In the labour history of Ottawa-Gatineau, the ‘Match Girls’ (les allumettières) employed by E B Eddy hold a place of honour, having conducted the first two major strikes (1919 and 1924) by women workers in this region.
Led by their President, Donalda Charron, the women match workers demonstrated enormous solidarity when faced in 1924 with a 50% cut in their wages. (One of the photos used on this website illustrates their incredible determination as they stand in solid formation outside the factory.) Combined with the employer demand for a wage cut was a new scheme to wrest control over the hiring process away from the women supervisors who were part of the union. Hiring practices produced a homogenously French-Catholic workforce that demonstrated too much solidarity for the liking of the English Canadian factory owners, which included the millionaire and future Conservative Prime Minister of Canada, R.B. Bennett.
While the clergy and male leaders who ran the Catholic union the match workers belonged to would not permit the strikers to participate in negotiations, the women picketed tirelessly. Further, during the course of their two month strike, they ran fundraisers and held nine public meetings to explain their position to local residents. As a consequence, they were the recipients of donations of money and food from residents of Gatineau and Lowertown.
As a result of the 1924 strike, the women match workers won union recognition and were able to retain the pay and hours they had won in 1919, but working conditions did not improve. Women supervisors lost control over hiring and the E. B. Eddy Company made an example of Donalda Charron, refusing to hire her back.
As with all great labour struggles, the experience of the ‘Match Girls’ is full of inspiration and practical lessons for trade unionists today. In particular, federal public service workers, currently preparing for battle against another Conservative Prime Minister intent on getting concessions, have much to learn from this part of local history.
The Workers History Museum is hosting an evening to commemorate the accomplishments of the E. B. Eddy ‘Match Girls’ as a fundraiser for its important work on Thursday, October 16, 2014, from 7:30 PM to 9:30 PM. Tickets are available at the door, at 251 Bank St. (2nd floor), in Ottawa. Admission is $15. I hope to see you there.