Case Study: Great Western Garment Company & Women Factory Workers
By: Natalie Zacharewski
Natalie is a museum education professional based in Edmonton, Alberta. She has a passion for creating learning opportunities for students of all ages through immersive, inquiry-based experiences. She has worked in museums and heritage institutions across Canada and the United States such as Museums of Burlington, the Diefenbunker: Canada’s Cold War Museum and Colonial Williamsburg. She has held the role of Faculty Instructor for the Public Programs course in the Certificate in Museum Studies Program with the Alberta Museums Association. She has also worked with the British Columbia Museums Association as Museum Education Consultant, assisting small museums develop educational programs. Natalie holds a Master of Arts in History from the University of Ottawa, specializing in Canadian, American and gender history.
The Nine Hour Movement and the adoption of the Trade Unions Act 1872 will provide a framework for examining labour events across Canadian history.
In this case study, learners will explore the history of the Great Western Garment Company in Edmonton, Alberta, and its predominantly female factory workforce. Students will reflect on the experience of women in the workforce, how work may be experienced differently by women than by men, and how unions played a role in these gendered labour environments.
- Changing Nature of Work & Worker Autonomy
- Defining Capitalism
Case Study Overview
The Great Western Garment (GWG) Company was founded in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1911 by Alexander C. Rutherford (Alberta’s first premier), Alfred E. Jackson (a city councillor and the owner of the Alberta Hotel), and Charles A. Graham (a former buyer and salesman with Revillon Dry Goods). Originating with seven employees, GWG’s workforce was unionized just three months after it opened through the United Garment Workers of America (UGWA), under Local 120. Local 120 was unique for its primarily female membership. Unions could be a way for women to improve their inferior economic status, a massive barrier in the early 20th century.
Women’s work was viewed by employers as unskilled, which meant that women could be easily replaced if they proved disruptive (by taking part in a unionizing movement, for instance). By and large, the primary goal of a female wage earner was to secure a wage for their family, and most female workers were single, with or without children – married women were not expected to work outside the home. Women workers also often worked in isolation, often as domestic servants or as part of smaller workforces (such as a textile manufacturer), which made unionizing campaigns more challenging. This is further seen in union legislation (which sought to improve working conditions), such as the Alberta Factory Act of 1917, which pertained to factory and office workers, most of whom were men.
Hence the unique nature of UGWA Local 120, reputed to be the first garment-manufacturing union in North America to gain an eight-hour workday/40-hour workweek. During the Second World War, GWG produced 25,000 pieces of military clothing/uniforms and prisoner-of-war uniforms. In the early 1940s, two-thirds of the plant’s production was dedicated to government contracts to support the war effort. In 1942, the company completed a $125,000, two-storey addition to the plant, located at 10305 97 Street. An additional 125 workers were hired, bringing the total workforce to 500, most of them young women. This was a huge increase in female union membership and allowed for many young women to earn wages in a unionized environment. The company would continue until 2004, when it closed after being bought by Levi Strauss.
As a large class group, discuss these questions:
How do unions help women workers?
What are the implications of women workers (or other marginalized groups) not having unions? What happens where unions lack representation from certain groups?
What happens when workplaces with a majority of women workers (like GWG) close?
Want to know more?
Check out these articles by Howard Akler:
Oral History Study
“Oral history is a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events. Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies.”Oral History: Defined, Oral History Association
Oral history and interviews can often provide the best record of a primary source. The Alberta Labour History Institute undertook the project of recording the experiences of former GWG workers.
What is a primary source?
“A primary source is a first-hand or contemporary account of an event or topic. They are the most direct evidence of a time or event because they were created by people or things that were there at the time or event. These sources have not been modified by interpretation and offer original thought or new information. Primary sources are original materials, regardless of format. Letters, diaries, minutes, photographs, artifacts, interviews, and sound or video recordings are examples of primary sources created as a time or event is occurring. Oral histories, newspaper or journal articles, and memoirs or autobiographies are examples of primary sources created after the event or time in question but offering first-hand accounts.”Primary Sources: An Introductory Guide, Seton Hall University Libraries
Watch each of these short videos as a class.
Each is under four minutes.
Respond to these questions as a class
Were any of the former workers’ stories surprising to you?
Imagine that you had a family and needed to work, but factory work like this was the only work available to you. What do you think that would be like?
What could be the consequences for organizing or joining a union under these conditions?
Connection to Current Event
- Read this article
“Chinese Imports Could Undermine Ethiopian Manufacturing, Leaving Women Workers Worst Off”, University of Guelph News.
