Maclean’s: She’s Organizing Eaton’s
October 1, 1950 | June Callwood
SHE’S ORGANIZING EATON’S
A blue-eyed blonde named Eileen Tallman is tackling one of the toughest jobs in Canadian union history—organizing Eaton’s in Toronto
EILEEN TALLMAN is a five-foot-two blonde who works a 70-hour week organizing unions so that other people can have a 40-hour week. A friendly, stubborn, relentless woman with a highly developed sense of humor she is, at 37, considered one of the dozen crack union organizers in the country. She is one of the few women to make good in this hard profession.
Eileen has been employed for the past eight years as union organizer and trouble shooter by the International Union of Steelworkers of America (CIO), an important organization which is so well established in Canada that it has taken the role of benefactor to smaller unions.
Three years ago the Steelworkers detached her to head a campaign to organize what, if she succeeds, will be the biggest union local in the country —a union of the 13,000 Toronto employees of the T. Eaton Company, whose department-store chain employs more than 40,000 Canadians and is the country’s third biggest employer. After three years of relatively restrained but concerted advances the union still has signed fewer than half the store’s employees.
But if the union is eventually certified it could be of enormous significance in the labor picture not only because of its size it would l>e bigger even than the Ford local of the United Automobile Workers’ Union in Windsor which has 11,000 members—but because its establishment undoubtedly would be the opening wedge in a movement to unionize all the big department and chain stores across the country. If it is successful the Wholesale, Retail and Department Store Union, of which Eaton’s local would become a part, could leap from its present strength of about 11,000 members across Canada to better than 23,000; its annual dues could approach a half million dollars.
This is not a staggering figure as unions go —the Steelworkers’ annual dues exceed $1 million, for example but it could make the union one of the 10 most powerful in the country.
Its success would also cause Eileen Tallman to lie regarded as one of labor’s more vital pioneers, a description which doesn’t fit the stubby, blueeyed, 120-pound organizer’s appearnnce at all. She was once an outstanding secretary and still looks the part feminine without lieing flowery, make-up discreet, her manner friendly and businesslike.
She once finished a college course in six months, then casually strolled into an international typing contest at the Canadian National Exhibition and emerged with third prize. Her father was a Tory but Eileen has liecn a Socialist since her early youth when she made street-comer sjieeches and read Keynesian economics when other girls were going to dances. Her background, which is of a moderate-income family with a high degree of respectability, has endowed her with gracious manners and remarkable tact which astound some people who think union organizers are the type who lick the butter knife.
Eileen is driven by an urge to unionize everything that moves. When she worked for the Steelworkers she organized her fellow workers in the union office into a local of the Office and Professional Workers’ Union and bargained for three weeks’ vacation with pay, a seven-hour day and equal pay for equal work. But she’s never in her life worked such an abbreviated schedule herself.
Eileen’s femininity and charm make her admirably suited for the union work that has become her specialty: organizing white-collar workers. There is no more difficult job in the field of organizing. Macy’s department store in New York City took seven years to organize 10 years ago; Eaton’s has taken three so far, but many experienced organizers figured it for five, if
Three Peanuts Per Head
Even among those who have joined the union there has been no marked tendency to advertise the boss as an ogre. Among those who haven’t joined, and presumably think the boss is doing as well by them as the union could or would, there are no longer—as there were in the early stages of its recruiting drive—many signs of active hostility toward the union. This doesn’t mean the campaign hasn’t been a colorful
Eileen has employed many stunts to win union members and influence employees. One gimmick was to have a union shopping day. Wives of all union card holders in Toronto were asked to shop in Eaton’s on the same day, carrying shopping bags labeled “Join Local 1000” (the number assigned to the Eaton’s local) and bearing badges proclaiming, “My husband is a Union Man. Join Local 1,000.”
Another stunt was to distribute to children yellow balloons bearing the slogan, “Join Local 1,000 NOW.” These were filled with helium and unexpectedly gave union organizers their best laugh of the campaign. One small boy let go the string holding his balloon and it sailed up to the ceiling of the main floor. He began to cry and to placate him a crimson-faced manager climbed a stepladder to retrieve it.
