Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

From Scavengers to Sanitation Workers: Practices of Purification and the Making of Civic Employees in Toronto, 1890-1920

Academic journal article Labour/Le Travail

From Scavengers to Sanitation Workers: Practices of Purification and the Making of Civic Employees in Toronto, 1890-1920

Article excerpt

"A manure wagon was looked upon by the controllers as not the proper place to fly the flag. Whether the flag is on a manure wagon or on a mansion in Rosedale it means the same."

- S. Vance, Speech to Toronto scavengers and street cleaners, Victoria Hall, 26 September 1917 (1)

ON 29 SEPTEMBER 1917, OVER 500 SCAVENGERS, street cleaners, and sanitation workers walked off the job, halting collection from thousands of households across Toronto and leaving residents to burn or bury their refuse in their yards. Workers were incensed that the Street Commissioner had ripped the Union Jack off a manure wagon, apparently exclaiming that he "did not want any darned rubbish like that around here." (2) The wagon driver's son had just died in the war, and the workers felt that he had as much right to fly the flag as anyone else. In response, the entire street cleaning department took a two-week "holiday," refusing to return to work until the Street Commissioner was removed from his position.

The actions of the scavengers speak to the contested moral, political, and technological claims underpinning waste work at the time. Through the early 20th century, the duties and responsibilities of waste workers were widely debated by local elites, public health officials, civic reformers, ratepayers associations, and labour unions. Questions were raised around the appropriate relationship of municipal services to civic and national identity. How should the work of waste collection and disposal be displayed to the community? What was the proper disposition of waste workers--as representatives of civic authority--in their day-to-day interactions with local residents and businesses? Moreover, beyond questions of good taste, the concerns about decorating manure wagons also touched on larger issues of management and control. It highlighted problems of discretion in the performance of municipal services. To what extent should workers have the freedom to treat civic property as their own? And how could their conduct be supervised in a rapidly expanding urban environment?

In this article, I draw from the civic employees' strikes of 1917-18 in exploring the changing ways in which waste work was framed as an object of regulation. I begin by situating waste work at the intersection between a deeply entrenched political machine and an emergent civic reform movement. Until the 1920s, civic employment in Toronto was governed by a clientelist arrangement through which jobs were distributed on the basis of community loyalties and political favours. Through such networks, various religious and ethnically-defined working class communities attempted to keep local elites accountable to them. However, by the beginning of the 20th century, civic reformers increasingly challenged the distribution of jobs on the basis of community affiliations and sought to interject more impartial and scientific forms of management in achieving an economy of service. While waste work was an occupation coveted by Tory ward heelers and Orange Protestant lodges, it was also a central target for emergent reform programs.

In this context, I explore the efforts of civic officials to apply technomanagerial forms of control to the labour process, reframing waste work as a technological issue to be directed by a distinct class of managers. With the transition from rationalities of public health to public works, I highlight how the efforts to normalize waste management services were paralleled by efforts to centralize managerial control in the hands of the Street Commissioner. Through the application of new methods of classification, measurement and supervision, I explore how civic officials actively targeted the workers' day-to-day contact with private residents, their role in transporting waste by wagon across public thoroughfares, and their employment relations with local ward bosses. In problematizing the illegitimate mixing of public and private, I argue that these officials developed practices of purification, seeking to cleave apart an abstract general interest from the particular interests of specific community actors. …

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