The Great Depression spread across Canada, comfortably and unevenly settling in for the duration of the 1930s. In Guelph, some employers continued to employ workers. Yet, they did so at decreased numbers and what even David Croll, the then Minister of Municipal Affairs called “starvation wages.” Companies felt free to do so knowing that the City would subsidize workers’ wages by putting them on the Relief Roles.
Relief and the Unemployed
Relief was the major way through which the city helped the working poor and unemployed survive. In 1930, 1,208 wage earners living in Guelph were without jobs; another 1,167 were on “temporary lay-off.” In the Dirty Thirties, temporary could mean permanent. No one was safe in his/her job. The Department of Labour reported for 1931 that:
Local companies operated with reduced staffs through the year, and, in many instances were forced to dispense with the services of many who had worked for the same companies for upwards of twenty years.
In August 1931, the city began to compile a list of its unemployed. Six hundred registered on the first day – August 24. By August 29, the number had reached 1,000. It was their first attempt to create a pool they could draw on for whatever make-work projects the city, with the money allotted by the government, could put into place. In the 1930s, everyone who could work was expected to if they wanted to receive relief from the government
While each city was allowed to decide who qualified as a resident and, therefore, relief, the requirements for obtaining relief were more standardized. In 1936, the Honourable David Croll sent off a letter to all municipalities describing the three main types who should not be on the relief lists:
“Chisellers” or career relief individuals
Head of family who had children earning wages
The exploited – particularly those who were hired by companies and paid “Starvation wages.”
Croll felt companies, and not the city, should take up the slack. He believed that if this group was removed from the list, the company would raise their wages.
Paving Roads, Constructing Walls, Laying Pipes and Cleaning Riverbeds
Those who were successful in obtaining relief, the city put to work on several projects. They:
Cleaned up the riverbed at and around Royal City Park and Goldie Mill
Built the wall at Royal City Park
Planted around 200 elm and maple trees along the riverbanks
Helped lay water pipes lines to Arkell Springs
Cleaned, paved and lay sewers and water mains on Eramosa, Duke and Gordon
Performed manual work at Riverside Park
In Guelph, the workers received split pay: a combination of vouchers and money. The prohibitive cost of living as well as the specificity of vouchers eventually resulted in a showdown between the government and the relief workers.
The Guelph Unemployed and Relief Workers Association
It was not until 1937, under the guidance of the Guelph Unemployed and Relief Workers Association (GURWA), that relief workers took a stand against the working conditions and the system. The Unemployed Associations (UA) were established by W. S. Woodsworth and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in 1932. The UA was an independent group, intended to give those workers in Relief Camps and elsewhere a voice. Although not affiliated with the local Trades and Labour Counsels in any city, this did not mean the members did not support them.
On March 16, 1937, GURWA faced off against the City Council. William Croft and Albert Paterson presented a petition with 2,000 signatures in support of their cause. They felt they could not live on what they were currently receiving, arguing for an 8% increase in their current food allowance. They stated that “Children are going to school without sufficient food and that the system of budgeting children’s wages in relief families is breaking up homes.”
The council listened but did not budge. After the meeting, the members of the GURWA paraded through the streets, stopping at the hardware business of one Councillor in particular, A. J. Frank. With nowhere else to turn, they decided to strike.
The Relief Strike featured a characteristic common to many 1930s strikes – violence. Hard as the workers tried to avoid it, violence often seemed the only way they could express their frustration. In this case, a Relief Worker, William Croft, tried to dissuade another, James Gallagher, from doing clean up at Riverside Park. The argument escalated. A fight broke out and the police arrived to charge Croft with assault and intimidation. He was hauled away but released later on $200 bail.
The Strike Ends
The Relief strike went on but did not make an impact. Without support from the residents or any labour groups, it was bound to fail. The City refused to budge on their stance of no increase. After 3 weeks without any financial support and having no strike fund to turn to, the men of the GURWA had to decide. They met with their staunch opponent Alderman A. J. Frank. The City would still not back down. The members of the GURWA gave in. A letter to the local newspaper succinctly says it all:
We recommend the cessation of the strike and advise the men to go to work when called. We believe it would be folly for the men to any longer refuse and punish their families after the starvation policy of the city officials has broken the spirit of a considerable number of men. … We believe that the men who struck were justified, but we also realize that the men who have gone to work went because of fear that their families would be made to suffer possibly more than they would suffer themselves.