Another time distributors passed out tiny white paper bags containing three peanuts labeled, “Don’t Work for Peanuts, Join Local 1,000 NOW.” On April Fool’s Day the cover of a folder was inscribed, “What you will get by staying out of Local 1,000 from the T. Eaton Company.” Inside were blank pages.
On Eaton’s Opportunity Day, a sale day in I ..-ton stores, the union distributed a sheet laid out like a newspaper advertisement. The specials included, “An automatic washing machine $259.50, which a $5-a-week wage increase could buy in two years; a trip to Bermuda by air $132, which a $3-a-week raise would buy in little over two years; a television set $300, which a $6-a-week raise would buy in a year and a half.”
Most effective of the stunts was the shopping day, which came in the middle of an all-out drive a year ago. Organizers distributed leaflets to employees every day; trucks plastered with posters glided past the employees’ en trances at strategic moments. The hustle produced 900 new members.
At the time of writing Eileen said she had close to 6,500 signed union cards and was planning to ask the Ontario Labor Relations Board for certification in September. Under comparatively recent labor legislation employers are compelled by law to bargain with unions certified by the board. To receive certification the union must prove that 51% of the employees have joined the union and paid their initiation fee. Eileen wants to have 7,000 Eaton’s employees signed up before she approaches the board.
The new local, if certified, will meet with the directors of the T. Eaton Company. Employees have been informed that among the union objectives are the raising of minimum wages to $35 a week for both sexes (some women employees start now at $22) and a fiveday week. Store employees now work 5V2 days except in the summer months. It will also ask for such union-made accessories as closed shop, equal pay for equal work, greater job security, extension of the pension plan, a system to bring grievances to management and certain rights for senior employees.
A Salary From Steelworkers
The decision to organize Eaton’s wa8 made in 1947 by the Canadian Con” gress of Labor. The Toronto establish” ment was chosen over stores in Winnipeg, Vancouver or Halifax because the big organization job could be handled more economically close to labor’s head offices.
Eileen Tallman operates out of a three-room headquarters over a restaurant across the street from Eaton’s mail-order warehouse. The first office contains two secretaries’ desks and filing cabinets; the second, the walls of which are covered with graphs showing the progress of the campaign (teams get gold stars for filling their quotas), is for her staff of organizers; the last office, large and airy with plenty of floor space for stewards’ meetings, is hers. Her desk is pushed in one corner; in front of her mounted on the wall are samples of the leaflet called “Unionize” which she helps distribute every week to employees.
Charles Millard, MPP and head of the Steelworkers in Canada, lent Eileen to the Department Store Organizing Committee that the Congress of Labor set up. The Steelworkers’ Union has been paying Eileen’s salary ever since. She draws about $3,000 a year, works anywhere from a 10to un 18-hour day.
Eileen is physically tough. Once she attended a union meeting until 2 a.m., went home and whipped herself up a hat (she sews a lot of her own clothes), then turned up at the office at 7 the same morning.
When Eileen was given the joh of organizing Platon’s she spruit the first two weeks walking through the stores — the main downtown store on Yonge Street, the annex, the mail-order catalogue showroom, the swank College Street store-trying to estimate the labor force and the number of departments into which the employees are divided. She counted better than 200, later discovered there are more than 400. She was careful to ask no questions, but she couldn’t resist doing some shopping -(all the union organizers on the Platon campaign have boon shopping exclusively at Eaton’s).
Then she rounded up a team: Lynn Williams, a former YMCA instructor and son of a Hamilton church minister; Walter Ross, an experienced union man; MarjorieGow, brilliant publicity I woman with the Steelworkers for many years; and Angus Sumner, loaned by the Retail, Wholesale Union in the States. Sumner and Miss Gow later had breakdowns and are not now with the committee.
