The Month That Was – April 1937

More about the 1937 General Motors Strike can be read in an earlier post


Toronto Daily Star, 8 April 1937
3700 Motor Workers Strike at Oshawa
“Won’t build another car until they sign” Organizer Declares, Walkout Orderly, 260 Girls quit work with men and help picket plant

Oshawa, April 8 – A stand-up walkout, not a sit-down strike, hit General Motors today when 3700 workers made their peaceful exit from the plant five minutes after filing in as usual at 7am.  At once 400 pickets were flung around the works with pre-arranged precision.  The big motor industry was brought to a standstill in orderly fashion.  The threat has been threatened for more than a week, but only at 1:05am was the decision arrived at following a five hour conference of union stewards.  Six hours later it went into effect.

Thus begins the first test of strength in Canada of the Committee for Industrial Organization, which, under the leadership of John L. Lewis, has been waging a union struggle in the motor industry of the United States.

The real issue of the strike here is the CIO, or rather recognition of its affiliate, the United Automobile Workers Union…

Besides recognition of the Lewis-led union, the strike involves demands for a 40 hour week, time and a half for overtime, seniority rights, and the right of workers’ stewards to talk over grievances with company officials.

The beginning of the strike was not only peaceful but undramatic.  The workers filed in.  The workers filed out.  There was no attend at a sit-down…

“General Motors,” declared Hugh Thompson, CIO organizer, “will not build another car in Canada until they sign an agreement with the international union.”

 

Toronto Daily Star, 8 April 1937
Sale of Liquor is banned in Oshawa during strike
Beverage rooms and government store ordered closed by Odette, Mayor’s Request

During the Oshawa motor workers’ strike the liquor store, the brewery warehouse and all beverage rooms in that city will be closed.  EG Odette, head of the Ontario Liquor Control Board announced today.

We are going to co-ordinate with the municipal authorities in every way possible to maintain order,”: he said, adding that not until today had he received a request from the mayor of Oshawa, the chief of police and other municipal officials, that all sources of liquor be closed.  A number of workers received their pay cheques late yesterday, he told The Star, stating that it was feared that idleness might result in disorder, should the beverage rooms remain open.

“We are trying to do all we can to do all we can to help clear up the situation,” he said.

In Oshawa, Mayor Hall said his request if idle workers had access to liquor.

“We do not want any drunken pickets on our lines,” Millard said.

 

Lafayette Journal and Courier (Lafayette, Indiana), 13 April 1937
Premier Hurls New Threat in Oshawa Strike
Warns Lewis and his Aides Will Be Jailed Without Bail if They Commit Overt Act in Canada

Oshawa, Ont., April 13 (AP) – A move by Canada’s minister of labor to mediate the Oshawa strike pivoted today upon consent by General Motors of Canada, Ltd.

Meanwhile, other developments added fuel to the already heated controversy of international scope: Hugh Thompson, John L. Lewis’s right-hand man in the Oshawa strike, asserted the US supreme court decision on the Wagner act would cast the United Automobile Workers’ union in the role of sole bargaining agent for the General Motors workers here and the in the United States.

Premier Mitchell Hepburn of Ontario accused Lewis of trying to become “economic and political dictator” of both the United States and Canada and declared that, if he came to Canada and sponsored any overt act, or if any of his aids should do so, they would be jailed “for a good, long time and there wouldn’t be any bail.”

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From the Reno Evening Gazette, 13 April 1937, page 1

The Indianapolis Star 14 Apr 1937
US to Fill GM Foreign Orders
Strike at Canadian Plan Necessitates Move – CIO May Act

Oshawa, Ont., April 13 (AP) – General Motors of Canada decided tonight that emergency orders for shipment abroad must be filled by United States plants because of the Oshawa strike, and an augmented police force was mobilized at nearby Toronto to guard against disorder.

The strike of 3,7000 workers in the local plant began last Thursday. Vice-President Harry Carmichael indicated tonight that the company had “no definite information” when it would end. …

The police force was augmented at the order of Premier Mitchell Hepburn who said the Oshawa situation apparently was becoming “a little more tense” because “Communists from outside were ready and willing to take an increasingly active part.” …

Pickets continued to walk before the Oshawa plant today, but they were peaceful and quiet.

