Woollen Mill history
Today is the day and the time to acknowledge the contributions of a past generation of workers who were struggling for the same things that many of us take for granted — and too many of us still do not have — UNION RECOGNITION — GOOD WAGES and BENEFITS — and a HEALTHY AND SAFE WORKPLACE.That’s what the 650 strikers at the Auburn Mill and here at the former Bonner-worth Textile Mill were doing when they went out on strike in the summer of 1937.The Dominion Woollens and Worsteds Company had pinned it’s hopes for profits on an expansion to dominate the clothing manufacturing industry. Buying the Peterborough mills was a major part of this plan. However, while the Bonner-Worth Mill was relatively modern and profitable, the Auburn Mill had older equipment and the company was not willing to invest further. The results were more pressure being put on the mill workers, particularly Auburn Mill, for more production. The workers’ resentment was building. The craft workers were organized and the time was now ripe for industrial organizing and to negotiate some serious improvements in wages and working conditions. And why wouldn’t they?1936 had been the most successful year for striking workers in over a decade. The Congress of Industrial Organization had come into Canada in early 1937 and had achieved union recognition for the United Auto Workers in Oshawa in April. Brinton Carpet workers in Peterborough had made substantial wage gains after only two days on strike earlier that same year.The strike began on June 29, 1937 at Auburn Mill. The Bonner-Worth Mill joined the strike two days later on July 1st. The Premier of Ontario, Mitch Hepburn, had formed his own special police force to use against the CIO, whom he believed were communists and a threat to his authority. There was an early confrontation at the Bonner-Worth Mill on July 2nd, with the police using force to bring scab workers into the mill. 12 men and 3 women strikers were arrested. Alex Welch, the CIO organizer at the mills for the United Textile Workers of America, commented: “It is understood that the police are to preserve law and order and avoid violence. If this is the case why did the police not use clubs on one another? We have not contemplated violence and yet we have suffered for it. Heads have been cracked and our men and women have suffered temporary blindness from gas. The public knows who did it and will remember.”Negotiations began with the company two weeks after the strike began when Alex Welch withdrew from the strike committee on the demand of the company. Almost no progress was made on the main issue of improving wages. On August 9th another major violent confrontation with police using force and tear gas occurred at the Bonner-Worth Mill after both mills were reopened by the company. The strike ended a week later. There were some gains in benefits and working conditions, but any wage increase would be dependent on a commission set up by the Premier after the strike.
This commission recommended a wage increase for all textile workers, but the amount of the increase was quite small.
Why should we be recognizing and celebrating a failed strike? Because it’s implications and effects still resonate in the Peterborough community. The impact on women workers was particularly powerful —“The percentage of women in the Peterborough labour force was higher than the Canadian average. Companies employing women in manufacturing positions included Quaker Oats, Canadian General Electric, Ovaltine, Brinton Carpets and Westclox. The Bonner-worth Mill, which opened in 1911, rapidly became a major employer of women. According to local historian Joan Sangster, ‘textiles provided 60 per cent of women’s manufacturing jobs in Peterborough by 1931 — a total of 16 per cent of women’s work overall.’”The late Claire Galvin was so affected, he wrote his own recollections of this dynamic time in his childhood:“Mary Aspero started to work at the Bonner at the age of 13 and a half years. She was extended a temporary work permit by Mr. Ferran, the truant officer of the separate school system. At the age of 14 a full permit was issued. Initially Mary earned 13½ cents an hour; after 18 months, 18 cents, and eventually with her own machine she earned 20 cents an hour, or $11 a week.” This higher rate would still only be about two-thirds of what men earned in the mills.“Often, because of the nature of their work, the girls would cut their hands. They were not allowed to leave the machines without permission from the foreman. A five-minute washroom break happened mid-morning and mid-afternoon. If it was a difficult time of the month for a female, she stood by the machine in discomfort until the straw boss decided on the necessity of a break.”“In the fall and winter months, heat was kept low, the theory being that a cold employee would move with alacrity.”Also, the impact of this strike still resonates today due to it’s political role in the introduction of industrial unions in Ontario. In less than ten years, just after the Second World War, a new wave of successful industrial organizing would begin — in Peterborough and all across Canada — becoming a cornerstone of the prosperity that was to follow —
I am sure the workers from that time would be proud to see this building became the first campus of Sir Sandford Fleming College and still serving the community today as low cost housing — helping to support the disadvantaged and Peterborough’s working families.
© Peterborough and District Labour Council