Auto workers win first industrial union strike against General Motors in Oshawa, Ontario, 1937

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Timing
Time Period:  
8 April
1937
to
23 April
1937
Location and Goals
Country: 
Canada
Location City/State/Province: 
Oshawa, Ontario
Goals: 
The workers demanded an 8-hour day, forty-hour workweek, an end to wage cuts, improved working conditions, and recognition of their union, United Auto Workers Local 222.
 

In the 1920s, the giant automobile corporation General Motors began introducing wage cuts, speeding up its assembly line, and laying off workers at their plant in Oshawa, Ontario. General Motors did not allow workers breaks, and underemployed them at part-time for much of the year. The company fired workers if they complained about conditions.

In March 1928, most of the plant’s 3,400 workers participated in walkouts demanding improved working conditions, and winning some changes. They began organizing to establish a local union chapter of the international union- the American Federation of Labor, Trades and Labor Congress (AFL, TLC). Most workers became members of the union.

General Motors again began decreasing wages. The AFL, TLC organizing efforts faded when General Motors fired or paid off local union leadership. Within four months of the first walkout, the plant’s union membership had fallen by half.

Over the following years, workers continued to organize intermittent plant shutdowns, halting their work on the assembly line. Union supporters began wearing buttons to openly show their support for labor organizing. General Motors refused to negotiate with the workers.

In 1936, General Motors introduced a series of five pay cuts, while boasting record high profits. On 15 February 1937, General Motors increased assembly from 27 to 32 units per hour. That day, workers walked out, and established a committee to negotiate with the company’s management.

Workers contacted members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) in Detroit, Michigan. The United Auto Workers had been organized by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In the U.S. the CIO offered an alternative to the traditional method of labor organizing done by the American Federation of Labor; instead of organizing workers by their craft, the CIO organized workers by their entire plant. The CIO’s approach was called “industrial unionism.”

On 20 February 1937, the well-practiced UAW sent organizer Hugh Thompson to Oshawa to support the workers. Thompson persuaded the workers to return to work at the plant, and began signing them up as members of UAW Local 222. By mid-March, the vast majority of the General Motors workers, over 4,000, had joined the UAW.

On 18 March, General Motors engaged in a fifteen-minute meeting with union representatives, without results. Negotiations continued over the next three weeks. General Motors was close to agreeing to recognize the UAW Local 222, when, on 7 April, Premier of Ontario Mitchell Hepburn intervened to discourage General Motors from conceding. Hepburn saw industrial unionization as a threat to the growing Canadian automotive sector.

On 8 April, 4000 workers, members of UAW Local 222, walked out and began a strike. The workers demanded an 8-hour day, forty-hour workweek, an end to wage cuts, improved working conditions, and recognition of their union.

The workers refused to come to work until General Motors met their demands. Hundreds of women were among the striking workers. Throughout the strike, during day and night, workers picketed at the plant.

Ontario Premier Hepburn ordered government employees administering relief not to provide any relief to the workers, even though they were going without pay. The Canadian press presented the CIO as foreign and Communist.

On 12 April UAW President Homer Martin came to Oshawa and gave a rallying speech to the strikers and their supporters. Five thousand people attended the speech. The Toronto Star printed his whole speech the following day.

On 14 April, two of Hepburn’s cabinet members, Minister of Labour David Croll and Attorney General Arthur Roebuck resigned to show their disagreement with Hepburn and their support for the union. Also, on 14 April, the strikers marched through Oshawa, wearing Union Jacks and World War I medals, to demonstrate their loyalty to Canada and counter the messaging about foreign influence.

Hepburn ordered the Ontario police to create a special police force of three hundred to end the strike. University students were among the men who joined this force; recruits received riot training and orders to shoot the strikers in the knees when told to fire. Workers called the police the "Sons of Mitches" and “Hepburn’s Hussars.” Hepburn additionally requested that the Canadian federal government send him the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Mayor of Oshawa Alex Hall refused to allow Hepburn’s special force or the Royal Mounted Police into the city. Mayor Hall became an honorary member of Local 222, expressing his support for their cause.

Many Oshawa residents, university students, and local unions expressed their support for the striking workers. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, a socialist Canadian political party, endorsed the strike. Neither the CIO nor UAW funded the strikers.

On 23 April, after 16 days of the strike, General Motors agreed to most of the strikers’ demands: promising the workers an 8-hour day, a wage increase, and improved working conditions. General Motors recognized representatives of the union but not the UAW Local 222 itself. General Motors did not mention the UAW in its agreement, as requested by Hepburn.

In 1941, after Ford employees had unionized, General Motors recognized the UAW as the union representing its employees. Labor historians now see the Oshawa campaign as the beginning of industrial unionism in Canada.

Research Notes
Influences: 

United Auto Workers organizing in the United States (1).

Canadian Ford plant unionization, in early 1940s (2).

Sources: 
Lewis , Philip. Oshowa's Auto-Worker's vs the "Sons-Of-Mitches". 2009. Website. GDPWeb. 10 Mar 2013. <http://gdp.nfb.ca/blog/news/oshawa’s-auto-workers-vs-the-“sons-of-mitches”/>.

Abella, Irving. "Oshawa Strike." The Canadian Encyclopedia. N.P.. Web. 10 Mar 2013. <http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/oshawa-strike>.

Mclean, Jesse. "89 Canadian Rebellions." This Magazine. Red Maple Foundation. Web. 10 Mar 2013. <http://www.thismagazine.ca/issues/2007/07/89rebellions.php>.

Plaut, Jonathan V. The Jews of Windsor, 1790-1990: A Historical Chronicle. Dundurn Press, Tonawanda: 2007.

“Oshawa Strike.” Oxford Companion to Canadian History. Answers.com http://www.answers.com/topic/oshawa-strike

“The GM Oshawa Strike.” McMaster University. http://socserv.mcmaster.ca/oldlabourstudies/onlinelearning/cawhistory/essays/essay7-d.html

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Jasmine Zyzniewski, 10/03/2013 and Laura Rigell 19/08/2014