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      The 1934 Cloak Company Strike

 

On July 19, 1934, the Guelph Mercury made an exciting announcement. They wrote that the Superior Cloak Company of Toronto would be moving to Guelph into  the former Steel Wire Co. Building on Baker Street. It was to share its premises with the Popular Cloak Co. That company  had only opened shop about a month previously.

 What the local newspapers did not know - and Louis Posluns the owner of Superior did not tell them, was that the workers in their Toronto shop  were unawareof this decision.These employees, members of the CIO International Lady Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), had no idea that Posluns was going toclose up shop, transfer the machinery to Guelph and hire cheaper, non-union workers.When they finally did find out, they, with the backing of their union, including the redoubtable Samuel Kraisman, made a decision. The result - life in Guelph was about to become very  interesting. 

Taking Their Protest on the Road

It was the time of the Great Depression so the workers at the Superior Cloak had nothing to lose. They decided to risk everything and take their protest  on the road  –  to Guelph. Initially, a few employees made it up the highway to Guelph to march in front of the Superior/Popular Cloak  Co. Kraisman took the forefront and  warned  in a  speech in City Hall on July 27 that the strike would extend from Toronto into the  city.  Alderman C. E. Fulton and the Guelph Trades and Labour Council President,  William Halliday, supported him. Fulton ramped up the rhetoric at a special  meeting of City Council  stating that he would not be party to any  industry that  “came here … for the purpose of  getting out  from under an agreement with the union.”



     Trouble Erupts

However, what began as a small peaceful, information picket of a few workers at both Cloak Work Companies in late July was to change character. Guelph’s downtown streets were suddenly flooded with visiting striking workers. Baker Street, for the ten days the strike lasted, became a tourist spot  One headline in  the local paper read: 


"BAKER STREET IS A MECCA FOR HUGE CROWD AS STRIKE IS CONTINUED"


By August 21, 1934, when the first serious trouble began, 200 Toronto workers had driven from Toronto for a meeting with Samuel Kraisman. Just before 8 am, on  Upper Wyndham, near the Cutten property, “bricks flew fast and furious as workers at the cloak works fought with strikers. This “Wild  Melee” raged up and down  Wyndham spilling onto Quebec and Baker Streets. The police and the fire department were called in, the latter hosing  down anyone caught up in the fray. The violence continued into the next day. The headlines for the Guelph Mercury read that day:


GUELPH POLICE ARREST SIX MORE STRIKERS

Stones Hurled During Fresh Strike Rumpus Outside Cloak Co. Plant


This was the nature of the event for several days - a strike in which Kraisman, the union agent and Posluns faced each other. While Kraisman was   accused of  inciting  the strikers it was Posluns who was charged with “discharging a loaded revolver with intent to injure.” 




  Everyone Weighs In


The strike may have polarized some people, but, as the Mercury was quick to point out, not everybody was adverse to the sudden influx of newcomers.  The paper noted: 


Guelph hotels are doing a land office business as a result of the garment workers’ strike here.

Strikers and police all have to be accommodated, and, when, in addition, the various out of town authorities are seeking hotel rooms, the demand increases steadily. Two or three have been completely filled, and in at least one instance, strikers and police slept in the same hotel 

(Guelph Mercury, August 25, 1934).

    

 Guelph citizens and officials also expressed their thoughts on the strike. They did not approve of the high cost the city was paying for police guards (They were being  paid as much as $5 a day and hotel expenses.) to remove goods from the factory at night. Some even gladly took part in the “riots”  including some children who sat on  a nearby roof and tossed down bricks at the employees trying to enter the plants. Both the employed and unemployed were expressing their distaste for company  tactics and venting their rage against the Depression.


    Mayor Robson and the Strike

 

As the strike continued, R. Beverly Robson, Mayor of Guelph, criticized for not doing enough, was threatened by calls for his resignation. He did seek help from the Ontario Attorney General at the time – General Arthur Roebuck. However, according to Roebuck, who held a meeting of all involved parties, Robson was of little help.  The Peterborough Examiner quotes Roebuck saying Robson had” screamed for bayonets.” This was a charge Robson denied although he did say he had sought  police support from Roebuck.

Whatever the mayor’s request, he was saved from resigning by the end of the strike on August 30. The LGWU won. Popular Cloak Works stayed in     Guelph; Superior  Cloak Works returned to Toronto, and Guelph garment workers benefited. Popular Cloak Works was unionized. The following year, when they went out, the strike was settled in a few days. The union reached a compromise with management on a wage increase.




                                                                                                      

 

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