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Federal Wire And Cable: Wiring the World: Part I
Bonnie Durtnall

Federal Wire And Cable: Wiring the World: Part I

In 1919, Live Wire, a branch of an American company, moved into the basement of a building on Metcalfe Street at that point housing Partridge Rubber. The founder, John Godfrey Smith, hired 6 employees to begin with. Their product was insulated wires and cables.

Here, they were to remain growing their product base and slowly increasing the number of employees. After several years, they relocated to Dublin street north, renting the space from Guelph Carriage Top. By 1926, they had doubled their staff. A year later, with John Kennedy as company president, they had changed their name. Live Wire was now to be known as Federal Wire and Cable -although the name did not legally change until October 21, 1929.

Federal Wire remained on Dublin until 1936. By 1934, they had 34 employees. The product line also had increased. They now produced all types of wiring including:

·        Building

·        Ignition

·        Lighting

·        Lamps

·        Irons

In September 1936, Federal Wire expanded by moving into the premises previously used by Crowe’s Foundry. The Suffolk Street location was suitable for the growing demand for their products and services. They would need the space when Canada went to war.  Federal Wire, like so many other local companies, was to answer the demand for military products

World War Two

In an article titled “Observer Gapes In Trip Through Local Factory,” it is possible to become aware of the scope of the factory including its products. The reporter provides the following information on the company’s technological changes: “There is a machine that can wind 16,000 feet an hour of steel wire where formerly the output was 10,000 feet a day.”

The article goes on to note the company is making ignition cable for army trucks as well as for aircraft. During this time, “girls” worked in the “most colourful department in the plant…the assembly room…with multi-colored lead-ins for army truck assemblies.

During the war Federal Wire became one of only six Canadian companies elected to produce “several million yards of degaussing cable and electrical cable for shipbuilding and for Royal Navy bases abroad, both of which were shipped until the end of the war.”  Among the personnel working here were Lorne Aldon Patterson (1914 – 2008), grandfather of Olympic medallist Rosie MacLennan. He had been a gymnast who had qualified for the 1940 Summer Olympics. When war cancelled his dream, he volunteered for the Canadian Armed Forces. Instead, because of his background and education in engineering, he was sent to work at Federal Wire and Cable.

The Strikes of 1943 and 1945

The workers at Federal Wire were not a content lot as the war slowly ground to a halt. On June 17, 1943, 300 employees at Federal Wire walked off the job. They were looking for union recognition. The union in question was the CIO affiliated United Steel Workers of America (USWA) Local 3021.

Initially, six pickets at a time guarded the entry/exit of the plant. The arrangement was to change them every two hours. The strike was brief. Employees returned to work on June 18 after conciliation. The union was now an integral aspect of Federal Wire. This meant they were better prepared next time they went on strike.

On August 16, 1945, 246 Federal Wire employees once again walked off the job. The strike began when the company representatives refused to include union security measures in the collective bargaining agreement. Neither the company nor the workers had any idea when they did so that they would remain out until November 26.

As to be expected, a picket routine was established. To facilitate this, workers set up a tent on the nearby railroad property. The Guelph Mercury printed a photo of this and several workers surrounding it. Shortly following the taking of this picture, the police requested they remove themselves from CNR property. They obliged. However, in a show of solidarity, nearby residents allowed strikers to set up the tents there. The newspaper also included a photo of “two pretty pickets – Florence Jackson wants freedom and Rita MacIntyre says “Yes!”

Pretty they may be, but the female employees at Federal Wire were anything but passive. In this action taken to have the company recognize and implement the original majority report of the Board for check-off, women were part of the fray. In fact, one reporter stated, "women workers continue to take their full turn at picket duty, and if anything are more aggressive than male strikers.”

They had a reason to be so. The strike was marked by the determination of the Union to prevail against such issues as scabs, incidences of violence against picketers and anger on both sides. On the first day of the strike, a young woman, Beatrice Cooper, was struck when a car charged the picket line.

The following day, strikers doubled down on the picket line. They also took to the streets that morning in a parade of around 200 strong. They left from the United Steelworkers’ Hall – then on Wyndham Street, and walked through the streets of Guelph in an orderly if boisterous fashion. The signs they carried stated: “The Board says Yes - the Management Says No,” “On Strike for the Four Freedoms,” “The Judges Agree with Us,” “The War is Won - Help us Win the Peace,” “We Are Fighting Dictatorship,” We Do Not Ask Luxury, but we do ask Security.”

In this battle, the residents as well as other businesses and both CIO and AFL unions were behind the strikers. They were receiving donations of food, money and even cigarettes. Local residents invited picketers inside for coffee; cars passing by tossed them money.

What was even more indicative of the support for Federal Wire workers was the setting aside of CIO-AFL rivalries. The  AFL-affiliated local offered to provide pickets at the plant on Saturday, August 25 in order to allow all Federal Wire Company employees to attend the annual CIO picnic at Riverside Park, as well as the evening dance at the city hall auditorium. At the event, local support became even more evident. Support came from Guelph businesses. Merchants donated ice cream and chocolate milk for the children of workers attending the picnic and a lunch was provided by the citizens of Guelph. Other AFL-affiliated unions held a concert to help the picketers.

No negotiations were offered until September. At this point, Harold Perkins, Industrial Relations Officer of the Federal Department of Labour, came to town. His refusal was turned down on September 14th by the local union head, Alan Gibson. He remarked that the Hamilton unionists considered Federal Wire to be a test case regarding the inclusion of union security in company agreements.

After negotiation attempts by both provincial and federal governments had failed, Guelph’s mayor, Gordon Rife, in an attempt to re-open negotiations and bring the two sides closer together over the issue of union security, visited the company president, J. Godfrey Smith. In the end, the matter was put to conciliation, ending the strike in November. The union won a type of security and recognition: a voluntary check-off of union dues was put into place by the company.

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