Phyllis Entis

Award-winning mystery writer and food safety microbiologist


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A Labour Day Tribute

Version 2My grandfather, Jack Quint, was a union man to his core.

A “stitcher” in Montreal’s garment district from the time he was sixteen, my Zaidie joined the United Garment Workers Union in 1905. For as far back as I can remember, he was the Recording Secretary of Local 209.

In 1969, he was asked to contribute an article to the union publication l’Aiguille (The Needle) about his experiences during the early days of the needle trade in Montreal.

I first shared this story on my Prompt Prose blog in 2013. Today, I am doing so again in honour of Labour Day and of my grandfather.

These are his words:

“As a lad of 16, I arrived in Montreal with my father in 1904 from Vilno, Russia.

Finding it most necessary to obtain a job, I was advised to become an apprentice operator in men’s clothing. According to the arrangement, I paid the contractor ten dollars and worked four weeks without pay. From then on he paid me three dollars a week, which was barely enough to pay for room and board. My dad gave me ten cents a week for spending money.

Six months later I asked my boss for a raise. He refused, saying that he could hire an apprentice who would pay him ten dollars. So, after much effort I found a job for five dollars a week. This was considered pretty good pay and I was quite pleased.

In 1905 I became a member of the United Garment Workers, paying ten cents a week for dues. A couple of years later an Independent Union was organized but it did not last very long. 

In 1911 I worked for H. Kelbert. The shop was on the fifth floor. We were denied the use of the elevator so we went on strike in protest. The United Garment Workers came to our rescue. Sam Gandis organized the tailors. We won the strike. During this episode, I became a member of Local 209. 

A year later I was working at B. Gardner. Mr. Gardner was the president of the Employers Association. The union called a general strike. The bosses hired scabs to replace us. Gardner’s shop had the most scabs. These scabs ate and slept in the shop. The Association hired an agent to bring in scabs from Toronto. When we learned that a large group was coming in, we organized a committee to meet them at the railroad station. There we found numerous police and detectives and the scabs were escorted to the Queen’s Hotel.

While we were picketing the hotel, I heard my name being called. I looked up on the balcony and saw that it was my wife’s brother, Morris Lapidus, who was a vice-president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. I then learned that the “scabs” were really union people. It seems that when the I.L.G. found out that the agent hired by the Association was in Toronto, they called him and offered to supply the “scabs.” A deal was made whereby the agent paid each man ten dollars. The Association agreed to pay transportation and lodging. 

The “scabs” never went to the shops; instead they joined a meeting of the strikers at Coronation Hall. When the bosses discovered what had happened, they gave up and the strike was settled. The important benefit we won was the reduction of hours from 60 to 55. 

In 1914, we joined the Amalgamated and our local maintained the same number “209.” I became the recording secretary of the Executive Committee and held that position for 38 years. Local 209 was the largest local, but it was always in financial trouble because it was constantly helping out our poor members, especially when they were sick, and donating to many charitable institutions. 

The Amalgamated has gone a long way since those years. We now have benefits we never dreamed of in those early days of our struggle. The members of Local 209 were always in the front lines of every fight to improve conditions. There were leaders like Benny Cotler, Peretz Tonchin, Issie Lighter, Jack Potashner, Issie Stolovitch and so many others to whom we owe much for the good things we have today. 

I am still a member of the Amalgamated and am employed at the Freedman Company. I am very proud of my local and our Union. We have come a long way from the sweat shop conditions of 1904. After spending a lifetime, 65 years, in the Montreal clothing industry, I should know how tremendous our progress has been. And progress we will continue to make in the years to come as long as we faithfully support our Union. I hope I will be around to see it and share it with all Amalgamated members.”

The United Garment Workers and other unions fought for fair wages, safe working conditions, and basic human dignity. Their members risked their livelihoods – sometimes their lives – to achieve even modest improvements.

I am tremendously proud of what my grandfather and others like him achieved.

Imagine what life would be like today without their courage.

Imagine what life is like for workers in those countries where the basic protections and benefits won by these brave men and women do not exist.

 

 


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Montreal – City of My Heart

I was born and raised in Montreal.

I remember when Place Ville Marie was no more than a hole in the ground. As a child, I watched in awe as it soared to the heavens.

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I gazed at the iconic McGill University Medical Sciences Building as it took its shape. And spent many hours in its three-story library as an undergraduate.

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I watched as Expo ’67 was constructed, and spent every spare moment exploring every one of its pavilions and displays during the World’s Fair.

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I marvelled at the originality of Habitat ’67, the housing complex that began as architect Moishe Safdie’s graduate thesis.

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I listened as Mayor Jean Drapeau promised the ’76 Olympics could not run a deficit ‘any more than a man could have a baby.’ And cringed at all of the jokes as the costs spun out of control.

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I walked the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal many times over the years.

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Climbed the steps to St. Joseph’s Oratory more than once, though never on my knees.

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And hiked to the cross at the top of Mount Royal.

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Little wonder that I decided to set a portion of The Chocolate Labradoodle Caper in the city of my birth. Although it has been many years since I have called it home, Montreal remains the city of my heart.

 


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My Zaide’s Tears

Once a year, when I was a child, I would sit in my grandparent’s kitchen and watch my Zaide cry. His tears were not from joy; nor were they tears of sorrow. These were Passover tears.

Preparing for a Passover Seder was a major project. All of us had our special tasks. Granny and Mom cooked; I helped to set the table, placing a Haggadah (a book of Passover stories, prayers and songs) at each seat. My aunts each brought a contribution to the Seder meal. And Zaide prepared the “bitter herbs” – the horseradish.

I can still close my eyes and see Zaide standing at the kitchen sink, an apron around his waist. His left hand gripped a grater, cradled in a large bowl; his right hand gripped a fresh horseradish root. It was a tedious job, and a disagreeable one – the volatile vapors of freshly grated horseradish root are far stronger than onion. Tears streamed down his face. But those tears could not wash away his smile. This was his job – his contribution to the Seder preparations – and he did it gladly.

Granny’s special task was to prepare a much gentler ritual food – the Charoset. She put wedges of apple and a handful of freshly shelled walnuts into a wooden bowl that had grown old in Passover service. She chopped the apple and walnuts into a fine paste, then added cinnamon, honey and sweet wine made especially for Passover by Uncle Edel.

Excitement built as the family arrived and sunset neared. Twenty of us – adults and children – settled noisily into our places, chattering greetings and catching up on news. Silence fell when Granny stood to bless the candles at sunset to mark the start of Passover. Zaide took his place at the head of the table, lifted his cup, and began the Seder with a blessing over Uncle Edel’s sweet wine. Uncle Moe, seated at Zaide’s left, rose in turn to recite the same blessing, followed by each of the men at the table.

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Zaide (seated) presiding over the seder as Uncle Moe recites the blessing over the first cup of wine


Finally, it was my turn. I stood, Haggadah in hand (even though I knew the words by heart) and began to recite in Hebrew “Why is this night different from all other nights?

As I sat down, Zaide picked up his Haggadah, looked at his family gathered around, and began to recite the answer, “We were slaves in Egypt ….” I watched him as he read and, even from my seat at the far end of the table, I could see tears gathering in the corners of his eyes. Tears of joy. Tears of pride. Tears of love.

Note: I first published My Zaide’s Tears on Prompt Prose in March 2013. I was reminded of it yesterday while engaging with my cousin in an email reminiscence about the seders of our youth. On this first day of Passover, I offer this glimpse into the past.

Do you have a Passover anecdote you would like to share? If so, please join the conversation by adding a comment, below.