In 1942 the Congress of Labor had made its first attempt at organizing Eaton’s and the Robert Simpson Company in Toronto and had given up after two or three months.
Eileen inherited from this inconclusive effort the names of about 400 Eaton’s employees who had been interested in the union movement at that time. She and her team checked through the city directory to get the addresses of the 400 and find out how many were still with Eaton’s. Only 100
The hard part of the campaign began then. None of the five owned an automobile, so by streetcar they set out to call on the 100 in the evenings. “We’d take a list of 10 names and addresses every night,” recalls Eileen wryly. “We’d figure ourselves lucky if we found three in.”
The team made 1,000 house calls and eventually rounded up 250 employees who agreed to be union stewards, the core of a union. This nucleus would head the drive within the store, keep organizers informed of policies, sign up members during lunch periods in the store cafeterias. Eileen thinks the most important part of the job was done right there.
“Those 250 people represented 250 departments,” she relates. “We didn’t have six people in the shoe department and no one in linens. It was tougher to get them scattered, but we figured it was vital.”
She called a meeting of the 250 for Jan. 12, 1948, and more than 200 showed up. With this beginning Eileen started handing out 10,000 pastel fourpage leaflets called “Unionize” every Tuesday morning at the employees’ entrances. It requires 20 nimblefingered distributors to cover the 11 entrances but Eileen had no trouble getting volunteers to help her team. Secretaries from other union offices got up two hours earlier on Tuesday as a matter of course, organizers from other unions helped regularly. Lately most of the distributors are Eaton’s employees.
A Pamphlet For the Boss
At first many employees refused to accept the leaflet at all, others conspicuously tore them up and wiped their feet on them. “I enjoyed watching them do that,” recalls a volunteer distributor, Margot Thompson, of the Steelworkers. “A few real hard antis will stir up the pros. Once when I was handing out leaflets for the Packinghouse Workers at the Colgate plant I came back and told Fred Dowling, the head of the union, that everyone had been pleasant and cordial, no one had torn up a leaflet. He shook his head in gloom and said we’d never organize them. We never have either.”
Through the pages of “Unionize” the union keeps employees of Eaton’s informed of alleged inequalities in pay, raises in various departments and airs charges of unfair treatment of employees and poor working conditions.
A recent check by the union showed that less than 4% of Eaton’s employees were still refusing the leaflets, none were being destroyed.
John David Eaton, president of the company, uses the James Street employees’ entrance of the main store and Eileen Tallman frequently has handed liim leaflets. He smiles cordially and thanks her and once handed his leaflet to a caretaker standing near the door. He grinned and said to the man, “Here, you need this more than 1 do.”
Criticism of the Eatons themselves is almost nonexistent in “Unionize.” John David Eaton is never attacked, and department managers, who have wide authority, bear the brunt of union criticism.
“Unionize,” which now is edited by Eileen since Marjorie Cow’s illness last spring, has made much of the fact that unskilled women employees of unionized Canada Packers earn a minimum of $36.52 a week (compared with Eaton’s minimum of $22).
One of Eileen’s biggest difficulties has, she claims, been the relatively large turnover in staff, which she estimates at from 20% to 30% every year. Her files hold the union cards of 2,000 former Eaton employees who have left the store for other employment, or to get married. “With those cards we could have been certified a year ago,” she says. “We have to work like fools to keep the membership from dropping, let alone trying to build it up.”
Eileen’s team now consists of two secretaries in the office, Ernie Arnold, who handles the mail-order division, Olive Richardson, a stunning blond beauty who is particularly effective in the haughty salon shops of the College Street store and three university students who are helping during their summer vacation, as well as Williams and Ross from the original group.
Besides continuing with the house calls (Williams now has a car and the organizers borrow it freely) members of the team travel all over Ontario speaking to union meetings to get funds for the campaign. Biggest donor has been the affluent Steelworkers, who handed over a cheque for $25,000 last summer, but the Amalgamated Clothing Workers has given $20,000, the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees $4,000, Textile Workers’ Union of America $2.000, the United Automobile Workers’ Union $1,400, and on down the scale to $25 from small locals. In the past year and a half, 228 locals have contributed better than $15,000.
