On May 22, Heritage Toronto will present a plaque to commemorate the Labor Lyceum. The presentation will be followed by the “Sense of Spadina” walking tour, led by the Ontario Jewish Archives.
For over forty years, the Labor Lyceum was the epicentre of political activism for Toronto’s textile workers. Located at the southwest corner of Spadina Avenue and St. Andrew Street, it was an important cultural centre through which the collective identity of Jewish Torontonians was forged. J.B. Salsberg, a lifelong labour activist, wrote that “no single institution and no single building on Spadina – the main street of Jewish Toronto – was more important in the refashioning of the Jewish immigrant into an actively involved Canadian Jew” than was the Labor Lyceum.
Between 1901 and 1931, the Jewish population of Toronto grew from 3,000 to 45,000, a rate of growth that was four times that of the rest of the city. During this time, Toronto’s economy was growing. However, garment workers were faced with increasingly dire conditions on the factory floors. In 1913, united by hardship, they formed a co-operative led by businessman Henry Dworkin and machinist Sam Easser.
An enterprising businessman, Henry Dworkin came to Toronto from the Ukraine sometime between 1905 and 1910, following his older brother, Edward. Between 1910 and 1913, the Dworkin brothers operated two businesses: Dworkin’s Avertising Bureau – which included a stationery shop, foreign-language printer, and agency for Jewish and international newspapers. – and a wholesale tobacco business, Independent Cigar Stores, on Elizabeth Street near Queen Street.
Dworkin and Easser encouraged garment union workers to purchase shares for the Labor Lyceum Association at five dollars each. They also published an appeal to Jewish businessmen in the Yiddisher Zhurnal. The unions’ fundraising committee argued that “the Jewish businessmen of today are the workers of yesterday…if we are not tied to them through business, we are belonging with them in various societies and organizations.” In 1924, the Association purchased two houses at 344 and 246 Spadina Avenue. Five years later, they added meeting rooms.
According to historian Ruth Frager, the lyceum operated as “a Union Institution to serve the Union Workers for their social and cultural requirements… as a place where the labourer can meet his fellow men.” The seasonal nature of the textile industry meant that workers could socialize and strategize at the Labor Lyceum during slow work periods.
Despite their early efforts, conditions on the shop floor remained dreadful into the 1930s. Lighting was poor and there was no heating and no ventiliation. Furthermore, so-called “task-masters” were charged with managing the workload, discriminating in the distribution of work and rewarding those who did favours. Armed with stopwatches, they instigated “speed-ups” when the workload increased. An understaffed Department of Labour and Public Works rarely investigated labour code violations, making it easy for employers to exploit workers, who often feared for their jobs.
On February 25, 1931, garment workers organized in front of the Labor Lyceum as part of a major strike by dressmakers. At exactly ten o’clock in the morning, members of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) put down their work, stopped their machines, and abandoned their posts, walking out of garment shops along Spadina Avenue. Their display led to a general strike of dressmakers that called for a 15% increase in wages, recognition of the union, and the provision of a fair and impartial arbiter to negotiate on future labour agreements. They were ultimately unsuccessful, but their strike brought to light factory conditions in the primarily Jewish garment district.
During the height of union activism from the 1930s into the 1950s, the Labor Lyceum operated not only as a headquarters for the predominantly Jewish labour organizations in the Spadina area, but also served as a cultural centre for Jewish societies. The census of 1931 shows that 97% of the Jewish community in Toronto spoke Yiddish and Yiddish culture along Spadina Avenue prospered – through no small part of the Labor Lyceum. Poetry recitals, given by those who worked in the sweatshops, were held at the lyceum.
Resident Moishe Simon recalled spending his school holidays here: “There was a beer joint in the basement and I used to go downstairs and watch all the characters drinking and coming upstairs to complain to my father’s office about their bosses,” he said in a Toronto Star article.
In addition to a cultural node, the Labour Lyceum was also an occasional hotbed of political activism. The provincial Co-operative Commonwealth Federation – forerunner of the NDP – held conventions here during the late-1930s into the 1940s.
Emma Goldman, a frequent resident of Toronto, also spoke here several times. An anarchist, she lectured at length on drama, which she felt was a powerful instrument for social change. Once dubbed by J. Edgar Hoover as “the most dangerous woman in America,” she also used her appearances as an opportunity to raise funds for the legal defense of American anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. When she died in Toronto in 1940, her body lay in repose at the Labor Lyceum as she was remembered by friends in the Toronto Star as “a woman who had put ideals above suffering.”
Following World War II, the Labor Lyceum served as a stopover point for Jewish refugees from Europe. Referred to in memos as “tailors”, the refugees would arrive in Toronto first by train, at Union Station, before coming to the Labor Lyceum. Here, they would be assigned work by the Men’s Clothing Manufacturing Association of Ontario and would be dispersed into temporary housing provided by the Canadian Jewish Congress, the Jewish Labour Committee, and other Jewish organizations in Toronto.
Beginning in the 1950s, the Jewish community moved out of the Spadina Avenue area. The Labor Lyceum, however, remained significant to new immigrant groups and their labour activities. In 1971, the building was sold and the Association moved to Cecil Street.
Rosemary Donegan, Spadina Avenue, 1985
Ruth Frager, Sweatshop Strife: Class, ethnicity, and gender in the Jewish labour movement of Toronto, 1900-1939, 1992.
Michael Rom, “Cultural and Institutional Life in the Toronto Jewish Community Between the Wars”, Student Journal of Canadian Jewish Studies, Spring 2008.
Vivian Gornick,Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, 2011
 Some accounts show Dworkin living in Toronto in 1905. However, his marriage registration lists his date of arrival in Canada as 1 January 1910.