History of GWG
The Great Western Garment Company in Brantford
by Catherine C. Cole
Great Western Garment's Brantford history began in August 1965 with the purchase of Kitchen-Peabody Garments Limited, the early history of which paralleled that of GWG. Both were established in 1911; both had groups of employees that were organised under the United Garment Workers of America (UGWA); both companies moved several times before settling in 1917 in a factory that would be their home until the mid-1950s; and both grew through the production of military uniforms during the First and Second World Wars.
Kitchen Overall and Shirt Co.
Charles E. Kitchen and Luther Whitaker established the Kitchen Overall and Shirt Co. on Dalhousie Street but soon relocated to the Cockshutt Building at 11 Queen Street. J.F. Kitchen bought out Whitaker two years later. The company expanded and moved into the 22,000 sq. ft. former Buck foundry building on West Street in 1917. With the slogan, "Wears Like a Pig's Nose", it became known for its Railroad Signal overalls and workmen's shirts.
In 1924, Kitchen acquired Peabody's Ltd. and the Leather Label Overall Company of Windsor, moving machinery to a plant on Clarence Street. Kitchen acquired several businesses over the years, including Waterloo Shirts. By 1926, the company employed 200 workers and its output had grown to $800,000 a year. Tragically, C.E. Kitchen died in a car accident in 1927. His brother Frank ran the company initially, then from 1939, Bruce R. Kitchen led it through the challenging war years. Howard D. Daniels and A. Bradshaw and Sons Ltd. of Toronto purchased the company in 1946. Daniels, president and general manager, was well-regarded by workers at the plant. In 1949, the plant was organised by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) as Local 551.
Throughout Kitchen's history, many of the workers at the plant were recruited by family members. Harry Lloyd, who started in the cutting room in 1949 and was a plant manager in the mid-1970s, remembers that he was a teenager riding his bike when his mother, who worked at the plant, grabbed him by the ear and said, "I've got a job for you."
In September 1955, Kitchen Overall and Shirt moved to 5 Edward Street, a 72,000 sq. ft. former Spalding plant - three-and-a-half times the size of the old plant. At the time there were 150 employees, with plans to grow to 300. Although relations between management and workers were usually amiable, 186 employees walked out for half a day in an unauthorised strike over piecework rates in February 1959. The union persuaded them to return to work while new rates were being negotiated. Workers were paid in cash until 1960, when Ben McLaughlin was robbed of the $6,400 payroll. As a result, the company switched to cheques.
In September 1962, the company changed its name to Kitchen-Peabody Garments Limited to reflect the fact that overalls no longer represented a significant portion of their business. After GWG acquired the company in August 1965, it initially continued to operate under the Kitchen-Peabody name, and retained its own management. At the time, there were 250 to 300 workers at the plant. A group of Kitchen-Peabody and GWG employees had tried to purchase Kitchen-Peabody, but GWG President J.G. Godsoe alerted Levi Strauss and Co. in San Francisco. Having purchased the majority of Great Western Garment in 1961, they then provided the funding to purchase Kitchen-Peabody.
Following the purchase, the shirt and pant departments and assembly lines were rearranged, and workers retrained to increase production by adopting the highly engineered manufacturing process used by GWG. Kitchen-Peabody became The Great Western Garment Co. [Brantford] in 1968 and Mike May, who had been with the company since 1924, became general manager. Within a few years, the plant not only produced men's work clothing, but women's and children's casual clothing. By 1970, 50% of garments were made of Koratron, a wrinkle and soil resistant fabric.
In 1970, the Brantford plant became GWG (Eastern) Limited, employing 300 women. GWG introduced automated machinery as soon as it became available, including cloth spreaders, pocket setters, and machines with automatic positioners and trimmers. Although there were many long-term employees, staff turnover was high. Brenda Bridgewater, who was a supervisor at the time, remembers from training new employees that, "if they didn't come back from break, you weren't surprised." The company tried to accommodate workers and their families, for example allowing one operator to work alone at night serging slash pockets, but with operators working on an assembly line the jobs lacked flexibility.
In 1972, with 375 workers at the Edward Street plant, GWG constructed a 27,500 sq. ft. plant on Elgin Road and hired another 150 workers. The company also purchased another 2.5 acres adjacent to the plant to allow for future expansion. When the plant opened in January 1973, a zipper opening fittingly replaced the traditional ribbon cutting ceremony. It was the first plant in Brantford to be air-conditioned. At the time, GWG also received a $100,000 Ontario Development Corp. grant, starting a controversy when people realised that the government had given a grant to an American-owned firm.
