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Workers from Motor Products Corporation picket Ford of Canada
in support of UAW Local 200, 1945

Excerpts from 99-Days, The Ford Strike In Windsor, 1945, Herb Colling, N.C. Press, Toronto, 1995

Story by Herb Colling

In 1946, residents of Walkerville were relieved and happy that the greatest upheaval in their history was finally over. It wasn’t the war, but the infamous Ford strike of 1945. The 99-day strike began on September 12th, 1945, and ended on December 19th.

After WWII, people who built trucks, guns and ammunition at the Ford plants in Windsor were suddenly facing insecurity. Troops were coming home and expected to return to their jobs, as if six years of war never happened.

In my book: 99-Days, The Ford Strike In Windsor, 1945, I describe how those men fought for their democratic freedom overseas and, upon returning home, how they fought for their economic freedom at the Ford Company plants. That was over 55 years ago, a significant time in our labour history.

The seeds had already been sown by workers who remained at home during the war. They unionized the Ford plant in 1941-42 and kept strikes to a minimum to support the war. For its part, Ford treated the men better, in recognition of the work they were doing, but also because workers were scarce and the company needed to encourage production.

With the war over, the workers could see all of their labour gains disappearing. Ford was getting ready for commercial production. The job market was flooded, layoffs were threatened and Ford was clamping down, trying to return to prewar conditions in the plant. And those conditions were bad for the workers.

The boss was the boss. His word was law and if a worker didn’t like it, he could quit. Foremen accepted bribes and picked favourites from “chore boys” who cut lawns, shovelled snow and painted homes to keep their jobs.

In one case, Wallace Campbell, the president of the Canadian operation of Ford, entered the plant, saw a worker dogging it and fired the man before he found out that the guy didn’t even work for Ford. He was a government inspector. The company felt that workers were selling their labour like any other commodity, and had little interest in the product or the company.

Contract negotiations had been underway for 18 months, but an agreement just couldn’t be reached, so the workers voted to strike. Roy England was President of UAW local 200. He complained that the company was trying to destroy the union. He declared that workers wanted a real collective bargaining agreement for the post war and he vowed that they would not go back to work until they had a new contract.

On September 12th, 1945, the history-making strike began at the Ford Motor Company in Windsor. It was a ground-breaking event, an epic battle, a struggle for the very survival of UAW local 200. In all, Ford workers had 24 demands, including layoff pay, security for veterans, more vacation pay, a better grievance procedure, better medical benefits and compensation for work on Sundays and holidays. First and foremost, the workers wanted union security and a check-off of dues... all union powers that many workers now take for granted.

Most workers believed in the strike, but some did not. On the first day, a worker tried to stay on the job and had to be chased around the plant before he would leave. The crane operator refused to go out, and strikers threw stones at him. Still others, only served on the picket line at night, not wanting to get involved in the politics of the strike.

Picketers were nonviolent, but they did block nonunion and non-striking workers from their jobs. On the second day, picketers marched four abreast across the front of the Ford buildings, preventing all access to the plant. When female office workers realized they weren’t going in, they placed their lunch bags at curb-side for the pickets and headed for home.

Ford officials were also refused access. They abandoned the plant and headed downtown to set up shop on the fifth floor of the Prince Edward Hotel. Later, union steward, Neil Carruthers was charged by police for ‘besetting’ and ‘obstructing’ access to the factory, which prompted debate about the legality of the union actions.

In early October and, for the first time in Ford history, the union shut down the power house, depriving the factory of light, heat and power. Company officials complained that machinery would rust in the cold, or that the plant might be destroyed by fire.

In response, Windsor police were called in to reopen the plant. They formed a ‘flying wedge’ around security guards to protect them from strikers, and tried to force their way in. A scuffle ensued, and strikers – by sheer force of numbers – pushed the police back. The adrenaline was flowing, but there was no violence and a black eye was the only injury. To the credit of both strikers and police, there were few reported injuries for the duration of the strike.

The most dramatic event of the strike was the blockade of vehicles around the Ford plant to prevent access by the RCMP and OPP. Strikers feared that the police would be used to open the plant and break the union and they set up the barricade to diffuse the situation. It started about six a.m. on Monday, November 5th, with union members from Ford and other auto-related companies showing up on the line. The pickets grew to the thousands as the day progressed.

Things were quite festive. There was a band, singing, and picketers marching throughout the day.

At the start of the blockade, Joe McBride, a 25-year-old millwright, hopped the Drouillard Road bus and told the driver to park it in front of the main gates at plant one. Another bus joined them. Tommy Maclean was the first union member to drive his car across the front gates. Other member-cars followed, and then, union members seized and commandeered cars, trucks and buses, simply funnelling them into the traffic-jam.

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