Chapter 25 : We Win Against Odds in Montreal
SIGNS OF A WIDENING RIFT in the Dress Manufacturers Guild were evident on Friday. One faction was determined to fight our union to the last ditch. The other group indicated that if a union was to be organized among the city's dressmakers, they would "rather have the responsible ILGWU than a Jew-baiting Catholic 'syndicate."'
Their profits depended upon their taking advantage of changes in seasons. Soon there would be warm weather; summer dresses must he put on the market, but none could be shipped because the strikers had essential parts of them at home in large quantity÷belts, loops, collars, and cuffs. In the past they had been compelled to do home work at night without pay.
Several manufacturers, including the four who had repudiated the contract with La Ligue, requested a conference with us. We met at the Mount Royal Hotel and discussed the issues amicably, and prospects for an equitable settlement seemed bright.
On Sunday, the 18th, however, more trouble loomed on the religious front. A letter urging the deportation of Shane and myself, addressed to the Archbishop of Montreal, was published with his approval in the widely read local French paper, La Patrie. Signed by representative,s of the Catholic syndicates of Montreal and La Ligue Catholique, it read as follows:
To His Excellency,
Monseigneur Georges Gauthier,
Archbishop of Montreal,
Following the conversation. I had with you this morning, let me say that I had an interview with Rev. Father Bertrand and Mr. Conrad Bock, and that after discussion we came to the following conclusions, which I submit to you very respectfully.
After serious inquiry on "La Ligue Catholique des ouvrieres des industries l'aiguille de la Province de Quebec," we can assure you that the said "Ligue" is in a position to assure, in a very effective manner, the protection of the material, moral, and religious interests of the workers in the industry. There are no reasons for the workers to join foreign and neutral associations (unions). Hence, we humbly recommend to the Religious Authority:
Please believe, Excellency, in my filial and humble submission,
J. B. Desrosiers, p.s.s.
READ AND APPROVED by Georges Gauthier, Archbishop, and Cardinal Villenueve.
April 17, 1937
On that Sunday the Catholic clergy made sweeping attacks on us in their sermons, and in parishes where many of the strikers lived the priests announced that Mademoiselle Pesotta and Monsieur Shane already had been deported. Some of the girls phoned my hotel and learned that this was not true. I promised to be on the picket-line early next day.
To the surprise of the police, the employers, and the Fascist-minded officers of La Ligue, there was a huge turn-out of pickets on Monday, with Shane and myself at the head.
On the line that morning, the French girls confided to me that this time their priests had missed the point.
"If we had heard that stuff one year ago," said Andrea Branchard, a willowy attractive brunet with shining black eyes, "we would have believed them, but no more "
"All they want is our money, money, money," added Sally Paquette, a chairlady in one of the larger shops. "Now we know why they were against the union÷we learn things for ourselves."1
At our afternoon meeting in the auditorium, I dwelt upon the attitude of the Catholic prelates, holding that they had no ethical right to aid or encourage the formation of company unions. In contrast to this attitude in Quebec, I pointed out that when Catholic priests in the United States entered an industrial conflict, they usually sided with the workers.
I cited a few examples: friendly co-operation given us in Los Angeles by Father James F. Cunningham; food donated to our strikers there by the Catholic Welfare Association; courageous help accorded by Father E:azinsci to the steel strikers in Braddock, Pennsylvania, in 1919, and to the CIO in its drive to organize steel in 1936; outspoken pronouncements by Monsignor John A. Ryan of the National Catholic Welfare Conference in favor of labor unions; and the aid given to our union by Monsignor Joseph Smith of Cleveland. Also I emphasized the mandates to Catholics in behalf of the workers in the encyclicals of two Popes, Leo XIII and Pius XI.
The fight against us drained all our energies. We had to be alert day and night. Representatives of La Ligue Catholique visited the strikers' homes, and blackened our union and the strike in the eyes of their parents. Girls were put into the street by stern mothers be cause they could no longer bring in the pitiful wage they had been paid. Others were evicted from furnished rooms by landladies as "undesirable." We met these emergencies with cash relief, but they left their mark.
La Ligue's emissaries assailed us for helping the Spanish Loyalists against General Franco, who was their choice for ruler of the Spanish people. This gave me a legitimate reason to discuss the Spanish conflict at strike meetings and to make clear the attitude of the ILGWU. Previously I had avoided that topic, but since the Church had brought up the subject I felt in duty bound to give our union's views on the Spanish tragedy÷and to indicate what might happen to other peoples, including the Canadians, if the Loyalists lost and Franco, backed by Mussolini and Hitler, won.
But whatever I thought about the reactionary elements in the Catholic Church, I had never tried to influence my secretary, Yvette Cadeux. In view of her general intelligence, I believed time would take care of that. It did.
