The lady is a LABOR LEADER
Meet Huguette Plamondon, who looks like aimost anything except what she is — the boss of 25 packinghouse unions in Quebec and the Maritimes. But she’s even gone to jail proving she can do the job as well as any man
If television’s John Daly is ever at a loss for someone to stump his panel of experts on What’s My Line?, an exotic young lady from Montreal called Huguette Plamondon can surely qualify.
What panelist, faced with a shapely brunette in heavy costume jewelry and four-inch heels, would dream she was a labor leader who had spent ten years of her life walking picket lines, distributing pamphlets, organizing meat-packing plants, talking back to policemen and being hauled off to jail? Who could imagine Huguette’s “line” to be vice-president of the newly organized Canadian Labor Congress, president of the Montreal Labor Council, and field representative for the United Packinghouse Workers of America?
Miss Plamondon's election to the CLC executive last spring made her the first woman to hold such a position. When she defeated R. J. (Doc) Lamoreux, a veteran representative of the steelworkers, she proved once more—to her own satisfaction, at least—that any work men can do, a woman can do just as well, if not better.
This kind of evidence is important to Huguette, who's been fighting for equality of the sexes all her life.
When she was a child of twelve nothing got her dander up like having to iron her brothers’ shirts, without a please or thank you, simply because she was a girl.
“Unfair! Unfair!” she muttered over her ironing board.
When she was twenty she yearned to become a lawyer, but her father could see no sense in educating a girl for the courtroom when she ought to be thinking of marriage and babies.
“Unfair!” Huguette raged, but it was clear she’d have to pull herself up by her bootstraps if she wanted to amount to anything.
Today, Papa Plamondon’s little daughter, thirty years old and still unmarried, has done just that. Besides her new position, which requires her to supervise all Quebec affiliates of the Canadian Labor Congress, Huguette handles what many labor leaders have called “a man’s job in a tough field”—organizing and servicing the twenty-five unions of the packinghouse industry in Quebec and the Maritimes. On an equal footing and on equal salaries ($5,000 a
year), she and Romeo Mathieu, a shrewd and magnetic labor leader who used to be her boss, listen to grievances, sit on arbitration boards and negotiate contracts on behalf of four thousand members of UPWA. the major union in the food industry in Canada. Today, most Canadian meat-packing plants and slaughterhouses are organized. UPWA has a master agreement with the big three of the industry (Swift's, Canada Packers and Burns) and smaller firms usually follow where the big three lead. However, UPWA's targets include various other food-distribution plants (flour and cereal, canning, biscuits, tea and coffee), as yet largely unorganized. It’s the task of UPWA field representatives to get these plants into the fold.
Most of Huguette's time is spent listening to other people's troubles. Five days a week she chases from one plant to another in the Montreal area looking into grievances, real and imagined. Mill Street, an odorous avenue in Point St. Charles containing two meat-packing plants, two slaughterhouses, a flour mill, a foundry and a charcoal plant, is more familiar to her than the comfortable apartment in residential Montreal she shares with her married brother.
Her day usually starts at seven, when she snatches a bite to eat and drives off in her green 1954 Oldsmobile. Destination: some UPWA local in trouble.
A recent Tuesday, for instance, found her on her way to a plapt where the foreman had ordered workers to carry a load of six cartons instead of their usual four. The workers complained it was impossible.
“If it’s impossible, don’t do it or you’ll make it possible,” Huguette had already advised them by telephone. “On the other hand, if it is possible, do it with good grace.”
But now she had to size up the situation herself. Were six cartons too heavy for a worker to carry? Could he see where he was going with such an armful? Were the floors icy? Might he slip and hurt himself? Talking to employees and watching them on the job, she was convinced that the bulkier load was a safety hazard. Later in the morning, accompanied by a grievance committee, she presented her point of view to management, who in turn presented their side of the story—the sixcarton load was necessary for a short while because production was not up to schedule. Huguette thereupon came up with an alternative: why not let the workers carry their usual four cartons, and take care of the extra load by pressing two or three electric trucks into temporary service? After some argument, and in view of the safety factors, the management agreed to meet the crisis as she suggested, and Huguette reported the news back to the workers at noon in the company cafeteria.
