Thirty-four years ago this month, as part of the 75th anniversary of International Women’s Day, striking Eaton’s workers and supporters stormed the store’s flagship location at the Toronto Eaton Centre to protest what they saw as the company’s refusal to negotiate a fair contract.
They were taking on a Canadian institution. For more than a century, shoppers had loved Eaton’s mail-order catalogue, patronized its stores across the country, and valued Timothy Eaton’s money-back guarantee. The retail giant was also one of the country’s largest employers: “Practically everyone in Toronto has someone in their family who has worked at Eaton’s,” said Toronto alderman Dorothy Thomas. “They know conditions are bad.” Thomas was one of three area politicians who joined the picket line in 1984 to support a recently unionized group of 1,500 retail workers striking for better wages, benefits, and job security.
The T. Eaton Company, founded in 1869 by the Irish-born businessman, peaked during the Second World War with more than 70,000 employees. While Eaton did not invent the department-store concept, his popular chain revolutionized retail in Canada. As the company grew, its relationship with employees became more complex. Factory workers could expect a 40-hour work-week, and employees could access a range of in-house health services and social clubs. But women were generally paid less than men, and hundreds of them lost their jobs after participating in the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.
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By the 1970s, the privately owned company was facing financial losses, the result of failed expansions, such as the Horizon chain of discount department stores. The Ontario government’s Downtown Renewal Programme facilitated Eaton’s development of downtown malls, which were intended to revitalize urban cores, but they had high vacancy rates, and consumers continued to take their business to the suburbs. In an effort to trim costs, the chain cut back on sales staff and training. By the 1980s, the company’s workers, faced with decreased wages and increased job insecurity, had become dissatisfied.
As the Toronto Star wrote on November 30, 1984, “Once upon a time a strike at Eaton’s was as unlikely as a union at Eaton’s, a season without an Eaton’s catalogue, or a Christmas without a Santa Claus Parade.” The catalogue had ceased publication in 1976; the last Eaton’s-backed Santa Claus Parade had been held six years later. And earlier in 1984, workers at six locations — Yonge-Eglinton Centre, Scarborough Town Centre, Shoppers World on Danforth Avenue, Bramalea, St. Catharines, and London — had voted to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union.
Workers had hoped that unionization would lead to improved wages and working conditions, but management refused to negotiate. So, in 1984, just weeks before Christmas, 1,500 workers at the six stores across Ontario walked out. The head of the Canadian Labour Congress, Denis McDermott, sliced up an Eaton’s credit card in front of cameras as the group called for a national boycott of the chain — a boycott immediately supported by the National Action Committee on the Status of Women and other women’s-rights groups. According to union organizer Sue Grange, about 80 per cent of the striking workers were women.
The strike lasted for nearly six months — Eaton’s hired temporary workers to keep the stores open. Picketers used creative tactics: they sang Christmas carols, changing the words to draw attention to labour issues; they welcomed Santa Claus, who said that “all [his] elves at the North Pole [were] unioned.” Women’s-liberation activists set up a coalition to support workers trying to get by on their strike pay, hosting a fundraising concert at Toronto’s Massey Hall.
On March 2, 1985, 300 striking Eaton’s workers kicked off an action-packed week of events by gathering at the Yonge-Eglinton Centre. One by one, they slipped past security and began protesting, forcing the store to close temporarily. The solidarity picket had begun peacefully outside the store at around noon, but about 90 minutes in, it was reported that workers and union allies in Brampton had marched into the Bramalea City Centre and right into that Eaton’s location. The Toronto demonstrators decided to follow their lead and marched right into the Yonge-Eglinton Centre.
Once inside, they gathered below the second-level department store, shouting that shoppers should boycott the store and that the company should negotiate fairly for a contract. They then made their way up to the store, chanting and crowding the entrance. Almost 40 policemen were called in to help control the situation and stood shoulder to shoulder with private security to keep the picketers from getting inside. But the workers surged through the human barricade, and the store was shuttered for 30 minutes while strikers cheered and sang “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
On March 9, thousands from the International Women’s Day march spontaneously took the company’s flagship location on Yonge Street by storm, demonstrating and parading through the aisles for almost 30 minutes. According to the Toronto Star, customers and clerks stood aside while placard-wearing protesters shouted “Frederik Eaton will be beaten” and “We want a contract.”
Some workers at the Eaton’s Centre location told journalists that protesters had called them “scabs” — an epithet they objected to as that location had voted against unionization. Others declined to comment, for fear of reprisals by management.
On March 12, 16 trade unionists walked from London, St. Thomas, and St. Catharines to Toronto in what was dubbed a “trek for fairness.” They were greeted at Union Station by members of the Ontario Federation of Labour when they arrived three days later.
Under Ontario law, Eaton’s workers were not guaranteed their jobs back if the strike lasted more than six months. In May, with that deadline looming and the union's legal costs rising above $2 million, they capitulated, accepting essentially the same contract that it had been presented with in November, which included a 7 per cent pay increase. Unimpressed with this result, the unionized Eaton’s workers overwhelmingly voted in favour of decertification the next year.
Ultimately, Eaton’s won the battle but lost the war. Public perception of the company continued to plummet after it dispensed with all sales and discounts, replacing them with an “everyday value pricing” strategy in 1991. This approach drove more customers away, but it wasn’t abandoned until almost four years later. The company folded in 1999 with more than $320 million in losses. It was later acquired by Sears, which succumbed to a similar fate last year.
Sources: March 14, 1984, March 29, 1984, November 30, 1984, December 1, 1984, December 14, 1984, December 16, 1984, March 3, 1985, March 8, 1985, March 10, 1985, April 20, 1985, and May 1, 1985, editions of the Toronto Star; November 30, 1984, December 1, 1984, December 10, 1984, December 17, 1984, December 26, 1984, March 4, 1985, and April 30, 1985, editions of the Globe and Mail; July 13, 1987 edition of Maclean’s; April 1985 edition of the Toronto International Women’s Day Committee Newsletter; and Sean Carleton and Julia Smith, “Here We Come A-Picketing! Christmas Carols, Class Conflict, and the Eaton's Strike, 1984-85,” activehistory.ca.
Kaitlin Wainwright is a public historian and the director of programming at Heritage Toronto.