Wednesday, 19 December 2012

This Day in the History of the International Labour Movement

The Windsor Ford Strike - December 20, 1945

Beginning on September 12, 1945 and ending on December 20th of the same year, the Ford Strike of 1945 lasted for 99-days and changed the course of Canadian labour history[1].

In 1941, workers at the Ford Plant in Windsor, ON organized. In support of the war effort, the workers selflessly kept strikes and labour disputes to a minimum before 1945. For its part, the employer also treated the workers more fairly during the war than it had pre-war, though this was likely out of self-interest, as many workers were away at war and replacement employees were in short supply.

Just as the war was ending the employer signalled its intention to layoff over one thousand workers. The employer was returning to the less respectful treatment that workers had known in pre-war times. Much to the employer’s chagrin, union members grew concerned for their job security and solidarity increased. The employer entered into contract negotiations with the workers.

Principal to the workers’ demands was a union shop and a dues check-off. Indeed, “union shop and check off” had been the union’s slogan for quite a while[2]. The dues check-off is a union right that many workers now take for granted. At the time, however, the employer flatly rejected the union’s demands[3].

On September 12, 1945, thousands of workers decided to strike[4]. On November 5, 1945 workers from 25 plants across the City of Windsor walked off the job in solidarity. Picketers were nonviolent, but they did form a blockade around the Ford Plant[5].

Police were dispatched to reopen the plant. Strikers – by sheer force of numbers – prevented the police from intervening. It was by and large a peaceful strike with neither side resorting to violent measures.

After blockades and extensive picketing, negotiations resumed when the union leaders eventually agreed to a proposal tabled by the federal government that the union submit to binding arbitration with Justice Rand acting as arbitrator. The union membership voted to end the strike and to return to work whilst an agreement was reached[6].

Rand worked out an agreement for the union and the employer based on mutual compromise, which has since become known as the “Rand Formula.”  The Rand formula held that workers could not be obliged to join the union, but also made it compulsory for all workers to pay union dues. Rand’s rationale for requiring even non-union workers to pay union dues was that all workers benefit from union activities. The Rand formula required the company to collect the dues. The agreement negotiated by Rand helped to facilitate post-war union security. The union achieved its goals of dues check-off, but not the union shop.

The Rand Formula that grew out of the Ford Strike of 1945 helped organized labour to secure economic legal status. This strike also resulted in recognition unions were a legitimate form of labour organization in Canada and were a permanent fixture. Unions in other industries to fight for the same or similar rights as the workers at the Ford plant and maintain labour rights gains made during war-time. The bravery and tenacity of the workers involved in the Ford Strike of 1945 was pivotal in securing a better future for organized labour across Canada for decades to come.[7]

In the political arena, we have recently been seeing an unfortunate increase in hostility toward the dues check-off system. In many American States right-to-work legislation has been passed and is being used to weaken the financial strength of unions. Weakened financial clout, in turn, undermines the ability of unions to fight for their labour rights. Canada, sadly, is no exception to this political hostility toward unions. There is a growing political force in Ontario that wants to scrap the Rand Formula. If this hostility continues and is successful in Canada we will see a return to a gross power imbalance in labour relations in favour of employers. Unions must stand together to prevent the regressive backward-looking policies opponents of the Rand Formula would seek to impose on the Canadian workforce. Only by standing in solidarity can the men and women of organized labour hope to continue to enjoy the rights that were so painstakingly secured by the workers involved in the Ford Strike of 1945.

Dunmore v. Ontario (Attorney General) - December 20, 2001

Also occurring on December 20th was the landmark decision of Dunmore v. Ontario (Attorney General) 2001 3 SCR 1016. In Dunmore the Supreme Court held that the exclusion of agricultural workers from collective bargaining under the Ontario Labour Relations Act, 1995 breached the freedom of association protections guaranteed by s. 2(d) of the Charter.

Up until 1994, agricultural workers had been excluded from Ontario's labour relations regime. In 1994, the NDP government included agricultural workers in the province’s labour relations regime via the Agricultural Labour Relations Act (ALRA). When the Conservative government of Mike Harris was elected in 1995, it repealed the ALRA and once more excluded agricultural workers from the labour relations regime.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) argued that this exclusion violated their s. 2(d) Charter right to freedom of association. The lower courts dismissed the challenge, holding that agricultural workers were excluded from the ability to form trade unions as a result of the private actions of their employers and not the provincial labour relations regime. Private action is not subject to the Charter and, as a result, agricultural workers were deemed to have no case. The UFCW appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Court held that, under certain circumstances, the Charter may demand that the state extend protective legislation to unprotected groups. The exclusion of agricultural workers from the labour relations regime significantly interfered with the freedom to organize, which is a fundamental freedom. Our own Cynthia D. Watson fought and won the first Ontario case to allow agricultural workers to organize unions, a victory which the Supreme Court later agreed with in substance. 

The Court's decision has been important in that it requires a labour relations regime which affords agricultural workers the protection necessary for them to organize, as well as the protections necessary to make organization meaningful. The Court acknowledged that the Charter could oblige the state to extend legislative freedoms to certain unprotected workers. In this case it was agricultural workers, but the judgment has been a victory for all types of workers all across the country.

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