Going Underground: Art, Labour & Eaton's in Thunder Bay

Article excerpt

Throughout my boyhood, every time I visited the big department store with my superstitious mother I dutifully rubbed for good luck the toe of the left shoe of an old bronze guy who turned out to be Timothy Eaton. This was my education into the world of consumer society and social inequality, since my chances of gaining a fortune were surely a matter of luck -- at least that's what we believed in my working class neighbourhood.

Today, as a resident of Thunder Bay on the Port Arthur side, the only semblance of the Eatonian empire that once ruled department stores across Canada is an empty, sign-less store that closed in the fall of 1997, during the early twilight of this business idol.

As far as predatory capitalist families in Canada are concerned, the Eatons had few peers. While their conspicuous consumption and reactionary politics were legendary, the history of anti-union activities associated with Eaton's is perhaps the real family legacy, the thing that should stick in the consciousness of Canadians.

The first effort at expanding a union toehold at Eaton's came in 1912, during which time there was a strike initiated by the printers, the only unionized employees with whom the company dealt. This action failed to make any gains as the company succeeded in keeping the International Ladies Garment Workers Union out of its textile operations.

The second flashpoint occurred in 1947 as the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Employees' Union began organizing Eaton's employees, more than 6,000 of whom signed union cards. The application for certification went forward to the Ontario Labour Relations Board in late 1950 and as voting day came and went the following year after company stalling, the drive was halted in its tracks as the vote was lost.

The third episode was more recent, again involving the Department Store Union. Employees were successfully organized and, after a short strike by a small number of employees, a first contract was won in 1984. But the gains were modest -- so modest, in fact, that the union lost a decertification vote in subsequent years.

Something remarkable has been happening at the old Eaton's in Thunder Bay, however. Under pressure of the construction of a new provincial "Charity" Casino nearby - in Mike Harris' Ontario this doesn't mean profits actually go to charity, the name being a nicety of registration only -- several blocks of downtown Port Arthur have been acquired by a group of opportunistic developers. …