“Les midinettes” were girls and young women who laboured in Montreal’s gruelling garment industry in the early twentieth century; the name, a French contraction of midi and dinette, referred to their ”short lunch” and the phenomenon of thousands of girls appearing suddenly on Ste. Catherine and Bleury Streets at noon-time. Packed into cramped, lightless rooms, these seamstresses worked as much as 80 hours to earn just $5-10 a week, at a rate of fifteen cents per dress. Predominantly Catholic Francophone women, but also including some men, Anglophones, Jews, and Ukrainians, dressmakers proved to be the most difficult to unionize in all sectors of Montreal’s massive garment industry.
If les midinettes were to be unionized successfully, a careful finessing of the tensions between labour and identity politics was required. Bernard Shane, manager of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) in Canada, arrived in Montreal from the United States in the winter of 1934. Dispatched by ILGWU president David Dubinsky, Shane—who would later become treasurer of the Jewish Labour Committee and be a key player in the Tailors Project—spearheaded the unionization of Montreal’s garment workers. The circumstances in Quebec were incredibly complicated and unique. From Shane’s 1934 arrival to the strike of 1937, the key years for unionizing garment workers in Quebec saw economic depression, heightened antisemitism, and the unparalleled power of the Catholic Church. The 1936 election of Maurice Duplessis as premier of Quebec, who launched a personal battle against communism and many unions, further exacerbated the situation.
Shane, struggling against seemingly insurmountable distrust, fear, and scepticism on part of les midinettes, requested backup in the form of Rose Pesotta, a highly regarded (and fellow Jewish-American) ILGWU organizer. At the time, the general lack of understanding between Jews and French Canadians, mostly due to a lack of social contact in a confessional society, in conjunction with the separation of garment workers into ethnically organized locals, made the task of unification and coordination exceptionally difficult. Pesotta, who was uncommonly adept at bridging social divides, found the influence of the Catholic Church to be the most perplexing and frustrating obstacle. The Church was generally wary of unions at the time, particularly those not controlled by Catholic chaplains and those with international connections like the ILGWU. Catholic labour representation came in the form of a Catholic syndicate that sought to represent workers, whilst also collaborating with industry owners. An outsider to Quebec’s political complexities, Pesotta’s success is often attributed to her respect for les midinettes’ devout Catholicism and her refusal to publicly feud with the Church. The ILGWU team also relied on the organizing support of Léa Roback, who was Jewish but spoke fluent French, a rarity at the time. Pesotta arrived in September 1936, and by the following January, ILGWU Local 262 was chartered at a small, covert meeting of members. By mid-1937, following an extremely successful strike, les midinettes had secured a union deal with industry owners.
Compiled by Sarah Woolf
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*Images Courtesy of The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, the Jewish Public Library - Archives and the Canadian Jewish Congress Charities Committee National Archives.