Shortly before the strike began, Yvette's younger sister, Denise, came into the office one afternoon. Yvette received her with tears in her eyes. She seemed so affected that I asked why.
The younger girl had lost her job as an office worker. Unable to find another, and heartsick, she had resolved to make a pilgrimage to the Shrine of St. Joseph, where a huge pile of crutches attested to the reputed miracles. Cripples who threw away those crutches, it was said, had been cured after climbing the long series of stone steps leading to the shrine.
Denise had walked several miles from her home and then made the climb on her knees, counting her beads and saying a prayer as she paused on each step. She had asked St. Joseph to help her find work.
"But, Yvette," I said, "why didn't you tell me? I could have saved her all that. We need another girl in this office. The job is hers."
As the months passed, both sisters became imbued with the spirit of militant unionism. After Yvette had translated a lot of our speeches and leaflets into French, and got a perspective on the whole fight, she began delivering speeches to her coreligionists. When the priests attacked us as "foreigners and Communists," she demolished their arguments for the benefit of the French-Canadian girls. Later the two visited many workers' homes, to counteract the speeches of our opposition.
"Now I understand what lies I've been fed all these years," Yvette confided to me one day. "Never again will I believe what is said by others about anything, unless I study the question for myself."
La Ligue Catholique opened an "employment agency" for dressmakers and began to send workers to the factories÷girls who knew little if anything about the strike. But these innocents were intercepted by the pickets, who brought them to the strike halls, where the situation was explained to them. Nearly always they joined our ranks.
The employers placed advertisements in the newspapers headed 'An Invitation to the Workers in the Dress Industry," singing the old song:
"We know that Canadian workers in the dress industry want to work for wages, not strike. We know that numbers of Canadian workers are being kept from their factory by threats and intimidation. We are willing, as employers, to meet and discuss wages and working conditions with any Canadian workers through their own Canadian organizations. We are not willing to assist any foreign agitators in forcing Canadian workers to join foreign organizations which have no concern for the workers' welfare....
"We are willing to meet workers at any time, . . . to negotiate sanely and honestly. Canadian workers, do not be misled by fantastic promises from foreign agitators. We who have given you jobs and paid you wages are your best friends.,, ,"2
By this time the girls could see for themselves how dishonest this creed was.
The Manufacturers' Guild, however, had gained the support of the reactionary daily press, which branded Shane and myself as "outsiders." Erroneously I was described in some of these attacks as a Cuban. The drum-fire became heavy.
May Day would fall on Saturday. We had planned to celebrate it fitly. Fine spring weather had come, and we all felt in holiday mood. But on Friday evening we learned that Premier Maurice Duplessis had ordered the arrest of Shane and Trepanier on a charge of "conspiracy to foment grave public disorder." And at 6:30 a.m. Saturday I was tipped off by telephone that warrants had been issued for all the strike leaders and that Shane and I were to be held for deportation. Immediately we were notified by the union's attorneys, Berkowitz & Spector, and Louis Fitch, that they would be ready to act. Mr. Berkowitz, a member of the Dominion Parliament, had many important governmental contacts.
The reasoning of our enemies was apparent. In Quebec it is not easy on a Saturday to find a judge to set bail; on Sundays none at all can be found. With the leadership in jail over the week-end, the manufacturers and the heads of La Ligue Catholique figured that the spirit of the strikers would be broken, for on Sunday, at mass in their parish churches, the priests would be certain to order the workers back into the shops.
We who faced arrest quickly got out of sight. I took breakfast in an obscure restaurant, then spent most of the forenoon in a beauty parlor, having my hair done, a facial, a manicure, and sundry other services, to keep me there as long as possible.
As I sat under the hair dryer, my thoughts strayed to New York. Delegates to the 23d ILGWU convention, who would meet in Atlantic City on Monday, would now be assembling on Randall's Island for the May Day pageant. I had hoped to be there. I pictured other May Day parades and pageants I had seen or taken part in. Outside the sun was bright and warm, the day perfect. Nostalgia pressed in upon me. Weeks of cumulative fatigue and loneliness were having their effect. I felt like a castaway on a desert island, not knowing when rescuers would come.
After the beauty parlor session, I scarcely recognized myself in the mirror and hoped others wouldn't. Not having had any word about what to do next, I ate lunch in a second secluded eating place, and went back into hiding in a movie. That night I didn't use my own room at the Hotel Mount Royal, but slept instead in another room for which a friend had registered.
But the warrants Premier Duplessis had ordered were not served. Attorney J. J. Spector had given out a statement that if the threatened arrests were made the union would apply for a writ of habeas corpus÷or whatever might be necessary÷and would fight the case. He pointed out that the 50,000 unionists in Montreal had endorsed our strike and that they would not "take this lying down."
