With the inclusion of the word “international” in its name, the ILGWU envisioned that Canada would become part of the union since its inception in 1900. While the official founding of a Toronto Union was in 1909, it was not until 1910 and 1911 when locals became formally established, Cloak Local 14 and Pressers Local 92 in Toronto, and Cloak Cutters Local 19 and Coat Pressers Local 61 in Montreal. The Toronto Cloakmakers’ Union was instituted in 1910 and the Toronto Joint Board and Montreal Joint Council were founded in 1911. But, it took until the 1930s for the irregular and infrequent organizing attempts to increase, and for real permanence for the ILGWU in Canada.
In Toronto in 1921, the manufacturers’ association reintroduced piece work under the threat of a lockout. After a disastrous strike, a small group of members and locals remained faithful to the union, but were under considerable strain. ILGWU vice-president Saul Seidman was appointed in 1922 to handle the situation in Canada and increase organizing activity in Toronto and Montreal. The Toronto Joint Board put in place committees and chairmen in every shop to help efforts. Meanwhile, in Montreal, the cloak manufacturers proved difficult to negotiate with and hindered organizing in their shops. To combat the worsening situation in Canada, in 1924, Julius Hochman was appointed general organizer to build up the locals in Montreal and Toronto. Hochman held meetings and educated the workers. In the winter of 1925, the cloakmakers in Montreal and Toronto walked out of the shops. Manufacturers started signing agreements with the union and the workers remained on strike until all shops had satisfactorily signed up. And while conditions were far from ideal, the campaign created a more stable organization and union for the cloakmakers in Canada.
Toward the end of the decade, after the strikes and hardships, union standards were established in the industry and membership increased. Communist members in Montreal, including the majority of the Joint Board, caused internal strife forcing the closure of the Joint Board by 1927. While almost completely unionized, the industry in Toronto experienced difficulties as well. Yet, the Toronto Joint Board, led by Abraham Kirzner, fared far better than Montreal. Communist members in Toronto wreaked havoc in the Joint Board and locals, and it took a general strike in January 1930, to renew the loyal members and organizing efforts of the union. The signed agreement called for union recognition in all shops, a 42 hour/5 day week, and minimum scales. A year later, in 1931, the manufacturers plotted to dissolve their association rendering the collective agreement with the union null and void and forcing the Toronto Joint Board to deal with individual shops. During this time, the dressmakers in Toronto began to organize and there was a strike in the dress shops in February 1931. The employers banded together and fought back. As the police arrested girls on the picket line, the union had to negotiate with individual firms. Managers of the Joint Board included Bernard Shane and Abraham Kirzner. Meanwhile, the union in Montreal was decimated until the end of 1929 when loyal cloakmakers began rebuilding their organization. A strike in the spring of 1930 ended quickly bringing gains of a 44 hour week, standard wage scales, union recognition and a collective agreement.
In 1932, Charles Kreindler was assigned to manage the Toronto Joint Board. With the union firmly established in the local market, the union now fought to protect workers’ rights. Bernard Shane, a manager of Local 1, conducted strikes in Toronto in 1929-1931 and was later sent to Canada in 1934 to organize the Toronto cloakmakers. Soon after his arrival, he organized a strike for cutters and within five days had won a contract. With the threat of an industry wide strike, employers signed a collective agreement for all crafts in the cloak industry. A strike in January 1934 generated more gains for the now fully organized cloak market. The Toronto Joint Board celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1936 under the management of Samuel Kraisman. Attempts at bringing the Toronto dressmakers into the union finally succeeded when 800 workers joined Local 72. H. D. Langer replaced Kraisman as manager of the Toronto Joint Board in 1937. At the end of the decade, the Toronto Joint Board obtained the first collective agreement for the dress industry when it signed 50 shops representing 1,000 members.
The Depression unfortunately caused years of poor seasons, low employment and minimal earnings for the cloakmakers of Montreal. Bernard Shane was sent to Montreal at the beginning of 1934 to increase organizing efforts. Shane mounted an effective organizing drive within the cutters and a strike led to wage increases. The union chartered Local 205 in 1934 for dress cutters as it attempted to organize the nearly 8,000 dress workers in Montreal, the majority of which were French speaking women. An agreement was soon signed with the Montreal Dress Manufacturers’ Guild. ILGWU vice-president Rose Pesotta arrived in 1936 to help organize the dress operators in Montreal, named “midinettes,” after the practice of the women garment workers emerging from the factories at noon for a brief respite of air and sun. In January 1937, Montreal Dressmakers Local 262 was chartered for the French speaking workers (Local 112 was the French local for the cloak industry). The Joint Council established an education department for the new local, produced special publications in French, and the campaign committee distributed literature and conducted publicity. A successful two week strike of 5,000 dressmakers in April 1937 led to an increase in wages, reduction in hours, and union recognition. In 1936, members of the Montreal Joint Council Cutters Local 19 and Pressers Local 61 celebrated their 25th anniversary, and the union in Montreal found itself for the first time in fifteen years on a sound financial footing.
A second general strike involving thousands of Montreal dressmakers also occurred in 1940 which paralyzed the dress industry in Quebec and increased wages. Kraisman became assistant manager of the Montreal Joint Council, but retired in 1939, and was replaced by Isidore Stenzor. In 1937, the Montreal Joint Council began organizing the embroidery workers in the dress market, and later in the year, the union called a strike in the trade and an agreement was signed improving working conditions for Embroidery Workers’ Local 315.
