Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Mill: A Worker's Memoir from 1945 to 1948

Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

Mill: A Worker's Memoir from 1945 to 1948

Article excerpt

Alfred Edwards, "The Mill: A Worker's Memoir from 1945 to 1948," Labour/Le Travail, 43 (Spring 1999), 171-94.

Introduction by Craig Heron


ALFRED EDWARDS IS BACK! Readers of this journal will recall his fascinating story of working-class life in southern-Ontario factory towns in the later 1930s and early 1940s. His tale ended with his enlistment in the Canadian Air Force in 1943. This time the skilled chronicler picks up the story with his return from active service at the end of the war and carries us through the immediate postwar years, during which he became a central figure in his local union in Hamilton. Once again, his reminiscences bring back the small details and the large issues of a worker's experience in this important transitional period.

When Edwards stepped down from a bus in Hamilton in September 1945, he was one of the thousands of demobilized servicemen who had to pick up the traces of their former civilian lives and to assess the changes that had taken place in their absence through the lenses of their military experience. As he tells us, there were many men from the Canadian Air Force who were troubled and upset by what they found. A lot had changed, but a lot was still the same. Full employment in the war economy had apparently not massively improved the standard of living of the families left behind. In the factories, hours were still extremely long, and, in the textile industry where Edwards got back his old job as a knitter, skilled workers still had to try to get the best work out of aging machinery. Much of the prewar popular culture had been curtailed during the war. One former airman was particularly bitter that he had been better treated in the armed forces than in the mills and on the streets of working-class Hamilton. Some of these men were clearly prepared to organize themselves to improve their social and ecoomic life in the city. The meeting of veteran airmen that he describes would find louder echoes in the city's major strikes the next year. (1)

Edwards' memories are particularly sharp about the changes in the relations of production. To his surprise, he found a union well-established in the mill where he had played a leadership role in getting one recognized back in 1938. Yet, although it had freedom to operate openly without fear of management attack, it seemed weak and too closely controlled by company officials for Edwards' comfort. It operated independently from any of the national or international organizations, and its leaders in the mill knew nothing about the larger labour movement. The existence of such a compromised local union in 1945 suggests what gaping holes still remained in the famous wartime collective-bargaining legislation, PC 1003, through which employers could continue to exercise effective control over their employees' organization. (2) Edwards tells us that the company also toyed briefly with the much-vaunted union-management Production Committees to pull the union even closer into its orbit. (3)

Because of his previous experience, Edwards was recruited almost immediately to an executive position in the local union. He was soon swept up in the exhilarating mood of labour confrontation that erupted in working-class Hamilton during 1946. With the dramatic strikes at Stelco, Westinghouse, and the Spectator as backdrop, the independent union at the National Knitting Mills became Local 860 of the Textile Workers' Union of America, an affiliate of the industrial-unionist Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL) and of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the United States - a move that Edwards applauded and facilitated, on the basis of his prewar experience with the All-Canadian Congress of Labour. (4) We get several indications that Edwards and his workmates benefited from this new connection to a larger labour world. Management at the mill was less patronizing, and some longstanding issues seem to have been worked out in a more orderly fashion, including the use of the new grievance-arbitration system. …

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