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She Never Was Afraid
The Biography of Annie Buller, by Louise Watson

The needle trades

It was in 1913, when war clouds were already looming large on the horizons of Europe, that young John Boychuk left his native Ukraine to search for a better life in a new land. By a long and circuitous route through Austria and Germany, fraught with countless obstacles and difficulties, after many months he finally arrived in Canada.

John was a tailor, and after a time secured a job at Eaton's, working nine or 10 hours a day, six days a week. Eaton's widely advertised their fine custom-made suits — high priced of course — catering to the expensive tastes of gentlemen in the elite of society. No one knew or cared that these exclusive garments were created by the deft fingers of workers like John whose weekly wage was the magnificent sum of $9.00, and who could never have purchased an item of their own handiwork.

After five years at Eaton's, John moved to Hobberlin's where the pay was a dollar or two more, and where the tailors were beginning to think about organizing a union.

Under the leadership of forward-thinking men and women thousands of workers were being organized all over the country into unions which included skilled and unskilled alike.

The Hobberlin tailors began having discussions about a union. They formed committees and set about getting workers lined up. In due time they were successful, and won their first contract by which they gained an eight-hour day and no Saturday work. They were the first Tailor's Union to do so.

A similar experience was that of two young Jewish girls, Sarah Koza and her sister, who left their homeland and came to Canada to make a new life. They left behind their parents and two younger brothers. Their aim was to earn enough and save enough to bring the rest of the family out later and establish a home.

In early years, 1880-1890, women who were expert with the needle used to do work as seamstresses, making dresses and costumes for ladies of the upper class. By 1900, however, with the increasing use of machines, the manufacture of ready-made clothing developed, and over a period of time became the multimillion dollar industry that it is today. The path of development of this industry was one of severe oppression of its workers and a complete lack of humane feeling for their health and well-being.

The manufacturers hired women to operate the machines, firstly because they could pay them less than men, and secondly because they were more adept.

The main centres of the trade in Canada were in Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg. It became a real sweatshop industry, and branched out into almost every type of clothing worn by both women and men.

Working conditions in these factories were extremely bad. There was a lack of adequate sanitary facilities, lack of ventilation, very hot in summer and cold in winter — respiratory diseases developed from breathing dust and particles of lint from the cloth. They worked long hours, six days a week, and wages for the most part were based on piecework rates, so that workers had to work with terrific speed and concentration to make a living.

This was what faced Sarah and her sister when, like so many other girls and women of immigrant families, they found work in the shops where women's clothing was made. They soon mastered the operation of the machines and became proficient in their work as dressmakers.

The work was seasonal, and in the off-periods there would frequently be layoffs. Furthermore, there was the practice of contracting work out to women who could not leave their homes. They were paid less of course, since the boss delivered the work to them and picked it up when finished. In the off-periods the work available would still be given to these home workers while workers in the shop would be laid off.

Sarah and her sister managed to earn between $8.00 and $10.00 for a 46 or 48 hour week in the busy times. They had a room they paid $8.00 a month for, and had to make sure they had enough money put by, to cover their expenses over the slack periods.

The fund for their parents' passage was not growing very fast, even though they denied themselves many things, but by 1926 they were able to arrange for it on an installment plan and the longed-for day came when the parents and two boys arrived, and the family was together in a three room flat.

In the United States the centre of the trade was in New York. Exclusive dresses, blouses, etc., were made there, and in Canada it became a status symbol for well-off women to wear a New York import.

In Canada dresses were made for "the large department stores by the bundle, and prices for the worker making them were set per dress. It was possible to make two in a day, perhaps three if the worker was fast, any more than that required the most intense speed-up. At the Style Dress Company in Toronto in 1928 the price per dress was 95 cents. In some shops it was much less. In Vancouver it was reported in 1930 that Japanese women workers had to make cheap dresses for the stores at a rate of $2.00 a dozen. Dresses that retailed for $25.00 were made at the rate of 30 cents per dress.

