Graff Avenue

Call out the army

Furniture Workers Mocking Politicians, 1933

In 1966, Stratford city council named Graff Avenue in honour of George Irwin Graff, who was the mayor of Stratford in 1932 and 1933, a period of great upheaval in the community. He was born in Port Elgin in 1883. After living in Maryborough Township in Wellington County and then in Wallace Township in Perth, he came to Stratford in 1906 and operated a building business. Six years later, he bought an existing real estate and auction business, which he ran until his death in 1946.

Mayor Graff said it was because of his real estate business that he became interested in municipal endeavours, and that led him into municipal politics. He served as a councillor from 1927 through 1931, before his two uncontested year-long terms mayor. But it wasn't all smooth sailing. In the early 1930s there was great labour unrest and strikes were rampant across Canada. There was a growing fear of Communist infiltration in labour organizations, many of them still in their infancy.

In Stratford, the labor union movement had not spread much beyond the Canadian National Railways locomotive repair shops, but there were rumblings in the city's furniture factories, in which the Depression  had forced an even further drop in the already low wages in the that industry. The chief organizer of the Worker’s Unity League, Fred Collins, took advantage of the situation and plunged into the midst of Stratford furniture workers with an incendiary battle cry: “The is just war and a right one --fought for the benefit and safeguarding of your homes. You are the troops.”


Union demands were drawn up and presented to five of Stratford's furniture companies on Sept. 13, 1933. The next day the strike was on, and it was 95 per cent effective. Dr. Joseph D. Monteith  was the Ontario minister of labour and a proclaimed friend of the workers, but he failed to ward off trouble. The first violent episode took place on the night of Sept. 18-19, when Preston-Noelting tried to use strikebreakers to ship unfinished radio cabinets. Crowds blocked the way and the police were called. Harry W. Strudley, whose Imperial Furniture plant was the only one not on strike, offered his services as a mediator, but his offer was rejected.

Mayor George Graff

The WUL  organized the women employed at the Swift's meat-packing plant on Erie Street, and before long they were on strike, leaving 11,000 live chickens trapped in the plant. Soon, the chicken-pluckers were joined on the picket line by the furniture workers. After a series of disturbances, a hose was trained on the workers, power and telephone lines were cut, and outside police reserves were brought in.

The Beaco- Herald reported that a crowd of 2,000 curious onlookers had gathered on Erie Street. A doctor's car, enroute to help an injured policeman, was stoned. A Toronto photographer was attacked and beaten. Blinding security lights were directed at the Swift plant as police were backed against the wall by a hail of stones and bricks. Trucks and boxcars were smashed and looted as residents gathered armloads of butter and squawking chickens.

When Mayor Graff decided things had gone far enough, through the police commission he called for military help from the attorney general of Ontario. It was the first time since 1925 that a large number of troops had been called out in peace time. It was a black mark against Stratford for decades. The troops, from the Royal Canadian Regiment in London, arrived in Stratford in green steel helmets and full battle dress, armed with wartime equipment, and backed up by a company brought from Toronto.

The story persists that armoured tanks were used to control the strikers in Stratford. When the clanking treads of the tank-like vehicles rolled along Ontario Street and stationed themselves in front of the armouries at 80 Waterloo St. S., they were grim reminders of military law and order. They were not real army tanks, but everybody called them tanks. They were actually machine-gun carriers, each with two men armed with machine guns. Not a friendly look.

Stratford was occupied by armed troops. People were frightened, upset and outraged. A huge rally of the workers was held in Lakeside Park. More than 4,000 pledged their support for the workers, sought the resignation of Mayor Graff, and called for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all troops and military forces from the city and its environs. They denounced the military action as intimidation against the striking workers: "We, the assembled mass, consider his (Mayor Graff's) action in this matter proves his alliance with the employers to further lower the standard of living of the workers of Stratford." More than 1,500 citizens staged a protest parade with mock "soldiers" and a big mock gun which carried a painted sign bearing a jackass and the words, "Mayor Graff and his jackass militia."

Though the tanks pulled out on Oct. 27, some troops stayed until November, when agreements were signed in all the plants. The decision to bring in the military was not popular in Stratford, Toronto or anywhere else. Locally, Mayor Graff bore the brunt of the consequences and he resigned from office. Ald. Oliver James Kerr, became the new mayor, with a predominantly labour-endorsed council. Graff was elected to that council, but he resigned at the inaugural meeting, early in 1934, because of what he called a legal technicality. He said some of the houses which he owned were being rented by the city to shelter relief tenants and, rather than prolong any controversy over the question of his eligibility to serve, he resigned. He went on to serve on the Public Utility Commission, of which he was the chair in 1938 and 1939. George Graff lived at 101 Huron St., where he died at the age of 62. His had been a crowded and strenuous life, which contributed in no small measure to Stratford’s progress. With notes from Stanford Dingman.  Picture : Stratford-Perth Archives

His Legacy

James Reaney, (see St. Patrick Street) who had witnessed the strike first-hand as a seven-year-old, turned it into a play, titled King Whistle!, in 1979. He was recorded to have claimed, jokingly, that the reason Tom Patterson started the Stratford Festival was to get rid of the shame caused by the strike. That strike was one of several factors, including rumours of a second world war, and the end of the steam-powered railway era that caused a decline in Stratford's fortunes. There was a sense of gloom in the city over the next couple of decades that Patterson sought to dispel.  Source : Wikipedia

  * For a more detailed history of  the strike, click on Stratford Strike Stratford-Perth Archives

1931 Council

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