- In groups, discuss these questions and reflect on your responses in your journals:
- How do Chinese imports affect women’s vs. men’s work?
- What happens when women have fewer opportunities or lose their ability to work and make money?
- What is the impact of China’s trade relationship with African nations like Ethiopia?
How Does This Relate to the Nine Hour Movement?
The experience of women in labour history differs considerably from that of men, but it is no less significant. The life and work of Kate McVicar offers a good example. Born in 1856 in western Canada, McVicar was a factory worker in Hamilton at the time of the 1872 Nine Hour Movement. She was a single, young woman seeking to supplement her family’s income, along with her two older sisters, by labouring as a shoe worker. Over the course of her career, she rose to become a prominent leader for the Knights of Labor, an American labour federation founded in Philadelphia in 1869 that later expanded into Canada. The Knights had a unique presence in the labour movement as they sought to unionize all workers regardless of gender, race, or skill level – women were a large population of potential union members. By April 1882, local assemblies had been founded in Hamilton, and by December of that year, letters authored by “A Canadian Girl” (most likely an alias for McVicar) called for the organization of primarily female workplaces (such as factories and domestic work). She understood the challenges involved in reaching these workers, and Gregory S. Kealey, in his biography of McVicar, describes the next steps:
This plea was answered in the Palladium by “A Knight of Labor” who suggested careful, secret discussion among female shop-mates, until ten who favoured forming an assembly had been identified. At that point they should contact him through the Palladium. He would then arrange a secret meeting to explain the Knights’ principles to the women and to organize them formally into a local assembly. The order’s operation as a secret society made it a particularly valuable vehicle for women, he argued, since it allowed them to avoid public notoriety and thus would protect their modesty.
By January 1884, local assembly 3040 included female textile workers and shoe workers across Hamilton. In April, shoe workers formed their own local (local assembly 3179), the first consisting exclusively of women, with McVicar as their leader. This led to the Knights organizing at least eight more women’s locals in Ontario. In 1886, the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada saw its first female representatives, all of whom were Knights of Labor.
McVicar died at the age of 30 on June 18, 1886. Her death left a gap in female leadership of shoe-worker locals in the Hamilton region for many years.
Reference: Kate (Katie) McVicar, Dictionary of Canadian Biography
Write an Issues Program Brochure
One of the first steps to organizing a union is to identify the problems you wish to solve. In this project, write a brochure, make a video, or create another campaign media form to promote the issues you wish to address.
Divide students into groups of 4 or 5.
- Decide: Who will your group write the issues brochure for? You can be factory workers, like the garment workers of GWG, or students of your school!
- Identify: Research what issues need to be addressed. These could include hours of work, working conditions, benefits, safety.
- Author: Write the brochure, being sure to use language that is easy to understand, is assertive, and allows the reader to feel motivated about the message
- Market: Visuals, QR codes, videos – all of these and more can help generate interest in your issues campaign. When you are completing this final stage, ask yourselves, “Would this make me want to be part of a union?”
For reference, here is an example of how an issues program fits into the unionizing process:
The Five Basic Steps to Organizing a Union, United Electrical
Need a rubric for evaluation?
Check out this rubric example from Gresham-Barlow School District (in Oregon).
Cole, Catherine. “Clothing the Armed Forces: The Great Western Garment Company during WWII“. World War II: The Homefront in Alberta. 2005: Alberta Online Encyclopedia. http://wayback.archive-it.org/2217/20101208161521/http://www.albertasource.ca/homefront/feature_articles/gwg_factory.html
Cole, Catherine. “History of GWG: Edmonton’s Great Western Garment Company“. Piece by Piece: The GWG Story. 2010: Royal Alberta Museum & Alberta Labour History Institute. http://gwgpiecebypiece.ca/en/history/edmonton.html
Finkel, Alvin. Working People in Alberta: A History. 2012: Athabasca University Press.
Kealy, Gregory. “Kate (Katie) McVicar“. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography. 2003: University of Toronto/Université Laval. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mcvicar_kate_11E.html
Zacharewski, Natalie. “Mind the Gap: Working Women in Edmonton’s history“. Edmonton City as Museum Project. 2016. https://citymuseumedmonton.ca/2016/03/08/mind-the-gap-working-women-in-edmontons-history/
“Great Western Garment Company (GWG) in Edmonton“. Alberta Labour History Institute. 2012. https://albertalabourhistory.org/gwg/