At this time there were two unions with headquarters in the United States which had branches in Canada. Their members were organized on the basis of the different sections of the needle trades, that is, what they considered a craft basis. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers included tailors, cloakmakers, hats, caps, etc., while in the field of women's clothing it was the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, covering a wide range of categories but in which the dressmakers were not included. There was no cohesion between these workers even though they were all needle workers in one way or another.

It was the practice for the manufacturers to hire through the union, so there developed a relationship between the bosses and union leadership which was very detrimental to the workers. They signed agreements without discussion with the rank and file members as to their problems, wages, shop conditions, and so on. As a consequence there developed a widespread feeling of mistrust in the leadership and the conduct of the union.

At a convention of the ILGWU in 1925 in Philadelphia a group of militant left-wing workers was present. They were a minority delegation, but really represented the majority of the rank and file members. They presented a resolution on world trade union unity which was promptly voted down. These workers were members of the Trade Union Educational League, and were later expelled from the union. This left-wing group fought for the basic needs of the membership.

There was general dissatisfaction with the international locals who shared jurisdiction over the needle trades, and militancy was growing among these workers. Over the next few years a number of strikes and protests took place. Some of them were lost through the collaboration of the union leaders with the bosses; a few of them were won.

In November of 1926 some 26,000 cloakmakers and dressmakers went out in New York, but the right wing helped the boss to defeat the strike.

In February of 1928 two women were arrested in front of the Acme Clothing Company in Toronto. They were charged with "peaceful picketing in an endeavour to compel other employees of the Company to go on strike."

Two men workers were discharged from their jobs on the order of the right-wing union officials. The reason — "They had been agitating because of the raising of the production standards" (i.e. speed-up).

In June of 1928 there was a great demonstration of needle workers in Montreal at the Mount Royal Arena. It was the greatest demonstration ever held by needle workers in Canada. This meeting was called by the Trade Union Educational League, and almost 5,000 needle workers were there.

The right wing tried to break up the meeting by bringing in gangsters and cutthroats to create a disturbance. They prevented about 2,000 workers from getting in. Some clothing workers from Toronto travelled all the way to Montreal in a truck in order to attend and express their solidarity.

The first attempt to organize needle workers into a Canadian union was made by the cloakmakers and dressmakers of Montreal, and later by the dressmakers of Toronto and the headgear workers of Winnipeg. This was in an effort to unify the work then carried on separately.

They called for a conference to be held of all new organizations and groups of needle workers in Canada.

The conference was held in Toronto on August 4th and 5th, 1928 and here was established the Industrial Union of Needle Trades Workers. Some of the decisions they made were:

— To establish an all-inclusive industrial union of needle trades workers.

— The election of a provisional national committee and national organizer to take up all activities until the convention.

— To issue a manifesto to all needle workers in Canada to immediately start an organizational campaign to organize all the unorganized.

—To immediately commence a campaign to raise $5000.00 to aid in the campaign to organize the unorganized, the provisional national committee to take charge of this.

—To call an annual convention of all needle trades workers of Canada — a special convention to be held in the near future.

J.B. Salzberg was appointed the national organizer, and he immediately went to Montreal and opened an office to launch the campaign. An encouraging factor was that the French Canadian workers began to be interested in the union.

The campaign picked up momentum, and at a joint meeting with the dressmakers, J.B. reported that work had begun among the fur workers, and that in Winnipeg and Toronto the needle trades workers were preparing plans for organization. There were about 30,000 in the four main branches of the trades, and only about 3,000 of them were organized.

The greatest lack of organization was in the fur trade and the dressmakers.

Pressers at the Royal Dress Company in Montreal went on strike against a reduction in piecework rates. After two days the company agreed to their demands.

There was a strike of raincoat makers in Winnipeg, but after six weeks on the picket line the strike folded. There was so much intimidation by the police and company-hired thugs that the workers felt it was not possible to go on.

Now what of Annie while all this was going on? She had been business manager of The Worker for some time. She saw to it that the drive to organize the various sections of the needle trades into the new industrial union was given full coverage, and the paper supported these workers all the way.

When the new union was preparing its first national convention in the spring of 1929 they issued an invitation to The Worker to be represented. The invitation stated: "We were prompted to make this decision by the fact that The Worker is the only English labour publication in this country that has supported our organization continuously and never closed its columns for our news or requests of our organization."

