The 1928 General Motors Strike

On March 26, 1928, 300 General Motors employees walked off their jobs in protest of wage reductions that would affect the Chevrolet and Pontiac trimmers.  The Chevrolet, Buick, Oakland, LaSalle and Cadillac lines struck “out of sympathy” and remained out until the former wage scale had been put back into effect.   The executive of General Motors (G.M.) was firm on its actions in wage cuts, shown by a statement issued by H.A. Brown, general manager, declaring:

“The scale in the Oshawa plants has always been in excess of that prevailing in the U.S.  The management has always been appreciative of its employees but due to the present labour situation should the men refuse to return to work, the company is in a position to fill vacancies and the production of the current month will be very little affected.”

(Oshawa Daily Times March 26, 1928)

Chevrolet and Pontiac men claimed they received their pay as usual on the Thursday, and on Friday they saw a notice on the bulletin board announcing the new scale of rates, reflecting a 40% cut in wages, effective as of that date.  This was the third cut in six months.

In response to the strike of the trimmers, Mr. H.A. Brown stated in a letter,

“The present difficulty with the trimmers has been given consideration by the executive of the Employees Association and action of the management has been upheld.  The action taken today, by the trimmers, caused management to consider each and every one as released from our employ and instead of dealing collectively, each case will be dealt with individually. We appreciate that many of these men are permanent citizens of Oshawa and own their own homes and have been unduly influenced by a small group who have radical ideas and for that reason our Personal Service Section will be  equitable as possible with individual cases.  Due to the present condition of the labour market in Canada we will have little, if any difficulty in filling the positions vacated.”

(Oshawa Daily Times, March 26, 1928)

At a general meeting held on Monday, March 26, 1928, more than 700 men assembled to hear the decision of the executive, composed of representatives from all departments affected.  The announcement was that when the new cut in wages was put in force, a representative from the men affected waited upon management and offered a 50/50 basis as a compromise.  Management refused to consider this, and therefore a decision was reached that the employees will not return to their work unless the former salary was forthcoming.  Other employees were temporarily laid off, unable to do their jobs while the trimmers were on strike.

Another mass meeting was held on Tuesday, March 27, 1928 at the New Martin Theatre.  The actual number of those on strike was estimated at 1800, comprised of both men and women employees.  At this meeting, Mr. Brown felt that the trimmers were not skilled labour, a feeling that was strongly contradicted by the men.  The trimmers felt that with the great profits of G.M., stated to be $210,000,000 in the previous year, there was no reason for the cut in pay.  After the meeting, strikers paraded from the New Martin Theatre; many of the men that attended the meeting at the theatre did not walk in the parade owing to the fact that many were only in “sympathy,” as stated in the Oshawa Daily Times on March 28, 1928. They marched to the head offices of G.M. in the middle of a snow storm, singing ‘Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here’ and other such songs.

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At a final mass meeting that took place at the Armouries on Friday March 30, 1928, attended by every factory worker employee of General Motors of Canada Limited, a decision was reached to return to work the following Monday morning.  This decision was based on a letter from H.A. Brown Vice-President and General Manager of General Motors of Canada Limited, addressed Hon. Peter Heenan, Minister of Labour, and contained proposals that were satisfactory to the employees who had been on strike. A man named ‘Slim’ Phillips, the “backbone of the strike, and now the most popular man in the [amouries] hall” reportedly nearly fainted from nervous exhaustion from it all (Toronto Daily Star, March 31, 1928). The body of workers had been made member of the International Automobile Industrial Workers Union.   The pledge, approved by the workers was as follows: “We, the employees of General Motors of Canada, do hereby pledge ourselves to establish a trade union organization.  Furthermore we pledge ourselves to use every possible means to secure one hundred percent organization” (Oshawa Daily Times, March 30, 1928).