Initially, Edward Street manufactured casual wear and Elgin Street manufactured jeans. Like Edmonton, the Brantford plants advertised in several languages and hired many immigrant workers; the use of training films reduced the language barrier. Work was steady, although there were occasional layoffs during the 1970s, due to denim shortages or to reduce inventory. The 137 workers at the Elgin Street plant held a one-day strike in 1975 to protest the way their contract had been ratified. As a result, negotiations were reopened. In 1976, the ACWA merged with the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) to create the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union (ACTWU).
In 1978, GWG (Eastern) Limited changed its name to GWG Limited. GWG became well respected in Brantford for its community service. Introduced in 1978, Community Involvement Teams (CIT) raised funds for numerous causes, both locally and internationally. In 1979, approximately 500 people were employed in Brantford. The Edward Street plant switched from producing shirts, jackets and work pants to jeans, as an interim step prior to closing the plant. At this time, GWG launched the "I grew up in GWGs" campaign featuring the young Wayne Gretzky. Having lived next door to Harry Lloyd, then manager of the Edward Street plant, Gretzky not only grew up in GWGs but briefly worked there as a floor walker (bundle boy), distributing bundles of work.
Levi Strauss Canada Inc.
Levi Strauss Canada Inc., which by 1972 fully owned GWG, took over management of the Brantford plants in January 1980. Peter Haas of Levi Strauss in San Francisco pushed expansion of the Elgin Street plant after seeing the working conditions at Edward Street. Levi Strauss completed the $2.1 million project in 1981. At 105,000 sq. ft., the facility was four times its original size.
Due to difficulties setting prices and adapting to new machinery after the company changed its production from casual to fashionable clothing, workers went on an illegal strike. Within the year, the plant closed and 268 employees were laid off.
In May 1981, Levi Strauss opened its new finishing centre at 70 Easton Road. In 1984, 85 people were laid off at the Edmonton plant, and finishing for all clothing manufactured at the Levi Strauss Canada and GWG plants in Edmonton, Stoney Creek, and Cornwall was consolidated in Brantford. A number of employees moved from Edmonton to Brantford.
Workers in the new finishing plant did not have to worry about cutting their hands or putting needles through their fingers, but there were other hazards. In January 1990, a sulphuric acid spill created potentially explosive hydrogen gas. Two years later, chlorine was accidentally mixed with an unknown chemical and, in September 1997, a chlorine tank blasted through the roof of the plant following a similar mix-up; fortunately damage was minimal and, although five workers were sent to the hospital, none were seriously injured. The plant reopened within days.
By 1990, 40% of the workforce was made up of immigrant workers. English as a Second Language classes were offered at the two Brantford plants with a focus on safety manuals, union contracts and other work related material. Workers contributed half an hour of their lunch breaks for lessons and the company contributed half an hour in wages. Initially run by Mohawk College, the classes were later provided by the Brant County Board of Education.
The plant expanded in 1995 and, with the additional 22,000 sq. ft. of space, was the second-largest employer in Brantford, operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In 1997, the plant employed 468 workers, organized under the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), which was formed after the merger of the ACTWU and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).
Levi Strauss cut operations by 40% in 1993 and introduced a work sharing program for six weeks, with employees working three days a week and being laid off for the other two. Workers at the Levi Strauss plant in Stoney Creek went on strike for a month in 1995, resulting in an extended layoff at the Brantford plant. With a growing demand for designer jeans and store labels, the popularity of Levi's declined. The company closed 11 plants in the United States in November 1997, laying off nearly 6,400 employees. Canadian plants were not immediately affected and Levi Strauss insisted that it would not shift manufacturing jobs to its plants in Mexico or Southeast Asia. However, the next year 200 employees were laid off in Brantford when the Cornwall plant was shut down for 58 days and the Stoney Creek plant for 23. At 250 employees, the workforce remained half its former size. From 1999 to 2002, another 17 plants in North America closed, including the Cornwall plant, as Levi Strauss continued to move away from owned-and-operated manufacturing.
In September 2003, Levi Strauss announced that it was closing the Brantford finishing centre along with its factories in Stoney Creek and Edmonton. The closure was blamed on the company's losing touch with the youth market, its inability to complete with lower cost of labour in developing nations, and federal trade policies that favoured manufacturers in the developing world. When the plant closed in March 2004, Levi Strauss provided severance packages for the 231 Brantford employees, and provided retraining and counselling for those looking for new jobs.