New Children's Book Explores 1931 Dressmakers' Strike
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New Children’s Book Explores 1931 Dressmakers’ Strike

Launching on Sunday, the book offers a fictionalized version of a landmark Toronto labour struggle.

Image from Eaton’s – Golden Jubilee (1869-1919) (T. Eaton Co Ltd., 1919).

For 10 cold, wintry weeks in 1931, Toronto’s garment workers took to the streets to push for better working conditions.

Toronto writer Anne Dublin’s new book for young readers, 44 Hours or Strike!, is a fictionalized account of the strike that follows two young sisters as they navigate the picket line outside the factory where they work. Sixteen-year-old Rose and 14-year-old Sophie spend long hours bent over sewing machines under the watchful eye of the foreman to support themselves and their sick mother. But their union, the Local 72 International Ladies Garment Workers Union, votes to strike in February 1931, to demand shorter work weeks (down to 44 hours, hence the book’s title), better factory conditions, and fair wages. As the strike drags on, the girls have to deal with police brutality, waning public attention to their cause, and prejudice.

Dublin says she was inspired to write the book when she thought of her family’s history, the 2013 factory collapse in Bangladesh, and a factory fire in New York in 1911 she researched for a book review.

“My father was a tailor, and we came to Canada in 1948, my parents were Holocaust survivors, and one of the reasons we were allowed to come to Canada was because my father was a tailor,” Dublin says.

“So, you know, I grew up with tailors and dressmakers and seamstresses everywhere … it’s my connection to my father that was very significant, and to other people in my family who sewed, especially those who worked in the factories.”

“So that’s one strand. The other one happened a couple years ago when I heard about the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh. And you know, over 1,000 workers were killed and there were many many who were injured, and I started to think, ‘Well, not much has changed in some places in the world for garment workers’ … And then the third strand was I write book reviews, and I recently wrote a review about the Triangle Shirtwaist company fire in New York in 1911, and so I started reading other books about that terrible fire. And all these different threads came together.”

What followed were about six months of research in the Toronto Archives, the Archives of Ontario, and the Ontario Jewish Archives as Dublin gathered information about the strike and about life in 1930s Toronto.

“I read old newspapers, and any journals and magazines I could find of that period,” she says.

“So one thing I found really interesting was how the strike was covered in the English newspapers like the Toronto Daily Star as opposed to how it was covered by the Yiddish newspaper … the Yiddish newspaper was really on the side of the workers, supporting the strike, and the Toronto Star, and I think the Tely, or the Telegram it was called, supported the owners, the employers.”

Archival photos are used throughout the book to give readers a sense of how Toronto would have looked when Rose and Sophie were on strike.

Dublin tackles many issues in this book, including child labour, abuse in the prison system, anti-immigrant sentiment, and the difficulty of accessing healthcare pre-medicare. She says she wants kids to learn that they can make a difference, even if the problems seem too big to tackle.

“The thing is, this strike was ultimately unsuccessful. … It was 10 weeks long, they ended up sort of getting contracts, but they weren’t really honoured, and they went back a lot to how the conditions that they had been in before,” she says.

“But, a couple of years later in New York, there was a huge strike of the ILGWU [International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union], and I’m sure that they had learned lessons from the strike in Toronto in 1931, and they were much more successful in New York. So, I mean, how would the people involved with the strike know in 1931 that their actions would make a difference two years later? They didn’t know that, but they knew they had to try. So that’s what I want young people to know. That they can make a difference, and we need to try to make a difference in the world. To repair the world.”

Dublin says this message is one of the reasons she writes.

“One of the main reasons that I write books is, there is a concept in Jewish philosophy and it’s called tikkun olam, and it means basically repairing the world. And that’s really why I write, because I’d like people to know that although our world is broken, there is a lot that each person can do to make it better.”

44 Hours or Strike! will officially launch on Sunday, October 25, at the Steelworker’s Union Hall from 2:30 to 4 p.m. A choir will sing labour union songs.