The dress and cloak industry in Montreal began enjoying prosperity during the 1940s. Montreal consisted of 8 locals (2 dress, 5 cloak, and 1 embroidery) headed by Bernard Shane. The Montreal Joint Board was composed of Dressmakers’ Local 262 and Dress Cutters Local 205, whereas the cloakmakers functioned through the Joint Council (Locals 19, 43, 61, 112, and 342). During the 1940s, the industries expanded and contracts were renewed. There were 7 locals in Toronto (5 in the cloakmakers’ union and 2 in dress and sportswear). The Toronto Cloak Joint Board consisted of the 5 cloak locals, while Local 199 Sportswear Workers was also under the supervision of the Cloak Joint Board. A number of recent retirements had left a shortage of workers in the industry. Hyman Langer, who had been manager of the Board retired and Samuel Kraisman returned to take his place, being re-elected in 1947. The Joint Council of the Dressmakers’ Union in Toronto was comprised of Locals 72 and 192 managed by Joseph Mack.
The Canada market soon expanded to include Winnipeg and Vancouver. In 1952, the Montreal Dressmakers’ union celebrated its 15th anniversary. Claude Jodoin was manager of the Dressmakers’ Union in the 1950s. He was also president of the Trades and Labor Council of Montreal and vice-president (and later president) of the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada. The 1950s also saw an expansion of benefits including retirement, vacation, and health. Canada’s first Union Health Center was dedicated in March 1955 in the new headquarters of the Montreal ILGWU. In 1956 Sam Kraisman managed the Toronto Cloak Joint Board, Joe Mack was manager of the Toronto Dressmakers, and Bernard Shane was general organizer of Canada. A growing number of non-union shops began appearing in smaller communities such as Saskatchewan and Alberta. In response, a large coast to coast organizing drive across Canada began in 1955, with Samuel Herbst (manager of Winnipeg Joint Board) as coordinator to bring the thousands of new workers into the union.
By 1959, the cross-Canada campaign had organized more than 3,500 new members and almost completely unionized the cloak industry in Canada. The 1960s saw a steadily growing Canadian apparel industry and the spreading use of the union label. 1960 marked the 50th anniversary for Toronto Cloakmakers’ Union and 1962 the 25th anniversary of Montreal Dressmakers’ Union. A new ILGWU Center in Montreal opened in 1964 in the middle of the garment area and also housed the ILGWU health center and welfare funds offices. At the end of the decade, Bernard Shane was director of ILGWU Canada and general manager for Montreal, the Montreal Dressmakers were managed by Maurice Manel and the Montreal Cloak Board was led by Sam Liberman; Sam Kraisman managed the Toronto Cloak Joint Board and Joseph Macks the Toronto Dress. Over the years, agreements for shorter work weeks and cost of living raises were achieved. In September 1970, Kraisman retired and the Dress and Cloak Boards of Toronto were merged into one unit under Joseph Macks who had been managing the Dress Joint Board for over 30 years. Bernard Shane retired in 1971, marking more than six decades with the ILGWU, nearly 40 of those working in Canada. Si Bresner took over as manager of the ILGWU in Montreal, becoming director of Canada and general manager of Montreal, with Maurice Manel manager of the Montreal Dress and Sam Liberman manager of the Montreal Cloak Board. Joseph Macks died in 1973, and William Villano became manager of the Toronto Cloak and Dress Joint Board.
In 1976, 100 delegates across Canada voted to officially establish the Canadian Region of the ILGWU, formalizing previously existing Canadian autonomy. ILGWU vice-president Si Bresner was elected as the Canadian director. In 1977 Stephen Perkal became manager of the Montreal Cloak Board and Luigi Infantino manager of the Quebec Province. Canadian garment workers took part in mass demonstrations to fight against the increase of foreign imports in Canada in 1977. In 1980, the Dress and Cloak Joint Boards of Montreal were merged into a new Montreal Joint Board with Robert Fontaine becoming the new general manager in the wake of Bresner’s announced retirement in 1981.
After an investigation by the Quebec Federation of Labor in the fall of 1981, recommendations for change and restructuring were recommended, with the QFL supervising the reform to create a union more democratic and responsive to the approximately 15,000 members. A meeting in March 1982 set the course for a restructuring and reorganization of the union in Quebec. A group of union activists, the “Democratic Action League,” had spent years working toward an organization with a local leadership and active membership participation in union policies and procedures. At the March 1982 meeting, Gilles Gauthier became president of the ILGWU in Quebec and new by-laws were written. The first formal constitutional convention of the Quebec Joint Council Quebec was in February 1983, and Gauthier was elected president.
At the end of the 1980s, Canada saw a drastic decline in textile and garment jobs, losing hundreds of thousands of workers. Gauthier resigned from his posts in May 1984, and was replaced by Gerald Roy. Roy was officially elected president of the Quebec Joint Council and in 1986 elected Canadian director. Villano retired from Toronto in 1986 and Herman Stewart was elected the new manager. Tino Ciampanelli was elected president of the Quebec Joint Council in 1995. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (FTA) continued to contribute to the loss of thousands of jobs in the garment industry in Canada.