During both World Wars, the entire country became mobilized. Companies that once produced everyday items were retooled for war production. Guelph was no different than other communities across Canada. It showed its support for the war effort in a number of ways. Citizens and businesses alike bought War and Victory Bonds –some making it into a contest.They planted Victory Gardens. Children left school early. On those days, on weekends and/or on their days off, they joined factory workers to become “Soldiers of the Land.” They helped farmers plough, plant and harvest crops.
World War I
The burgeoning industries in Guelph attracted new workers. Many left their businesses to work in plants producing munitions e.g. Page-Hersey and Taylor-Forbes, where the pay was higher. This was not as easy as many first thought. One person writing during WWI remarked:
“I, myself have been in munitions since they started in Guelph, and, of course, have seen several young chaps who have left their places of business in the city, owing to the high wages paid in these plants, but it did not take much to sicken them, when it came to lifting a few shells, and they soon vanished back into the business world again.”
At Taylor-Forbes, which shifted over from the production of lawn mowers and other related devices to munitions, women took over the machines. At Guelph Worsted Spinning Mills, Sterling Rubber and Guelph Carpet Mills, war production of clothing and other related items made it essential to keep the plants running at all hours whenever possible. A shortage of workers was an ongoing problem, but not the only one. In WWI Guelph suffered a constant coal shortage. Food items were rationed, costs increased for even the most basic of necessities and scarcities of various items occurred.
For workers, while wages increased, working conditions did not necessarily improve. Yet, in spite of the difficulties, workers staged few strikes during this period. Six took place from 1914 to 1918 inclusively. The most dynamic union was the International Moulders Union who had members at Crowe’s Foundry, the Guelph Stove Company and Griffins Foundry. One of the most active year for strikes was 1917. The following went out:
Grand Trunk Railway – May 7-14, 1917: 14 Freight handlers went out concerning wages
Crowes, Guelph Stove Company and Griffin’s Foundry – July 21-26, 1917: 100 moulders went out over a wage decrease
Page-Hersey – September 8-10, 1917: 150 machinists went out to protest decrease in wages and an increase in hours
World War II
During World War II, Guelph underwent an industrial boom. The Guelph Mercury referred to it as “one of the greatest…in the history of the city.” Production, particularly war production, swelled the numbers living and working in the city. A variety of companies produced materials for the war, including munitions. Some other firms contracted their work out to larger firms in Toronto. The companies included:
Sherer-Gillet Co: Shipping containers for automatic arms
Page-Hersey: Shell casings
Zephyr Looms & Textiles : Web equipment, belts, haversacks, frogs
Callander Foundry: tank parts, naval equipment, radar supplies
Steele Wire Springs: Fine fuse springs, heavy gun springs
Leland Electric Canada Ltd.: War material
IMICO: War Material
York Wood Industries: Munition boxes
At Taylor-Forbes, the VP and production manager, Craig Evans, was head of the Guelph Zone for Co-ordination of Industrial Production. The Guelph Zone included Acton, Elora, Fergus, Georgetown, Milton, Mount Forest and Orangeville. The plant itself was taken over by the Department of Munitions and Supplies in August 1942.
Growth of Industries
The increase in production resulted in the construction of extensions to several industries including Leland, IMICO and Zephyr. At work, the increased need for production meant extended hours and exemptions for increasing the hours women could work for “essential” industries. When a worker took such employment, he or she could not leave their job without permission from the National Selective Service.
Other problems emerged during the war. Longer hours and the increased demand for products meant an increase in accidents. Inspectors reported incidents of child labor. Overall, working conditions were far from favorable. This was particularly true for those who worked in foundries. Summers during the war were extremely hot. In fact, some factories were forced to slow down or stop production because of the sweltering heat.
Other issues created difficult conditions for the working class in Guelph. Chief among these was the increased cost of living. Add to this a scarcity of housing and issues with wages and union acceptance by companies. The result was several strikes occurred. The number more than doubled the amount of those in WWI.
Workers at Northern Rubber went out twice during the war (1939 and 1940). A sticking point was wages in the new contract. Other strikes occurred at
Guelph Carpet & Worsted – May 31-June 2, 1941 35 workers over wage rate
Leland Electric – July, 1941 – 50 women
Federal Wire & Cable – June 16-18, 1943: 153 workers over union recognition
Biltmore Hats – Jul 28-August 7, 1944: 12 workers over union fees not paid
IMICO – August 11, 1944: 360 workers over delayed ruling on wages by the government
IMICO – February 23-26, 1945: 414 foundry workers over wages and war board’s decision
IMICO – March 16, 1945: 35 moulders concerning wages
IMICO – June 26-July 2, 1945: 227 foundry workers against war board’s finding on wage increase
Federal Wire – August 16-November 26, 1945: 246 workers over war board’s conciliation implementation
The end of the war meant a decrease in working hours. This was not so much to improve working conditions overall. Its intent, according to Mr. Ryde, a government official, was to make sure more people kept their jobs as the city and Canada shifted over into post-war production.