Rethinking the Contributions of Union Activist Ethel Wilson Within the Postwar Context of Alberta’s Male-Dominated Industrial Complex

By Cynthia Loch-Drake

Struggling to make ends meet in 1934 while raising three small children after her husband deserted their family, Ethel Wilson took a job as seamstress in one of Edmonton’s major meatpacking plants. During WWII she became a union organizer and in the postwar era entered community politics, rising to become a cabinet minister in the Social Credit government from 1963 to 1972.[1] Despite this remarkable trajectory, critics have written off Wilson for her limited impact as a progressive politician. The labour movement judged her harshly for supporting Alberta’s most anti-union government, and Wilson is portrayed as no friend of working women because of the ineffectual provincial Women’s Bureau that she established during her tenure as cabinet minister.[2]

Ethel Wilson, 1957, Courtesy of City of Edmonton Archive (EA-10-2934-5).

I argue that as a white, Anglo-Celtic woman in a region shaped by recent colonization, Ethel Wilson’s abilities and privilege allowed her to be a more effective unionist and advocate for women workers in the 1940s than has been recognized. Her impact, however, was constrained by moralistic middle-class notions of female sexuality and her religious convictions, which fostered an individualistic approach to activism. More fundamentally, though, her career demonstrates that the male-dominated system of packinghouses, unions, and governments in postwar Alberta was a more significant barrier to Wilson’s activism, shutting her out of positions of real power due to her gender.
Ethel Wilson found a job in the laundry department of the Burns packinghouse at a time when management practices made female packing jobs the preserve of those seen as white. As a seamstress tasked with repairing uniforms, Wilson met just about everyone who worked on the shop floor. She was good at engaging people in conversation to promote the union during the war, helping organize the first Edmonton local of the progressive industrial union United Packinghouse Workers of America, and getting workers out to vote in community elections in the postwar era. But Wilson took a particular interest in the concerns of women workers, becoming an inspiration to many by encouraging them to speak up when they were being treated unfairly, and intervening to defend them against malicious attacks on their sexuality.[3] Wilson’s activist presence in the Burns packinghouse helps explain why women in this Edmonton packinghouse were consistently the first to make important workplace gains. The activism of Burns women eliminated the marriage bar in 1949, eight years before women in the much larger Swift plant, and made them the first to win maternity leave rights and the right for married women to receive company benefits in the 1970s.

 

This 1945 map of Edmonton has been annotated with colour and the names of the four major meatpacking plants to show their proximity to each other, Courtesy of City of Edmonton Archive (EA 11).

Wilson came of age just as Alberta women won the vote in 1916 and was influenced by maternal feminism’s contradictory idea that women should have equal opportunity with men but be held to a higher standard of sexual behavior and morality. Some packing women were offended by Wilson’s attempts to police those she felt were at risk of immoral behavior. She empowered individual women to file grievances in the plant or to access new or expanded services that she had established specifically for girls and women while in political office. I found no evidence that Wilson tried to organize women in the city’s four local packinghouses to fight discriminatory policies, which meant Edmonton packing women had to fight a series of isolated struggles in each plant, unlike some North American trade union women who came together to mount campaigns in the postwar decades.[4]

Ethel Wilson, a cabinet minister without portfolio in the Social Credit government of Ernest Manning, turns the sod for the new Central Pentecostal Tabernacle Church in Edmonton, of which she was a long-standing member. The Pentecostal Testimony, Spring, 1964, Courtesy of Pentecostal Assembles of Canada Archive.

There is evidence, however, that after being welcomed during the war, Wilson was purposefully excluded from influential union leadership positions in the postwar era. In one case she was “intimidated” into withdrawing her name from contention for the powerful national negotiating committee. In provincial government her token appointment as cabinet minister without portfolio signaled a Social Credit “fake” to the Left that was borne out by the limited scope of the Women’s Bureau.

Ethel Wilson’s record provides new insight into the contributions and contradictions of Alberta union women in the postwar era. It demonstrates that gender remained a major obstacle to even white women’s power on the shop floor, in the union hall and in the corridors of political power, making explicit the male-dominated industrial complex that conditioned women’s activism in postwar Alberta.

Cynthia Loch-Drake is a historian of gender and labour whose research explores the lives of men and women workers in postwar Edmonton’s meatpacking industry, an era of strong unionism. Since completing her doctorate in History at York University she has been a sessional faculty member teaching courses in the history of women, economics, and business.

[1] Cynthia Loch-Drake, “Unpacking ‘Alberta Beef’: Class, Gender and Culture in Education Packinghouses During the Era of National Pattern Bargaining, 1947-1979,” Doctoral thesis, York University, 2013.

[2] Jack Hampson, Interview Transcript (Edmonton: Provincial Archives of Alberta, Warren Caragata fonds, PR1980.0218/19A, 1978); Alvin Finkel, “Populism and Gender:  The U.F.A. And Social Credit Experiences,” Journal of Canadian Studies 27, no. No. 4 (1992-93); Brian T. Thorn, From Left to Right: Maternalism and Women’s Political Activism in Postwar Canada, UBC Press, 2016.

[3] Ellen B. Interviews with author, 21 April 2006 and 13 May 2015.

[4] I am referring to the successful 1957 campaign led by African-American packing women in the U.S. to win equal pay in contracts with major meatpacking companies and by Canadian auto women whose activism forced amendment of Ontario Human Rights Code, eliminating all sex-based language from union contracts in 1970. Dennis A. Deslippe, Rights, Not Roses: Unions and the rise of working-class feminism, 1945-80, University of Illinois Press, 2000, 79; Pamela Sugiman, Labour’s dilemma: the gender politics of auto workers in Canada, 1937-1979, University of Toronto Press, 1994, 167.

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