The 1937 Oshawa strike represented a critical juncture in Canadian history because its resolution resulted in the creation of more equitable labour conditions for industrial workers. The eventual concessions made by General Motors (GM) in regard to labour conditions were brought about in large part by the efforts made by the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to unionize workers. Without the help of UAW leadership in organizing and maintaining the integrity of the striking workers, the results of the Oshawa strike would likely have been very different.
The focus of this critical analysis is not on the specifics of the Oshawa strike but the broader notions of power, policing and politics that are rooted in the context of this specific example. This event is critical in understanding the shifting power relations between the working class and the corporate and political leaders in Canada during that time. What is especially important to understand is how dissent was used by the workers/Union management and how the provincial government’s response represents types of policing tactics in an attempt to mitigate the consequences of the strike.
On the topic of power within the Oshawa Strike, it is useful to begin with an understanding the position of factory/industrial workers given that corporate business structures held little regard for the workers outside of the profits these workers produced. Michel Foucault discusses how disciplinary power is attained through domination as a means of obtaining the obedience of a subject (Foucault, 1989). The management of GM used the tenuous positions of labourers, in relation to the reserve pool of labour, to impose a series of mandates that placed larger and more grievous strains on the workers with the expectation of compliance. Disparities between the corporate profits of GM and the wage conditions for its workers can be represented with the startling statistic that in 1937, “General Motors declared the highest profits in its history in Canada and the United States (at over 200 Million dollars) and simultaneously announced that its Oshawa Employees would receive their fifth consecutive wage cut in 5 years” (Macdowell, 1993, p. 693). Given this fact, labourers had little choice but to attempt to shift the power structures in order to improve their living conditions. Thus this shift constituted an act of dissent that had two crucial implications: firstly was the act of striking itself, but second and more importantly was the act establishing of a connection to American union leaders in organizing the strike. When the workers reached out to the CIO to assist in this endeavor, both GM management and political leaders instantly recognized the repercussions that unionization would have on their ability to dominate and control industrial workers.
The threat of unionization to existing power structures within Canada’s growing industrial sector was multi-faceted. Firstly, it was a fairly common connection during this time period to associate unionization with communism, which had been a spectre threatening to plague public consciousness within United States and Canada. The political threat of communism was worrisome to the prominent recipients of capitalist wealth and thus ideologically the idea of unionization stemming from American organizations threatened the established social order of Canada. Secondly, if unionization were allowed to gain a foothold in one industry, it was almost guaranteed to spread to the others quiet rapidly (Glassford, 2013). This meant a widespread threat to both the structure of working conditions and consequently a restriction on the abilities of companies to easily earn profits. The politically powerful, either those who held positions of government or those who had the wealth and influence to sway politicians were looking at a situation which could severely restrict their wealth and political capital.
It is at this point that a mention of policing can be introduced in order to understand the response of the state in attempting to head off unionization and the implications it had on state interests. Premier Hepburn was extremely concerned with the financial impact the strike had on the growing automotive industry and terrified of a unionization effort spreading to other industries, especially gold mining (Glassford, 2013). The premier vowed to oppose the CIO and to break the union and the strike in order to get the labourers back into the plant and continue contributing to Ontario’s prosperous economic development. It was Hepburn’s wish to see the economic interests of the province continue its growth and the move towards unionization threatened this dynamic (Glassford, 2013). Thus his use of the power inherent in his position to mobilize the necessary resources in an attempt to rebuff the union/strike movement. Such a move was made to protect the state’s economic interests and its dominance within the traditional power structures with respect to labour.
Hepburn used a variety of social, political and legal methods during his vendetta against the strikers and union representatives that could be considered types of policing tactics. Upon first discovering the communication between the dissenting workers and union representatives Hepburn appealed to the federal government to deport the CIO representative Hugh Thompson (Abella, 1969). When this was rejected the Premier had his Attorney-General Arthur Roebuck keep Thompson under secret investigation in the hopes of finding something that could be used to convince Ottawa to deport him (Abella, 1969). When this manoeuvre failed Hepburn pressed the federal government for a contingent of the RCMP to be on the scene in Oshawa should the need to forcefully break the strike arise (Abella, 1969). This action is easily identifiable as agents of the state mustering coercive force in order to achieve or protect its interests. What is interesting to note is that when the Federal government refused to double the contingent of RCMP officers, Hepburn used his political position to force the Ontario Provincial Police to recruit nearly 400 special constables as his own strike breaking police force known as the “Sons-of-Mitches” (Glassford, 2013). Hepburn aggressively rebuked his fellow political leaders, namely the federal Minister of Labour who had offered to mediate the strike and fired two members of his Cabinet who had been publicly hesitant to support Hepburn’s agenda (Glassford, 2013). The premier went to great lengths to connect the union organizations to communism in an attempt to delegitimize them in the public eye. In conducting this operation, Hepburn used his connections within the Ontario newspapers (with the exception of the Toronto Star) and radio stations to spread the message which prompted an outcry from many in the community who resented being painted as communists for attempting to secure better conditions for themselves and their families (Abella, 1969).
From these examples it can be seen that the Premier conducted operations that engaged in both direct and indirect attempts to criminalize and police dissent. His means of mustering coercive force in the form of his own policing squad is the most striking example of direct policing practice with the capability of regulating the physical bodies’ of strikers. It is also interesting to note how he attempted to engage legal measures that would have forcefully removed union representatives from within the state’s borders. Additionally his use of communication based forms of criminalizing dissenting behaviour like radio broadcasts and newspaper articles can arguably be deemed as a form of policing public opinion. If the prospect of unionization was not perceived to have a positive effect for labourers within the established economic framework then it is highly likely that the actions of the Premier would have been seen as justified. As it was, the idea of unionization was adopted by a significant portion of the public and several members of government, despite that at the time to have such a perspective would have likely meant personal liability as in the case of Cabinet ministers; David Croll and Arthur Roebuck who were consequently forced to resign for their insubordination. In sum, the events of the Oshawa strike are an interesting case study to analyze the implications of dissent on broader social and political power structures especially given the historical implications this event influenced in terms of successful dissent and the development of unionization as a tool for combating the authoritarian private sector and political coerciveness.
Abella, I. M. “The CIO, the Communist Party and the Formation of the Canadian Congress of Labour 1936- 194.” Historical Papers 4.1 (1969): 112-28. Erudit.org. Web. <http://www.erudit.org/revue/hp/1969/v4/n1/030712ar.pdf>.
Foucault, Michel. “The Subject and Power.” In Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, edited by H. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow, pp. 208-226. 2nd ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983.
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
MacDowell, Laurel S. “After the Strike. Labour Relations in Oshawa, 1937-19.” Industrial Relations 48.4 (1993): 691-711. Erudit.org. Web. http://nelson.cen.umontreal.ca/revue/ri/1993/v48/n4/050895ar.pdf>.