Today is #WhiteShirtDay, which honours the end of a tumultuous union strike in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada on April 23, 1937. Commemorate their fight for fairer working conditions by wearing a white shirt today.
It all started on April 8, 1937 when disputes between 4,000 assembly line workers and General Motors management led to the Oshawa Strike, a notable event in the history of Canadian trade unionism. As the weight of the Great Depression began to subside, demand for automobiles again rose. Workers sought higher wages for an eight hour workday, demanding better working conditions and recognition of their union, the United Auto Workers, which was an affiliate of the recently created Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO; later Congress of Industrial Organization).
The then-Liberal Government headed by Ontario Premier Mitchell Hepburn, who had, ironically, been elected on a platform of being the working man’s friend, sided with the corporation and opted for efforts to keep the CIO out of Ontario. To break up the strike, Hepburn even created his own police force, made up of armed university students, known irreverently as “Hepburn’s Hussars” and “Sons of Mitches”; however, they were never needed as the union refused to be drawn into any violent act.
Local citizens fully supported the union and its workers, as did the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. On April 23, two weeks after the strike began, the company gave in to most of the workers’ demands, without officially recognizing the union.
To gain recognition, the union leadership publicly repudiated the CIO connection. Nevertheless, everyone knew it was a great CIO victory – the first major one in Canada, marking the birth of Industrial Unionism in Canada.