Manhattan Mercury 16 Apr 1937 p 1
From the Manhattan Mercury (Manhattan, Kansas) 16 April 1937, page 1

The Daily Clarion, 23 April 1937
Hepburn Backs Down, Recognizes Auto Union; Oshawa Strikers Vote on Agreement Today
Worker’s Demands Accepted As Premier, Reactionaries are Beaten to Standstill

Oshawa General Motors employees’ demand for union recognition was crowned by victory it was reported early this morning.

The complete list of demands as presented by workers to the GM corporation had long been considered gained, with one contentious point of union recognition used by Premier Hepburn to block negotiation.  This morning it was learned that recognition of Oshawa local 222 was achieved.

Although at yesterday evening’s press conference the premier stressed that no amplification of his statement would be made to the press, the Globe and Mail, personal organ of WH Wright, multimillionaire mining operator and friend of Hepburn, and its informant, were evidently not bound by this gentleman’s agreement.  The Globe and Mail carried the full news both in paper and radio.

 

The Daily Clarion, 23 April 1937
An Ontario Scandal

To the Editor:

As a reader of your paper and much interested in your articles regarding the relief situation, I have often wondered why you did not tell something of the conditions under which the recipients of Mothers’ Allowances have to exist.

Budgeted as we are with no allowance made for dental care, for medicines or medical care, not yet for clothing (a large item) nor for the replacement of worn out utensils, bedding, and mattresses, in the Township our dollar has not the value of the voucher in the purchase of bread or of milk.

Take my own case, six children and self allowance $60 per month with rent at $15 per month for four rooms.

Four boys ranging in age from seven to twelve years sleep on a…couch, whilst a child of five – a delicate girl of 13 and myself try to sleep in another bed.

The mattresses covering these beds are worn out beyond repair. The threat of the Attendance Officer (who is a policeman in the Township) has been held over my head all winter by the school because I have been unable to provide the necessary clothing for my children to attend school.

There are many other mothers in the neighborhood in the same condition.

Can’t you take up cudgels on our behalf and through the columns of your paper let the people know under what conditions families such as mine have to exist, conditions which would be condemned by the Children’s Aid Society,

-Oakridge

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From the Daily Clarion, 23 Apr 1937, page 1

The Globe and Mail, 24 Apr 1937
JOYOUS MOOD OVER OSHAWA AT STRIKE END: Auto Workers Celebrate to Tune of Dance, Following Vote to Return THOMPSON IS EXPECTED

There are no picket lines in Oshawa tonight.  The tents of the strikers have been struck.

And this city is celebrating, gaily, jubilantly. It is marking the end of the 16-day strike which paralyzed its major industry, which extended its deadening influence through hundreds of other plants and dealers’ organizations, which took its toll in the town’s merchandising business, and which at one stage threatened to end in CIO domination.

Vote 2205 to 36

Tonight members of the local union, now ex-strikers, danced in the armouries where a few hours before they took a vote.  There at noon they balloted and by a decision of 2205 to 36 ratified the settlement agreement negotiated in the office of Premier Hepburn. They came to this conclusion when Hugh Thompson, CIO organizer, and Homer Martin, Thompson’s boss, were out of the country.  They brought about their settlement when Claud R. Kramer, the CIO agent newly thrust into the scene, was out of the way in his hotel room. …

Mayor Alex Hall was up on the platform making a speech, getting lots of cheers.  He said that Police Chief Owen Friend would tell them that there had been no law-breaking, complete orderliness.  Only arrest in the strike was a vagrant who asked to be locked up. He complimented his hearers for coming through with flying colors, maintaining the city’s good name.

 

Oshawa Daily Times, 30 April 1937
Oshawa Labor to Get Preference in Local Plant; Shop Committee Meets G.M. Management for Discussion

In the face of reports prevalent throughout the city that outside men in the city without work, the at General Motors while there were ment [SIC] in the city without work. The shop committee of General Motors employees met with the management yesterday afternoon for discussion of the matter.

E.E. Bathe, vice-president of Oshawa Local No. 222, U.A.W.A., revealed that the committee was assured by General Motors officials that Oshawa men and former employees would be given the preference when additional help is being taken on at the plant here. He pointed out that in all cases it was not possible to secure men from within the city and it was found necessary to seek elsewhere for men to fill some positions in the shop.

Production is going forward every day since the plant reopened on Monday and practically the same schedule of production which prevailed before the strike was called has been maintained if not bettered during the week. There has been no speeding up the lines and no pressure brought to bear on the employees. The employees hit their former stride in the various operations throughout the plant and it is quite possible that production will continue well on into the summer months.