Workers finish at 5, but for Huguette there are evenings of union meetings and strikes at night
After lunch, she hurried off to a foodprocessing plant where girls in the teapacking department were complaining that their machines were set too fast. Without notifying the boss of her visit, she was able to check the speed herself. Later that afternoon she accompanied the grievance committee to its appointment with management and came away with the promise that the machines would be set slower.
Four-thirty found her at her desk in UPWA’s tenement-house office on St. Joseph Boulevard East. During the next two hours workers on their way home to supper stopped in to inform her that the foreman in one plant had transferred
a worker from the cutting room to the freezer without proper gear, that a promised new women’s washroom in another plant hadn’t materialized, that an employer had promoted a junior man over the head of a senior man and that another foreman was making passes at female employees. To all these complaints Huguette listened patiently and promised action. At half past six she dashed around the corner for a cup of coffee and a sandwich, before rushing off to a union-membership meeting where she explained the terms of a labor agreement and took up a collection for some workers on strike.
The meeting ended at 10.30, giving her time to catch the night shift at another packinghouse during midnight lunch period and listen to more grievances.
She was back home at one a.m., just turning in, when her telephone rang and the president of a UPWA local informed her that a worker had just been fired in his plant and other workers had left their jobs in sympathy. She was wanted out at the plant right away. Promises to look into it next morning didn't satisfy him, so Huguette uncomplainingly dragged herself out of bed and back to work. Iu was three in the morning before she finally slept.
Fortunately, not all Huguette’s days are quite so busy. But the problems she ficed on this particular Tuesday are typical of the problems she faces every day of her life.
After listening to grievances for several years, she is convinced that at least some of the trouble lies with management’s reluctance to explain things to employees.
A recent grievance brought to her ears, for instance, concerned a ruling that employees on the killing fioor of a large Montreal plant should report to vork four mornings a week at seven o'clock, and Mondays at eight o’clock. The workers complained that they woke just as early on Mondays and had to waste time waiting for the later checkingin time, only to be kept on the job till five o'clock instead of four o’clock as usual. After Huguette explained that new cattle arrived at the plant late Monday morning so as to save the management the expense of feeding them over the week end, the workers agreed that their presence on the killing fioor before eight was not necessary.
Most grievances, she has discovered, are neither simple nor one-sided. Sometimes an entire department must be reorganized before some small complaint cm be remedied. The rank and file expect a union representative to be constantly at war with the bosses, and if Huguette occasionally sees eye to eye with management she must be prepared to defend her position with facts, figures and conviction. A worker who stamps into her office and demands, "What do you mean, 1 haven't got a grievance?” cannot be dismissed with a smile or a shrug. Instead. Huguette must carefully explain the reasons for the union's point of view', "it’s up to us to send them away happy,” she explains.
Interviews inside a slaughterhouse, at the elbow of a worker killing a pig or a sheep or a cow, still upset her. A few years ago, faced with these situations, she waited with sick certainty lor the moment when she would have to hurry outside. Now she can stand there without missing a word.
Although the job of investigating grievances takes up most of her time, Huguette has other responsibilities. As a vice-president of the Canadian Labor Congress she is constantly being invited to official dinners, and as director of the Montreal Labor Council she must conduct monthly meetings devoted to bettering municipal services in Montreal. At least twice a month she’s in the Maritimes, to investigate grievances and negotiate contracts in Halifax or Pictou.
