An era in Canadian history came to an appreciable halt on March 18 with the death in Montreal of Maurice Silcoff at the grand age of 104. In a career that spanned a good chunk of the 20th century, Mr. Silcoff, union chief and friend to the worker, was a stalwart of old-style union leadership, one that combined militancy with pragmatism, for he pushed as hard as he could for employees while mindful to not put employers out of business.
A revered figure in Canadian labour history, Mr. Silcoff founded the first local union in Canada for workers in the hat-making industry. He went on to become the Canadian president of the United Hatters, Cap and Millinery Workers Union, and of the International Leather Goods, Plastics and Novelty Workers Union, positions he occupied until his retirement in 1988 at the age of 80.
“He was one of the last remaining figures of a unique movement in Canadian history: The Jewish labour movement,” said Irving Abella, an expert in Canadian labour history. “It was the only time in Canadian history when one ethnic group dominated both the production and workers in an industry – the garment industry – from the turn of the century to the 1950s.”
The unions Mr. Silcoff led were “really the conscience of the Jewish community and of the Canadian labour movement in the first 50 years of the 20th century,” Prof. Abella said.
Mr. Silcoff worked and lived at a time when people, no matter their station or the season, wore dress hats, caps, berets, fedoras, bonnets, what have you. A bare head was considered unseemly. Changing fashion trends may have dampened demand, but Mr. Silcoff was more upset by the reality of jobs going overseas and what that meant for workers.
“His way of thinking was always, inveterately, high-road,” related his granddaughter, author and journalist Mireille Silcoff, for whom Mr. Silcoff provided a torrent of subject matter.
He spent more than five decades fighting for better wages, working conditions, shorter hours, benefits and bargaining rights for thousands of workers across Canada, always tough but conscious of the employer’s position.
“It was a rare quality to be able to see the other side,” said his son, Joel Silcoff, a Quebec Superior Court judge. “That concept – of being able to see how far you could push the other side – was imbued in me as a lawyer. When I negotiated, I wanted to look at things from the position of my client’s opponent. How far can you push and not blow the deal? That’s something he was very skilled at.”
But at the same time, Mr. Silcoff wasn’t above flexing some muscle. On picket lines, he would ensure the attendance of brawny members of the Seafarers International Union to beef up the presence of more modestly proportioned cutters and stitchers.
A different, grimmer task arose after the end of the Second World War, when Mr. Silcoff was dispatched by the federal government, on behalf of the labour movement, to scour displaced persons camps in Germany for much-needed textile workers back home. It was there he found the people he would refer to from that point on as “souls.”
He brought 650 families from the camps to Canada. “These were broken people who had a desire to live,” his son said. Extrapolating, Joel Silcoff believes some 10,000 people today indirectly owe their lives to his father, including some in Montreal whose tears would well up on seeing him – or even hearing mention of his name.
But how many of those souls could even thread a needle?
“From what he told me, very few,” his son conceded. “He was very, very liberal in terms of his screening. How do make your choice when someone comes before you and the story is pathetic?”
Prof. Abella sees it the same way. “He was very creative in defining what a garment worker was. So he brought in intellectuals, rabbis, musicians … all as ‘skilled hat makers.’”
Maurice Silcoff was born in 1908 in Dublin, into a Jewish community that had its origins in Lithuania (a natural storyteller, he would relate the tale, perhaps apocryphal, of how his Lithuanian parents disembarked at the “Port of Cork,” thinking the ship’s captain had called out “New York”).
He was two or three years old when his father, Bernard – a penurious shoemaker – mother, Sarah, and brother Joe left for Canada in search of a better life. “One of the few negative things he ever said [about his father] was that he probably wasn’t a very good shoemaker,” said his son, wistfully.
In any event, both of Maurice’s parents died of tuberculosis within a few years of arrival in Montreal, and the two boys, now joined by a sister, were taken in by distant cousins. Another story was about how he and his brother would sneak into movies by casually walking backward into a theatre as patrons were streaming out of a show.
His formal education ended at roughly the age of 12, when he and his brother went to work for the Acme Hat Company amid Dickensian conditions, for about 20 cents an hour. Taken under the wing of a labour leader who saw potential in the young man, Mr. Silcoff returned to the factory at the age of 25 to head the Canadian arm of the U.S.-based millinery workers union.
He informed his boss, the same Mr. Levine who had hired the lad, “in the nicest possible way that his shop was organizing, and it was only fair,” his granddaughter related in one of many columns devoted to her hero.
“By the time I was 10, I knew what a scab was,” she wrote. “I knew that in my grandfather’s time, there were people identified as socialists and others called communists, and they did not always get along.”
Partly, he was motivated by painful memories of his own father, who worked backbreaking hours and never had enough money, Joel said. The family had to rely on charity to make ends meet.
Mr. Silcoff married Beatrice Herman in 1937 and took his new bride to Brockville, Ont., where makers of Stetsons at Brockville Hat Works were on strike. Things got out of hand on the picket line, and he spent part of his honeymoon in the local jail.
In the early 1980s, a dispute arose between the Canadian and U.S. wings of the hatter’s union. (The Globe and Mail’s labour reporter, Wilfred List, couldn’t resist: “The hatters are mad,” he wrote.)
The parent union appointed a man named Sam Fox as receiver for five Canadian locals that began a move to secede. Mr. Silcoff and other leaders of the breakaway group travelled to the Toronto offices of the Ontario Federation of Labour to stage a protest. They had purchased a large stuffed fox to burn in effigy. With the media present, they struck a match but discovered that plush toys were nonflammable.
“They poured a whole bottle of lighter fluid over this thing, and the cameras were rolling, and he lit the match, and the bloody fox would not burn,” said his son, barely stifling a laugh.
A single month in 2004 was brutal: Mr. Silcoff's wife of 67 years died, he broke his hip, and moved to a seniors’ residence, Manoir Montefiore. He had learned word processing in his early 90s, and, using a 1998 Blueberry iMac, went on to produce dozens of vignettes and musings under the name The Montefiorian Observer, collected and published by his family. Essay titles included Bladder vs. Elevator and Hello, I Think You Are My Husband.
On the occasion of his 100th birthday, Mr. Silcoff responded to the template question reporters have for those who have reached the milestone: What is the secret to a long life? “The good care of body and mind is essential,” he advised. “Love is essential. Good deeds, both toward oneself and toward mankind, are absolutely essential. And, as sadness occurs in life, always look at the bright side.”
Maurice Silcoff leaves his son Joel, grandchildren Mireille and Elliott, and four great-grandchildren.
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