The Significance Of The Osahawa Automobile Labor Strike Of 1955, And How Is Shaped Canadian Labor Principles Forever Research Papers Examples
On September 9th, 1955 roughly 10,000 GM employees at the Osahawa General Motors Plant, just south of Ontario City, walked off the assembly line and onto the picket line. However, they did not march alone, in fact, 17,000 GM workers in a total of 5 plants walked off the job that day, in what is now known as the first attempt at national bargaining in Canada (CBC). This means that the plants all agreed to stand together, against the General Motors Company, in order to get the their top 3 demands: More pay, improved working conditions, and a company paid health care plan. As a result, the employees spent nearly 6 months, or a total of 149 days of the picket line, waiting for the United Auto Workers, local 22, and the GM Corporation to come to an agreement.
Oshawa is informally known as the Canadian Motor City. The Oshawa plant was of great importance to both the Canadian economy and the development of the Canadian cars, and of the 5 plants that went on strike, Oshawa is by far the largest, and the local economy is most dependent on the plant. Even the mayor works there, and ultimately he choose to walk the picket line too (CBC). However, thanks to the unionization of the plant several years earlier, the effects of such a long strike on a community so fully dependent on GM’s production was not as drastic as it might have been otherwise.
The organization of the union, and the history of strike, greatly shaped the future of the auto industry in Canada, and protected the living conditions of workers who went on strike. Preparations for such a strike, and the root of the problems the union battled in 1955-56 really dated back all the way to the 1920s. In the 1920s, GM employees were upset because of underpayment, unfair work conditions, and perceived underrepresentation. The workers were tired of wage cuts, working without access to breaks, and underemployment because of seasonal employment trends (Zyzniewski & Rigell 1). As a result in 1928 the GM employees at Oshawa staged their very first walk out. As a result they did successfully win some changes, but perhaps more significantly recognized the need for a union, and began to organize (Zyzniewski & Rigell 1).
This resulted in the formation of the Local 222 UAW (Union of Auto Workers) which signed its charter in March of 1937. Unfortunately, its access to the GM workplace and its acceptance as a bargaining power was limited. Despite heavy resistance, however, the union successfully navigated a 16-day sit-down strike in 1937 (Local 222 1). This strike is generally the most recognized strike at Oshawa for several reasons. First, it was the first successful act of collective bargaining in the nation of Canada. Second, it led to the organization of the organization of the largest UAW in Canada, which was formally recognized in 1943 by GM. This fully set the stage for the union to successfully address the workers’ concerns during the 1955-56 strike (Local 222 1).
Under the auspices of the Union, as long as the men spent their work hours on the picket line, the union continued to pay picket line pay, buy their family groceries, and extend vouchers to struggling families for things like heat (Chartrand 1). As a result, very few actually lost possessions as a result of the strike (CBC). Further, most mortgage companies, understanding the nature of a strike, chose to wait it out with the men (CBC). However, those who did not work directly for GM were harder hit. Those who owned businesses which sold or serviced non-essentials suffered because the majority of city occupants no longer had a viable income. Similarly, those who worked at supply plants for GM, creating single parts, like windows, had to endure long-term layoffs as they waited for production to resume (“Few Outside Plant Effected” 1). Those most desperate for income took odd jobs, roughly 50 worked full time as construction day laborers building a new shopping center (“Few Outside Plant Effected” 1).
In Canada as a whole, the greatest single impact was felt in the cost of purchasing a new car during the long-days of the strike. Some GM store fronts were left without cars to sell as a result of the shutdown, and eventually American cars had to be imported to cover the shortage. These cars were 200 -300 more expensive than identical Canadian built models (CBC). The Oshawa line, which was capable of more than 1000 vehicles a day remained completely abandoned as a result, and the 1956 release models remained on the line partially constructed, until the strike was resolved.
The walk out resulted in a total shut down. The doors to the plant were guarded by union members 24/7, allowing no one in, unless they were there to picket (CBC). As the strike stretched into the winter months, and temperatures fell, men mad wood and tar paper shacks and burned tires to stay warm (Chartrand 1). Even then, however, men could always be seen walking the line in protest. When not marching outside the building, however, the worker’s gathered at the Union Hall in downtown Oshawa. There they collected their pay, played cards, talked about the negotiations progress, and made signs to carry on the picket lines (CBC).