The strangest of her duties is representing eighteen bearded men in little black caps who have a union, local 368, all to themselves. These are the shochtim, the Jewish ritual slaughterers for the kosher butcher trade who work in Canada Packers, Wilsil Limited, and Eastern Abattoir. Tradition regards them as religious men so they do not attend the union’s international conventions. It is up to Huguette. a Catholic, to represent them publicly and to handle their complicated financial affairs. ("If she did nothing else, that would make her a smart girl!” says Kalman Kaplansky, director of the Jewish Labor Committee.)
Summer and autumn are busy seasons for UPWA, since contracts are signed and negotiations with the Big Three are carried on at these times. Until last summer Huguette hadn't taken a vacation in eight years. Last June, possibly in recognition of her new prestige with the Canadian Labor Congress, the union
presented her with twelve hundred dollars at a surprise party and sent her off on a month’s holiday in Europe. Huguette spent most of her time in Paris, studying French meat packing. She was delighted to get back to Canada early in August.
No one would deny that Huguette is feminine to her fingertips, but her schedule doesn’t leave much time for romance. Any man who invites her to dinner expecting a cosy tête-à-tête over the liqueurs is in for a rude shock about 7.30, when she glances at her jeweled watch, murmurs her thanks and dashes
off to a meeting. Occasionally, she and a philosopher friend drop in at her favorite downtown restaurant. La Tour Eiffel, to sip cognac and listen to a French chanteuse, but these moments are usually shattered by her friend’s contention that today’s workers are hopelessly pampered and her angry retort that somebody ought to look into management’s profits.
She's never met an attractive man who didn’t insist that after marriage he expected his wife to quit her job and stay home. Until she does, she swears she won’t marry. “What would 1 do
cooped up all day in some little apartment?” she wonders. “I’d go craz.y.”
In the meantime, she finds her job exciting and challenging, especially when it comes to organizing. Huguette maintains that conditions in non-union plants are often shocking. "In Montreal,” she says, “there are workers earning as little as fifty-five cents an hour, fifty-four hours a week, with compulsory overtime. Pensions are terrible: a man of sixty-five may be getting forty-five dollars a month, or less. And even w’here wages are good, agreements for security can stand improvement. What good is a fine wage if you can lose your job overnight?”
Organizing some of these plants is comparatively easy. Others are difficult, and in some cases the union achieves certification as the official bargaining agent but never gets beyond that. Huguette and Mathieu have been organizing employees at one Montreal firm, Dominion Provisionen Limited, for almost a year, and they still haven't concluded negotiations with the management.
Huguette has dealt with at least two firms where, after months of effort, she still couldn’t do business with the management and had to give up her fight. How management and labor plotted and counterplotted during that time reads like a strategic manual on how to play chess, with some cloak-and-dagger intrigue right out of a melodrama tossed in for good measure.
Both cases followed the same pattern: a request by workers for a union in their plant, secret meetings in out-of-the-way restaurants to sign up the necessary fiftyperccnt-pl us-one majority needed for union certification, dismissal of the leaders in the fight for a union, charges and counter-charges by both management and the union, an injunction under the criminal code prohibiting further dismissals without good cause, and the gradual demoralization of workers to the point where everybody in the plant was regarding everybody else as a possible stool pigeon. In both cases, although the Quebec Labor Board had certified UPWA as official bargaining agent, it became evident as month followed month that management and labor were getting nowhere. After ten months, management asked the board to revise the status of the union. It emerged that the disillusioned workers were hopelessly in arrears with their dues, and UPWA was decertified. to be replaced later by a company union.
Fortunately for Huguette and UPWA, they have few experiences like these. Most plants organize with little trouble. Last year Huguette succeeded in organizing the office staff of Wilsil, Limited into the first white-collar union in the meat-packing industry. The men in the packing plant turned out to support their office brethren, the general manager was picketed as he sat in his glass-walled office, and, in Miss Plamondon’s words. 'Tt was a battle!”
