Chapter 3 - The Breakthrough

Meeting of Local 222 during Oshawa strike, April 1937.
Courtesy of Wayne State Archives

...the sitdowns seemed to take place in a nightmare world where the laws of capitalism, ifthey operate at all, worked the way the law of gravity works in a dream.

- Fortune, November, 1937

... the fifteen day walkout of some four thousand (Oshawa) workers marks the birth of the Canadian labour movement as we know it today.

- Irving Abella

I'm glad that the boys and girls are ready to come back to work.

- R. S. McLaughlin (President of GM Canada)

The period between the two world wars was a time of rapid change in the economy and in society. Working people were generally marginalized in the sharing of benefits and, especially, in influencing the direction of the changes. From this perspective, the twenties and thirties were a dark period of disappointments and suffering. Yet by the mid-thirties, there was a budding and vibrant mini-revolt against the failure of the system to address the concerns of ordinary people.

The most exciting of the new movements - the movement for industrial unionism - didn't come out of the blue. It emerged out of a general climate of resistance and protest. The breakthrough occurred in the United States and, more by example than anything else, it flowed into Windsor, St. Catharines, and then Oshawa, which became the test site for the new unionism in Canada. After a long and painful lull, working people seemed ready to participate in the unfolding of history.

Excerpt from the Preamble of the UAW's First Constitution Adopted in Detroit, Michigan, August 1935

(At this conference the AFL first gave autoworkers a charter as the "International Union, United Automobile Workers of America," though they were not given the autonomy to elect their president until a second convention in South Bend, Indiana, the following year. The union was eventually expelled from the AFL and became part of the CIO.)

... Management invests thousands of dollars in the automobile business. The automobile worker's investment in the business is his life, his blood, his sinew. The automobile worker seeks a place at the conference table, together with management, when decisions are made which affect the food the automobile worker, his wife and children shall eat; the extent of education his children may have; the kind and amount of clothing they may wear. He asks that hours of labour be progressively reduced in proportion as the modern machinery increases his productivity. He asks that the savings due to the inauguration of the machinery and changes in technical methods shall be equitably divided between management, the investor, and the worker. The automobile worker asks that those who may be discharged be paid adequate dismissal wages to enable them to start afresh in another field; that society undertake to train them in new skills and that it make provision through ameliorative social laws for the innocent and residual sufferers from the inevitable industrial shifts which constitute progress.

Flint: Standing Up by Sitting Down

The UAW was officially born in South Bend, Indiana, in April, 1936. While the AFL had chartered the union the year before, and a constitution was jointly drafted by the AFL and UAW, it was the AFL executive that appointed the president. In response, approximately 1,200 determined delegates forced the AFL to both grant them the autonomy to elect their own president, Homer Martin, and expand the UAW's jurisdiction to include all workers in the sector. At that point, the UAW began to make plans to take on the industry giant, GM. Autoworkers intended to show not only that the UAW had arrived, but also that it was unpacking its bags and settling in as a permanent fixture in workers' relationships with employers.

The experience and confidence for the famous test of strength in Flint, Michigan, which was the centre of GM's production empire, were the product of crucial work stoppages throughout the industry in 1935 and 1936. The protest at Flint was preceded by strikes to establish the UAW at GM in Cleveland, Atlanta, and Kansas City; at parts plants including Bendix and Kelsey; and at Chrysler's Dodge plant, where workers had already won seniority rights and overtime pay. (In the mid- to late thirties, Chrysler wasn't the "little sister" of the Big Three; it was selling as many or more vehicles than Ford.)

Key organizers, led by Roy Reuther (younger brother of the future president of the UAW, Walter Reuther) and communists Wyndham Mortimer, UAW Vice-President, and Bob Travis, the president of the Toledo Chevrolet local and a popular organizer, had been laying the groundwork in Flint, and others had fanned out across the country to other key GM facilities. Roosevelt had been reelected by a landslide in November, 1936, and the union members waited patiently until Frank Murphy, whom they considered supportive, became governor of Michigan before they made their move.

The actual sit-down didn't begin on a prearranged date. It started when workers, concerned that the company was transferring dies to plants with a weaker union base, contacted their leaders. Given the go-ahead at the end of December, 1936, the workers took over Fisher Plants One and Two at the Flint complex; the Flint sit-down had begun. Sit-downs and strikes followed at other GM facilities across the country. By mid-January, three-quarters of GM's 150,000 production workers had taken strike or sit-down actions in support of the union.


