Canada’s Essential Workers Fought and Won Against Their Bosses During World War II

In the 1940s, Canadian workers were essential to the nation’s war effort, but the government and employers used the war to justify a clampdown on labor rights. In Windsor, Ontario, workers fought back, securing gains that lasted decades.

United Auto Workers strikers and picketers demonstrate in front of the Ford plant in Windsor, Ontario, 1945. (AFP via Getty Images)

A massive wave of strikes erupted across Canada in the last two years of World War II. Over a million Canadians served in the army during the war and the scarcity of labor strengthened the hand of workers. Fearful that the interwar gains would become the norm, employers fought hard to restore the status quo. In response, between 1943 and 1945, workers forced their bosses to compromise by threatening a Canada-wide strike, and expanded union membership in the following decades.

This history shows that capitalists are always looking to use a crisis to immiserate workers. It is up to the Left to stop them, and to demand better conditions for the working class.

Crisis to Crisis: From Depression to World War

Canada’s labor movement came into its own during the interwar years. The Winnipeg general strike and broader labor revolt of 1919, itself a result of the dislocations and hardships of World War I, inaugurated a broad, militant current in the labor movement. As labor consolidated its position as a force within Canadian society, the movement’s Left pushed official skilled-trades-dominated unions to organize ununionized industrial workers. These efforts were not entirely successful.

In the 1920s, manufacturing surpassed agriculture as Canada’s lead employer. With the support of the state, large car manufacturers established company towns around the Great Lakes. Regular layoffs were commonplace in this sector, in part because demand for cars was not constant and fluctuated depending on the general prosperity of ordinary people. The industry was also characterized by injuries and low wages. In 1928, workers in Oshawa, Windsor, Toronto, and elsewhere staged a walkout in response to these conditions. Lacking support from organized labor, the walkout failed. One year later, employers used the onset of the Depression to further undercut workplace standards.

This left a vacuum in the labor movement. In the United States, membership pressure forced elements of the United Mine Workers, then under the leadership of John L. Lewis, to help organize adjacent industrial workers, leading to the formation of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). Early CIO activity in Canada began in Kitchener, Trenton, Hamilton, and Toronto.

Soon after, United Automobile Workers (UAW) established locals at Kelsey Wheel and McKinnon Industries. In 1937, speedups and pay cuts prompted GM Oshawa workers to strike for union recognition and to join the UAW. The workers’ first contract victory terrified Canada’s then prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. King warned that it had “all the elements in it of the Spanish situation,” reference to the 1937 revolution, during which workers occupied workplaces, barricaded streets, and took up arms against the fascist shock troops of Spanish capitalism.

Of course, the Oshawa contract didn’t end the Depression. In fact, at first, labor’s fortunes fell further. In 1939, employer offensives reduced the CIO’s membership to just five thousand. These attacks on workers wiped out whole organizing cells in Brantford, Hamilton, and St. Catharines.

The Wartime Labor Regime

During the war, Canada mobilized 1.1 million men directly into the army and millions of citizens into war-related industries. Nearly 60 percent of Canadian industry manufactured products to aid the war effort; subsequently, manufacturing employment doubled, and industrial output rose 66 percent.

Employers fought hard to ensure Depression-era conditions persisted. Canada’s war mobilization was further subject to the influence of the powerful cabinet minister C. D. Howe, who understood his wartime efforts as an attempt to build “a businessmen’s country.” Increasingly, Canada’s unions faced new restrictions. The federal government froze wages, banned war-industry workers from changing jobs, banned strikes against wage controls, and mandated that any union linked to wildcat strikes would have its funds seized.

King’s government backed a Chrysler lockout in Windsor. Police arrested forty-seven, including UAW official George Burt, for picketing across the street. In the fall of 1941, when McKinnon workers struck against speedups and low wages, two hundred Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers helped scabs cross picket lines. In spite of the anti-labor tenor of the times, union membership rose from 356,000 in 1939 to 724,000 in 1945. The number of strikes increased during the war years, too, from 120 in 1939 to 401 in 1944. A third of workers across the country took part in strikes in the early to mid-1940s.

One of the first UAW locals was in Windsor, where the union was initially slow to crack the city’s massive Ford complex. When Michigan Ford workers joined UAW Local 600, the balance tipped. Ottawa conducted a union recognition vote. After securing a majority, workers at the factory launched UAW Local 200 at a mass meeting in Windsor’s Capitol Theatre. The subsequent first contract stipulated a seniority system for layoffs and recalls, fifty shop stewards, and a sub-steward for every fifty members to communicate with “on a daily basis.”

Ford Windsor, soon Canada’s largest manufacturing plant, was the first auto manufacturer to explicitly recognize the UAW. Recognition did not mean the end of conflict. In 1943, workers walked out after management tried to restrict shop stewards’ movement. In April of the following year, Ford attempted to suspend six stewards and weaken grievance procedures. After fourteen thousand workers walked out again, Ford tried to annul their contract and demanded that the RCMP intervene in the conflict.

