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).

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!