Flyer for radio show sponsored by UAW, summer 1936.
Courtesy of Wayne State Archives

The sit-down strategy was key. In contrast to a strike, in which employees vacate the workplace, a sit-down requires that a minority of workers occupy the plant. The sit-down had been successfully tested during the crucial strikes of rubberworkers in Akron, Ohio, earlier that year and, on a smaller scale, within the UAW at plants such as Kelsey Hayes Wheel in Detroit. The sit-down was designed to overcome the depression reality of high unemployment, which was creating large numbers of potential scabs, and the readiness of anti-union employers to use hired thugs, police, or the army to bring the scabs in. Where the union had a significant but small core of committed militants and a sympathetic but uncertain membership, a sit-down in the plant by that minority, reinforced by the presence of the rest outside the plant, made obvious sense. To Roy Reuther, the sit-downs were "the union's greatest organizers."

With the workplace as their base, employees could more effectively defend themselves, reduce violence and - with the complete shut-down of production - shorten strikes. The workplace even became a social space, democratically organized for discussions and entertainment; subcommittees watched over the equipment, distributed food and information, and planned for the defence of the plant in an attack. The logic of sit-downs is, in fact, so compelling that the real question isn't why workers once used this strategy, but why and how it so quickly disappeared from labour's arsenal.

Amongst the factors that contributed to the victory at Flint and GM, the determined courage of the workers stands first. Not to be neglected, however, was the ongoing resourcefulness of the UAW leadership in responding to a series of crises that threatened the success of the sit-down.

There were 477 sit-downs in 1937 involving approximately 500,000 workers. The sit-downs spread madly to other sectors. There were sit-downs in heavy manufacturing, in government offices, in hotels and restaurants, in the fur industry, and at schools. One kindergarten class sat down because it seemed like fun.

Even the UAW itself was hit: UAW headquarters didn't have towels because launderers were sitting down and when the UAW tried to send out charters to the new locals mushrooming across the land, this was delayed because of a sit-down by the workers making the mailing tubes.

In France, hundreds of thousands of workers - two million by one estimate - sat down in their workplaces in 1936 to win union recognition, the right to strike, minimum wages, and the forty-hour week. But American and Canadian autoworkers did not generally seem to be aware of these incredible events.

A Detroit reporter commented that "sitting down has replaced baseball as our national past-time."

For example, the union kept morale high with rallies and mass demonstrations outside the plant, aided by the support of tough women's auxiliaries. When GM tried to rally public opinion against anarchy and the illegality of the takeover of private property, the union fought back with the information from the La Follete hearings which publicized GM's high expenditures for spying on the workers and the union. When a local judge announced an injunction against the sit-down, the union exposed the fact that the judge held shares in GM; the ruling was voided on grounds of conflict of interest.

Then, two weeks into the sit-down, with food and heat cut off, the police launched an attack on the plant to dislodge what they hoped would be a demoralized and vulnerable group of workers. The union, with another Reuther brother, Victor, in the lead, rallied the workers to defend themselves. The workers stopped the police in their tracks with a barrage of the parts used to build cars and profits for GM. Icy weather showed its solidarity as the workers flushed the police away with water hoses. This action led the governor to call in the National Guard - not, as the company wished, to break the strike, but to prevent other attacks by the police or city vigilantes and to keep the peace.

As time dragged on, the workers started to grow weary, and the company seemed to be getting the upper hand; the union astutely decided to escalate the struggle. Aware of GM spies in their midst, union members leaked information about another planned takeover, this time at Chevrolet Plant Nine in the Flint complex, and had the workers in that facility battle the police to divert them. Meanwhile, a separate core of workers took over the real target - Chevrolet Plant Four, which made the engines for all the Chevrolet assembly plants.

UAW, Women's Auxiliary, Women's Emergency Brigade, ready to defend men sitting down in Chevrolet Plant #9, Flint, 1 February 1937.
Courtesy of Wayne State Archives

The ruse succeeded brilliantly. Ten days later and forty-four days into the strike, GM was feeling the economic pressure; but more important, the company realized that the union would not, at least at this point in time, be defeated. On 11 February 1937, GM recognized the union and agreed to enter into discussions on a collective agreement. At the beginning of the Flint sit-down, UAW membership stood at 88,000. Six months later, virtually all the major companies in auto, with the exception of Ford, had unions, and UAW membership stood at over 400,000. With Flint as the spark, overall union membership in the United States doubled between 1936 and 1938 from under 4 million to over 8 million. Over the same period, membership in Canadian unions increased by only 80,000.