Fighting is Huguette’s favorite pastime. She resigned in a huff from her first clerical job at seventeen after her employer objected to her trying to unionize his shipping plant. Papa Plamondon. a painter for the CPR in the Thirties, had always told his children, “If it weren't for the union I wouldn't have worked even thirty-seven days last year or had my pension plan,” so young Huguette was convinced that unions were good. When
she learned that employees in the shipping department had long hours and low pay she urged them to organize. When her boss suggested that she could not serve two masters, Huguette told him. “Then I choose the union,” and resigned.
Somebody told her that Romeo Mathieu, the international representative of the United Packinghouse Workers, needed a secretary. Huguette tried the necessary examination and got the job. It paid twenty-five dollars a week.
Mathieu says, “If I’d been an ordinary businessman I’d have fired her that first day. She kept interrupting and asking questions. I was dictating a letter to an employer concerning a grievance, and I said we would proceed to arbitration. She asked me, “What's a grievance? What’s arbitration? What will it accomplish?” She questioned everything. She paid a dollar out of her first week's salary and joined the union. She came to every meeting and begged to distribute circulars. Right from the beginning, she was union material.”
In 1946, to her immense delight, her local appointed her a delegate to UPWA’s convention in Montreal. It was a new experience for the young stenographer, and it whetted her appetite for more.
When a textile strike broke out in Valleyfield, she was out there every morning at six, walking the picket line in sympathy with the strikers and returning to her job at nine.
Picketing a rubber plant in Chambly that same year, she had her first taste of jail. The company opened its gates one morning and Huguette tried to persuade some workers not to enter. The next thing she knew she was in Chambly jail. That night Papa Plamondon picked up his evening paper and found himself staring at the defiant face of his daughter. He had been pro-union all his life, but he considered a daughter in jail a disgrace. He ordered Huguette to quit her union activities. She said she’d die first.
During the next twelve months she was jailed four times for distributing pamphlets, at that time a municipal offense in Montreal.
“Are you trying to laugh at our laws?” the court recorder snapped when her bail had gone up from twenty-five dollars to a hundred.
“Not at all,” Huguette retorted. “I just think they’re wrong.”
The bylaw against distributing pamphlets has since been repealed.
Huguette spent Thanksgiving Day 1947 in jail, eating mushy tomato sandwiches. It was October, and packinghouse workers across the country had been on strike for eight weeks with no sign of a settlement. Huguette had worked hard during those eight weeks, organizing crews of workers’ wives to man soup kitchens and make over old clothes, and educating them in what she calls “a strike mentality.” On the day before Thanksgiving word leaked out that the Montreal plant of Canada Packers would open its gates next day. UPWA staged a mass meeting that night, and Thanksgiving morning found picket lines stretching down Mill Street, and provincial police on hand, ready for action. By the time the first busloads of workers, including large numbers of Montreal unemployed, appeared on the scene, tension was high and tempers ready to trigger off. Before the day was over 243 workers were to land in jail.
Huguette says she was legally parading up and down in front of the gates at 6.40 when a couple of policemen told her to keep moving. She retorted that she reos moving and that she didn’t have to run. Whereupon, she says, they hauled her off to jail. They took her fingerprints and her photograph. Although everyone was freed by nightfall and charges were dismissed, Huguette has a jail record. She has no love for the Quebec provincial police and little for the press, which she accuses of carrying the scantiest information about why the workers were on strike, and of bursting out with excited headlines.
At the end of the strike Huguette was still a secretary, but she was taking on other duties. A steward would phone from the plant to complain that the boss had laid off a senior man instead of a junior, and if Mathieu were out of town Huguette would handle the grievance. Right from the start Mathieu was convinced she’d go far in the labor movement. When the International Union of Electrical Workers asked for a man to help with a campaign, he sent Huguette. “A woman?” they muttered. “Well, at least she’ll be able to type.” But in a week she was advising them how to appeal to French-speaking people; in a month she was in charge of the campaign.
