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

Women and the Labour Movement in Oshawa: Bev McCloskey

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

The gender wage gap, harassment in the workplace, and finding a work/life balance are frequently in the news as we examine our changing society. It was not all that long ago that women were relegated to certain jobs and were forced to leave once they were married. A driving force in the fight for equality was Oshawa native Bev McCloskey.

Born on January 1, 1929, Beverly Beryl Christian Gibson was introduced to the United Auto Workers when she started work at General Motors in 1949.  In 1954, she was elected as a delegate to the Oshawa and District Labour Council, and in 1956 she ran for the position of Recording Secretary, the only position available for woman, with the U.A.W. Local 222. McCloskey won and held this position for 17 years.

From the very start of her career, McCloskey was a steadfast union supporter and passionate social activist. A fantastic example of this passion is how she chose to spend her honeymoon. Bev and her new husband Patrick honeymooned in Long Beach, California.  Rather than soaking up the sun and sites, the McCloskeys attended the United Auto Workers meeting.  At this meeting, a motion to add a woman to the top executive body of the U.A.W. passed, and Bev spent her honeymoon running for that position. While she didn’t win that race, it didn’t dampen her passion for women’s rights within the Union.

By the 1960s, six members of Local 222 banded together to fight for equal rights for women. The first obstacle tackled by the group was the segregated seniority list and the fact that, no matter how much seniority a female member may have earned, some jobs were restricted to men only. The group worked to form the U.A.W. Local 222 Women’s Committee, and in 1969 the group began work to change the Ontario Human Rights Act.

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In 1962, when the Ontario Human Rights Act was passed, it barred discrimination on the basis of colour, race, creed and national origin.  What it did not include was discrimination based on sex.  The Local 222 Women’s Committee wanted that changed and approached Cliff Pilkey, the Oshawa NDP MPP, and worked with him to draft a bill outlawing discrimination based on sex in employment. After a year and a half of lobbying and protesting, Bill 83, “An Act to Prevent Discrimination in Employment because of Sex or Marital Status” was passed in December 1970 and became an amendment to the Ontario Human Rights Act.

McCloskey and the Women’s Committee continued to work to make the factory floor an environment that was inclusive for all workers.  In 1983, she approached General Motors and the Union to have inappropriate photos, ones that objectified women, removed from workbenches and walls in the plant. Prior to approaching management and the union, McCloskey had been dealing with the issue in her own unique way.  She had special stickers made up that read “THIS INSULTS WOMEN” and she would attach them to any and all offensive photos she came across.

Her social activism was not focused solely on the equality in the workplace. McCloskey took Local 222 to task in 1984 when they came out against the Ontario Federation of Labour’s support of Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s abortion clinics in Toronto and Winnipeg. The opening sentence of her retort sums up McCloskey’s thoughts concerning union’s condemnation of the OFL. McCloskey: “It is with disgust that I take pen in hand to reply to the headline…” and she continues to state that “No issue is more important to women now than that of reproductive choice.”

Even in her retirement, McCloskey continued to champion women’s rights and became a founding board member of the Durham Region Unemployment Help Centre. Bev McCloskey passed away on January 14, 2014. Speaking on her impact, Unifor Local 222 President Ron Svajlenko stated “Bev was very active in the struggle for women’s rights in our union and fought for the equity that women enjoy today in our communities. Her legacy will serve as a standard for activists who strive to create a better society.”

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.

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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

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).