Person in an IWW hoodie (unidentified) holds a black and red flag with Sabo-Tabby on it.
Photo credit Toronto General Membership Branch.

In September 1955, Local 222 members began a five-month strike at GMC. This is another significant strike in Oshawa’s labor history because of its length, and many firsts also emerged from this strike. Some of the firsts were The Supplemental Employment benefit (a specific type of Employment Insurance in Canada) and a transfer clause which called for workers to transfer from one job to another by means of an application system. To sustain the long strike the workers would put on shows called Picket Line Revenue to raise money for the strike fund. As this strike took place over Christmas the union also held a used toy drive so workers had Christmas presents for their families. Local 222 history and Durham Region Labour Council literature also details the role working class families played supporting the workers, it really did take a community of mutual aid to support the duration of the five month long strike.

In the 1960s and 1970s Local 222 had militant women leading the fight against sex-based discrimination; these women had been long active in the labor movement. Local 222 founded the first women’s committee in Ontario. The committee’s most significant struggle involved revising provincial legislation. At the time the Ontario Code of Human Rights prohibited discrimination on the basis of color, race, creed and national origin but gender was not included in the legislation. The women from Local 222 launched an organizing campaign to amend the act in 1969. This was a long battle involving writing briefs, lobbying the labor minister, and writing to over 300 women’s rights groups asking for support for the amendment. On their days off they would hold demonstrations to draw public attention to the issue. They would hold marches at Queen’s Park and were joined by other auto unions and various other workers and women’s rights advocates. They were even joined by Coretta King, wife of Martin Luther King Jr. Over a year’s worth of hard work eventually paid off, and in December 1970 the bill became law. The Ontario Code of Human Rights prohibiting gender-based discrimination came from the dedicated work of Oshawa’s working class women.

However, the Ontario Code of Human Rights isn’t effective for battling discrimination. Oppression is a tool of the capitalist state, and the Human Rights Tribunal answers to capitalist courts. The tribunal takes power away from workers, giving more power to the capitalists, and the legal system. While these “gains” were won using direct actions, in the end filing a complaint, formally called an application, takes months if not over a year to process. New policies and procedures can be written to fix the complaint but said procedures can easily be re-written or thrown out by employers at a later date. This happened at an Oshawa hospital regarding a trans-inclusive policy for patients. A team was assembled to write the policy, it took a year to write, 2-3 years to implement, and then the hospital stopped using the policy with the excuse that it was too complicated to implement with covid policies as well. It took more time to write and implement the policy than the policy was actually in place for. It was only in effect for 1-2 years before the administration stopped using it. There is no evidence that supports the law being an effective deterrent against oppression. However it does create the illusion that the government is on the side of the workers and oppressed, when in reality they are just trying to win points with oppressed communities to take more power away from the working class. Capitalism and bosses use divide-and-rule tactics to keep the working class divided; working class unity, shop floor organizing and direct action does more to end oppression than the legal system ever will.

In August 1979, Oshawa workers occupied the Houdaille Plant. Houdaille was sold to a group of private investors who decided to close down the Oshawa plant due to a slump in the auto industry. The union found out that the majority of workers would not be receiving pensions and that severance pay would be minimal after working close to 30 years. Even though the workers knew their jobs were lost, they occupied the plant to fight for better pensions and severance settlements. By taking over the plant for 14 days, the union was able to negotiate better settlements. As a result of these actions and pressures from other unions the provincial government introduced reforms in 1981 that extended worker rights to advance notice of workplace closures and improvements to severance payments.

In January 2018, Oshawa’s labor movement was rocked when Unifor announced they were splitting from the Canadian Labour Council (CLC). This decision was a slap in the face for rank-and-file members, most of whom did not want to split. To quote Sid Ryan, “The leaders have a simple choice to make, they either believe in upholding the wording and clear intent of the CLC Constitution or they allow it to be bastardized to protect the union brass.” The major reason for this split was Unifor raiding other unions, which shows how corrupt business unions have become in so-called Canada. The fight should be against the bosses and capitalism, but instead the bureaucrats chose to fight other unions. There was no democratic accountability to workers in the CLC or Unifor. In the meantime a huge wedge has been driven into Oshawa’s labor movement by Jerry Dias and the union brass as Unifor is Oshawa’s largest union and has been left unable to participate in Labour Council meetings.

Later that year when GM announced it was closing all Oshawa plants the workers found themselves divided as there was no official channel for solidarity across Oshawa’s union landscape, a fragmented working class instead of one big union for all workers. The day GM announced the closures, workers downed tools, and walked out setting up barricades around the plants. Jerry Dias told them to go back to work. The union brass got some decent photo ops out of it but no real direct action was taken to save jobs. A few years after closing and devastating the economy they reopened with lower wages and less benefits for workers. Bureaucrats and careerists celebrated this as a win, but there was no real fight, and all militancy and direct action was quelled by those at the top of the bureaucracy.

The auto industry is closing and down-sizing, leaving many unemployed in a once bolstering autoworkers’ city. This directly caused a rise in addictions, mental health issues, homelessness, poverty and food insecurity. With this came reactionary elements of fascism, racism, xenophobia, and blaming immigrants and other nations for job losses. This led to Oshawa being the birthplace of Heritage Front – one of the largest white supremacists’ groups in Canadian history. Currently transphobic rhetoric and beliefs are rising rapidly. Oshawa is not living up to its history of being a radical working-class city. Part of this is because we aren’t taught our real history; Oshawa has the potential to be a radical union city, striving for change and to overthrow the capitalists. This is evident when we examine the history of our local labor movement.

Works Cited:
Durham Region Labour Council and Local 222 literature
Oshawa 1937 article from “On Strike!” By Irving Abella
“Discounted Labour: Women Workers in Canada 1870-1939” by Ruth A. Frager and Carmela K. Patrias
“The History of the IWW In Canada” G. Jewell

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