Union Activities at GWG
by Catherine C. Cole
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The UGWA challenges management during negotiations (2:31)
In April 1911, three months after the Great Western Garment Company was established, seven workers formed Local 120 of the United Garment Workers of America (UGWA). The workers unionized in response to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York—the worst disaster in the city's history prior to 9/11—in which 146 of 500 employees died because the fire escapes had been locked. Management at GWG supported unionization because they wanted to use union labels on their products, in order to promote sales to other unionized workers.
The 8-hour Day
The union and management had a good relationship. In 1915, the union negotiated time-and-a-half for overtime. By 1917, Local 120 was the first in North America to negotiate the 8-hour day. GWG's letterhead stated, "Where the eight hour day and fair wages prevail."
GWG sewing machine operators worked fewer hours than other workers in Alberta. The Edmonton Trades and Labour Council (ETLC) and the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) continued to lobby the provincial government to legislate an 8-hour day and 40-hour week. The 8-hour day was a significant breakthrough. However, the piecework system put pressure on women to work additional time to finish more work, clean their machines, or do repairs for which they were not paid.
The plant was considered "one of the finest on the continent from the standpoint of the worker." Alongside local and provincial labour organizations, Local 120 lobbied to improve labour legislation. When the Factories Act was introduced in 1917, followed by the Minimum Wage Act in 1922, Local 120 influenced the hours, wages and working conditions of other workers in Alberta through union member Lillian Morris's participation on the Minimum Wage Board.
Piecework price lists were set through negotiations between the union and management. UGWA representatives from Toronto or headquarters in New York rarely attended union meetings. If necessary, the ETLC occasionally supported the union's position. Operators who worked faster earned more than minimum wage, in some cases significantly more. The union restricted the number of operations a woman could be asked to do to a maximum of three, as they earned more with more practice on fewer operations.
The Union Label
The union label indicates that garments were produced under a negotiated agreement, a guarantee that clothes were not made through outsourcing or in a sweatshop. Workers in other unionized firms, and people concerned about fair trade, look for the union label. In the early 20th Century the union label was very important. During negotiations, the union could withhold the use of the label until they reached an agreement with management. The union label began to lose its significance in the 1950s.
Disputes were minor and usually easily solved. In the early years, complaints often related to time lost waiting for bundle girls to bring work, cleaning and maintaining machines, replacing broken needles or thread, or waiting for a mechanic to repair a machine. Operators whose pay dropped when moved to a different machine sometimes initiated a grievance. The union helped operators move to higher paying machines, or learn more skilled work, or those who were wrongfully dismissed or dismissed without severance. When new materials or styles were introduced, the union worked out an appropriate rate. Heat and dust were concerns in both the old and new plants. The new plant was air-conditioned, but the area around the presses was particularly hot and the union negotiated extra breaks for those working on "Nev'R Press", GWG's permanent press pants, for example.
Female Labour Activists
Although the majority of members were women, most early union leaders were men. There were, however, significant women unionists. In 1943, Emily Ross became president of Local 120 and UGWA organizer for Western Canada. She successfully lobbied the federal government through the Regional War Labor Board to restore wages to pre-war levels, which represented a 10% increase. Ross promoted the union label and solidarity with other unions, and negotiated wages, working conditions, and modifications to the piecework system. During the war, workers frequently worked overtime to fill contracts; in 1946 they were able to restore the 40-hour work week.
Local 120 had a good relationship with Clarence D. Jacox, GWG's general manager from 1931 to 1941 and president from 1941to 1958, securing improved working conditions that included a nurse and doctor, lunchroom, employee recognition, discounts, paid holidays, and retained seniority following interruptions due to childbirth. The union initiated hospitalization, sick-leave and death benefits, and employee banquets that were later cost-shared with the company. Speed-up was constant. GWG adopted new machinery and processes as soon as it could, becoming one of the most highly engineered garment manufacturing companies in the world. Operations were broken down into many steps over the years, and operators were instructed in how to complete each step, until it took only seven-and-a-half minutes to manufacture a pair of jeans.
In 1950, GWG, like other North American garment manufacturers, began to feel competition from imported goods. The union protested against cheap clothing manufactured by non- unionized workers earning as little as 30-cents per day in Asia. In 1961, the union proposed a resolution at the AFL to protect clothing manufacturing trades from foreign imports.
Annie Baranyk (now Broad) was raised near Elk Point and moved to the city in 1952. She worked as an examiner in 1954 and was president of Local 120 from 1956 to 1970. Baranyk negotiated piecework rates and hourly wages for new machines or product lines, compensation and job security for injured workers, and analysis of new fabrics to ensure off-gassing was not harmful. GWG first threatened plant closure in the early 1960s when president J. Gerald Godsoe said that if the union did not cooperate, the plant would be closed, relocated to Ontario, or run to the ground by Levi Strauss.
Anne Ozipko immigrated to Canada from the Ukraine as a child. In 1943, she came to the city from the Ukrainian block settlement north-east of Edmonton and worked at GWG until 1947, and again from 1963 to 1978. She was a 'utility girl', someone who could do every operation and replace anyone who was away. She became the shop steward for the night shift and in 1970 president of the Local. One of her major challenges was working with the engineers who timed operators with a stop-watch, establishing new methods and rates. Beginning in 1986, Ozipko also represented labour on the Unemployment Insurance Board.
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Union Local 120 improves working conditions and benefits (2:38)
An End to Piecework
As the workforce became increasingly diverse, integration of immigrant workers into the plant—and the union—was an issue. Language was a barrier that could be overcome through translation and training. However, experience in countries where they had no rights or freedom to negotiate, cultural traditions that discouraged women from speaking out, and lack of time when adapting to a new home, prevented immigrants from becoming involved in the union.
The shift from piecework to the quota system in the early 1990s was a turning point for the union. GWG had attempted to move from piecework to hourly wages in the 1940s, but operators whose wages dropped resisted the change and they reverted to piecework. For many years, management was concerned that because many of the operators did not understand English, they would not understand the shift from piecework. English as a Second Language classes helped workers understand the new system.
In 1994, the UGWA became a part of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and Local 120 became a part of the Canadian Food and Commercial Workers (CFCW).
National Historic Significance
The chartering of Local 120 of the United Garment Workers of America at the Great Western Garment Company has been designated an event of national historic significance by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in recognition of the concessions won by the union and its encouragement of female members to become leaders in the community and to campaign for women's issues in the workplace.