The boss had her in tears
IUEW wanted to keep her, but UPWA had other plans for Miss Plamondon. They offered her the position of Quebec and Maritime field representative on an equal footing with Romeo Mathieu.
As the first woman organizer in the Canadian packinghouse industry, Huguette went to work first at a small Montreal plant whose manager had agreed to deal with the union. When the time came to start negotiations, Mathieu ordered his protégée to handle them.
Full of confidence, Huguette started out. An hour later she was back in tears. The boss had ordered her off the premises! “A woman mixed up in labor?” he had shouted. “You ought to be ashamed!”
Mathieu says, “She really gets mad, this girl. She is like a machine gun. This day, she was all kinds of colors as if she had been poisoned. She said. ‘I wish he had hit me—then we’d have a case.’ Then she cried some more.”
(Huguette, listening to Mathieu’s version of the story, denies she cried. "I was just mad!” she insists. But Mathieu sticks to his guns. “When you are mad you are crying,” he points out.)
She didn’t want to go back, but Mathieu insisted. However, in case she should need help, he asked Paul de Mers, another union man, to go with her. Next day Huguette and De Mers appeared at the plant and found its staff of twelve employees crowding in the doorway so as not to miss any fireworks. But the employer had simmered down overnight. When Huguette emphasized that she was not there as a woman, but as a worker representing other workers, he gave in
and negotiations got under way. Huguette organized his plant and today whenever he runs up against some labor problem it’s Huguette he insists on dealing with.
The sight of a girl labor leader unnerves many an executive, Mathieu has discovered.
“What do you mean sending that girl over here? I can’t even swear in front of her!” one manager phoned him.
Another complained, "I just suggested there might be some difficulties and right away she was mad! That woman has fire in her eye.”
Because Huguette believes that a union representative who dresses shabbily is letting the workers down, she shops out of season for good suits at reduced rates. One executive, misled by Miss Plamondon’s fashionable appearance, offered her the best fur coat in Montreal if she’d urge his employees to accept a seven-and-a-half-cent raise instead of the ten cents they were asking. She refused, eloquently.
Mathieu admits that in her early dealings with management, she was not always the soul of tact. “You are selfish! You are exploiting the workers! You care for nobody but yourself!” she would denounce an employer who didn’t see eye to eye with her. Today she is beginning to realize that occasionally management has its side of the story. Last year, convinced that profits were away down in a plant where the workers wanted a wage increase, she advised them to postpone their demands. “After all,” she told them, “we’re not here to make the company bankrupt and you can’t get blood out of a stone.”
However, on occasions when a meeting of minds between labor and management proves impossible, she has other ideas. For instance, when a Quebec City plant recently refused to discuss a possible wage increase and fringe benefits, Huguette evolved an effective strategy based on the fact that in the packinghouse industry, every moment counts. She advised employees to check in half an hour late in the morning and leave half an hour early at night, to stretch morning and afternoon coffee breaks from ten minutes to half an hour, and lunch period from an hour to an hour and a half. The night shift would behave accordingly. The workers could expect to be docked for time off, but, as Huguette explains it, “The beauty of the thing was that nobody would be hurt too much, and technically it was not a slowdown.”
The program went into effect and lasted one day. Production was completely upset. Next day, management and labor got together and the result was a fivecent raise in hourly pay.
Even a small success like this makes Huguette proud to be a woman. She is excited whenever a woman becomes director of a local and wishes more women would enter the labor field. At union meetings she has often watched men mutter whenever a woman gets up to speak. She tells women workers, “Don’t let it faze you. Be sure you know what you’re talking about, then get up and say it. Men respect a girl who states her point and doesn’t back down.”
With these convictions, it was only natural that Huguette should take her election as Quebec vice-president of the Canadian Labor Congress as a victory for her sex.
Men in the labor field are more apt to suggest that Miss Plamondon was elected not in spite of being a woman, but because she is a woman.
“Women give the movement something,” they gallantly affirm.