Oshawa: Taking on the Motors

In Canada, the first UAW local - Kelsey Wheel in Windsor (a subsidiary of Kelsey Hayes Wheel in Detroit) - was chartered as Local 195 on 9 December 1936, shortly before the sit-down in Flint. The Kelsey workers won an agreement after holding one of Canada's first sit-downs and a strike, and after workers at the parent company in Detroit threatened to go on strike in support of their Canadian brothers and sisters. In spite of the settlement, the agreement did not acknowledge the UAW as the formal representative of the workers; that recognition would take Kelsey Wheel workers until 1948 to achieve. Nevertheless, the strength of the membership in Windsor meant that the company had to deal with the union whether or not there was official recognition. Nine days after the Kelsey Wheel workers in Windsor got their charter, workers at McKinnon, a wholly owned but separate subsidiary of GM, in St. Catharines, formed the second UAW local in Canada (Local 199).

  When they tie the can
to a union man,
Sit Down! Sit Down!
When they give him the sack
they'll take him back,
Sit Down! Sit Down!

When the speed-up comes
just Twiddle your thumbs
Sit Down! Sit Down!

When the Boss won't talk
don't take a walk, but ...
Sit Down! Sit Down!

- Maurice Sugar,
"Sit Down"

As in the United States, the test of the UAW's permanence would come in a battle with the giant of the industry, GM. From its beginning, the famous Oshawa strike of 1937, which effectively brought the UAW to Canada, was intimately tied to developments in the United States. Though Ford, rather than GM, was the dominant producer in Canada and though the union was stronger in Windsor, where Ford was located and a number of parts strikes had already occurred, the Canadian breakthrough came at GM - because that's where the American breakthrough emerged.

On Monday, 15 February 1937, the same day that the Flint workers returned to work, sheet-metal workers in Oshawa put down their tools as GM Canada increased the line speed from twenty-seven units to thirty-two units per hour. The order for the change, which came from Detroit, may have been part of GM's attempt to make up for the losses incurred during the shut-downs in the U.S.

The workers gave management an ultimatum: the company must deal with their issues or face a strike by the end of the week. Meanwhile, they called the UAW in Detroit for assistance. On Friday of that week, during a meeting at which the two parties were going over the workers' demands, Hugh Thompson, an organizer from the UAW, arrived. In spite of opposition from the government's mediator, the workers insisted on hearing Thompson. That same afternoon, all 200 sheet-metal workers joined the union. They followed Thompson's advice to return to work while the union negotiated on their behalf, and Thompson set up an office to sign up union members.

Within a month, virtually every worker had joined the union. Even workers outside of the industry came to sign up, and the mayor himself became an honorary member. The worker demands included higher wages, shorter hours, overtime pay, seniority, an in-plant committee (stewards), and recognition of the UAW. In the course of the negotiations, the union got a boost when it was peacefully able to secure other agreements in Oshawa, including union recognition, at Coulter Manufacturing and Ontario Steel. On 6 April, the UAW in the United States extended the achievement of union recognition to Chrysler after a four-week sit-down in Detroit. However, the union did not reach an agreement with GM in Canada, and on 8 April 1937, the strike began.

... without the Europeans (about one quarter of Windsor's population was then East European) we would never have been able to organize the union at Kelsey. They understood trade unionism far better than Canadians and they were better equipped at organizing due to being far more politically advanced. Many had seen workers' rebellions back home ...

- Jim Napier, the first UAW member in Canada and leader at Kelsey Wheel

In the early and difficult period after George Burt became the Canadian director, he warmly said of the Kelsey unit that "little need be said of Kelsey Wheel, which is always 100 per cent organized and dues paying. These men are always ready to help other plants."

- Canadian Council, 8 July 1939

Since the 1928 and 1929 strikes, there had been a number of skirmishes in Oshawa, but these had quickly faded. In 1937, there was a slight upturn in the economy, especially in auto. Although its own profits were at record levels, GM insisted on cuts in pay, just as it had in 1928. But 1937 was not 1928. This time, the workers' defiance established the UAW in Canada and the critical beachhead for the CIO. The workforce in Oshawa was no longer green; the earlier struggles to form the union were now an important part of their experience and history. A significant number of workers, although immigrants from England and Scotland, were now well established in Canada. Some, who had been active in the Independent Labour Party (ILP) before they came to Canada, were committed supporters of unionization.

