Those who drive along the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto are familiar with the Inglis sign that has illuminated the downtown core for decades. The sign is still there, and is still beaming, even though the Inglis factory at the foot of Strachan Avenue closed in 1989. I decided to read Working at Inglis: The Life and Death of a Canadian Factory by David Sobel and Susan Meurer for a personal reason as well, as my maternal grandfather worked there in the 1940’s.
It was during this time in World War II that Inglis refocussed its operations and, while still manufacturing heavy machinery, concentrated on the production of Bren guns. Inglis also became the largest employer ever of women industrial workers:
“The Strachan Avenue plant became an enormous complex of the old buildings and those that were altered or constructed for the production of guns. The largest war production plant in Canada, Inglis became the largest single employer of women in the country.”
Inglis had a reputation for having a strong union, however when so many women entered the workforce it created conflicts based on their overall skill levels and their rate of pay. Known as the “Bren girls”, the women involved in gun construction were nonetheless viewed as unskilled assembly-line workers, in comparison to the trained male artisans who designed machinery:
“For at least two years, then, the company had slowly and quietly developed a policy of hiring women, although men were available. This was not a declaration of gender equality because the company paid the women significantly less. With the company collecting a flat fee for each gun produced, it had developed a sophisticated, though invisible, system of profiteering. In addition to being cheaper, women workers may also have been perceived as potentially more docile than men, less apt to cause trouble, and less familiar with trade unions.”
Thus the women were employed to ensure Inglis maintained its honoured status as the nation’s largest war production plant, yet they were not paid the same rate as men. Nor were they supported in the union as they were considered to be merely temporary workers who would be out of a job come war’s end.
The postwar economy gave Inglis a surge of profitable activity that lasted some twenty years, then the changing economy, as well as corporate takeovers under poor management, slowly contributed to its downfall. When the Inglis factory closed in 1989, it was making only one product: washing machines. Those of my generation might be familiar with only this product when we think of the company name.
Working at Inglis is illustrated with photos at every page. With photos from both city and company archives as well as the collections of the employees themselves, we can see over one hundred years inside the factory from the perspective of its devoted unionized workers.