This article was originally written as a Historical Oshawa Information Sheet ©Oshawa Historical Society

References:

Oshawa Daily Times, March 26, 28-30, 1928
Toronto Daily Star, March 27-31, 1928
General Motors Strike file, archival collection, Oshawa Museum

Student Museum Musings – Kirbi

By Kirbi B., Durham College LIT Student

Hello Everyone!

My name is Kirbi B., I am enrolled in the Library and Information Technician Program at Durham College. This is my final requirement to be eligible for graduation. I am working here at the museum as a placement student in the archives. I am enjoying my time here and this placement provides me with the opportunity to further my knowledge on museums and archives aside from what we learn in class. It provides a “hands on” experience that I would not be able to get without securing a job in the field. This placement will assist me in determining if this is an area I would like pursue after graduation.

I have been working on the creation of finding aids for the archives on General Motors, Oshawa Fire Department and the Oshawa General Hospitals Nursing School. These finding aids contain detailed information about the collection of papers and records within the archive.

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General Motors Plant, part of the North Plant building on Bond Street East. 1983 (A997.18.29)

The Strike of 1937

The year is 1937. The City of Oshawa has grown to 25,000 citizens. Alex C. Hall is the Mayor. An unforgettable strike in the history of Oshawa was about to unfold at the city’s General Motors plant.

On April 8, 1937 3,700 workers walked off the job and did not return to the lines until a settlement was struck weeks later.

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This strike became pivotal to the future of labour relations throughout Canada.  The Toronto Star reported on the strike and described it as an orderly event – “a stand-up strike not a sit-down strike” and even saw 260 women joining the men on the picket line.

The strike began quietly.  Workers arrived at 7 am to begin work.  The day changed when, at 7:05 workers peacefully exited the plant and went on strike.

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Simultaneously, 400 pickets are flung up around the works with pre-arranged precision.

Despite the calm air surrounding the striking workers, the provincial police were mobilized in Toronto in anticipation of potential violence.  At the same time, the Liquor Commissioner, E.G. Odette, chose to indefinitely close the liquor store, brewer’s warehouse and all beverage rooms to prevent any disorder.

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Why strike?  Workers in Oshawa were demanding recognition of the United Auto Workers union.  The UAW was an affiliate of the recently created Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO; later Congress of Industrial Organization), a group that was working to organize industrial workers throughout the US. This group was not seen as a positive step by General Motors management and they, along with Ontario Premier Mitchell Hepburn, worked to keep the CIO out of Ontario. Both the company and the premier wanted a pliant labour force – unorganized, impotent and cheap. To break the strike, Hepburn even created his own police force, known irreverently as “Hepburn’s Hussars” and “Sons-of-Mitches.”

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The GM workers’ requests were simple: an 8-hour day, better wages and working conditions, a seniority system and recognition of their union, the new United Automobile Workers. The strike carried on for over 2 weeks. Fearing a loss in the marketplace to competitors, General Motors eventually capitulated and the strike ended on April 23, 1937.

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This major confrontation between GM and its workers in Oshawa in 1937 effectively brought about industrial unionism to Canada. “In 1937, when several thousand members signed union cards, the hopelessness of the depression gave way to a new hope, a new confidence. UAW 222 was born” (Local 222).

Blog Rewind: Automotive Industry: In the Words of Col. R.S. McLaughlin

This post was originally published on March 1, 2013.

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

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I recently came across a fascinating magazine in our archival collection.  The magazine, entitled The Canadian Military Journal featured a lengthy article on Col. Sam to celebrate his 100th birthday.

What stood out in the article were quotes from Col. Sam regarding the birth of the auto industry here in Oshawa.  The development of the auto industry in Oshawa has been well documented but this is a truly unique view from the man who played such a pivotal role.

