The 1931 Dressmaker’s Strike

By: Howard Akler

Howard Akler

Howard Akler

Historical Contributor

Howard Akler a writer and the author of two novels, The City Man and Splitsville, and Men of Action, a memoir.

February 25, 1931, began as a day like any other in Toronto. Workers and factory managers awoke that Wednesday to find that the winter weather was pleasantly mild. Most of them lived close enough to walk to the 70 or so small dressmaking shops clustered along Spadina Avenue, between Queen and Dundas streets. By 8 a.m., the shop floors were full of their usual bustle. The basters were sewing their long, loose stitches and the finishers were attaching their buttons and hooks. As a reporter for the Toronto Daily Star wrote, “there were few, if any, outward signs of anything of any eventful nature.”[1]

Two hours later, it was a different story. The members of Local 72 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) had voted to strike, and, at 10 a.m. on the dot, everyone put down their needles and thread. Twenty-five women from the Fox Garment Company were the first to walk out. Next came 30 from the Radio Dress Company, followed by 75 from the Fullman Dress Company. On and on it went, 500 in all.

Toronto dress makers on strike, February 25, 1931. Image courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives, fonds 1266, item 23260.

The Star reporter noted a few violent episodes — Mary Bernick was roughed up by three men at the Crown Dress Company, while a pail of water was dumped on Bertha Kopstein at the Annette Dress Company — but the procession was otherwise without incident. The laughing “girls” walked in pairs to the Labour Lyceum, a union hall just up the street. They were fired up. Two weeks of negotiations between union representatives and the factory owners had gone nowhere, and 300 workers took out union cards the day before the strike. The ILGWU was demanding the right to organize in every dressmaker’s shop. They were determined to win a 15 percent pay increase and a 44-hour work week, but their determination would ultimately go unrewarded.

On May 5, after 70 days on the picket line, days during which dozens were arrested and dozens more assaulted, the ILGWU abandoned the strike. Those who still had jobs returned to the same dreary factories. Their pay was the same, their hours unchanged. However, according to historian Catherine Macleod, “the 500 women who took up placards and remained on strike for two and a half months made their mark on Canadian labour history for the simple reason that they were women, striking in order to force management to answer their demands.”[2]

* * *

The garment industry was long infamous for its poverty wages, excessive hours, and inhumane working conditions. It was especially harsh for women. Gender roles of the day dictated part of this treatment. Many, including their male co-workers, strongly believed a woman’s place was in the home, and the young, predominantly single women who had found some shred of workplace acceptance endured blatant sexual harassment on the shop floor. Anyone who spoke up was in danger of losing her job. And their positions were more vulnerable than men’s to begin with.

Men held most of the skilled jobs in the industry. They were cutters and pressers, positions that were crucial to the production of ladies’ garments. A good cutter was economical with cloth and accurate with fit, while an experienced presser was key to the shape and feel of the final product. These men, historian Ruth Frager wrote, were the “‘aristocrats’ of the trade” and therefore had “much more clout in attempting to enforce their own demands on the shop floor.”[3]

On the other hand, women in the needle trades rarely possessed such scarce skills. They held jobs such as finishers, sergers, and basting pullers, which required little more than the basic hand-sewing techniques that any young woman might have learned at home. Frager adds this meant that even though “an employer would value a woman worker who was particularly fast and efficient at her job, most female garment workers were fairly replaceable from the employer’s point of view.”[4]

Factory owners took full advantage of this vulnerability. During the first few years of the Depression, when the value of goods dropped by half and 17 percent of the needle trade workers were laid off, women were the first to go. Their precarious employment was coupled with a precipitous drop in wages. Despite the ILGWU’s 1931 wage scale that called for finishers to earn $12-$18 per week[5], many were actually making less than the $10 per week set by Ontario’s Minimum Wage Act. The dressmaking industry was notorious for paying by the piece, where rates could be 52 percent less than wages. Factory bosses pushed frazzled sewers to speed up their efforts for a few extra dollars. They were also at the mercy of changing styles. The cost of making a voile dress could fluctuate due to the whims of fashion. “Dresses are fussier this year and take longer to make,” one woman said in 1931.[6]

A group of women dressmakers picketing on Spadina Avenue. Image courtesy of the Ontario Jewish Archives, item 1440.

Garment workers also faced the uncertainty that comes with seasonal work. Long stretches of unemployment were broken up by the gruelling production schedules in spring and fall. Twelve-hour days were the norm during peak season. Some women worked well into the early morning hours and slept at the factory rather than bothering to go home. One woman said she was “so tired and stiff going home on the streetcar, I would just dread getting a seat, because if I sat down, I could not get up again…”.[7]

Many did not even leave home to do their jobs. Single women often left the factories when they got married and had children, though they continued to look for sporadic piecework out of financial necessity. Because the social mores of the day demanded that married women do all the cooking and cleaning, as well as all the childcare and eldercare, sometimes the only solution was to do that piecework at home.

