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the workers’ fighter par excellence Eileen Tallman Sufrin 1913–1999

by Ann Farrell | July 13, 2001

Eileen Tallman Sufrin lost the biggest battle of her life, the drive to unionize the original Eaton’s, Canada’s largest department store, where she was the chief organizer for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store union.

An organizer par excellence, she was a pioneer labour leader, awarded a Governor-General’s medal in 1979, one of seven Canadian women honoured on the 50th anniversary of women winning the right to vote. On a lesser note, Sufrin liked to tell people she had once won a competition as the country’s fastest typist, and had also won prizes for tango dancing.

Born in Montreal in 1913, the family moved to Toronto where she headed her graduating class at Vaughan Road Collegiate, winning the prize as leading all-round student. However, instead of going on to university, and despite the scarcity of jobs during the Depression, Sufrin soon found work and became aware of the pitiful working conditions of that period, not to mention the lower wages and poorer opportunities for women.

It wasn’t long before Sufrin’s social conscience was aroused and she joined a group of young, unemployed activists who were in the forefront of the Co-operative Commonwealth Youth Movement

(CCYM), an arm of the Canadian Commonwealth Federation (later to become the New Democratic Party). Sufrin was a forceful street-corner speaker, and had found her vocation as social activist, one she pursued until her death in 1999, aged 86, in the White Rock, British Columbia home to which she and her husband, Bert, had retired in 1972.

Not that the word “retirement” was really in her lexicon for she was soon active as part of the election team with the local NDP of which she was an honorary life member, and edited the Surrey-White Rock NDP newsletter for five years. She also founded a Surrey-White Rock branch of the Choice of Dying Society, now one of the largest groups of its type in B.C.

In The Globe and Mail at the time of Sufrin’s death Lynn Williams, union organizer and Sufrin’s colleague during the Eaton Drive, wrote:

To know Eileen was to know the true meaning of loyalty and friendship. She never failed to keep in touch. She practised what she believed every day of her life. One of her caregivers (during the last years of her life) was injured when she tripped over the leash while walking Eileen’s dog. No problem: Eileen provided workers’ compensation coverage.

In the course of her hectic life Sufrin organized bank clerks and headed the first strike of bank employees in Montreal in 1941. The following year in Toronto she took part in a campaign led by the Steelworkers at John Inglis where half of the 7,000 workers were women. The campaign came to be widely recognized as a milestone among war plant labour disputes.

Before retirement Sufrin spent 19 years organizing women in union movements in Ontario and British Columbia and in the course of her career unionized 15,000 women workers. She worked with the Saskatchewan government finance office where she met and married Bert Sufrin, a fellow CCF worker. They moved to Ottawa in 1964 where Sufrin worked on a contractual basis for the Labour Department of the Women’s Bureau.

For Sufrin, despite its ultimate failure, the drive to unionize Eaton’s was the highlight of her labour career and she wrote an account of it, The Eaton Drive: the campaign to organize Canada’s largest department store 1948–1952 (Fitzhenry & Whiteside 1982). It is a story of one of the longest organizing campaigns recorded in Canadian labour history, and is still used as a teaching tool for union organizers.

At that time Eaton’s had 30,000 employees across Canada, 16,000 of whom worked in Toronto during peak seasons. It was the country’s third largest employer after the railroad and the government and the impact of its retail wage structure was nationwide. Local 1000 of Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, along with the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL) had never before taken on such a huge and complex bargaining unit.

There were more than a dozen Eaton’s locations in Toronto and Sufrin, whose book describes the campaign from a union standpoint, hoped that retail workers organizing in the future would profit from her interpretation of what took place, even though the organizers’ objectives were not realized at the time.

One of the greatest obstacles facing the organizers was the fear felt by many Eaton’s employees. Organizers would visit them in their homes in the hopes of overcoming this reluctance. One of the canvassers, Anne Stone, reported:

Some of the places we visited were appalling, they were so poverty stricken. The poorer people were, the more they were afraid, even outside working hours, when we suggested that they join the union. I have crawled into cellars and climbed up to single rooms in attics. They were the people who were the most reluctant ... they had so little and they didn’t want to lose what they had.

At the time, 1947, union membership in Canada was 912,000. Most of the unorganized workers were in retail and personal service industries, as well as in the white-collar sector – insurance, banks and offices in general. The characteristics of women sales people have changed a lot over the years. In 1951, the 95,000 women sales clerks in Canada were single and under 35, one quarter 45 and over. Twenty years later, 70% were married, widowed or divorced. In 1951, average weekly earnings in Toronto were 14% higher for manufacturing than for retail trade, a gap that quadrupled over the next 30 years.