 

Oshawa Daily Times, 30 April 1937
Belleville Students Stage a Walk Out

Belleville, April 30, – Forty students of the Belleville Collegiate Institute and Vocational School staged a walk-out yesterday after-noon and wended their way to Victoria Park. Approached by a reporter they refused to state the nature of their grievance.

Students who were questioned stated that the grievance had nothing to do with the teaching staff but it was a collective grievance and one which may effect [sic] the whole school.

The Board of Education and the principle of the school was questioned but nobody would talk and those who did say anything stated they had no knowledge of any trouble.

The event was the first walk-out ever to occur in Belleville.

 

Oshawa Daily Times, 30 April 1937
Oshawa Ten Years Ago, April 30, 1927 (The Oshawa Daily Reformer)

At midnight tonight, the time-pieces in Oshawa will be advanced one hour for at that hour, Daylight Saving Time comes into being for the season

Miss Marjorie Hancock of the Toronto Normal School is spending the week-end at her home, Celina Street.

A short meeting of the Oshawa Water Commission was held yesterday afternoon when accounts were passed and other routine business completed.

MH Hudson, 26 Warren avenue, had a spare tire stolen from his car which he left parked on Simcoe Street North yesterday.

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From the Oshawa Daily Times, 30 Apr 1937

Ajax’s Defence Industry Limited

By Tracy Wright, Durham College Journalism Student

When the opportunity came for Louise Johnson to work at Defence Industry Limited (DIL), she took it, with the blessing in the only letter she ever received from her father saying, “Go for it, it sounds like a great opportunity.”

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This was a historical moment. In 1942, almost all jobs for women were in the home, taking care of the family. “Back then,” says Johnson, “you worked the farm and married the boy down the road.” But the Second World War changed that.

Men had been recruited to go to the Second World War, which lasted from 1939 to 1945. There was a shortage of workers, so women were needed to fill the jobs men would normally do.

Defence Industries Limited (DIL) was a shell filling plant, says author and historian Lynn Hodgson.  Its main purpose was to build shells with explosives and have them crated then transported by cargo then rail and finally shipped to England to the men in field, according to Hodgson.

Louise Johnson was 21 years old, living in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.  She was single and working at Saskatoon City Hospital in the nurse’s residence. Louise said she was lucky to have been at home when the call came from Civil Services (now known as Human Resources) about working at DIL.

DIL opened in the summer of 1941. It had 9,000 employees and 75 per cent of these employees were women, explains Brenda Kriz, Records and FOI coordinator for the Town of Ajax. The women came to Ajax from across Canada, as far away as Northern Alberta and Nova Scotia.

Before the Second World War, Ajax was not a city. It was all farmland.  “It became Ajax, after the war,” says Hodgson, who wrote Ajax Arsenal of Democracy.

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The women at DIL were called Bombgirls. Johnson, like the other women, did not know what to expect when she arrived in Pickering Township.  When she was recruited, she was told the job was dangerous. She was assured she and the other 9,000 employees would be taken care of; they would receive housing and meals along with a uniform, and if they did not like it there, they would get a train ticket back home.

Defence Industries Limited was built in 1941 on 2,800 acres of land. “The land was expropriated from Pickering Township to create Defence Industries Limited,” says Kriz. This was the largest shell plant during the British Commonwealth, according to Kriz. The township of Pickering set up the factory to build bombs for the Second World War.  Pickering Township, now Ajax, was considered the perfect location.  It was away from residential areas and water supplies, which was very important because it required million gallons a day to support the site, says Kriz.

There were 600 wartime homes built as temporary residences close to the plant. “There was a community hall, movie theatre and a convenience store and a post office so you didn’t have to go outside,” according to Hodgson, who goes on to explain that “loose lips sink ships” and this is why DIL didn’t want workers speaking to the public about their job.

When the plant closed, the idea was the homes would be broken down and sent to Britain to help with the housing shortage there, but instead a town was established.  Ajax was named after a battleship called HMS Ajax.  Naming of the town came after the post office in Pickering Village could not handle the loads of mail sent there.  For a post office to be in a town, the town had to have a name.  A vote was held by to choose between Dilco, Powder City and Ajax, after the mythological Greek hero.

DIL had been in operation for about five years before Ajax got its name.

To get access to the plant, you would walk across the Bayly Bridge which is no longer there but you would have crossed over the 401 at Harwood and Bayly. This is how you’d enter the gates for DIL. From there you would take a bus that would bring you to the line where you worked.  “At the end of your shift, you’d take the bus back over the bridge and then walk back to your residence,” explains Hodgson.

