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BUILDING THE UNION

On July 14, 1946 the battle lines between the Steel Company of Canada and its workers were drawn. After months of fruitless negotiations for recognition of Local 1005 of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), the establishment of grievance and seniority systems, more holidays with pay, and higher wages, thousands of Stelco workers went out on strike. They were joined on picket lines by Firestone, Westinghouse, and Hamilton Spectator employees who hit the bricks to secure similar gains. A union bulletin from the USWA published four years earlier caught the feelings of these frustrated and determined workers: "Now is the time," the bulletin proclaimed, "when every individual must decide whether he is for democracy, or dictatorship. Whether he supports the right of working men and women to choose how they will be represented, or whether he supports the policy of having the bosses say how workers may present their cause."


WHO WILL BLINK FIRST?

With over 12,000 workers hoisting picket signs, Hamilton was in the midst of a working class revolt reminiscent of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. Yet, all eyes turned towards Stelco where the company had promised to continue operations. It seemed very clear to everyone that Canada's largest steel maker - whose president, Hugh Hilton, had once stated that he would "fight unions until my dying breath" - was determined to return to the industrial relations system of the 1930s where unions were non-existent, wages were poor, holidays almost unheard of and steady employment never assured. Workers, and members of Local 1005, were equally determined not to return to the "dirty thirties." With the strike call, the dice were cast and the siege of Stelco had begun.


JOB SECURITY

What stood between Stelco and its workers was security - job security that would come from union recognition and the introduction of seniority and grievance clauses, and the economic security that would result from higher wages.


UNION RECOGNITION

Union recognition was central to the demands of Stelco, Westinghouse and Firestone workers as they understood the limitations of union recognition legislation - PC 1003 - passed in 1944. Under pressure from Canadian workers and their unions, and with their political position threatened by the rise of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF - in 1961 the CCF would become the New Democratic Party), the federal Liberal Government of Mackenzie King had enacted PC 1003. However, although PC-1003 gave workers the legal right to form and join unions of their choice, it was an emergency war-time measure, worth little more than the paper on which it was printed. Workers and unions could not count on it remaining in force when the war ended. It was no surprise, then, that Local 1005 demanded a union recognition clause like the one auto workers at Ford in Windsor had won after a long and bitter strike in the winter of 1945. Justice Ivan Rand had settled that dispute by ruling that where the majority of workers voted to have a union represent them in negotiations with their employer, everyone had to pay union dues even if they did not want to belong to the union.


WE WANTED MORE MONEY

Striking workers at Stelco wanted this "Rand formula" as it became known. They also demanded a 19 cent per hour raise which would have raised the average wage to approximately 84 cents per hour. As union negotiators were aware, however, even 84 cents an hour put a worker's total weekly income to $33.60 - two dollars below the income the Toronto Welfare Council stated was required by a family of five to meet basic food and shelter needs. Local 1005 organizers emphasized the poor wages of Stelco workers in building union sympathy. This was not a difficult task. According to one worker: "The biggest grievance in the plate mill was money. We wanted more money."


EQUITY

The last major security issue involved the union request for seniority and grievance systems. Without such processes, workers were vulnerable to the whims and dictates of their foreman and supervisors. The wholesale demotion of Italians from supervisory positions in 1941 after Italy entered the war on the German side serves as perhaps the largest and most visible example of unilateral company actions. Yet, this was only the most vivid example - favouritism ran rampant when it came to hiring, firing and promotions. As Stelco employee Tony Gervasio remembers: "It just mattered the colour of your eyes. If the foreman liked you, you were alright. That was one of the big grievances of the union." .


THE LAST STRAW

These were the items on Local 1005's bargaining agenda. Stelco had its own position: no truck or trade with trade unions. Both sides were sitting on a keg of dynamite. What ultimately lit the fuse was a July 10 federal government order-in-council that gave it control of Canada's major steel producers - Stelco, Algoma in Sault Ste. Marie, and Dosco in Sydney, Nova Scotia. With this government order any strike would be deemed illegal with fines ranging up to $5,000 and six months imprisonment. The response of Local 1005 was swift: it set the strike deadline for July 15th. According to Local 1005 president, Reg Gardiner, both the union and Stelco were confident of victory: "Well, Hughy looked down his nose at us, just about a mile and one half, and he said he wouldn't budge an inch. He said: `I know there are thousands of people in this plant who will never go on strike.' I said: `Mr. Hilton, I can assure you there are thousands who will.' And we were both right."


THE STRIKE BEGINS

With thousands of Stelco workers walking the picket lines, and thousands of non-striking workers on the inside, the first days of the strike were filled with tension. Tension turned to violence when the company used a train to try and move steel out of the plant. Strikers battled non-strikers with stones flying and axe handles swinging. When the dust finally settled, the train shifted into reverse and made its way back into the plant.


WINNING THE STRIKE

These events served as an important lesson for Local 1005 and the strikers: maintaining the picket lines would be critical to winning the strike. If the company could move steel in-and-out of the plant, it would defeat the strike. If, however, steel production could be halted, then the strikers and the union stood a good chance of victory. To do this, especially as the strike was technically illegal, striking Stelco workers would need the support of working class Hamilton.


