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 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).

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