In early 1937, GM announced wage cuts for the fifth time in five years. While output per worker was up and profits were now approaching predepression levels, actual wages were twenty per cent below where they were in the twenties. This discrepancy remained even after adjusting for the large decline in prices in that period. Although there were many accumulated frustrations - harassment by supervisors, unsafe conditions, long hours, insecurity, and the attempt to speed up the line that caused the work stoppage by the sheet metal workers - the wage cuts were the catalyst for the united response by workers throughout the plant.

From GM's perspective, keeping the union out was one way to offset the fact that the scale of Canadian operations was much smaller than that of American plants. This difference reflected the more general fact of Canadian labour relations: because of the structure of the Canadian economy - the smaller market, the shorter runs, the technological dependence - Canadian operations were less productive. But Canadian workers, who were as hard-working and capable as their American counterparts, weren't responsible for the structure of the economy, and they refused to accept second-class citizenship within any company's operations. Amongst skilled workers in particular and especially in border cities, the high mobility of workers already kept the wage differential relatively low. (Before World War II, auto wages in Windsor were comparable to those in Detroit.)

This gap between the expectations of the workers and the corporation's desire to keep profits high in Canada was partially offset by the high tariff on cars, which allowed the companies to charge more for their products. Whenever the tariff was lowered, the companies translated the drop into greater pressures for wage restraint and/or an increase in the line speed. Decreasing tariffs were a factor in GM's pressure on the Oshawa workers in 1927-28 and in the 1937 confrontations. When the Oshawa workers resisted the speed-up and the cuts in wages, and the incentive payments in February 1937, GM threatened (Toronto Star) that: " ... the parent company wants us to have all bodies manufactured in the U.S. and we can bring them in here, even with the duty, cheaper than it costs to produce them here."

Once the strike began on 8 April 1937, both the company and the Ontario premier, Mitch Hepburn, increased the pressure on the Oshawa workers. Quoted on the front page of the New York Times on 12 April 1937, the GM spokesman warned: " ... the competitive situation (facing Canadians) justified longer hours to lower production costs." Hepburn added: "In a competitive world situation ... the CIO drive would make [it] impossible [for the province to be] a great exporter of goods, would keep U.S. capital out of Ontario, and would prevent existing plants from expanding ...."

When two cabinet ministers questioned Hepburn's aggressive anti-union stance, Hepburn insisted on cabinet solidarity and they eventually resigned, with one of them, Labour minister David Croll, bequeathing to posterity his immortal comment that "I'd rather walk with the workers than ride with General Motors."

Croll went on to become the mayor of Windsor later that year, defeating a prominent member of the city's business èlite.

The facts, however, were that the Canadian operations were profitable in 1937, and GM, having conceded to unionization in the U.S., was unlikely to go through a long strike to block it in Canada. The catch was the intervention of the premier, whose aggressive anti-union position hardened GM's own position and encouraged GM to extend the strike. Hepburn was looking beyond GM and hoping to block the CIO's expansion into Canadian manufacturing and, especially, into the resource sector. Ontario's mines were a rich source of provincial revenue and the Canadian economy was generally more dependent on its resource sector than other developed countries. As Hepburn bluntly said to the Globe and Mail on 16 April 1937: "[I am] more concerned with the CIO's threat in the mine fields than in the automobile industry."

This statement led the Toronto Star on 23 April 1937 to refer to the Oshawa strike as a "miner's strike in a motors town." Hepburn, a Liberal, had actually won on a mildly progressive, mildly pro-labour ticket in 1934. But, as with other politicians before and since, it was one thing to tell workers what was good for them and quite another to deal with an independent labour movement that could articulate and fight for its own demands. As early as 9 April 1937, Hepburn was warning in the New York Times that "... the entire resources of the province will be utilized ... to prevent anything in this country resembling that which is taking place ... across the line [border]." And a day later, he added: "ifnecessary we'll raise an army to do it!" (The workers referred to that private army of Premier Mitch Hepburn, which was recruited but never actually used, as "Sons of Mitches.")

