Manitoba History: A Stitch in Time: Winnipeg Jews and the Garment Industry
by Stan Carbone
The exhibit A Stitch in Time!, which opened in December of 2013 at the Jewish Heritage Centre, explored the exciting history of the industry and its relation to Winnipeg and the Jewish community. The garment industry has had a notable impact on Winnipeg’s socio-economic and cultural development; and Jews have played a fundamental and determining role in its creation and evolution. The exhibit, parts of which are still on display, described a multidimensional and dynamic Jewish community while reflecting on the community’s relation to Canadian society as a whole.
Throughout the planning and implementation, the Jewish Heritage Centre was animated by a commitment to the principles of dialogue and community empowerment. Over the years, the Heritage Centre has engaged the Jewish community in creating and defining its history and identity. The organization sees itself as a gathering place for people seeking to make sense of their lives in relation to the past, present and, I daresay, future. We encourage our audiences to explore the multiple identities of Jewish culture, be they informed by secularism, religion, social class, gender or geography. We ask our audiences to situate themselves within any or all of these identities or identify others that we have not considered.
A Stitch in Time! was a product of extensive research in the archives of the Jewish Heritage Centre (Winnipeg) and at other archives, museums, and educational institutions. It drew on the skills of many talented individuals including former University of Winnipeg History Professor and Chair of the Programs and Exhibits Committee of the Jewish Heritage Centre, Dan Stone, and most notably assistant curator Susan Turner, who also designed the exhibit. The use and adaptation of scholarly works and reminiscences of people in the industry—including interviews with owners, workers, and labour activists—were central to the research methodology. The story was told by weaving photographs, documents, oral histories, and artifacts into a tapestry of personalities, social forces, and technological change. Within this framework the exhibit integrated the first-person (subjective) element, which is critical to understanding the human condition, with objective historical circumstances and social realities. In addition, the themes explored and analyzed sought to strike a balance between local and global developments.
As curator, I came to the exhibit with admiration and respect for the rich, complex history of Winnipeg Jewry. I am the son of immigrant parents who worked in the garment industry for and alongside Jews as well as with immigrants from other countries. Their experiences and reflections have pricked my conscience, and have contributed enormously to my intellectual and emotional development. Thinking of and cherishing them, I sought to inject into the exhibit the all-important human dimension.
The origins of the garment industry can be traced to the Red River Settlement. Warm clothing was essential for surviving the long and bitter winters, and some settlers raised sheep to produce wool. Each member of the family participated in what was the long cycle of garment production that required shearing, teasing, carding, greasing, spinning, weaving, cutting, and sewing. With the coming of steamboats on the Red River and the Canadian National Railway’s connecting the Settlement to other parts of Canada and the United States, the settlers were able to obtain a wide range of fabrics for various purposes and needs. By the 1870s, garment production had entered the mercantile phase: tailoring and dressmaking shops had opened, and storekeepers hired tailors, dressmakers, and milliners. Merchants also ordered ready-to-wear clothing as well as fabric and textile for local use. By 1885, there were twenty businesses in Winnipeg producing men’s wear, dresses, and millinery.
By the 1890s, there was a burgeoning demand for work clothes, especially for farm and railway workers, which could not be met from the east. Because this necessitated a more effective system of production and distribution, factories made their appearance. Among the first were M. B. Lee and Company and the Winnipeg Shirt and Overall Company, which was owned and operated by Moses Haid and Harry Steinberg.
By the early 1900s, Jews arriving from the shtetls of eastern Europe were beginning to establish small garment-production shops. They shared the customs and languages, and observed the same religious holidays as the people who worked for and with them. Mostly working and lower middle-class, they brought with them artisanal and craft skills as well as character traits nurtured and honed in mainly pre-industrial social and cultural milieus. They were steeped in Jewish culture and Yiddish linguistic traditions. Being able to speak Polish, Ukrainian, or Russian also helped in their dealings with a largely Jewish and eastern European work force.
Close ethnic associations kept many of the small operators afloat, enabling them to exist in a changing economic environment that was quickly giving larger retail chains the upper hand in purchasing arrangements with manufacturers. The Jewish entrepreneurs of the 1920s had one foot in the world of values, traditions, and experiences of the working class and the other foot in the business practices of modern industrial capitalism: they were in the market place but not of it. With great determination and a strong work ethic, they were able to navigate a Canadian capitalist system that was evolving from cottage and small shop operations to one caught up and transformed by the exigencies and realities of modern business practices that required faster modes of production due to increased industrialization and mechanization. During this period of flux, where occupations were blurred, a factory owner would draw on methods borrowed from craft experiences while an artisan adopted new techniques to expand his skills and reach a broader clientele.
