History of GWG
Edmonton's Great Western Garment Company
by Catherine C. Cole
1911 was a boom year for Edmonton. Real estate values were high and many new shops, businesses and houses were built. Alberta's first Premier, Alexander C. Rutherford, City Councillor and owner of the Alberta Hotel, Alfred E. Jackson, and Charles A. Graham, a former buyer and salesman with Revillon Dry Goods, established the Great Western Garment Company (GWG) on January 30, 1911, with a strong belief in the future of the young city. They also recognized the need for a supply of functional, hard-wearing clothing for the province's growing workforce.
The company's seven employees formed Local 120 United Garment Workers of America (UGWA) a few months later. The company quickly became a significant employer of women. There were few jobs available to women at the time; many employers would not retain married women, and single women had few legitimate employment opportunities.
Great Western Garment grew quickly, to more than 100 workers in its first year of operation. In 1914, the plant moved to 10438 Namayo Street (97th Street), Edmonton, to accommodate its growing workforce of 150 operators.
From 1917 to 1953, the factory was located at the corner of 97th Street and 103rd Avenue. Originally constructed as a department store in 1911, the building was converted for use as a factory. By 1919, GWG employed 375 workers. Graham became president in 1920, and the following year Jackson and Rutherford ceased to be shareholders. Investors provided the capital necessary to build a two-storey addition to the north side of the factory in 1925, and a fourth storey addition with a metal mansard roof to the main building in 1927. Then, in the late 1920s, GWG moved its mackinaw and leather departments to "Factory #2" in a nearby print shop. Sales throughout western Canada grew to $1.4 million.
The Great Depression
Much of GWG's success can be attributed to Clarence D. Jacox, general manager from 1931 to 1941 and president from 1941 to 1958. Jacox instituted the line system and piecework incentives. The company survived the Depression through diversification, receiving City contracts to manufacture uniforms for city workers and clothing for people on relief. At the time, GWG produced more than 700 individual lines of garments, including women's wear and youth wear.
By 1935, GWG was optimistic that the worst of the Depression was over and introduced a prosperity program, increasing the number of workers from 250 to 300. After years of layoffs during slow periods, GWG celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1936 by committing to full-time employment for its staff.
World War II
With the outbreak of World War II in 1939, two-thirds of the plant's production was dedicated to government contracts. C.D. Jacox became president following C.A. Graham's death in December 1940, and ownership of the company was consolidated in the Graham and Jacox families. In 1941, the accumulated value of GWG's government contracts reached $1 million. The workforce grew to 500 people, manufacturing 12,500 uniforms per week, almost as many garments as it produced each year 15 years earlier. In 1942, a $125,000 two-storey addition was built to the east of the plant.
In the early 1950s, GWG began to look for a new location near the 97th Street plant to accommodate operators who were juggling work and domestic duties. On December 18, 1953 the firm celebrated the completion of a new factory—a one-storey, 100,000-sq. ft. plant with a 70,000-sq. ft. sewing room—situated just a few blocks away. The reinforced concrete and masonry structure, designed by architect Ralph Brownlee, was arguably the largest garment factory on the continent. The number of employees increased from 500 to 750.
In 1957, GWG built a 125,000 sq. ft. addition to the new factory, further expanding its workforce. In 1958, C.D. Jacox died and was succeeded by J. Gerald Godsoe of Toronto. Jacox's death precipitated not only a change in management but, within a few years, a change in ownership.
The company began to produce casual clothing for the entire family, and its marketing and distribution network spread across the country; by 1961, 5,500 merchants carried GWG products. GWG continued to sell such popular brands as Cowboy Kings (1929), Red Strap (1933), Iron Man (1932), Snobak (1935), and Texas Ranger (1937). Custom GWG fabrics were developed in collaboration with textile mills: Buckskin (1932), Snobak denim (1935), and Nev'R Press (1965), for example. New brands introduced included: Driller's Drill (1948), High Rigger (1951), and Bum Bums (1978). To reflect an interest in expanding their market to all Canadians, in 1965 GWG changed the name of Cowboy Kings to GWG Kings. Also that year, GWG updated its corporate identity, introducing a new streamlined logo with two straight lines, rather than wings, over the initials. To counter restrictions against wearing blue jeans to school, GWG introduced coloured denim pants.
