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'Tough cookies' of the Great Depression

It was known as the rag trade: a vibrant "patchwork" of textile shops in downtown Montreal and Toronto in the 1930s. But as the Depression wore on, clothing manufacturers began to exploit workers in what were already deplorable conditions. Female immigrants sweated in dimly lit factories, working up to 70 hours a week. A large group of textile workers decided to speak out. Their courage helped improve conditions in post-Second World War garment shops, until the introduction of free trade and a recession decades later.

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In 1937, Léa Roback organized 5,000 striking female textile workers in Quebec. This spirited move came from experience. In Germany, Roback had fought the rise of Nazism as a member of the Communist Party. Berlin for Roback was a land of hunger and political instability. And when she moved to Montreal in 1932, she says conditions were only nominally better.

In this CBC Radio clip Roback recalls a climate of unemployment in Canada, and praises the "tough cookies" that went out on strike with her in the middle of the Depression. 
• Léa Roback was born in Montreal in 1903 to a family of Polish Jewish immigrants. She credits her family for her strong belief in fighting back against workplace injustices.
• Roback went abroad when she was in her twenties, to New York, France and Germany. She joined her brother in Berlin where he was going to school for medicine. Roback was studying art, history and literature.

• After moving back from Berlin in 1935, Roback became the manager for Montreal's first Marxist bookstore. Also that year, she organized Fred Rose's election campaign. Rose was the first Communist member of Parliament to sit in the House of Commons.
• Roback has a long history of fighting for women's rights in Canada. In 1936, Roback lobbied with Thérèse Casgrain for the right to the women's vote in Canada.

• Also in 1936, Roback was hired by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). At the time, women in the industry worked 60 hours a week without overtime pay.
• In 1993, the Léa Roback Foundation was established to promote access to education for women.
• Roback died in 2000 from injuries she sustained after falling down stairs at a retirement home.
Medium: Radio
Program: Gabereau
Broadcast Date: Dec. 17, 1991
Guest(s): Léa Roback
Host: Bill Richardson
Duration: 7:21

Last updated: February 24, 2012

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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