In December the Industrial Union of Needle Trades Workers issued an appeal to "All Organized Labour in Canada", to "All Needle Trades Workers in Canada", to "All Class Conscious Workers of Canada" to help in the organizational campaign.

That same month a banquet was held, and Annie became the new organizer for the needle trades union, a part of the Workers Unity League.

The following spring when the Workers Unity League announced the names of the Provisional Executive for the needle trades section they were: Annie and Max Shur for Toronto, J. Gershman for Montreal, and M. Dolgoy for Winnipeg.

When Annie spoke at a conference of shop delegates from the dressmakers of Toronto she pointed out that the struggle to build their union would not be won without a fight. She reminded them of how the International had attempted to defeat the strike of the 15,000 dressmakers of New York, and that they would line up the manufacturers to defeat the industrial union in Canada too. She stressed that they must hold shop meetings, conferences of shop delegates, mass meetings, initiate activity in the shops, and in this way they would win workers to the union. A shop delegate council was elected with one delegate for every 10 workers. This conference was a real step forward in the life of the industrial union.

Annie was becoming well-known to workers in Canada, not only for her support of their struggles in the columns of The Worker, but also for her ability as a speaker and organizer. She spoke and was known as a Communist, and was admired and respected by all kinds of workers, from many different backgrounds. She was able to call a conference of labour organizations from all the trades, to appeal for support for the needle trades workers' efforts to build an industrial union. Annie addressed that meeting and won a most heartening display of labour unity.

She was able to speak in a way which inspired people with the kind of determination and courage to keep fighting. It is evident that workers would leave the dressmakers organizational meetings determined to fight not only the bosses but also the scabs of the International.

When the dressmakers held a rally of all their members, J. Gershman of Montreal was the main speaker. He announced the first issue of the Needle Worker, a paper which dealt with the strikes of the dressmakers, furriers, and conditions in every branch of the needle industry.

In January of 1931 the IUNTW issued a strike call to all workers of the dressmaking section of the Workers Unity League in Toronto, and appealed to all trade unionists to aid the strike financially. The strike was for improved conditions in the industry. The hours of work and the wages of these workers were the worst and most unstable in the country, and sweatshop conditions had been allowed to continue without being challenged.

The response was very encouraging and showed a growing confidence of workers in the industrial union as an organization that would fight for better conditions. Over 500 workers affecting 10 shops came out on the picket line.

The ILGWU, sensing the militancy of the dressmakers, and seeing them on the picket line in such numbers, began to think about how to break them up. They and the riffraff of the company unions of the AFL called a meeting in the Labour Lyceum. They appealed to the workers to join the company union, to "keep cool" and "above all don't listen to the communist agitators" who, they said, were leading the strike. They even got some city officials to come and talk to the strikers, and they told the workers that "Toronto would be greatly impressed if you would all join the ILGWU." Strange talk from people who, when they were asked earlier to help, had said, "We have enough trouble without being bothered with you dressmakers."

A notice was put in the papers headed,


— Under-paid
— Over-worked
— Are on strike
— For recognition of their union
— For better conditions


The notice also stated that a relief campaign was being organized for the dressmakers and that funds could be sent by special delivery or wire to the Workers' International Relief, 331 Bay Street, Toronto.

The strike involved the right of workers to belong to the union of their own choosing, the right to collective bargaining through their own elected shop committees, and against sweatshop conditions and speed-up.

The workers faithfully showed up on the picket line every day, but were terrorized and beaten up by hired thugs. The AFL sent scabs into the shops, and the Toronto press supported these strike breakers. The whole force of anti-union sentiment was hurled against these workers. Finally at the end of the month the general strike of the dressmakers was called off, and plans were made for individual strikes of the various shops.

It had become obvious that 75 or 80 per cent of the dressmakers could have been organized had it not been for the fact that the International had openly and deliberately acted as a scab agency. From the first day of the strike they had supplied scabs, as well as terrorizing the workers not to answer the call of the IUNTW.