The Labour Movement
Union organization in Winnipeg’s garment industry began in the 1890s with the founding of the United Garment Workers (UGW). In 1916, a local of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) emerged from a strike at Faultless Ladies Wear factory. Early struggles centred around better working conditions, higher wages, opposition to open shops, and the expansion of outwork.
In the 1920s, the militant Industrial Union of Needle Trades Workers (IUNTW) was formed under the auspices of the Communist Party of Canada’s Workers Unity League. By 1929, the IUNTW had organized a series of strikes resulting in the unionization of workers at the Montreal Cloak Company, Madewell Garments, Western Glove Works, and Freed and Freed. The IUNTW fought to ameliorate deplorable working conditions, such as poor lighting and ventilation, crowded working spaces, long hours, inadequate and unsanitary washroom facilities and low wages.
Throughout the 1930s, the IUNTW continued to espouse an inclusive unionism between skilled and unskilled workers. Within a generally patriarchal system, it made an effort to organize and place women in positions of authority. Bertha Dolgoy and Polya Wolodarsky were especially active in promoting trade union ideals. Although the majority of workers were women, very few held office; those who did, subordinated their interests as women to economic issues and the class struggle.
Many leaders of the IUNTW and the ILGWU were Jews. The ILGWU’s executive minute books were in Yiddish until 1942, and in 1950, even with fewer Jewish workers, fourteen of the twenty-six executive members of ILGWU local 216 were Jews. During the 1930s, a local of the International Fur and Leather Workers Union (IFLWU) was busily signing up workers, and its leadership and rank-and-file membership had a significant Jewish presence.
By the late 1930s, the Communist International’s United Front policy discouraged revolutionary tactics. More militant unions such as the IUNTW were directed to dissolve and work with traditional unions such as the ILGWU and UGW. In 1935, Sam Herbst, a Lithuanian Jew who had emigrated to the United States, arrived to sign up workers for the ILGWU. He was able to convince the owners that it was in their best interest to accept the union and sign an industry-wide contract that protected them from future labour strife. By taking this company unionism approach, Herbst was viewed as having favoured the owners. Herbst ruled with an iron fist: he discouraged participation by the rank-and-file and by women. Although there were to be no strikes in the women’s garment sector during Herbst’s twenty-five years in Winnipeg, major concessions were made to the owners, including the expansion of the piece-rate system during the Second World War, a method of work that continued into the future.
By 1944, the UGW had been taken over by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA), an affiliate of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The ACWA sought to counter Herbst’s considerable influence by signing up 1200 workers within its first year. By 1948, it had negotiated a generous benefits package for its workers and in making provisions for a negotiated settlement and a grievance arbitration system.
By the late 1950s, garment unions were no longer sites of Jewish radical culture or of Jewish working-class solidarity. The Jewish community had changed dramatically after the war: more people were becoming university-educated, and entering professions and semi-professional areas of work in impressive numbers. By the 1960s, garment workers were coming from southeast Asia, the Philippines, and southern Europe. The ILGWU and ACWA continued to operate into the 1990s. However, with the diminution of the garment work force as a result of technological change, globalization, and offshore production, union membership declined dramatically. The ILGWU and ACWA merged in 1995 to create UNITE (Union of Needle Trades, Industrial and Textile Employees) which, in 2004, merged with HERE (Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union) to create UNITE HERE.
The Tailor Project
In a 1947 brief presented to the Standing Committee on Immigration and Labour of the Senate of Canada, Michael Gerber, representing the Canadian Jewish Congress, urged the Canadian government to ease its restrictions on Jewish immigration by assuring that Jews make good Canadians and would contribute greatly to the country’s economy. Until then Canada’s response to the millions of Jews seeking refuge from Nazi persecution and dislocation from the events and consequences of the Holocaust was abysmal. Out of millions of refugees, only a few thousand were admitted between 1933 and 1948. In their book None is Too Many, Irving Abella and Harold Troper provide ample evidence to suggest that immigration policies were influenced by anti-Semitic strains in Canadian political and intellectual life.
The organized Jewish community devised several strategies to change this state of affairs, one of which was to draw on the support of the garment manufacturers and the labour movement. In conjunction with the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union and the Canadian Overseas Garment Commission, which was composed of garment manufacturers from Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Winnipeg, the Canadian Jewish Congress implemented what was to be known as the Tailor Project. The initiative was successful in capturing the attention of the Canadian government on the basis that tailors were needed to meet the demands of an ever-expanding garment industry and clothing retail sector. By April 1949 some 2,000 Jewish and non-Jewish families, many of which were in displaced camps throughout Europe, found their way to Canada. At the same time, efforts were made to attract furriers and milliners.
Winnipeg was to be assigned 7% of the total. This meant 134 tailors and their families, which yielded a total of 267 persons. But as noted in the minutes of a meeting of the Western Executive Committee (Dominion Council) of the Canadian Jewish Congress on 16 December 1948, Winnipeg actually received 193 tailors, a number which, when their families were included, yielded a total of 342 individuals.
