The Clothing Manufacturers’ Association of Montreal (CMAM) was a coalition of garment industry owners, incorporated in 1908, who united in their opposition to rapid unionization. The needle trade was one of the largest and most lucrative industries in Montreal, and during the decades preceding World War I, a number of Jewish merchants entered the predominantly non-Jewish ownership ranks, becoming the main captains of this industry. Within this group of newly powerful Jewish manufacturers, a particularly influential member of the Montreal Jewish community, Lyon Cohen, was president of CMAM. Cohen had bought Montreal’s Freedman Company in 1906 from Samuel Freedman and expanded its record of success, making it one of the most prosperous firms in the men’s ready-to-wear market. Despite his prominent leadership role in Montreal’s Jewish community, Cohen – like his fellow industrialists David Friedman, Solomon Levinson, and Harris Vineberg – found himself across the picket lines in 1912 and 1917 from the very members of the community that his charitable work ostensibly aimed to help.
In 1912, a mass strike in the Montreal men’s clothing industry brought a marginal victory for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union when they negotiated improvements in workplace conditions and pay. However, the manufacturers were able to maintain an “open shop” that did not require employers to hire unionized workers. In December 1916, Lyon Cohen unknowingly provided the catalyst for the 1917 strike that was theretofore unparalleled in length and violence. Cohen fired a union delegate from his factory under the pretence that the employee’s union activity had dramatically reduced the entire factory’s production capacity. On January 12, 1917, some 300 Freedman employees went on strike after Cohen refused the Amalgamated’s demands to reinstate the fired employee. With no workers, Cohen struck a deal with another company to surreptitiously produce his firm’s wares; the prospective “interim” cutters walked out in solidarity with Freedman employees. Thereafter, more than 3,000 strikers from all 13 CMAM-affiliated companies walked out, and approximately 1,500 employees from 56 other companies joined in. The strike lasted months, completely freezing the menswear industry until May.
Perhaps the most interesting facet of these events was that Jews constituted a significant membership of each class: manufacturers, union organizers, and workers. Industry owners used any means at their disposal to stymie the effects of unions – that is, improvements in wages and work conditions – on their factories. There was a clear disconnect between the very public charity work done by these industrialists and their treatment of those same Jewish workers in the “privacy” of their factories. The strikes against firms belonging to CMAM are a prominent example of the rancour between Jewish uptowner industrialists and downtowner immigrant workers at the time.
Compiled by Sarah Woolf
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*Images courtesy of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim Museum and Archives, Wallace and Area Museum, and McCord Museum.