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Jews in the Garment Industry

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.

Labour unrest roiled across Canada in the first half of the 20th century, but perhaps nowhere was it so concentrated as in seven blocks along Spadina Avenue in Toronto. This stretch was the heart of the city’s garment industry. There were anywhere from 60 to 80 small factories in this area, makers of suits and hats, cloaks and dresses. Unlike the large manufacturers located slightly further away, such as Eaton’s on Yonge Street and Tip Top Tailors on Lakeshore Boulevard, these backroom shops operated on little capital and faced cut-throat competition. They thrived on cheap labour and lack of regulation. And naturally, they drew the ire of workers. There were 38 strikes in the Toronto needle trades between 1912 and 1937[1]. For an industry infamous for exploitation, it’s no wonder union activism was so strong.

Needle-trade workers inside a small 1920s garment workshop in Toronto. This type of shop would have existed alongside larger manufacturers in the area. By the 1930s, most of Toronto’s garment shops were Jewish owned. Image courtesy of the Ontario Jewish Archives, accession 1978-4-6.

There were eight unions in the garment industry. Five of them — the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (ACW), the Industrial Union of Needle Trade Workers (IUNTW), International Fur Workers’ Union (IFWU), the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and the United Cloth Hat, Cap, and Millinery Workers’ International Union — were largely made up of Jewish leaders and members, who referred to the industry as the shmatte (Yiddish for “rag”) business. And not only were the garment unions predominantly Jewish, so too were the factory owners. This created a curious dynamic, a complex mix of cultural and class divisions.

There were just over 3,000 Jews in Toronto in 1901, but that number ballooned over the next few decades due to immigration from eastern and central Europe. By 1931, the total was up to 45,305, making Jews the second-largest ethnic group in the city, after the British. Nearly were born in Russia or Poland. They had escaped the crushing poverty and deadly pogroms of the old country, and crossed the Atlantic Ocean in search of prosperity. Many did not find it. Toronto was an overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon town, with no shortage of anti-Semitism.

Jews were seldom hired as sales or bank clerks, never mind more professional positions in engineering or law firms. They took whatever jobs were available to them, and the booming garment industry, which employed more people than any other, was always on the lookout for labourers. Many Jews had tailoring experience from back home, and those who didn’t could quickly learn the necessary skills.

As the city’s Jewish population increased, so did their representation in the garment industry — about 46 percent by 1931. Put another way, one out of three gainfully-employed Jews in Toronto worked in the needle trades, as opposed to one out of 10 non-Jews[2]. Of course, this form of employment was anything but “gainful.” Wages flitted near poverty levels, and were subject to both market forces and the whims of management. Women and men cut and stitched in airless rooms that were sweltering in the summer, frigid in the winter, and unsanitary all year round. The garment industry was a mixed blessing for many workers.

And yet, there were narrow avenues of opportunity. An enterprising worker could go into business for himself with only a small amount of capital, enough to rent a room in a factory building, buy some Singer sewing machines, and a press iron. The margins were slim and the mortality rate for these shops was significant. But many survived, and by the early 1930s, the vast majority were owned by Jews, creating an industry that didn’t always follow the familiar lines of management and labour.

Owners often relied on relatives to run the shop floor or operate the machines, and these family ties were strained by union activities. Historian Ruth Frager tells the story of Moe Levin, a shirtmaker in his uncle’s factory, who took part in an ACW membership drive. Levin told his furious uncle why he was trying to organize the shop: “If working people have a right to be organized and have a right for a union, then I’m with them. I’m a worker.”[3]

Of course, the opposite happened with just as much regularity. Workers were hesitant to push for higher wages because they were related to the owners. There were times when the ILGWU struggled even to get a toehold in some shops, such as one dressmaking factory that was, as Frager writes, “too much of a family affair, and consequently the prices and conditions are very bad there.”[4]

Sometimes, things were turned completely inside out. A fascinating example from Frager’s book tells of three siblings: one brother, a former union activist, who owned millinery shop where he employed his younger brother and sister. When labour negotiations broke down, there was a lockout. The two brothers slept in the same room. On the first morning of the lockout, the older one woke up early to get his younger siblings ready to join the picket line.[5]

Interpersonal connections went beyond family. Jewish owners were known to help bring over other Jews from their homeland, paying for their passage and then hiring them. This practice stemmed from a genuine desire to help their landslayt (Jews from the same regions in Russia and Poland), but it was also a calculated move to ensure an indebted workforce. Owners, Frager writes, “often tried to appeal to them, in times of strike, on the basis of all the help he had already given them.”[6] Conflicted workers could only be so grateful.

