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Biltmore Hats: The 1930s and 1940s
Bonnie Durtnall

Biltmore Hats: The 1930s and 1940s

Biltmore Hats from the 1930s into the 1970s

The 1930s

The 1930s saw both changes and challenges. Many arose from the ongoing perception of hats. This was something Biltmore Hats had little to no control over. What they should have managed was the running of the company. It was affected in its ability to function optimally in a volatile market. The workers were also, once again, discontent. In 1938, workers hit the picket lines. It was to prove to be a memorable strike for both Guelph and the company.

The 1938 Strike

While Biltmore continued to increase its output and produce quality hats, the workers labored under bad working environment. They complained about the dust, the heat and the unsafe conditions of the machinery. Management did not listen. However, the arrival of the Hat Workers Union in 1938 brought about a chance for the workers to express their concerns and opt for change. They did so by walking out.

 On July 14, 1938, 250 workers left their job. The causes were:

1.   Wages

2.   Hours

3.   Reinstatement of fired workers

4.   Union representation

5.   Working conditions

The company refused to talk with the chosen union representatives. In fact, they chose to ignore the existence of the union.

The strike began as a peaceful protest. However, during its 13-day duration, things got heated. At the end of their shift on July 13, close to 300 workers left not to return. They cited “intolerable conditions.” At a rally held in the Guelph Trades and Labour Hall, the employees received a pledge of support from the local Labour Council’s president, CE Fulton. Miss Caroline Wolfe, Toronto, VP of this International Union also assured all those who attended of the union’s support. When on the next morning, close to 200 workers (of which 30 were females) hit the picket lines, Wolfe was among them.

Meanwhile the company said no one had made any representation to the company and they were “open for business as usual.” However, while denying the existence of the union and stating no one had talked to them, Ramsey and his management team tried to continue to operate the plant. In fact, while office workers were allowed to enter, anyone who worked on the plant floor was not.

On July 15, the mood changed considerably through no real fault of the strikers. The strikers, as usual, showed up for their shift and continued to try to stop people from entering the plant. However, it grew ugly when one of the four police officer ordered to ensure employees entered the plant safely, drew his club. s against the peaceful picketers. This started a melee. It was brief with nobody hurt. However, the strikers were warned not to interfere with anyone entering the plant.

They obliged, but, according to the Mercury, less workers tried to entered than had done so yesterday. Instead, many joined the picket. Meanwhile, the strikes were receiving support from a commissary set up to provide the strikes with food. The meals came through donations from local firms who supported the strike and strikers.

The next few days provided evidence of community support. This is demonstrated from residents and businesses doing everything from bringing food for workers to cheering them on as they paraded from the plant to hold their annual picnic on Saturday, July 16. However, things once again heated up when full picketing resumed.

On July 19, workers were once again back on the line. This time they stopped a truck that was intending to deliver some unfinished hats to the plant. While the driver got out and went to a phone to receive instructions on what to do, several picketers pushed the truck up Suffolk St. The on-duty police took out their billy clubs and a brief skirmish took place.

The picketers then withdrew and soon the driver reappeared. He was told to take the goods into the plant. This caused the strikers once more to take action. One officer was pushed to the ground and the other knocked around. Meanwhile, several picketers, joined by people who lived nearby, opened the back of the truck and threw the hats out, scattering them down the street. Only the arrival of law reinforcements quelled the fighting and got the truck and its remaining cargo inside.

No further violence occurred during this 1938 strike. Support continued to grow, including financial aid from ex-servicemen organizations. However, the company remained truculent. According to the Globe and Mail “reluctance of the company representatives to negotiate with the union in any way is understood to have left the situation still deadlocked.”

In the end, Biltmore Hats’ management recognized Hat Workers’ Union, Local 182. Although, the shop was to remain open, workers now had a means of ensuring management heard their complaints. A committee was agreed upon. In case of further disagreements arising, a board of arbitration – consisting of one employee, one executive and one member of the Ontario Labour Board was to address the situation.

Several matters of importance are to be noted about this strike.

1.   The support of Guelphites was an integral component.

2.   The low level of violence should not be ignored.

However, what should be remarked upon is the presence of women. Women not only formed the basis for the traditional Women’s Auxiliary, but also sat on the strike committee. They were as much a part of the strike as the men and, for once, were being recognized as playing an important role in this event.

The War Years

In 1940, the death of long-time president Ramsey in a boating accident had serious consequences for the company. His replacement, John Fraser, was, at best, an absentee manager. He saw his role as protecting the Ramsey family interests and, therefore, tended to ignore the needs of the company Ramsey had built.

Fortunately for Biltmore Hats, although Fraser continued to be president during the 1940s, the actual operating of the company fell to someone who knew what he was doing. This was Franke, who had been with the company almost since its formation.  William J. Tiller became VP and General Manager. He also managed to keep the company on the right profit-making track. However, during WWII, he had another job which kept him away constantly from the business. This was as deputy administrator of the Wartime Prices and Trade Board. He was in charge of textiles and clothing – more specifically, he focused on men and boys’ wear. This was where he remained until the Board was decommissioned in 1946.

The Strike of 1944

This is not to say, the employees were content throughout the 1940s. Biltmore had another strike in 1944. It was brief, lasting only from July 28 to August 7 of that year. Tiller stated "It is simply a matter of several men - perhaps ten - quitting their jobs."

He failed to state that the men who did walk off their jobs – 14 members of the back shop, did so because of a dispute involving the failure of an employee to pay union dues. This strike did not go well for the employees. Although their union president, James Oldham, negotiated the return to work of the striking employees, the strike was decided in favour of their employer. This was a result of the actions of 1939 when the company accepted the union but only if it could remain an open shop.

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