Ukrainian, Polish, German and Jewish." (6) By 1920 the predominantly Anglo-Saxon character of garment manufacturers had been challenged by entrepreneurial Eastern European Jewish immigrant tailors, who combined traditional values of craft pride with new forms of urban industrial discipline, which enabled them to mediate between the immigrant working class and the Anglo-Canadian business elite. (7) While some Jewish owners actively recruited Jewish immigrants to staff their factories, others, versed in Jewish working-class culture, feared Jewish workers' militancy and refused to hire ethnically similar labourers. Although common bonds of ethnicity occasionally blunted industrial disputes, Jewish workers often revolted against neighbours and relatives who had assisted their emigration to Winnipeg. Class oppression frequently overshadowed cultural solidarity; as one Jewish worker commented, "Why should I feel better if I am exploited by a Jew?" (8)
Life as a needle trades worker was incredibly difficult. "Some are old-timers in the trade," the Winnipeg Free Press reflected in 1934, "proud of 20 or more years as cutters or machinists. Others are young girls learning button-sewing and much simpler jobs in the industry. They all work hard and monotonously. Employers admit that working in their shops is a severe and steady grind." (9) Competition was fierce; employers reduced production costs by slashing wages and overburdening workers. Textile plants were situated in abandoned warehouses--originally designed to obstruct natural light and prevent air circulation--which exposed garment workers to hazardous overcrowding and unsanitary sweatshop conditions. (10) Such brutal workplace environments were not unique to the prairie city known for its history of bitter labour disputes and militant worker uprisings. In other North American garment manufacturing centres--Toronto, Montreal, New York, Chicago--the chronically unstable and competitive industry was notorious for its dangerous and exploitative character. (11) In the years before the Second World War, moreover, before the rise of an interventionist and welfarist state, workers faced intense repression from the combined forces of government and capital, which employed coercive and often violent tactics to protect employer rights and property and to preserve social order. (12) This repression of working-class radicalism, especially that of ethnic labourers, was particularly harsh in Winnipeg because of the legacy of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, which had been blamed on the agitation of Communist immigrant workers. Still, Winnipeg's immigrant labour force, women included, did not accept oppressive working conditions passively.
Union organization was one response to the negative consequences of industrial capitalism--alongside the rise of social reform movements and corporate welfarism--and had appeared intermittently in the city's garment industry since the late nineteenth century. John Hample has outlined the many conflicts and strikes that occurred in the men's suit industry between 1887 and 1921, linking nineteenth-century craft unionism with the more radical industrial unionism under One Big Union (OBU) organization in the twentieth century. Hample argues that custom tailors' involvement with the OBU enabled them to develop a more inclusive understanding of class-consciousness, building solidarity with other sectors of the city's working class, particularly immigrants, while also retaining traditional forms of craft pride. (13) Ladies' garment unions also made efforts, largely unsuccessfully, to organize needle trades workers. The United Garment Workers of America (UGW) established the first union of women workers in 1899, while the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, led by militant immigrant Jews, and the OBU made similar attempts in the early twentieth century. Some garment industry unions participated in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, such as local 32 of the Winnipeg ILGWU whose leader Shia Feldman was a member of the General Strike Committee, and the OBU Tailors' Unit. (14) Still, neither the UGW nor the ILGWU had achieved much success in organizing the needle trades and, by the late 1920s, when the industry began to boom, the ILGWU was non-existent in Winnipeg, while the OBU had suffered severe setbacks due to post--general strike repression of radical activity. (15)
Historians of the garment industry have become increasingly aware of the ways in which women needle trades workers resisted workplace exploitation, The works of scholars such as James Mochoruk and Donna Webber, and Mercedes Steedman have illustrated how women workers, as targets of employer discrimination and as victims of industrial capitalism, challenged the paternalistic attitudes of male factory owners and union leaders and frequently rejected manufacturers' efforts to render them powerless. (16) Rather than passively accept exploitation, female workers attempted to navigate the gendered structure of needle trades unionization in ways designed to enhance both individual and collective bargaining power. (17) Steedman argues that the shift from IUNTW industrial unionism, which emphasized shop floor activism, toward ILGWU international unionism, characterized by a central administration that was more critical of rank-and-file participation, provoked a significant decline in women's ability to enact progressive reform through unionization. (18)
Gender segregation and inequality were facts of life in the needle trades, but these divisions were based on a definition of skill that was not inherent to clothing workers' abilities but was historically …