Conditions on the assembly lines in GM before 1937 were characterized by line speed-ups, no rest periods and fears that complaints would lead to permanent layoff. While the pay was good when people worked, wages were kept down to around $600 per year because of the seasonality of the work. Work lasted six or seven months a year, the last two or three months of which were part-time with work only two or three days a week. Many employees had to apply for City welfare.
GM paid workers according to a bonus efficiency plan, a form of piece work. When the 1937 model year began, the bonus was cut, more work was added and the workforce was reduced. Later during the same model year, the workers shut off the line in the body shop and sat down. Sporadic stoppages took place in a number of areas in the plant. Finally, the workers walked out of the body shop and held a meeting in the local CCF hall where they picked a committee to present their grievances to management. The company refused to deal with the workers’ complaints.
The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) had been established in 1935 in order to organize industrial workers into large industry-wide unions. The United Auto Workers was formed in 1935 and became part of the CIO in 1936. Later that year, the UAW’s historic sit-down strike at General Motors in Flint, Michigan, won union recognition at GM. Inspired by this victory, the Oshawa activists asked the fledgling UAW to send an organizer to help them.
The UAW sent Hugh Thompson, fresh from an organizing drive in Buffalo, to Oshawa to help coordinate the efforts here. He arrived in Oshawa on February 19, 1937, accompanied by his wife and daughter, and immediately attended a meeting of the body shop workers. Once the organizing began, it quickly spread from General Motors to the feeder plants: Skinners (later known as Houdaille), Phillips Glass (later known as Duplate), Coulter Manufacturing and Ontario Steel Products. Four thousand workers were signed up within a few weeks.
Local 222 was issued its charter by UAW headquarters on March 2, 1937.
In March 1937, contracts were first negotiated in Oshawa at Coulter Manufacturing and Ontario Steel Products.
At the GM plants, an organization was set in place under the guidance of Mr. and Mrs. Hugh Thompson. Every department was given a chief steward and departments were subdivided into groups, each with an elected steward. A bargaining committee was chosen to approach the company. The membership delegated authority to the body of elected stewards who could determine when and if a strike should be called.
An agreement requesting the basic requirements of a union contract, namely union recognition, a grievance procedure, seniority rights and a recognized work week with time and a half for overtime, was submitted to General Motors. A series of meetings with management followed, as well as regular reports to the stewards on the progress, or lack of progress. Lack of progress seemed to predominate.
Special negotiations took place in Queen’s Park where members of the Hepburn government attempted to bring General Motors officials and union representatives together to negotiate a settlement. However, negotiations broke down when GM refused to sign an agreement that recognized UAW Local 222 as the bargaining agent for the Oshawa auto workers.
The union stewards met on April 7 to hear the report of the bargaining committee and voted to strike the next morning. At 7:05 a.m. on April 8, 1937, when GM employees punched in as usual, they turned around and walked back out. The 3,700 employees of GM in Oshawa were now on strike.
Premier Mitch Hepburn took an active involvement in the strike because of his intense opposition to industrial unions. He vowed to keep the CIO out of Canada. This opposition may have been due to his close connection with the mining industry which feared that union organizing in the automobile industry might spread to mining. Premier Hepburn sent a detachment of between 60 and 100 RCMP officers to Oshawa. He asked Ottawa for an additional 100 RCMP officers. When the request was denied by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, he proceeded to organize a special 400-man force of militia made up mostly of war veterans and university students. This militia came to be called “Hepburn’s Hussars” or the “Sons of Mitch’s.”
At the same time, the union organized its own membership, setting up a form of police instructed to ensure no trouble would occur. The Oshawa mayor, Alex Hall, with a recommendation from Local 222 President Charles Millard, closed the liquor store and the beverage rooms in the city for the duration of the strike. It is worthy of note that during the entire strike the only occupant of the local jail was a transient who asked for a night’s lodging.
Premier Hepburn made statements that his special militia would march on Oshawa. But the people of Oshawa, through their mayor, objected to this. Hepburn again called on the Dominion Government to send in the RCMP. This time the government agreed and a detachment was dispatched to the city. The mayor of Oshawa refused to take the legal action necessary to enable the RCMP to enter the city: that is, to read the riot act. The people of Oshawa objected to RCMP involvement because the strike was entirely peaceful.
A conflict developed within the provincial cabinet over the government’s handling of the strike. Two cabinet ministers were asked to submit their resignations from the Hepburn cabinet: Attorney-General Arthur Roebuck and David Croll, the Minister of Labour, Welfare & Municipal Affairs. Croll led the outcry against the Premier to remove the RCMP from Oshawa. He is quoted as having said to Premier Hepburn as he handed in his resignation, “I’d rather march with the workers than ride with General Motors.”
After two weeks of peaceful picketing, and many hours of negotiations, a tentative agreement was reached on April 22, 1937. The agreement was overwhelmingly ratified on April 23, 1937, at the Oshawa Armouries, where GM workers voted 2,205 to 36 in favour of the agreement. The agreement was then signed by both parties in Premier Hepburn’s office at Queen’s Park later that day.
The strike resulted in the formation of the largest UAW local in Canada, and represented the CIO’s first major success in Canada. The GM contract was unusual as it deliberately did not recognize the International UAW but, at the same time, it ran concurrently with the agreement in the United States between GM and the UAW.
Company resistance to the union persisted after the signing of the first contract. UAW Local 222 was not officially recognized as a party to the GM agreement until 1943, although the feeder plants were able to obtain recognition earlier. All of the Local 222 workplaces in Oshawa were under open shop agreements which meant that employees did not need to join the union. The union was not permitted to collect dues on company time or on company premises, but the union did so anyway.
The companies did everything to discredit the union and by 1939, the membership of Local 222 had dropped to less than 1,000. However, membership levels increased during World War II and Local 222 remained the largest auto workers local in Canada.