By mid-December, the holiday shopping season is usually in full swing for Canadian retailers. Thirty years ago, however, several Eaton’s department stores in southern Ontario were experiencing a different type of holiday hustle and bustle: Eaton’s workers were on strike.
Hoping that unionization would improve their wages and working conditions, many of the department stores’ mostly female workers had joined the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU); but management’s refusal to negotiate left them with few options but to withdraw their labour power. On 30 November 1984 RWDSU members at six Eaton’s locations went on strike. In doing so, they embarked on a significant struggle to win a collective agreement in a sector known for poor pay and precarity, all while enduring one of the coldest winters in Canadian history.
Eaton’s workers picketed for almost six months. During that time, they used a variety of tactics to maintain morale and hold the line. With help from the Canadian Labour Congress, they organized a national boycott of Eaton’s, a particularly effective technique during the holiday shopping season. Strikers also used performance and humour to win public support. In the lead-up to Christmas, they worked with the Red Berets, a feminist musical group in Toronto, to adapt Christmas carols to incorporate issues related to the strike. These types of creative tactics attracted considerable media attention and thereby increased public awareness of and support for the strike.
To mark the 30th anniversary of the Eaton’s strike, to celebrate the courage and tenacity of the strikers, and to acknowledge the continuing struggles of retail workers today, we have joined with friends and colleagues to record a sampling of the holiday songs sung during the strike. This musical project was inspired by a play about the Eaton’s strike, Life on the Line: Women Strike at Eaton’s 1984–85, written by Patricia McDermott and directed by Vrenia Ivonoffski. The play was performed in Toronto in May 2014 at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, and in October 2014 as part of the 4th Annual Ryerson Social Justice Week. It features many of the following songs.
In the end, the Eaton’s strike achieved mixed results. On the one hand, the workers obtained a first contract and significant legislative change: in the wake of the strike the provincial government introduced first contract arbitration legislation. On the other hand, the first contract included few improvements, and the long and bitter strike fostered feelings of anger and resentment amongst some employees. All six units eventually decertified.
Nevertheless, the Eaton’s strike remains significant, particularly this holiday season, its 30th anniversary. First, the strike serves as an important example of women’s labour activism. Many of the women involved had no previous experience with unionization and yet took it upon themselves to organize their workplaces and the strike. Second, the strike demonstrates the challenges of organizing in the retail sector. The Eaton’s strikers proved that retail workers can organize; however, the long and bitter strike, the poor first contract, and the subsequent decertifications show that establishing a union is only one step in a long and arduous battle. The fact that the retail sector is one of the largest employers in Canada today, and yet the majority of retail workers remain unorganized, speaks to the need for workers and their allies to look to the past when developing new tactics and strategies to improve retail jobs. This holiday season let’s learn from the ghosts of labour’s past as we work toward a better present and future.
Sean Carleton is a PhD Candidate in the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies at Trent University. He is completing a dissertation on the history of colonialism, capitalism, and education in Canada.
Julia Smith is a PhD Candidate in the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies at Trent University. She is currently completing a dissertation on the history of Canadian bank workers’ struggles to unionize in the twentieth century.
Members of the Solidarity Footnotes include: Sean Carleton, Caroline Durand, Michael Eamon, Karen Everett, Magen Hudak, Kimberlee Ladouceur, Mark McLaughlin, John Milloy with Rob the Dog, Jessica Neiman, Lisa Pasolli, Cathy Schoel, Julia Smith, and David Tough. The authors would like to thank Patricia McDermott, Barbara Linds, Holly Kirkconnell, and Ester Reiter for their assistance.
This article originally appeared on ActiveHistory.ca.