“There were four lines each line produce a different kind of shell,” says Kriz.

There was heavy security at DIL, Johnson recalls.  “If you did not have a badge, you could not pass through the gates,” says Johnson.  The whole facility was surrounded by barbed wire fence.  Hodgson explains, “Security was very tight; the guards were armed veterans from the First World War.” For safety reasons, no matches were allowed on the property.  If you were caught with matches, you would go to jail. One guy served 30 days in Whitby jail for smoking behind the line, says Hodgson.

Johnson worked on line 3. Here she measured cordite, which is another form of gunpowder. Her job was to weigh it on a scale and she had to be very precise. If not filled properly, the ammunition could either explode in transport or not detonate in the field. Work was in rotating shifts each week: eight hours a day six days a week. Each shift was represented by a different colour bandana: blue, red and white. Johnson’s was blue.

The only day off was Sunday and Christmas day.  “On Sundays, you just watch the walls and cook dinner,” says Johnson.

Life at DIL was not just about work. Relationships were built there. “I met my husband at work,” laughs Johnson. “He was the cordite deliverer.”

Russell and Louise were married in 1944 and had one child, a daughter named Lynda. Russell died in 1965. “He worked hard, but was not a well man,” Johnson said.

With the end of the war, the need for shells ended too.  The lines at the factory were shut down one by one. When it came to Johnson, she was called to the office and asked if she knew how to type.  She said, “I could look for keys,” she said, “and make a stab at it.”

Johnson was assigned the task of typing quit slips. She placed her slip at the bottom of the pile and when the time came typed her own quit slip. She was the last production employee at DIL.

Johnson then went to Selective Services, now Employment Insurance, to receive her compensation.  Johnson asked the lady behind the desk if she should comeback after her EI ran out.  She was advised to not come back as there was no work for women.

Men were coming back from war. “It was a two-sided coin,” Johnson says. “The men left work to go to war and they came back.”

Not only were the jobs few, Johnson’s husband did not want her to work. She stayed home and took care of her daughter, who was eight years old.  She did start working again and was able to work from home.

Johnson now aged 96, lives on her own in the same wartime bungalow she purchased with her husband.

Comparing the workforce for women from 1942 to now in 2018 Johnson says, “Hasn’t changed.”

As for DIL, “few buildings remain. But not many,” says Kriz.   The original DIL hospital became Ajax/Pickering hospital.  The original building was demolished in the late ’60s, according to Kriz. The Ajax Town Hall sits in the same place the DIL administration office was. “The heart of the community has always been on this site,” says Kriz. Without DIL, “There would be no Ajax a town born overnight,” says Hodgson.


The land where we stand is the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation.

Durham College‘s newspaper, The Chronicle, launches a new feature series called The Land Where We Stand, about the hidden stories that shape our region.

Some of the articles found on this blog have been provided through partnerships with external sources, and we welcome reader engagement through comments.  The views expressed in such articles/comments may not necessarily reflect those of the OHS/OM.

Where The Streets Get Their Names – Phillip Murray Avenue

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

Another month, a new street history!  In honour of the Labour Day weekend, I thought sharing the history behind Phillip Murray Avenue would be rather appropriate.

Phillip Murray Avenue is an east-west artery in south Oshawa, running from the western boundary with Whitby to Valley Drive.  A quick review of City Directories indicate that in 1957, Philip Murray Avenue (note the spelling) was ‘not built on’, meaning it was in the process of being developed.  By 1958, Philip Murray featured a number of new houses and new residents.  This means that Phillip Murray Avenue is a relatively ‘new’ street in our City, being just shy of 60 years old.

Philip Murray, 1886-1952; from the Encyclopædia Britannica
Philip Murray, 1886-1952; from the Encyclopædia Britannica

So who was Philip Murray?  He was a Scottish born American labour leader, the first president of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), the first president of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), and the longest-serving president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).  He passed away of a heart attack in late 1952.

Oshawa 1937 Strike - outreach exhibit at the Oshawa Public Library, 2012
Oshawa 1937 Strike – outreach exhibit at the Oshawa Public Library, 2012

While Murray may not have hailed from Oshawa, he was an important figure in the history of labour relations, a subject of importance for our industrial city.  In 1937, a strike occurred in Oshawa, the implications of which not only impacted our City but also had effect on a provincial and national level.

