44 Hours or Strike!
By Anne Dublin
Second Story Press
What a difference a lifetime makes! When I lived on Robert Street in Toronto across the road from Lansdowne Public School in the 1930s, none of us dreamed that it would ever be the setting for a novel. Novels were set in London or Paris, or the South Sea Islands. Now Kensington Market, a block south, is a tourist destination and Spadina Avenue is no longer the main artery of the Jewish district with a streetcar line to the garment factories, but part of Chinatown, which is also a tourist destination.
In 1931, the Toronto local of ILGWU – the International Ladies Garment Workers Union – most of whose members were Jewish, voted to strike. They were seeking recognition of the union as a bargaining agent and improved working conditions, including a 44-hour work week for which 44 Hours or Strike!, Anne Dublin’s novel for young people is named.
The story is about Rose, 16, her sister Sophie, 14, both of whom work in a garment factory, and their mother. Their father had died the year before and they are struggling. They live in a small rented flat on Robert Street across from Lansdowne Public School. It is the depth of the Great Depression.
The garment industry – the shmata trade – was tough for workers, and often for the bosses, and it scarcely exists in North America today. The novel takes us from the meeting at the Labour Lyceum on Spadina Avenue where the strike was called in midwinter, to the spring, when it ends, with only partial success. Striking against a group of small shop-owners during the Depression was different from the large scale strikes we’re familiar with today, when the major unions have large strike funds to help support their workers while they’re off the job.
The legal situation was also different. Back then, the police were not unionized and were hostile to the strikers, especially a lot of foreign women who picketed and obstructed the sidewalk. Rose, the 16-year-old, gets arrested during an argument with a strikebreaker and is sentenced to 30 days in women’s prison. Part of the story tells of the abuse she suffers in jail. Sophie, the younger sister, effectively becomes the man of the house. Mama has an accident and has to go to hospital.
The novel is sympathetic to the life of teenage girls under such conditions. Each has a boy-interest, which remains unconcluded when the story ends. Things generally seem better. It is spring, and Mama is out of hospital and has found a good job.
There are plot holes in this story. When Rose is arrested and sent to jail, the union does nothing for her. However weak a trade union was, it would have tried to provide legal assistance. It could not have existed otherwise. Rose is sent to jail with Becky, an older woman, who might be expected to help her, but instead disappears from the story. Near the end, when the strike is over, there is a meeting that is addressed by Emma Goldman – a.k.a. Red Emma – the famous left-wing activist. This is plausible. Goldman lived her final years in a room in Toronto’s Spadina and College neighbourhood. Still, I wish the author had resisted the temptation to have her say, in the early-1930s, “We shall overcome.”
But this novel isn’t written for me and my generation. It is written for teenagers who will have to leave Judy Blume and text messaging to read it. Those who do will read a good story and will learn a few things.
44 Hours or Strike! is the recipient of the 2016 Canadian Jewish Literary Award for children and youth fiction.