The 1996 CAW Strike against General Motors Corporation: A Turning Point in the Canadian Class Struggle

By Flexer, Joe | Canadian Dimension, January-February 1997 | Go to article overview

The 1996 CAW Strike against General Motors Corporation: A Turning Point in the Canadian Class Struggle


Flexer, Joe, Canadian Dimension


Mid-morning on Wednesday, October 16th, Canadian media carried the dramatic news that some 200 workers, members of the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW) Local 222 had seized the strike-bound stamping plant owned by General Motors in Oshawa.

The workers had stormed the plant, expelled the security and managers, welded all the doors shut and prepared to defend the occupation. Within a brief time after the news hit the media, thousands of CAW workers massed at the plants gates, determined to block any attempt to raise the occupation by force.

Late Tuesday afternoon, the CAW national office had been informed by GM that it was going to court to get an ex parte injunction allowing the use of police force to remove the stamping dies from the plant. Their objective was to move dies to US plants and continue production in order to bypass the CAW strike of 26,000 workers then in progress. Over the course of the previous week GM had tried but failed to move the dies through the picket lines. GM had complained that police efforts to open the lines were woefully inadequate. They had now decided to get some "adequate" help from the police to get the job done and thereby break the strike.

The union's response was immediate and decisive. President Buzz Hargrove first told GM's mouthpiece Gene Munger: "You will not get one god damned die out of the city of Oshawa." To which Jim O'Neil, the CAW's secretary-treasurer, added: "There will be blood in the streets of Oshawa if you try." Hargrove and his top aides then met with the CAW's GM master bargaining committee and they resolved to initiate the occupation of the plant. That night at 11:30 pm a team from head office met in Oshawa with the leadership of the 16,000 member Local 222. They then moved to organize the seizure of the plant.

The occupation lasted about five and one-half hours. It was lifted after GM's CEO Jack Smith and Hargrove agreed on a mutually acceptable basis for negotiations. Negotiations then commenced under a new balance of forces. These events marked a historic turning point in working class history - some might argue on the scale of the Flint occupation in 1936. In 1996 this occupation was the point at which the balance of forces shifted clearly to the side of the workers. Within a few days a settlement of the strike was hammered out and auto workers, through their union, scored a very significant victory.

A Donkey Dance: pre-strike negotiations

In the months leading up to the opening of negotiations both sides knew that there must be a strike. The key issue was job security. The CAW leadership, through many months of education, had won the hearts and minds of the union's rank and file with an analysis which pointed to the enormous profitability of GM's Canadian operations. The articulation of the demand repeated at every opportunity was short and clear: "So long as GM workers continue to produce quality products in a productive and profitable manner GM does not have the right to sell these jobs to others because they find someone willing to do it cheaper." GM workers own these jobs and GM must replace every job taken from their Canadian plants with equivalent jobs through new hiring or call-backs of laid-off union workers. Language incorporating these principles had just been won from Chrysler without a strike. As in the past, GM must meet the pattern.

A strike deadline was set for October 2nd at 12 midnight.

At the bargaining table, what Buzz Hargrove described as a "donkey dance" continued right up to the deadline. A few days before the deadline, Maureen Kempston-Darkes, GM's Canadian president, showed the sharpness of her perception by sending a letter to every GM worker. The hand-delivered letter explained how out-sourcing, despite the CAW leadership's claim to the contrary, was really good for workers. According to the letter, out-sourcing strengthened their company and thereby assured them jobs in the future. …

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