The truth is that the strike would likely have happened sooner if they had not been bound to a 5 year contract (McLaughlin 22). Workers had signed a 5 year contract in 1950 which prevented them from renegotiating terms until 1955, but automobile production had greatly increased in Canada in the years after that contract was signed and the need for change was evident. According to McLaughlin, many workers had disagreed with the terms of the 1950 contract at the time it was signed, believing it fell short of not only their demands, but what was fair based on working conditions, and so, it was no surprise when negotiation for the 1955 contract opened in 1953, in hopes of avoiding the strike (23).
When the Local 222 began bargaining for the workers at the Oshawa plant, they had a list of demands that focused on three key issues: Work conditions or organization, improved pay, and creation of an employer paid healthcare plan (CBC). More specifically, with regard to working conditions and organizations, the workers were demanding an improved seniority system, increased job security, an apprenticeship program, and a union shop (McLaughlin 23). They also demanded increased pay and benefits including: a fully company funded healthcare and worker-wellfare plan, an increased hourly wage, and a guaranteed annual wage, GAW. Because layoffs were a part of the yearly routine at GM, as a means of preparing the line for model changes, and because these layoffs often put families in a bind, the GAW would guarantee workers a steady pay check even during company wide shut downs, but supplementing unemployment pay (McLaughlin 23).
There were delays in negotiation, as neither side was willing to cave, specifically on the health care issue. Newpaper records indicate that many of the issues were settled in January of 1956, but it would take an additional 30 days to settle the economic issues (Ottawa Times 1). It is estimated the strikers lost an accumulated earned income of 26.5 million during the strike. The corporation lost more than 1.5 million man-days of production while waiting for the two sides to reach an agreement (CBC).
Ultimately, on Valentine’s Day, Feb 14, 1956, a compromise was signed. Workers had gained a guaranteed annual wage, a better pension plan for those injured or entering retirement, a union shop, and an apprenticeship program by January of 1956. Later negotiations also included cost of living increases between contract negotiations, incentive pay systems for seniority (Laughlin 24), and a 26.2 cent raise (CBC). The greatest concession the union made was in downgrading the fully paid healthcare plan to a 50/50 cost sharing health plan (CBC). However, the union reps willingness to sacrifice on this point was likely directly tied to the fact that the government was in the planning stages for a nationwide healthcare program to take effect before the next negotiating term (Laughlin 25). It all, this was considered the greatest single negotiation win in Canadian history (CBC).
This “win” for the UAW has had a long reaching impact on the Canadian economy, and on unionized bargaining worldwide. The strike at Oshawa was echoed at American motor city’s like Detroit, and in other company’s like Ford, and the UAW worked to unite not only workers in a single plant, but all auto workers in North America. Further, other industries began to organized and take charge of their workplace, modeling the union system after the collective bargain powers demonstrated by the auto industry. In the end, this impacted minimum wage for laborers, the way overtime was managed, the importance of sonority, the availability of health insurance, the staging of GAW terms everywhere, and more.
On September 9th, 1955 roughly 10,000 GM employees at the Osahawa General Motors Plant, just south of Ontario City, walked off the assembly line and onto the picket line. They had been disgruntled for years, and as the previous union contract came to a close, they had the opportunity to take control of the workplace environment, and make demands that would protect their families for years to come. As a result, the workers went on strike for a staggering 149 days, and ultimately rendered the post powerful single union win in Canadian history. Their efforts have impacted the life of generations of autoworkers in Canada, not only in the GM Company, but for Ford and other employed companies in the nation as well. The impact of these family’s bravery in the face of economic adversity has shaped the economy of Canada, and will continue to do so for years to come.
CBC. GM strike Ends after 148 days. (1956). Nightly News. Web
Chartrand, M. "Reflections of Oshawa." Reflections (2015): 1. Web.
Local 222. This History of the 222, Who We Are. (2015). Web
McLaughlin, Christine “Producing Memory: Public History and Resistance in a Canadian Auto Town.” Oral History Forum d’histoire orale 33 (2013) “Working Lives SpecialIssue on Oral History and Working-Class History”
"Non-Economic Issues Settled." Oshawa Times. Http://news.ourontario.ca/oshawa/1206616/data?n=8, n.d. Web.
Zyniewski, Jasmine & Rigell, Laura. Auto workers win first industrial union strike against General Motors in Oshawa, Ontario, 1937. “Global Non-Violent Action Database. (2014). Web.
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