Unsurprisingly, 88 percent of home-based workers in the garment industry were female. A number of these women might have aimed to return to the factories once their children were school age, but had trouble doing so due to prevailing chauvinistic attitudes. Housewives and mothers were supposed to be supported by their husbands. Any married woman pushy enough to take a factory job was seen to be taking one away from a man. It could be almost impossible to dodge such bellicose opposition. Some resorted to using their maiden names in order to eke out a living.

* * *

Day Two of the strike saw more skirmishes. The owners of both the Buck Dress Company and the National Dress Company were kicked and punched outside their factories. Fistfights [among who?] broke out when some workers attempted to cross the picket line outside the Balfour Building on Spadina Avenue. The owner of the Crown Dress Company pulled up in a car and asked for police protection while he escorted four young women into his factory. “Tears were shed by two little dressmakers who attempted to go back to work and were persuaded to join the strikers,” reported the Star.[8]

They weren’t the only ones. Another 200 workers walked out that day, and even more the day after that. By the end of February, over 1,500 workers — nearly every dressmaker in the city — was on strike.

The owners were not so unified. Some were ardent in their opposition, even hiring a private detective agency to intimidate the strikers. Others, however, were more amenable to possible solutions. One said he was open to a 44-hour week, but not to setting up a price committee on the shop floor. Another cited competition from Quebec, where the lack of organized labour kept production costs 40 percent lower than in Ontario. Another owner told the Globe and Mail that the strike might even work to his advantage. “We handle Montreal stocks and you couldn’t have a unionized shop in Montreal if you turned the town upside down. If anything, we will benefit from it.”[9]

Negotiations continued. The Mayor’s office and the Department of Labour pressured both sides for a resolution. Twenty-two owners agreed to allow the ILGWU the right to organize in their shops, but that was the extent of it. The next two months saw no progress. The weather stayed unseasonably mild and the workers grew slightly less united. The Cloakmakers Union donated to the ILGWU strike fund, but it was growing clear that the membership was restless. And so, on May 5, one thousand members gathered at the Labour Lyceum and voted to abandon the strike.

The newspapers made no mention of this decision.

* * *

Shortly after the strike ended, Irene Biss, a University of Toronto economist, and Winnifred Hutchison, secretary of the National Council of the YWCA, teamed up to investigate the working conditions for women in the dressmaking business. They interviewed 85 strikers from 35 factories, as well as a smaller number of owners. They found a noticeable lack of standards across the industry, except for, in the words of historian Mercedes Steedman, “old systems of exploitation — long hours, low wages, and a use of power that was personal, patriarchal, and often arbitrary.”[10]

Biss and Hutchison learned the many ways that owners would skirt wage laws. Managers ordered employees not to punch time clocks, or told them to take work home if they hadn’t met the minimum wage requirement during the workday. Many employers simply fudged pay records, and some didn’t keep records at all. Piecework rates were set by timing the fastest sewer; the average worker would struggle to keep up. Talking was forbidden. And everyone knew they could be fired at any moment, without cause. No wonder that “many of the girls said they were afraid they were going out of their minds,” observes Frager.[11]

Biss and Hutchison passed their research onto H.H. Stevens, Minister of Trade and Commerce, who headed the Select Committee on Price Spreads. The Committee became a full Royal Commission in 1934. Stories of abuse and exploitation in the garment industry became regular reading in the newspapers. For a public anesthetized to tales of Depression-era hardship and labour unrest, this coverage finally struck a chord. It was the biggest story of the year. But, none of it was news to the 500 women who walked off the job that long ago day in February, 1931.

In 1931 the rivalry of the ILGWU and IUNTW in the dressmaking industry brought garment workers out on strike. Here strikers gather on Spadina Avenue, the heart of the garment district in Toronto. By late February, when this picture was taken, over 1,500 workers were out on strike. Image courtesy of the Globe and Mail Collection, City of Toronto Archives, SC 266-23263.

[1]Dressmakers Quit Work, Girl Striker Hurt”, The Toronto Daily Star, February 25, 1931.

[2] Catherine Macleod, “Women in Production: The Toronto Dressmakers’ Strike of 1931,” in Women at Work: Ontario, 1850-1930, ed. Janice Acton et al. (Toronto: Women’s Educational Press, 1974), p.309.

[3] Ruth Frager, Sweatshop Strife: Class, Ethnicity, and Gender in the Jewish Labour Movement of Toronto, 1900-1939 (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1992), p. 102.

[4] Frager, p. 102.

[5] Macleod, p. 320.

[6] I.M. Biss, “The Dressmakers’ Strike”, Canadian Forum, July, 1931.

[7] Frager, p. 22.

[8] “Heads Of Dress Firms Assaulted On Street”, The Toronto Daily Star, February 26, 1931.

[9] Macleod, p. 312.

[10] Mercedes Steedman, Angels of the Workplace: Women and the Construction of Gender Relations in the Canadian Clothing Industry, 1890-1940 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press), p. 158.

[11] Frager, p. 22.