For 10 frigid weeks in the winter of 1931, a collective of over 500 workers protested labour conditions in the Toronto garment industry. One in four Toronto wage earners were women, most of whom worked unskilled jobs in the manufacturing and needle trades. In addition to sweatshop conditions, workers were vulnerable to exploitation and harassment by supervisors, who controlled their paychecks and could fire them on a whim.
Inspired by the labour activism of women like Emma Goldman, living in Toronto at the time, the garment workers agreed to strike. At 10 o’clock in the morning on February 25, 1931, the women of International Ladies Garment Workers Union Local 72 walked off the job. They walked in pairs along Spadina Avenue, stopping at the Labor Lyceum on the southwest corner of Spadina Avenue and St. Andrew Street.
“All my life I will never forget this strike. It was so terrible that the police protected the shops, and they treated the workers like garbage.”
– Rose Edelist, Polish immigrant and worker in conversation with a historian in 1955.
The women demanded a 15% wage increase, shorter work weeks, recognition of their union, and impartial arbitration. Taking place during the Great Depression, the 70-day strike did not receive much support. The protesters faced harassment, assault, and arrest. The women were ultimately unsuccessful in their demands and the union was forced to negotiate with individual shops. Wage inequality and harassment in the workplace continue to be issues for female workers in Toronto.