The Globe and Mail articulated the class perspective of business and the premier from day one. Its first report framed the confrontation as one between the head of an elected government and a foreign organization rather than one between Canadian workers and their employers. The banner headline of 9 April 1937 announced, "Premier Hepburn Declares War on CIO."

A front page editorial on 9 April 1937 ("A Menace to Be Stopped") set out themes that the Globe and Mail and the premier would hammer out on a daily basis: workers were really happy ("for years there seems to have been satisfaction with the treatment accorded"); the only problem was that the Canadian workers were being manipulated by "imported agitators"; the strike threatened violence ("Are we to be subjected to a reign of terror?"). This paper, which aggressively supported the largest American-based multinational in Canada, even argued, with no hint of shame, that the strike was about the CIO "dominating and dictating to Canadian industry." With the same straight face, the editorial went on to attack the CIO as being American and praised the no-less American, but conservative and decrepit, AFL: "Let it be remembered that their [i.e., the CIO's] primary purpose is to destroy the American Federation of Labour, which enjoys the world-wide distinction of high-minded craftsmen."


UAW female workers at Local 222 meeting April 1937.
Courtesy of Wayne State Archives

The workers answered GM, Hepburn, and the Globe and Mail by demonstrating the unanimity and solidarity behind the strike. Everyone walked out including, to the great interest of the media who featured this in their stories, the 260 women concentrated in the sewing department. Five hundred GM workers who were veterans of World War I marched through the streets of Oshawa wearing their war medals to challenge the insinuations that strikers were not "good Canadians." Clergy supported the strike, farmers brought milk and food, and shopkeepers supplied credit.

On 12 April, the arrival of UAW president Homer Martin brought an amazing show of citywide support for what had become a community strike. That evening, 5,000 people rallied to hear speeches and to demonstrate their unity. Discipline - no drinking, no fighting - was rigidly maintained by patrols throughout the strike to avoid giving Hepburn reason to send in troops. The Canadian Forum reported in June, 1937, that: "Veteran labour leaders almost wept when they saw the amazing display of enthusiasm ... never in all the history of the Canadian labour movement had a town been so completely captured by the sentiment of unionism."

The Toronto Star reacted differently than the Globe. In an editorial published 14 April 1993, it acknowledged the real-world base of the changes taking place, arguing that "There is a natural feeling of antagonism between employers and employed. And to some extent there always will be. It is a natural product of our economic system ... No worker ever gets rich as a result of his toil. The capital and management often reap what the worker regards as fabulous wealth. That being the case, [the worker] ought not be handicapped in using what legal means he has."

In order to boost morale, Martin had promised financial assistance and sympathy strikes, neither of which he had discussed with the CIO or UAW executive boards and which he could not honour. On Friday 16 April, eight days into the strike, he met with GM executives in Detroit and agreed that the Oshawa strike should be settled without recognition by GM of the CIO. Charles Millard, the president of the Oshawa local and now a full-time CIO organizer, was equally nervous and anxious for a settlement.

On Monday 19 April, Millard and Thompson confidently brought the proposed settlement to the workers, even though it wasn't in writing and it didn't include the recognition of the union that the UAW had won in Flint. The workers were clearly uncertain about what they had won and also suspicious, based on past unfulfilled company promises, of unwritten agreements. The press predicted support for a settlement as workers filed into the meeting, but the workers surprised their leadership and rejected the offer.

Yet by the end of the week, a written agreement was in place and the mood had changed. The reasons for the turnaround are not clear. It seems that with some gains made, with the leadership forcefully arguing that it could not do any better, and with it becoming evident that neither financial assistance nor sympathy strikes would come from the United States, workers concluded that they really had no choice but to end the fifteen-day strike. At the next meeting on Friday 23 April, the workers were buoyant and full of camaraderie. In spite of shortcomings in the agreement, they had gained a sense of achievement in taking on GM and enthusiastically voted - by a margin of 2205 to thirty-six - to return to work.

The settlement included wage gains, though wages remained some twelve to fifteen per cent below those paid at GM's American plants. There was seniority for lay-offs and rehiring, a nine-person bargaining committee, a grievance procedure, and a guarantee of no reprisals against union activists. The work week was shortened to forty-four hours with overtime pay of time-and-a-half; the regular week was nine-hour days Mondays to Thursdays and an eight-hour day on Friday. Canada's work week was still longer than the forty-hour week established at GM in the United States that March. And the union settled without achieving its original goal, the crucial goal won in the U.S. at both GM and Chrysler: recognition of the UAW. Hepburn immediately claimed victory.