“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

In 1937, the workers of General Motors had four requests: an 8-hour day; better wages and working conditions; a seniority system; and, recognition of their union, the new United Automobile Workers, which was affiliated with CIO.  The recognition of the union brought about the strike, for GM management and Ontario Premier Mitch Hepburn wanted to keep the CIO out of Ontario.  The strike lasted two weeks; the union was not recognized, however, this strike was regarded as a victory for CIO and is often seen as the birth of Canadian Industrial Unionism.

“A stand-up strike not a sit-down strike with 260 women joining the men on the picket line.  It begins quietly with workers first filing into work as usual at 7am and then five minutes later just as peacefully, exiting the plant.  Simultaneously, 400 pickets are flung up aroung the works with pre-arranged precision.”

– April 8, 1937 Toronto Star

In 1943, following a few walk outs in Oshawa (this was during WWII when strikes were illegal), CAW Local 222 was recognized by General Motors as the exclusive bargaining agency.  War production became the priority at General Motors in 1942 and the workers in Local 222 alone, produced over 30 000 armoured vehicles.

The 1950s saw another GM strike.  During the winter of 1955-56, 17 000 General Motors employees went on strike, and after five months received what they were asking for: a pay raise, more secure working conditions, and a health plan covered by GM.

1950s GM Strike
1950s GM Strike

The 1950s saw the death of an important labour figure and a labour strike by one of the largest industries in Oshawa.  Phillip Murray Avenue received its name against the backdrop of these historical events.

On behalf of the Oshawa Museum, enjoy the Labour Day Weekend!

Where The Streets Get Their Names – Robson and Whiting

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

The other afternoon, I had to stop by the head office for the Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority.  It is conveniently close to the Museum, a mere two kilometres north along Simcoe Street.  Driving to the CLOCA head office, you will pass the intersection of Whiting Avenue (the street where the office is located) and Robson Street. This interesting intersection is a fitting tribute to two industries that had made Cedar Dale their home.

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Let’s first look at Whiting Avenue. Whiting is the older of the two businesses, so it seems appropriate to start at the beginning.

We first discussed A.S. Whiting in our post on the History of Cedar Dale, a community which was located along Simcoe Street, south of Bloor Street.  In the 1860s, looking to re-establish his manufacturing business after his Oshawa Manufacturing Company floudered, Whiting did not look to the thriving Village of Oshawa, but rather, he chose a location south of the Baseline, and commenced building a factory near the Oshawa Creek.  In 1862, the Cedar Dale Works opened; it would be later renamed A.S. Whiting Manufacturing Company.  This company ceased operations by the 1890s.

A.S. Whiting Manufacturing Co., from the Oshawa Community Archives
A.S. Whiting Manufacturing Co., from the Oshawa Community Archives

Algernon Sidney (A.S.) Whiting was born on March 7, 1807 in Winsted, Connecticut, an area renowned for its clocks.  Before being married in 1832, Whiting worked as a travelling clock salesman.  In 1842, Mr. Whiting and his wife Julia moved to Canada and settled in Cobourg where he continued to travel selling clocks.  He moved to Oshawa in 1850.  Mr. Whiting passed away in March of 1876 and is buried in Union Cemetery; the street named for him affirms his place in Oshawa’s history, and he is also credited with the naming of Cedar Dale.  Not a bad legacy to leave behind.

After A.S. Whiting Manufacturing closed, what happened to the buildings of this established factory?  Enter James Robson.

Robson Leather Tannery, from the Oshawa Community Archives
Robson Leather Tannery, from the Oshawa Community Archives

The Robson Tannery traces its beginnings back to the Bartletts in the early 1800s who first established a tannery in Oshawa.  In 1865, Robson and his partner Laughland bought the South Oshawa Tannery from the Bartletts.  Over the years, the business thrived, eventually being passed to Robson’s sons Charles and James, until they were struck with a fire in 1899. The South Oshawa Tannery, which was located on Mill Street, was destroyed.  The Whiting Manufacturing buildings were vacant, so Robson relocated.  In 1904 they changed their name to the Robson Leather Company, and they were renamed again in 1963 after amalgamating with James Lang Leather Company of Kitchener to become Robson-Lang Leathers Limited.

Robson had been a long standing industry for the City of Oshawa, however, after a lengthy strike in 1977, they closed their doors and ceased operations.

Part of Robson Tannery still exists as the head office for CLOCA.  They have historic images around their office of when the building was in use as a manufacturing company and as a tannery.