The Eaton Drive: The Campaign to Organize Canada's Largest Department Store, 1948 to 1952


240 pages
Contains Illustrations, Index
ISBN 0-88902-702-1




Reviewed by George Brandak

George Brandak was Curator of Manuscripts and the University of British Columbia Library.


From a book on its Golden Jubilee in 1919 to Stephenson’s The Store That Timothy Built in 1969, the Eaton department store chain projected an image of a progressive firm with progressive ideas toward the management of its stores, the marketing of its product, and labour relations with its employees. Eileen Tallman Sufrin’s analysis of a four-year campaign to unionize Eaton’s Toronto operations shows the regime of John Eaton to be that of a leader of a retail chain opposed to unionization in his sector of Canadian business rather than part of the tradition of humaneness and paternalism of Timothy Eaton, transformed to the realities of the 1950s. What emerges is an exciting narrative on how David attempted to slay Goliath and lost. Rather than blaming the loss solely on the resources of the giant and the temper of the times in the early fifties, the author, a major participant in this struggle, points out where the stores cast by David’s slingshot went astray.

It must be remembered that the union representative vote at Eaton’s in 1951 was the largest held in Ontario up to that time, and of the 9,914 eligible voters, 4,020 voted for the union. Eileen Sufrin’s book of 22 chapters is divided into segments outlining the participants in the struggle, the precertification of Local 1000 of the Department Store Employees Union, the battle for union representation and the author’s summary of the five major factors that were decisive in defeating Local 1000’s attempt at representing Eaton employees in Toronto. This well-illustrated, amply footnoted and indexed book is much more than a primer for members of the labour movement on the do’s and don’ts of an organizing campaign; it is an accurate portrayal of a by-gone era of employee relationships with management. Is it possible that another group such as the Loyal Eatonians could emerge in the 1980s to support their company against the union agitator? Is it possible for the press to be as silent about a major drive to unionize such a large employer in the 1980s as it was in the 1948 to 1952 period? It is to be hoped that other union organizers will be encouraged to dissect and explain their campaigns in narratives as clear and interesting as Eileen Sufrin’s history of the Eaton drive.


Sufrin, Eileen, “The Eaton Drive: The Campaign to Organize Canada's Largest Department Store, 1948 to 1952,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 22, 2024,