Reflecting some of the divisions in the Canadian labour movement, the nationalist ACCL, which was opposed to the American-led CIO, went so far as to privately write to Hepburn after the Oshawa strike, commending him for his attempts to "curb domination by foreign agitators and Communists" and praise him in their publication for having done a "great service to Canadian labour."
Ironically, this Canadian nationalism echoed the AFL's opposition to the earlier Flint sit-down, when the AFL President commented: "... both personally and officially, I disavow the sit-down strike as part of the economic and organizational policy of the AFL."

Yet the fact that the workers had survived in the face of Hepburn's crusade against the CIO and after taking on the largest company in the world and the power of the state, meant victory was really theirs. The day after the Oshawa settlement, buoyant and optimistic CIO organizers and supporters were already distributing leaflets in the electrical and steel plants of Toronto and Hamilton. Others carried the CIO message across Ontario and beyond. In the New York Times on 24 April 1937, Charles Millard, the president of the Oshawa local, aptly summed up the situation: "I know and they know and the world knows the union has been recognized."

In spite of many initial successes, the drive to extend industrial unionism remained fragile. Workers carrying the CIO banner were harassed and often prevented from holding public meetings. They were fired and blacklisted, spied on, and confronted by strikebreakers. "Canadian governments," as Craig Heron stated in The Canadian Labour Movement, "were still most likely to respond with an iron heel to any efforts by workers to organize" and this attitude was "... probably the crucial difference between Canada and the United States in this period".

Unfriendly governments, the continuing absence of legal union rights, and unfavourable economic times left hostile companies with the upper hand. In late 1937, the economy experienced another severe downturn and organizing slowed down. Without a solid foundation in place, even some formerly unionized units were lost. Unionists expressed frustration about the difficulty of winning strikes when auto companies could undermine them by bringing in imports from underutilized American plants. (Canadian production was primarily for the local market at that time and so Canadian stoppages had only a marginal impact on U.S. production.)

After the growth between 1936 and 1938, the number of organized workers in Canada actually fell over the next two years. By the end of the thirties less than eighteen per cent of the Canadian workforce was organized, compared to twenty-five per cent in the United States. The UAW's membership dropped from about 10,000 in 1937 to under 5,000 in Canada, while it reached almost half a million in the U.S. Of Canada's dozen locals that existed a year earlier, only three were still active.

In Oshawa, the dues-paying membership fell to as low as 400 in a workforce of about 3,000. The local was desperate to recover its membership base, yet it was unable to deliver any material gains from the company. It therefore tried to maintain some links by way of social networks such as fishing/hunting clubs and bowling leagues, and through services such as credit unions. But it wasn't until 1943 that Local 222 signed its next agreement with GM.

Organizing had also slowed in the U.S., though not to the same extent as in Canada. In Flint, for example, only 500 of 32,000 workers were paying union dues in 1938. The crisis facing the American UAW, which also affected the Canadians, was aggravated by the economic downturn, but it stemmed essentially from an internal fight between its president, Homer Martin, and a group that included communists, socialists (such as the Reuthers), and other militants.

Martin, it seemed, had become president of the young union primarily on the basis of his skills as an orator and the absence of strong personal enemies in any section of the union. His lack of administrative and strategic skills soon became evident, but by 1938 his actions had become dangerously erratic. He made secret deals with the companies, and, apparently in return, Ford bought him a house when he eventually left the company. He arbitrarily fired board members who disagreed with him and he banned local union newspapers and direct contact between locals. He undermined wildcats (mid-contract walk-outs) and refused workers the right to ratify their agreements. Then, when the executive board rejected his direction, he even went so far as to set up an alternative union affiliated with the AFL.

Charlie Millard came to GM after the depression destroyed his small business. After his defeat as Canadian director in 1939, he continued his conflict with Burt and the Canadian UAW in his role within steel. The staff of the Steelworkers Organizing Committee (SWOC) had earlier been fired because of frustration with both the apparent pace of organizing and their ties to the communist party. Millard was immediately made Executive Director of SWOC and became the head of the steelworkers union in Canada when it was established in 1942. He also played a key role in the development of other industrial unions like the United Packinghouse Workers.