Many of the refugees were also orphans. According to a report titled Western United Jewish Relief Agencies Projects, by March 1948, 39 of the 401 orphans brought to Canada settled in Winnipeg. Of those 26 found work in a variety of areas, most notably as sewing-machine operators in the garment industry. The report states: “There was a tendency among a number of children to prefer employment in the garment trade because they thought the best opportunities would be found there ... One of them is now drawing a weekly salary of between $50 and $60 doing piece-work in a cloak factory. There are a few more whose weekly income has reached $50.” Over the course of 1948 and 1949 more orphans were to make their way to Winnipeg, some of whom were also to find employment in the garment industry.
The Jewish Post and the Garment Industry
The Jewish Post was founded in 1925 by Ben Cohen, a former printer and seller with The Israelite Press, to address the cultural and intellectual needs of a growing number of English-speaking Jews. By the mid-1940s, the paper offered readers a mixture of local, regional, and international news as well as business and children’s columns. Frederick Fingerote, the paper’s first full-time editor, was among the first Canadian Jewish journalists to report on anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany. After the war, the paper published numerous editorials encouraging the Canadian government to relax its immigration laws and admit more Jewish refugees.
In 1945 and 1946, The Jewish Post published supplements in the form of advertisements and articles that dealt with the development and expansion of Winnipeg’s garment industry. The Second World War had given the industry a significant impetus. An editorial in 1945 notes, “There are now nearly 100 firms in Winnipeg manufacturing in quantity such articles as women’s coats and suits, dresses, ladies’ wear, trousers, windbreakers and work pants, overalls and work shirts, fine shirts, sportswear, furnishings, suspenders, knitted goods, lingerie, leather goods and novelties, gloves, hats, caps and millinery.”
In his study on the Winnipeg garment industry from 1900 to 1955, Gerry Berkowski noted that during the war, the industry experienced tremendous growth, so much so that the city and region were able to compete on equal terms with the eastern manufacturers. By 1948, Winnipeg created enough garments to satisfy local needs and to export to eastern markets. Moreover, Winnipeg was the nation’s most important manufacturer of overalls and shirts, and made impressive headway in other industry sectors.
Jews were critical to the garment industry in both wholesale manufacturing and retail distribution. The extent of their contribution, especially in relation to their population, was brought to the fore by Louis Rosenberg from information culled from census data for 1941. While Jews made up 7.7% of the population, almost 49% of all men and 21% of all women employed in clothing and textile were Jews. In the production of hats and caps, 63% of all men and 49% of all women were Jews. In hosiery and knit goods, Jews comprised 48% of all men and 36% of all women. In men’s and women’s furnishings, 40% of all men and 17% of all women were Jews. Of furriers, 53% were Jews. They made up 29% of all wholesale merchants and 33% of all retail merchants in a range of economic activities, including the garment industry.
Ethnic and Gender Composition of the Garment Industry and the Role of Government
Since the inception of the garment industry, women and immigrants have been vital to its development. Until the 1940s the industry had absorbed Jewish, Ukrainian and other eastern European immigrants. As it entered into the 1950s, women made up 80% of the industry’s total work force. That percentage remained unchanged in the 1980s. In 1982, there were 81 firms consisting of some 6,468 workers of which 82% were women. A majority of these women—approximately 60%—came from south Asian countries such as India and Pakistan as well as China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Some also came from Italy, Greece, and Portugal. By 2004, 94% of all sewing-machine operators were women. Skilled or not, these women were paid less than men, often earning below what the government had established as the minimum health and decency standard or living wage. Many of the so-called “unskilled” workers were accomplished sewers and tailors in their countries of origin, able to sew together complete outfits. In Canada, however, they were introduced to an industrialized factory system, which often broke down the work process into a single-tasked, monotonous routine.
In the late 1960s, the industry worked in tandem with the provincial and federal governments to attract labourers from Italy and the Philippines to fill mostly dead-end or lowly jobs that Canadians would not accept. One of the key recruiters was Meyer Klapman of Peerless Garment, who made three trips to Italy and three to Philippines resulting in the importation of 700 workers. By the late 1970s, it was estimated that about 26% of the approximately 3000 workers hired during the decade were from overseas. Government involvement was pivotal to the industry’s growth in terms of recruitment of overseas labour, productivity and profits. Subsidies were provided to ensure a climate conducive to growth. These included: 1) grants for technology; 2) various loans emanating from the federal and provincial governments; 3) wage subsidies; 4) tax shelters; 5) import restrictions (quotas); 6) relaxation of immigration laws; 7) federal and provincial vocational and other training programs; 8) provisions for cheap hydroelectric rates; and 9) reduced or low municipal taxes.
