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Union organizer arrested for ‘seditious conspiracy’

The Story

The scene was eruptive at a walkout of 6,000 textile workers in Montreal. Police lobbed tear gas bombs at the immense crowd organized by union leader Madeleine Parent. Picketers retaliated by firing back chunks of pavement. Parent organized the 1946 strike out of frustration over poor working conditions, and because management at Montreal Cottons Ltd. refused to recognize the union she had started. In this CBC Television profile of Parent, the relentless union leader recalls the strike, her arrest a year later and how she became the "communist" enemy of Maurice Duplessis. 

Medium: Television
Program: Profile
Broadcast Date: Sept. 1, 1980
Guest(s): Madeleine Parent
Host: Sharon Dunn
Duration: 5:54
Event date: 1947-05-19

Did You know?

• Parent was born November 11, 1918 in Montreal. Despite the fact she had come from a middle class upbringing, Parent realized early on she couldn't accept mistreatment of the lower classes. As a young girl she attended a convent where servants were treated unjustly.
• Parent took sociology at McGill University, where she also worked for the Canadian Students' Assembly organizing bursaries for underprivileged students.

• In 1942, Parent organized one of Canada's first textile unions, the United Textile Workers (UTW), with Ken Rowley who would later become her husband. She began her movement to unite garment workers in Montreal and Valleyfield, Que., at two Dominion Textile factories.
• Parent was labelled a communist by Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis, and accused of sedition.

• Under Canadian law, the charge of sedition is an offence of "words" that "advocate the use, without the authority of law, of force and violence with a view to overthrowing the institutions in Canada."
• Parent was never a member of the Communist Party, although her name did appear in the masthead of one of the party's papers.
• In 1947, Parent and Rowley were arrested for seditious conspiracy for their role in the Ayers Woollen Mills strike in LaChute, Que.

• Duplessis had ordered a warrant for their arrests. Parent was convicted and sentenced to two years in jail.
• Parent served five jail terms during her career. She was acquitted from the seditious conspiracy charge in 1954 on a courtroom technicality.
• On Aug. 15, 1946, the Globe and Mail reported that workers at Montreal Cottons Ltd. had been on strike for 75 days.

• The workers were looking to improve their conditions. Management had refused to sign the union's labour contract. The union's slogan was "No Contract - No Work." The contract asked for a wage increase and a 45-hour workweek with a maximum of five hours overtime.
• As Parent explains in this clip, a regular workweek before she organized the strike was often 60 hours (12 hours a night, 5 nights a week).

• Workers weren't given vacation time. Many of the women made as little as 18 to 25 cents an hour.
• In the end, management agreed to sign the contract.
• In 1946, the average hourly wage for women was 50 cents. For men, it was 81 cents.
• The Globe also noted the strike's violence.

• It said a crowd of 1,500 "hurled a shower of stones through the plant windows and at workers who tried to leave at noon hour." No one was injured.
• Montreal Cottons Ltd. was founded in 1890. The company was an amalgamation of eight small textile shops. In 1969, it changed its name to Dominion Textile Inc.
• The two dominant textile unions at the time were the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).

• As early as the 1920s, these unions were associated with progressive politics -- they were affiliated with the Communist Party of Canada. In her book, Angels of the Workplace (1997), author Mercedes Steedman says the Jewish leadership of these unions were mainly left-wingers from North American urban centres.
• Although not suggested in their titles, the membership of these unions included both men and women, and were for the most part male-led.
• Madeleine Parent died March 12, 2012, in Montreal.


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