History of GWG
Great Western Garment (Saskatoon) Ltd.
by Victoria Lamb Drover
In operation between November 1973 and June 1982, the relatively short-lived Saskatoon branch plant of the Edmonton-based GWG was by then a major employer in Saskatchewan's 'Bridge City'. At its peak, the plant employed 150 workers, mostly women, producing denim jeans.
A Pilot Project in Saskatoon
In early December 1972, GWG, then a wholly-owned subsidiary of Levi Strauss & Company, selected Saskatoon as the site of its newest garment plant. It was rumored that two eastern Canadian cities were being considered, but Saskatoon was chosen due to its readily available workforce and potential building sites. The company was initially interested in beginning their Saskatoon venture with a pilot project in the basement of the Eaton's building on 3rd Avenue South, but their plans were quickly jeopardized when a speculating real-estate firm, Riverside Real Estate, purchased the building days before the GWG agreement was to be finalized. Undeterred, GWG quickly found an alternative location on Duchess Street and, by January 1973, began training locally-recruited workers, mostly women, in the manufacturing of denim jeans. Over the next ten months, the pilot project would grow to 100 employees, a number which significantly eased the transition to the permanent plant, which initially employed 120 people.
With the announcement of GWG's interest in Saskatoon, the federal and municipal governments quickly sprang into action to facilitate the investment. On December 27th, 1973, the Minister of Regional Economic Expansion, Don Jamieson, announced that GWG would receive a Development of Regional Economic Expansion (DREE) grant worth $229,000 to be used directly for the construction of the Saskatoon plant. For its part, the City purchased the desired 2.34 acres on the corner of 34th Street and Ontario Avenue from the Saskatchewan Power Corporation for $38,000. Mayor Bert Sears' administration in turn sold it to GWG for $39,542, incurring no profit from the sale after transaction costs. The company contracted Edmonton-based Bentall Engineering to draft the plans and supervise construction of the 55,000 sq. ft.. The final cost of construction totaled $1,250,000.
The Doors Open
The GWG Ltd. Saskatoon plant officially opened its doors on November 30th, 1973. The manufacturer was extremely progressive in its employment philosophy. Brian Wilcox, plant manager, explained that "escaping from routine can be a frustrating task in a manufacturing plant, with its monotonous assembly-line atmosphere," but also said that "battling against prosaic working conditions" was an important task to the company. The new plant was brightly decorated with no room having the same colour painted on two walls. The management proposed several initiatives to create a positive work environment, including providing a patio outside the cafeteria during warmer weather, playing music throughout the building, shortening the work day on Fridays, and offering free plug-in parking. Past employees, such as nine-year veteran Helen Faulkner, remember barbeques and bowling nights put on by management for the staff. Faulkner was an operator who worked on pockets, initially working on the front pockets of jeans, and finishing her career stitching the signature "GWG" pattern on the back pockets. Faulkner, along with others, discussed with pride The President's Club, an initiative program in which any operator could participate. In order to earn a gold watch and a ticket to the annual President's Club banquet, an operator had to work for three uninterrupted months while consistently meeting the quotas set for a particular task.
Production and Pay
Despite its human resource initiatives, the GWG plant was still driven by production. In 1973, the plant produced 3500 pairs of blue jeans per day, or 70,000 per month. Employees were ranked according to four categories, Level 1 to Level 4, each with increasing degrees of sewing difficulty and base rates of pay. For example, employees at Level 1 were paid starting at a base rate of $2.14 per hour and were required to complete easier tasks such as belt loops and inseams. At Level 4, an operator would be working on more intricate, time-consuming tasks, such as sewing the back pockets. For each task, there was a set number of 60-unit bundles which had to be finished daily. The tasks were simpler and faster to complete at Level 1, so the number of expected bundles was higher—typically 16 bundles, or 960 pairs of jeans per day. Due to the increased level of difficulty, Level 4 daily quotas were usually between 8 to 10 bundles, or 480 to 600 pairs of jeans per day. If an operator went above and beyond their daily quota, their pay increased to match. For instance, if a Level 1 operator was able to produce 24 bundles, or 50% more than their daily quota, they would make $1.07 more per hour. Anita Messaros was the payroll clerk at the 34th Street plant from 1974 to 1977 and remembers that most of the "girls on the floor" were making more money than she was in the office. Terry Wishlow, a Level 4 operator working on pockets, remembers earning "excellent money for a woman at that time," netting $300 per week.
Diversity in the Workplace
Since the Duchess Street pilot project's beginnings, the majority of the sewing staff comprised people who had recently immigrated to Canada, with Vietnamese and Filipino being the two most prevalent groups. It is estimated that in 1982 recent immigrants constituted 67% of the plant's workforce. In a city where, according to Statistics Canada, the landed immigrant population has only recently risen to 8% of the total population, it is apparent that GWG was a major employer of immigrants during its operation.
Big Dreams for the Saskatoon Plant
At the time of the grand opening of GWG Ltd., president D.R. Gormley speculated that the plant would reach a full capacity of 250 employees in the near future. Furthermore, there was an expansion planned for 1977 to 1978 that would double the size of the plant, potentially employing 480 people. This optimistic plan never came to fruition. An international denim shortage through the 1970s and a slumping national economy meant that an increase in the Saskatoon plant's production was not needed.
The base rate of pay rose along with the provincial minimum wage standards, always 7% to 10% higher than the lowest legal rate for a Canadian adult. For instance, the Saskatchewan minimum wage in 1974 was $2 per hour, while the GWG base rate was $2.14. Only the employees whose work directly involved garment making were unionized, as they were represented by the United Garment Workers of America, Local 486. The office and cafeteria staff were non-unionized. Of the former workers interviewed, none remember any union-organized activities and only one remembers regular meetings. Bernie Rousell, an eight-year veteran of the Saskatoon plant, recalls that attendance at union meetings was sparse and, by and large, the staff and management were on a first name basis with an open door policy to employee concerns.
The Closing of the Saskatoon Plant
This amicable work environment did little to soften the blow when the announcement was made on June 24th, 1982, that the plant was closing. According to another interview subject, "We knew plants were closing, but we had been given the impression that we were okay, that our plant was safe." Over the next two weeks, all 150 employees were gradually laid off. According to Art Hartman, company president at the time, the closure was due to poor sales in the sagging economy. On July 9th, 1982, GWG Ltd. Saskatoon closed its doors for the last time.