However in spite of their efforts the strike gained members and consolidated the forces of the union. It succeeded in laying a healthy foundation for the industrial union.

Annie said of the experience, "Years of agitation and propaganda would not have convinced the workers that the International is really a scab agency, but their despicable work during the general strike proved them to be an agency that serves the interests of the bosses."

Ten strike pickets were arrested. One was sentenced to two months, and the rest got 30 days, or a fine of $10.00 and costs. One was ordered deported.

The International brought all their scabs and muggers to court to confer with the police for the purpose of framing the pickets. They worked frantically all day in the court in order that workers who were determined to organize the dressmakers and win humane conditions for them would be put behind bars.

There was so much confusion as to the reason the strike was broken that Annie issued a letter to all needle trades workers in Canada to clear up the situation which had developed in connection with the dressmakers strike in Toronto. The letter stated in part, "Although in the needle industry there exist unions for many years, which during the first period of their existence fought for better conditions for the workers, the dressmakers had no organization which would at least partially combat the attacks of the bosses. The ILGWU, following in the footsteps of all the other reactionary unions of the AFL, discarded entirely during the last years the principles of class struggle, substituting it with the interests of class collaboration. Instead of being an organization which would lead the struggles of the workers for better conditions, the International became an open agency of the bosses, and has been assisting them in the realization of their chief slogan . `More production at cheaper rates'."

As the Depression deepened, the struggle sharpened in the needle trades as manufacturers tried all sorts of methods to cut wages, while increasing production. In many cases they did this with the connivance of the ILGWU. The result was that under the leadership of the new industrial union the workers were fighting back, in line with the program of class struggle enunciated at the second convention of the Industrial Union of Needle Trades Workers.

For example, there was a work stoppage at Derkelbaum Bros. in Montreal because the boss planned to introduce piecework as well as worsen shop conditions. He announced that all those who refused to accept the new piecework rate of 40 cents a suit could not come to work. If the workers accepted this plan it would have meant a cut of from $3.00 to $6.00 a week in their pay, besides a terrific speed-up. The union called shop meetings and organized the operators, finishers and pressers. After a four hour stoppage the boss was forced to grant the old conditions and old prices.

Also in Montreal four workers of a ladies wear shop were arrested because they called the workers of the shop to a meeting against wage cuts and firings.

In Toronto there was a strike at Creeds Ready to Wear against a 20 per cent wage cut. The strike was won and the wage cut withdrawn. The alteration department was given a 5 per cent increase.

In Winnipeg a great many stoppages and strikes developed among the different sections of the trade — all against wage cuts. At the Jacob Crowley Cloak Shop a hundred workers walked out. The strike spread and 80 more needle workers joined in. Many sympathetic workers' organizations pledged support, and the National Unemployed Association came to help with the picketing. Twenty cloak makers were arrested, and J. Gershman was threatened as an "undesirable alien".

In face of this situation, the general executive board of the industrial union decided to send Annie to Winnipeg to organize the campaign against wage cuts and layoffs in the needle trades. In spite of the fact that the usually busy season was on, workers were asked to accept wage cuts. They were asked by the bosses to accept the cuts "willingly, without any resistance".

Annie prepared to take on the fight, and the campaign was launched with a mass meeting at the Liberty Temple. Annie spoke on How to Fight Wage Cuts. She dealt with the role of reactionary unions in helping the bosses to lower the already low standard of living. Her speech was well received, and a number of rank and file workers of the United Garment Workers Union said they were anxious to join and help build the Industrial Needle Trades Union. The results of the meeting were very encouraging.

When Annie took on the Winnipeg assignment she, Harry and little Jimmy packed up and moved to that city, where she continued the work until her arrest after the Estevan affair.

The dressmakers seem to have been buffeted about in all three cities of the trade — some successes, some losses and since the International was also trying to get them in that union, it was recognized that there was no room for two. As our friend, Sarah, said, "It was hard enough to get one." So in 1936 the Dressmakers' Industrial Union joined up with the ILGWU. They had earned a place of authority that could not be denied them, and they continued to be a vital and militant part of the needle trades organization.


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