Honouring Portuguese Immigrant Cleaners’ Activism on Labour Day

Rise Up is pleased to encourage and facilitate the growing interest among current researchers, educators, and activists in the rich history of feminist activism in Canada from the 1970s to 1990s. An important example is the impressive labour mobilization of the Portuguese immigrant office-cleaners in 1970s and 1980s Toronto, which had roots in the overlapping networks of feminist, social justice, union, and community activism. Cleaning Up draws on materials in Rise Up to tell this history. For Labour Day 2023, we remember and honour these women activists and report on Rise Up’s involvement with Cleaning Up.   

FASWOC button from 1984 strike at First Canadian Place

Along with the Toronto Workers History Project (TWHP)Rise Up co-sponsored a book talk this past April 11 with co-authors Susana Miranda and Franca Iacovetta on the Portuguese office-cleanersThe nighttime workers who cleaned the corporate and public buildings in downtown Toronto defied the widely held stereotypes of them as submissive wives and docile workers when they unionized and struck for better pay and working conditions. With their allies, they denounced the building-owners’ neoliberal practice of contracting-out the cleaning of their buildings to low-bidding contractors who then cut costs by hiring cleaners on precarious low-wage contracts.

Picket line at First Canadian Place, 1984, from Cleaning Up.

The talk highlighted the radicalization of the largely Azorean office-cleaners who had left an authoritarian homeland that outlawed unions and imprisoned radicals. Despite having no previous experience with unions, these women responded to the workplace exploitation they faced in Toronto by organizing and fighting back. In 1974, Idalina Azevedo, a union steward with Local 204 of the Service Employees International Union, led a wildcat strike at the Toronto-Dominion Towers over the cleaning company’s directive to re-use dirty garbage bags, and won. A year later, Leopoldina Pimentel and others overcame stiff employer intimidation to organize the Queen’s Park office-building complex of the Ontario Legislature.  

Idalina Azevedo and Leopoldina Pimentel mid-1970s. Photo from Cleaning Up.

The founding in 1975 of the Cleaners’ Action program was particularly significant. The cleaners’ allies included Sidney Pratt, a literacy activist and community organizer inspired by the radical pedagogy of Paulo Freire. Michelle Swenarchuk was a feminist labour lawyer who fought for the rights of cleaners, representing them in cases before the Ontario Labour Relations Board. Cleaners’ Action staff helped workers to read and understand union contracts, and they also held leadership workshops and carried out workplace actions.

Article by Wendy Iler, Vice-president, FASWOC: “Cleaners strike exposes contracting out dangers,” on the 1984 Strike, First Canadian Place.

Published in Union Woman, Vol, 7, Issue 3, September/October 1984.

A high point came in summer 1984, when the cleaners at First Canadian Place sustained a six-week strike and won. The women’s earthy militancy, as well as their husbands and children, were on display on the sometimes festive, sometimes violent, picket line. So too was the inspiration the cleaners drew from the 1974 Carnation Revolution that toppled Portugal’s dictatorship.

Nevertheless, the cancelation of cleaning contracts could undo any gains, so this history also underscores the perils of neoliberal practices like contracting out.

During the Q&A that followed the authors’ talk, current and former activists, educators, and unionists expressed delight in hearing the cleaners’ stories. Some also underscored the point that the struggle against outsourcing, or contract-flipping, and other challenges, continues, and also that coalition politics matter. To take a more recent example, in 2009, a coalition of unions, community people, and social justice activists compelled Mayor Rob Ford to withdraw plans to out-source all the city’s cleaning. Others emphasized the fact that the rights that workers enjoy today stand on past struggles and can be taken away: hence, the need for vigilance. Still others addressed the struggle of migrant workers in general for what the Portuguese cleaners already did possess—landed status on arrival.

Cleaning Up events involving Rise Up members also included an international panel hosted by the Swedish Labour Movement Archives and Library on May 4. The event brought together former cleaner Idalina Azevedo, Cleaners’ Action activists, union organizers, and feminist labour historians. Wendy Iler, then an organizer with FASWOC (Food and Service Workers of Canada), shared a funny and poignant story about the First Canadian Place strikers. The women literally rallied around a pregnant co-worker who was refused entry into the building to use the facilities so that she had to pee in an ashtray canister located in the building’s lobby.

Idalina Azevedo, with Susana Miranda, recounts her story of the 1974 wildcat strike at the May 11 book launch (Miranda collection)

Excitement marked the in-person launch held on May 11 at Casa Dos Açores in honour of the cleaners. Former co-workers greeted each other and posed for photos, as did feminist and union activists such as Marcie Ponte and Laurell Ritchie. The now retired cleaners listened attentively as Miranda recounted their activism, and proudly received a copy of Cleaning Up. Other highlights included Idalina Azevedo’s animated account of the 1974 strike over dirty garbage bags.

Emilia Silva stands proudly with her copy of Cleaning Up at the May 11 launch (Miranda collection)

During her speech, Emilia Silva, who was involved in the 1984 strike, pulled out her union card and a 1984 issue of a newspaper plastered with images of the strikers. Finally, ESL activist Jean Connon Unda beautifully summed up Freirean radical pedagogy in three minutes.

Rise Up is proud to remember these labour heroines.

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