Strike Town

Contract negotiations dragged through 1944. Local 200 demanded paid vacation, overtime pay, holiday pay, seniority for veterans, and a dues checkoff system, wherein the company collects union fees from workers’ pay.

The dues system and seniority rights were a result of pressure from the membership. As one worker told Maclean’s: “If they can they’ll lay off nothing but union men. We could lose three-quarters of our membership that way; the union would be busted.”

As Ford prepared to fight, 90 percent of workers voted in favor of strike action. After continually refusing their demands, on August 31, the company announced plans to lay off eight hundred of its employees. As David Moulton notes in “Ford Windsor 1945”:

the overbearing attitude of the “Model T” foremen and the pressures and push of production resulted in men simply laying down their tools. . . . The root of the problem lay in the assumption of foremen and management that, once the war had ended, a return to pre-war procedures would be forthcoming.

On September 12, 1945, Ford workers went on strike. On the first day, union leader Roy England gave an impassioned speech in which he told a mass rally that “the persistent chiseling down of collective bargaining mechanics by the company, and an obvious effort to destroy the union” prompted the strike. On September 14, Ford announced another 1,656 layoffs. The strike escalated.

The pickets, operating twenty-four hours a day, became community hubs for servicemen, workers from outside, and even sympathetic priests. On September 13, workers refused company officials and office workers entry into the plant. Fifty workers at the nearby powerhouse, also unionized with Local 200, agreed to join the strike. They suspended their duties on October 7 and brought the vast complex to a standstill.

Soon after, the union won the support of UAW Local 195 — representing workers at GM — as well as two dozen component plants and 3,600 workers at Chrysler. All told, eight thousand additional workers joined the Ford pickets.

On November 2, as the strike escalated, the provincial government sent the Windsor police to break the picket line and enter the powerhouse. In a brief pushing match, strikers forced police onto the opposite side of the road. In response, the Canadian state deployed 250 provincial and federal reinforcements.

In the face of this increased police threat, on November 5, the union blockaded the plant’s entrance. The barricade, extending some twenty blocks, was made up of a thousand personal vehicles, twenty-five buses, and several broken cars. A mass rally supported the blockade and police were unable to get anywhere near the plant. Reporting on the events at the time, Maclean’s remarked of the auto barricade that

was the most popular of all. When union leaders finally bowed to Attorney-General Blackwell’s ultimatum and ordered the blockade removed, pickets were openly rebellious.

The Opening Engagement of a National Struggle

After sacrificing so much during the war years, workers across Ontario were eager to fight for a return to the social conditions of the 1930s. The struggle in Windsor was larger than just Ford. On November 8, Westinghouse electrical workers represented by United Electrical Workers Local 50 joined the Ford picketers. Shortly thereafter, there were walkouts in Sarnia and Brantford. Canadian Congress of Labour secretary-treasurer Pat Conroy told the Globe and Mail a “national sympathy walkout” was “still within the realm of possibility.”

Maclean’s dubbed Windsor a “strike town” and called the strike “the opening engagement of a national struggle, one that may yet involve dozens of Canadian industrial communities.” On November 9, the Globe and Mail’s editorial page sounded a similar warning: “Nationally, union officials are having a difficult time in keeping their men at work for a number of them wish to strike in sympathy with the Ford workers.” But without any clear leadership calling for further escalation, the strike dragged on until a slim majority voted to bring the issue to arbitration on December 16, 1945.

Supreme Court justice Ivan Rand was tasked with settling the strike. He warned that if it was left unchecked, the dispute could boil over further: “The question is whether the remaining controversies are to be settled in the mode of war or reason.” The judge subsequently authored a decision that conceded a dues checkoff to unions, but also firmly penalizing strikes during the life of a collective agreement.

The model, later known as the “Rand formula,” became the standard for all collective bargaining agreements in Canada for decades. In 1948, the federal government’s Industrial Relations and Disputes Investigations Act enshrined this regime in law, and nearly all of Canada’s provinces soon followed.

While the Rand formula curbed key trade union freedoms, it did provide more security to union locals. By 1949, the UAW had forty plants in Canada covered by the formula. Canada-wide, union membership rose through the postwar boom, with union density peaking at 37.6 percent in 1981. This led to massive improvements in working-class living standards. It also prepared the way for the defensive struggles of 1968–1973 — when, as Craig Heron notes, Canada experienced a wave of strikes second only to Italy’s Hot Autumn. This momentum peaked in 1976 with over one thousand picket lines, 1.5 million strikers, and 11.6 million person-days lost to strike action.

In our own time, the extraordinary global pandemic has led to temporary improvements in workplace conditions to help the system weather the crisis. These are concessions which Canada’s capitalist class will want to claw back. We’ve seen this before. But as the events in Windsor demonstrate, the Left can defeat these revanchist attacks. When the next salvo is launched at labor, the response should again be “the opening engagement of a national struggle.”