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Manitoba History: Review: Debra Lindsay, The Clothes Off Our Back. A History of ACTWU 459

by Pamela Wakewich
Sociology / Women’s Studies, Lakehead University

Number 34, Autumn 1997

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Debra Lindsay, The Clothes Off Our Back. A History of ACTWU 459 (Manitoba Labour History Series). Winnipeg: ACTWU 459, 1995. 156 pp., ill. ISBN 0-9695258-6-9.

The Clothes Off Our Back is an interesting and accessible history of Local 459 of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers’s Union (ACTWU). Published as part of the Manitoba Labour History Series, this 50th anniversary commemorative volume traces the evolution of the Winnipeg local from the signing of its first contract in 1945 to the challenges of workplace restructuring and globalization its members face going into the 21st century. Documentary sources for this volume include labour history collections at the National and Manitoba Provincial Archives, the University of Manitoba and Cornell University. Archival sources are supplemented by interviews with current and past Local 459 members.

The book is presented in nine chapters, followed by notes, and appendices, including a list of the current ACTWU membership and credits for the numerous archival photographs interspersed throughout the volume. Chapter One reviews the political, economic and labour-relations climate of clothing manufacture in Winnipeg in the 1940s. It discusses the contradictory impact of Canada’s entry to World War II on the labour process and labour relations. On the one hand large government orders made an assembly line approach to clothing production even more popular (Lindsay, 4). Manufacturers capitalized on the pressure to fill government orders quickly and inexpensively by replacing hourly salaries with a piece-work system and by allowing or “even promot[ing] ‘sweat-shop’ conditions in their factories.” (Lindsay, 4) On the other hand, because of the wartime labour shortage, workers were increasingly able to press demands for improved working conditions and better salaries. Lindsay frames her discussion of the historical disputes between unions representing various sectors of the garment trade, as well as a profile of key figures in the establishment of the ACTWU local, within this complex social and political environment.

Chapter Two examines Canadian labour law in the 1940s and its impact on subsequent labour relations and contract negotiations. With the introduction of P.C. 1003, the Wartime Labour Relations Order to prevent disruption of wartime production by strikes or lockouts, employers were forced “to recognized unions and negotiate with their employees when a majority of them had signed union cards.” (Ibid., 17). As Lindsay points out, the new legislation facilitated union certification and collective bargaining. However, its lukewarm reception by employers meant that tensions between labour and management were not dissipated—just less visible to the public eye.

Chapter Three examines the composition of Local 459’s membership from 1945-1960. As something of a challenge to critics of the androcentric basis of the trade union movement, Lindsay documents the early and important contributions of female members such as Kay Stifora who were active in the organization of the local and served as stewards and members of the executive. Individual recollections and histories are interwoven throughout this chapter with a description of the demographic characteristics of the local’s largely female-dominated membership and a brief discussion of the conditions of women’s factory work.

Chapter Four describes the postwar anti-union climate, the corresponding Union Label campaign of the 1950s to promote unions and union-made products, and the role of Local 459 in that campaign. Chapters Five and Six place the developmental growth of Local 459 during the 1950s and 1960s within the broader national and international labour context. Lindsay examines significant national and international labour tensions of the 1950s and 1960s, such as the merger of the AFL and CIO, and debates about local autonomy versus international union solidarity. She describes growing discontentment over the “role of the international in local affairs” (Ibid., 69) resulting in a split among members of Local 459—one group supporting local autonomy, the other favouring the international. The issue was only resolved after a lengthy internal struggle for control of the executive and a failed civil suit on the part of a group of dissenting members.

Chapters Seven and Eight describe the participation and commitment of Local 459 members to the provision of social benefit and developmental programs for its membership and their families, as well as the union’s history of support for social justice initiatives. Lindsay details the union’s involvement in innovative programs such as proworker banking facilities, non-profit housing and lobbies for rent control, its promotion of, and participation in, research on occupational health and safety, and its contributions to other unions and community organizations. Local 459’s support of social justice and community work is, according to Lindsay, consistent with its political philosophy and “echoes ideas put forward early on by the union—especially the idea that unionism is inseparable from politics and culture.” (Ibid., 92). One particularly interesting and innovative program which links education to activism was focussed on eradicating communication barriers to members’ union participation. Recognizing that its current membership represented over twenty language groups, the local initiated a program to provide English as a second language (ESL) and life skills training with a particular focus on workers’ rights and understanding the collective agreement. One particular challenge of this project was to rewrite the union contract in “plain language” and translate it into the predominant languages of its membership (Ibid., 97).

Chapter Nine details the current challenges faced by Local 459 and, indeed, by unions as a whole—globalization, and restructuring of the workplace. Here Lindsay discusses the impact of plant closures in Manitoba (already significant by the 1980s), strained management-labour relations over the increase in manufacturing imports, Canada’s signing of the NAFTA (North American Free Trade) agreement, and the difficulties of maintaining worker-solidarity in the contemporary global workplace. ACTWU’s merger with ILGWU (the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union) in the early 1990s to form UNITE is discussed as an important collective response to the current inhospitable labour climate and is seen to derive from their “long history of cooperation in the struggle for protective labour legislation, fight for human rights, and anti-import, anti-free trade movements.” (Ibid., 27). This merger, along with creatives responses to other difficult labour and economic challenges documented throughout the book are seen to signify the continued energy within the union to meet current and future labour struggles.

The Clothes Off Our Back provides an interesting introduction to recent labour politics and history as they appear through the lens of one particular union local. Lindsay’s book provides a rich and engaging account of Local 459 in a very accessible fashion without losing the complexity of inter- and intra-union and industry challenges and struggles. The book’s presentation style and organization are largely successful although at times its broad thematic treatment results in confusion about the timeframes and particular manifestations of the union being discussed, as well as some repetitiveness of earlier discussions (see for example Chapter Six). The one obvious absence in the text is any serious treatment of gender and ethnic tensions among the membership. While, as previously noted, Chapter Three documents the participation of women in union’s organization and administration, as she later briefly discusses the heightened awareness by the early 1970s of the need to promote “women’s goals within the union” (Ibid., 105) did not translate into increased leadership roles for women until a full decade later. Similarly while, some mention is made early on of ethnic divisions among the union’s members these issues are not fully addressed. One might anticipate, on the basis of research by Gannage and many others that gender and ethnic divisions were also something of a source of tension within this local (C. Gannage, Double Day. Double Bind. Toronto: The Women’s Press, 1986). It is perhaps not realistic to expect that a celebratory volume of this nature would centrally address these issues, however a more careful analysis of these concerns would seem particularly important in a union with a long history of female-dominated and recent-immigrant membership.

Finally, also worthy of mention are the books’ unique graphic design and style. Designer Norm Schmidt has creatively integrated iconography of a “seam allowance”, sewing machines and patches of raw fabric on the book’s soft cover, and each chapter’s introductory pages as well as textboxes which contain individual worker’s oral history accounts. And the high quality of printing and photoreproduction make this a veritable “coffee-table” book for workers or those interested in labour history.

Page revised: 26 September 2012

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