The General Motors Oshawa Strike 1937

The 1937 Oshawa Strike is marked by many historians as being the first major event leading to the spread of Industrial Unionism in Canada. Taking place from April 8-23, 1937, more than 4000 workers of the General Motors plant in Oshawa struck on the basis of creating labour organization that would allow for fair wages and better working conditions for those working in the Industrial sector. The workers were demanding an 8-hour day, better wages and working conditions, a seniority system and (most importantly) a recognition of their newly formed union, the United Automobile Workers (UAW). The UAW was an affiliate of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) which had been supporting workers throughout the US during that time. This was considered as a threat to GM and thus was adamantly opposed by both the management and by the premier of Ontario, Mitchell Hepburn, who wanted to keep the labour force unorganized, cheap and easily to manipulate. The management and Hepburn were mostly concerned about the encroachment of the CIO into Canadian labour forces, they could not allow any footholds, like the UAW, that would result in labour organization. In an attempt to break the strike, Hepburn created his own special strike-breaking police force, known colloquially as the “Hepburn Hussars” or the “Sons of Mitches”. Mitchell is cited as having a concern that “bringing organization to the province’s mills, mines and factories would bring ruin to Ontario’s economy” (Glassford, 2013). He declared that he would not tolerate sit-down strikes in Ontario and thus organized the recruitment of his special police force to break the strike. There was no violence between the police force and the auto workers but tensions were high as the demands for Union organizers were repeatedly refuted. The position taken by Hepburn and his actions in attempting to quell the strike eventually resulted in two members of the Cabinet, David Croll and Arthur Roebuck, being asked to resign.

The workers held out for 15 days with little support from fellow union groups until GM finally conceded to most of their demands. In the end, GM feared that the strike would cost them a share of the market to their competitors and thus gave in to most of the demands of the strikers. However, the most important demand, the recognition of the Labour Union, was ignored. It wasn’t until the UAW publicly denounced their association with the CIO that their labour organization was recognized a few years later. Regardless of this fact, many people acknowledge the Oshawa strike as being a great victory both in terms of labour organization and in terms of better living and working conditions for many Canadians from that point on.

References:

Glassford, L. (2013, January 1). MITCHELL FREDERICK HEPBURN. Dictionary of Canadian Biographies. Retrieved October 14, 2014, from http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hepburn_mitchell_frederick_18E.html

Irving, A. (2006, February 6). Oshawa’s auto-workers vs. the “Sons-of-Mitches”. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 14, 2010, from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/oshawa-strike/

Lewis, P. (2010, March 5). Oshawa’s auto-workers vs. the “Sons-of-Mitches”. GDP.NFB.ca  Retrieved October 14, 2010, from http://gdp.nfb.ca/blog/news/oshawa’s-auto-workers-vs-the-“sons-of-mitches”/

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