In 1937, Canadian Autoworkers Took on General Motors — and Won

For 16 days in 1937, thousands of workers at Oshawa’s General Motors plant in Ontario went on strike, stood firm against brutal efforts to crush them, and helped bring industrial unionism to Canada. Today, their heroism is seldom remembered.

Women on the picket line in front of the General Motors plant in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, 1937. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

For a country so perennially obsessed with contemplating its identity, Canada has a remarkable way of forgetting its past. I don’t think I ever read or heard about Quebec’s Quiet Revolution in public school. Winnipeg’s historic general strike may have appeared somewhere in the footnote of a textbook, but it never got a fulsome treatment of any kind. Much the same might be said about the 1970 debate over the War Measures Act, which effectively suspended civil liberties and is now mostly officially remembered through a famous clip of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau pithily defending the move to a journalist on the steps of Parliament.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that my elementary and high school curriculums also omitted the pivotal Oshawa strike of 1937 — which not only ended in a victory for workers at its General Motors plant but also helped give birth to industrial unionism in Canada. Class conflict rarely fits neatly into official narratives, and the sixteen-day strike was about as pure an instance of it as you could possibly imagine.

Oshawa, then a town of roughly twenty-five thousand, had experienced a particularly bitter Great Depression. Throughout the 1930s, General Motors frequently laid off thousands of workers and cut the wages of those who remained. As one worker later put it:

Back in 1934, in Depression days, I saw men crying on the line, afraid they’d lose their jobs. The line was speeded up — conditions were terrible . . . before the union came in — and the men couldn’t keep up. They were desperate. Desperate for work, desperate for food.

Business, on the other hand, was booming. By 1937, General Motors was posting record profits and producing nearly 40 percent of the world’s cars. The same year, the company moved to cut wages yet again, and Oshawa workers had had enough. That March, they joined the United Auto Workers (UAW), an affiliate of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and promptly withdrew their labor.

“3,700 Motor Workers Strike at Oshawa,” announced the Toronto Daily Star’s headline on April 8, 1937, with the subtitle “’Won’t build another car until they sign’ Organizer Declares; Walkout Orderly; 260 Girls quit work with men and help picket plant.” An accompanying report describes the scene on the strike’s first day as follows:

A stand-up strike not a sit-down strike with 260 women joining the men on the picket line. It begins quietly with workers first filing into work as usual at 7 am and then five minutes later just as peacefully, exiting the plant. Simultaneously, 400 pickets are flung up around the works with pre-arranged precision.

The workers’ demands were straightforward: an eight-hour day, higher wages and better working conditions, a seniority system, and official recognition of their union, the new United Auto Workers. Notwithstanding the apparently calm atmosphere on the strike’s first day, the company and its political patrons were swift and brutal in their response.

Ontario’s Liberal premier Mitchell Hepburn, who had campaigned in 1934 on a promise “to swing well to the left,” predictably swung toward capital instead. A four-hundred-strong unit of armed militia (alternatively dubbed “Hepburn’s Hussars” or “Sons of Mitches” in Oshawa) soon took up machine gun positions. As author Bob Linton writes in his history of UAW Local 222, the militia was “issued live ammunition with instructions to shoot the strikers at the knees if ordered to fire.”

Partly because of the CIO’s involvement, the strike soon made news outside of Canada. As the Lafayette Journal & Courier reported on April 13:

Premier Mitchell Hepburn of Ontario accused [CIO leader John] Lewis of trying to become “economic and political dictator” of both the United States and Canada and declared that, if he came to Canada and sponsored any overt act, or if any of his aids should do so, they would be jailed “for a good, long time and there wouldn’t be any bail.”

The following day, reporting that the company was being forced to fulfill emergency orders with its American plants, the Indianapolis Daily Star also described the strike as peaceful while quoting Hepburn’s characterization that “Communists from outside were ready and willing to take an increasingly active part.” Hepburn’s own minister of labor, David Croll, and his attorney general, Arthur Roebuck, resigned from cabinet, and a coalition of assorted trade unionists, locals, communists, and members of the socialist Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (forerunner to the present-day New Democratic Party) assembled to back the workers.

After two weeks, the strike had weakened Hepburn and cost the company. While General Motors still officially refused to recognize the UAW, the pro-business Globe and Mail’s report from April 24 captures the jubilant mood as workers declared victory and ratified the settlement by a margin of 2,203 to 36:

There are no picket lines in Oshawa tonight. The tents of the strikers have been struck. And this city is celebrating. Gaily, jubilantly, it is marking the end of the 16-day strike which paralyzed its major industry, which extended its deadening influence throughout hundreds of other plants and dealers organizations, which took its toll in the town’s merchandising business, and which at one stage threatened to end in CIO domination. Tonight members of the local union, now ex-strikers, danced in the armories where a few hours before they took a vote.

Though undated, a statement attributed to Local 222 succinctly captures the legacy of Oshawa’s General Motors strike: “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.”