Given the vulnerability of the new union, Martin's destructive actions seriously weakened the effectiveness of the UAW, even in plants where it had won recognition. The auto companies, and especially GM, argued that they no longer knew which union was legitimate (the CIO union or the Martin-backed AFL union) and refused to negotiate with either one. The turmoil seriously threatened the union's existence until Martin was finally deposed at the 1939 convention and replaced by R.J. Thomas. This change in leadership, combined with the upturn that followed the outbreak of World War II, brought a degree of stability to the union.

A parallel fight was taking place within the Canadian section of the union. Charles Millard, the president of the Oshawa local, had originally been appointed director of the Canadian region. Although this appointment was subsequently endorsed in an election, Millard's support was weak and the union was stumbling. His alliance with the unpopular Homer Martin, albeit temporary, didn't help his credibility. And Millard's focus on asserting the dominance of the CCF inside the union was generally viewed by both activists and members as being unnecessarily divisive, since there was at that time a strong working relationship within the union between CP members, CCF supporters, and independent militants. In 1939, George Burt, the secretary-treasurer of the Oshawa local, defeated Millard and became the Canadian director of the union.

The real growth and consolidation of unions in the mass production industries of Canada didn't come until after the war broke out. But the strike in Oshawa had broken the ground. The enthusiasm and activity that followed the Oshawa victory provided a base on which the new unions and organizing committees would build. Hepburn's belligerent escalation of the Oshawa strike and the union's survival of that attack gave the CIO and the UAW a stature, profile, and base that guaranteed its future prominence.

Beyond Oshawa's City Limits


After the Oshawa strike, activists from each of the four locals in the Canadian section of the UAW began to meet regularly to deal with their common problems, give some direction to their activities, and impose some accountability on the director, whose internal support was weak. Frustrated because they had no formal status in the union, and learning that the UAW constitution allowed for just such a structure, they formed a regional committee at a meeting in Brantford in 1938 and then applied for and got a charter to establish the Canadian Council in 1939.

The radically democratic principle behind this clause was that delegates elected by the membership should have their own structure, parallel to the administrative structure of the union and with its own elected executive and independent financing, to act as a check on the regional director and the staff. The director would be invited to each meeting - originally held six times a year but later quarterly - to give both an oral and written report on his or her activities in the preceding period. Over the years, it was almost unheard of for the director to be exempt, by reason of any extenuating circumstances, from providing the delegates a lengthy written report.

The council itself had no binding power on policy, but its authority -originally based on its democratic base but reinforced over time by the weight of tradition - meant that it became the real parliament of the union. The divisions within this emerging parliament were not so much the "administration" vs. the "rank-and-file," but ideological; it was at the council that so many of the ideological fights and ideological shifts got played out. As the ideological differences in the union collapsed, so did the notion of the council as an independent or parallel structure. But while this changed the tone of the council, it didn't undermine the crucial role it played within the union.

The council went beyond just monitoring the director and his or her activities. It was an exciting educational forum where the director could inform and raise the broadest issues; where new delegates could hear experienced debaters raising the issues and attacking corporations, governments, and each other; where those same new delegates would nervously make their first interventions in front of peers beyond their local; and where the director and the staff could get a better sense of the mood of the rank-and-file.


Canadian Council delegates, 1948 (current CAW staff exceeds number of delegates there were then).

-Courtesy of National Archives, C107289

The council was also a cultural forum, especially when held in the workers' own education camp.  It gave local leadership precious time to socialize, catch up on personal matters, and informally discuss specific in-plant issues.  For the opposition, it was a chance to caucus regularly and reach potential recruits.  The council was therefore an institution that linked the union together vertically (by creating relations between top leadership and activists), horizontally (by allowing activists to meet and work directly with each other rather than just depend on connections via the top leadership) and generationally (by establishing and ongoing continuity between past activists and traditions and emerging militants and issues).

The council was also aThe council structures never took hold in the U.S.; by the early fifties they were already dormant. The difference in Canada was twofold. First, Canada was a separate country and therefore needed a mechanism for having its own discussions and debates and, at times, for challenging or resisting the American leadership. Without its own national executive board and given the limits of injecting Canadian perspectives into an overwhelmingly American-based convention, the idea of a Canadian council had obvious attractions. Second, the Canadian section of the union included an opposition dependent on the council for access to other activists. Any attempt to undermine the council could be powerfully countered by mobilizing the members around democracy and nationalism. (In fact, no such move to get rid of the council was ever attempted.)

