Robert A. Ventresca, "'Cowering Women, Combative Men?': Femininity, Masculinity, and Ethnicity on Strike in Two Southern Ontario Towns, 1964-1966," Labour/Le Travail, 39 (Spring 1997), 125-58.
ON THE AFTERNOON of 31 August, 1964, 450 women employed at the Lanark Manufacturing Company, an auto parts plant in the southern Ontario town of Dunnville, walked off the job; the bargaining committee for local 523 of the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers (UE) announced that negotiations with Lanark management had yet again broken down. Filomena Carbone, an Italian immigrant from the Abruzzi region of southern Italy, who had been working at the factory for only a few months, went home instead of joining her co-workers on the picket lines. Though the strike lasted five months, Carbone stayed away only until mid-October when, at the prodding of her husband, she crossed the picket line to resume work at the Lanark along with about a hundred other workers. Far from expressing solidarity with her striking co-workers, Carbone declared the strike to be, in her own words, "stupid." "Why people got to stay out when people need the job?" she asked. "It was five, six months with no pay, and for what?" (1)
In February 1966, 1200 male workers employed at the Page-Hersey and Camrose Tubes pipe-manufacturing factories in nearby Welland, Ontario, walked off the job when their union -- also local 523 of the UE -- rejected the last-minute offer from the owners, the Steel Company of Canada (Stelco). Prior to the strike, Angelo Rocco, an Italian immigrant from the Catanzaro province of Calabria, had no experience with labour militancy, and had been employed in factory work for only a few years. Yet Rocco joined the strike with little hesitation or deliberation. Confident of his rights as a worker, and in his status as a Canadian, mindful of his role as family breadwinner, and indignant at management's attempts to do away with certain privileges, Rocco joined forces with other immigrant and Canadian-born workers to defend class interests. "I knew my rights .... I knew I could be there [on the picket lines] like anybody else and fight for my own rights," he declared. "It doesn't matter if I was Italian or German or French, ... we all were there for the same reason." (2)
The contrasting stories of Carbone and Rocco harken back to assumptions about culturally-ascribed gender roles among southern Italians which defined the scholarly literature on the subject since the late 1960s. Filomena Carbone, for her part, seems to fit neatly the early orthodoxy of commentators which emphasized the subordination of the southern Italian woman. (3) The simplistic description of the submissive Italian woman in the earlier works of anthropologists, sociologists, and some historians, in turn, helped contribute to an equally simplistic thesis among North American labour historians (when they bothered to broach the subject of labour militancy among Italian immigrant women at all) which placed undue emphasis on Italian women's docility, if not their outright hostility to unions. Endowed with a world view that dictated obedience and submissiveness, the argument went, Italian immigrant women made for poor union-material, proving difficult to organize, and sometimes even acting as strikebreakers, often with the encouragement, if not at the insistence of their families. (4)
Angelo Rocco, too, seems to provide an anchor to the so-called model of male dominance-female submission. (5) Rocco's active participation in the 1966 strike may very well have been expected from someone born and raised in a society in which male privilege was exercised largely within the public sphere. Freed from the constraints of a patriarchal order that dictated the strict supervision of women's public activities, but obligated men to take a public role as the family's "representative," chief decision-maker and principal breadwinner, Rocco saw participation in the 1966 strike as a duty to be done in order to fulfil familial obligations and defend his own masculine self-identity. To this extent, Rocco, like so many other Italian immigrant men, drew upon Old World values and resources which, it would seem, accorded well with the patriarchal assumptions of his adopted homeland. (6)