WORKING CLASS SUPPORT

As the days turned to weeks and months, working class Hamiltonians showed their loyalties to the strikers in many diverse ways. The strong Italian contingent of striking workers would often hold mass buffets. The men and women would prepare the food for thousands of hungry strikers. In one night, over six thousand dollars was collected in donations - money used to further the strike by providing more food and other necessities. Some local merchants and farmers displayed their sympathies by extending credit and donating tons of food. Entertainers regularly visited the picket lines. On one hot summer night promoter Frank Tunney provided a live wrestling competition. All of the "big-top" names were there including "Wipper" Billy Watson, The Sharp Brothers, and Jimmy "Red" Simms. Legendary folk singer and political activist, Pete Seeger, added his musical voice to the cause. More than anything else, these acts of generosity were aimed at breaking the monotony of the picket line and buttressing worker and community solidarity.


THE LABOUR MAYOR

Perhaps the strongest supporter of the strike was Hamilton's mayor, Sam Lawrence. He considered himself a union man first, and a chief magistrate second. At a crucial moment in the strike, Lawrence, along with hundreds of World War II veterans who had fought overseas for democracy and wanted industrial democracy at home, personally lead a march of over ten thousand people from Woodlawns Park down to Stelco's gates. In addition, despite mounting pressure from the provincial and federal governments, and some local politicians such as controller Nora Francis Henderson, Lawrence refused to call in the police or military. Lawrence contended - rightfully - that the workers posed no threat to public safety. When the soldiers finally arrived in Hamilton, Lawrence was outraged. "The government," he stated angrily, "was acting as the nation's chief strike breaker."


A GAME OF CHESS

As July turned to August, and August to September, the hardships were mounting for both parties. For the workers, alternative forms of work such as painting, picking fruit, and gardening were no longer providing for the daily needs of their families. On the other side, the loss of two months of production all but eliminated the supply of steel to many secondary industries. Some smaller operations were losing orders and were forced to layoff workers or even close down entirely. Hence, in late September of 1946, the USWA national director, Charlie Millard, was able to arrange negotiations through the government controller with Stelco President Hugh Hilton. The moment which all the striking workers and community supporters alike had been waiting for was upon them. On October 4, eighty one days after the strike had begun, a settlement was reached and the pickets came down.


LESSONS OF 1946

The strikers and their union emerged from the long and bitter strike victorious. Like the Ford workers in Windsor, Stelco workers and Local 1005 won firm union recognition and union security via the Rand Formula or automatic dues checkoff. Seniority and grievance systems were to be established - now supervisors and foreman had to take account of a worker's length of employment when filling job vacancies. And, through the grievance system, workers now had a formal avenue to appeal the decisions of their foremen and supervisors. Unfortunately, the union did not pursue their demand of equal seniority for men and women.

The wage gains were more modest than the 19 cents demanded. They received, instead, a 13 cent increase. For some disgruntled anti-union workers and management officials, the fact that the strikers and Local 1005 had failed in their efforts in winning the full wage demand meant that the almost three month strike was fought over a measly 3 cents . After all, they stated, Stelco had offered a wage increase of 10 cents near the onset of the negotiations. But, for the overwhelming majority of Stelco workers, this was most definitely not a 3 cent strike. For George Martin "it was more than a 3 cent strike. We got union recognition. We had our union recognized. We had some grievance procedures." For others, such as Reg Gardiner, the strike was about issues far more important than money. "It was," Gardiner relates, "either a question of the workers of Canada being able to organize on a collective basis in the industrial field, or, they were going to be bludgeoned into submission by their opposition. I think there was a consciousness involved that we were playing for keeps. Stelco realized this as well. There's no question about that." Stelco workers had won something that could not be tabulated in dollars and cents. They had "conquered their fears."


CONQUERING THEIR FEARS

Westinghouse and Firestone workers also won their strikes - as did tens of thousands of workers across Canada who had also struck for union recognition, better wages and improved working conditions. With the insecurities of the 1930s and the sacrifices of the war years fresh in their memories, Canadian workers were determined to win some security for themselves and their families. And, they did. These victories - with the struggle at Stelco being perhaps the most significant - implanted industrial unionism firmly within the Canadian sub-soil and changed the nature of worker-management relations for decades to come. For the first time hundreds of thousands of industrial workers in Hamilton and Canada possessed security in their jobs and a strong voice in shaping the conditions of their work.


References

Craig Heron, et. al., "All That Our Hands Have Done: A Pictoral History of Hamilton Workers," (Hamilton, 1981).

Craig Heron, Working In Steel: The Early Years In Canada, 1883-1895, (Toronto, 1988).

Bryan Palmer, A Culture In Conflict: Skilled Workers And Industrial Capitalism in Hamilton, Ontario, 1860-1914, (Montreal, 1979).

Wayne Roberts, Organizing Westinghouse: Alf Ready's Story, (Hamilton, 1983).

Wayne Roberts, Baptism of a Union: Stelco Strike of 1946, (Hamilton, 1981).

Wayne Roberts, ed., The Hamilton Working Class 1820-1977: A Bibliography, (Hamilton, 1978).

Robert Storey, "Unionization vs Corporate Welfare: The Dofasco Way," (Labour/Le Travail, Vol. 12, Autumn 1983).