These complications extended well past the picket lines. Owners and workers were all part of the same communities. During the 1920s and 1930s, Jewish neighbourhoods grew up around the factories on Spadina. This meant people on both sides of the labour divide shopped in the same kosher markets, attended the same synagogues, frequented the same Yiddish theatres, and mixed with other Jewish immigrants in the same fraternal organizations.

These cultural bonds were profound, especially as a collective shield against the explicit anti-Semitism found in other parts of the city. Labour strife, however, was the one thing that weakened the Jewish community’s social bonds. The neighbourhoods had a very strong working-class culture and anyone on the side of management felt the sting. Owners were kicked out of fraternal organizations and scabs were ostracized. As Sol Abel, an ILGWU cloakmaker, said, “[there were] very few Jewish people that would go strike-breaking, very few. And if there was the odd one, the community … rejected him. You see, he couldn’t keep his head up high.”[7]

The contradictions within the Jewish community took physical form with the construction of the Labour Lyceum building in the 1920s. Founded in 1913 by shipping agency owner Henry Dworkin and Sam Easser, a machinist, the Labour Lyceum was the hub of activism in the needle trades. In need of a headquarters large enough to handle the growing number of Jewish workers in the city, the Labour Lyceum founders sold $5 stock certificates to finance the purchase and consolidation of two houses on the west side of Spadina, at St. Andrew Street, just steps from the Anshei Minsk synagogue. The fund-raising committee also appealed to Jewish garment manufacturers for money, emphasizing the need for a united community and strong cultural locus. David Dunkelman, the former Polish immigrant and founder and president of the hugely successful Tip Top Tailors, was a major contributor.

A poster from the Toronto Labor Lyceum Association’s First Annual Fruit Ball in 1927. The poster is written in both English and Yiddish. Not only was the Labor Lyceum a place to support workers’ rights and activism; it was also a cultural centre that hosted poetry nights, dances, speakers, and more. Image courtesy of the Ontario Jewish Archives, item 4042.

The Labour Lyceum building became one of the city’s most significant spots for Jewish politics and culture. It housed both the ILGWU and ACW, among other unions, and it was the place where workers came to socialize, play dominoes, and discuss strategy. The 900-seat hall saw not only mass meetings, but also concerts, plays, and dances. The famed political activist Emma Goldman, dubbed “the most dangerous woman in the world” by the American press, was a frequent lecturer.

By the 1950s, the Jewish community had gained some financial stability. Their upward mobility led them from their cramped Spadina beginnings to more spacious uptown neighbourhoods. Their collective struggle had granted them, and their children, greater opportunities. The Labour Lyceum building was sold in 1971 (it later became a Chinese banquet hall and more recently a condo[8]), and the organization moved to nearby Cecil Street. The bad old days of the shmatte business were gone for good.


[1] Ruth Frager, Sweatshop Strife: Class, Ethnicity, and Gender in the Jewish Labour Movement of Toronto, 1900-1939 (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1992), p. 225-228.

[2] Frager, p. 16.

[3] Frager, pg. 68.

[4] Frager, p. 61

[5] Frager, p. 61.

[6] Frager, p. 67.

[7] Frager, p. 39.

[8] Sara Mojtehedzadeh, “A stitch in time: Labour Lyceum once a hub of activism for Toronto’s garment district”, Toronto Star (Jan., 2020), https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2020/01/30/a-stitch-in-time-labour-lyceum-once-a-hub-of-activism-for-torontos-garment-district.html.