The day before I had wired William C. Durant, head of the young Buick company in Flint, Mich., to ask for help. The McLaughlin automobile, which we had started to make ourselves after I had failed to arrive at a co-operative manufacturing arrangement with Durant and other U.S. car makers, had run into trouble. Two days before, with the parts of our first car laid out ready for assembly – and the components of one hundred more in various stages of completion – our engineer had suffered a severe attack of pleurisy. In my wire I asked Durant to lend us an engineer until our own man recovered.

Durant arrived in Oshawa not with an engineer but with two of his top executives. He took up the discussion of our last meeting – when we had failed to get together on a manufacturing arrangement – Justas if we had merely paused for breath. “I’ve been thinking it over,” he said, “and I have the solution to the problem we couldn’t overcome in our figuring.” The deal he suggested was pretty close to what I had in mind in the first place, and I said : “ That will work.”  Durant nodded. “I thought it would,” he said, in that voice of his that was always so gentle – and always so much to the point.

We went into my father’s office with my brother George and Oliver Hezzelwood, who looked after our books, and in five minutes we had the contract settled. It ran just a page and a half and was a model agreement for lawyers to study. Chiefly it covered the terms under which we had 15-year rights to buy the Buick engine and some other parts. We could build and design out own bodies.

What a defining moment in Oshawa’s history.  I was left wondering what could have been if the engineer hadn’t gotten sick or if Durant had sent only an engineer.  Would the McLaughlin automobile have succeeded without the Buick engine or would it have been amongst the many car companies that came and went?

Moments such as this, from those who lived it, are what make the study of history so fascinating.

Student Museum Musings – Peter

By Peter M., Archives Assistant Student

A train halted a moment at the station and the traveler reached out, called a small boy, and said, “Son, here’s fifty cents.  Get me a twenty-five cent sandwich and get one for yourself.  Hurry up!”
Just as the train pulled out, the boy ran up to the window.  “Here’s your quarter, mister,” he shouted.  “They only had one sandwich.”
(GM War-Craftsman, June 1943)

This is one example of a joke I came across during my cataloguing of various documents here in the archives of the Oshawa Museum.  I am a student that has been working here over the summer for just over a month now.  I have always been fascinated by the stories that new artefacts or documents coming to us can tell, but one theme that has really caught my eye recently is jokes.  Most of the documents I found containing jokes range throughout the 1940s.  Some appeared in sections of official newsletters, while others were scribbled into the pages of students’ workbooks, as they were each encouraged to write a page full of all the jokes they could think of as a class exercise.

Johnny: (buying a ticket for New York).
Clerk: “Would you care to go by Buffalo?”
Johnny: “I don’t know.  I’ve never ridden one.”
(GM War-Craftsman, October 1943)

The majority of the jokes I came across were gathered from a collection of General Motors newsletters called the War-Craftsman.  The newsletters in the museum’s collection range from 1942-1946.  These newsletters were a way of keeping the public informed of the events and contributions conducted by GM and its employees during World War II.  There was a column present in nearly all of these newsletters titled “Gems of Comedy,” where numerous jokes were printed each month.  Much like the rest of the War-Craftsman, these jokes served to keep spirits up, and inspire the public to keep moving forward during such trying times in our history.

At a recent shipyard launching, the woman who was to christen the boat was quite nervous.
“Do you have any questions, lady?” asked the shipyard manager, just before the ceremony.
“Yes,” she replied meekly.  “How hard do I have to hit it to knock it into the water?”
(GM War-Craftsman, October 1943)

It is interesting to see how comedy has evolved through the ages.  The jokes that I present you with are but a small few of the many that I found.  Most of the jokes I did not understand, showing how some comedy doesn’t quite translate through the ages.  Several others admittedly had themes that would be considered highly inappropriate by today’s standards, but they do serve show how society has changed, now having any jokes in publications today strive to be politically correct, while also maintaining the lightheartedness that was enjoyed by Oshawa citizens over sixty years ago.

Reporter:  To what do you to attribute your great age?
Grandpa:  The fact that I was born so long ago.
(GM War-Craftsman, December 1945)