Yet, as Annalee Golz, David Millar and Barbara Roberts noted in their 1991 study on Winnipeg’s garment industry, “very little of these subsidies, from the public purse and therefore from taxpayers’ pockets, has trickled down to the workers. If unions or governments demand improved wages and conditions, the bosses threaten that the whole industry will run away. The old sweatshops have been replaced by modern de-skilling and speed-ups. Women, who form the bulk of the work force, have gained little in real wages over the last thirty years. They are largely confined to the low-paid jobs, easily laid off, and easily replaced by new waves of immigrants.”
The Garment Industry and Technology
As a product of the dynamics and contradictions of industrial capitalism, the development of the garment industry is inextricably linked to the evolution of technology. From its emergence in the late 1800s as a cottage industry reflective of the early years of capitalism to its transformation into a complex, elaborate entity employing a labour force drawn from all parts of the globe, and encompassing manufacturing and distribution of products as well as the logic of profit maximization, the industry employed and adapted technological innovations to meet its needs and satisfy demands that transcended purely local consumption.
In the early 1900s, the use of technology were linked with the principles of Taylorism and scientific management, which were introduced to reduce production to simple, elemental tasks that would eliminate all but the most desired motions. Some authors, such as the sociologist Harry Braverman, have argued that this contributed to the de-skilling of labour, essentially reducing the worker to an appendage of the machine. These developments were driven by the competitive nature of the industry, and the need to increase productivity and maximize profits.
In more recent years, with greater emphasis on manufacturing offshore to take advantage of cheap labour from less-developed countries, there has been a technological shift from increased mechanization to increased communication between domestic manufacturers and offshore contractors. This type of technology allows for faster product ordering and distribution and relaying of design information.
Nonetheless, as Leigh Hayden noted in her study Technology in the Winnipeg Garment Industry, some Winnipeg firms have sought to maintain domestic operations by investing in labour-saving technology. By the 1990s, many local manufacturers began to employ CAD (computer-assisted design) software to encompass the pre-production phase (design, pattern-making, and marker-making). In the production phase (spreading/cutting) some of the larger firms have introduced automated spreaders and cutters. What have may at one time required 10 workers, now necessitates only two, one to operate each machine.
Other examples of technological change that have replaced skilled labour include automated embroidery machines, and machines that automatically measure, cut and sew elastic waistbands as well as back pockets and labels.
With the shift to offshore production, introduction of more sophisticated technological means, and concomitant de-skilling of sewing-machine operators, Winnipeg’s garment industry labour force has decreased dramatically over the past thirty years. Still, as Leigh Hayden points out, much of the pre-production manufacturing phase (design, pattern-making, sourcing, and marketing) has remained in the city. But due to relatively low pay in comparison to other industries, the industry has had a difficult time attracting and keeping this class of workers.
In the 1990s Winnipeg’s garment industry continued to grow and prosper, relying predominantly on immigrant labour. By 1995, it was Manitoba’s second-largest industry. Its fortunes were ensured by World Trade Organization’s Multifibre Arrangement (1974) which placed quotas on the importation of certain textile and clothing products, thus protecting local production.
However, with the implementation of the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Textile and Clothing in 1995, quotas were phased out and completely eliminated by 2005, thus allowing for the influx of cheaper goods from China, India and other countries. This had a negative impact on Winnipeg’s garment industry. Many of the companies were forced to shut down local plants, lay off workers and move overseas to take advantage of lower labour costs, non-unionized working conditions and minimal or non-existent health and safety standards.
Due to the elimination of quotas, the Manitoba Fashion Institute, which served as the industry’s representative body and a major training centre for sewing-machine operators, was forced to close its office in 2005. Job losses in Winnipeg’s garment industry have been dramatic. In the 1990s there were some 9,000 workers employed in 115 companies. Corresponding figures for 2005 were 5,000 and 90, respectively. Particularly hit were sewing-machine operators. As Raymond Wiest noted, “...it will be largely immigrant garment workers who have felt, and will continue to feel, the effects of the removal of quotas on imported garments. Ironically, most garment manufacturing jobs are being relocated to South Asia, including some of the countries that immigrant workers in Winnipeg originally left to find work here.”
In her study of the garment industry titled Garment Production in Canada: Social and Political Implications, Roxana Ng emphasized the impact of the elimination of quotas but also identified the shift in control from manufacturers to large retail chains. Many of these chains have fragmented garment production by subcontracting work to contractors who hire home-based workers at minimal pay. This is especially the case in ladies’ and children’s wear, which are subject to seasonal fluctuation, and regular changes in fashion. Instead of investing in technology to increase efficiency and productivity, contractors in these sectors draw on cheap (largely female) immigrant labour. This forces manufacturers to scale down production and reduce their work force.
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We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 7 April 2020