Marketing to Labour
by Catherine C. Cole
When the Great Western Garment Company organized under the United Garment Workers of America (UGWA) in April 1911, just three months after the company was established, management supported unionization because the company wanted to use union labels on its products, to promote sales to other unionized workers. The union label was very important to Local 120 and, initially, to the Great Western Garment Company.
In discussion with the Edmonton Trades and Labor Council and the Alberta Federation of Labor, union members encouraged other unionized workers to buy the GWG brand specifically because it was union made. For example, the minutes of a 1914 Local 120 union meeting note that the painters did not buy GWG products. Local 120 workers were reluctant to support workers in other locals when they did not support GWG. In turn, the company's workers were also encouraged to patronize particular businesses that used unionized labour.
Great Western Garment was very proud of its working conditions and used this photograph in advertisements in various magazines and newspapers including the Farm and Ranch Review, the Farmer's Advocate and Home Journal and the Alberta Labor News. In each case, the message was slightly different, depending upon the publication's readership. The advertisement in Alberta Labor News emphasized the fact that GWG garments were made "under excellent working conditions by intelligent operators in co-operation with a management dedicated to the principle that the workers are entitled to a fair share of all the profits." The advertisement appeals to "Union men, if you are keeping the faith ask your merchant for G.W.G. overalls, shirts and pants," underlining the importance of unionized workers supporting one another.
Great Western Garment ran a series of advertisements, again in a number of regional publications, linking garment manufacturing to other significant industries in Western Canada, and appealing to workers in these industries as neighbours of workers at GWG. This ad notes, "Coal miners are the highest paid of Western labor, and they confer an almost exclusive patronage upon The Great Western Garment Company. They exact in return Work Clothing which must stand an endurance test found only in G.W.G. garments."
Great Western Garment targeted its early ads to farmers, miners, lumbermen, railwaymen and mechanics, many of whom would have been unionized. Lillian Morris, who was an operator and active union member at GWG in the 1920s and 1930s, remembered going to Lethbridge during the Depression, wearing men's overalls, to promote buying union-made goods to unionized workers there in that city.
Pages of the GWG Catalogues often featured clothing being worn by workers in specific occupations, pointing out the features that were required for each job. Carpenters and painters wore white overalls with reinforced knees and lots of pockets and loops for rulers, tools, and brushes. During World War II, when an increasing number of women were working in industrial jobs such as aircraft repair, GWG promoted utility slacks and coveralls for women.
Great Western Garment appealed to non-unionized workers as well. This 1945 advertisement in The Country Guide shows men working in a variety of occupations: highway construction, fishing, dairy farming, ranching, construction, oil, and grain farming. The message is that no matter what your occupation, there is a GWG work shirt for you. The emphasis is on style, function and quality, not the workers who made the shirts.
In the mid-1950s, the significance of the union label in attracting sales from other unionized workers was declining and by the early 1960s, GWG no longer felt that the union label was enough of a selling feature to warrant the cost of separate labels. UGWA headquarters in New York would not allow labels to be printed in Canada; they had to be printed in the United States and imported at great cost. The GWG logo incorporated the words "union made"—and for a time in the late 1950s to early 1960s, while this debate was going on with the union "union label"—above the initials "GWG", so it was not necessary to also have a separate union label.
When GWG expanded its market throughout Canada in the 1950s and early 1960s, the company appealed to a broad range of workers, not just to those in Western Canadian occupations. Here GWG notes, "the qualities of longer wear and perfect fit that Canadians in every walk of life have come to know and appreciate," "More Canadians wear work clothes bearing the G.W.G. label than any other brand," and "These are the buy words with most Canadian families." Similarly, GWG Catalogues of the period focus on quality, fit, and durability, rather than on the union.