Eileen handles all the paper work and keeps a big and efficient filing system up to date. Since few union organizers have her business experience her office is serving as a model for future campaigns.
Eileen was born in Montreal, the only child of Mrs. Tallman and the late C. H. Tallman, a men’s clothing salesman who made a moderate income all his life. The family moved to Toronto when she was young and she attended high school here, graduating in 1930 in time to catch the blast of the depression. She went to business college, ended her term there by being hired as a teacher and went from that to a variety of secretarial jobs, mostly in small offices.
Father Was a Tory
One of them was a secretary to a woman with Socialist beliefs who asked her to help with a dramatic skit she was working on for a CCF youth group. Eileen began dating with members of the group, gradually became more and more interested in labor problems.
Eileen’s father, a staunch Conservative, got the shock of his life when he tolerantly slowed down one evening to listen to “those crazy Socialists” conducting a street-corner meeting and discovered the principal speaker was his daughter. After that father and daughter cheerfully pitched in against one another in election campaigns and the Conservatives always won. Her father died just before the CCF won the riding for the first time.
Eileen started her union activities with a failure. She left a $25-a-week job with Canadian Industries Ltd. in 1942 to take less money to try to organize the one group in the country that is more difficult to organize than department store employees — bank clerks.
Working with no capital and sharing a desk and phone with three men, one of whom was organizing packinghouse workers, another rubber workers and the third garage mechanics, Eileen established seven locals in banks in Toronto with about 1,000 members.
Montreal employees of the Banque Canadienne Nationale staged a strike for union recognition and Eileen went to Montreal to help during the crisis, which lasted three weeks. She returned to Toronto to find the locals there had folded.
The Steelworkers then hired her tohelp organize the 17,000 employees of the John Inglis plant in Toronto, which was then one of the country’s foremost war plants. The union there developed quickly but for the organizers themselves the Inglis plant was a salt mine. Eileen got up at 5 a.m. to pass out leaflets to the early shift, stayed up until past midnight to pass leaflets to the swing shift. Her main effort centred on the 7,000 turbaned women in grey coveralls who streamed in and out. She added a final lick with her specialty— white-collar workers—and got the office staff into a union as well.
War in the Backwater
At the end of a year of organizing the union signed a contract with John Inglis and Eileen promptly collapsed with a nervous breakdown, weighing 100 pounds with her hands full of leaflets.
The Steelworkers’ Union, grateful and contrite, then removed her for a scheduled three months to an intended backwater in Vancouver, editing a paper for the Vancouver Labor Council. But she found unions on the west coast in the midst of a civil war: Communists had infiltrated and were in control of many powerful unions. *
The CCL, with which the Steelworkers is affiliated, has endorsed the Socialist CCF for its political arm. Some Canadians still lump unionists and Bolshevists together in one red morass. Organizers (but not Eileen to date) frequently are requested by workers they are trying to organize to “go back to Moscow.” Eileen feels that this misunderstanding is a national tragedy; the fact is, she maintains, that unions have been the worst enemies Communism has in this country.
The three months’ rest stretched into a three-and-a-half year hitch, which ended in 1947 when the Congress of Labor decided to attempt ‘the Eaton’s organization.
She’ll Shop at Simpson’s
Today Eileen lives in a Toronto duplex with her mother. She recently bought a record player and is building up a collection of jazz classics, purchasing a good many records at Eaton’s. She is planning to take her business elsewhere, however, as soon ‘as the Eaton’s campaign is finished.
“I think the logical place to go from here would be across the street into Simpson’s,” she reflects. The Retail, Wholesale’ and Department Store Union envisages sending her across the country, organizing Eaton stores as she “That’s all right with me,” Eileen grins. “I’ll go wherever I can do some good. I’ll even take a whirl at those bank clerks again.” ★