Beginning in the 1940s, GWG used efficiency engineers to 'speed-up' the manufacturing process. Under Jacox, GWG had become one of the most highly engineered companies in the world, adopting new machinery and processes as soon as it could. By the 1960s GWG had full-time engineers who timed the operators and showed them how to expend less energy working in a circular motion, how to pick the pieces up, which fingers to use, and how to feed fabric into the machine. Where possible, operations were fully automated and the operators simply placed the fabric pieces in the correct position. By the time the plant closed in 2004, the amount of time it took to manufacture a pair of jeans was reduced to seven and a half minutes.
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Working conditions in the Edmonton plant (3:20)
Levi Strauss and Co. bought 75% of GWG in 1961. New owners Peter and Walter Haas joined the board, but GWG retained independent management until after the company's 75th anniversary in 1986. It was one of Alberta's largest industrial enterprises, with 950 operators working day and night shifts, increasing production capacity by ten percent. Production jumped from 8,000 units a day in 1958 to 13,000 five years later.
GWG became the first company to partner with the provincial government and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) to train unemployed and underemployed people in 1965. Trainees were paid minimum wage, half of which came from the government.
Integration of GWG Plants within Levi Strauss
In 1968, GWG opened a $1 million 2-storey, 106,000-sq. ft. warehouse in the Strathcona Industrial Park in Edmonton, consolidating the storage and distribution of GWG garments produced at the Brantford, Winnipeg, and Edmonton plants.
In 1971, the Great Western Garment Company changed its name to GWG Limited. The following year, Levi Strauss bought the remaining shares of GWG Limited. Levi Strauss and Co. (Canada) Inc. was incorporated, and GWG became a wholly-owned subsidiary while continuing to retain its Canadian directorship with Russell Gormley as president and the head office in Edmonton.
In 1973, GWG established a cutting centre and storage facility, and a two-storey, 106,000 square warehouse in the Strathcona Industrial Park. GWG continued its efforts to modernize the company's image by introducing a new logo, with stylized "GWG" letters in a broken circle, and by running the first national television campaign for jeans.
In 1978, GWG Limited and GWG (Eastern) Limited amalgamated under GWG Limited. Erwin Mertens became president of GWG.
In 1982, Great Northern Apparel Inc. (GNA) was established as a holding company for GWG Inc. and Levi Strauss and Co. (Canada) Inc. Fifty Edmonton-based office workers were laid off as GWG began to transfer management to Toronto. In 1984, 85 people were laid off at the Edmonton plant, and finishing for all clothing manufactured at Levi Strauss and GWG plants in Edmonton, Stoney Creek, and Cornwall was consolidated in Brantford. Some of the finishing workers from Edmonton chose to re-locate, along with the work, to Brantford.
Levi Strauss Management
By 1984, GWG's workforce in Edmonton had declined from 1600 at its peak to 600 employees. The GWG name continued to be used until after the company's 75th anniversary in 1986 when it introduced the marketing campaign "History in the Making," capitalizing on GWG's long history. Levi Strauss showed little interest in the GWG brand and, from 1998 to 2001, licensed it to Montreal manufacturer Jack Spratt. When this contract expired, Levi Strauss resumed production of GWGs in Edmonton and at the plant in Stony Creek, Ontario. Levi Strauss also introduced a new logo that featured the name "Great Western Garment Company" in a circle with the letters "GWG" in the centre.
Levi Strauss considered shutting down the Edmonton plant in 1999, when it closed 11 plants in North America, but in the end the plant was spared. Workers would remain anxious for their jobs when later that year 77 workers were laid off at the Edmonton plant, shifting production to Mexico.
When the Edmonton plant finally closed in March 2004 and 488 workers lost their jobs, Levi Strauss announced a severance package, career counselling, and retraining, as well as donations to local charities. Working with Economic Development Edmonton, they initiated the "Levi's 488 Project" to help workers find new jobs. Unfortunately, many workers did not have the English language skills necessary to qualify for other jobs with comparable salary and benefits.
The closure of GWG was a significant loss to the city of Edmonton. Throughout its history, GWG was a very innovative company. In terms of management for example, before 1917, Local 120 was reputed to be the first garment manufacturing union in North America to gain the 8-hour day and 40-hour week; in the 1960s, GWG developed a unique inventory control system, working closely with retailers; and in 1965, GWG was the first Alberta company to partner with the government to provide training.
In terms of products, in the 1920s GWG was the first company in Canada to use pre-shrunk denim; in 1965 GWG introduced Nev'R Press, the first permanent press pants in Canada; and in 1972 Scrubbies, the original pre-washed jeans, were invented in Edmonton by then Vice-President of Merchandizing Don Freeland.