Accommodating Resistance: Unionization, Gender, and Ethnicity in Winnipeg's Garment Industry, 1929-1945

By Giesbrecht, Jodi | Urban History Review, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Accommodating Resistance: Unionization, Gender, and Ethnicity in Winnipeg's Garment Industry, 1929-1945


Giesbrecht, Jodi, Urban History Review


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. …

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