In 1919, Live Wire, a branch of an American company, moved into the basement of a building on Metcalfe Street. At that point, it was housing FE Partridge Rubber. It was incorporated by Charles Dunbar, Lee W. Goetz and John Sutherland.
The founder of Live Wire, John Godfrey Smith, hired six employees to begin with. Their product was insulated wires and cables. Here, the company was to remain – growing its product base and slowly increasing the number of employees.
In 1926, Live Wire had doubled its staff. With no room to expand, the company decided to relocate to 225 Dublin Street north – purchasing the building from the Guelph Carriage Top Company and renovating it to accommodate their equipment. At that time, J. Godfrey Smith was still the company’s general manager.
A year later, now with John Kennedy as company president, the company underwent a name change. Live Wire was now to be known as Federal Wire and Cable – although the name did not legally change until October 21, 1929.
Federal Wire remained on Dublin Street until 1936. By 1934, they had 34 employees. The product line also increased. They now produced all types of wiring including:
In September 1936, Federal Wire expanded by moving into the premises previously used by Crowe’s Foundry. The Suffolk Street location was suitable for the growing demand for their products and services. They would need the space when Canada went to war. Federal Wire, like so many other local companies, was to answer the demand for military products
World War Two
In an article titled “Observer Gapes In Trip Through Local Factory,” the scope of the factory including its products is displayed clearly. The reporter provides the following information on the company’s technological changes: “There is a machine that can wind 16,000 feet an hour of steel wire where formerly the output was 10,000 feet a day.”
The article goes on to note the company is making ignition cable for army trucks as well as for aircraft. During this time, “girls” worked in the “most colourful department in the plant…the assembly room…with multi-colored lead-ins for army truck assemblies.
During the war, Federal Wire became one of only six Canadian companies elected to produce “several million yards of degaussing cable and electrical cable for shipbuilding and for Royal Navy bases abroad, both of which were shipped until the end of the war.” Among the personnel working herewase Lorne Aldon Patterson (1914 – 2008), grandfather of Olympic medallist Rosie MacLennan. He had been a gymnast who had qualified for the 1940 Summer Olympics. When war cancelled his dream, he volunteered for the Canadian Armed Forces. Instead, because of his background and education in engineering, he was sent to work at Federal Wire and Cable.
The Strikes of 1943 and 1945
The workers at Federal Wire were not a content lot as the war slowly ground to a halt. On June 17, 1943, 300 employees at Federal Wire walked off the job. They were looking for union recognition. The union in question was the CIO-affiliated United Steel Workers of America (USWA) Local 3021.
Initially, six pickets at a time guarded the entry/exit of the plant. The arrangement was to change them every two hours. This first strike was brief. Employees returned to work on June 18 after conciliation. Now, the union was an integral component of Federal Wire. This meant the employees were better prepared the next time they went on strike.
On August 16, 1945, 246 Federal Wire employees once again walked off the job. The strike began when the company representatives refused to include union security measures in the collective bargaining agreement. The company would neither recognize nor implement the original majority report of the Board for check-off. Neither the company nor the workers had any idea when they did so that they would remain out until November 26 of that year.
A picket routine was quickly established. Workers set up a tent on the nearby railroad property to make it easier for workers if the weather changed for the worse. The Guelph Mercury printed a photo of the encampment and several workers surrounding it.
Shortly following the taking of this picture, the police requested they remove themselves from CNR property. The employees obliged. However, in a show of solidarity, nearby residents allowed strikers to set up the tents on their property.
The newspaper had also included a photo of “two pretty pickets – Florence Jackson wants freedom and Rita MacIntyre says “Yes!” Pretty they may be, but the female employees at Federal Wire were anything but passive. In this action, women took part in the fray. In fact, one reporter stated, “women workers continue to take their full turn at picket duty, and if anything are more aggressive than male strikers.”
Female employees had a reason to be so. The actions of the company dictated their responses and that of the union which was determined to prevail. Women and men fought against the company’s use of scabs and incidences of violence against picketers. On the first day of the strike, a young woman, Beatrice Cooper, was struck when a car charged the picket line.
The following day, strikers doubled down on the picket line. They also took to the streets that morning in a parade of around 200 strong. They left the United Steelworkers’ Hall – then on Wyndham Street and walked through the streets of Guelph in an orderly if boisterous fashion. The signs they carried stated: “The Board says Yes – the Management Says No,” “On Strike for the Four Freedoms,” “The Judges Agree with Us,” “The War is Won – Help us Win the Peace,” “We Are Fighting Dictatorship,” We Do Not Ask Luxury, but we do ask Security.”
In this battle, the residents as well as other businesses and both CIO and AFL unions were behind the strikers. They were receiving donations of food, money and even cigarettes. Nearby residents invited picketers inside for coffee; cars passing by tossed them money.
What was even more indicative of the support for Federal Wire workers was the setting aside of CIO-AFL rivalries. The AFL-affiliated local offered to provide pickets at the plant on Saturday, August 25 to allow all Federal Wire Company employees to attend the annual CIO picnic at Riverside Park, as well as the evening dance at the city hall auditorium.
At the picnic, the depth of local support from several Guelph businesses became even more evident. Merchants donated ice cream and chocolate milk for the children of workers attending the picnic and a lunch was provided by the citizens of Guelph. Other AFL-affiliated unions held a concert to help the picketers.
No negotiations were offered by the company until September. At this point, Harold Perkins, Industrial Relations Officer of the Federal Department of Labour, came to town. His offer was turned down on September 14th by the local union head, Alan Gibson. At this time, he remarked on the importance of this strike to other unions in Ontario. He stated that the Hamilton unionists considered Federal Wire to be a test case regarding the inclusion of union security in company agreements.
After negotiation attempts by both provincial and federal governments had failed, Guelph’s mayor, Gordon Rife, in an attempt to re-open negotiations and bring the two sides closer together over the issue of union security, visited the company president, J. Godfrey Smith. Finally, the matter was put to conciliation, ending the strike in November. It was a partial victory for the employees. The union won a type of security and recognition: a voluntary check-off of union dues was put into place by the company.