The Oshawa strike was organized and ultimately won in Canada. The American UAW was too new and distracted by the events exploding in its own country to offer support by way of strike pay, cadres of organizers, or sympathy strikes. Yet the Americans did the most important thing they could do: they acted decisively in their own country. This action created the space and led the way for Canadians to do the same.

The union had internationalized the struggle not because of any formal cross-border institutions, but by way of the solidarity of Canadians and Americans taking on, within their own spheres of activity, the common enemy. Victor Reuther, Walter Reuther's youngest brother and one of the leaders in the breakthrough at Flint, understood this principle when speaking, almost fifty years later, to the Canadian section of the UAW as it embarked on the formation of its own union: "... let us not stretch the ... importance of organic [i.e., institutional] unity as though without it, it is impossible to have an expression of solidarity."

This Canadian-U.S. solidarity did not preclude tensions.  In fact, the relationship between the Canadians and the Americans involved, from the beginning, conflicting pressures and strains that would dominate the union's politics and evolution until the Canadian breakaway. The Canadians, as in other relationships between the two countries, were the dependent partner; the Americans, as senior partner, set the stage. The Canadians lagged behind in obtaining union recognition (not just at GM but at each of the Big Three companies), comparable wages, and other negotiated gains. Yet the Canadians, in large part because they were not simply another region of the UAW, also maintained a level of independence and cohesiveness. These elements would form the base for keeping alternative perspectives alive and, eventually, for developing the degree of self-confidence that would result in the union taking a different diection.

That independence was manifested in the creation of a particularly important and dynamic democratic institution:  the Canadian Coucil.  Although this structure was not unique to Canada - the UAW constitution set out the council's voluntary creation at the regional level - the Canadian section was alone in keeping its council over the years. The Americans had overcome a dangerous leader after a painful period by deposing him. The Canadians, who were not in a position to determine the North American leadership, took the issue of ongoing accountability one step further and deepened their own democracy with the establishment of this institution.

Beyond the effects on the UAW and other CIO unions, the Oshawa strike also had a crucial and lasting impact on the future direction of Canadian politics.  The premier's rejection of the moderately progressive political space that the Liberals formerly held did not, at first, seem to hurt Hepburn electorally. Running on an anti-CIO ticket in the next provincial election, his Liberals swept the province. The virtual collapse of the Canadian UAW at GM in the late thirties was reflected electorally in the easy win by Hepburn's Liberals in the Oshawa riding. Yet this provincial victory was the Ontario Liberal's last hurrah.

The election reflected the facts that the Conservatice Party had been discredited by its policies during the depression and the CCF had not yet gotten off the ground in Ontario (its vote was under six per cent). In the next election, with the CCF moving into the political vacuum that Hepburn and the Liberals had left in their attacks on the Oshawa workers, the Liberals lost and were not to return to office in the province for over four decades. The mercurial rise of the CCF - it was at or near the top of the polls in 1942-43 - shifted both the federal Liberals and Conservatives towards the centre-left, and had them advocating the rudiments of what would become Canada's social safety net after the war.

The victory in Oshawa can today be identified, in the words of an editorial in a chruch publication at the time, as "not just another industrial dispute [but] a phase in a movement of great significance" (New Outlook, 23 April 1937). Yet that movement remained very fragile. In the late thirties, it was stalled by the inevitable corporate counterattack, the difficult economic times, internal union problems, and a Canadian state that was at best indifferent and at worst openly hostile. Nor was any broader political alternative able to get off the ground.

In trying to assess the significant achievements of this difficult period, we won't find them so much in the specific gains made or the structures firmly established, but in the fact that the working class was stirring. It had begun to fight back in spite of the times and thereby build its self-confidence and organizing skills. Workers were challenging their companies, putting political èlites on the spot, questioning past assumptions, and further testing and developing new structures, such as industrial unions, which covered all workers across companies and entire sectors, and the Canadian Council.

The significance of the Oshawa breakthrough therefore lay in its central role in a new beginning.  The stuggle in Oshawa established a base for the UAW in Canada.  More generally, it created the crucial opening for the CIO, and, less directly, it set the stage for a shift in politics to the centreleft.  From these beginnings - moderate in terms of immediate achievements by radical in terms of potential - emerged the more substantive gains of the coming decades. 

Chapter Two / Chapter Four

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