It is true, of course, that gender identities and gender relations within the southern Italian immigrant family were largely determined by the patriarchal organization and concomitant cultural mores of both the sending and receiving societies. There is no inconsistency in adding, however, that the model of male-dominance-female submission is, as Franca Iacovetta has observed, too simplistic to account for the tangled web of gender relations within the southern Italian immigrant family. Not only does it ignore the fact that Italian women regularly worked outside the home in the Old and in the New world, often doing so-called men's work, it erroneously takes the female's relegation to the private sphere to mean, ipso facto, female submissiveness and docility. The model thus ignores the possibility that the home was an arena in which women could wield enormous influence, if not control. (7) When adopted implicitly by labour historians, the dominance-submission model lays an inordinate emphasis on cultural determinants, ignoring the structural factors working to thwart whatever potential such women had for labour militancy: high rates of labour turnover, familial or domestic responsibilities, little job security, and outright hostility from unsympathetic, English-speaking male unionists. (8)
What follows, then, is intended to reevaluate existing understandings of the issues of gender identities and gender relations within the working-class Italian immigrant family as this immigrant group made the transition from a peasant/rural to an industrial/urban society in the two decades immediately following the end of World War II. (9) The study focuses on two events: the five month-long strike (August 1964 to January 1965) of women workers at the Lanark auto parts plant in Dunnville, and the six week-long strike (February-April 1966) of male steelworkers at two Stelco plants in Welland. Only about 40 kilometres separate the town of Dunnville, a largely rural community with a growing industrial base in the mid-1960s, and the city of Welland, an ethnically heterogenous and blue-collar town in which most industrial workers, male and female, were unionized. Most of the women who worked at the Lanark plant in Dunnville were from Welland; a smaller number came from the nearby lakeside community of Port Colborne. The success or failure of each strike depended to a large extent upon the degree of solidarity and collaboration among workers of diverse ethno-national origins. Both strikes involved UE local 523, based in the city of Welland, which had deep roots in the community and whose leadership displayed considerable sensitivity and efficacy in dealing with ethnic and gender differences among workers. Both took place in the mid-1960s, a turbulent era for Canadian labour, given the sudden upsurge in grassroots labour militancy, post-war technological change, the persistence of strident anti-Communist tensions within the labour movement itself, and the truly revolutionary changes in the place of women in the paid labour force. (10)
The real locus of the story is the city of Welland, home to most of the women and men who struck the Lanark plant in Dunnville and the Page-Camrose plants in Welland, and home also to UE local 523. Welland is located about 135 kilometres south-east of Toronto, in the heart of the Niagara Peninsula. (11) Industrial and demographic expansion of the region began in earnest in the first years of the 20th century, spurred by the availability of cheap hydro-electric power from Niagara Falls and the transportation facilities offered by the Welland canal and five different railway lines. (12) The need for unskilled and semiskilled labour led some of the new mass industries to "import" foreign-born workers, either directly from Europe or indirectly from other industrial centres in North America, or to recruit French-Canadian agriculturalists from Quebec. (13) This influx furnished the basis for an ethnically-diverse industrial proletariat. By 1960, Welland-Crowland was also home to people of 35 different national origins. Four to five thousand new immigrants after 1946 consolidated the ethnic heterogeneity of Welland-Crowland, ensuring that the community continued to resemble, what one woman called, a "Little Europe." (14) By 1961, immigrants represented almost one-quarter of Welland-Crowland's population. (15) Between 1945 and 1951, there were no more than 700 to 1000 Italian-born residents living in Welland-Crowland, approximately 4 per cent of the population. (16) Indeed, most of the post-war Italian immigrants arrived between 1951 and 1961: the census of 1961 reported over 2100 Italian-born in Welland-Crowland, the largest immigrant group in the city, representing almost 6 per cent of the population.