In January 1948, 200 Eaton employees met in Toronto for their first union meeting. Their employer, John David Eaton, then 39, was the third generation to head the firm founded in 1869 by grandfather Timothy. A month later Eaton’s re-acted and Toronto employees were surprised to receive a raise of $2 a week, the first general raise they could remember. By mid-December, a network of more than 200 employees was in place and the first organizational meeting took place in January 1948 in an ivy-covered building on Bloor Street, just east of Yonge. By the end of 1949, more than 5,000 had signed application cards for a $1 application fee. Thousands of leaflets were distributed by Local 1000, very few of which were refused, and many distributed by Eaton employees themselves, once unsuccessfully (and inadvertently) to Lady Eaton who was arriving at the College Street store.

In 1948, Eaton’s took advantage of this propitious moment to introduce a pension plan. What this meant to some female employees was described by one woman:

After my father died, my mother had to go back to work as there were three of us kids. She started at Eaton’s in the millinery department at $12.50, the minimum wage for women in Ontario at the time. She retired at 60 because women had to, men retired at 65. So after 20 years of working there, (her pension) was about $52 a month. She had been underpaid all those years. She was a buyer in the infantswear department, and I used to tell her that she should try to get a job somewhere else because she had lots of ability.

The story of the drive, the heroics of organizers and employees, the tactics organizers used in the course of the drive, the machinations adopted by the company to defeat their efforts have acted as a lesson for all those who followed after in search of union certification.

Sufrin says the loss of the vote should not obscure the fact that the Eaton Drive did demonstrate that even the largest of department store operations in Canada were capable of being organized. In the three years 1947–1950, more than 9,000 Eaton employees applied for membership in Local 1000: 3,000, or about one third of these left the company, yet sufficient numbers were retained to apply for certification.

The cost of the three-year organizing campaign, in addition to those for the extra year when the vote was held plus the expenses involved, came to under $250,000. Sufrin reported that in the long run Eaton’s Toronto employees gained overall, whether or not they joined Local 1000. There were increased salaries, pensions and welfare during the drive which cost the company millions of dollars.

On the downside the loss of the drive inhibited attempts of similar size in other leading department stores, and put an end to the then favourable prospects of organizing Simpsons (now The Bay) across the street (Queen).

Sufrin listed some of their major difficulties: inadequate resources, particularly in the initial period; delay in certification proceedings (orchestrated by the company against which even legal help failed to alleviate); lack of acceptance of unions among white-collar workers, particularly women and part-time employees; muzzling of the press through the influence of advertising revenue and anti-union propaganda by the company during the vote campaign.

Up until the last, it was a white-knuckle operation for the Eaton’s. Sufrin writes:

... reports reached us that, even as late as the night that the ballots were to be counted, there were still doubts among the family clan who had gathered at Lady Eaton’s estate in King, Ontario to await the results. And with good reason. Of the 8,900 valid votes cast, a shift of just 500 votes from “no” to “yes” would have given Local 1000 a majority.

Former NDP leader, David Lewis, in his autobiography The Good Fight wrote:

... they were led by Eileen Tallman, whom I knew as an active member of the CCF youth. Although there were others in the organizing group, we worked mainly with Lynn Williams, Wally Ross and Ernie Arnold, in addition to Tallman. They were undoubtedly one of the most competent teams of organizers, communicators and planners one could wish to see. Nothing was overlooked, nothing was done sloppily ... they deserved to win.

Eileen Tallman Sufrin comes down to us as yet another intelligent, indomitable, crusading woman who never, to paraphrase Dylan Thomas, went “gently” into her or anyone else’s good night, but we have benefited from it.

more to consider

Wow, it’s amazing what one woman’s persistence can accomplish. What energy Eileen had to organize such grand numbers of people, and to influence them so incredibly. Organizing a union is one certain way for women to be treated equally to men.

resources for this story
  • The Eaton Drive: the campaign to organize Canada’s largest department store 1948–1952, by EILEEN TALLMAN SUFRIN, Fitzhenry & Whiteside | 1982
  • Union Sisters: Women in the Labour Movement, by LINDA BRISKIN and LYNDA YANZ, eds., Women’s Press | 1983
  • Writing Women into History: The History of Women’s Work in Canada, by ALISON PRENTICE, Atlantis 3,2, part 2, pgs. 72–83 | spring 1978
  • Women at Work: Ontario 1850–1930, by JANICE ACTON and others, eds., Canadian Women’s Educational Press | 1974
  • Not Just Pin Money: Selected Essays on the History of Women’s Work in British Columbia, by BARBARA K. LATHAM and ROBERTA J. PAZDRO, eds., Camosun College | 1980
  • Women Challenging Unions: Feminism, Democracy and Militancy, by LINDA BRISKIN and PATRICIA McDERMOTT, eds., University of Toronto Press | 1993

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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