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Banding Together

For the week of Monday May 5, 2014

On May 7, 1937, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union ended its Montréal Dressmakers’ Strike, having achieved great success! During the strike, French and Jewish Canadians banded together with unprecedented solidarity to secure workers’ rights.

Women of Rose Dress on strike during a snowstorm in Montréal
© Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation & Archives and the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union Collection (5780P) / 5780PB3F4A
Women had been working outside the house more and more, especially in the textile and clothing industries that emerged in the last decades of the 19th century. Conditions were generally atrocious, with women working 60-80 hours a week and often receiving less than the minimum weekly salary of $7-12. Because there were so many women looking for work during the Great Depression of the 1930s, those who tried to strike were easily replaced. Some women joined unions, but the various religious and ideological unions divided the workforce along cultural lines. Co-operation among women workers was needed to bring change to working conditions.

This unity came when the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) brought their fight for workers’ rights to Montréal. The ILGWU invited a talented strategist to help organize the workers, Rose Pesotta, a Jewish American. In an effort to bring together the French Canadian majority and the Jewish minority, she used traditional methods, such as home-visits and leaflets, but also added innovative bilingual newsletters and radiobroadcasts to engage French workers.

Workers gathering in the street as part of the 1937 ILGWU strike
© Jewish Public Library Archives, Montreal / The Montreal Standard / pr017714

Their work led to the creation of the Dressmakers’ Local 262 of the ILGWU at a union meeting in January 1937. A local newspaper, the Illustration Nouvelle, published a photo of the meeting and the seven women shown in it lost their jobs because their employers feared unions. Workers reacted by picketing outside one of those employers, Queen City Dress, with every member of Local 262 uniting around them. The seven women were rehired, but their working conditions remained terrible.

At midnight on April 14, the ILGWU tried to recreate that spirit of unity by calling a surprise strike. The strike lasted until May 7 with as many as 8,000 workers demanding action. Their demands were answered! The emerging deal brought union certification, a 44 hour work week, the chance to file complaints and indirectly led to the increase of their weekly salary to $16.

The Montreal Dressmakers’ Strike of 1937 was designated a National Historic Event for bringing women into the labour movement and for the important role of Jewish Canadians and French Canadians in improving workers' rights. To learn more about Canadian Labour History, please see Winnipeg On StrikeSpringhill Strikes! and "To Each His Own" in the This Week in History archives.

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