Women, Work, and the Lanark Manufacturing Company
Italian immigrant women in Niagara found work mainly in area-industries; women and children could find seasonal employment on local farms, picking fruits and vegetables, where they were sometimes joined by male family members on weekends. Italian women also found weekend work with local catering services, many of which were owned by Italians or operated out of local Italian social clubs. (17) For a good many of these women, working outside the home also meant working outside the Welland-Crowland area. So it was for the Italians who commuted daily to the Lanark plant in Dunnville. In 1964, the town of Dunnville was home to just under 6000 people. The expanding industrial base meant that Dunnville experienced a labour shortage in the early 1960s. The need for industrial workers prompted local industry to recruit workers from nearby towns and cities. When the Lanark Manufacturing Company, a subsidiary of the American-owned auto-parts maker Essex Wire, first opened in 1961, less than 15 per cent of its workforce came from Dunnville. About one-half came from Welland-Crowland, while about one-quarter came from the town of Port Colborne, with workers commuting daily either in car-pools or in buses paid for by the company. Lanark's was, to put it another way, a commuter workforce, with only a small fraction of workers actually residing in Dunnville, and with many more whose ties to the community were shallow and tenuous at best. (18)
The Lanark Company in Dunnville employed mostly women, including a large number of immigrant women. Oral testimonies suggest that by 1964, there were about two dozen Italian immigrant women working at Lanark. These Italian women, many of whom were married mothers, were part of the larger movement of immigrant women into the paid labour force. (19) They were, like their female counterparts, a unique group in the overwhelmingly male-dominated auto industry. In 1961, fewer than 7 per cent of all auto-workers in Canada were women, and even then about three-quarters of them were employed as clerical workers. (20) Those not employed in clerical work were mainly employed in the auto parts and accessories sector, where production was contracted out by the major automakers to smaller, independent factories that paid lower wages. The Lanark plant manufactured wire harnesses (which made up the electrical system found beneath the automobile dashboard) for the Ford Motor Company, and shipped the better part of 90 per cent of its output to the Eastern United States. (21)
The sexual division of labour in the plant ensured that women workers received much less than men did, and that women were consigned to lower-skilled work. At Lanark, the comparatively few male workers were employed as foremen or machinists, exercising considerable authority over female workers, and enjoying greater mobility within the plant. With very few exceptions, most female workers remained at a single work station during a shift, performing tedious, repetitive, and sometimes dangerous tasks. Oral informants spoke of the physical dangers of work at the Lanark plant, and of lax enforcement of already meagre industrial safety guidelines. Some women lost the tips of their fingers, were burned, or fainted due to the exhaustion from the frantic pace of production and the heat in the plant. The most common complaints among former Lanark workers were about the pressured nature of work at the plant, of the incessant clamouring of foremen to quicken the pace of production in order to meet quotas, the verbal abuse women faced when the pace of work was too slow for the foreman's liking, or when time-consuming mistakes were made. For Giuseppina DiMarcantonio, a 35-year-old Italian immigrant from the Abruzzo region, it was the monitored washroom visits which caused the greatest offense, though as a former peasant accustomed to working in fields her family did not own, under the watchful and critical eye of a local landowner, the Lanark situation represented continuity as much as change. (22)
Many immigrant women, including the Italians interviewed for this study, had at least a few years experience working in factories, both in Europe and in North America. For many of these women, the Lanark plant seemed a veritable paradise when compared with other industries in the area. After all, the Lanark plant was new and, by several accounts, cleaner, more brightly lit, and less hazardous than, say, local textile mills or canning factories where workers were paid piece-rate, and injuries were both more common and more serious. In addition, auto-parts and accessories manufacturing did not suffer seasonal fluctuations as much as other local employers did. Angelina Sardella, a Molisan immigrant who began working at the Lanark early in 1964, saw particular benefit in steady employment and an hourly wage-rate, a marked change from her previous experiences at canning factories in Niagara Falls, Ontario. "I enjoyed working there, because it wasn't piece-work, and everybody got along. Where there's piece-work, that's where people don't get along." (23) Other women spoke warmly of some plant foremen who looked the other way when mistakes were made. At the end of her first shift, Carmela Maddalena, who spoke little English and was barely literate in Italian, panicked when told to complete a report detailing her output for the day. One plant foreman, noting how distraught Maddalena had become, offered to complete the form for her, providing that she list numerically the day's output. He did this for Maddalena, and other immigrant women, ostensibly as a favour to them, for several years. Maddalena credits acts such as this with helping to ease the difficult transition from peasant to industrial worker. (24)
For many of the younger women, working outside the home meant greater freedom from parental constraints. For those who were married with children, paid labour outside the home could offer a temporary escape from the burdens of the domestic sphere. Though most women worked out of financial necessity, they seem to have enjoyed participating in a female occupational culture -- with women working side by side, sharing jokes, often about foremen or their husbands, exchanging gossip, recipes, and advice about marriage, child-rearing, women's health, and sex. The bases of female solidarity on the Lanark shopfloor were further strengthened by the absence of intense occupational, generational, or ethnic conflicts. Older, more experienced workers did not regard younger women as threats, but sought to provide guidance and a helping hand to newcomers who were sometimes terrified or exhausted by the rigours of factory labour. Some of the older women even dispensed advice on matters -- often sexual or marital -- not directly related to the workplace. (25)
To this extent, the situation at the Lanark plant conforms with scholarly assumptions about the nature of male and female bonding, with female-female bonding alleged to be characterized by cooperation …