My 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.