A warning came from the Ministry of Labor that unless the strikers were sent back to work within 24 hours the arrests would be made. We answered that it was not the practice of the ILGWU's officers to order its membership around like a flock of sheep. Our arrests would not reopen the factories, we said; other leaders would step in and the strike would go on.
Duplessis backed down on Monday, when the Montreal conflict was the subject of heated discussion in the Legislative Assembly in the City of Quebec. The Premier asserted that the warrants had been issued "on information received from reliable sources, that disorder might spread to serious proportions." Now, he had suspended the serving of the warrants "until the Attorney General's Department can check the information received."
President Dubinsky, in the name of the assembled delegates at the ILGWU convention in Atlantic City, sent us a message of cordial greeting that afternoon. Hyman Langer and Sam Kreisman, our Toronto organizers, and the cloakmakers' delegates had gone to the convention, but none of the rest of us even dreamed of attending. There was no telling how long the fight might last.
But evidently we had overestimated the employers' financial strength. It soon became apparent that they were weakening. They realized that the strike must be settled, because the manufacturers who had signed individual pacts with us were operating to capacity. Now the shop owners were anxious to meet with us.
Conferences were begun ;Monday evening and went on continuously through the night and all day Tuesday. A settlement was finally reached at 2 a.m. on Wednesday. In addition to our standard provisions, it gave the strikers an immediate 10 per cent wage increase for all workers, a 44-hour week, time and a half for overtime, no Saturday a}ternoon work, and other concessions.
Thunderous applause, cheers, laughter, and jubilant singing marked a mass-meeting that afternoon at which the settlement was ratified. Girls cried with joy and kissed one another. They sang and cheered, putting great fervor into the mention of all of us around whom they had fashioned verses. One heard revealing comment:
"What a difference between this and the end of the strike three years ago.... We went back to the shops then like whipped dogs."
"Now I can go home again. My mother won't lock me out. We've won!"
"Too bad it had to end so soon. It was all fun."
Our job now was to hold shop meetings and send them back to work. But here we struck a snag. During the strike I had tried to convey to the strikers that it was not becoming to scab, and that a scab was scorned by loyal unionists. My words had had effect, and now when non-striking girls came to the halls to register and obtain working cards, many strikers refused to go back to work with them and objected bitterly to their being admitted into the union.
I explained that seldom was any strike a 100 per cent walkout; in the limited time available, it was never possible to educate everybody. I compared a strike to an election campaign or a civil war, at the end of which people who had been enemies went back to living and working side by side and managed to smooth out their differences.
Some even stronger argument obviously being needed, I found myself at a mass-meeting pleading in the name of Jesus Christ for tolerance, recalling the words spoken on the cross: "Father, forgive them; they know not what they do." That plea won them over.
Victorious in Montreal, we decided to attend the International's convention during its second week. Our party of twenty included Raoul and Mme. Trepanier, Bernard and Mrs. Shane, John and Mrs. Ulene, chairwomen from five large shops, and several newspapermen.
At the convention in Atlantic City we were escorted to the gaily decorated platform by the rest of the Canadian delegates, preceded by a brass band playing triumphant music, and banners waving high. The vast assemblage rose to its feet cheering.
Afterwards Merle D. Vincent, formerly administrator of the NRA textile and wearing apparel codes and then on our Washington staff, told me that when he saw us moving down the center aisle while that mighty welcome was sounding, he could not help comparing us to the marching citizens of Marseilles during the French Revolution.
President Dubinsky introduced the various members of our delegation and lauded each for his or her part in the Montreal victory.
"On this platform," he said, "you see many gifts. But the finest gift of all to our convention is this group of girls and men from Montreal."
At the final session of that convention I was elected as a vise-president of the International for a second term. Then I returned to Montreal to prepare for the General Executive Board's next quarterly meeting, to be held there beginning June 21. That evening we staged a mass-meeting of 5,000 garment workers in the Arena. This was a joyful occasion, with the Scottish bagpipers' band of the Canadian National Railwaymen's Union playing, and the crowd cheering and singing in French and English.
The thousands of girls and women present, lately freed from long exploitation, realized that they were now part of the great army of organized labor, and were no longer defenseless.
The occasion was rounded out by a banquet and dance at which representatives of the workers in every shop were present as guests of the International.
"My job here is finished," I told President Dubinsky as the board completed its work. "Now I want to take a long vacation."
"You're entitled to it," he agreed. "But before you start, I wish you would do me one special favor. I'd like you to go to Cleveland and give the knitwear workers a hand. Their case goes before the NLRB soon. At the most you should be through in Cleveland within two weeks."
Well, I thought, my vacation can wait that long.But I could not foresee what awaited me in Ohio.
1. Both these names are fictitious for an obvious reason.
2. Italics here are mine.-R.P.
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